Author Archives: Andrew

Georgia Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Georgia?

Julie, Jo and I in the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia

Julie, Jo and I in the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi

As our long-time friend, fellow adventurous traveller and occasional guest-blogger Jo joined us once more, the photo that takes us all back to Georgia is this one of the 3 of us at the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi. The museum has examples of the older buildings we’d go on to see as we travelled around (specifically the Svan towers of the Caucasus), two giant clay urns called qvevri for fermenting grapes into the wine for which Georgia is famed, and that deep blue sky reminds us of the (mostly) fantastic weather.

Summarise Georgia in three words.

  • khachapuri – if wine is the national drink, then this is the national dish. We planned many a hike so that we could indulge in the cheese, meat and bean-filled deliciousness-es as often as possible
  • mountains – the scenery in Georgia was breathtaking, and before we’d left we were already talking about wanting to return to experience a summer season
  • cable-car – I think Georgia’s fondness for cable-cars is a legacy of their ex-Soviet mining industry as well as the mountainous landscape. We went on 2 in Tbilisi but the ageing ones in Chiatura were the highlight

You really know you’re in Georgia when…

…you’re eating aubergine and walnuts. Yes, we’ve mentioned the khachapuri a few times but the food throughout Georgia was excellent. Julie found an immediate fondness for the side dish of spicy walnut paste spread over roasted aubergine and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (I think that’s the real reason she wants to go back again!)

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Georgia?

A shot glass! Once the Georgians have made wine, they distill the skins into a grappa-like spirit called cha-cha and some of our fondest memories are making toasts with the happiest, most warmly welcoming hosts we’ve had the pleasure of befriending. Georgia really does have it all!

Borjomi and Vardzia, Georgia

Our final stop in Georgia was the once thriving southern spa town of Borjomi, famous for its warm and fizzy restorative mineral waters as well as being the gateway to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Sadly we didn’t have time for the latter as we’d planned to spend most of our penultimate day exploring the nearby cave monastery of Vardzia.

Vardzia, Georgia

And we thought Davit Gareja was big! At its peak, Vardzia had over 400 rooms, 13 churches, 25 wine cellars, a bakery and a forge all spread over 19 levels. That said, it’s a quarter of the size of Old Khndzoresk in southern Armenia

Although excavations show the area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, with cave settlements starting around the 5th century BC, the remains at Vardzia date back to the reign of King Giorgi III in the 12th century and continued in phases for the next 100 years or so. They’re still excavating and adding caves to the site as they’re being restored.

Vardzia, Georgia

Look at all of those caves.. it’s immense!

We’d read the guides rarely speak English so we opted for the cheap audioguide (quick tip – they provide a set of headphones but bring extra ones and a splitter to share – you’ll hear it better too, and don’t forget some ID to leave as a deposit) which was great for the history and context but we felt went into a little too much detail about some of the rooms and frescoes.

The Bakery, Vardzia, Georgia

Jo and Julie in the wine press, some of the caves are huge inside

Queen Tamar's Room, Vardzia, Georgia

While others are intricate, like this one which was Queen Tamar’s, daughter of King Giorgi III and continuer of the Vardzia Monastery. Most of the cave cells are simpler than this one but had a similar layout

The cave complex is centred around the very impressive Church of the Assumption which is set back into the cliff face, saving it from the earthquake of 1283 that destroyed the outer tunnel network and exposed a lot of the caves to the open air. I say it’s impressive but we weren’t able to see inside for ourselves despite hovering around another couple who were with a guide who had a set of keys on him. I suspect that it was being renovated ahead of the main tourist season as we could see a lot of scaffolding inside through the cracks in the doors, so we made do with the overly detailed audioguide, recollections of our research, and photographing the frescoes on the outside!

Church of the Assumption, Vardzia, Georgia

The wonderful frescoes on the outside of the Church of the Assumption. The audioguide added history and context to our visit, but sometimes it was difficult to hear and we started skipping some of the more laboured descriptions

Had it not been locked, the Church of Assumption would likely have been the highlight of an altogether astounding visit, pipping it to first prize therefore goes to The Refuge, a secret chamber accessed through a narrow, dark 150m tunnel complete with defences that winds its way from chambers behind the church up through the rock.

