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Springtime in the Caucasus

Working up a holiday to a new destination, especially a new country, inevitably means a lot of research. Is there enough of interest? Are the standards (especially accommodation) sufficiently acceptable for the needs of the 21st Century tourist? Is it safe (alas a much too common question in today’s troubled world)? Whilst the answers to these questions can almost be taken for granted in much of the western world, there is a growing demand for more unusual destinations and these require extremely careful planning. Ffestiniog Travel’s Alan Heywood travelled to Georgia to find out if it was a suitable destination for future holidays.

Following the success of our rural holidays to Romania over the past few years, we have wondered which other countries in Eastern Europe might offer a similar experience, allowing us an in-depth look into the history and culture of a destination which is not well known to most of us. We accepted that this kind of holiday can’t simply be about trains – there aren’t enough of them and they don’t go to some of the places we would want to visit. We would use the train wherever possible of course but the tour which would unfold would be a mixture of rail and road travel, scenery, historical sites and so on. Those who have been with us to Romania will know exactly what I mean.

Why write it up in a blog such as this? Well, we believe that these holidays have a rather special appeal. If you shudder at the thought of anywhere less perfect than Switzerland, a holiday to Eastern Europe probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you have just a little sense of adventure and are curious to visit some of those places that you have so far only read about, you might be really pleased to know more. I certainly was.

To get this new project off the ground, I needed the help of my colleague, Ramona. She’s the one who is the real brains behind our Romanian programme as she has an instinct for getting to grips with the character of a destination. She’s the one who will spot the local market or the roadside stallholders whilst I’m too preoccupied wondering if we have left ourselves enough time to get to our next destination by nightfall.

One final point – what follows in this blog can be no more than a précis. To keep down the cost, we needed to research a 12 day holiday in just six days and so the days, for us, were very long and we missed out several of the site visits which will eventually become part of the published tour.

Day 1

I was already in Romania and so it made sense for the two of us to fly with Turkish Airlines from Bucharest via Istanbul to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. (The advertised tour will fly from London, also via Istanbul). We had already worked out that this airline provides the only arrival that isn’t in the middle of the night and, for us, 5.25pm was ideal.

We were met on arrival by Alexandra (Alex), our local guide and mentor and Shalva, our driver, whose pride and joy was a spanking new 4WD right hand drive Hilux, recently imported from Japan. It was spotlessly clean – but not for long. Both spoke excellent English and we made short work of the journey into the city.

They dropped us at our hotel and, in view of what happened later, it is important to mention at this point that this is not the hotel we will use for our group. Our agent had chosen the KMM because it would keep down the cost of our research, not because it was the best hotel in town!

We checked in and then Ramona and I went in search of an evening meal. Tbilisi was a pleasant surprise compared with some former Communist cities I could mention. Set in a deep river valley (there is a funicular railway and a gondola cable car to reach the higher parts), buildings are a mixture of traditional and ultra modern but all are very tasteful. Communist high rise seemed confined to the suburbs. There was no shortage of places to eat in the “old town” and the whole place was bustling, even on a rather damp March evening.

Next day we had one of those long days and needed to be on our way by 7.00. We had already discovered a problem at check-in.

“Breakfast is from 8.00”

What, in a business hotel, in a capital city, on a Monday morning? Did we hear it right?

“Breakfast is from 8.00”. Yes, we heard it right!

“In that case, please can we have a breakfast tray to our rooms?” Yes, that would be OK. Problem solved.

When we arrived back at the hotel after our nice evening meal (complete with ice cream), we went straight to our rooms. It was probably about 10 pm although I didn’t check. Almost immediately my phone rang. It was Ramona.

“Have you seen your breakfast?”

“No, it hasn’t arrived yet.”

“Yes it has. Check by the side of your bed.”

I did just that and, sure enough, there was a three inch piece of French bread, neatly cut into slices and wrapped in cling film. There were also three small cookies but no butter, no jam, no drink – nothing apart from three inches of dry bread and three cookies.

Day 2

Alex was already waiting for us when we came downstairs at 7.00 and, after we told her about breakfast, she remonstrated with the receptionist.

“Well, what did they want?” Breakfast, perhaps?

