Georgia – Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Akhaltsikhe, Mestia, Ertatsminda, Mtskheta & David Gareja

A visit to the Republic of Georgia has been way overdue! Becky visited in 2003 for work, but didn’t have many chances to explore outside of the Tbilisi area. We were originally scheduled to visit on our upcoming overland trip, but with a change in itinerary, the Rep of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were cut out. So we decided to hop over on our own pre-overland trip. As luck would have it, Becky befriended a lovely Georgian lady (Sofi) in Afghanistan and we were invited to be her guests if we ever visited. We happily accepted her kind offer and made plans to spend about two weeks exploring here. Our first few days were spent in Tbilisi and from there, we made our way over to Kutaisi. Sofi has an apartment there and graciously invited us to stay with her for a week. Kutaisi’s highlights are Gelati and Motsameta Monasteries, the Bagrati Cathedral and Sataplia Nature Reserve. We tried to visit Martvili and Okatse Canyon but found out that we were way too early for the season as both sights were closed for renovations. From Kutaisi, we had an overnight stay at the Black Sea resort city of Batumi which we really enjoyed. 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. The last portion of our Georgian adventure brought us from Kutaisi back to Tbilisi for a day on our own before a week away in Armenia. Upon our return to Georgia, we spent a fun day with Shota up in his village of Ertatsminda which culminated in a delicious meal of grilled shashlik. Our last day in Georgia was spent seeing a few more cultural sights in Mtskheta and David Gareja. And that was it…two weeks here went by way too quickly!

31 March – After flying into Tbilisi, we were met at the airport by Shota, Sofi’s nephew. Despite the late hour, the driver offered to take us through the Old Town so we could see the city lit up at night. Afterwards, we pulled up to Shota’s apartment (Tbilisi outskirts) where we met his welcoming family. Tamari (mother), Vacho (father) and Ani (sister) made us feel welcome and we were shocked to discover that a late night feast was awaiting us, complete with wine and vodka. We couldn’t believe that the family waited until close to midnight to have their dinner meal in order to welcome us properly to their country. Such hospitality! And forget about saying no to alcohol…that is sacrilege in a Georgian household. Several hours later, we were more than ready for bed when it dawned on us that Tamari and Vacho had given up their master suite for us to sleep in! They had relocated to the computer room in order to give us the best room in the apartment. Such kindness! We were complete strangers and yet were made to feel like family.

1 April – The next day, Shota offered to be our Tbilisi tour guide and we caught a marshrutka into town. We walked from Marjanishvili Street across the bridge and up to Shota Rustaveli Ave. From there, it was onward to Freedom Square and then to the Old Town where we hiked up to Narikala Fortress (amazing views of Tbilisi). Afterwards, we hopped in a taxi for the short ride over to Sameba (the Holy Trinity Cathedral), which is a massive Georgian Orthodox Church. After exploring, we walked downhill and hopped on a metro to Rustaveli where we caught another marshrutka over to Mtatsminda Park. Marshrutkas are excellent value by the way. Its essentially a shared taxi and local rides are a mere 0.50 GEL. Since we were the first to board, all 3 of us scored seats and snoozed on the winding drive uphill to Mtatsminda (which is a huge amusement part popular with families). We were there for the views overlooking all of Tbilisi and to check out the iconic TV tower. Afterwards, back in the Old Town, we got news that Sofi had finally arrived from Kutaisi so we linked up with her at Freedom Square before heading back to the apartment for another massive dinner. Tbilisi is a beautiful city and we can’t wait to explore some more once Lars joins us later in the trip.