The Refuge Tunnel, Vardzia, Georgia

Exploring the escape tunnel to The Refuge with torches was exciting and a little bit scary as we were on our own. The tunnel has two heavy rock doors that could be closed behind those fleeing, and a battlement style murder hole

The Refuge, Vardzia, Georgia

The Refuge! This is the exit from the tunnel and the room itself has a couple of tall, narrow windows for firing arrows and catapults through in defence

We really enjoyed our time exploring the multiple levels and variety of caves. Taking our time and taking lots of photos we found it was just the right length. Before heading back to Borjomi we picked one of the on-site restaurants for a bite to eat and were pleasantly surprised at the quality and the price compared to similar captive audience establishments back home. We’d had a similar experience at the Prometheus Cave just outside Kutaisi too.

Even stopping for 10 minutes at the Khertvisi Fortress for a quick photo opportunity and to stretch our legs on the way back to Borjomi, we had time to dust off our clothes from scrambling around the caves and tunnels and head to the Mineral Water Park for one last hike in this beautiful country.

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

The impressive Khertvisi Fortress sits atop a rocky crag and is best photographed from a pedestrian suspension bridge that spans the Mtkvari river

Borjomi’s central Mineral Water Park is on the site of the first spring (which is named Ekaterina), and contains the original bottling plant which looks like it was gearing up to be a museum. We filled our bottles and weren’t too put off by the sulphuric smell, or the fizzy, salty taste. Refuelled for our hike we took yet another cable car to the top of the park and followed the 3km forest trail back down.

Borjomi Mineral Water Park

Filling up with Borjomi’s biggest export – there are some 40 bottling factories in the area and the waters are exported throughout Georgia. Truth be told, we drank about half a bottle between us as the taste was pretty strong!

Forest trail in the Borjomi Mineral Water Park, Georgia

Though the trail was marked, spotting the markers was tricky at times as new barbed wire fences had gone up right across the path!

Forest trail in the Borjomi Mineral Water Park, Georgia

Still, we were treated to a fantastic tranquil sunset through the trees

Open air mineral pools in the Borjomi Mineral Water Park, Georgia

Near the end of the trail are public open-air mineral water swimming pools, time for a dip..

Us swimming in the open air mineral pools in the Borjomi Mineral Water Park, Georgia

Good thing we’d brought our swimming costumes!

The water wasn’t as warm as we’d hoped, and the changing room block was closed so we did the wrap-around towel thing but it was a perfect end to an amazing day and a relaxing end to our time in Georgia.

Batumi, Georgia

When we were planning our trip to Georgia I’d wanted to include some time in the Black Sea beach resort city of Batumi even though Julie, Jo and I aren’t really beach people, and by that I mean that we prefer a hike, city walk or good museum to a sun lounger. Not that sunbathing was on the cards in late March as it would have been far too cold!

Batumi, Georgia

Batumi: Georgia’s beach resort. No fine sand but it is clean and over 6km long

With much of the same reasoning behind hiring a car in Armenia, having picked up another in Kutaisi meant it was easier to justify a couple of nights in Batumi as there were a few sights we’d read about that piqued our curiosity, such as the Black Sea Boulevard, a tower with a ferris wheel at the top (how does that work? – we had to find out!) and the region’s khachapuri speciality is the iconic bread-boat filled with cheese and topped with an egg. Much like Naples being the home of pizza and serving the best we’ve had, would this be our home of khachapuri?

Batumi Tower, Batumi, Georgia

There it is – the ferris wheel at the top of the tallest building in Georgia. Originally built as a Technology University, it is currently destined to become a hotel

Batumi is the third largest city in Georgia and it is easy to see that the laid back vibe is popular with Georgians, Armenians, Russians and Turks alike. Accommodations a-plenty (and really cheap off season) running the whole spectrum from self-service apartments to international luxury hotel chains and they’re building new apartment blocks at an impressive rate too.

Old Town, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Old Town has a medieval fairground attraction quality to it

We started our tour of the city in the respectfully renovated Evropas Moedani or Europe Square, consisting of lovely two-tone brick buildings set around a large open square with one of those ground-squirting water features you can play chicken with and a tall statue of a woman holding a golden fleece. Why’s that you ask? So the story goes, Jason and his 49 Argonauts sailed past Batumi, along the Rioni river a little further up the coast and inland to Kutaisi where they took the Golden Fleece from a dragon. The legend of the Golden Fleece is based in history: Georgians used sheepskins to sift for gold in mountain rivers!

Medea monument, Batumi, Georgia

The Medea monument in Europe Square. In Greek mythology, Medea was a daughter of King Aieti, the king of Kolkheti in present day western Georgia. Medea helped Jason to steal the legendary Golden Fleece

Working our way towards the coast we stopped at the Adjara Arts Museum, a nicely sized gallery with a varied collection of Georgian, Russian and European artwork, followed by the Cathedral of the Mother of God in an imposing Gothic Revival style that the Soviets had previously repurposed as a high voltage laboratory!

