Georgia (part I)

Everything you need to know about spending two weeks in Georgia (the country)!

Last September (2019) my partner and I set off on a two-week trip around Georgia. A direct flight from Brussels to the capital Tbilisi with Georgian Airways makes this lovely country very accessible.

Preparation for our trip started in January, booking our flights, travel insurance and  spending some good time perusing through various websites, blogposts and travel guides (Lonely Planet & Bradt).

Overall we spent just over 1000 Euro per person for the flights, insurance, hotels, transport, food and other costs, so quite a bargain in my opinion! They use the Lari (GEL) in Georgia, so I’ve added the prices of things (where I know them) in GEL below – always for 2 people unless noted otherwise.

The two-week adventure went by trains, minibuses (marshrutkas), and foot, visiting Borjomi, Mestia/Svaneti, Kazbegi and Sighnaghi, while passing through Tbilisi multiple times. Our itinerary looked like this:

Itinerary Georgia
Itinerary Georgia

Initially I wanted to put everything about our trip into this blog post, but as it was starting to turn into a book I’ll post part II separately. Now let me tell you how we spent the the first week!

 

Day 1: Tbilisi

Tbilisi views
Tbilisi views

It was our first time flying Georgian Airways and it all went smoothly. Upon arrival we collected our bags and took a local bus from the airport into town. Friends of ours had been to Georgia a few months before and had given us some leftover coins. This was very handy to pay for the bus fare – the drivers do not accept large denominations. However, we saw locals helping out other tourists to pay for their bus fare when they didn’t have change, which gave us a really nice first impression of the Georgians.

From the centre of Tbilisi we walked to our accomodation NAIKE, halfway between metro stations Rustaveli and Marjanishvili. It appeared to be a short walk but ended up a bit longer than expected. Add to that the misunderstanding of us thinking we had booked a room in a hotel, which turned out to be a room in an appartment in a residential area, without any signage outside. Luckily we saw some people exiting one of the neighbouring buildings. I addressed them in my very much broken Russian and they were so kind to call the owner of the flat who then came outside to collect us.

After checking in we went outside to explore the area and find a place to eat. We went with a recommendation from the travel guide, Barbarestan, which also ended up being the poshest and most expensive place where we’d eat during our whole trip. But the food was very nice and pretty much everything (bread, butter etc) was homemade, though portions were rather small.

We made the decision to walk to the train station and make an advance booking for the night train to Zugdidi. The train station was a bit confusing as it’s located across multiple levels, behind a maze that also functions as a market and on top of a shopping centre. We hadn’t been able to purchase tickets for a 2-person compartment online as they had already sold out. We therefore purchased two tickets in a 4 person cabin.

  • Bus from the airport (3 GEL)
  • NAIKE (175 GEL)
  • Dinner at Barbarestan (180 GEL)
  • 2 tickets for night train to Zugdidi (46 GEL) – in compartment of 4 people

Day 2: Tbilisi

On day 2, our first full day in Tbilisi we set off to explore the historical town and newer developments on the other side of the river. Tbilisi is quite walkable. We found a cute little spot along Rustaveli Avenue called Kvarts coffee. Coffee (well, tea) and cake sounds like a good breakfast to me, but as a gimmick one of the barista’s drew our portraits on our cups while we waited. Maybe not the most efficient thing when there’s a queue, but very cool and also a unique souvenir!

We walked past Liberty Square towards the old town. Though more touristy, it was nice to get away from the busy traffic and venture into these small and narrow streets. We passed the Metekhi Bridge and had a look around Rike Park and the Peace Bridge. There we took the cable car up to Narikala fortress for some lovely views over the city.

Ferris Wheel Mtatsminda
Ferris Wheel Mtatsminda

We had gotten quite hungry at this point and on our walk down from the fortress came across Cafe 38, where we had the most delicious pumpkin soup, overlooking the city. We thought about visiting a museum at this point, but as many of them were closed on Mondays we opted for Mtatsminda Park. We ascended the hill through the beautiful, though cracked and crumbling streets (partly the result of the 2002 earthquake, we assumed).

You go up to Mtatsminda Park by furnicular, which provides some spectacular views. It was quite windy and cold, so after taking in the views we had a mooch around the park. The park was founded by the Soviet government in the 1930s. Although efforts have been made to transform the attractions into a more current-day theme park, you still get a bit of a Soviet vibe sometimes. It probably didn’t help that there weren’t many people around when we visited (bar the occasional wedding photo shoot). The ferris wheel on the hill side is worth coming all the way though.