2 April – Since it was the weekend, Sofi wanted to sleep in a little before we found a marshrutka back to Kutaisi. At 9:30, we finally got up to find that Tamari and Shotigo were waiting patiently to say goodbye. Tamari was headed back to work (she had gotten back in the wee hours of the morning and already had to turn right back around) and Shotigo had to head to school for weekend lessons, so it was up to Sofi and Vacho to make us breakfast. We enjoyed leftovers and Robby was persuaded to have a shot of chacha to start his morning off right. After thanking Vacho and Ani for being great hosts, we hopped in a taxi for the bus station where we caught a van for the ride to Kutaisi (10 Lari each, well worth it to have more comfortable seats and only 8 passengers). The ride took over 3 hours and we were at Sofi’s apartment by mid afternoon. After getting settled in, we hopped downtown where we enjoyed our first taste of khinkali (Georgian dumplings) at a beer bar. Sofi went a bit overboard, ordering a whopping 30 khinkali, 6 beef kebabs, 3 liters of beer and lemonade sodas. Khinkali was delicious as advertised, and we knew to slurp up all the inner juices…yum! Our feast came out to 50 Lari and Sofi insisted on paying, telling us it was our welcome meal to Kutaisi. To help ease digestion, we walked around the entire downtown area and Sofi did a little shopping at the market for some fruits and vegetables. Back at the apartment, Sofi quickly roasted a chicken and whipped up a walnut/garlic sauce to prepare “Katmis Satsivi”, which is served cold. Also super delicious! She had given up her double sized bed for us to sleep in and volunteered to sleep on the sofa bed and no amount of arguing with her would change her mind.

3 April – Today we met two of Sofi’s five best friends (Khvicha and Aleko) when they came over for lunch. Interestingly, they are both majors in the Georgian army and Sofi is a sergeant. And yet their rank never interfered with their friendship and we could tell they were a tight knit group. We rode with them to two of Kutaisi’s “must sees” , UNESCO heritage Gelati Monastery followed by Motsameta Monastery. Gelati was a decent drive from Kutaisi, and to be honest, it looked pretty unimpressive from the outside. However, the minute we stepped into the ancient monastery church, our jaws dropped. The painted murals and mosaics were truly phenomenal. A Georgian lady dressed as a nun immediately latched on to us when we arrived, and kept giving a spiel entirely in Russian (with Sofi translating). Not our cup of tea as we would have preferred to be cut loose to take photos of the gorgeous interior but it felt rude to completely ignore her. Plus she had access to a hidden alcove where even more impressive murals were on display. Only at the very end of our visit did she admit she wanted a “donation” for her services. We quickly told Sofi that for future visits anywhere, we did not want a local guide, especially one that couldn’t speak English (considering that Sofi did all the work!) In any case, Gelati was amazing and not to be missed. Next stop of Motsameta was pretty neat. It sits on a rocky promontory high above the Tskhaltsitela River (Red Water), the site of an 8th century Muslim massacre. They beheaded all those who refused to convert to Islam, to include Georgian princes Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze. Legend has it that their bodies were thrown into the river but were rescued by lions who carried their remains to the top of the site (where the monastery was later built). The pious princes were canonized by the Georgian church and today their heads and bones are on display at the monastery in an ark. All visitors were lined up to crawl under the side altar three times while making a wish. We watched as Sofi did it but thought that we should give it a miss because the crawl space looked pretty tiny! Our last visit of the day was to the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi (11th century). Its been heavily restored with a rather plain interior, and was definitely not as impressive as Gelati or Motsameta. Dinner at Sofi’s was a long affair, and we saw why Sofi considers Aleko and Khvicha to be two of her best friends. Even though there was a language barrier, both were super fun guys, and we enjoyed being in their company. We were quickly schooled in the fact that Georgians love to drink and eat and toast. Sofi prepared a dinner feast and Khvicha served as the toast master, so our dinner meal took several hours to get through with lots of wine and chacha liberally served throughout. Toasting in Georgia is an art form and not to be rushed. We were urged to reciprocate with our own toasts and even though neither one of us was as verbose as our hosts, they seemed satisfied, ha. It was well past midnight before we could finally get some shut eye. So far, every single night in Georgia has been a late one!

4 April – Since Sofi had to work this morning, she made breakfast before she left and we had a free morning to relax. While her original intention was to be back by 11 am, her company commander was quite demanding and she wasn’t cut loose until 1 pm. We had a quick lunch before heading out at 2 pm for an afternoon trip to Okatse Canyon. Sofi had coordinate our ride with her taxi driver friend (40 Lari round trip). To our dismay, we found out that both Okatse and nearby Martvili were closed for renovations to prepare for the busy upcoming tourist season. Huge bummer! Instead, we returned back to Kutaisi where Sofi had us help her make churchkhela. We had seen strings and strings of churchkhela hanging in the stores of Tbilisi and were very curious about these sausage shaped snacks. Apparently, they originate from the Caucasus region and are locally known as “Georgian Snickers”. We used a sewing needle, some thread and a huge pile of walnuts and strung a bunch of walnuts together (approximately 8 to 10 inches in length). After putting together a dozen strands of walnuts, part two of the process was to make the concentrated grape juice mixture. Definitely not an exact science because after stirring rigorously for what felt like forever, followed by lots of taste tests and extra amounts of grape juice and flour, Sofi finally decreed we were ready to dip the walnut strands. Then we hung the strings to dry and viola, homemade churchkhela!

