A Travellerspoint blog

Day six - the accidental tourist day

Sunday 1 September 2019

sunny 32 °C

After a good night’s sleep we decided that we’d take the narrow gauge mountain train to Bakuriani - a ski resort close by. We intended to get the 10.55 train as we couldn’t quite face getting up for the 07.15. As per usual we started with a visit to the Tourist information to check out exactly which station it went from. As luck would have it, two people who had travelled from Tbilisi on the same bus as us, and another German couple, were about to do a tour to the places we intended to visit on the following day. It turned out that the Rabati Castle/Vardzia tour had three places left so we totally changed our plans in a split second and opted from the tour that was leaving in five minutes.

The first stop was the Green Monastery - a very tranquil place that’s still used for services. There was one going on as we arrived. It was a lovely little church with interesting carvings and a bell tower. Without a headscarf, I couldn’t go into the church but could hear the singing from just outside. Our driver didn’t Speak English so we communicated with him in sign language. He seemed to be very laid back about timings so we came to an agreement about when we should return to the car with our new German friends. Next stop was Vardzia, the cave city that’s very near the Turkish and Armenian borders. It was a long drive but the scenery was interesting and constantly changing. Like many drivers we’ve encountered in the region, ours drove fast on bends, whilst talking and sometimes texting on his mobile phone. There were a few hands over eyes moments.

Vardzia was amazing. Although a popular tourist destination it didn’t have the usual tacky stalls by the entrance, just a cafe and a couple of souvenir stalls. You pay for your entrance fee and can also pay for a minibus to take you up. As the temperatures wer 30c plus and the proactive was totally in the sun we opted for the ride up. We also agree between the seven of us to pay for a guide, a lovely young girl who was very knowledgable and fun. It was strange to look around empty caves and then happen on ones with doors and flowers growing outside. This is because there are several monks who are currently living there. The cave system has tunnels and refuge areas from the time when there were incursions from invaders like the Turks and Persians. I’d definitely recommend a visit as you need to see it to fully appreciate how large and complex it is and a guide is worth every lari.

We walked back down to the car through the tunnels and went to have lunch in the cafe by the river. I had a simple vegetable salad which was very nice, as I needed a break from heavy food whilst the others tucked into Georgian fare such as khinkali, katchapuri etc. Although Vardzia was meant to be a 90 minute stop, I think we were there for nearer 2 1/2 hours.

Our next stop was the Khertvisi fortress - just up the valley from Vardzia. It is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia, built around the 2nd century. It has been taken over by Mongols and then Turks. Our party were the only people in the fortress. It was very peaceful with great views down the valley. We only had a short stop there as, beautiful as it was, it was a small and mostly in ruins. Our last stop, which meant retracing our steps, was Rabati Castle which is in the town of Akhaltsikhe. The castle has been restored extensively in 2011-2012 in order to attract more tourists to the area. The original site was built in the 9th century but only some of the later buildings survived the many invasions over the years. The first mosque was built here but there’s also a church right next to it. The grounds are beautifully kept and the buildings look great. Plenty of towers to clamber up and little gems like a room with walls totally covered with carved wood. As it was the end of the day, the site was quiet and pretty peaceful which added to the charm.

Finally, we made our way back to Borjomi and as we walked back to the guest house, we picked up some bits from the supermarket deli so that we could have a picnic meal and wine on the terrace. We decided to get up early the next day and catch the mountain train first thing in the morning at 7.15am to make the most of our time as it was going to be our last day in Borjomi.

Posted by Cath_Greig 08:27 Archived in Georgia Tagged tourist information vardzia rabati Comments (0)

Day five - Tbilisi to Borjomi

Saturday 31 August

rain 23 °C

Basically, our main focus was to get packed, eat breakfast and get out of the apartment. It was raining outside and puddles were beginning to form in the dug up road outside the bedroom window. Not a very inspiring start to the day. Our host Gnn came to pick up the key as we left and we trundled off to Liberty Square metro in the rain. Fast and Furious we’re still filming as we walked by. We will have to go and see the film although we suspect the car chase will probably be about 2 minutes long. Still no sign of Vin Diesel.

Negotiating the barriers and escalators with large cases was a bit of a challenge but we just about managed it. It’s a long ride down. Our destination was Didube where the Marshrutka heading for the north and west, set out from. The rain persisted but wasn’t heavy & the temperature wasn’t cold either. When we got out of the station, the car park was rammed with what seemed like hundreds of buses making it hard to know where to go. Luckily someone pointed us In the right direction and we managed to get onto a bus that was half full. The buses don’t leave until they are full so we had to wait a little while. Once full, the bus was about to set off when a woman got on last minute with no seat available. Once we left the bus station the driver stopped and got a tiny chair from the boot and put it in the space between two seats. We suspect that this isn’t even legal in Georgia, a country where rules seem prett relaxed, especially on the road.