We walked back down towards the centre of town and decided to go for an early dinner at Veliaminovi. We had our first (and definitely not last) khachapuri and also tried a personal favourite of mine: eggplant rolls with walnut paste and pomegranates!

  • Breakfast at Kvarts coffee (21 GEL)
  • Lunch at Café 38 (38 GEL)
  • Furnicular (return) to Matsminda park (12 GEL)
  • Dinner at Veliaminovi (38 GEL)

Day 3: Tbilisi – Mtshketa/Borjomi – Tbilisi – Zugdidi

So the plan was to go to Mtshketa in the morning with a marshrutka, come back and then catch the night train to Zugdidi in the evening. But all did not go to plan.

We set off for Didude bus station in the early morning and encountered something that can only be described as utter chaos. Both travel guides and online blog posts had assured me that there would be marshrutkas (minivans) going from here to Mtshketa, but during our trip we didn’t see a single one. We bartered with and asked taxi and bus drivers, but no luck. Until one guy told us his bus was going to Mtshketa.

Okay, the bus itself said it was going to Borjomi, but the driver said it would stop on the way at Mtshketa. Well, it didn’t. We passed every possible exit to go to Mtshketa (you can even see it from the motorway) and just kept going. I clambered to the front of the marshrutka and explained in poor Russian to one lady where we wanted to go and she then translated it into Georgian for the driver, but to no avail. We took the lady’s advice and tried to make the best out of our unforeseen day trip to Borjomi – an added 135km to the original 25km journey.

Marjanishvili 8_resized
Marjanishvili 8

We arrived and had a look around, went for a hot drink and then picked up the freshest, most delicious smelling khachapuri from a tiny bakery. We took the cable car up the hill (they do love their cable cars!) and decided to walk back down the side of the hill and through another theme park. We settled for some lunch and then caught the bus back to Tbilisi. People also seemed to be picked up and dropped off at random points alongside the motorway, which made the trip a bit more interesting, to say the least.

Back in Tbilisi we picked up our luggage and made a stop at the quaint Marjanishvili 8 for cake and drinks. Then we topped up our thermos with tea in McDonalds (as you do), picked up some snacks and headed over to the train station. After a bit of a wait we climbed into the train and tried to get comfortable. The 8-hour long journey filled with heavy snoring and unpleasant smells was about to commence!

  • Chocolate bread rolls (1,7 GEL) from the little market by bus station
  • Return marshrutka (28 GEL)
  • Hot drinks at Café Inka (8 GEL)
  • Fresh chapchapuri (2,5 GEL)
  • Cable cart  (10 GEL)
  • Marjanishvili 8 (17,76 GEL)
  • Supplies (4,65 + 9,7 GEL)

 

Day 4: Zugdidi – Mestia

Mestia_resized
Mestia

Somehow I managed to fall asleep and woke up when we were about to arrive in Zugdidi. We got off and dispersed among the many marshrutkas that were waiting for us by the train station. After the initial shock of our marshrutka overtaking a police car, the remainder of the journey went smoothly and the views were stunning. We made a stop at a roadside café where we got some drinks and watched stray dogs have the time of their lives. After 3 hours of driving we arrived in the centre of Mestia. It was significantly colder than Tbilisi so we had some hot food to counter the chill and perk ourselves up from the little amount of sleep we’d had.

Afterwards we went to find our guest house, Mountain Star, which was situated a little outside the village. We got there on a Wednesday with little to no other guests around, so we even got to pick our room. By the time we left I think all rooms in the guest house were taken. Mestia is a picturesque village with old cobblestones and iconic Svaneti towers. You can see that tourism is increasing and more guest houses are being built everywhere. We didn’t have enough time for the multiple-day trek to Ushguli, so we settled for 3 day hikes around Mestia.

Zuruldi Ridge views
Zuruldi Ridge views

We wanted to do a walk of some sorts that day and decided to take the cable car up the Zuruldi ridge. It had been described as an ‘easy walk’ online, but my god it wasn’t! It might have been the lack of sleep and not consuming the most nourishing of foods, but I struggled during the hike. So we decided to cut the hike short and started to decend via the ski slopes. Thankfully, we encountered some stunning scenary, which lifted my spirits.

