On our third day in Georgia, we had our Guide/driver ( see here how we found him) waiting for us at the hotel and started our tour of the Eastern part of the country.
First on the list was a visit to the David Gareji monastery. It is located in a semi-desert area in the South East of the country and close to the border with Azerbaijan 🇦🇿. The drive from Tiblisi will take about 2h30. We stopped in the way at Telliani Valley (an important exporter of Georgian wines) for a quick tour of their factory and some wine sampling.
We followed the concrete road for about 50 km East of Tiblisi and an unpaved road after that, all the way South. If you self drive, you should get a good map and clear indications as there are not many signs once you leave the main road. Do pack water and some snaks as this is going to be a long day hiking in the border area and other than a toilet, there is limited access to food or water once you get there. It was only us and a National Geographic vehicle when we arrived but in Summer it should be quite popular.
The first part of the monastery (called Lavra) perched on the mountain coast is the only inhabited part of the complex consisting of a church, small monasteries and the monks’ living quarters. The monk dwellings are carved in the face of the rock.
After visiting the complex, continue climbing for another 20 min, until you reach the top of the mountain and a smaller church. From there you can follow the metal railings on the other side of the mountain to visit the caves facing Azerbaijan. They have some beautifully preserved paintings and the vista over the rolling hills in Azerbaijan is the complete opposite for the desert like feel on the Georgian side. Be careful as there might be snakes in the area.
After our hike, our driver/guide started to drive towards Signagi, also called the city of love. On the way we stopped to buy bread and cheese from the side of the road. We passed through a few villages where the locals have set up stands in front of their houses offering vegetables, cheese and traditional bread for purchase. The bread is very nice and still produced fresh each day according to the traditional vertical oven method.
Just before entering Signagi, we stopped for a visit at the Monastery of St Nino, an important religious figure in Georgia. Although the main church was under construction, the gardens were very well maintained and peaceful.
We then continued to our guesthouse in Signagi ( Honeymoon Guesthouse), left our luggage and went for dinner in a nearby restaurant. The accomodation was in a clean one bedroom apartment, tastefully furnished. There was even access to a kitchen. The owners were not living on the premises but they could easily come by if you sent them a message. If you plan to spend a couple of nights in Signagi, this place has a great view and a good price.
For dinner we tried a few local specialities like khachapuri ( cheese pies) and eggplant with nut filling as well as pork barbeque. They were all tasty but the food we tried the following night, in Telavi, was much nicer.
Signagi is called the city of love as apparently you can get married there 24h per day and 7/7 days per week. As we woke up the next day, we decided to skip the wedding ceremony and went directly for a stroll In this well preserved medieval city. You can visit the old city walls and walk on them for great views of the surrounding countryside.
We continued then by car in direction Kvareli, took the wine road and stopped first at a small family owned cellar where the owner gave us an explanation on the traditional Georgian way to make wine (clay vessels buried underground) and we got to taste some of his 14 year old vintage accompanied by bread and cheese. This is a breakfast we will always remember!
After this small cellar, we moved on to a bit bigger one, in the same village in the outskirts of Kvareli. Here one could have lunch as well but it was still to early for us.
After tasting 5 types of wine and 2 types of chacha (strong alcohol similar to grappa) before 12h, we decided to take a short wine tasting break and visit the House museum of Ilia Chavchavatze, also called the father of the Georgian nation. Thanks to a nice guide – they have a few speaking English-we managed to get a few glimpses into recent Georgian history while we walked through the museum (holding some personal effects) as well as the house of this important historical figure.
We stopped for lunch at Khareba Winery restaurant and visited their cellars afterwards. This is huge place, definitely geared towards tourist groups but still interesting as they have 17 kilometres of underground tunnels for storing the wine. They are well known for the Saperavi wine which is produced according to the European method (aged in wood barrels). They also have vrey nice grape seed oil that would make a beautiful present once you are back.
Next on our list was the Museum of Gremi. From the outside, the old citadel looks definitely much more impressive than the inside. The few surviving objects are gathered on the ground floor and there is the possibility to climb to the higher floors as well. It is worth a short stop for the views from the tower.
After this short stop, we continued by car to the village of Shilda to visit the Nekresi Monastery Complex. Once you arrive at the foothills and buy the ticket (15 lari) a local bus will take you up the hill, on a steep winding road, to visit this old church.
On the hill top, you get about 30 min to explore the grounds. The entire complex was recently restored and you can access almost all the buildings. There are two 4th century churches, some monk dwelling and wine cellars with the typical kvrevi. The old grape trampling troughs were very well preserved. Finally, the best views of Alazani Valley can be had from here. We were there towards the end of the day and the sunset light made the panorama really magical. This site should definitely be on you Kakheti region must see list.
Before heading to our guesthouse in Telavi we stopped at the Shumi cellars. This is a well established wine maker in the region and well known for its Mukuzani wines. A wine tasting was about 5 GELs per person. They have a small wine museum that provides some insight into this important part of the Georgian identity. The gardens looked really nice. It would be the perfect place to relax in Summer with a glass of good wine.
Our overnight in Telavi was at the Neli and Zaal Guesthouse. We asked if it was possible to have dinner at the house and we were so happy that we did. The food was really amazing, freshly made by our hosts that day. We had the traditional khachapuri, eggplant with nut cream, homemade sausages as well as fish. It was by far the best meal of our trip!
