She Is Gone … Berlin Street Art

Berlin is synonymous with street art, and a handful of street artists are famed as much for their relationship with Berlin as they are for their art. That balance has been a little disrupted by initiatives like the Berlin Mural Fest, which brings international artists to paint giant murals on buildings in locations all over town. It has furnished the city with a wealth of dramatic statement pieces that attract visitors from around the world, and which comes with its own app.

I’m slowly making my way around the city to visit some of them. It’s pretty impressive and, for the time-being, this more ‘corporate’ approach seems to co-exist harmoniously with Berlin’s more traditional grassroots approach. Whether that uneasy peace will endure is yet to be seen, but as street art becomes ever more associated with tourism, I’d imagine the backlash in this city is only a matter of time.

Believe in Dog by Fannakapan, Street Art, Berlin

Ricky Lee Gordon, Street Art, Berlin

Underwater Kiss by insane 51, Street Art, Berlin

Snik & Nuno, Street Art, Berlin

We Are by Innerfields, Street Art, Berlin

Berlin has been described, perhaps blasphemously, as “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world”. It’s certainly hard to think of a city of similar size with such a diverse street art scene. This evolution isn’t  so surprising when you consider that street art was an integral part of the protests against the Berlin Wall. I vividly recall reading the political messages painted on the West of the wall during my first visit in 1988. Years’ later they were selling painted chunks of concrete as souvenirs, regardless of their provenance.

After the wall came down, street art rapidly spread to the former East, as much protest as making the concrete easier to look at. It’s a little weird then, that a city with that sort of heritage spends €35 million a year removing street art to restore the natural beauty of the city – or the grey façades of the post-war, communist-era cityscape, as it’s better known. The ‘tagging’ that blights some neighbourhoods is probably not appreciated by residents, and the city has to act.

On the other side of the coin, one of Berlin’s most loved street artists is El Bocho. As his name suggests, he’s not a local. Originally from Spain, his works have been appearing on Berlin walls for the best part of two decades, and his distinctive portraits of Berlin ‘citizens’ is a homage to the city they love. I’ve only ever come across female ‘citizens’, but there are male versions as well. They are all paper cut-outs, prepared in the studio before being pasted onto walls.

Perhaps El Bocho’s most famous work though, is a series devoted to Little Lucy. Based on a Czechoslovakian TV series called Little Lucy – Fear of the Streets, his Little Lucy is a bit more deranged and psychotic. In his work she is waging a perpetual war against her cat, finding ever more inventive ways to kill it. She appears in one of the images below, her left eye bulging maniacally. As ever, the cat seems to have met a violent end at her hands – literally, in this case.

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

Little Lucy and El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

This is one of the joys of being a street art fan in a city like Berlin, street art narratives can be followed over prolonged periods of time. I’ve been unearthing El Bocho’s work since we arrived, and have found it in other German cities, like Hamburg. His work is a clear example of how a street artist can use the city as a canvass to launch a lucrative mainstream career. His works, like those of Banksy and others, can be bought at not inconsiderable prices.

This is far from the origins of street art, and certainly far from the philosophy of street art deriving its power from representing the margins of society. That’s something to be welcomed in my opinion, but only if there remains space for a new generation of artists to emerge onto our streets.

Sailing down the Spree to Müggelsee

Berlin is a city of water, and the surrounding region of Brandenburg is teeming with lakes and waterways. If you fly into the city just at sunset, you can see dozens of bodies of water glowing orange in the sun. One of the most ‘Berlin’ things to do in summer is to head to a lake, any lake, to swim and relax on the freshwater beaches. Some of my colleagues at work hop on their bikes and cycle to a nearby lake for a lunchtime swim. It makes a lot of sense when the city is sweltering in sultry summer heat.

Langer See, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Old factory on the River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg is said to have 3,000 lakes, around 80 are considered to be Berlin lakes. This includes some formidable waterways. The impressive Tegeler See, close to the nearby airport, is joined to the Wannsee by the River Havel, eventually merging with the Tiefer See at Potsdam. These were popular spots for West Berliners during the Cold War, but residents in the East could claim the biggest of all Berlin’s lakes, the Müggelsee, as their own.

On a recent Sunday we decided to explore some of these waterways on a boat trip to the Müggelsee. We started from Treptow Park and, for the next five hours, we chugged along the River Spree through the eastern suburbs of the city to Köpenick. The journey along the river passed through a predominantly industrial part of former East Berlin, interesting but not beautiful. At Köpenick, we sailed down a tributary of the Spree into the Müggelsee – the middle of which feels more like the ocean than a lake.

