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We’ve spent the last months in Georgia without really seeing anything. Our work schedules were insane and wintertime means that most hikes are not accessible anyway. Now that spring is just around the corner, I had thought of something nice for Aydin’s birthday: a few days visiting Western Georgia, or better said Samtskhe-Javakheti, but this time, no tent and no nights in the car. Instead I’m treating us to two fancy hotels, one in a palace in Borjomi and one in a castle in Akhaltsikhe. It’s as much a gift for him as it is for myself.
Unfortunately my organs decide to crash the party and due to a ruptured appendix, a week in a hospital in Tbilisi and a few weeks of aftercare in Europe, we start Aydin’s birthday trip to Samtskhe-Javakheti a month after his actual special day (which he spent moving all the stuff out of our flat and into a hotel room and watching Marvel films in bed all night long while raiding the minibar).
The good thing about posh hotels is that they usually don’t piss about when you have to change your dates. In all fairness, I did have a good excuse. So now it’s mid-May, and we’re finally on the road again! Our first stop in Samtskhe-Javakheti is Borjomi.
Borjomi is a small resort town in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia and home to the famous Borjomi mineral water – Georgia’s number one export product! Other than that you can find the former summer palace of the Romanov family here (y’know, Tsardom and such). Forget about getting as much as a look of it though. It’s currently the official residence of the President of Georgia and therefore sadly completely off-limits.
In the middle ages, Borjomi was an important point within a network of routes leading west, south and east; you can still find quite a lot of fortresses or better said their remains dotted around Borjomi and lining the road towards Akhaltsikhe. After Russian annexation, baths and parks were built and Borjomi became a popular summer residence for aristocracy. All the Royal buildings were turned into sanatoria under communist rule. Strolling through Borjomi today you can see a few of the remaining grand buildings; some abandoned and some turned into hotels.
We’ve already been here before for a weekend in winter and walked through the super cute Central Park. Nostalgia hits hard there, with its little bridges and old fun fair rides. You can fill up your bottle with the famous Borjomi water there, and even pop into some hot (=lukewarm) springs if you venture deep enough into the park! We’d usually be the first ones in but this time we have an actual spa area to try out so we make our way to check into the Golden Tulip Borjomi. My jaw dropped when I first saw this place right next to the park entrance in December.
The stunning building called Blue Palace Firuza (the latter means turquoise in Persian) is over 120 years old and was originally built for the Iranian Consul (or, as rumour has it, for his girlfriend). You can definitely see that. The palace is a magnificent mix of mainly Persian but also Georgian and European architecture. Its intricate details, stained-glass windows and mirrors are mind-blowing. An absolute highlight of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region! Stepping inside feels like walking into a different century.
Five minutes after checking in, staff knocks on our door and presents us a massive brownie with a generous slab of ice cream and a candle on top. Gilotsav dabadebis dghes! We’re touched that they haven’t forgot Aydin’s big day and dive right into the sweet monstrosity. After all, we’ve planned a big walk through Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park for tomorrow and need some calories to burn off!
After testing the spa area we’re feeling so posh that I even throw some lipstick on before we go out to have our post-birthday dinner. It turns out that I’m slightly overdressed for what’s on offer in Borjomi. We’re in what feels like someone’s living room but despite the questionable interior design, the food’s delicious – as usual in Georgia. Welcome to Cafe Tourist.
We end the evening with a fancy cocktail in the deserted hotel bar and rise bright and not so early the next day to discover that the killer brownie is on the breakfast menu. While Aydin can’t bring himself to this level of decadency at half past 9 in the morning, I don’t have any reservations. Big walk ahead and everything…
We’ve heard so many good things about Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park at the edge of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region and are beyond excited to experience the beauty ourselves now! Since we only have time for a day hike, I’ve decided on trail no. 6, the Footprint trail from Likani entrance to Kvabiskhevi. It’s 14km with an elevation gain of 800m. Plenty challenging for us since we haven’t been hiking, or moving in any way for ages. Blame it on the (lack of) appendix. The trail is also under the 12 best hikes in Georgia on Trekking in the Caucasus. That should be proof of quality too!
