The Fosse Ardeatine, Rome

The Fosse Ardeatine

Courtyard of the Fosse Ardeatine, Rome

As a matter of principle, we try to write travel blogs that focus on the positive and upbeat. However, every once in a while during your travels, you come across something so compelling, it forces you to examine it and write about it, even if is tragic. Such is the case regarding our visit to the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome.

While there are certainly those who want to change facts to suit their narrative, those who do
not learn from history are not only destined to repeat it, they are fools. The thought crosses my mind as we enter the heavy, intricate, iron gate into the Fosse Ardeatine National Monument and Mausoleum. Few tourists even know that it is there, but for Italians, it is a national memorial.

Located across from the back entrance of the Catacombs of Callisto, off the Appia Antica, these limestone caves are the site of unspeakable horror. This is where Nazi troops carried out the mass execution of 335 Italians, before blowing up the entrance to hide their crimes. It was Rome’s worst atrocity of World War II.

Entrance gate and Statue at the Fosse Ardeatine

Gate to the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial Mausoleum

The Facts

The tragedy started on the 25th anniversary of the founding of Fascism by Benito Mussolini (March 23, 1944). That morning, a heavily armed column of the Police Regiment Bozen (from South Tyrol) marched back to their barracks near Via Rasella (across from the Palazzo Barberini). As they reached the midpoint of the road, Partisans (members of the Patriotic Action Group (GAP)) detonated a bomb hidden in a garbage cart, killing 42 police officers and a number of civilian bystanders. After the attack, the Partisans disappeared into the crowd.

German reaction was swift. Initially, Hitler wanted to destroy Rome completely as punishment. Instead, he was persuaded by his officers on the ground (SS Lt Col Herbert Kappler, Commander of the security police, and Lt. Gen Kurt Malzer, Commander of the Wehrmacht) to round up 10 Italian civilians for every German casualty. The plan to execute 330 men was approved by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South.

The next day (March 24, 1944), SS Captains Erick Priebke and Karl Hass selected a number of victims from prisoners who had already been sentenced to death and who were being held at Gestapo Headquarters on Via Tasso. When there were not enough men to fill the required quota, the two officers selected prisoners who had been imprisoned in Rome’s Regina Coeli jail for political activity. Fifty-seven Jewish prisoners were amongst this group. Finally, civilians were arbitrarily rounded up from the streets of Rome. Amongst these were a 70-year old man and a 15-year old boy who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine sending your son out to buy a loaf of bread and never seeing him again or knowing what had happened to him!

The victims, whose hands were tied behind their backs, were driven to the Fosse Ardeatine, a series of caves in an abandoned quarry near the Via Appia Antica, unloaded from trucks and marched to the back of the caves. German soldiers were instructed to shoot each in the head at close range, five at a time, as they knelt on the ground. In the process, the Nazis realized that they actually had 335 hostages, five more than required. The officers decided that they couldn’t free the extra five for security reasons. They also were executed.

Statue in front of the Fosse Ardeatine

Statue of Bound Hostages, Fosse Ardeatine

When it was over, the Nazis dynamited the entrance to the cave to hide their crime. A farmer in the area witnessed what had happened, but it took until the Allies liberated Rome in June 1945 before the bodies could be exhumed and identified.

THE MEMORIAL

As you enter the gate of the Fosse Ardeatine, you walk past a statue depicting two victims, bound together, before they were murdered. It casts a long shadow across the courtyard in the beautiful, blue-sky morning. The immaculately-kept, tree-shaded,  garden is very quiet. Only the sounds of the chirping birds disturb the silence.

Ahead of you, the main entrance of the cave leads you down a tunnel to the back where the massacre took place. As you walk further into the dimly lit cavern, the cold air makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. It is as if the ghosts of the victims are still lingering in this place of indescribable evil, terror, and grief.

It is difficult to remain for very long; even after over 70 years, the feelings are too overwhelming. As you exit to the right, a pathway takes you to an enormous cavern-like room, under a massive concrete slab, where the tombs of the victims are lined up in rows, many with photos attached. Single flowers are strewn on the top, bouquets fill the space at the bottom. The names are listed on a wall. Nearby, a small museum contains some photos and artwork, as well as information about the victims.

THE PERPETRATORS

With such an egregious crime against humanity (not to speak of the other crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in Italy), you would think that the officers responsible would be punished after the end of the War. Although most of them were tried, some in Nuremberg, sadly, this was far from the case.

Melzer served a few years in prison; Kesselring was sentenced to death but was then pardoned; Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment but was smuggled out of Italy by his wife. Pribke spent five months in prison before escaping to Argentina where he lived until he was exposed in an interview with Sam Donaldson of ABC News; he was extradited to Italy in 1995 where he received a life sentence that he served under house arrest until his death a few years ago.

