Category Archives: Places

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.

Georgian Museums

We like to learn about the places we travel to and a visit to the country’s museums can often be a good way to do that. However in many areas of the world which are not as affluent as Western / Northern Europe, exhibits can sometimes be a bit tired or dusty, with difficult to read translations, if any. But not so in Georgia, we were consistently impressed by the quality of the museums with well laid out displays, professional lighting and coherent and informative English labelling.

Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi: Andrew checking out the well-lit and labelled displays; an early 19th century Persian painting of a girl with a tambourine (artist unknown)

The centre piece museum is without a doubt the Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi. The exhibitions ranged from Asian art to Georgia’s time under Soviet occupation to a fascinating gallery filled with skulls and skull fragments of human ancestors from the Stone Age. But the standout exhibit has to be the Archaeological Treasury filled with beautifully made golden grave goods from burials excavated in Georgia and dating back to the 3rd millenium BC. The side room containing the numismatic treasury was cleverly set up with two examples of each coin (where possible) one showing the face and the other the reverse.

The progression of skull shapes through hominid development, Stone Age exhibition in Museum of Georgia

Coins and intricate goldwork in the Archaeological Treasury of the Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, including the lion statuette which we recognised as the logo of the Bank of Georgia

The regional museums had nice twists showcasing what is special to their area of the country. The museum in Sighnaghi had a fairly standard exhibit of the archaeology and development of the area, but upstairs was a gallery of paintings by locally born national painter Niko Pirosmanashvili, also known as Pirosmani. We saw more of his pictures along with other Georgian artists in Tbilisi’s National Gallery.

National Gallery, Tbilisi (clockwise from left): ‘Yard Cleaner’ by Niko Pirosmanashvili; ‘Imeretian Landscape 1934’ by David Kakabadze; ‘Girl from the North’ by Iacob Nikoladze

In Svaneti the museum in Mestia is recently reopened in a state of the art building and displays many treasures from the region’s churches alongside culturally specific Svan items including clothing, weapons and local crafts.

The Svaneti History and Ethnography Museum in Mestia reopened in 2013 in this custom-built modern building

Svaneti History and Ethnography Museum (clockwise from top): icons from Svaneti’s churches; photograph of a late 19th century sanctuary door by Vittorio Sella; traditional Svan snow shoes

The final museum that we visited in Georgia is not under the aegis of the Georgian National Museums body, it is devoted to the country’s most infamous son, Josef Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. Stalin was born in Gori, 80km west of Tbilisi, and the museum contains the house where he was born and spent the first four years of his life, preserved on the spot where it originally stood, covered by a pavilion adorned with a Soviet hammer and sickle. The custom built museum is rather grand but slightly shabby and very cold, reminiscent of the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana. Its construction was actually started in 1951, two years before Stalin’s death, but didn’t open until 1957.

Stalin’s birthplace is preserved at the Stalin Museum in Gori

The displays were not particularly well signed but the whistlestop guided tour (included in the admission fee) was good at highlighting notable artefacts and giving an overview of the arc of Stalin’s life. For a man who is generally reviled in the west, it was strange to be in a place where the atrocities commited during his time in charge of the USSR are hardly acknowledged, the small corner devoted to those who died under his rule felt like a very token effort.

Stalin Museum (clockwise from top left): grand entrance staircase; the museum contains a large collection of photographs, letters and busts of Stalin; Stalin’s armoured train carriage contains a bathtub and an early air conditioning system; I was quite taken with the several carpet portraits

Somehow the gift shop at the Stalin Museum manages to be tacky and slightly disturbing at the same time

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.

Kutaisi, Georgia

Kutaisi is the second largest city in Georgia though much smaller than the capital Tbilisi. It has a relaxed, friendly vibe and we really liked the central area with its bustling park, elaborate fountain and excellent market. There are plenty of interesting sites within day trip distance too, so in order to do them justice as well as reach a few other places in central Georgia we hired a car for our final week.

Colchis fountain, Kutaisi

The Colchis Fountain stands in front of the Drama Theatre in the centre of Kutaisi. The Bagrati Cathedral is on the hilltop in the background

The Colchis Fountain forms a roundabout in the city centre and is decorated with large scale replicas of 2000 year old gold jewellery excavated from a tomb in nearby Vani. The Colchis civilization which was responsible for the jewellery has been linked to the Ancient Greek legends of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece. (Note to Kutaisi City Council: please make a pedestrian crossing to the fountain so that tourists can get a closer look at the sculptures without getting run over…)

The market was just as friendly as the one we visited in Tbilisi with sellers eager to chat, offer samples and let us photograph their wares

The Georgian Parliament was moved from Tbilisi to Kutaisi by the government of Mikheil Saakashvili to decentralise power from the capital and boost economically deprived Kutaisi. The futuristic building was opened in 2012. Tours inside need to be booked in advance so we just parked up and had a look around outside.