From here we cut through a narrow channel in the Müggelspreewiesen, a picturesque nature reserve. This is home to an area known as New Venice, between the Müggelsee and the Dämeritzsee. New Venice came into being in 1926 with the construction of several canals, and it’s home to a mix of upmarket houses and small shacks. Bizarrely, it was first named New Cameroon. I’ve been to Cameroon, there are few similarities. In Communist times, this is where high ranking officials had their dachas.

It’s a beautiful area and, speaking as someone who lives in the middle of Berlin, it’s a little envy-inducing. To really explore the area you’d need a small boat or canoe, we were on a large boat and headed instead for the Gosener Canal which connects to the Seddinsee and then the Langer See, two long stretches of water surrounded by forests. It’s utterly beautiful, and completely wonderful to be in nature so close to Berlin’s 3.5 million residents.

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Eventually we arrived back in Köpenick, passing Schloss Köpenick on the way. Here everyone on board had to duck their heads as we passed under the Lange Brücke. After stopping to drop some people off, we set off back down the Spree towards the heart of Berlin. We’d been sailing for five hours but had barely scratched the surface of Berlin’s waterways. Despite that, by the time we arrived at Treptow it felt like we’d left the city days earlier.

There are hundreds of kilometres of waterways here, and exploring this watery urban landscape gives a completely different perspective on the city. Oddly, it makes it more human, especially compared to the often grimy concrete parts of Berlin.

This is not a tourist attraction … Berlin Street Art

There’s a certain irony to be found in someone painting the wall of a Berlin squat with the phrase, “This is not a tourist attraction” – instantly turning it into a selfie-taking hotspot. A case of unintended consequences, or mischievously self-aware parody of po-faced ‘lifestyle squatters’? Either way, it made me chuckle as we strolled past on a recent walk around the Kreuzberg district during the unusually hot weather Berlin has been enduring.

Natalia Rak, Street Art near Görlitzerpark, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

My head is a jungle by Millo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Formerly one of Berlin’s poorest areas, Kreuzberg has become one of its hippest in recent years, with an ever expanding mass of galleries, restaurants, bars and – the true mark of gentrification – coffee shops, catering to a trend-conscious crowd. The anti-establishment, counterculture, radical reputation of the area may have been lost to Neukölln as the demographics have changed, but it is still one of the best places in the city to spot street art – large and small.

We live on the edge of Kreuzberg and regularly spend time exploring its mix of elegant streets (the area was saved from the worst of the damage inflicted during the Second World War), scruffy parks (Görlitzerpark is home to highly visible drug dealers, but rarely feels unsafe), and lovely squares. On one side of Görlitzerpark is the vibrant Tomorrow Never Come from Polish artist Natalia Rak, which takes up the side of a house overlooking a children’s playground.

Not too far away from here is the quiet weird looking Rounded Heads that sits snuggly in the gap between two buildings – the work of German artist, Nomad. Heading back towards central Berlin along Oranienstrasse we came across the wonderful My Head is a Jungle by Italian street artist, Millo. The last time I saw a piece by the same artist I was in Tblisi. Interestingly, My Head is a Jungle, takes up the opposite side of a building that is also home to another great street art piece by German duo, Herakut.

In between these monumental pieces can be found many smaller artworks adorning a variety of surfaces. I was particularly pleased to discover a work that copied a famous sketch by 19th century artist, Heinrich Zille. We headed towards Alexanderplatz,  where French group, Le Mouvement, had pasted a series of pieces depicting groups of people united under brightly coloured umbrellas – bringing some cheer to what is a fairly low rent area.

Heinrich Zille copy, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Le Mouvement, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Le Mouvement, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Rounded Heads by Nomad, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The internationalisation of street art is a major development, just walking through this one district there were half a dozen nationalities that I could identify – and probably many more of which I’m not aware. It adds an interesting dimension to visiting cities, and it would be tempting to ‘collect’ artists when they create a new work. A street art version of the film, The Big Year, perhaps? Remember, you read it here first.