The journey took 2 hours which went quickly. The scenery wasn’t that exciting until we reached the mountainous area - vast flat plains are just not scenic enough. Borjomi at first sight seemed like a nice little town with a river running through and lots of greenery. The bus stop was very close to our new home - Guest House Casa on Saakadze Street. A bit of a trudge up the hill and we arrived to where a group of excited children were playing happily. Our hosts are lovely and made us feel very welcome. We were given a recommendation for lunch and headed off for an explore of the town. Pesvebi restaurant was on the other side of the river on Erekle Street. It had the usual Georgian fare with a nice terrace overlooking the river. I had salad with corn bread and cheese which was pretty good. From there we went to the Inka cafe for coffee and were also tempted by the cake - which maybe wasn’t a good thing for my waist line.

From there it was a straight run to the mineral water park. There is a small entry fee to go into the grounds. We were going to check out the sulphur pools which were about 4k along the track that runs alongside the river. To get there you have to run the gauntlet of the rather rundown amusement park and the general hawkers that can be found at sites like this. There is also a cheesy ‘Love Bridge’ where newly weds can have their photo taken. This seems to be a thing in Georgia - at Gergeti there were couples having their wedding photos taken against a background of dramatic mountain scenery. The worst exhibit seemed to be the wax works which apparently is the ‘best’ in Georgia. I beg to differ after seeing what was outside.

We didn’t make it to the sulphur pools but went up in the cable car instead which was pretty old unlike the modern ones we rode in Tbilisi. Not sure when it was built but it certainly has a touch of the soviets about it. At the top is a Ferris wheel but we declined to go on it and decided to take the cable car back down and make our way back. Apparently, Borjomi is famous for it’s mineral water which is a big part of their export market. None of us have tasted it yet mostly because of previous experiences of spa water.

Just after we got back to the guest house, the heaven’s opened and there was an absolute downpour. We took refuge, had a bit of down time before venturing out again. Nick had found a restaurant that had been highly recommended but when we got there it was closed. We went into the next place we came across - Cafe Tourist. The people just leaving we’re really singing it’s praises so we thought we’d give it a go. Usual fare but my bean stew was very tasty. We also had to sit at a small table with Joseph Stalin looking down at us. We weren’t entirely sure if it was an ironic statement or whether the family were die-hard Stalinists. Despite that, I’d definitely recommend the place - it’s on Nodar Dumbadze Street close to the Borjomi puppet theatre.

Feeling full to the brim after two pretty big meals in one day, we made our way back and rewarded ourselves with a good night’s sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 05:55 Archived in Georgia Tagged waterfalls food borjomi Comments (0)

Day Four - in and around Tbilisi

Friday 30 August 2019

sunny 26 °C

The weather forecast wasn’t brilliant so we decided to stick around the city & do some of the things we had on our to do list. I got up quite early & went on a hunt for a bakery. I looked online & it showed a couple close to our apartment - but I just couldn’t find them. It was strange walking up and down the street with no smell of baking bread or customers hurrying away with their loaves - no sign of a bakery at all. Puzzling. I just had to give up.

We are tending to have quite late starts so by the time we had breakfast (minus bread) it was after 11am. We planned on visiting the covered market but our first stop was at our fave destination - the tourist information in Pushkin Square. We wanted to double-check where the Borjomi marshrutka buses went from as we were going to be travelling there the following day. We also found out about the best metro stop for the covered market. The TI staff have always been really helpful.

This was our first time on the metro - the nearest station being Liberty Square next to where they were filming Fast and Furious. The tickets are loaded onto a card similar to an Oyster card. The cost was 2 lari which is refundable and all journeys - no matter how far - cost 0.50 lari. That’s equivalent to 14p. The covered market is close to Central station which also gave us a chance to scope out where the left luggage is and train platforms as I will be taking the night train from there on the 13th. The trains and left luggage are both on level one - the rest of the building is a shopping mall and food court. To cross the road we had to use the underpass which was absolutely crammed with stalls. It reminded me of a Turkish bazaar - there was hardly room to move. Also, we got totally disorientated and couldn’t find the exit. Nightmare. Once we managed to escape the maze we headed to the market. The covered market is very up together but it has spilled out onto the streets so that virtually every available space is taken up with stalls from the tiny unofficial looking ones to stalls laden with fruit, cheese, bread or household items etc. Nick tried kbac - a drink sold on virtually every street corner from a barrel. We had no idea what it was. It tasted like prune juice but apparently it is made of stale rye bread. You learn something new every day. Raisins, fruit and herbs can be added so I guess it will be different depending on the producer. We also got a coffee which was instant unfortunately but the cake was delicious. No idea what was in it though.