The hosts joined us for dinner and it was great to hear their stories and learn some local customs about toasting and drinking. They even insisted we should take a bottle of their house made wine with us. We had a great evening in this guesthouse and would warmly recommend them to anybody looking for a place in Telavi. The breakfast next morning was absolutely gorgeous and we could eat on their terrace, overlooking the forrest.
In the morning, we stopped for a short visit in old Telavi. The fortress was in renovations and we could only see it from the outside. There is a 900 year old sycamore tree just across the street from the fortress that became a symbol of old Telavi.
We then continued our drive through the Gombori pass towards Tbilisi and from there North on the old military Highway towards the Great Caucasus. Although the road conditions are good, there a few noteworthy stops you can make on the way to make the roadtrip more enjoyable.
The first and most interesting is Ananuri fortified castle, about 30 min drive from Tbilisi. It is set on the border of a lake reservoir and easily visible from the main road. It consists of two churches, a watch tower and a small tunnel, all encircled by old walls. It is a great place to visit with kids as it reminds of fairytale castles. The views are nice, in particular with the blue lake on the background.
Given its proximity to Tbilisi, you can expect a fair amount of tourists. There is also a small souvenir market as you go up the path to the fortress.
Next stop was the famous Georgian ski resort of Gudauri, located at 2000m. There was already snow in November and the ski slopes looked open. Our guide mentioned it is very popular for heli- skiing. The main reason to stop here (outside skiing) is to take a few snaps of the Georgia-Russia friendship monument and admire the snow capped mountains.
Before reaching our hotel in Stepantsminda, we stopped for a hike ( about 1 h from the main road) to Arsha waterfall. The waterfall was nice but nothing too impressive. The pathway was steep and should not be attempted without appropriate shoes or with small children. For us, its was nice to move a bit after half a day in the car. We finished the day in our cosy room at Hotel Rooms Kazbegi and got ready for more hikes the following day.
The Hotel has the perfect location and you could admire Mt Kazbeg from your room. The best views were from the breakfast tables and outside terrace. The food in the restaurant was good but not necessarely traditional. A few local staples like khachapuri could be found on the menu. The lounge area was cosy and perfect for drinks with a mountain view. They had a pool and a sauna which was pretty nice to use in November, after a day of hiking.
Our Caucasus hiking day started with a trip to the Gate of Georgia or the frontier between Georgia to Russia. Here you can visit the monastery of St Archaengel. On the way back to Stepantsminda, there is a nice hike to the Gveleti waterfalls. The waterfall is located in the village of Gveleti, 7 km from the town of Stepantsminda. You must first drive through the Dariali Gorge, from which a leisurely hike up a narrow footpath leads the way to the Gveleti waterfall. Gveleti means “place of snakes” in Georgian, so keep an eye out for local wildlife!
After visiting the waterfalls, we were warmed up for the longer hike up, to Gergeti Trinity Church. This architectural complex from the XIV century is located in the village of Gergeti, 6 km from the town of Stepantsminda, at a height of 2200 m. The complex includes Holy Trinity Cathedral, the bell tower, and clergy houses from the XV century. You can hike up to the complex in about two hours at a more liesurely pace, following the road. We took about 1h15 min up, with few breaks. It is not a difficult hike but it can be quite tiring especially if you are not used to climbing.
Families with kids choose to hire a minivan from the village that costs the equivalent of 50 Euros. The drive is quite ‘sporty’ and bumpy from what we saw on the road and might be entertaining for older kids. On some portions of the road it looks really dangerous as the path is too narrow to accomodate two cars. I would not attempt it with younger children as there are no child seats and the ride looked really bumpy.
At 5,047 metres above sea level, Kazbegi Mountain (or Mkinvartsveri) is the third highest mountain in Georgia, and is surrounded by myths and religious tradition. According to Greek mythology, as punishment for teaching mankind how to make fire, the Titan Prometheus was chained to a mountainside in the Caucasus for all eternity.
The next day, full of admiration for the beauty of these mountains, we started back towards Tbilisi. On the way we stopped at the old capital of Mtskheta which deserves a couple of hours. Due to its historical significance and several cultural monuments, the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (11th century) and Jvari Monastery (6th century) in Mtskheta are amongst the most significant monuments of Georgian Christian architecture and should be on you list of places to visit.
Known as the burial site of Christ’s mantle, Svetitskhoveli has long been one of the principal Georgian Orthodox churches and is among the most venerated places of worship in the region. Svetitskhoveli is considered an endangered cultural landmark; it has survived a variety of adversities, and many of its priceless frescoes have been lost. Expect many tourists and pilgrims, especially during the week- end. The access is easy, even with a stroller or wheelchair, as the grounds are flat after you pass the main entrance. Around the cathedral, there are many restaurants and shops.
Jvari Monastery (also on the UNESCO Heritage list) stands on the rocky mountaintop at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, overlooking the town of Mtskheta. According to local accounts, on this location in the early 4th century Saint Nino, a female evangelist, erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. A small church was erected over the remnants of the wooden cross. Stories aside, the vista over the city is well worth the side trip.
Our roadrip ended in early afternoon in Tbilisi. We used the remaining time to take the funicular to the television tower, walk in the old city and enjoy a traditional dinner of Khinkali in the center ( have a look here for a few recommendations of attractions and places to eat in Tblisi).
Thanks for stopping by and happy travels!