After our travel buddy Lars joined us, we took him straight to Akhaltsikhe where Becky’s friend Giorgi Shantadze (who she met in Kabul, Afghanistan) greeted us warmly and showed us all around his beautiful city. We were lucky enough to get invited to an observatory to see Jupiter, explored the cave city of Vardzia, crawled around Georgia’s oldest fortress at Khertvisi, and soaked in the wonder of Sapara Monastery. The next portion of our trip brought us up north to the Svaneti region, truly one of Georgia’s most picturesque regions. Full of koshki (defensive stone towers), Svaneti did not disappoint. We stayed at the gateway to Svaneti in Mestia, and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Two thumbs up for Akhaltsikhe & Mestia. Huge thanks to sofi, Giorgi and Khvicha…you guys are the best!
7 April – With Robby sleeping off the excess alcohol from last night, it was an early morning for Becky who woke at 6 am to check on Lars’ arrival to Tbilisi. Shotiko wanted to make sure he had landed OK before heading out to the metro. Meanwhile, Lars had the same idea in mind so he sent a text message letting us know he had landed and was waiting to hear from Shotiko before making his way to the metro. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that we were not able to call or text Lars’ Norwegian cell phone! Well, we could call but at astronomical rates. Becky had 5 Lari on her phone which was enough for a 30 second conversation. Poor Shotiko called Lars and his prepaid minutes were quickly eaten up as well, but he did manage to tell the taxi driver exactly where to drop Lars off at. We calculated that Lars would be arriving around noon, so there was just enough time for Sofi to prepare a special meal of Khachapuri Achma (also known as Georgian cheese lasagna). Thankfully, Lars let us know when he was 30 km out, so we knew when to go out to meet him. It was a happy reunion at Sofi’s apartment as it had been 5 years since we last saw the crazy Norwegian! Lunch was served (yummy achma) followed by a quick snooze for Lars before we loaded up in a marshrutka for Akhaltsikhe. Today we were going to see Giorgi, Becky’s friend from Afghanistan. George had since gotten out of the army and we were thrilled to be able to link up with him, all thanks to Sofi making the arrangements! The marshrutka dropped us off in Khashuri and to our surprise, George was there to meet us. Sneaky Sofi!!! We loaded up into an orange sports car driven by his Armenian friend and zoomed down from Khashuri to Akhaltsikhe. It was dusk when we arrived, so we rushed over to the Rabati Castle for some evening shots. Then we went to check into our room for the night at the nearby Mirage Inn (40 Lari for 4 of us). Afterwards, we were told about the Abastumani Astrophysical Observatory. Apparently tonight was an ideal night for a visit, because Jupiter was visible! So George called around to find a large van. About 45 minutes later, a large van pulled up and we got to meet Ellee and a couple of George’s other friends. All seats were full as we drove off towards Abastumani. The drive actually took a while since it was dark, the road was quite winding, and we had to climb a 6 km hill to get to the observatory itself. Built in the 1930s, it was pretty cool to be able to spot Jupiter and see its rings and moons. We were so lucky that Sofi’s army buddy was able to coordinate a last minute visit for us. It was midnight by the time we pulled back into Akhaltsikhe. Craving some munchies, we stopped at a 24 hour supermarket where we grabbed some beer, chicken and salad and had a quick meal in our room. George and his friends begged off so no late night drinking session as we had anticipated!
8 April – Since we were supposed to leave for Vardzia at 9 am, we were up by 8 am for breakfast at the Mirage’s restaurant. It was simple but filling (bread, cheese, tea or coffee). 9 am soon rolled into 10 am before Ellee, George and two of his buddies pulled up with the van. We immediately set off towards Vardzia, a cave city located 60 km away (built into the Erusheti Mountain). Ellee had volunteered to drive and the scenery was spectacular…definitely a must see if ever in this area! We were at Vardzia by 11:30 am. Today, a few monks still reside at the cave monastery, and they act as guardians to the complex, providing access to secured areas. The highlight of the cave system undoubtedly was the Church of Dormition with its fantastic frescoes. Photos aren’t allowed and women must cover their hear and don a skirt (provided), and its definitely not to be missed. George was excited to take us through a long tunnel linking the cave system together. We all crawled merrily through the complex and took tons of photos. Two thumbs up for Vardzia! Next stop was Khertvisi Fortress where we scrambled around the ruins before returning to the base for some ice cream (the lucky dogs got leftovers…they are well used to tourists giving them food!) It was mid afternoon by the time we decided to make a quick dash out to Sapara Monastery. What should have been a quick 12 km drive ended up being considerably more complicated because road work was being done. So we had to go off roading! Up through the countryside we went…thank God the van had 4WD since it was necessary in a couple of areas. The monastery impressed and we were happy to have been able to squeeze in a visit. Since we only had 40 minutes before our shuttle van service (12 Lari each) back to Kutaisi, we only had a few precious minutes to visit the museum at the Rabati. It was well worth it for the views alone, and we sprinted around the museum to try to squeeze everything in. Our timing was perfect because we made the van with just a few minutes to spare. It was sad saying goodbye to George and Ellee because they had been so much fun to travel with the past two days. Perfect hosts for the Akhaltsikhe region…we now know why George is so proud of his city!