We did a lot of browsing and came away with a coffee pot, eye shadow and a kilo of plums sold by the most miserable person on the planet. We then got the metro again to head to the flea market. The station stop of Marjanishvili brought us into an area that felt very different from the old town & other bits we had been in. Felt more French with wide boulevards. Finally, we also found a decent coffee place where they served Arabic coffee. The owner was from Egypt and very friendly. We completely misjudged the walk to the flea market - our next destination. We tried to walk along the river - big mistake. The roads on either side of the river do not make any concessions for pedestrians - there is nowhere to cross, pavements run out and we found ourselves having to walk along the road. Luckily a good samaritan stopped for us and gave us a lift to the flea market - dropping us off at a crossing so that we could get across without dicing with death. That man was a saint!

The flea market is a mix of paintings, handmade goods, general tat and soviet memorabilia. The only things that tempted me were some beautiful handmade bags and amphora and other terracotta pottery. We stopped for a drink by the river at a waterside cafe called Book corner, on the other side of the bridge from ?. I didn’t eat there but Nick and Lindsay seemed to enjoy the food and ii has a lovely setting with nice toilets - always a bonus.

Our next stop was the cable car which meant a trudge back towards Rike Park via the peace bridge, trying to retrace the route that we took to Fabrika, but in reverse. The cable car is very new and cost 2.50 lari one way. We just needed to load a bit more money on our travel card. Great views from the top. Nick had a go on the zip wire to the bottom of the botanical gardens We decided to follow him into the gardens - 4 lari per person. We were expecting something a little more beautiful as we have visited some great botanical gardens around the world. The worst bit was the walk back up the hill which was steep and longer than Thunderbolt steps in Bristol.

A Stroll back to the apartment, quick freshen up and we were out again. The craft beer sign we saw in a side street led us nowhere so we went straight to Cafe Leila on Ioane Shavteli street. It’s got lovely decor inside - a Persian feel to it. Although the food was Georgian, it had a slightly eastern twist and quite spicy. We sat outside and on hearing bagpipes, realised that the Scots were in town. Apparently Scotland were playing a warm up rugby match against Georgia the next day. There was a lot of raucousness going on! Finally, we made our way back to the Aqua bar near our apartment for Chacha and baklava before finally turning in as we were leaving the next day and our bags still needed to be packed.

Posted by Cath_Greig 11:31 Archived in Georgia Tagged traffic markets car cable tbilisi chacha Comments (0)

Day three - the long road to Kazbegi

Thursday 29th August 2019

sunny 31 °C

The day was taken up with a trip to Kazbegi. We’d booked a tour to go by minibus with a group and guide. This is a well worn route with lots of tour buses plying their way up and down as well as lorries that are making their way to and from Russia on the Georgian military highway. Reading other people’s blogs, it sounded as if the road is pretty poor and narrow but it was metalled the whole way with only a couple of sections with multiple hairpin bends.

Our guide was called Mike and due to the international clientele he had to explain everything in Russian and English. We were the only English people on board with others from Nigeria, Russia, Poland and Spain. The tour stops off at various points en route, partly to enjoy the scenery, and partly to try and get us to buy things like honey. Our first stop was at a major reservoir and then we stopped at a honey stall next to the confluence of two rivers - one dark and one lighter in colour due to the minerals held in the water. The honey was interesting, particularly as quite a few wasps had managed to die a sugary death in each sample. I liked the chestnut best although it wasn’t such a hit with the others.

Lunch was at a restaurant favoured by tour companies. The food was fine and it arrived quickly, which is probably the point. We then carried onto the ski resort of Gudauri where the Friendship monument can be found. The Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument was built to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk and friendship between Soviet Georgia and Soviet Russia. Seems ironic considering that there seem to be ongoing tensions at the moment. It’s overlooking the Devil’s Valley and filled with a mural showing scenes from Georgian and Russian history.

