Every inch of our map of Georgia seemed to covered with little icons marking churches, monasteries, ancient settlements, caves, mountains, towns, villages, and vineyards. We spent close to a month in Tbilisi, and here are a few of the nearby sights we experienced in that time.
We also traveled further afield to explore the historical sites, monasteries, vineyards, mountains, towns, and villages of Georgia. Here are some of the highlights form the almost two months that we spent traveling in the Republic of Georgia.
Jvari and Mtskheta
It's worth a day-trip outside of Tbilisi to visit the simple 6th-7th century monastery of Jvari, perched high on a hill and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta (dangerously difficult to prounounce) in the valley below.
We enjoy churches, but as we've seen hundreds of them during our travels in Europe we tend to reach church saturation very quickly. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is different. It's one of the most moving religious sites we've visited. Yes, it's beautiful with old frescos , 11th century architecture, two-dimensional iconography typical of the Georgian Orthodox style, but there's a pleasant emotional heft to the place, as if it stands on truly hallowed ground.
The church is not at all a museum, but an active, living church that people still use and love. The environment inside is welcoming and warm, even for more intimate ceremonies held inside its small chapels.
For example, in a mystical candlelit chapel, we witnessed a renewing of vows between a couple that had been legally together for 30 years, but had never had a church wedding (religion was restricted during Soviet times). A thickly bearded priest harkening back to the ancients held the couple arm-in-arm and repeatedly walked around the chapel in prayer. The gravity and emotion was like nothing we've ever seen or felt before.
The town of Akhaltsikhe itself doesn't offer too much excitement for the visitor, but it serves as a jumping off point for Vardzia and Sapara.
An Armenian driver with an old hulking Volga made requisite stops for water and enthusiastically endorsed Brezhnev with two thumbs up for building the now abandoned tourist hotel at Vardzia. The drive to Vardzia stretches from green hills and valleys to desert spotted with rock outcroppings. It also looks like an opportunity to kayak or water raft.
Vardzia is a monastery complex cut into the rocks and cliffs that dates from the 12th to 13th century. Only a fraction of the caves and tunnels are open to the public, but it's enough to give the sense of how deep and vast the network originally was. The main church, also carved into the rock offers a look at some beautiful, dark, mysterious frescoes. Ask the priest to turn on the lights and open the gate to the cave next door, a fresh water spring, and tunnels to another section of the cave complex.
The small road leading up to Sapara is hazardous in a big Volga. If you happen to be in similar wheels, consider keeping your eyes fixed on the road rather than the cliffside. After the road parts wildflower dotted meadows, the forest thickens and Sapara monastery simply appears tucked into the mountainside.
George, Sapara's resident English-speaking monk, gave us a tour of the complex. The earliest structures date back to the 10th century while the main church was built in the 15th century. Sadly, the monastery was used for a summer piano camp during the Soviet era. Though many of the interiors and frescoes are worse for wear, a few remain and others are being uncovered or restored to their original beauty. Today, about ten monks (or novices) live at the complex in Sapara. Although difficult to get to, Sapara monastery is beautiful, peaceful, and worth the effort.
Of the monasteries we visited, Sapara was our favorite.
Transport to Akhaltsikhe, Vardzia and Sapara
- How to get there – Akhaltsikhe: Marshrutka from Borjomi – leaves hourly, 3 Lari/person
- How to get there – Vardzia and Sapara: Taxi – Most taxis at the bus station offer 60 Lari for a return trip (including waiting time) to Vardzia (about 2 hours each way), but it’s possible to get the trip for 50 Lari. Sapara is an additional 15 Lari, but very much worth the extra cost and time (take a sedative if you are afraid of heights and adventure driving).
- Bus – The cost is much less – 4 Lari/person – but you have to stay flexible. A friendly guy searched out the Vardzia-based bus driver to get all the times for us. The only return trip in one day is the following. Otherwise, you have to spend the night there. From Akhaltsikhe: 10:40, From Vardzia: 15:00
- Where to stay: Hotel White House on Tetri Sakhli street (perpendicular to Rustevi street). Just ask around, as everyone seems to know it. 50 lari/double room, including breakfast. There is also another hotel on Rustevi street with similar rooms for 40 lari without breakfast and 50 lari with breakfast. Hotels are a bit of a walk from the bus station (walk across the bridge with the castle/old town at your back).
- Where to eat: Limited choices here. The restaurant on Rustevi street has a nice balcony overlooking the valley. The people working there are very nice, although the menu is rather limited (note: the fish contains hundreds of thousands of tiny bones).
- What to do: Walk up to the church on hill, walled old town, and admire all the signs about tolerance (paid for by USAID and other foreign aid organizations).