A concrete slab over the tombs of the victims, Fosse Ardeatine

Row of tombs, Fosse Ardeatine

AND NOW?

It is an intensely emotional visit. In addition to the sadness, you feel incredible anger at the inhumanity of humans towards each other. You wonder how it was possible for the evils of Fascism and Nazism to swallow Europe unchecked while good people sat and watched and said, “it will be ok in the end, we shouldn’t get involved. Just wait. It will pass.”

And yet…. History repeats itself over and over. When will we finally learn to say “Never again” and mean it? What are the lessons from this tragedy at the Fosse Ardeatine that should make us all take pause, in 2017, and reflect on what is happening around us? Finally, will a few good men and women stand up and say “NO!” We will not let this happen again? Will you? The future of our children and grandchildren depends on it.

IF YOU GO

The National Memorial of the Ardeatine Caves is at Via Ardeatina 174.

The site is open every day, except major holidays, Monday to Friday 0815-1515, 16:30 Saturday and Sunday. Bus 218 towards Zanetta stops near the site but a taxi is faster.

There is an English language information sheet available in the guard house near the entrance; however, the descriptions in the Museum are all in Italian so an interpreter helps.

If you would like to learn more about the events at the Fosse Ardeatine, visit www.primolevicenter.org/printed-matter/the-fosse-ardeatine. Primo Michele Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust Survivor (1919-1987).

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Il Spirito Di Vino Restaurant, Rome

 

Side Entrance to the Spirito Di Vino restaurant

Sign over the Spirito Di Vino restaurant, Rome

With so many outstanding restaurants in Rome, it is sometimes hard to pick a favorite. The Spirito Di Vino restaurant (the name is a play on words that mean either“The Spirit Divine” or “The Spirit of the Wine) is one of Rome’s finest featuring an eclectic menu that changes daily depending on what is available in the market. It is the domain of Chef Eliana Catalani who, together with her husband, Romeo and her son Francesco, opened the restaurant in 1998.

The ancient building in Trastevere in which it is housed was Rome’s first synagogue until Pope Paul IV forced the Jews into a ghetto across the Tiber River. In the arcaded loggia above the side entrance of the restaurant, you can still see Hebrew letters carved in the marble pillar. The building has also been home to a convent, a shop, a private residence and, now, a restaurant.

However, its origins are even older than that as we learn when we arrive for dinner. As we walk into the restaurant, Romeo greets us and leads us up a small flight of steps to a table under multiple arches and terra-cotta walls. The white tablecloths, crystal glasses and silverware gleam under the soft lights. Romeo immediately pours us two glasses of Prosecco Millesimato Brut and pulls up a chair to chat. He highlights the most unique items on the menu and spends a bit of time describing the history of each. He comes back at regular intervals throughout our meal to see how we are doing.

Once we have made our selections, Francesco arrives with recommendations on the best wines for each dish. He invites us to visit the wine cellar and explains its extraordinary history.

THE WINE CELLAR

As you carefully pick your way down the steep brick steps to the dim, dank cellar, you travel in time to the first century level of Republican Rome. Every step down is equal to 75 years of time. The wine cellar is 160 years older than the Colosseum, its walls protected by the Ministry of Archeology. Even the wine bottles stored down here are not allowed to touch them.

Each step represents 75 years of history

A wine cellar older than the Colosseum

Several archeological treasures that are now on display at the Vatican or Capitoline Museums were discovered during excavations. One, the “Statue of the Athlete”, the so-called “Apoxyomenes”, has given its name to the small alley outside the restaurant’s side entrance, the Vicolo dell’Atleta. It is a Roman marble copy of an original Greek bronze by Lisippo (4th century BC). It depicts an athlete scraping olive oil from his body. The second is an original Greek bronze horse from the Classical era that was once part of the monumental equestrian sculpture commissioned by Alexander the Great to honor those who fell in the Battle of Granico.

We notice that the bottles are all wrapped in plastic wrap. Francesco explains that since the cellar has a constant temperature of 50-59 degrees F with 30% humidity, the plastic is required to keep the labels from peeling off. One employee is responsible for wrapping and unwrapping the bottles.

THE FOOD

Chef Eliana is the only person who prepares the food. Before becoming a gourmet chef, she spent 37 years as an internationally acclaimed virologist working with 1986 Nobel Laureate Rita Levi Montalcini. Chef Eliana gave this up to follow a dream and open her own restaurant. An early proponent of the Slow Food Movement, the raw materials she uses are purchased daily at the market and come from organic farmers and small producers located within a few miles of Rome.

