Updated: Apr 28
While I was planning my trip to Georgia, I often had the Ray Charles song "Georgia On My Mind" stuck in my head, although his Georgia was the American state rather than this little Eurasian country. I've wanted to go to Georgia for a few years now; I'd heard so many good things about the place and as usual my travel dreams were cemented after watching an episode of Parts Unknown.
Georgia is right smack in the middle of Europe and Asia, and was once a part of the Soviet Union. It is known for its stunning landscape, warm and hospitable people and delicious and unique cuisine. Georgia even claims to be the birth place of wine!
There are no visa requirements for citizens of more than 90 countries (who can stay for up to 1 year!) and EU residents can enter with a national identity card instead of a passport. The only difficult part is actually getting there. There are no direct flights from Dublin so I had to get creative. I spent about 270 euros on round trip flights but had to devote one whole travel day getting there and another almost 24 hours getting back.
After a long layover in Eindhoven (The Netherlands) I arrived in Kutaisi at just after midnight. I made a beeline for the local SIM card stand and purchased a card + 5 GB of data for the week which cost me about 7 euros total. Bargain! I had arranged for a pick up through the hostel I was staying at - Black Tomato but my driver was a no show. My SIM needed an hour to fully connect so I couldn't ring the hostel. Eventually a taxi man came over and showed me his phone gesturing for me to enter the number of the place I was trying to contact. He spoke to the hostel receptionist, and handed me the phone afterwards. The receptionist apologized for the inconvenience and said the taxi man will drive me to the hostel for 10 euros. When we left the airport and headed to his taxi, I noticed about 10 street dogs running around all together. This would become a theme in Georgia. There are SO many street dogs, and many of them are tagged on one ear. I'm what you would call a "crazy dog person" so it broke my heart to see so many of them without loving homes. In general most of the dogs I saw appeared to be well fed, so that was one small comfort.
The next morning I had breakfast in the hostel with an Australian couple who had started a van rental company in Tbilisi and a group of Georgians who had come to Kutaisi for a wedding. The Georgians were so friendly and eager to learn more about me and why I had come to Georgia. "Welcome to my tiny country!!" one of them proclaimed. I explained I was off to "Akaltsiky" (Akhaltiskhe) and asked if they knew the best way to get there. "Where?" they asked with confusion. I pointed to the town in my Lonely Planet book, and they said "aaaah, Achaltzy-heh"!! I had to practice pronouncing this over and over and truth be told it took me about 3 days to lock it down.
There isn't a whole lot to see in Kutaisi, but it's cheaper to fly into than Tbilisi so a lot of tourists make this their first point of entry. If I wasn't so pressed for time, I would have stayed the day to do some sightseeing, but I had to make a move. "Marshrutky" are the most popular way to get around Georgia. They are generally small, 12 seater minibuses or sometimes actual minivans. If you want to go anywhere you just head down to the local station and look for the marshrutky with the sign of your destination on its dashboard, or just listen for someone calling out the town of your choice. I took a taxi to the Kutaisi marshrutky station, and asked a pair of locals "Achaltzy-heh?" and they pointed to a white mini bus. The driver spoke no English and I asked if I could sit at the front. I used charade type sign language to explain that I need to sit at the front or I will get sick, and he nodded. I had him type out on my calculator how much the journey would cost - 12 Lari which is about 4 euros. We were just about to leave when a another couple arrived all flustered and began arguing with the driver in Georgian. They were gesturing towards the front seat so I got out and looked at another passenger who laughed and said "Reservation". I laughed too and squished in beside another woman on the seat behind, never fully getting both of my bum cheeks on the cushion.
The drive took about 4 hours and the driver kept us entertained with a series of music videos and Georgian comedy talk show clips. Every once and a while the bus would erupt with laughter and I felt left out. Georgians are very religious people, the majority of whom are Orthodox Christian. At one point in the journey the driver and two passengers at the front began making the sign of the cross several times in unison without saying a word to one another. I never found out why but after observing other drivers do the same I think we had passed a church.
When I arrived in Akhaltsikhe, I couldn't quite figure out where my Air BnB was as Google Maps would only show me the towns location. I called the number listed and the host answered. She didn't have much English but when I told her my name she said, "Yes, Molly welcome!" and asked where I was. I told her I was at the bus station and she said she would be right there. While I waited, one of the taxi men came by to have a chat - most men speak Russian because they would have served in the Soviet army, so when he said "Deutsche?" (essentially - are you from Germany?") I used the 3 Russian phrases I know, "I am Canadian. I don't speak Russian. Do you speak English?" He said "Canadi!" and told another taxi man "Canadi!" while pointing at me. "Canada good. Canada nice!" They both kept speaking to me in Russian, so I just had to shrug my shoulders and laugh. Eventually the host arrived in a taxi and gestured me into the back. Her grand daughter was in the back with me and announced "We're here!!" when we arrived, literally 2 minutes later. I easily could have walked.
Georgians are famous for their hospitality and I got a taste of it as soon as we got inside. The host (who's name I could never fully lock down) introduced me to her daughter Tamara and they both ordered me to "Sit!!" in the living room and asked if I wanted coffee or tea. They soon brought me a cup of strong coffee and a giant bowl of wrapped chocolates. They asked what I wanted to see while I was in Akhaltsikhe so I mentioned Vardzia caves was big on my list. The host said her son Zaali could drive me there as he often takes guests on tours of the area. She said he could also drive to Sapara Monastery and soon set up an itinerary for me! Zaali would take me to Sapara Monastery today - then I would visit Rabati Castle, and by the time I got back she would have dinner ready. "Tonight we eat, we drink. Its good!" Tomorrow Zaali would take me to Vardzia which is much further away, and he would have me back on time to take a marshrutky to Tbilisi.
The drive to Sapara Monastery was stunning; a winding road through rolling hills covered in trees all golden orange and yellow. Zaali didn't have much English either but we still managed a bit of chat. He's 27 and the youngest in the family. His full time job is the family business, driving guests around Georgia. He enjoys it - most of the time. Sapara Monastery has existed since at least the 9th century. In the 13th century it was taken into possession by the Jakeli family. The leader of the ruling family - Sargis Jakeli maintained a good relationship with the Mongols which allowed the area to remain peaceful - a rarity for the time. As with all Orthodox churches women need to cover their head before entering. There was a box of scarves outside the entrance for those that forget to bring their own. Zaali made a donation and took some candles for us to light, but told me I wasn't allowed to take any photos.
Rabati Castle is right in the center of Akhaltsikhe and only a 5 minute walk from my Air BnB. I learned that Akhaltsikhe actually means "New Castle". Originally established in the 9th century as Lomisa Castle, it was eventually completely rebuilt by the Ottomans. It saw another series of renovations in 2011 in hopes of bringing more tourism to the area. It's a really beautiful little spot and a great way to spend an hour or two just wandering around. I met a local guy from Tbilisi who wanted to practice his English. At first I thought he might be a creep, (when I travel alone I always have my guard up) but I soon realized he genuinely just wanted a chat. He was a student, spending a month in Akhaltsikhe on placement. We walked around the grounds for a while and stopped to watch a wedding photo shoot take place. "It's so peaceful here!" he proclaimed, and I agreed. He walked me back to my Air BnB just on time for dinner.
The host had prepared a huge vegetarian feast for everyone, and her husband had brought in a giant jug of some homemade wine. Although there was a language barrier, I had such a fun evening with the family. Toasting is a huge part of Georgian culture. The husband made a toast about every 10 minutes - to guests, to hosts, to Canada, to Georgia, to our mothers, to our fathers etc. He asked what my Dad's name was and his age- "To John!" he proclaimed. After every toast he would down his glass of wine and tried to get me to do the same; laughing when I would protest that I couldn't. He kept topping up my glass saying "Malo, malo!" which means "just a little" in Russian. This article here outlines the Georgian art of toasting in a little more depth.
At one point I noticed that the salt shaker looked....familiar. I told the husband that the salt shaker was his twin, and he slammed his fist on the table in fake outrage, then gleefully posed for a picture with it. A German guest had once given it to the family after noticing the resemblance.
The next morning I woke up without a hangover; a miracle considering the amount of toasts that were given. I was so relieved as Vardzia was one of the Georgian sights I was most looking forward to. After another feast prepared by the host ( Shakshuka AND french toast for breakfast) Zaali and I headed out. It was another gorgeous drive, highlighted by the autumn colors. The cave city of Vardzia was built in the 12th century, under the rule of Queen Tamar in an effort to evade Mongol forces. Once complete, Vardzia contained 6000 apartments, a large church complete with a bell tower and a throne room. The cave city managed to withstand the Mongols, however in 1283, not long after construction, a devastating earthquake destroyed more than two-thirds of the city. The remaining sections of the city, which were once hidden from view were now exposed. Nowadays the caves are maintained by a group of monks, and about 300 apartments and halls are still accessible. There is even an old irrigation pipe that continues to bring drinking water in. I sampled some myself!
We passed another castle on our way back - Khertvisi Fortress; one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia, dating back to the 2nd Century BC. A German student who was in Georgia on placement hitched a ride with us back to Akhaltsikhe. She was on her way back to Tbilisi, so she and I decided to go for lunch and head to the marshrutky station together. I was sad to say goodbye to the family that had shown me such hospitality. It was the grandmother's 80th birthday celebration that night which I was invited to several times. As much as I would have loved to join in, I was on a tight schedule and had to get to Tbilisi. I promised I would be back in the summer for another visit.
(Zaali sweetly sent me some photos and videos of the celebrations that night.)