5 April – Today we were leaving Kutaisi and headed over to Batumi, a Black Sea resort town. We met Sofi’s friend Gocha, who was given the day off by his Battalion Commander to escort us around the Batumi area. The only catch was we had to pay for the gas,, which we were more than happy to do. Midway through the drive, we stopped at a roadside fish market to check out the variety of fish for sale. Sofi saw that we were interested in the fish and promised to buy some tomorrow to fry up for dinner. Just before we reached Batumi, we took a detour to an old abandoned Russian camp just above the Botanical Gardens. The soldiers manning that post must have loved this assignment back in the day! Batumi reminded us a lot of Dubai with its fanciful buildings. The architecture made us swivel our heads from side to side to marvel at Georgia’s most opulent and popular city. However, Gocha promised we could explore further when we returned and we drove onward to his hometown of Gonio to pick up his son Zura. With all of us squeezed together in the back seat, we checked out Sarpi, the Turkish-Georgian border crossing. Then a quick visit to Gonio Fortress, an old Roman fortification built in Adjara. From there, we head further inland to see more Adjara towns (predominantly muslim). A stop at the Adjarian wine house was a nice detour because we inadvertently crashed a wedding party and were immediately plied with excellent wine (free). Robby ended up buying two bottles of excellent red wine for 30 Lari. Next up was the Makhuntseti waterfall and old bridge before backtracking to Batumi for the remainder of the day. Zura arranged for us to have a late lunch at his place of work, the Batumi World Palace Hotel. The food was excellent! Super tasty and plentiful. The friendly staff even opened up our bottles of wine to accompany our meal. Zura graciously paid for our lovely meal despite our protests. The hospitality we have experienced in Georgia is second to none! Gocha split from our group after the meal and we didn’t realize we wouldn’t see him again until tomorrow morning so our overnight bag remained in the back seat of his car. Bummer! We strolled down Batumi’s waterfront and made it to the New Boulevard area at dusk in time to watch the dancing fountains laser and sound show kick off. Lastly, we rode the cable car up to Anuria Hill to see Batumi lit up at night. Wonderful day and made even better because of Zura, who was an excellent host (and a super nice guy too). Since we had planned to stay overnight in Batumi, we had found a budget apartment for rent for a mere 30 Lari. Sofi couldn’t believe we had scored such affordable lodging and kept insisting it was too good to be true. However, M&D apartment on Javakhishvili 9 was perfect for our needs and even Sofi was impressed that our cheapie lodging had all worked out. The apartment came fully equipped with a kitchen, washer (for laundry), hot water shower, tv, double bed and sofa bed so technically 4 adults can stay here. For only $13 a night, it was our best bargain yet. Zura had to head to work so we said our goodbyes and thanked him for taking us around his lovely city all day today.

6 April – After calling the owner of M&D to return the apartment key and make payment, we head out to see Batumi in the early morning light. At Evropas Moedani, we checked out the beautiful buildings and the Medea monument before strolling onward to see the Orta Mosque. Gocha picked us up and we were off to the port city of Poti to meet Sofi’s mom and pick up a freshly slaughtered piglet. First a quick detour to the fish market where Sofi got 2 KG of fish for 20 Lari. Then a whirlwind visit to meet her mom before the quick drive back to Kutaisi. Somehow, Sofi managed to convince Gocha to take us to Sataplia, a nature reserve north of Kutaisi. There, we got to see 120 million year old fossilized dinosaur footprints! Walking through a 300 meter long cave and standing on a glass panoramic platform rounded out our visit, and then we were back to Sofi’s apartment to prepare the suckling pig for dinner. It was a feast as Aleko and Khvicha showed up as well with 14.5 liters of beer in hand. Robby and Aleko started pounding the beer as dinner was prepared and poor Aleko got tore up! Somehow Robby managed to out drink a Georgian which is no easy task, ha. Needless to say, Aleko didn’t drive home tonight! And the suckling pig was delicious!!!