The sun was just coming up and the weather promised to be a great improvement on the previous evening. We soon left the city behind and headed north on a road which goes by the name of the Georgia Military Highway.

Our first surprise, not long after we reached the open road, was to overtake a long stationary convoy of Russian trucks waiting to go up the same road. Alex explained that these were empty trucks returning to Russia after delivering food to Armenia. I shuddered slightly but was reassured that this was all part of normal commerce as Armenia depends on Russia for much of its food. We saw several other similar convoys during the day, some loaded and going in the opposite direction but almost always stationary. Alex explained that, because of the state of the road in winter, their movements were restricted to certain times of the day. I was glad we weren’t going up the pass behind such a convoy – there must have been at least 80 to 100 vehicles.

First stop was Ananuri – the monastery looked lovely in the early morning light although the reservoir below needed rather more water to make a decent photograph. Alex explained that it was low as it awaited the melt water from the winter snow.

As the road climbed higher, the mountainous landscape opened up before us. On our left were snow covered 15,000 feet peaks, beyond which lies South Ossetia, one of those parts of Georgia which had been the subject of the 2008 war with Russia. It wouldn’t be right to dwell too much on local politics but, suffice it to say, that our impressions of Georgia were of a country which is very pro–western and hadn’t got any good words to say about Russia. It’s all very peaceful now but there’s no doubt that 2008 left a bitter taste.

A series of hairpin bends brought us to the village of Gudauri, now a growing ski resort with several hotels. Main attraction here was the local supermarket. Georgia isn’t noted for its large supermarkets except, perhaps, in Tbilisi but small towns and villages often have a tiny one called Smart. Apart from selling the usual supermarket products, Smart also does coffee and sticky buns – breakfast at last! The toilets are nice and clean too.

Not far beyond Gudauri and set back from the road is a multi coloured circular ruin called the Friendship Monument, built in USSR times to celebrate friendship between Russia and Georgia. It is now in ruins, probably because there isn’t any!

By lunchtime we had arrived in Kazbegi which has now reverted, on street signs at least, to its old name of Stepantsminda. We spent some time admiring the views, especially across the valley to the Holy Trinity Church which we will visit on the tour. We checked three hotels, one a little institutional (more like a university hall of residence), one in the centre of the village and the one we really liked – the Rooms Hotel – up the hill from the village centre with amazing views of the mountains and the cows grazing in the meadows below. The Rooms Hotel looks like a Communist factory on the outside (perhaps it was) but the inside has everything you could want in such an out-of-the-way place – a panoramic terrace for breakfast too. We intend to stay here on our tour.

We took lunch with a village family in much the same way as we do in Romania – home grown produce and wine. We must get this place into the tour too – perhaps after our visit to the Holy Trinity Church and before we set off back to Tbilisi.

For us, though, we had to return to Tbilisi same day. The Russian border was only a further twenty minutes up the valley so we turned around in Kazbegi. We mistimed our departure and were held at the foot of the pass for about half an hour awaiting a Russian truck convoy coming the other way. Then it was straightforward – another pause in Gudauri to check a hotel but, by this time, we had already decided that the Rooms Hotel was the one for us.

We stopped at Ananuri once more and this time visited the small church and, just before Tbilisi, we also visited the church at Mtskheta.

It was, perhaps, around 5.30 when we reached the city centre but there was more to do. Our agent had arranged for us to check out four more hotels – all of them very acceptable but we chose the Tiflis Palace. Ramona’s camera was kept busy photographing the rooms and even the bathrooms.

Finally it was time for evening meal and we were joined by Khatuna, product manager at Visit Georgia who had arranged the trip for us. We were tired by the time we returned to the KMM, glad that breakfast next morning wasn’t required before 8.00.

Day 3

Breakfast was served in the small restaurant on the fifth floor and, in fairness, was much better than our makeshift job of the previous day.

Once again, Alex was there to meet us promptly at 9.00 and we drove to the railway station. The value of a local guide soon became apparent. The Georgian alphabet and language is like nothing we had ever seen before. What platform does the train go from? Where does it go? What’s the Georgian for train and platform anyway?