The new Georgian Parliament building in Kutaisi

On a hill overlooking the city centre stands Bagrati Cathedral, one of two UNESCO listed sites close to Kutaisi. The pale stone walls and green roof have been pretty much completely rebuilt after lying in ruins since 1692 when it was destroyed by the Ottomans. The grounds around it and the view over the city to the Lesser Caucasus mountains are beautiful but we found it rather staid inside.

Bagrati Cathedral has been almost completely rebuilt from its ruined state

Under the same UNESCO World Heritage listing as the Bagrati Cathedral is Gelati Monastery, just a 20 minute drive into the hills to the north-east of Kutaisi. We found this much more interesting, from the old monk poking about in the engine of his equally aged car just inside the entrance to the stunning frescoed interior of the main church. The monastery was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder (guess what he was famous for!) as a centre of culture and learning and it retained that reputation until the communists arrived in the 1920s.

Gelati monastery (clockwise from top): restoration works were being carried out during our visit with rather natty green roof tiles being added to the buildings; Andrew and Jo taking photographs beside the grave of King David the Builder; the small Church of St Nicholas stands on an unusual arcaded base

King David the Builder wanted to be buried in one of the monastery gates so that visitors would have to step on him to enter the complex. The gate is now permanently closed for passing through and today’s visitors take care to not step on the gravestone!

Frescoes dating from the 12th to 18th centuries cover the whole interior of the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati monastery

Just down the hill from Gelati is the tiny Motsameta Monastery. Even by Georgian standards its location is spectacular. The church is home to the tomb of two brothers who were killed during an 8th century massacre by the Arabs and who were miraculously carried up to the monastery site by lions. The faithful believe that their tomb grants wishes.

Motsameta monastery has a stunning location on the edge of a gorge above the River Tskaltsitela

As a break from the churches and monasteries we headed out to see the natural beauty of the area north of Kutaisi. Our first destination was the walkway along Okatse Canyon. Unfortunately I can’t tell you much about it as our GPS directed us onto a rough unsurfaced road which was bad enough, but by the time we reached the bridge at the bottom of the valley that it expected us to cross we decided to give it up and head on to our next stop instead.

Rough road detour north of Kutaisi: (top) with hindsight we should have turned around here instead of driving for half an hour to the river where we were forced to retrace our steps rather than crossing this very rickety looking bridge (bottom)

The Prometheus Cave is 1.4km long and the concrete walkway passes through six large chambers full of impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Entry is by guided tour only and we ended up with a Russian group rather than waiting over an hour for an English-speaking one. In the end that was probably better as we didn’t feel obliged to keep up to hear what the guide was saying and just hung back taking photos! Our Lonely Planet describes the lighting in the cave as ‘discreet’, the word I would use is lurid, but I suppose it creates some interesting effects on the rock formations. I found the Vivaldi background music less offensive as it served to dampen the echoes from the large group.

Prometheus Cave (clockwise from left): Andrew admiring some stalactites; the ‘discreet’ lighting on the rock formations; cross-section through a broken stalactite

Our final stop of the day was at the Sataplia Nature Reserve, an area of sub-tropical Colchic forest, home to birds, wildlife, and fossilised dinosaur footprints! Spring flowers were beginning to bloom on the forest floor and with the sun shining it was a very pleasant walk along the trail to the Sataplia Cave, which honestly was not particularly impressive after the Prometheus Cave.

Sataplia Nature Reserve: one minute you’re walking along a woodland path…the next, dinosaurs!

The word Sataplia means ‘place of honey’ and is so called because of the tradition of collecting honey from the bees found in this area. There are a couple of great viewpoints along the trail including a glass floored walkway which reminded us of the glass path that we walked on at Zhangjiajie in China. The one here was closed when we visited but we could get close enough to see the view.

Gorgeous view over Kutaisi and the Lesser Caucasus from Sataplia

The highlight of the Sataplia trail was the well-presented pavilion containing fossilised dinosaur footprints

70km east of Kutaisi is the small mining town of Chiatura. It’s very much off the standard tourist radar but we’d read that there are several still-functioning Soviet era cable cars linking the town centre with the mines and residential areas in the hills above so we stopped off for a brief visit to frighten ourselves with the rickety contraptions.

On the way to Chiatura we visited the Katskhi Pillar, a monastery atop a rocky outcrop. Apparently one monk still lives up there!

The first cable car we rode had a lady operator who was in charge of locking the door and stopping and starting the system. At the top we seemed to have reached a residential area though we didn’t venture far from the station. That car ran at 15 minute intervals and there was no charge or ticket. On the way down we were sharing with (among others) a chatty old lady who wasn’t going to let her lack of English or our lack of either Georgian or Russian stop her from finding out all about us!

Chiatura cable cars (clockwise from left): cable car arriving at the bottom station; inside the cable car, the lady in the leather jacket (centre left) is the operator; the stations must once have been grand but are now in the same level of disrepair as the cable cars

The second cable car we rode was on a particularly steep line. At the top we found a mine entrance and a spectacular view down to the town

Final mention should go to our rental apartment in Kutaisi. We didn’t quite believe the pictures on the booking website but it really was as grand as it looked!

Our rental apartment felt like a stately home!