Many Georgians seem to sing the word Borjomi, THE Georgian mineral water and spa town, with a longing in their voices and a hands over their hearts. What we learned is that most people haven't visited in 20 or 30 years…some things have changed since the time when Borjomi was one of the most famous spa towns in the Soviet Union, a place for the elite to drink the waters and recover from all the drinking, smoking and poor eating the rest of the year.
Our stay in Borjomi was short, just long enough to wait in line with the locals and drink the famous mineral water directly from the source. Difficult to gulp down, the water tastes faintly of iron filings, but is supposedly the equivalent of “drinking a pharmacy,” (not something we're certain we want to do) according to Marina, our homestay host in Borjomi.
Georgians hold water dear to their hearts and believe that if you drink enough, you might just wash away the effects of all your vices. We're not so sure.
Borjomi Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation and Food
- How to get there: Marshrutka from Didube station in Tbilisi – 7 Lari/person.
- Where to stay: Marina Abugadze, Kovtava 17 (267 2 09 30). A simple homestay in a courtyard walking distance from the park, train station and bus station. Marina doesn't speak English, but others in the courtyard do. She is a very sweet host. 10 Lari/person.
- Where to eat: The train station has two restaurants in its vicinity. The bakery right next to the bus station serves up heavenly bread (perhaps the best tonis puri we'd tasted in Georgia).
- What to do: Drink the waters directly from the source (don't forget your own water bottle). Hike in Borjomi National Park. Check yourself into a sanitorium to cleanse all your ills.
Once an Olympic site contender, the ski village of Bakuriani fell on tough times after collapse of the Soviet Union. A Georgian multi-millionaire is now attempting to reverse time by pouring cash into the improvement of skiing facilities and construction of new hotels and guest houses. Village roads are now packed with Turkish trucks stacked with construction supplies, minibuses packed full of construction workers, and SUVs with local construction inspectors.As we climbed the hills around Bakuriani, construction crews gave way to herds of dairy cows feeding on hills of electric mossy green. As we climbed higher, a Soviet era van offered us a ride up the hill. We declined and it left in a plume of smoke that smelled distinctly of a shashlik barbecue.
On our descent, one of the shepherds invited us to join him for the evening cow milking. “You need to be strong,” he said. Though tempted, we graciously declined, noting the rolling clouds and disappearing sun. Only minutes later the Soviet era van pulled up again. The front door opened and the driver's hand shot across the front seat as he offered Audrey a bouquet of red plastic flowers. No words were exchanged, the door closed, and the van barreled down the hill, leaving Audrey in its wake with a curious gift.
A few minutes later, a second old van drove by. We accepted their offer for a ride and joined the construction workers as they crammed into their seats to allow us ample room. Later, when we tried to buy some Georgian flat bread in the village, the local baker wouldn't accept payment. Everyone was certainly doing his best to make us feel welcome.
The following morning we learned that Bakuriani's unofficial motto: more hotels, less information. Armed with information from the tourist office regarding the departure of the kukushka (cuckoo in Russian), the scenic train that runs between Bakuriani and Borjomi, we arrived at the train station ten minutes early. The lone train station employee there informed us that the train left 15 minutes ago and pointed to a sign from March 2007 with new train times. There are only two trains per day; it's not complicated. But apparently complicated enough to prevent a heads-up phone call from the train station to the tourist office just up the street.
Lesson of the day – always get your transport information at the source, no matter how shiny the tourist information office and its brochures may look.
Transport to and Accommodation in Bakuriani
- How to get there: By marshrutka directly from Didube station in Tbilisi (10 Lari/person – 3 hours) or from Borjomi (3 lari/person). Train from Borjomi – morning and afternoon departures. Check with the train station directly regarding times, as they change often, without the tourist information center's knowledge.
- Where to stay: Hotels are going up at every corner of the village, so this is the one place in Georgia with an overabundance of accommodation (at least in the summer). We stayed at Vera's place – the yellow house right next to the tourist information center. Nice rooms with en suite bathrooms. 20 lari/person, including breakfast, fresh milk from her mother's cow and some snacks at dinner. Very nice family.
- Where to eat: There is a cafe on the main road around the corner from the information center. Good khinkali and kebabs. Reasonably priced.
- What to do: In the summer, hike around and try and get away from all the construction roads and building. The higher you go, the more beautiful it becomes. In winter, ski your heart out.
Other places we visited in Georgia:
What we didn't see this time…but would like to next time:
Tusheti, Shatili, Kazbegi, David Gareji, Nekresi, Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery (outside Kutaisi), Ushba and Shkhara (Upper Svaneti), Lower Svaneti, Khevsureti mountains, Batumi, and Uplistsikhe.