East meets West, a summer stroll along the Spree

Berlin transforms in the summer and the River Spree becomes a magnet for leisure and entertainment. We live close to the river where it glides past the Fischerinsel, Fisher Island, and Berlin’s Historischen Hafen, where a collection of old tugs and boats remind passersby of the days when this was a busy inland port. This area is a remnant of Berlin that managed to survive the Second World War intact. It didn’t survive communist city planners and the area was flattened in 1957.

This was also the former border between Communist East Berlin and the Capitalist West. The area was a customs and border zone. The Berlin Wall used to run through here, and you can still see traces of it today. A walk along the river towards Treptow Park begins in the former GDR, before crossing the line of the wall back into West Berlin before crossing back into the East. It’s a route that highlights the absurdity of the divided city.

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

Oberbaumbrücke, River Spree, Berlin

Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

I hadn’t realised it at first, but our route along the river was redolent with Cold War history. The Wall may have gone, but you’re still not able to walk the whole way along the river. Occasionally you’re forced into the surrounding streets, which isn’t always a delight, and an eclectic mix of pre- and post-war buildings along Kopenickerstrasse. It’s not always easy to know which ideological area of Berlin you’re in, but from where we live, you’re firmly in the East until you hit the Schillingbrucke across the Spree.

Beyond here it’s the West for a few blocks, but on the other side of the river is another Cold War remnant, one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery is a hugely popular tourist attraction with painted segments of wall that attract selfie-takers by the thousands. Which is ironic, this is probably the least original street art in Berlin. Still in the West, we passed the Oberbaumbrucke, the entire length of the bridge was East Germany, the southern bank of the river was in the West.

The Oberbaumbrucke is one of Berlin’s most iconic, a double-decker carrying trains, cars and pedestrians built in red brick Gothic and dating from the late 19th century. It was a critical border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors. Finally, you cross the Landwehr Canal and it’s back to the East again. Today the area along the river here is home to a cluster of painfully hip nightclubs, bars and restaurants. It’s all very un-Soviet and grungy.

Glinting in the sun in the distance is a towering 30 metre high sculpture, the Molecule Men. This striking sculpture was installed in 1997. The work of American artist, Johnathon Borofsky, the three shiny aluminium men are meant to represent unity, yet look like they are locked in a three-way struggle. Ironically, in a city that trades on its originality, they’re not unique. First appearing in Los Angeles in the 1970s, there’s even a version in Yorkshire, England.

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

River Spree at Insel der Jugend, Berlin

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

They are, however, strategically located in the middle of the river at the intersection of three Berlin districts. Kreuzberg, Treptow and, over the river, Friedrichshain. Our goal was Treptow Park, where you can visit a Soviet war cemetery. We had other ambitions – a beer garden on the Insel der Jugend, or the Island of Youth, with its famous bridge, the Abteibrücke. This is supposed to be the oldest composite steel bridge in Germany, something only a dedicated steel bridge enthusiast could get excited about.

Our walk was about 7km, enough to justify a couple of hours watching the world go by on the river from a deckchair – in the company of a cold Berliner Kindl.

Odious, noisy, dirty, and grey: a year in Berlin

“And you, you can be mean, And I, I’ll drink all the time, ‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact, Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that…” – Heroes by David Bowie.

The two years David Bowie spent living in Berlin’s Schöneberg district inspired three groundbreaking albums, and gave birth to Heroes, a song that for many is the unofficial anthem of the city. He summed up his experience in the divided but bohemian former German capital in one of the most frequently used quotes about the city, “Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” This was the late 1970s and, while filled with Cold War intrigue, West Berlin was undergoing an artistic renaissance.

Museum Island, Berlin

Reichstag and River Spree, Berlin

Berliner Fernsehturm, Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Church, Berlin

Davis Bowie plaque at his former Berlin home

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin

It is an image of the city still cultivated today – the freewheeling creative centre where experimentation is encouraged. In reality, it’s is a very different Berlin to the one Bowie knew, but also one going through a profound renaissance. Albeit this one is much more about gentrification and a booming economy in tech start-ups. As the mass of building sites and roadworks can attest, the face of Berlin is changing irrevocably.

It’s just over a year since we, somewhat reluctantly, moved our lives from The Hague to Berlin. It’s been a year of adjustment and frustration (this is the bureaucracy capital of the entire Solar System), a year of adaptation and slowly finding our place in a city that, in Bowie’s words, is “… so easy to ‘get lost’ in — and to ‘find’ oneself, too.” We’ve had periods of feeling lost, but a year on from those first confusing days and we are at last finding our feet, if not ourselves.

A German colleague, who moved from Munich to Berlin, told me it had taken her three years to feel comfortable in the city … and she speaks fluent German. Others have told me that when the city gets under my skin I’ll never want to leave. Anneliese Bödecker’s pithy statement captures this split personality with alarming accuracy, “Berliners are unfriendly and reckless, gruff and bossy. Berlin is odious, noisy, dirty, and grey; roadworks and congested streets wherever you go – but I’m sorry for everyone who does not live here.”

Berlin might actually be the urban embodiment of ‘can’t live with, can’t live without‘. I’ve not quite reached that point yet, but as we embark upon our second year I’m looking forward to seeing if the city gets under my skin, as opposed to on my skin – anyone who has worn a pair of flip flops in Berlin for any length of time will understand. Spend a day walking around and you’ll return home with feet that look as if they’ve been dipped in used engine oil. Air quality should be a major topic of conversation.

Funkturm, Berlin

Sculpture on Karl Marx Allee, Berlin

Sculpture, Berlin

Typical toilet, Berlin

Tiergarten, Berlin

Will our time in Berlin end like Icarus?

Such is the city’s reputation, moving here came with myriad expectations, more from others than ourselves. It’s a little too easy to only view the city through the lens of start-up schtick or the counter-culture cool marketing. Berlin is a more complicated place in reality – as anyone who has ever had to work out the recycling rules will tell you. There are many positives to living here, but the city can still leave you grasping at thin air when it comes to feeling like you belong.

Berlin is growing, and maybe the fact that we find ourselves here at a time of upheaval, as old and new clash, has made our first year more challenging. Yet we’ve loved many things, and have found ourselves exploring pockets of the city that only occasionally attract tourist attention. Piece by piece, the city and its people are coming into focus. The next 12 months start afresh, as T.S. Eliot, whose books once burned in Berlin, said:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– The Little Gidding

Reflections on a Georgian road trip

My flight back to Berlin was via Istanbul’s ginormous new airport, and it departed at the ungodly hour of 4am. I spent my final evening wandering the lovely streets of Old Tbilisi and, afterwards, I sat at an outdoor table having a long, slow meal until the early hours of the morning. This gave me time to look back over some of the scribblings I’d made during the trip, and to reminisce about the experiences, good and bad, of my first visit to this extraordinary country.

Returning from close to the Russian border, I passed two road signs that helped me to understand the feeling of unfamiliar familiarity that had been nagging at me since I first landed in Georgia. The first sign read, Tehran 1294km, the other, Ankara 940km. This is a place that straddles cultures and comes with a history intersected by hugely diverse forces: Mongol invasions, Persian overlords, early Christian conversion, Ottoman rule, and centuries of overbearing Russian control, Tsarist and Soviet.

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Georgia

Mother Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

This fusion of cultures is clearly seen in Georgian food. A glass of wine accompanied by bread and sunflower oil with harissa-style chilli paste – a taste of North Africa in the Caucasus. I devoured khinkali, the soupy, meat-filled dumplings that have more than a passing similarity to their Chinese cousins, Xiao Long Bao. The abundance of aubergine dishes is reminiscent of the Middle East and Turkey. Whatever the influence, Georgian food is invariably delicious, even if it lands on the table in no particular order.

On my way to dinner, I’d passed down narrow streets, past the crumbling facades of houses and beneath overhanging balconies that looked dangerously close to collapse. I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and sound of a young girl joyfully playing a piano in an alleyway, I was her only audience. In the courtyard behind her I could see washing hanging from lines strung between buildings, underneath which a dilapidated car was in various stages of (dis)repair – Georgia’s roads are filled with such specimens.

Driving provided some of the most memorable moments of my trip, and not in a good way. There exists a phenomenon on Georgian roads which I’ll call the ‘mythical extra lane’. Drivers routinely overtake two, three or four abreast on two lane roads, often at high speed, uncaring that at any moment animals are likely to wander into the middle of the road. Tbilisi’s rush hour has only one rule, there are no rules. It’s a literal miracle that I didn’t lose my €500 hire car deposit.

Georgian driving regularly goes well beyond ‘reckless’, but it was the only way I could see many of the places I planned to visit. The enormous 4×4 I acquired in Tbilisi allowed me to reach some fairly remote areas. I certainly wouldn’t have seen the bright purple lavender patches in the fields or smelt its sweet perfume on the air in the Mtkvari River valley. The drive into the High Caucasus Mountains on the Georgian Military Highway will live long in the memory.

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

As will watching children playing in the street, or rather a small child with sweets being chased by another small child holding a bunch of stinging nettles; an old man shaving his nose while drinking a beer; eating breakfast of homemade bread, butter and cheese in the mountains; glorious landscapes of hulking mountain ranges, vineyards, sweeping grasslands; ancient monasteries on remote hilltops; pretty compact cobbled streets in Tbilisi’s old town … the list goes on, and I’ll be going back to Georgia as soon as I can.

A Georgian Affair, Gori’s Stalin Museum

As the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war tore the Tsarist Russian Empire to pieces, countries that found themselves outside of Bolshevik control declared their independence. Finland, Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all won their freedom. Georgia, on the other hand, declared independence in 1918 only to elect a Communist, but not a Bolshevik, government. Georgia and its new government were recognised as independent by France and Britain, but this didn’t last long

In 1921, the Soviet Red Army invaded, with local boy Joseph Stalin responsible for the subjugation of his former homeland. Georgia was Sovietised, systematically and forcibly. This became known as the Georgian Affair, and led to a rift between Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and People’s Commissar, Joseph Stalin. Lenin urged a softer approach, Stalin did not. Tragically for Georgia, Lenin suffered a serious illness in 1922, allowing Stalin to rise to the top of the Soviet political machinery.

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s childhood house, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s childhood house, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Georgia is a fiercely proud nation. Independence is a matter of intense national pride, so the fact that this brief glimpse of national self determination was crushed by one of their own raises many tricky questions. Not that you’d get that impression from the bizarre museum dedicated to Uncle Joe and occupying a grand building in the centre of his birthplace, Gori. This is an unabashedly upbeat interpretation of Stalin the man and leader of the Soviet world from 1927 to 1953.

The concept of ‘dark tourism’, visiting places associated with tragedy and death, should probably apply to the Stalin Museum but, since it makes little or no effort to address the horrors that Stalin was responsible for, it’s hard to categorise that way. There are pleasant photos and paintings of Joseph, victim of Tsarist oppression; Joseph, proud compatriot of Lenin and other Soviet leaders; Joseph, strong leader of Soviet Russia; Joseph, victor over Nazi Germany; and Joseph, the loving father and family man.

If you’d never bothered to become even vaguely acquainted with 20th century history, you might be convinced that here was a man who pulled himself up from a childhood of abject poverty to rule benevolently over half of Europe. There is more than a whiff of personality cult, the room decorated in red velvet and dedicated to Stalin’s death mask is just the most obvious sign of this tendency. Coupled with a feeling that the museum was last renovated when Stalin was alive, it made for an uncomfortable experience.

Although there are few English signs in the museum, Georgian friends assure me that almost no mention is made of small inconveniences such as the Ukrainian Famine (up to 7 million deaths); the disaster of dekulakisation and collectivisation (millions more dead); the Great Terror; the pact with Nazi Germany; the Gulags and prison camps to which millions more Soviet citizens were sent; the crushing of Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain … I could go on, but you get the point.

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin’s work desk, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Lenin and Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Death Mask ofJoseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

I wandered around in a state of mild bemusement, not really sure what to make of the museum. There were only a handful of other visitors, most seemed to be Russian or Chinese, and they seemed to be taking the exhibits of old newspaper clippings, faded photos and statues of Stalin seriously. I was quite glad to get outside again and visit the train carriage Stalin used when travelling, not to mention his childhood home, removed stone by stone to occupy pride of place outside the museum.

What, if anything, does the Stalin Museum tell us about modern Georgia’s relationship with a man conservatively estimated to be responsible for 20 million deaths? Not much I’d say. There’s no doubt that for some Georgians there is a lingering sense of national pride in a local boy made good. For the majority Stalin is, at best, the man who inflicted decades of Soviet Russian persecution on the nation. There’s a reason that Gori is the only town in the country to maintain a Stalin statue in its main square.

Ancient and magical, the cave city of Vardzia

The extraordinary cave city of Vardzia inhabits a remote hillside above the meandering Mtkvari River. It sits in a magnificent fertile valley that, until recently, was a remote and isolated spot only a few kilometres from the Turkish border. The green valley contrasts sharply with the brown hills surrounding it. As I drove through it I couldn’t help wishing I could spend a couple of days exploring this fascinating region. Sadly, this was a mad self-drive dash from Tbilisi and back in a day.

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

I’ve never been happier than when I discovered Vardzia lived up to both the photos I’d seen of it and the fulsome praise it received in my guidebook. I left Tblisi before sunrise to drive the glorious route to Vardzia. The 280km, five hour, one way drive, skirted along river gorges, across mountains, through villages and an occasional town. The final 60km passed along the picturesque road from Akhaltsikhe into the Mtkvari River valley, at the far end of which lies Vardzia.

The whole valley is scattered with the remnants of ancient fortifications, churches and caves, but it is Vardzia that is the outstanding site. The cave complex was started in the 12th century and is most strongly associated with King Tamar, the legendary Georgian Queen who was crowned a King. She intended it to be a repository of national culture and religion during a period of intense conflict with invading Mongol armies, a purpose it would serve well.

It was a massive site, with a throne room, churches, libraries, shops, hundreds of cave dwellings and a water system, dug over thirteen levels deep in the mountainside. This includes some remarkable tunnels that burrow through the rock and connect various parts of the complex. In total, there are over 6,000 rooms. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List which, after spending a few hours here, made me wonder what you have to do to get on the actual list of World Heritage Sites.

Maybe the problem is that what we see today is only about a third of the original city. It took 48 years to construct Vardzia, by which time it could hold a population of 50,000 people – huge by the standards of the 12th century. Unfortunately, it was the victim of a devastating earthquake in 1283, after which it was largely abandoned. It would go on to become a monastery in later centuries, until the Persian invasion of 1551 finished what the earthquake began. A handful of monks still call it home though.

The monks of earlier centuries developed an irrigation system and terraced farming in the valley, which made the city self sufficient. Being monks, this included vines to make their own wine. It’s believed there were up to 25 wine cellars in the city at one point. You can still see vines being cultivated as you drive down the valley. I visited on Sunday and, despite my early departure from Tblisi, discovered several minibuses and a couple of coaches already in the car park.

I walked up the hill and made my way into the complex that remains open to visitors – around 300 rooms, including the interesting Church of the Dormition, which comes with frescoes. I clambered up and down steep stairs, in and out of cave houses, and took in the sweeping views over the valley below. It was utterly amazing, but the best bit came when I entered the warren of interior tunnels. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like to navigate these by candlelight.

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

Interior tunnels, cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

Interior tunnels, cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

Most other visitors seemed to be Georgian family groups with a scattering of foreign travellers. Georgians are not the quietest of people in groups, making for a carnival atmosphere. On more than one occasion I was stopped by people wanting to know where I came from and to welcome me to Georgia. My trip was coming to an end, and this seemed like a fitting metaphor for the whole trip: magnificent landscapes, ancient history, welcoming people, and the promise of wine.

The legend of Alexander the Great at Khertvisi Fortress

Khertvisi Fortress flatters to deceive. Dramatically located on a steep rocky outcrop, this 2,000-year old fortress makes a very powerful impression set against the craggy mountains at the confluence of the Paravani and Mtkvari Rivers. The long, steep slog to reach the entrance is rewarded with magnificent views but little else. Apart from a few fragments of carved stone and a small chapel, the fortress is an empty shell, and comes without much in the way of information.

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

This is surprising, because Khertvisi Fortress is one of the country’s largest and most ancient fortifications. If the location wasn’t enough, it can claim a little reflected glory from its association with Alexander the Great. Legend has it that Alexander laid siege to Khertvisi on his march east towards India. That association may pay dividends now for tourism, but the fortress was said to have been left a ruin by Alexander’s army. This was one of several times over the centuries that the fortress needed to be rebuilt.

There may be little to keep you more than 15 minutes inside the fortress, but the site, in a remote valley in south west Georgia, is utterly magnificent. It’s close enough to the Turkish border that you can almost smell the coffee, and for centuries guarded a vital crossroad on an important trade route. Along with the valley that stretches south from here to the extraordinary cave city of Vardzia, this whole area has been on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2007.

It is a spellbindingly beautiful landscape and, from Khertvisi’s battlements, you can see other ancient fortifications on the tops of hills in the distance. It’s a landscape filled with mystery and meaning. As I stood there, I was glad I’d made the ridiculous decision to drive a ten-hour round trip from Tbilisi. I’d set off before sunrise, passing the famous spa town of Borjomi before taking the road from Akhaltsikhe towards my destination of Vardzia. It was to be a long but rewarding day.

Sadly, the legend of Alexander the Great is probably just myth, historical records don’t support this claim to fame. The oldest parts of the fortress today date from the 10th century, including a stone carved with the words, ‘A king to rule all kings’, and dated 985 AD. I wandered through the fortress and then back down the hill to grab a coffee in the local cafe before driving down the valley. My route to reach this point had been beautiful, but what awaited was some of the finest landscapes of the trip.

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Mtkvari River valley, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Mtkvari River valley, Georgia

Mtkvari River valley, Georgia

The road through the valley floor follows the Mtkvari River, passing hillsides terraced for agriculture (reminding me of the Inca terraces in Peru), pastures filled with flowers, and more ancient fortifications. I stopped occasionally to take a photo and take in the views. On one occasion I found myself walking amongst a cluster of thousands of blue butterflies, perhaps attracted by the bright purple patches of lavender in the fields. The windows down, the perfume of lavender filled the air as I drove towards Vardzia.

On the slopes of Mount Gareja at David Gareji Monastery

The climb up Mount Gareja was hot and humid, only compensated for by the ever expanding views across the Georgian valleys and hills below. Reaching the ridge at the top of the hill offers an even more spectacular view into a deep valley that sits in the neighbouring country of Azerbaijan. The vast panorama over the sweeping grasslands on both sides was accompanied by birdsong, a multitude of butterflies, and the buzzing of insects. This might tempt you to think all is well with the world. You’d be wrong.

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The road to David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The road to David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The ridge I was standing on, marks the poorly defined border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the presence of armed border guards from both countries gives a hint of the unfurling diplomatic spat between formerly friendly neighbours. David Gareji is an ancient complex of rock-hewn monasteries and caves where monks have lived since the 6th century. Some have magnificent and ancient frescoes, but the border runs right through the complex and thanks to the dispute many areas are out of bounds.

In less politicised times, monks, pilgrims and tourists were allowed access to the whole area, with the Azerbaijani border guards allowing people to move freely between both countries. That arrangement ended earlier this year when the border was abruptly and surprisingly closed. This sparked tensions and a breakdown in relations between the countries. I could see the cave monastery of Udabno and another church that were, at most, a hundred meters away, but access was blocked.

Luckily, the Lavra Monastery, the main sight on the Georgian side, is still accessible and you can walk along the ridge before descending via the Spring of David’s Tears … but first you have to get here. I left Sighnaghi in the early morning for a drive that was supposed to take me almost to Tbilisi before turning back into the wilderness, where the David Gareji complex sits in grand isolation. That was, until I saw a road sign to the  monastery directing me down a small but paved road.

In the spirit of adventure I took a chance that this was a shortcut and headed off into the vast open landscape. This was an inspired decision. Until the final 20km, the road was in good condition but, much more importantly, it passed through some of the most extraordinary countryside of this entire trip. Utterly beautiful grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, mineral lakes shone brilliant white in the sun, and I watched as a cowboy herded his cattle along the valley floor. It was worth the bone-jarring final 20km.

The Lavra Monastery was founded in the 6th century but was expanded significantly in the 11th century, when this complex was the centre of religious life in eastern Georgia. It was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and then rebuilt, only to suffer disaster during Easter, 1615. The army of Persia’s Shah Abbas’ killed over 6000 monks and destroyed much of the complex. It was rebuilt in the 17th century but never regained its former prestige or authority, much of the complex was abandoned.

This is how it remains, a place of solitude and mysticism set in a hostile lunar landscape. There is a working monastery, you regularly see black-robbed priests, and it’s a site of pilgrimage. There were only a handful of people when I arrived, including a number of pilgrims, making for a relaxed visit. The Lavra Monastery is especially spellbinding, a mixture of traditional buildings, rock-hewn passages, monks cells and caves. I visited before heading up the hill to the border.

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Azerbaijan from Mount Gareja, David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Spur-thighed Tortoise, David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Even though I couldn’t visit the rest of the complex, I’m glad I made the effort for the views alone. It was good to take some exercise before the long drive to Tbilisi where I’d spend the night. I wandered down the hill again and came across a most unusual sight, a wild tortoise. I later learned this was Testudo graeca, a Spur-thighed Tortoise. I had no idea Georgia was home to wild tortoises. It went some way to mitigating the closed border.