Ananuri, Georgia | Visiting the Fortress and Churches at Ananuri

Ananuri church Georgia stone cross

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A Popular Sight and/or Day Trip From Tbilisi.

Ananuri, a small fortress complex with two churches sits on the calm shores of the Zhinvali Reservoir, an hour drive from Tbilisi.  The churches have become a popular sight and stopping point, either as part of a day trip from the capital or en route to or from Gudauri and Stepantsminda along the Georgian Military Highway.

A Scenic Drive

We left our beautiful hotel in Kazbegi after a last breakfast on the terrace with views of Mount Kazbek and it did finally show its full glory to us that morning!   The drive back over the pass did not seem as stressful as the drive up but we still took time for another brief stop at the Georgian-Russian Friendship Memorial in Gudauri, this time the sun shone brightly and the light was perfect for taking photos of the colourful tiles and surrounding mountainscape.  We drove on towards Tbilisi, the final stop of our three week long trip to Georgia.

Zhinvali Reservoir

No one really enjoys sitting in a car for too long, especially children, and therefore we had already decided that on our return we would take a break at Ananuri.  Ananuri was once a sleepy village with a fortress set deep in the valley, but when a damn was built creating a vast Zhinvali reservoir for a hydroelectric station, the villagers had to pack up their possessions and move further up the side of the river valley closer to the fortress. Thankfully, the fortress and its churches were spared after large protests, the original plan proposed a higher damn that would have also swamped the fortifications.  The town now benefits from the passing tourists supplementing their farming incomes.

Souvenir and Handicraft Stalls

The spacious square outside the Ananuri church complex was covered with souvenir stalls, selling local handicrafts and produce.  Browsing the stalls I discovered weird and unusual wares fabricated of beeswax. The owner had created cups, jugs and candles decorated with flowers, animals and religious figures.  The faces of a bearded moustached man caught my eye and I ended up buying one, the only significant souvenir I took home from this trip.

Entrance Fees and Opening Times

The entrance to the fortress and the churches can be found down a narrow dirt track through the crenelated wall behind the stalls.  A visit is free of charge and the site is open daily from 09:00 to 20:00.  

Incredible Decorations

Once inside I immediately noticed the incredible external decorations on the church. A cross stands on the back of two dragons, between two vines.  Two odd-looking moustachioed angels and lions can also be seen. My favourite decoration was a pomegranate tree that may easily be missed due to its hidden location next to one of the ancient towers.  The walls also contain Georgian scripts, the curvy design almost an artwork in itself.

Inside the Church

Stepping inside the larger church was slightly disappointing, I had expected grand and fine frescoes similar to the ones we had seen in Vardzia, but a fire in the 18th century had destroyed most of the original interior. However a few paintings survived and the altar with its stuccoed pillars displays the last judgement day.  The second church was closed during our visit but I believe is equally spartan.

Climbing the Fortress Walls and Tower

The boys had stayed outside their interest in churches is never high. They much preferred exploring the grounds of the fortress, looking for the secret hiding place by the bell turret where soldiers had lurked before attacking intruders and was mentioned in an article, to their disappointment the entrance had been largely closed off.  Towards the back of the fortress they found a walkway along the crenelated walls leading to the “Intrepid” Tower. Climbing the steep steps of the top, we passed through bare chambers with wooden floors (large gaps made a walk across almost impossible) and narrow shooting holes.

Top of the Tower

A climb to the top of the tower is worth it for those free of vertigo for the panoramic views of the lake and the surrounding hills the churches’ roofs and towers.  Especially kids will enjoy the adventure of being transported back in time to imagine medieval knights and battles when climbing the tower, a rare treat these days, in other parts of the world it would be closed off for safety reasons.

Swimming in Zhinval Reservoir

The lake’s shore was clearly visible and had widened due to the hot weather and lack of rain.  Some people flock to its pebbled banks for a swim in the clear water, it is advisable to stay in the area near Ananauri, as other parts of the Zhinvali Reservoir can be a bit swamp-like.  

Lunch at Jashnagiri Natakhtari Restaurant

Although the sound of a refreshing swim sounded tempting we decided to finish our interesting visit at Ananuri and move on towards Tbilisi with the aim to have lunch at Jashnagiri Natakhtari Restaurant near Misaktsieli.  They serve the tastiest khinkalies (especially those filled with mushrooms) we had during our entire stay in Georgia, and we had stumbled on it on the outbound journey by chance.  We were so impressed we had decided to make sure we had a second visit on our return route.

Our Stay in Tbilisi’s Old Town

The traffic was building up by the time we reached Tbilisi, we were glad to escape the hubbub and found our little hotel at the top of the Old Town Quarter, the Communal Hotel.  We had been concerned it might have been noisy, but it was on a small side street away from the traffic and tourists with a delightful exterior covered in plants.  It had been newly renovated from a classic original villa with an interesting but tasteful mix of original and modern.  By now a bit hungry again and somewhat weary from the drive we made a short walk to sit on the vine covered terrace of a local wine bar Volver that served excellent food, and enjoyed a moment to relax with coffee, lemonade and cake.

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Where we stayed during our travels in Georgia:

Tbilisi:

Fabrika and Communal

Borjomi – Lower Caucasus Mountains

Golden Tulip

Kutaisi

Grand Piano

Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) – High Caucasus Mountains

Rooms

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