We took the slightly scary cable car (not for those with a fear of heights!) back down to the village and relaxed a bit at the guest thouse. In the evening we ventured back into the town where we had dinner at Cafe Lanchvali. We tried some of the cheesy mash with Svaneti salt and had the best Lobio (beans in a pot) of our entire trip! The walk back in the dark over steep, narrow, cobble paved roads was an interesting experience my ankles weren’t very happy with.

  • Marshrutka (3h – 40 GEL)
  • Drinks at roadside café (5 GEL)
  • Lunch at Seti café (40 GEL)
  • Cable car (30 GEL)
  • Dinner at Cafe Lanchvali (50 GEL)
  • Staying at Mountain Star (490 GEL for 3 nights + 3 breakfasts and 2 dinners)

 

Day 5: Mestia

Svaneti
Svaneti mountains

Our day started off with an early breakfast, big enough to fuel our hike up to The Cross Over Mestia, and further on to the Koruldi Lakes. Departure was before sunrise and steep slopes out of the village provided the first challenge of the day. Before this trip I thought I was in good shape (I’d been running, doing workouts etc) but gosh, these hikes proved me wrong. I was happy I bought some walking sticks for this trip as they came in very handy.

Our first destination, visible from the village, was The Cross Over Mestia. There are two main trails , both varying in difficulty. The easier route consists of both paths and dirt track, whereas the alternative route is a steep narrow trail.  I preferred the former option because it provides you with clear views. However, you are often giving way to jeeps with the one-day tourists, bringing clouds of dust, which wasn’t fun.

Cross on the
The Cross Over Mestia

The last bit up to the cross was tough, but we made it and took a short break to enjoy the views. Then it was time for the second part of the journey, up to the Koruldi Lakes. The scenary just left you in awe. I had to dig deep, but it was worth the effort when we reached the lakes.

After a moment of rest we climbed further up Mt. Ushba to get a better view over the lakes. This was followed by a tea break to relax our legs and eat something. Afterwards it was time for the inevitable: hike all the way back down. Personally, I sometimes find this harder and a nerve-wracking experience, because your legs are tired and shaky, and the paths are often covered in loose rocks.

Koruldi lakes
Koruldi lakes

Slowly but surely we made our way back down back via the same route we took going up. We were even accompanied by one of the stray dogs who made the walk look like a breeze. We went back to the guest house to relax and check out our developing sunburn. Luckily we booked to have dinner at the guest house that night. It was delicious and pretty great that we didn’t have to walk anywhere for it.

 

Day 6: Mestia

Another day in the mountains, another point to hike to! On our last full day in Svaneti we decided to hike up to the Chalaadi Glacier, but not without indulging on another big breakfast first! We set off from the guest house and followed the Mestia-Chala river. The first part of the journey took us through construction sites and new developments, characterised by dusty roads. But once we made it to the drawbridge – the starting point of the ascent to the glacier –  the walk was enclosed by wildnerness and fresh air.

You could tell this was an easier walk as a lot more people were making a similar trek. The first part of the hike was through forests; paths zigzaging parallel to the swirling river until it opened up to the scree – deposits of the retreating glacier.

Chalaadi Glacier
Chalaadi Glacier

We crossed the valley to have a look at where the glacier meltwater contributes to the river. It was quite an impressive sight, although you can tell that it must have been a lot larger before and come a lot further into the valley.

Encouraged by my other half, I braved the unsteady and at times slippery stones to climb on the glacier and have a closer look at the actual ice. It was impressive, scary and mind-blowing at the same time. And then we hadn’t even started the descent, which was my least favourite part. As soon as we started going back down I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that we were standing on a melting glacier, covered with loose stones. There was the risk of falling rocks and you could hear rumbles as large rocks came crashing down. Fortunately we made it back down unscathed and then started our hike back down the valley and over the drawbridge.

Valley Chalaadi River_resized
Valley Chalaadi River

On the walk back from there we flagged down a passing car and paid him to take us back to Mestia, where we rewarded ourselves with a refreshing beer. We had a scrumptious dinner at our guest house again and packed up our stuff, ready to set off again from Mestia in the morning.

⦁ Beer at La Trattoria (10 GEL) on the way back
⦁ Taxi for part of the way back to the village (20 GEL)

Eager to read about more hiking in Georgia, tasting  Georgian wine or trying out the sulfur baths in Tbilisi? Read part II of our Georgia trip.

 

Don’t forget to check out my other blog posts about the longer trips we’ve made recently: Cracow, Malta and Morocco!

 

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