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.

11 April – We were up by 6:30 and out the door by 7 am. Sofi couldn’t be late on her first day back from R&R! All of us hopped in a taxi to the marshrutka station where we caught a van to Tbilisi (10 Lari each). Since Sofi had to get going, we kept our goodbyes brief but thanked her so much for showing us so much of her spectacularly gorgeous country. We would never have gotten to see or do so much if it had not been for the very dear Ms Sofi Mushkudiani and her herculean efforts. The ride to Tbilisi was rather quick and before we knew it, we had reached the Okriba bus station. There, Khvicha’s friend Irakli was waiting for us (he also hails from Svaneti…those guys are definitely a tight knit family). He rescued us from the pack of taxi drivers hounding us and whisked us away to the main railway station to check on a minivan to Yerevan. We were then led on a wild goose chase throughout the city, ultimately ending up at Samgori. There, Irakli found out that a minivan departed at 8 am for the border crossing at Sadakhlo – Baghratashen with a bargain price of 5 Lari per person. Score! Then Irakli dropped us off near our hostel (Hostel Anchi) where we checked into our private quad room (a pricey 80 Lari per night split between the 3 of us). Lunch was our first priority so we headed over to Freedom Square where we ate at Samikitno (recommended by the guy working at the youth hostel). Cheap, filling and popular with Georgians…a perfect find for 3 hungry people! Afterwards we wandered around Tbilisi so Lars could check out this picturesque capital city. It was a hot, sunny day and we enjoyed being outdoors. By 7 pm, we were hungry so round two at Samikitno left us full and happy. Our meals were delicious, the beer was tasty and the bill was under 50 Lari for 3. Great restaurant and mere minutes from our hostel.

12 April – Lars had every intention of leaving his big bag behind at the Hostel Anchi but the night shift guy had been up all night long talking to a flirtatious guest until 5:30 am and he was nowhere to be found at 7 am. So he lugged his gear with him to the metro station at Freedom Square where we caught a ride over to Samgori. There, we easily found out marshrutka to the border and paid up our 5 Lari a piece. Goodbye Georgia and hello Armenia! We will be back for one last day before we fly back to Istanbul.

From 12 – 17 April we hopped over to Armenia and returned back to the Republic of Georgia on 18 April.

18 April: It took about 5 hours for the drive from Yerevan to Tbilisi and we were dropped off at the Avlabari metro station. We had briefly considered taking a metro to Freedom Square, but it was just as easy to walk into town so we did that since it was mostly downhill. Back at Hostel Anchi, Robby got pissed off with the surly and unhelpful staff so he refused to stay there again. Plus they weren’t budging on the price, 25 Lari each for an 8 bed dorm (we had paid 80 Lari total for a private 4 bed dorm last time). So off we went in search of some other lodgings. An old babushka was sitting outside her decrepit house (the hand drawn sign was Hostel Mimoza on V. Beridze’s Str N3), and she asked if we needed a hostel. She looked kindly, didn’t speak a lick of English but had a nice smile so we said yes and ventured into her private house. 3 rooms in a compact room, free use of the kitchen, washer, and a hot water shower…we were set. We didn’t even try to negotiate the price (20 Lari each for 2 nights), and she was thrilled with our business, plying us with kisses, hugs, and cheek pinching. Super nice babushka! Becky got the brunt of her loving for some reason while the boys got plied with homemade wine. What a reception! We were hungry so we went back to our favorite Georgian restaurant where we emerged stuffed as usual. Shota met us there and discussed plans to visit his village tomorrow. He also gave us a quote of 200 Lari for our day trip on the last day (Mtskheta, Jvari, David Gareja and drop off at the airport). We readily agreed to the day trip since we had been eager to visit all those sights anyway and what better way to spend our last full day in Georgia? Shota didn’t linger, and promised to let us know if the village plans for tomorrow were a go or not after talking to his folks. Back at the hostel, we tried to get on wifi but it was really poor, unable to support multiple devices at the same time. So the boys headed over to neighboring Cactus Bar where they scored the password for wifi so we could stay connected. Sofi wanted to Skype and passed on the message that the village visit was a go, and we should meet Shota tomorrow morning at 9 am.

