We arrived in Tbilisi Central Rail station in the morning after a thirteen hours overnight train ride from Baku, Azerbaijan. We slept quite well in spite of sharing a quad cabin with a Georgian mother and her daughter. They were quiet, friendly and polite during our entire trip together within the small size cabin for four.
We took a taxi to the car rental office in Tbilisi town center to pick up our pre-arranged rental car. The rental car office was in a very busy section of the Tbilisi old town and there was holiday road closure on this particular section of town that prevented the taxi driver dropping us off directly to the rental office. Using maps.me to navigate, we rolled our suitcases for several blocks through the cobblestone sidewalk to the rental office.
The rental office appear to be fairly new but the staff were quite friendly and efficient with the paperwork for our pre-arranged vehicle.
Our first stop with the car is a city called Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities of Georgia, 20 kilometers north of Tbilisi. Here we checked out the important Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which is of extraordinary importance to the Georgian people and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was here that Georgia adopted Christianity in AD 334 and it remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. There were 4 weddings going on at this church; today being the 100th anniversary of Georgia independence on 26 May 1918, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. We also stopped by Jvari Monastery, on a cliff above Mtskheta. The 6th century monastery is the culmination of a number of artistic and architectural aspirations in early Christian Georgian architecture. Here high on a hill there is a great view of the town Mtskheta below, and there were three more weddings here that day. As we headed back to Mtskheta town center, we realized the traffic police blockade was due to the Independence Day celebration in town with dancing and other cultural activities. We enjoyed the performance for awhile but had to tear ourselves away because of the mountainous drive ahead to our final destination of the day.
We continued our drive north towards Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) on one of the oldest road in Georgia, the Georgian Military Highway towards the high Caucasus Mountains. Our 3 hours drive took more than twice as long due to herds of sheep on the highway throughout, the rugged mountainous passes, some rain, and a vehicle accident between a truck and car right at a road switch back that block traffic in both direction for over an hour. We reached Stepantsminda town center in the early evening but we had booked our accommodation outside of the town center in order to be closer to the start of our hike in the morning to the Gergeti Trinity Church.
So we still had to find the guest house further out within the mountain village. This turned out to be more difficult than we anticipated as our navigation tool map did not work within the small village roads (more like alleys). An elderly Georgian couple came to assist us but we could not communicate. After my futile attempt with google translate, they pulled out their mobile phone and called their granddaughter to assist. She appeared shortly and kindly directed the way to our guest house.
In spite of arriving so late without notifying the guest house owner, they kindly provided us with a nice home made Georgian meal at a very reasonable cost. It was delicious after our unexpected long journey.
We woke up to a view of Gergeti Trinity Church from our guest house early in the morning. But we knew that the cloud drifting in and around Mont Kabergi, one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus Mountains at 5,047 m. could soon cover up that view. Having informed our guest house the evening before of our plans to hike first thing in the morning, we started our trek from the guesthouse at 6:30 am in order to avoid possible rain showers forecasted later in the day.
We hiked across the village, passing small farms, woodland, streams and up the valley for 90 minutes. The weather in the mountain can change at any moment and it looked like clouds were gathering as we near the summit. But amazingly, the cloud parted just as we reached within sight of the large white cross in front of the Church. Gergeti Trinity Church was built in the 14th century, and sits at an elevation of 2,170 meters under Mount Kazbegi, which straddles the continental divide between Europe and Asia. By the time we completed our walk inside and around the church, the mountain clouds were rolling in again. So we started our descend back down the mountain to our guesthouse for our breakfast.
After our breakfast, we left our guesthouse and drove south on the Georgian Military Highway, passing the ski resort town of Gudauri. We stopped at a Russia-Georgia friendship monument overlooking the Devil’s Valley along the highway. The scenery along this old highway is so spectacular we had to make another photo stop at the Jvari pass in spite of many sightseeing plans ahead on route to our final destination of Gori.
10 km east of Gori, we stopped at Uplistsikhe (the Fortress of the Lord), one of the oldest existing cities in Georgia, now abandoned. Founded in the 16th century BC and carved out of rock, this was a bustling city over 3,000 years ago and was, before the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, a major regional center of Caucasian pagan worship. It was very windy at the very top of the cave city.
We continued to the town of Gori, a city famous for being the home town of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. We walked up to Goris Tsikhe (Gori Castle) in the center of the city for a nice view of this small city. The castle was conquered by the Roman General Pompei in the first century BC. Now it is abandoned but offers a peaceful place for locals to enjoy a birds eye-view of their town.
