3.23 Georgian Lari to 1 UK pound
Tbilisi – Zugdidi- Mestia – Tbilisi – Kazbegi – Juta – Tbilisi – David Gareja
Top five sights
1) Admiring the views from the campsite and enjoying the amazing walking in the Sno Valley
2) The spectacular rock monastery of David Gareja
3) The early morning walk up to the cross and beyond in Mestia
4) Gargeti Trinity Church and the glacier beyond.
5) The stylistic and fun capital city
Local busses are available from outside of the airport, which take you into the centre of the city. Taxis are also available and are inexpensive. When travelling around the city, you’ve also got the option of the local metro, which is an effective way of getting around. You need to polish up on your acting skills to be able to get yourself a card from the ticket office and put money on it, however it is a cheap and fun way to travel around the Tbilisi. Travel outside of the city is primarily by marshrutkas, which are minibuses of varying size and quality. Destinations are frequently written in Georgian, however people are always willing to show you to the correct marshrutka. Taxis are easily ordered and particularly necessary if trying to get to the Sno Valley and Juta.
Tbilisi is a city, which celebrates it’s past, whilst pushing itself into a new future. Old Tbilisi fits its label well with crumbling buildings and ancient churches hidden within the maze of streets. It’s an area where you toss aside the maps and wander, leaving you free to experience whatever you may cross. Tbilisi is full of churches, as you would expect in such a religious country. If you are to visit only one, then make it Sameba. It had a similar effect on me as visiting the Taj Mahal. The symmetry and colours are breathtaking.
New Tbilisi feels as if it is a little at war with its Soviet life, which for so long had dominated it. The city looks stunning lit up, no more so than the freedom bridge and the park around it, which hosts nightly light shows. It’s a fun city to spend time in, with a strong identity and plenty to do for a few days if your interested in religion and architecture.
Zugdidi for us was very much a stop gap before heading up to Mestia. There’s a number of empty hotels, which offer good accommodation. Samegrelo church is impressive, with good views over the city.
It’s a gorgeous marshrutka journey to Mestia. If you travel from Zugdidi you’ll have to put up with a long wait on the side of the road as the drivers wait for enough tourists to fill them. When you get going though, it’ll all be worth it with spectacular views as you climb up through the mountains. Mestia itself is a little like an ski town in the Alps. It’s not without charm, although it does feel a little bit to polished.
Most people who visit Mestia, make the morning pilgrimage up to the cross. It’s a great walk, straight up, so be ready for some physical exertion. As with all walking in the mountains, the earlier you get up, the better chance of good views. If, like me, you don’t get the views on the first day, try again the next. They really are worth it. Quite a lot of people tend to stop at the cross, which to be fair is good. However it is essential to push on over the next mound as that is where the mountains really reveal themselves. As a side note the lakes that are well advertised had dried up when I was there, but they might be worth a look at outside of the summer months.
The Chaladi Glacier is also worth a visit. The approach is long and repetitive, with most of it involving walking alongside the road. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a taxi at least some of the way. When you do finally get into the forest and start clambering over boulders, it all feels worthwhile.
Prepare for the attack of the old ladies as soon as you step off of your marshrutka. It’s tempting to avoid them and make off on your own, but the reality is that most of them seem to own the same houses that you’ll be knocking on the doors of so it’s worth choosing your lady and taking a look. Kazbegi embraces the home stay approach with most places not advertising.
The church is as picture postcard as you would expect. Make sure you bring the camera. It’s a great walk further on up to the foot of Mount Kazbek and its imposing glacier, however it is a long day. To go up and then return in the same day would require a huge effort. Fortunately, we had the tent.
Lovely Juta. It’s a world away from Mestia and Kazbegi as the physical effort of getting there seems to stop most people leaving you relatively alone in the mountains. Up the first hill is a bizarre campsite, which is sponsored by the US military. It’s a proper travellers retreat and worth the trip alone.
Some people walk from Juta to Roshka, which if you have the time would be a fantastic trip. We went up to the pass but didn’t have enough days to get to Roshka and back, but even that day walk made the effort of getting to Juta well worth it.
David Gareja was an add on, but very quickly became one of my highlights in Georgia. The scenery is totally different from the rest of the country, with the mountains replaced by desert. The rock monastery is interesting, however its the views over into Azerbaijan, which really steals the show.