Four Nights in Tbilisi
You might have read in my previous post for this years summer trip we chose the wonderful little country of Georgia to explore. Flying direct to the capital Tiblisi we started our trip in the city of contrasts. We stayed for four nights at the beginning of our trip, although the first night was almost morning by the time we arrived in town after a very late night landing.
Feeling Right at Home at Fabrika in Didube
Our stay started at Fabrika Hostel on the left bank of Tbilisi which provided us not only with one of the coolest family rooms we have ever had (we even had a private roof terrace) we also felt right at home in the district of Didube. This part of Tbilisi is still off most tourist maps and the mixture of charming houses mixed in with older buildings decorated with graffiti and street art reminded us very much of Shoreditch in London.
On the three days we had in Tbilisi at the start we took a walk across the extraordinary and unique Dry Bridge Market, past some of the modern buildings that graze the cityscape, including the Peace Bridge. We ended the first day at the monstrosity of the relatively new Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral, which even for many locals is considered an absolute eyesore that over towers the entire city from Mount Elia. However on our walk that day we discovered some charming streets, lined with twisted, angled wooden houses that are present throughout the country and that I immediately fell in love with.
Discovering the Ancient Cave Town at David Gareji
On our second day we did take a day trip out of town and discovered the ancient cave town at David Gareji with one of Jerome’s best friends from kindergarten. Her mum is a native Georgian living in Germany with her family and so usually is spending summers with grandparents just outside Tbilisi. Meeting them over coffee one weekend in Frankfurt in fact was the reason behind our choice of destination. It was great to see them a few times during our trip and to get a local insight into this beautiful country. We might have never ventured to David Gareji without them and looking back on it now it was by far the most interesting cave town we visited in Georgia. Jerome and his friend loved the freedom of unrestricted access to even the higher caves, which they reached without any troubles but not without us parents having to peel our eyes away and trying to keep our mouths shut to stop them from their climbing adventures.
Hike Through Vake Park and Turtle Lake
On our third and last day in Tbilisi at the start of our travels we walked through the disappointing New Town, along Rustaveli Avenue, which felt like we could have been in any capital city in the Western hemisphere. Taking the funicular we reached the hilltop Mtatsminda Park, a popular amusement park with all the well-known rides for kids ranging from a tall Ferris wheel to a scary roller coaster. However, for us the park was the start of a hike through the wilderness of Vake Park and on to Turtle Lake, a favoured spot for locals to cool off from the oppressive summer heat. We kept the rest of the sites of the old town for our return at the end of the holiday when we would stay in the heart of this wonderful district.
Uplistsikhe Cave Town and the Stalin Museum in Gori
Leaving Tbilisi behind we headed for the low Caucasus and the famous spa town of Borjomi. En route to Borjomi we stopped at Uplistsikhe, a rather touristy cave town easily reached from Tiblisi in a half day. After we discovered the Stalin Museum in Gori. The museum is a must for anyone who is interested in history although sadly the atrocities of the former Soviet leader are ignored and most of the signs are in Georgian. It did not fail to kindle some interest in Jerome though, wanting to know more about Georgia’s past and the monster that killed thousands of his people.
Next Up, Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
With our next stay In the heart of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park we found not only fresher air but also plenty of hiking opportunities and unusual places to explore. Two long treks led us high into the mountains, where colourful flower meadows and butterflies enchanted us. On another day a trip to Tabatskuri Lake was an adventurous drive high up into the remoteness of Georgia’s countryside, past Greek nomad camps, who live away from any civilisation herding cows and sheep on the slopes of the Trialeti mountain range. Tabatskuri Lake’s calm waters were perfect for wild swimming and its shore was surrounded by a mesmerising landscape and the nearby two extinct volcanoes were largely shrouded in clouds.
Day Trip to Vardzia
Borjomi also proved a useful base for wider day trips as during our stay we also visited the largest cave city, Vardzia, which was exciting to explore with its hidden tunnels and stairs deep in the canyon sides. We also got the chance to join a group of locals in an outdoor hot spring, a true Georgian experience, away from the busy streets of Borjomi and the main tourist attractions.
Two Nights in Kutaisi
Moving on I planned our next destination as Kutaisi, the second largest city in Georgia. I opted for a two night stay as it was not planned in my original itinerary for our trip. However we were all happy that I had changed plans, as we rather enjoyed our time there and with hindsight wished we had been able to extend the stay for at least another night.
The Industrial Town of Chiatura
Driving over to Kutaisi from Borjomi we stopped at the industrial town of Chiatura, a prosperous mining town under Stalin’s rule and the first place to have a system of interconnecting gondolas for public transportation. These gondolas were the main reason for our visit, as nowadays only a few of the rusting boxes remain in operation – crossing the deep valley to abandoned factories and crumbling ex-Soviet concrete apartment blocks. Our ride in one of these gondolas certainly was scarier than any fairground ride, however they display an authenticity of Georgian life that most tourists will not get the possibility to experience. Leaving Chiatura behind we also made a brief stop at the one pillar Monastery, two tiny churches built on a 40m tall cliff, only accessible by ladder which is one of the famous places in the country.
Discovering Dinosaurs and Limestone Caves Near Kutaisi
Kutaisi itself, despite its size, is a charming place reminding us of the flair of Italian towns with their palazzos and grand houses. We stayed at a little bed and breakfast right in the centre, a beautiful, traditional house, which made us feel right at home. From Kutaisi we time travelled back to the dinosaur ages, discovering fossilized footprints of these giants, a popular animal of most children, followed by venturing underground into the limestone caves at Sataplia Nature Reserve.
Waterfalls and the Mesmerising Martvili Gorge
Later on we went chasing waterfalls at Boda and paddled through magical light at the impressive Martvilli Gorge, a major tourist sight in Georgia. Sadly we did not have the time to explore the sister Okatse Gorge as well but instead we got lucky to discover a secret swimming spot favoured by the locals, which turned out to be just as mesmerising and far less busy than nearby Martvili Gorge. We would have loved more time to explore and swim in these wonderful canyons.
Our Stay in Stepantsminda, in the heart of the Kazbegi Area
Swapping the heat of the plains for the coolness of the High Caucasus Mountains almost felt like travelling to another country. After a long drive cross country the stunning Rooms Hotel was our luxury abode for five nights in Stepantsminda. In the heart of the Kazbegi area, it is a favoured destination for serious hikers and mountain lovers and it provided us with the perfect base to wander the trails surrounded by the snow capped peaks. We sampled the serene Artkhmo Valley, and enjoyed a trek from Juta up to the impressive Chaukhi massif.
Hikes Through Deserted Valleys
Sadly we had to abandon our hike to a glacier up and along the Amali River Valley, due to restrictions by Georgian Border Police, but instead we walked to the two Gveleti Waterfalls nearby and Chris and I finished the day with the surprisingly, strenuous hike to the Geregeti Church from Stepantsminda making it three hikes in one day! On our last day in Kazbegi we enjoyed a pleasant walk through the almost deserted Truso Valley with its bubbling mineral lakes, geysers, colourful mineral springs and stone towers.
Return to Tbilisi for the Last Few Days
Returning to Tbilisi with tired legs but awesome memories, we had a short break at Ananuri Castle and Church and well as sampling some fantastic kinkahli dumplings en route. For last four nights in Georgia we stayed in the stylish Communal Hotel on a quiet street in the older part of Tbilisi, away from the main tourist spots of Betlemi. It proved a good choice as it was quiet but in short walking distance from the Botanical Gardens. We spent an afternoon strolling along the winding paths there, taking a dip in the pool of the sulphur waterfall and zip lining high above the greenery.
Tbilisi Sea and Dashibashi Canyon
Back in the capital again, we met up with Jerome’s friend and were shown around the family’s winery, followed by a swim in Tbilisi Sea, the large water reservoir that provides the city with tap water. His friend also joined us on a drive to the little known Dashbashi Canyon and waterfalls south of the capital. On our last day in Tbilisi we spent an hour in one of the sulphur baths in Betlemi, a must for most visitors and the perfect experience to end our trip.
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