Alex found the train without any difficulty. It was up three escalators and down a fourth. We were met by the most unsmiling railway official you have ever seen. He must have been a good party member in the olden days. He scrutinised our tickets, obviously hoping to find fault but finding none. He scrutinised them again. Perhaps the printing ink was too faint. No. He seemed to become even more morose and eventually handed them back without a word.

It was perhaps fitting that the train itself was former USSR stock and that added to the atmosphere. It was clean though and quite comfortable. In any case, we were only on it for about an hour to Gori.

Here we alighted, paying close attention to the holes in the platform surface and the rather broken concrete steps that led down to a foot crossing by which we made for the exit. In all former Communist countries we have visited, the railways are always the last to receive funds to smarten themselves up.

Our first objective here was to make the short drive to the Uplistsikhe cliff dwellings and temple. Those who have been to Colorado, Utah and Arizona may have seen similar cliff dwellings and these in Georgia are every bit as good.

Next, we drove into Gori itself. Gori’s claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and this presented Alex with a bit of a problem. As a good loyal Georgian, she doesn’t do anything Russian, including Stalin’s museum but she did say that Ramona and I could go into the museum if we wanted. Ramona, being a loyal Romanian, doesn’t do Stalin either and, as I was much more interested in his railway carriage standing outside, we settled for that.

Then it was time for lunch and, before long, Shalva was pointing his Hilux in a generally westerly direction and heading for the main road out of town.

We hadn’t gone far when we came across an enormous number of stallholders lining the roadside with their fruit and vegetables. “Stop”, called Ramona, never being one to miss out on an opportunity for some local colour. We stopped and bought some apples and pears and wondered how on earth they were going to sell all this produce before it decayed – supplies were huge but there was a definite shortage of buyers.

This part of the journey was along a wide valley between the Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges and the mountains themselves were clearly visible on both sides.

At Khashuri we turned south into the Lesser Caucasus and the valley closed in. Next stop was Borjomi where a stroll in the park and coffee and cake in a local cafe occupied us for half an hour or so. Here also is the start of the narrow gauge railway to Bakuriani but more of that tomorrow.

Bakuriani was indeed our next overnight stop and, as we climbed into the mountains, the weather, which had been good up to this point, took a turn for the worse and it started to snow. At one point the narrow gauge line crossed the valley on an enormous steel bridge designed by Eiffel (of tower fame). We thought it would look good with a train on it and hastily made plans for tomorrow.

By the time we reached Bakuriani, the snow had stopped and we found a small but pleasant and developing ski resort. Our Hotel Crystal was ideal – all the facilities you might expect in a small hotel designed for winter sports and summer walking and with a nice buffet style evening meal.

Day 4

We couldn’t come all this way and not have a ride on the narrow gauge train but we also needed that photo of the train on the bridge. Ramona made an offer I couldn’t refuse. She would go with Shalva in the Hilux whilst Alex and I would take the train. There are only two trains per day – morning and afternoon and they run throughout the year. I wondered why the line had survived with such a good road up to the town but Alex explained that this road is often closed in winter.

So, after a good buffet breakfast, we made our way down through the village to the station and found the 1005 train ready and waiting. At the head was the ugliest electric loco you have ever seen. It was built by Skoda in 1967. Don’t laugh! The USSR didn’t do Skoda jokes! Previously the line had been worked by steam and there is a loco on a plinth near the bottom terminus at Borjomi. A couple of austere coaches (one rebuilt with panoramic windows) completed the train formation. The track gauge is 900mm.

I chose the unrebuilt coach primarily because it had a back balcony which looked good for photos. There were only about three other passengers – March is between seasons in Bakuriani so there were no tourists around.

At 1005 on the dot, the Skoda sprang into life (a bit of writer’s licence here!!!) and the conductor collected our fare to the intermediate station of Tsaghveri. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to do the whole 50 kms trip which would have taken two and a half hours. Meanwhile Ramona and Shalva set off by road. They would have a long wait at the bridge as the train is extremely slow.

The weather was beautiful – hardly a cloud in the sky and pleasantly warm for the time of year so I made good use of the back balcony until we stopped to pick up some workmen who had been cutting back trees. Logs and cutting gear now occupied my chosen space.