Eliana sees her kitchen as an extension of her laboratory, bringing the same scientific rigor to her cooking as she did to her research. “I want every recipe to tell a story,” she says. “Instead of words, the aromas and tastes of each dish provide the narration.” Eliana believes that, through her cooking, she is conveying the multi-cultural influences of Rome.

Liver pate is served with lightly toasted bread and wild apple jelly

Liver Pate at Il Spirito Divino, Rome

We start our meal with the liver paté served with rounds of toast and a side of wild apple jelly. It is a reminder of the building’s Jewish heritage. Romeo describes some of the 18 different herbs and spices with which it is made. It is smooth and silky on the palate, the richness of the paté offset by the sweetness of the jelly. It is a flavor that is difficult to forget. No other chicken liver paté will ever taste the same.

For our main course, we select the Magro di Maiale di Manzio or the Lean pork made in Manzio’s style. Manzio was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, known for his authorship of three volumes on gastronomy, as well as his horticultural skills. (The Spanish word for apple (manzana) has its origins in the apples that Manzio grew.)

Eliana has recreated this dish, slow-cooking chunks of pork shoulder with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine, herbs, and spices. Instead of salt, she remains true to the original recipe by using a garum (or fermented fish sauce) similar to the Vietnamese nuoc mam. (In Caesar’s time salt was too expensive a commodity to use on food). Notwithstanding what you might expect, there is absolutely no fishy flavor to the meat, which is served with a side of applesauce. We accompany this with a glass of Terre Siciliane Molino a Vento Syrah recommended by Francesco.

To conclude our meal, we select the tiramisú and the Crema cotta, the Italian version of crème brulée but without the hard sugar-coating on top. They are both delicious and gone much too quickly.

Shoulder of pork with apples, wine and garum sauce

Il Magro di Maiale di Manzio, Spirito Divino

In addition to the outstanding food, what makes Il Spirito Di Vino so special is the attitude towards the guests. At no time do you feel as if you should hurry up and leave. Each table is booked for only one party per evening. In fact, Romeo and Francesco invite us to sit back and have another cup of espresso or a digestive spirit and chat some more. Perhaps the greatest treat of all is meeting Chef Eliana herself! With all the outstanding restaurants that you can find in Rome, Il Spirito Di Vino is our favorite.

IF YOU GO

Il Spirito Di Vino Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday 7 to 11 pm; closed on Sunday. It is located at Via dei Genovesi 31 in Trastevere, a block from the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere Tel 39-06-589-66-89; info@spiritodivino.com).

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The Ends of the Earth, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti

Even though it is July, banks of snow still dot the mountainside as we hike along the Alazani River into the bottom of Pirikiti Valley, Tusheti. Across the river, medieval stone towers in two tiny hamlets cling to the steep slopes. It feels as if we at the ends of the earth in the High Caucasus Mountains.

Remains of the winter, Dartlo, Tusheti

Snowbank, Dartlo, Tusheti

Dartlo is the larger of the two villages. Located on the riverbank, its architecture includes the traditional fortresses dating back to the 12th century, slate houses with roofed balconies as well as more “modern” stone structures. Some years ago the World Bank funded a project to restore the village and many of the structures have been reconstructed.

A sign banning women from approaching is prominently displayed at the ruins of a church, surrounded by barbed wire. It is unusual to see this type of sign on a church; normally it is the pagan shrines (Khati) that are thus marked. However, one once stood here, making the ground itself off-limits to women.

Ruins of church, Dartlo, Tushet

“No women allowed.”

Immediately behind the church twelve stones stand in a semi-circle, the remains of an ancient court where 12 elders once met to dispense justice in the community. The plaintiff and the defendant sat on two stones before them. The judges resolved most cases through negotiation and compromise, but periodically, more draconian measures were required. Banishment of the defendant from the community was the worst punishment that could be meted out.

Rock carving on house, Dartlo, Georgia

Mysterious stone petroglyph , Dartlo

Even though archeologists believe that this area of the Caucasus was settled between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, very little research or excavation has taken place here. Some Bronze Age artifacts as well as stones covered with petroglyphs have been found. Many of the slate houses include such stones here and there in the walls. There are a number of common themes among the petroglyphs: a pair of hands protecting a circle, circles within circles, a flaming tail on a star, or a man on a horse.

In Tusheti horses are considered as part of the family as well as being the primary means of transportation. Special songs and toasts are dedicated to famous horses, and wild horse races follow all Tusheti festivals and even funerals.