We visited the Joseph Stalin museum in town. It is a rather controversial museum preserving awkward memories of Georgia’s most famous native son. The museum is very large, with many rooms covering the entire life and times of this ruthless leader. Outside of the main museum building you can pay an extra fee to visit Stalin’s private railroad car which he used to travel everywhere. Stalin’s boyhood house is also preserved on the museum grounds.
Gori is a one of many wine regions in Georgia. Many homes grow their grapes and make their own wine. The tradition Georgian method use Qvevris, an egg-shaped earthenware vessel for making, ageing, and storing the wine. The pressed grape juice, grape skins, stalks and pips are all poured into the Qvevri, which is sealed and buried in the ground so that the wine can ferment for five to six months before being drunk. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. With this in mind, our accommodation for the night, within the rural community just outside of Gori, was called Gogi Dyalishvili Wine Cellar, where the owner provides his guest with a tour of his wine cellar. It was a good decision. Our room in the
guesthouse was spacious, airy, well furnished, and had a view into the family vine farm. The tour of the wine cellar was so interesting, and the various wines the owner selected to accompany our home cooked Georgian dinner were all very tasty.
We left early the next morning as there was one more famous place to check off before returning our rental car; David Gareji Monastery, 2.5 hours drive outside of Tbilisi. David Gareja is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery complex located in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia, on the half-deserted slopes of Mount Gareja. The complex was founded in the 6th century by St. David Garejeli, one of the thirteen Assyrian monks who arrived in this region around this time. Our drive was through isolated deserts, passing through a military base. There was no one around us, and we were surprised the road is so remote and in such a poor condition for this important historic site. When we finally arrived at the Monastery, there were only 2 other vehicles and one mini-tour bus at the Monastery. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rock face. Because the complex is partially located on the territory of Azerbaijan, it has become subject to a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan, with ongoing talks since 1991. We enjoyed this inspiring place in spite of the construction work that closed off some areas during our visit.
The return drive on the remote and rough road back to Tbilisi was still tiring, but at least we knew it was the correct route. Thankfully, we reached Tbilisi before dark, dropped off our luggage at our Tbilisi hotel, and returned our rental car at the agreed upon time. It was then time to re-fuel with Georgian beer and dumplings.
Tbilisi’s 2 metro lines are easy to access and is inexpensive. The cable car is part of the metro line. One can take the cable car up to the Narikala Fortress, or take a nice walking path to the Fortress for a spectacular view of the whole city. After walking up we tried the zipline at the top of the cable car station. The ride was a thrill with top speed of 50 km per hour, taking us down to the National Botanical Garden.
Distinctive architecture in the old town are the wooden balconies in many different style and colors. Notable modern architecture would include the pedestrian Peace Bridge over the Kura River and the Music Hall near Rike Park. For holy places, the most famous in the city is the Holy Trinity Cathedral , the third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world.
There are many wine bars in Tbilisi with a wide variety of Georgian wines to choose from. There were also many shops selling fresh fruits and a snack that looked like wax sausages. These unique snack is called Churchkhela, a traditional Georgian candle-shaped snack, and the main ingredients are grape must, nuts and flour.
Like most European cities, Tbilisi has a big square with history to impress the visitors. The most beautiful and historical streets are linked to Freedom Square such as Rustaveli Avenue, Leonidze Street, Leselidze Street and Tabidze Street. The Golden Statue of St. George is in the very center of the square.
Tbilisi has a funicular to Mount Mtatsminda. Unlike the cable car, it is not part of the metro system and a separate ticket is required. At the top is a large amusement park with rides, family games, restaurants, cafes, and even a wax museum.
After all the sightseeing, we tried out one of Tbilisi many baths. Tbilisi is built on top of thermal springs. The bath water contains sulphur and is around 40°-50°C. In fact, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, would not exist without this bath. According to a legend, king Vakhtang Gorgasali’s falcon fell in these sulfur waters, and this was how the hot springs were discovered. The king decided to move the capital city to this place and named it “Tbilisi” (“Tbili” meaning “warm” in Georgian). It was a tough choice on which one bath to try but we settled on the oldest and most traditional, sulfur bath No. 5 with its beautiful domes outside at ground level.
At the conclusion of this whirlwind tour of Georgia’s highlights, we took a shared taxi (Marshrutkas) to Yerevan.