Much of the upper part of the line is in the forest but the views opened out as we descended. We stopped at a couple of small villages where a handful of local people boarded with empty shopping bags, obviously on their way to town.

The conductor became very excited about Eiffel’s bridge and insisted I took a photo but, in truth, I hoped Ramona had got a better one.

On arrival at Tsaghveri, a larger number of locals were waiting to board and we passed a train going in the opposite direction. Ramona and Shalva were waiting for us and we were soon on our way again.

On reaching the main road at Borjomi, we turned left and headed further along the valley. We paused briefly for photos at a village with a rather nice castle and then arrived at Akhaltsikhe where we were due to stop for lunch. The homestay chosen for this was also to be our accommodation for the night and, perhaps, for the group tour also.

Here we had our first disappointment of our trip but these things happen sometimes on research trips – that’s why we do them! The homestay was lovely, the people friendly and welcoming and the food exceptionally good. The problem was Akhaltsikhe as a destination – it was a bit too industrial and former Communist for our taste. As Ramona quite rightly pointed out, if our customers want a nice walk after their evening meal, they can turn left for the apartment block at the end of the street or turn right for the builder’s yard. Without hesitation, we decided to replan the actual tour so that an additional night would be taken at Bakuriani and we would do today’s trip as an out and back excursion from there.

Meanwhile there was more research to be done. We visited the fortress and then continued up the valley to our main objective, the cliff town of Vardzia. This was much bigger and higher up the cliff face than the one we had visited at Uplistsikhe on the previous day. In fact it looked an awful lot higher. Did we have to walk all the way up there? Well, yes and no! In the tourist season there is a shuttle bus part way and, for those who don’t want to walk at all, there is a café in the car park at the entrance. Neither was in operation in March and so a walk it was!

I have to say it was well worth it – well, he would say that afterwards, wouldn’t he? The footpath wasn’t too steep and there were some steps, also not steep. Alex said the caves were about 300 metres above the valley floor and the climb took about an hour including stops for photos and resting. There’s a small church near the top and, beyond that, to reach the topmost caves, there is a passageway inside the rock face with some steps and plenty of head banging opportunities. This section can be omitted if desired and indeed the whole experience will be optional for those taking part in the tour. However, it is definitely recommended for those who feel up to it.

The ride back to Akhaltsikhe was uneventful. We did check out another accommodation there but, by now, we had fallen out of love with the town and made our way back to our homestay for evening meal and a good night’s sleep.

Day 5

We were up bright and early because today was one of those days when we had to cover two days’ journey in one.

Retracing our steps down the valley as far as Khashuri (from where we plan to catch a train on the tour itself), we then turned west towards Kutaisi. In one village, stallholders were baking the local speciality – a kind of spiced bread which tastes not unlike a Hot Cross Bun. We had one straight from the oven – delicious. The next village did pottery – more stallholders by the roadside. The pottery didn’t look too special. It had that red terra cotta look that you can find in so many garden centres in the UK. Even Ramona, who usually gets very excited by pottery, couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm here so we drove on to Kutaisi.

Kutaisi is quite a big town, the outskirts of which didn’t look very inspiring. However on reaching the centre, we found it much more attractive. The tour will stay the night here and so there was accommodation to check. We found a couple of delightful small hotels in a quiet residential area up the hill from the town centre but sufficiently close to avoid the feeling of isolation. Both had very comfortable looking rooms and a nice restaurant with terrace overlooking the town.

Job done, we returned to the town centre for lunch and then drove the short distance out of town to the Gelati Monastery. Spring had come earlier to this western side of the country and the trees were already in bud and spring flowers were appearing in the meadows. It was early afternoon, the air was warm and the sun was shining. Our spirits were high – much higher than they would have been if we had known how far we still had to travel today!

We continued west to Zugdidi where Messrs. Smart provided a toilet stop and some chocolates and soft drinks. It must have been early evening before we hit the mountain road that would take us up to Mestia and, before long, it was dark. Never mind – we would see this part in daylight in a couple of days.

Up and up we went – as far as we could judge, we were on a ledge on the side of the valley with a mountain on one side and a steep drop into the valley on the other. We have them in Wales but not as big! “The scenery is lovely here,” said Alex. “You can’t see the big glacier up there.” She was right. We couldn’t.