19 April: Even though our beds were super creaky, we slept well throughout the night and had hot water showers to wake up to this morning. We were running slightly behind schedule and met Shota a few minutes after 9 am at the Freedom Square metro station. Today we were visiting Shota’s village, Ertatsminda, located about an hour west of Tbilisi in the Kaspi District. First we had to catch a metro to the marshrutka station where we found a van heading to Ertatsminda. Shota went shopping for vegetables and pork, because today we were going to try his famous Georgian recipe of grilled pork shahlik while up in the mountain village. We were super stoked about that since we had already tried one of his pork/onion dishes in Tbilisi our second day in country. Shota is a great cook and will make some girl very lucky one day! It took an hour to reach the base of the mountain village, and thankfully we hired a taxi to take us the remaining 5 km uphill to reach his grandmother (Bebo)’s house. She lives right next to the 13th century Ertatsminda Cathedral and we were welcomed in with coffee, tea and cookies. Shota’s friend Dota joined us for an afternoon hike to a nearby waterfall, and the two of them furiously called all their contacts to try to find a vehicle they could borrow for an afternoon excursion up the mountainside. After all, Shota had recently earned his drivers license and was super eager to get behind a wheel! Back at Bebo’s, she prepared a nice lunch meal for us to munch on to satiate our hunger until the long awaited dinner of shahliki. The boys struck gold when they found someone willing to let them borrow their Lada 4×4 vehicle. Boy had this car seen better days. The windows needed to be jacked up with a screwdriver, the front seat kept sliding backwards, the rear seat wouldn’t stay in place, the tires were threadbare, and the steering wheel was all jacked up so Shota barely had control of the vehicle. And off we went. Dota’s brother Iko joined us so it was a tight squeeze with 6 of us setting out for our afternoon adventure in the Georgian countryside! At one point the car stalled, so we had to hop out and try to get it going again. It took a lof of effort and finger crossing but the car that would not die eventually roared back to life and we managed to make it to a village where we parked and hiked the remaining distance to see an old monastery, bridge, and explore Queen Tamar’s old stomping grounds. Shota proudly told us that this area was his favorite camping spot in Georgia to escape the summer heat of Tbilisi and we could easily see why. It is a beautiful corner of the country. It was well past 6 pm when we decided to head back to Ertatsminda. Little did we know but we still had another adventure ahead of us. Remember the threadbare tire mentioned earlier? We were heading up a hill when Becky noticed a wheel rolling down the road. How could she miss it? Her head was like a Garfield suction cup on the right side of the window, that’s how squished into the Lada we were! So she casually said “hey guys, our tire is rolling down the hill” moments before the wheel rim started screeching against the rocky ground. Shota immediately came to a halt and we rescued the wheel before it traveled any further. It was beyond repair, scorching hot to the touch and almost melting. Thank goodness there was a spare in the car…it would have been a helluva long ass walk up the mountain to get back home! Shota was pretty damn proud of himself for getting us back safely and he should have been..that Lada was in no way, shape or form road worthy!!! Back at Bebo’s, we all stood around while Iko and Shota prepared our shashlik dinner. It was ridiculously tasty. Grandma had smothered the meat in an onion sauce all afternoon long and the skewers dripped with juices as we grilled them over an open fire. Freaking amazing and well worth the long anticipated wait! We ate until we were about to burst, and then had to rush off to head back to Tbilisi. Shota had arranged for his friend to drive us back into town and we didn’t want to keep him waiting. It was still a long day since we didn’t get back to our homestay/hostel until almost 10 pm.