9 April – Today we had to be up by 7 am for an 8 am departure to Mestia. Khvicha showed up at 8 and had breakfast, so it ended up being 9 am before we actually departed from Kutaisi. After filling up the car, we drove directly to Zugdidi before taking the turn north up to Mestia. It was a beautiful drive, very scenic on a winding road. It took us just under 5 hours to get to Mestia with photo stops along the way. Everyone was ravenous so we had a lunch break in Mestia (ribs, khinkali, khachapuri and roasted pork). Afterwards, Khvicha took us to the Mikheil Khergiani museum, a Svan mountain climbing legend (1932-1969) who remains a hometown hero even today. Nicknamed “Mountain Tiger” by the Brits, Mikheil set all kinds of climbing records and won dozens of mountain climbing competitions. Not only was he Svaneti and Georgia’s best climber, but he was considered the Soviet Union’s best mountian climber in his day. Sadly, he was killed during a climb in Italy at the tender age of 37. We weren’t able to climb the koshki (defensive stone tower that Svaneti is so famous for), but the caretaker told Khvicha where we would be able to. First we took a detour to the Svaneti museum where we were allowed to climb the roof for a fine view over Mestia. Then we drove into town to meet Khvicha’s best childhood friend, Zsa Zsa. He accompanied us to the next koshki tower and asked for permission for us to climb up to the roof. We were given free reign and quickly clambered up the tower. Today, about 200 or so koshkebi still exist, which is amazing considering they were built between the 9th and 13th centuries. After getting our fill of koshkebi, we checked into our guesthouse, a new establishment that will soon be named “Girogi”. Here, the 3 of us got a room that cost us an unbelievable 50 Lari (including breakfast and dinner)…freaking bargain. After dropping off our gear, we walked to a nearby bar where drinking ensued. Aleko brought his homemade brew of plum chacha and Lars got tore up on a combo of beer, wine, and plum spirits. He kept insisting on taking a dip in the freezing cold Mulkhra River, but Sofi wasn’t having any of it and stood firm. Our dinner feast was amazing…our hosts clearly went out of their way to prepare an extraordinary meal and we enjoyed every bite of it.
10 April – Breakfast was another delight for our taste buds and we ate until we were completely stuffed. The 3 of us decided to kick in a little extra to the guesthouse for our stay because 50 Lari really was too good to be true and we didn’t want to take advantage of their hospitality. This morning’s agenda included a ride up the chairlift at Hatsvali ski station (about 8 km from Mestia). For a mere 5 Lari, we rode to the top of the mountain where a gorgeous panoramic view awaited us. The mountain peaks of Svaneti are truly spectacular and we loved the vista. Lars and Robby decided to take a quick slide downhill on a makeshift sled…lots of giggles ensued. Afterwards, we head back down to Mestia for a quick visit to the excellent Svaneti Museum (free for us because of Khvicha). Then a quick hop over to the town square for a look at the Queen Tamar statue before saying our goodbyes to Aleko and Zsa Zsa. The drive downhill was a lot quicker than our drive uphill so Khvicha had time to stop in Zugdidi for a car wash and vacuum. We were all a bit hungry so we had a late lunch of freshly baked bread and cheese (yum) and ice cream. Back at Sofi’s apartment, we gave Khvicha photos from the weekend which quickly went viral on facebook, ha. Then we coordinated the Armenia portion of our trip with our driver/guide Gagik over a Skype session. He was apparently backing out of picking us up from Tbilisi and that had pissed us off but we found that there might be a minivan option to get to the border crossing of Sadakhlo. Khvicha called one of his buddies (Irakli) who was in Tbilisi to help us find out where to go to catch the marshrutka to Sadakhlo and we found out that we had flown into Georgia on the same flight from Istanbul! Small world. It was sad saying our goodbyes to Khvicha…such a fun and stand up guy! We thanked him for a wonderful trip to one of Georgia’s prettiest regions, as we definitely wouldn’t have seen as much without him! Becky added some Lari to her Georgian SIM and begged Sofi for a hair cut (she used to cut hair for a living in her pre-army days!) We decided to hide some money for Sofi to thank her for being the world’s best host as we didn’t want her to go out of pocket for the many expenses she had run up during our 11 day stay. It was late when we finished packing and we had to force ourselves to go to bed to get a few hours of sleep eye.