We arrived at Mestia about 9.00 and Shalva turned the Hilux into the yard of a lovely homestay we would be using for the next couple of nights. A hot meal was waiting and then it was bedtime.

Day 6

We were lucky yet again. The sky was clear blue and the sun was up by the time we had enjoyed our breakfast, all prepared from local produce. We were given a packed lunch for later, for today was the day we would finally make it to Ushguli (altitude 7910 feet, population 200), the highest inhabited village in Europe. We felt like explorers on a mission and soon realised why we had been using a 4WD all this time. After a very few kilometres, the tarmac road gives way to a very rough track – as in really, really rough. It is 44kms from Mestia to Ushguli and the journey takes three hours. There are a couple of small villages along the way but, mostly, you just sit transfixed by the scenery. This part of Georgia is known as Svaneti and most houses in the villages have tall towers attached. These were built for defence.

“Against foreign invaders?” we asked of Alex.

“No, against each other.”

Ushguli itself comprises four villages. There is a school. Most people are engaged in agriculture and surprisingly, given the nature of the terrain, they have cows rather than sheep. They also have horses which are hired out to intrepid tourists in the summer season.

Most curious of all, there is a border post with two armed soldiers in attendance.

“Russia is just over that mountain,” explained Alex.

“They are perhaps kept busy then,” I replied.

“Not really. The way over the mountain is impassable!”

We had a short walk and, having decided that downhill would be better than uphill at this altitude, Shalva drove ahead to wait for us down at the bridge over the stream.

We made our way back to Mestia where we arrived around 4.00. We checked a couple of small hotels – both very nice. Mestia is slowly developing as a ski resort and so there is more accommodation here than one might expect in such a remote destination.

Finally we had a little free time – a huge novelty on this trip. So Ramona and I wandered down the quiet main street, called in at a small souvenir shop and then discovered a nice hotel which did coffee and cakes just for us under a sun umbrella in the garden. Bliss!

Day 7

We now had the chance to see the road from Mestia to Zugdidi in daylight. This was going to be another of those two-days-in-one but at least, on this occasion, we would do the best scenery in daylight.

The road down the valley proved to be every bit as spectacular as we had been told even though, on this occasion, the sun was hazy and the sky was an off white instead of blue. The light cloud cover was at least high enough to avoid obscuring the mountains.

We stopped in a village to visit a small general store where the owner was remarkably cheerful considering that his shop and, indeed, the whole village would be drowned in a couple of years when the huge hydro-electric scheme would be finished. We were told that, in spite of the consequences for the villagers and surrounding area, the scheme had much support because it would make Georgia self-sufficient for energy. To this end, it was also being supported by Europe.

Smart’s in Zugdidi did good business from us and we now continued through low lying country towards the Black Sea which we reached in the mid-afternoon.

The city of Batumi is a thriving port and a fast developing resort. Several large hotels were under construction and some big international names were there. This was such a culture shock after Mestia and Ushguli that it was difficult to come to terms with the hustle and bustle. Not that there was anything wrong with Batumi – it was just that it was a normal city and we weren’t used to doing normal!

We checked a couple of hotels, both very nice, had a pleasant meal in a restaurant which Alex knew and sat on the sea front for a while.

Then it was time to catch the evening train back to Tbilisi.

Unlike the former USSR train we had used from Tbilisi to Gori, this one was modern and had a Western European appearance. It didn’t go very fast (maximum 100 km/h) but this was probably due to the quality of the track rather than the train itself.

Most of the journey was in the dark (our tour will use a morning train to avoid this) and we arrived in Tbilisi just before midnight.

Day 8

Turkish Airlines fly mid-morning which we thought was very sensible of them. We thanked Alex and Shalva for their expert advice and guidance and left Tbilisi dead on time.

With several hours to kill awaiting a Bucharest connection in Istanbul, Ramona had thoughtfully arranged to meet a useful contact there with a view to exploring Eastern Turkey at some future date.

Then we continued our journey to Bucharest, picked up Ramona’s car at the airport and drove the four hours to her village, arriving at 2.00 in the morning.

Next day we slept!

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