20 April: Damn, today is our last day in Georgia! Its amazing that two weeks flew by so quickly. We were up and packed and ready to go before 9 am and our Georgian babushka smothered us with goodbye hugs and kisses. Dunkin Donuts was the pick up point, and we loaded up all our gear into the trunk of the car before heading directly towards Mtskheta, the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. We had arrived so early that the parking lot attendant hadn’t even shown up to work yet, so we got to park for free. Visiting the Sveitskhoveli (life giving pillar) cathedral was first on our agenda. This holy of holies is considered one of Georgia’s most sacred places, with the graves of many of Georgia’s ancient kings. One of them is believed to have been buried with Jesus’ robe. From here, we drove up to the nearby 6th century monastery of Jvari. Here, there is a phenomenal lookout point of the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers. It is clearly evident because one river is black and the other is white, so the merging of the two rivers is quite dramatic. It was lunch time when we backtracked towards Tbilisi. Lars was keen on a Georgian football t-shirt and we wanted to eat Mickey D’s, ever since we saw an unbelievable special advertising a sandwich, fries and coke for a mere 3.45 Lari (about $1.50)…bargain! So McDonalds it was for lunch and Shota told us its a very popular restaurant in Georgia, especially at night! It was pretty packed during lunch time, and we enjoyed our tasty meals. Lars scored his coveted soccer t-shirt for 30 Lari and then we were off to our final stop of the day, the rock hewn Georgian monastery complex of David Gareja, located on the mountain slopes of Gareja near the Azerbaijan border. The road to get out there was good at first and then turned quite rough. It was a bit overcast when we pulled up and explored the Lavra monastery, built on 3 levels. In retrospect, we should have taken advantage of the cloud cover and hiked up to Udabno cave complex first because it was a hot, sweaty walk up the side of the mountain when we were finally ready to go. The strenuous mountain climb was worth it though to see the amazing frescoes inside the caves. Udabno is full of monastic living quarters, cells, churches, chapels, and a refectory. From the top of the mountain, we could see that we were dangerously close to the Azerbaijan border. In fact, there were two guards patrolling the area so we made sure not to point our cameras towards them. Shota had suffered a nose bleed at Lavra, so he didn’t join us on the hike uphill. But we had been gone so long that he was worried we had gotten in trouble with the Azeris so he called frantically asking for a status update. We reluctantly hurried our visit and were down the mountainside by 5 pm. Our last request before getting dropped off at the airport was a cheap meal at a local restaurant because we didn’t want to get price gouged at the airport. Shota complied and found us a great restaurant where we ordered a platter of 3 pork barbecues…delicious! We are definitely going to missed the grilled meats of Georgia. A little puppy begged for treats and he was so well behaved that we just had to feed him our leftovers. And then that was it…we were off to the airport and our Georgia adventure was gone an instant. We thanked Shota repeatedly for showing us a great time in his beautiful country and made promises to return again in the summer time, so we could explore more of what Georgia has to offer. Our Georgian experience would have been completely different if not for the efforts of Sofi, Shota, Giorgi and countless other wonderful people we met during our time here. Georgia goes down as one of the top 10 countries we’ve ever visited…we wouldn’t hesitate to go back!

4 thoughts on “Georgia – Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Akhaltsikhe, Mestia, Ertatsminda, Mtskheta & David Gareja

  1. What a great post, we are traveling to Georgia this September, and Im collecting information. Can you give me some tips how to go from Kutaisi to Batumi? We will be they for 6 days. Do you thing 3 days kutaisi (and around) and 3 day in Batumi is enough?
    thank you for info

    keep going Csilla

    1. Hi Csilla. We went from Kutaisi to Batumi with a private car (through my Georgian friend) but I know that it would be very easy to go with a marshrutka (shared minibus). The ride will take 3 to 4 hours and there is a marshrutka leaving about once every hour (or as soon as all the seats are full). You pay the driver directly and can sit in whatever seat you want that is available. We didn’t take the marshrutka but I think it leaves Kutaisi to Batumi from the McDonalds. The ride will cost something like 20 GEL (about 8 Euro). I think 3 days in Kutaisi is plenty of time and 3 days in Batumi should be enough. You may want to consider 2 days Kutaisi and 4 days Batumi if you like the beach and nightlife scene. Have a wonderful time in Georgia, its an amazing country!

      1. Thank you Becky, i know a bit late answer, but still thank you. We managed to find everything, it was a lovely stay in Kutaisi and Batumi as well. Georgia is a amazing country with beautiful nature and people as well. Can only recommend

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *