The unmistakable odour of sulfuric matches followed by the burning sensation of tobacco on the nostrils hits us as the marshutka driver sucks down another smoke and drops back a gear while we weave through the rugged valley as night gives way to dawn. And so started our dawn journey from Borjomi to the town of Akhalsitke. There’s little here to keep you occupied for longer than a day though we used it as a base for the day trip to Vardzia caves (more on that later).
The only draw here is the Rabati Fortress which has been reconstructed quite recently a little haphazardly and on the cheap. Getting to the Mirage Hotel early due to the screw up in Borjomi they check us in early allowing a few hours of much needed rest before the walk to the Fortress.
Being within spitting distance of Turkey (18km) Rabati Fortress has existed since the 13th century until the Ottomans conquered it in the 1500’s. Left to decay during the Soviet era they’ve rebuilt the complex, taking only 15 months hence the lack of workmanship. Housing a mosque, church and synagogue along with a hotel and spa it’s vetted to become one of the top drawcards for this region.
Virtually empty at the time of visiting the off season closure of the wine bars was a little disappointing though if you ascending the back streets back in town you can get a perspective on how formidable a place it was with its hilltop position and backdrop of glorious mountains.
Mirage Hotel serves up some half decent food though a far better pleasure for you taste buds is Zuari Restaurant. A wallet pleasing menu, friendly ladies and a great homemade sparkling red wine in a cosy environment commands the two thumbs up.
Venturing further into the Georgian cuisine the we order servings of the ostri (tomato based soup with rice) , khacho (tomato based soup with a chunk of red meat) and lobio (red beans served in a clay pot) to go with the wine (which was so good that we drank them out of it and managed to piss off a certain policeman who came in mid-meal to purchase some).
And then the Georgian ambush struck us again. This time whilst attempting to sneak through the hotel’s restaurant to our room Matt makes it to the kitchen before we hear the unanswerable call to join the owners table. The glance of unwillingness from Matt is priceless as we are kidnapped and promptly sat down with a glass of wine homemade by one of the gentleman at the table. Many toasts, the obligatory photo session and a little too much attention paid towards Sarah later, we manage our goodbyes and part company, the entire evening having concluded without a single word of English spoken.
With close proximity to Akhaltsikhe Vardzia makes for a good day trip if you plan it right (click here for directions on how to get there). Being dropped off an hour and a half after leaving town we’re told that we need to get up the hill and around the caves within an hour and return to get the 13:00 return marshutka (though there is potentially a 15:00 return as well…). Walking around there’s a lot of reconstruction happening that gives you an appreciation of how they built it in the late 1100’s without a cable system and the power tools the’re using today.
Carved out of the rock with a resemblance to Minas Tirith of Lord of the Rings it was originally built as a monastery complex for the then Queen Tamar. After withstanding Mongol invaders it was only a century later that an earthquake tore the place apart leaving it like it is this day with only devout monks still utilising the place.
Scurrying around the cliff side entering and the monastery there’s a few tunnels in which to explore. There’s a ladder on the opposite side of a chamber so without hesitation we climb up it and into a small tunnel system that leads to other rooms with differing views over the valley, eventually descending another ladder and out into the open. From here it’s a return walk along the cliff face to complete a neat little circuit.
Seeing below that the return marshutka had arrived in the parking lot it’s a mild rush to get back down via the road, or you can do as the workmen do and make a beeline straight down the face of the cliff. A short play with the resident puppies (one of which was offered to Sarah to bring back to Australia) and we’re off back to Akhaltshike.
Enough of the history lesson, it’s now time to get to the real essence of Georgia, wine. See ya’ll in Telavi.
Tips for Akhaltshike and Vardzia
- Walk up Tabulkashvili Street for a great landscape shot of Rabati Fortress.
- The marshutka from Akhatltshike to Vardzia cost 5GEL
- Entrance to the fortress complex costs 7GEL
- If you are going to travel from Akhaltshike to Telavi you need to get from Didube Station (north Tbilisi) to Otrachala Station (south Tbilisi). The quickest and easiest way is to go by taxi for 10GEL which will save you a 1.5km walk when you get to the Isani metro station. Obviously the metro is a cheaper option if you don’t have a lot of baggage and have more time.
Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or questions hit us up below!
For more pics of our time in Georgia check out our Flickr page.