Adjara Arts Museum, Batumi

A solid and varied collection with a couple of standout pieces, such as a bold pomegranate by Kudba and a portrait of 2 old men by Gabashvili

Cathedral of the Mother of God, Batumi

Batumi’s Cathedral of the Mother of God is an impressively imposing Gothic building. No danger danger of high voltage anymore

Batumi’s main attraction is the 6km coastal boulevard, a wide promenade with separate cycle lanes and lined with large, quirky art on the coastline side and impressive hotels and apartment blocks on the other. Crescendoing at the northern end is a wide open space dominated by a large ferris wheel, the other ferris wheel I mentioned earlier that sticks out of the 13th floor of the Batumi Tower – the tallest building in the country – and a monument to Georgian script and culture called the Alphabet Tower.

Boulevard, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Boulevard. We reckon it’ll be a lot busier when the weather’s nicer..

Boulevard art collage, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Boulevard is lined with quirky art, including these giant shoes that made us all look like midgets, a series of outlined figures with hearts and what we think was a cross between a snail and the ‘@’ symbol

Boulevard art at night collage, Batumi, Georgia

There’s just as much to see at night too, the most impressive illuminated artwork being Ali & Nino (centre) who change colours as they pass through each other!

A special mention goes to the dancing fountains that our guidebook said wouldn’t be running this early in the year so we were very pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon them. We’ve seen a few water displays set to music and lights before, but these were by far the most coordinated.

Dancing Fountains, Batumi

Batumi has the best dancing fountains we’ve seen

At this point in our travels around Georgia we’d accomplished our side quest of trying all of the styles of khachapuri, the country’s national dish of bread and (typically) cheese. As mentioned, the western region of Adjara is home to the most iconic of khachapuri styles – the Adjaruli khachaphuri..

Adjaruli khachapuri, Batumi

The Adjaruli – a bread boat filled with molten cheese topped with an egg and an generous knob of butter. Genius.

Georgian khachapuri

Gotta catch them all! Source: Gudaturi

While the Imeruli and Megruli are available across the country and almost all varieties can be found in Tbilisi, we can confirm that just as for pizza in Naples, the local pride in Batumi makes for the tastiest of the tasty khachapuri. Honourable mention and a close second goes to the meat-filled kubdari we watched being skilfully made in Ushguli.

Sighnaghi and Davit Gareja, Georgia

After our day trip to Mtskheta, we ventured a little further afield to the south eastern region of Kakheti which, as well as the following sites, is also famed for its wine. Enroute to our destination of Sighnaghi and straddling the border with Azerbaijan is the 6th century cave monastery of Davit Gareja. Using public transport to get out this way would have doubled the time we needed, so we took the easy option and hired a guide-taxi through our Tbilisi guesthouse.

Davit Gareja

Davit Gareja, Georgia

Looking down into Lavra monastery on the Georgian side of the Davit Gareja complex. The surrounding stripy red hills reminded us of the colourful landscape of Tsagaan Suvraga in Mongolia

After a long 2 hour drive through increasingly bleak and sparsely populated land we arrived at the remote monastery of Davit Gareja, a relative oasis compared to the dry and treeless surroundings. Our guide Giorgi explained that as well as carving out their single-cell shelters, the monks used diagonal channels in the rock faces to collect the little rainwater the area gets.

Davit's Cave, Davit Gareja

Davit’s cave, most likely dug by himself ~1,500 years ago

We were surprised to find much of this part of the complex is in use; the larger caves looked inhabited, some areas were cordoned off requesting visitors to kindly respect monk’s privacy, and there were about a half-dozen monks saying prayers in the small chapel which made it feel almost bustling.

From the upper courtyard we took an energetic trail up through the monastery, past a few more basic caves and a couple of armed Georgian border guards to the top of the ridge before dropping a little way down the other side. I wasn’t entirely sure why we’d left the monastery and were following a path that is essentially the border with Azerbaijan until we’d gone about 100 meters..

Davit Gareja, Georgia

Oh! That’s why! Obviously we knew it was a cave monastery but I had no idea how big it had been and that a lot of the caves had been covered in frescoes painted in the 10th to 13th centuries

Frescoes, frescoes everywhere!

Davit Gareja collage

Exploring the frescoes, including the dinner hall (top right) with a depiction of the last supper

We spent a good hour or so working our way along the remains of the frescoed caves, many of which were just open to the elements. It was amazing how well they’d held up to the weather given a lot of walls had fallen away, but it was bittersweet that some Soviet visitors had scratched their names into the plaster.

Davit Gareja, Georgia - Close up of the Soviet graffiti

Soviet era graffiti – it’s a shame but it’s also a reminder of that period in the monastery’s history

Bodbe Convent

Bodbe Convent, Georgia

The church (right) and bell tower of Bodbe Convent. The grave of St. Nino is inside

From Davit Gareja we drove another 2 hours to reach the outskirts of Sighnaghi. We’d planned to visit Bodbe Convent the following day, but as Giorgi and our fellow tourist Daniel were due to head back to Tbilisi the same day it made sense to include this small but important site in the itinerary. Set amongst tall cypress trees and lush, immaculately kept grounds, the peaceful Bodbe Convent is the final resting place of St. Nino, who converted the King and ultimately Georgia to Christianity.

New church, Bodbe Convent, Georgia

They’d nearly finished a new cathedral-sized church in the grounds of the convent. It looks almost complete from the outside with a lovely mix of texture and materials but it was still a building site inside

Sighnaghi

Sighnaghi, Georgia
Our base for a couple of nights was Signhaghi, a laid-back, quiet, picturesque hill-top town ringed by a turret studded wall. Given that we’d already done our day’s sightseeing activity before we’d arrived, we took a leisurely wander around the town’s walls which afford spectacular views of the wine growing Alazani valley and Caucasus mountains beyond (when there aren’t clouds in the way!).

Sighnaghi walls collage

One of the few staircases onto the walls around Sighnaghi that aren’t in the round turrets

Sighnaghi Museum, Georgia

Just off the main town square is the small but excellent Signhaghi Museum which finishes with a collection of works by the famous pauper painter Pirosmani who was born in Kakheti

After a lazy day of wandering around in the morning and catching up with photos and diary writing in the afternoon we spent the evening indulging in great food and very good, very local wine!

Pheasant's Tears, Sighnaghi, Georgia

We opted for the wine tasting menu to accompany the food at the renowned Pheasant’s Tears which consisted of 6 wines from vineyards across Georgia

Pheasant's Tears, Sighnaghi, Georgia

The food we had in Sighnaghi deserves a mention too – we unconsciously ordered fish and chips with our wine tasting – how does the saying go? you can take the British out of Britain..

The Kakheti region makes up about 60% of Georgia’s vineyards and has been a wine producing area for over 8,000 years. To this day the Georgians take enormous pride in their traditional method of natural fermentation in large clay pots called qvevri sunken into the ground. They also use the whole grape – skin and pips – which turns their white wines a rich sunset amber colour, though they’re still light and refreshing. Delicious!

Tbilisi, Georgia

Compared to Yerevan, Tbilisi feels more affluent and cosmopolitan, by that I mean there are more coffee shops, more restaurants (and chain restaurants), and a few more tourists, though that might have been because spring was on its way and it was getting warmer! Our great friend and travelling companion Jo flew in on the same day we crossed the border from Armenia to explore the capital and the country with us :o)

Rustaveli Avenue

The Georgian National Academy of Sciences, Tbilisi, Georgia

This wonderfully imposing building is home to the Georgian National Academy of Sciences, and sits at the top of Rustaveli Avenue

The wide, grandness of Rustaveli Avenue (named after Shota Rustaveli, a 12th-13th century Georgian poet) is the main thoroughfare through Tbilisi. In a straight line it links Liberty or Freedom Square at the edge of the Old Town to Rustaveli Square and is lined with elegant and imposing buildings. It was of little surprise to us that it was laid out by the Soviets in the 19th century as it reminded us a lot of of Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg.
Georgian National Opera Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia

At the other end of Rustaveli Avenue is the Georgian National Opera Theatre, a striking stand alone building in the Moorish Revival style


Rustaveli Avenue collage, Tbilisi, Georgia

As well as the former parliament building, Rustaveli is lined with art such as these adorable little bonze figures made by different artists in the image of internationally famous people, can you guess any of them?

Old Town

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

A district of dilapidation awaits the ambler in Tbilisi’s Old Town

There are plenty of accommodation options in Tbilisi but not wanting to stay in a hotel and fancying a change from the old Soviet-style apartment blocks we found plenty of choice in the city’s Old Town – a maze of 2 storey buildings in conditions that range from neglected shells to rebuilt splendour. The very well renowned Skadaveli Guest House is somewhere in the middle of that scale, its entrance staircase looks like it was built on afterwards, has since had a disagreement and is slowly distancing itself!

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia collage

Encompassing the south-eastern part of the city, we loved just semi-aimlessly wandering through the organic street layout, admiring the picturesque dilapidation and stumbling on pretty little secluded public squares like this one with a romantic water fountain

Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path – Funicular, Mother Georgia and Narikala Fortress

Funicular collage, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Tbilisi Funicular railway started our half-day hike – we couldn’t stop ourselves taking panoramic photos of the city!

One of our favourite days in Tbilisi was joining the funicular from Old Town up to Mount Mtatsminda with a hike to the giant statue of Mother Georgia and on to the Narikala Fortress. The Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path afforded some fantastic panoramas of the city which we just couldn’t stop ourselves from photographing, especially as it was the first clear day we’d had!
Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path collage, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path. What a lovely day!


Mother Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

The giant Mother Georgia as vigilant and poised for defence as Armenia’s


Tbilisi, Georgia

Oh look.. another panoramic view of the city!


Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi, Georgia

Not much remains of the Narikala Fortress but some of the outer walls have been restored and are good to climb up for yet more panoramic views of the city. We were surprised just how big the fortress is

Deserters’ Bazaar

Tbilisi Market, Georgia

Giant barrels of pickled vegetables, Julie’s favourite!

Desertirebis Bazari or Deserters’ Bazaar gets its name from deserting soldiers who sold their weapons here in the early 1920’s. Today the main building is mainly a fruit market and sadly it has nothing to do with puddings (that’d be “desserters’ bazaar” – Julie). This is a huge market that sprawls out through streets in all directions from the railway station and even includes an old platform!

Tbilisi Market Stallholders collage, Georgia

As we found in Armenia, the people are keen to know where we’re from and invite us to try their produce or take their photo

Tbilisi Market, Georgia

As well as stand after stand of fresh fruit and vegetables, and herbs and spices, we spotted laminated Christian icons and the odd sweet stall. Most of the locals sell their own “chacha” a homemade grappa-like spirit which we were encouraged to chase with pickled tomato

Chronicle of Georgia

Chronicle of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Chronicle of Georgia. A bit different to a church I suppose

This one makes it onto our list for the sheer why?-ness of it.. a pagan-esque arrangement of columns faced with cast metal panels depicting scenes from the bible, the history of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity and is so very nearly complete.

Chronicle of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

Julie, Jo and I exploring the wackiness!

Sitting on the top of a hill near the city’s reservoir at the northern end of the metro line, it looks a lot like Stonehenge from a distance. We’d read that it’s by Georgian-Russian artist and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli whose works are often controversial, and that we’d seen one of his first public works – the giant Peter the Great Statue in the Moskva river in Moscow near the start of our adventures!

Open-Air Ethnographic Museum

Open-Air Museum of Ethnography, Vake, Tbilisi, Georgia

Another lovely day to be outside exploring

A short bus ride north to the outskirts of the city followed by a short uphill walk through Vake Park brought us to the excellent Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, a collection of relocated period dwellings from every region of Georgia. Our favourites were the the traditional farmhouses with their separate kitchen buildings out the back, the bakery which was lovely and warm, and the winery.

Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia

The museum has a lovely mix of dwellings and tradesmans buildings spread out over a wooded hillside

Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia

Clockwise from left: a fireplace in a single room dwelling; a guide gives us an explanation of the grape press and the various cleaning and ladling tools; a distinctive tower house from the northern Svaneti region; and an example of the traditional “Georgian Pampers” for girls!

One invention I have to mention is a smoking pipe like wooden apparatus sticking up in the middle of a baby’s cot. The attendant dressed in period costume explained that the parents would hang a hollowed out gourd underneath the cot and “arrange” the child in such a way that they wouldn’t have to put them in nappies, they’d just strap them into the cot so they couldn’t move. With a slightly different design for boys and girls she finished her description by calling them “Georgian Pampers!”

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia

The gold-topped Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi in the golden evening light

It was our last night in the capital, and as we’d seen the Catherldral from afar we weren’t that keen to pay it a visit but we mustered up the enthusiasm and we’re so glad we did – not only was our timing perfect for the evening sunlight, but we caught an impromptu a cappella from an unlikely looking group of men who could have just parked their works van outside after a day’s graft on a building site! Beautiful! Inside it’s as airy and spacious as the grounds it sits in. A fitting farewell to our time in Tbilisi.