Towers in Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti

Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti, Georgia

We stay at the Samtsikhe Guest house, owned by Beso Elanidze. It is the largest we find in Tusheti, able to house 40 guests in six stone and wood buildings. The rooms are similar to other guesthouses in the region, twin beds with thick wool quilts and a shared bathroom. This one has electricity and a nice, rustic, open-air café overlooking the rushing stream. Orange lichen covers the rocks around the café. Our guide tells us that the women of the village boil the lichen to dye the wool they use to make traditional handicrafts – woolen hats, socks and mittens.

Long communal tables with rounds of tree trunks for chairs line the café. Massive amounts of food appear – khachapuri, khinkali, stuffed peppers, eggplant in walnut sauce, chicken in walnut sauce, and the ever-present tomato and cucumber salad — accompanied by the customary toasts with wine or chacha, Georgia’s equivalent to firewater. Our travel companions are a group of Czech hikers who stop by to have a warm meal before setting up camp and a group of Russian visitors making their way through Tusheti.

Delicious Georgian food, Dartlo

Dartlo Dinner

A steep, difficult hike away, the even smaller hamlet of Kvavlo sits above Dartlo. A single 12th century watchtower looms above the skyline, its roof shaped like a pyramid. The village is built on the rocky slope of the mountain with stone paths connecting the various houses.

Further along the mountainside, a spectacular pagan Khati, adorned with horses, sits in the village of Dano.

The following morning we set out for the village of Parsma, the farthest point in our journey through Tusheti. Parsma is farther up the Pirikiti Valley at about 7,000 feet above sea level. We drive north on what can only be described as a single lane, dirt trail, so narrow that it is almost impossible to turn the vehicle around. On one side, sheer drop-offs fall to the river below while on the other the mountain looms high with slate outcrops and plenty of evidence of rock and mudslides.

Lichen is used to make dye, Tusheti

Lichen-covered slate, Parsma, Tusheti

Our driver, David skillfully navigates over smaller obstacles and through rushing rivers. Once he asks us to get out as he navigates a particularly nasty mudslide, his car leaning precariously into the ravine.

Eventually a massive landslide stops our progress. Fortunately we are fairly close to Parsma and are able to hike up a very steep slope and over the top of the crest to the village. It provides us with the best photographic opportunities of our trip to Tusheti.

Five towers line the mountainside. Beneath them, traditional slate houses are clustered around a small spring. We picnic in a field of buttercups high on a cliff above the river where flocks of sheep crisscross the remains of a snowfield.

Clearing a landslide_DSC9694(LR&C)This is the only place in Tusheti where we actually see wildlife – a pair of gryphons and some ravens devouring the carcass of a sheep. We hear but are unable to photograph cuckoos that flit among the houses. Even though this area is famed for its biodiversity, it seems what few animals remaining after the Soviet occupation have retreated deep into the wilderness.

We return to the car down a steep path. As we walk two Tush horsemen ride by, carrying hoes and shovels, on their way to clear the landslide. We find them again further down the mountain, digging away, a task akin to emptying a swimming pool with a teaspoon.

Sheep on the snow, Tusheti

Sheep crossing a snow bank, Tusheti

Now, however, we have to drive back the way we came. David reverses the car back down the path until he can go no further safely. It takes him about 20 maneuvers, with no room for error, before the car faces the right direction.

It is a stark reminder that we are completely at the mercy of nature, at the ends of the earth in Tusheti.

IF YOU GO

Our travels in Georgia were organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge)
Beso Elanidze at the Samtsikhe Guest House may be contacted at beselanidze@yahoo.com , Tel. +599-118-993.
For more images of Tusheti, see the Recent Additions gallery at www.allegriaphotos.com

 

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

MAKING KHINKALI IN SHENAKO, GEORGIA

Tushetian village of Shenako

Shenako Village

Each village in Tusheti is unique. Some have towers; others have churches; in all of them we find the famous hospitality of the Georgian people who invite us into their homes and to their tables. It is in the village of Shenako, a thousand-year old village high in the Caucasus Mountains that we learn about khinkali, one of Georgia’s national foods.

Georgian Orthodox Church, Shenako

The Church at Shenako

The road from Omalo to Shenako is another jaw-shuddering drive on a dirt track that takes us down one mountainside and up another. The isolation is palpable. We see no other vehicles until just before reaching the village when a very large Soviet-made truck blocks the road. It is mired in the mud up to its axles. Five men try to winch it out, but it is well and truly stuck.

We hike the rest of the way into the village, through fields of yellow buttercups and wild iris, past the Shenako winter village, on the south slope of the mountain. The few inhabitants, who remain here during the winter months, braving the 14 feet of snow, move to these tiny shelters with their cows.

The interior of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Shenako

Frescos inside Shenako Church

The main village is on the northern slope. A large green meadow in the center serves as the soccer pitch as well as the communal ground for festivals. The tiny church of Shenako presides over the village from a small rise. It dates from the 18th century and was recently restored by the Tchvritidze family who funded the restoration themselves. We are told that volunteers assisted them, including a pair of Italian fresco painters who adorned the interior of the church at no charge.

Shrine linked to pagan times in the village of Shenako

Pagan Shrine, Shenako

Behind the church sits a khati, or pre-Christian shrine, adorned with horns and white rocks. (The latter serve as a signal that women are not allowed to approach). Tusheti only embraced Christianity in the 9th century, long after the rest of Georgia, and continues to maintain many pagan traditions.

From our room in the Sheni Sakli Guesthouse, (run by Darejan and Davit Tchvritidze), we gaze out on the church as well as on Mt. Diklo, on the Georgia-Daghestan border, a few miles away.

Our accommodations in Shenako

Shenako Guesthouse

A three-mile hike to the village of Diklo takes us through forests of larch and fir trees as well as extensive meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Horses and cows graze on the hillsides; fierce Caucasian sheep dogs protect the flocks, barking madly to scare us away. We advance cautiously, hiking sticks in hand, to protect ourselves from possible attack. It is no laughing matter since rabies is common, and treatment involves a medevac to Germany for the rabies vaccines.

However, all this beauty notwithstanding, Darejan’s cooking, and a Master Class in the making of khinkali (Georgia’s version of meat dumplings), is the main event here.  As with most things, each region of Georgia has its own variation of how you prepare this national food.

Georgia's version of meat dumplings called khinkali

Folding the khinkali

Working in a wooden lean-to with a dirt floor that serves as the kitchen, delicious multi-course meals are prepared with nothing more than an old-fashioned wood-burning stove and a brazier. (The stove is also where water is heated if you want to take a shower. Water takes about 45 minutes to come to a boil at this altitude. It makes you think twice about wasting it!)

In Georgian the kitchen is called a “Jujula deda.” “Deda” is the word for “Mother” (and, yes, the word for “Father” is “mama”) while “Jujula” is the sound made when calling chickens. Only women are allowed into the kitchen, and it is where they gather to prepare meals, talk, drink, and relax!

Khinkali are cooked on a wood-burning stove

Khinkali boiled over a brazier

The Master Class takes about an hour. Darejan, and her assistant, Tina, have already prepared the dough (a mixture of flour and brine) and rolled it out using a glass bottle. The filling is also ready in a bowl. Although there are many different combinations, the most common filling for khinkali in Tusheti is ground lamb or beef with onions, seasonings and greens including spinach or fenugreek. (Pork is not allowed into the province in any way, shape or form, including as a ham sandwich in your picnic lunch. Our guide tells us that it is a remnant of pagan times).

A glass is used to cut the dough into small circles using a glass and a dollop of the meat is placed in the center. Then, the edges of the dough are pulled into a pleated topknot. It is not as easy as it looks to pleat the dough, making as many folds as possible. Uproarious laughter ensues as I try my hand at making the khinkali!

Once all the khinkali have been assembled, they are dropped into a large kettle of boiling water on the brazier (they can also be steamed) and served immediately, perhaps with a sprinkle of pepper.

Hiking to Mt. Dikhlo

Dikhlo, near Shenako, on the Georgia-Daghestan border

There is an art to eating khinkali. You grasp the topknot in one hand, turn it upside down and take a small bite, sucking out the broth before continuing to eat the rest. The idea is not to let a single drop of the liquid escape and make a mess of your shirt in the process. Once you have eaten around it, you discard the topknot on the plate. This serves as an indication of how many you have consumed.  Eating the khinkali with a knife and fork It is considered the height of rudeness.

We eat khinkali at almost every meal. Meat is the most common filling but mushrooms, cheese and walnuts are also possibilities. At breakfast we are served khinkali filled with mashed potatoes and butter. Picnic lunches often include the leftovers.

The ubiquitous Khinkali is one of Georgia’s most popular foods, as evidenced by the large number of khinkali “parlors” in the cities and its presence on almost every table. However, learning how to make them in such a unique place as Shenako makes this a very special experience.

IF YOU GO

Our trip was organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).
If you want to give it a try at home, Georgian Journal has a good recipe. (http://www.georgianjournal.ge/georgian-cuisine/26984-how-to-make-traditional-georgian-khinkali.html).
Photos of Georgia can be found at www.allegriaphotos.com in Recent Additions.

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

Exploring Omalo, Georgia

Entering the village of Omalo, Tusheti

The village of Omalo

Our six plus-hour odyssey driving up one of the World’s Most Dangerous Roads in the Republic of Georgia brings us to the village of Omalo, located in the middle of Tusheti National Park at about 7,000 feet above sea level. It is a tiny hamlet with about 50 inhabitants set in an emerald green meadow. Clusters of stone and wood houses cover the hillside at the base of a rocky crag in the shadow of the remaining five towers of Keselo.