You need to register to hike in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park but we can’t find the office and figure we’ll be able to do so at the entrance. Said entrance is a shed at the end of a dirt road. There’s a man in front pointing us to drive further on what looks like a hiking path. After crossing a stream (“No, this can’t be right, can it?), we get to the parking lot. Three lari per day but with no one here to collect it, we start off. On the map, there’s a spring in two kilometers which we desperately need. We start the Footprint trail, thirsty and with too many brownies in our bellies.
The bear categorically does not step in the mountain lodge. So I guess you are wondering what these stepping bears are all about? Well, it’s an Austrian countryside expression for something happening, like to find out where it’s cracking. Wo steppt der Bär?! Where is the bear stepping?! It’s perfect and the idea of bear […]
Another day, another adventure. Yesterday we had a chill day. After running all the way down from the top of Niesen, our legs were completely jelly. We spent the whole day lazing around, waddling like penguins to the toilet and planning today. Well, Caroline did most of the planning. She has selected a hike starting […]
We’ve come all this way through the Alps, from Austria, through Switzerland and now France. Soon we will be leaving behind the mountains for some sun and beach life. We couldn’t possibly head to the coast, leaving the mountains without experiencing the mightiest of them all: Mont Blanc. After all, it was one of the […]
As we get closer to where the spring is marked on the map, we see that a little shed is built on top of it. And its door is locked. No way of getting in, even though I’m trying for a good 10 minutes because we relied on filling our bottles here. Eventually I give in and accept that this will be a very dry hike (Man, was I wrong). After a few minutes we hear a sound from the woods that sounds like a leaking pipe. And sure enough, someone equally desperate must have poked a whole through the pipe coming down from the mountain. It doesn’t stop water from flowing further down, just gives enough to fill up. Sure was a true expert at work here!
We realise pretty quickly that the whole ordeal was pretty unnecessary. About a quarter of the way into the Footprint trail, as we’re zigzagging through the woods, thunder rolls closer. It’s getting dark and the sky is opening above us. Trying to find cover underneath the trees is utterly futile so we just walk on while the sky is emptying bucket after bucket of water on us. I repeat the most important phrase I’ve learnt in the UK over and over in my head: Good weather, nice day! At least I can test if my new jacket is truly waterproof…
The rain comes and goes and stops just as we get to the highlight of the Footprint trail so we can at least enjoy the stunning 360° views over Samtskhe-Javakheti while walking along the ridge through masses of wildflowers. Drenched as we are we don’t linger for long, also because it’s taken us much longer than planned. It’s our first hike since my surgery and although I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been as a result, I’m also at my weakest. Thus we make our way down through the dense forest while the thunderclouds start growling again.
The last part of the hike takes us through a valley besides a stream and it’s one of the prettiest scenery I’ve ever seen. In the midst of the idyllic landscape there’s a cute little picnic area where we have our first and only break before moving on quickly again due to time constraints.
It’s 7pm when we get to the exit but to our surprise, at this end of the Footprint trail there’s a proper national park hut. Including two guys who want to see our “ticket”. Knowing full well we don’t have any, I smile broadly and pretend to not understand but they’re resourceful and ring a lady from the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park office. She speaks fluent English and scolds us for not registering. It’s not to make money but for our safety! I contritely admit that this was a bit reckless; it wasn’t about the money for us either, just the fact that we couldn’t find the office, I swear. Anyway, we’re allowed to leave on good terms and walk into the tiny village of Kvabiskhevi to find the church where our taxi, organised by the fancy hotel, will pick us up and drive us back to our car.
Except that we can’t find the church. Don’t ask me how because there are literally only two streets in the village but we just can’t. We stop the driver down on the main road, explain where we want to go without much hope of him actually driving us through the labyrinth of dirt roads but he does so without a word of complaint. Time to get our car back across the stream and then head back to Borjomi for a well deserved hot brownie with ice cream and a last whirlpool visit!