A small tourist trap has built around the site with hawkers and interestingly, loads of people selling paragliding lessons flying over the valley. Nick & Lindsay would probably have done it if we weren’t on a tour. I wasn’t so enthusiastic plus my travel insurance wouldn’t cover it! Apparently, although I didn’t use it, the WC was stomach churning.

Last stop was the Holy Trinity Church, close to the village of Gergeti. We had to swap the minibus for several Mitsubishi people carriers. It was quite busy at the top & - like a mosque, you have to wrap a skirt around you and cover your head. Widow Twanky rides again. It was a small church with the usual religious icons. It’s in a stunning setting under Mount Kazbek with a monastery next to the church. Some of the people on the bus left us at Stepantsminda (the name Kazbegi is now known as). We felt that this was something that we would have liked to do because,, although we were travelling through amazing scenery, we weren’t engaging with it in the same way that you might if walking/clambering through. This is something we would like to do at upcoming places. On the way back we did one last stop at Anauari, a fortress situated by the Aragvi River, not far from Zhinvair reservoir. This was another small church the most dramatic aspect being the dog fight that kicked off with snarling and biting which was terrifying - everyone had to jump on the wall in case they got caught up in the carnage. The only way to break it up was by someone throwing a stone which broke it up.

We were back very late so we quickly freshened up before going to the nearest recommended restaurant - Gvimra - at the end of our street. The food was fine but not that exciting considering that it was pricier than everywhere else that we’ve been to so far. Once we had eaten, we just had a few metres to stagger back to get ready for bed after such a full day.

Posted by Cath_Greig 12:31 Archived in Georgia Tagged kazbegi honey gergeti Comments (0)

Day two - getting around Tbilisi

Wednesday 28th August 2019

sunny 32 °C

Woke up earlier than my travel companions so went for a stroll. It was getting hot at 8am but the streets were quiet, no-one trying to sell day trips. Found a coffee place that was open but no Turkish coffee which is what I was hankering after. Once I was back at the apartment, the others were stirring. They are still winding down from work - something I’m not having to deal with.

After breakfasting, it was nearly midday by the time we left the place to explore. First stop - find out from tourist information about recommended tours and then take the funicular up to the radio tower. The funicular is very long and involves a stop off point halfway where people can get off to visit the nearby church. At the top of the hill which is 710 metres high, there is a Park called Mtatsminda. We hadn’t researched it so didn’t realise it actually had water slides, Ferris wheel etc at the top. It was so hot we decided to go on the log flume as we thought we’d get splashed a bit. In reality, we got absolutely soaked. My dress stuck to me like glue & it certainly cooled us down. No wonder we were told to put our bags in a locker. It was fun to watch other gullible people getting on not knowing what was going to hit them. Nick and I did the ghost train- usual stuff - and the Ferris wheel was great but quite scary as it was windy and the noise was off putting. Great views though. Tickets for the rides had to be bought individually from a box office close to the start of the rides.

Once we returned via the funicular it was time to get back for lunch and a siesta, booking a tour to Kazbegi for the following day. We were seemingly still running on UK time - 3 hours behind Georgia - so it was nearly 8pm before we ventured out again. Our destination was Fabrika via a craft beer bar called Crafted. Very friendly staff & knowledgable - the bar was off the pedestrian area of David Aghmashenebeli Avenue. This was the first street that we’d walked down where we were harassed by staff trying the get us into their cafes. It was pretty relentless and a relief to get into the relative quiet of the bar.

Fabrika is an interesting place, part hostel, part shared office/artist space, gallery etc. It was chock full of trendy young people of all nationalities. We managed to grab a table but realised it wasn’t the best place to have food so had a beer in the outside courtyard soaking up the buzzy atmosphere. We made our way back to a restaurant that we’d seen close to the Saarbrucken Bridge called Tiflis restaurant. The food was great but we managed to over order - we’re not quite used to portion sizes here yet.

Walking back at after midnight we suddenly started to gather a pack of dogs. It started on the bridge where one of the mad dogs was chasing any car that came over. No idea why it was doing that but it was really dangerous. As we walked along the river they started to follow us so we had six dogs in tow. We think they were attracted to Nick - the dog whisperer. We finally shook them off as they dropped off one by one until there were only two by the time we got to the Peace Bridge. One dog gave up on the stairs but one kept going, luckily for us, it started to follow a couple as we turned into our street. We had a vision of waking up and finding the whole pack outside the front door! It’s morning now and we haven’t checked yet so you never know...

Posted by Cath_Greig 22:00 Archived in Georgia Tagged parks tbilisi Comments (0)

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