The entire population of Tusheti numbers about 2,500 with about 50 or so inhabitants in each of the villages during the summer months. Only 1-2 families remain in Omalo during the winter when up to 14 feet of snow cuts off the entire province from the rest of Georgia.

The towers of Omalo rise on a crag above the valley

The towers of Omalo, Tusheti

Even though this is the administrative “capital” of Tusheti, there are no stores, no hotels or restaurants and only dirt roads. It is also one of the most magical locations we have found in all our travels.

The Tush are a semi-nomadic people, albeit many with college educations and all with cell phones. The majority, together with their sheep and cows, travel between their summer villages and pastures high in the Caucasus Mountains and their winter lowland homes in Kakheti, in the villages of Zemo and Kverno Alvani.

There is a lovely legend about how the Tush acquired their land in Kakheti. In the 17th century, the Tush (who were fierce and independent fighters) provided Kakhetian prince Bidzina Choloqashvili with military support to defeat the then Persian invaders. The prince promised them a reward, and the Tush leader, Zezva Gaprindauli, asked for land where his people could spend the winter months. Prince Bidzina said that he would give them as much land as Zezva could cover with his horse in one day. Setting out from his mountain hamlet, Gaprindauli galloped his horse down the mountain into the lowlands until it dropped dead, near the town of Kverno Alvani. The prince honored his promise, making this area of Kakheti the winter home of most Tushetians. Today there is a monument to Gaprindauli’s horse just outside town to commemorate its valiant efforts to cover as much distance as possible.

The stone and wooden Shina guesthouse, Omalo

Shina Guest House, Omalo

We pass through Omalo twice during our time in Tusheti. During our first visit, we are accommodated in a guesthouse at the entrance of town, The Shina. It is a stone and wood two-story building with gingerbread lattice woodwork along the edges of the balconies, typical of the lowlands.

The room is basic but very clean, containing twin beds covered with thick woolen quilts. The greatest luxury is an ensuite bathroom (the only one we will have during our entire stay) with a toilet, sink and shower. Like all the guesthouses in Omalo and the rest of Tusheti, electricity and hot water are provided by solar energy – assuming it hasn’t rained all day. That means that the only time you might find some hot water is in the evening. The power is turned off at 10 pm, when it is assumed everyone is in bed.

Omalo, Tusheti, Sargiri Guesthouse

Big screen window, Sargiri Guesthouse, Omalo

Meals are served in an attached lounge with an enormous fireplace. In true Georgian tradition, they are plentiful and delicious. For dinner we feast on stuffed peppers, beef stew with roast potatoes, tomato and cucumber salad, cheese, bread, accompanied by rounds of toasts – to Skartvelo, Omalo, our deceased relatives, our parents, children – the list goes on and on. Fortunately, as a visitor you can get away with sipping your wine and are not required to down a glass with each toast!

Several days later we pass through Omalo again and end up spending the night because a landslide has cut us off from our intended destination. This time we stay with a family at the Sargiri Guesthouse, immediately beneath the towers that are all that remain of the fortress of Keselo. The family lives on the lower floor. On the upper floor are five rooms, each with twin beds covered with woolen quilts. The bathroom and shower are down the hall next to the living room. Here the hot water is provided by a wood burning stove in the shower, making the room toasty warm. Unfortunately the warmth doesn’t reach the bedrooms; that night we wear layers of clothing, including our down jackets and socks to stay warm!

Sargiri Guesthouse, Omalo, family museum

Small Tusheti Museum, Sargiri Guesthouse

In a corner of the living room, a small museum houses Tushetian artifacts, which the family discovered when building their house. These include musical instruments, pots, saddles and traditional clothing.

In the kitchen, a giant open-air window faces the mountains and the valleys below. It is like a natural large screen TV where you can sit and watch the world of Omalo go by.

To work up an appetite we hike up to the towers above the guesthouse to watch the sun set over the valley. There is something quite magical about ancient stone towers silhouetted against the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains. You can almost imagine a fairy-tale Rapunzel standing in the upper story window waiting for her prince to appear.

These towers, however, served a very serious purpose. They provided refuge for the local Tushetian villagers from invaders, raiders and others with nefarious intentions.

There are towers all across Tusheti. Some are watchtowers, designed to give the alarm down the line, using smoke or fire, in the event of invasion or danger. Others, like the ones clinging to a steep crag above Omalo and the Gometsari Valley, are “residential” towers where the villagers would take refuge when danger loomed.

