Healing Water and the Ancient Tsar’s Sulphur Baths
Borjomi is a charming and in parts vibrant spa town, nestled in a peaceful spot in the Mtkvari river valley among the rolling uplands of the Lower Caucasus Mountains. Its healing springs and the ancient Tsar’s Sulphur Baths were once only accessible to members of royal families and privileged society, but they have now become a popular tourist destination over the last few years. Especially during the sweltering summer months, Borjomi retains a more temperate climate compared to the rest of Georgia, attracting visitors from near and far, including a surprisingly large number escaping the Middle East heat. It also serves as a base for hikers, wishing to discover the many trails in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Due to its longstanding role as a holiday destination its facilities are aimed more at tourists, with a bigger selection of accommodation, restaurants and other attractions than some of the other places we visited during our stay in Georgia, like Kazbegi and Kutaisi.
Hotels and Other Accommodation in Borjomi
It is surprising, therefore, that hotels, hostels and other accommodation are harder to find in the town than expected. Maybe I was just too picky, shunning the larger hotel chains that have started to get a cut of the increasing popularity, seeking a hotel that combines style with price and comfort. Struggling to find the right compromise on charm and price I did in the end book a suite in the charming Golden Tulip Hotel. This building is also called the “Firuze Palace”, the stunning building was built by the General Consul of Iran at the end of the 19th century as a retreat. From the outside it resembles the wooden architecture of nearby villas, but the main balcony features mesmerising, arabesque glass decorations. In addition some of the windows feature multi-coloured, stained glass projecting fantastical, light effects. Admittedly, the suite was a splurge for us but the extra living room gave Jerome his private space and us some privacy, after sharing a hotel room in Tbilisi.
A Prime Spot Near Ekaterina Park
The Golden Tulip Hotel, occupies a prime spot opposite the gates to Ekaterina Park, home to fountains and taps spewing the famous Borjomi water that is sold throughout Georgia as one of the finest bottled, sparkling waters. An abundance of fair ground rides are dotted throughout the park, along the Borjomka stream leading to the Tsar’s Sulphur Baths. At the park’s gate stands the stylish Art Deco terminal for the cable car frequently transporting excited tourists to the arboretum and Ferris wheel on the upper level. Although Jerome would have loved to ride the gondola or head for one of the rides at the fun park after our arrival in town, we wanted to find out more about the hiking and trekking routes in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park as a first priority.
Souvenirs and Local Products
The hotel had recommended a visit to the local tourist office for hiking maps and more information on hikes in and around Borjomi, although we were a bit surprised that they did not have better information in the hotel. We set out on stroll towards the town centre, past many souvenir shops, boasting local product and objects, including large jars of golden honey and knitted, woollen scarves,. The stalls lined the road in front of charming houses, some of them beautifully renovated, others left to crumble under the elements, most likely due to lack of funds. Crossing the stream we strolled along a shady path teaming with stands and rides for younger children.
Tourist Information Office
Traversing the single track train line that skirts the river and then turning straight after the bridge that crosses the tumbling, murky waters of the Mtkvari river we reached a manicured area and the tourist information. Be aware that the tourist information on Google maps is a tour agency not the government-funded tourist office. Sadly the clerk at the tourist information office was not very knowledgeable about hiking in the area(!), but he did offer us some free town maps, which proved to be of no value to our hiking ventures. The only useful information that he could give was that if we wanted to explore the National Park around Borjomi on foot we would need to get a permission to enter the protected area from the ranger’s headquarters at the other end of the town.
The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park Administration
The offices of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park administration are located just past Borjomi cemetery, along the main road leading to Likani. So we set out along the high street just as the heavens opened for a summer shower. After a long walk through thunder and rain we reached the office just before closing (opening times are 09:00-18:00). Here we found a passionate and knowledgeable ranger, who happily provided us with our permits for impeding hikes and a proper area map. The permit is free, although passports need to be provided. A detailed map can also be purchased for 5GEL, however this map only covers the Nature Reserve and not any hiking routes to the other side of the river, towards Bakuriani!
Poor Information for Tourists in Georgia
I am sure that as tourism develops the information process will improve. Compared to other destinations even in developing countries we have rarely encountered such a laid back and chaotic attitude to such an important source of revenue for the county. Throughout our trip we found the government sponsored information and the availability of maps and guide information poor. This gap is being filled by commercial ventures keen to sell you their guides and services, fine if you want to pay for that but frankly in a lot of cases it is not necessary and not what the tourists want. I hope the Georgian government will recognise this and in time improve the tourist information services.
Dinner at Restaurant Pesvebi
Happy with our permit and hiking map in hand we returned to the vibrant centre of Borjomi as the rain cleared. We already had our eyes on one of the restaurants and headed straight there, our tummies already grumbling. Thankfully by then the shower had passed and we got a seat outside on the terrace of Pesvebi Restaurant. The eatery offered a diverse selection of local, Georgian dishes, the menus illustrated with photos made it easier to choose for us! The food was delicious and generous and we would return to Pesvebi again on other days for more… Over dinner we decided to start our hiking the next day with one of the shorter routes – the circular “Adventure Trail” via Sadgeri and the Tsar’s Baths for a dip in the healing, sulphur waters.
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