Morning comes and after our final complimentary breakfast brownie, we’re off, going west! Our next stop is Akhaltsikhe and its fabulous Rabati Castle, one of the main reasons why we wanted to visit Samtskhe-Javakheti. We’ve seen pictures of its golden roof on an advertising screen a while ago and knew we had to see it. Even cooler: You can actually stay INSIDE Rabati castle! It wasn’t even expensive so we remain skeptical until check-in. Driving through Mtkvari valley is absolutely spectacular, with Borjomi National Park to one side and the river bed, dotted with fortress ruins, on the other. Heavy rainfalls unfortunately mean that the water colour turns to brown though…
Akhaltsikhe itself doesn’t seem particularly interesting from a first glance but oh my, the sight of Rabati Castle on the hilltop and the view from the hill are nothing short of impressive! We drive up, park and march through the gates and are suddenly in a different world. We had no idea that it was independence day in Georgia today! The castle is filled with people of all ages, a lot of them in costumes, a giant stage, food stalls and entertainment. We’re a bit overwhelmed and make our way to the hotel. It’s in the middle of all the hustle of bustle, yay!
It’s late and dark, we arrive at our Couchsurfing host’s place hours later than expected. Our journey to Annecy was a bit of a disaster. We’ve kept them updated but we still feel really uncomfortable for keeping them up so late. Yann and Cecile are super friendly though and make us a tea as soon […]
It’s sunny in Wolfgangsee today. The first sun we’ve seen in days! Slightly frustrating because we’re leaving and the temptation to stay is strong – but we must press on, we’re couchsurfing tonight in Salzburg. We’re a bit nervous, it’s our first time couchsurfing together and the first time either of us is doing so […]
Lucerne is our end destination after a day of epic hitch-hiking-road-tripping through Switzerland. We’re exhausted, hungry and tired but also immensely grateful for the experience and soon doze off. Feeling refreshed the next morning, we get ourselves ready for a day in Lucerne. This takes a while. After all, we’re in a city now and […]
After a rather cold check-in, we discover that a. the rooms face into the courtyard and that’s a huge relief, and b. this place looks like a set off Game of Thrones! We feel truly regal, drink a very fancy Nescafe (A kettle in the room is a posh thing, right?) and enter the fray downstairs. We watch some chess and arm-wrestling competitions for teenagers before becoming fascinated with the dance shows on stage. Georgian dancers are ace! In between the different dances, there are polyphonic choirs performing. The whole scene with the backdrop of Rabati Castle is fascinating.
Eventually we tear loose from the celebrations and enter the proper historical part of the castle. It’s so beautiful, we don’t even know where to go first! There’s a myriad of buildings and structures and they all look different from each other. We feel like explorers in a computer game! There’s some corridors lined by pillars facing a rose garden that looks like it’s straight from Alice in Wonderland. Up some stairs, a giant courtyard with beautiful gardens is opening up, with the old Jakeli castle structure towering at its end. The views from there are striking, especially under the golden evening sun.
One truly special thing about Rabati Castle is that it’s a display of different religions due to being under various rulers over the centuries. You can find a mosque, a church and a synagogue within the castle complex! Well, we can’t really find the synagogue anywhere but the mosque is unmissable. It’s in the middle of the courtyard, with its massive round golden roof, reflecting in the pond in front. I’m surprised to see that it’s completely stripped of its interior but the atmosphere inside is nonetheless captivating.
Aydin and I are running around like mad people, trying to take pictures and film everything before the guards throw us out. In the end, it’s the black clouds announcing a raging thunderstorm that make us leave and retreat into our room. I quickly run down the hill and back up again to stock up on snacks and wine. Then we enjoy watching the rain coming down from our balcony with a nice glass of Georgian wine. Another successful day in the books!
It’s a well-known fact that disaster strikes after a while when life is just too good to you. After a huge Georgian/Turkish breakfast the next morning (close to the border means fusion kitchen, no complaints), we check out and set off direction Vardzia.
Vardzia monastery is probably one of the coolest places in Georgia. We’ve spent a while in Cappadocia last year and have seen an abundance of gorgeous cave architecture (I flippin’ love caves and hermitages, man) but the sheer scale of Vardzia doesn’t fail to impress!
Alongside Rabati Castle, Vardzia is THE attraction of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. It’s a cave monastery sprawling over 500 meters of cliff side with up to 19 floors. Cave settlements in Georgia date back to the 5th century; Vardzia was built in the 12th century and most notably extended by Queen Tamar when the Church of the Dormition was carved out. You can still marvel at the gorgeous wall paintings of the church nowadays!
In its heyday under Queen Tamar, the complex consisted of over 6000 apartments on 13 floors, plus the queen’s throne room. I’ve read on Atlas Obscura that it “is assumed that the only access to this stronghold was via a hidden tunnel whose entrance was near the banks of Mtkvari river” which I find super intriguing. Nothing better than caves AND secret entrances if you ask me!
Vardzia was damaged gravely in an earthquake in 1283 and was only partially rebuilt. Throughout history it was said to be unconquerable as even the Mongols couldn’t get hold of it. That is, until it was sacked by the Persians in the 16th century. The last monks left Vardzia when the Ottomans arrived shortly after, and it sits abandoned since.
To get there, we once again follow the Mtkvari river. The road is narrow and incredibly bendy, and at times it feels like we’re driving deep down in a gorge. Aydin is an avid reader of Dangerous Roads so this doesn’t present the slightest challenge to him. Significantly more worrying is that the battery light comes on and we don’t have signal to google what disaster this signals. As soon as we get back to Akhaltsikhe, I’m on the phone researching what kind of problem we have. Suddenly the steering wheel stops working and Ayd almost loses control over the car. With lots of effort he manages to pull over. We take a deep breath.
It’s Sunday afternoon. We’re in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region not exactly known for its metropolises. It seems that the alternator might have broken. A branch of the biggest garage chain in Georgia, Tegeta, is still open for another hour and I have a customer card. We zoom off. By zooming I mean we go as slowly as possible while trying not to piss the Georgian drivers off.
The manager speaks decent English but is not particularly pleased by being confronted with what seems to be a big problem 30 minutes before closing time. Nonetheless he sends us to the back to get the car diagnosed. The mechanic concludes that the alternator is fine and that the battery is simply old and needs replacing. He shows us some numbers on a machine that mean nothing to me but I want to believe him really badly; we’re expecting visitors in Kutaisi TONIGHT and will set off on a road trip through the whole country. The car simply can’t break down now.
Aydin isn’t buying into it but we don’t really have a choice so we find ourselves in front of the battery shelf. German battery: 300 lari, Turkish: 150 lari, Polish: 80 lari. We decide on the golden middle and have the Turkish battery fitted. Off we go through Samtskhe-Javakheti, direction Kutaisi.
No matter how bad the situation, we can’t resist a good fortress. There are so many lining the road in this valley! We stop at Atskuri fortress, wait in the car for 20 minutes until a heavy downpour moves onward, only to discover that you can’t get into the fortress because of construction works. It still looks gorgeous!
We’re both tense and rather quiet. Neither of us really trusts the garage. The weather worsens as we’re getting close to Borjomi, and sure enough, just as the sky opens up and we’re driving on a section where the road has been ripped up and feels more like a roller coaster now, the battery light comes back on again. The power steering stops working again. The rain is so heavy that we can barely see one meter ahead of us. Is this how we’re going to die?
We’re still not sure about our chances of survival when we pull over in Borjomi, next to a garage that’s closed on Sundays. It’s hailing now. A friendly man from next door ushers the car under a tree to protect it from the hail. Unfortunately he doesn’t know who could fix our car in Samtskhe-Javakheti right now. For half an hour, we sit motionless in the car while earth is going under around us. I call Tegeta’s customer service and am met with absolute unwillingness to help. Aydin texts his engineer friend while I suddenly have a bright moment. I jump up and run back through the rain to the fancy hotel we stayed at a day ago, to ask the friendly receptionist to save us.
She’s a gem and calls her husband who picks me up from the hotel and drives us to our car. Neither he nor his friend speak a word of English so he calls his wife after inspecting the car. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand anything about cars so I can’t translate exactly what my husband said. But he says it’s fine to drive”. I almost laugh out loud. Clearly it’s not fine. But will we make it to Kutaisi like this? Two heads nod in unison. “Just don’t turn the car off, ever. And bring it to a garage in Kutaisi”. We thank them profusely for their help and get back in the car, once again more than skeptical about the diagnosis received.
Alas what can we do? Our friends are arriving at Kutaisi airport tonight. It’s a long drive over a mountain pass and we’ve definitely ran out of options now. We somehow need to get to Kutaisi. Reluctantly, we start the 130km drive. Will this be the drive that kills us? Will we make it out of Samtskhe-Javakheti? I guess we’ll never know if we don’t try it…
We had a car and enjoyed the freedom of being able to stop anywhere we desired. Driving in Georgia is hazardous though so here are some public transport options.
Tbilisi – Borjomi
Marshrutka: Minibuses leave from Didube station approximately between 8am and 6pm. They leave when they’re full so it’s hard to estimate exact departure times. Look out for ბორჯომი signs in the front window. The journey takes about 3 hours and costs 7 lari. Once you get to Borjomi, you can tell the driver to stop anywhere on its route so you can get out as close as possible to your accommodation.
Train: For the train nerds enjoying Soviet trains, this will be a valid option. The train leaves twice a day from the main station, at 6.40am and 4.15pm. It takes about 4 hours and should cost 10 lari. You’ll probably want to get a taxi in Borjomi since the train station is outside town. Depending on where you’re accommodation is, you should pay around 3 lari.
Borjomi – Akhaltsikhe
Marshrutka is your best option. The minibuses depart from from the bus stop across the road from the bus station, in front of the Municipality building, starting from 8.45am. It takes about an hour to Akhaltsikhe and costs 4 lari.
Akhaltsikhe – Vardzia
It’ll take you around 1,5 hours via marshrutka, price: 5 lari. Minibuses leave at 10:35 am, 12:20, 4 and 5 pm. Back to Akhaltsikhe: 1 and 3 pm. from the Vardzia carpark.
Always double-check those times with your accommodation or the tourist office as departure times can change and we don’t want you stranded in a cave monastery. Although there could be worse places to be stuck…
If you want to spend your nights in Borjomi in style, go for the Golden Tulip. We paid about 60 euros for a (small but lovely) double room with amazing breakfast (Booked directly with them and received a much better offer than on Booking at that time). A nice budget option we have stayed in before is Hotel Victoria, close to the park. Clean, warm rooms with private bathroom for 18 euros. Staff didn’t speak any English but were super friendly and welcoming, exactly what we had needed after being ignored by our originally booked guesthouse for 2 hours. Looking around on Booking.com just now, Wine Inn Aparthotel looks like a good option if you prefer cooking your own food.
There’s also options to stay in huts in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, or camp in front of them. Camping gear can be rented from the national park office in Likani, and they’re very responsive to inquiries.
We stayed inside Rabati Castle, at Hotel Gino Wellness Rabati. Reception staff were grim but the waiters in the restaurant were lovely, food was delicious and the rooms, which come with a balcony, were clean and nice. There’s a spa area that we didn’t try as well. It was about 55 euros with breakfast but honestly, nothing beats sleeping in a castle feeling like the queen of dragons!
A nice budget option would be Guesthouse Mimino (budget double 9 euros, double with private bathroom 19 euros at the moment) in a gorgeous restored building at the foot of the castle hill.
We didn’t stay there and I wouldn’t want to recommend something I haven’t experienced personally. I’ve just looked through booking though and there seem to be some nice enough guesthouses. Most people tend to stay in Akhaltsikhe and make a day trip to the cave monastery.
If you want to dine with Stalin staring at your back, go to Café Tourist in Borjomi. The portrait, the name, the interior, everything speaks against it but the food is REALLY tasty.
Keep in mind that Vardzia has a one-way system – You can’t turn around, only go forwards so make sure you explore everything properly before moving on.
Walk up to Petre fortress in Likani. Just on the other side of the river is the Romanov Palace so you can try so sneak a good view on it!