Originally, there were 13 of them, constructed during the Mongol invasion of Georgia in 1230 and used until the 18th century. Built of slate without use of mortar, they are 3-6 stories high with a low entrance door on the first floor that would force any intruder to stoop over to enter, thereby putting him at a disadvantage. The ground floor, typically, housed the livestock. During the winter, the animals provided a source of heat for the family living above.

One of the five towers of Omalo, Tusheti

The towers of Omalo

The middle floors were living quarters for the multi-generational family. Our guide explained that everyone slept on one long bed on the second floor – parents, grandparents, children, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters Only newly-weds were given a modicum of privacy.

The top floor was built to be an attack position, with windows designed so that arrows could be fired down onto possible intruders.

Wooden and slate house, Omalo

Slate roofed house, Omalo

As more lowland style houses were built, the towers fell into a state of disrepair until 2003 when work began to rebuild them. Henk and Eliane Hooft, a Dutch couple living in Tbilisi, originally sponsored the reconstruction before creating the Keselo Foundation, designed to help in the restoration of Tusheti’s treasures, using traditional building techniques. We saw evidence of the outstanding work that has been done so far in many of the mountains villages we came across in our travels. Thanks to them visitors will be able to marvel at these medieval treasures for years to come.

IF YOU GO

Our travel was organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).
If you are an independent traveler, information about the Shina Guesthouse in Omalo can be found at www.shina.ge.
The Sargiri Guesthouse in Omalo can be contacted at +599-775543.
There is a dedicated Facebook page for booking guesthouses in Tusheti
https://www.facebook.com/directbookingtusheti.
For more images of Tusheti, go to www.allegriaphotos.com

 

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

Foods of Georgia – Khachapuri

Khachapuri, Georgia's National food

Adjarian Khachapuri

Georgians LOVE their Khachapuri! You find it in fancy restaurants, fast food places or holes-in-the wall. It is served in large cities and in the smallest hamlets across the country. People eat it at almost every meal – as a starter, a main course, even as a dessert with sweet sauce. In short, it is the National Food of Georgia. Khachapuri is so important in Georgian culture that its price is used as a benchmark to measure the rate of inflation in the country (known as the Khachapuri Index).

The most common type of Khachapuri

Imeretian Khachapuri

What is Khachapuri? In Georgian the word is a blend of the words for “curds” and “Bread.” In its simplest form, it is a cheese-filled yeast bread, similar to a pizza. However, each region of the country has its own traditions and ways of making Khachapuri.

The most common type comes from Imereti, a region in the center of the country. It is a circular pie with a cheese filling between two circles of dough. Ossetian Khachapuri combines cheese with mashed potatoes between two layers of dough. Chakhragina Khachapuri adds leaves from the beet plant (or sometimes spinach) to the mixture.

Khachapuri with cheese and mashed potatoes in the filling

Ossetian Khachapuri

Abkhazian Khachapuri, called Achma, has multiple layers and looks like a sauce-less lasagna.

But perhaps the most flamboyant of the Khachapuri is Adjarian, from the Black Sea area. We watch one of our hosts prepare some for our lunch. Her dough, which includes milk and olive oil amongst its ingredients, has already risen and sits on the side of the table next to a bowl of sulguni cheese curds mixed with eggs and milk to make a thick filling. (Sulguni cheese comes from the Shmegrelo region of Georgia. It can be made from cow, goat or buffalo milk and has a slightly sour, salty flavor).

Our host breaks off a piece of the dough and, using a glass bottle, rolls it out into an oval; she spreads the cheese mixture over the top to within an inch of the sides. Then, deftly grasping the dough, she folds the long sides, turning the edges to contain the filling. Taking the ends of the folded dough, she twists them together to form the ends of the boat.

Georgia's national food, Khachapuri

Chakhragina Khachapuri

Sitting in the corner of the wooden lean-to that serves as a kitchen, is a black wood-fired stove. Our host puts the khachapuri into the oven and bakes it until the cheese has melted and the bottom of the crust is charred and smoky. Then, quickly removing it, she breaks a raw egg yolk into the cheese, together with a dollop of butter, and places it back in the oven for a few minutes.

Proudly placing it on the table in front of us, she explains how to eat it. “Pull off a piece of the bread,” she says “and dip it into the cheese and egg.” And we do! On a cold, rainy afternoon in the Caucasus Mountains, it is a perfect way to warm up.

When I ask our host for her recipe, she tells me, through our guide, that she mixes a handful of this and a pinch of that together and bakes it. Somehow, I think something was lost in translation!

Certainly in the New York City area you can find Khachapuri at many of the restaurants in Brighton Beach. If you are interested in making it at home, the New York Times Cooking Section includes an easy recipe for Adjarian Khachapuri by Marian Burros.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

The Road to Tusheti, Georgia

Hairpin bends of the Abano Pass, Tusheti, Georgia

Driving down from the Abano Pass, Tusheti

Tusheti is one of Georgia’s most remote provinces, hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains on Georgia’s remote northeast border with Daghestan and Chechnya. It is a place of wild, natural beauty where a few villages cling to the heights, where medieval castles, defensive towers and pagan shrines abound.

Even in June the winter snows remain along the Tusheti Road

Snow-banks along the Tusheti Road

The inhabitants are a hardy people who continue to live as their ancestors have done for thousands of years, albeit with the addition of a few modern conveniences like solar panels and cell phones. They spend the summer months with their flocks in the high mountains, before driving them down to the lowlands for the winter, in a tradition known as Transhumance.

The region is only accessible for about four months of the year (June to September) over a dirt track that is ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, and it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

The Tusheti Road with its sheer drops into the valley below

A shear edge on the Tusheti Road

Our adventure to Tusheti starts in Tbilisi (the capital of the Republic of Georgia) with a drive through the wine-rich valley of Kakheti (more later). In the small town of Valiscuri, we meet our driver, David, and transfer our luggage from our guide, Georgi’s car, to a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. The dangers of driving this road are such that only local Tush drivers can take you there safely.

As we start out, a small sign reads “Omalo, 72 km.” “That’s only about 44 miles,” I say, “Can’t take that long!” Famous last words!

Waterfalls and cascades rush across the Tusheti Road, Georgia

A cascade on the Tusheti Road

Two hours later, after wending our way up the mountain through a multitude of narrow hairpin bends and switchbacks (we stopped counting at 100), with waterfalls cascading down the steep slate cliffs on the left side of the road and the sheer drops of thousands of feet into the valley below on the right, we arrive at the Abano Pass (9,350 feet), built in 1978 by the Soviets. There are still high banks of snow along the road, evidence of the almost 14 feet that falls here over the winter.

It is now raining and hailing heavily; within a matter of minutes the dirt track is transformed into a muddy morass with large potholes waiting to swallow up the unwary driver.

From here the road descends into the valley through more hairpin bends. Only now the rain has turned the road into a running stream. Next to it, the glacial blue river has become  a muddy, roiling torrent, breaking through its banks, tossing giant tree trunks and other debris around like twigs.

From time to time we see other four-Wheel Drive vehicles but generally there are few other cars until suddenly there is a traffic jam – five cars stopped on the road in the pouring rain. The problem? The bulldozer, which is supposed to maintain the road, has tipped into a sinkhole. There is nothing to do but wait until a digger can be summoned to haul it out.

Landslide on the Tusheti road

Bulldozer clearing a landslide, Tusheti

Our driver, David, is on the phone to the digger driver, telling him that the problem is at “Biblioteca.” It seems a bit out of context until our guide explains that every one of the hairpin bends and curves has a name, used as a reference point by the drivers – their own mental map!

Eventually the digger arrives, rescues the bulldozer, and we continue to the end of the valley and up the next mountain. At times David gets out of the car to check the road before driving over it. As the rain continues to pelt down, there is a real risk of landslides. For the same reason, notwithstanding the incredible photo opportunities, he only will stop to let us take photographs if he is sure there are no risks involved.

Mountain road in Tusheti, Georgia

The road to Tusheti

As the back wheels skid in the mud and veer towards the abyss (there are no guard rails anywhere), we send rocks flying over the edge of the cliff. But we have the utmost confidence in David, a quiet, taciturn man of little words, who navigates the hazards with aplomb. He tells us that sometimes he drives this route two or even three times in a day. For him it is all in a day’s work. For us it is a massive adrenaline rush!

Seven hours after leaving Valiscuri, we come to a beautiful alpine meadow filled with yellow buttercups, wild irises and other wildflowers. Above it, through the clearing mist, five watchtowers cluster on a crag – the medieval towers of Omalo, in the heart of the Tusheti Protected Area at 6,600 feet. From here we will start our exploration of Tusheti, one of the least-known areas of Georgia and the world.

Towers of Omalo beneath the Great Caucasus Mountains

Medieval towers of Omalo

IF YOU GO

Eka Tchvritidze at Wild Georgia organized out travels to Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).

For a taste of what it means to drive on this road, see the BBC 2012 series on the World’s Most Dangerous Roads, narrated by Jessica Hynes and Hugh Bonneville (of  Downton Abbey fame http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pp7ps

See http://www.allegriaphotos.com/Recent-Additions/Republic-of-Georgia/ for more images of Georgia.

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler