Akhaltsikhe, literally ‘new castle’, is a small city around 200 km west of Tbilisi, not far from the Georgian – Turkish border. It’s not exactly an established tourist destination, although many people do visit here on route to Vardzia, a cave city around 60 km to the south east. Vardzia was also our reason for visiting Akhaltsikhe.
The marshrutka (minibus) journey from Kutaisi would normally have been fine; but having flown overnight from Poland, walked around the centre of Kutaisi at 6 am, and then waited in the ‘bus station’ till after 8 am, I wasn’t really in the mood for the three and half hour journey. However, the scenery was spectacular, although the driving rather insane: this would turn out to be recurring theme for traveling throughout the Caucasus region.
Having arrived around lunchtime and managed an hours sleep before my friends arrived, it was time for us to head out and explore (i.e. eat). As previously mentioned, Akhaltsikhe is not a particularly big city; however there is enough to keep you occupied for a day or so. Unfortunately, I can’t remember either of the restaurants we ate in the two days we were there. Both were located in basements and served traditional Georgia fare; one was on Kostava Street, near Amaghleba Church, and the other just off Kostava Street, perhaps on Tabukashvili Street. We ordered a variety of typical dishes that included khinkali (dumplings stuffed with meat and spices), Imerian khachapuri (bread filled with cheese), and Georgian salad (tomato, cucumber, onion, herbs). The first impressions of Georgia food were fairly positive – tasty, filling and very cheap. I was a little disappointed not to find the Adjarian khachapuri on the menu; I would have to wait a few days for that one! This was also our first opportunity to sample Georgian wine and beer, as well as homemade chacha, a potent spirit distilled from pomace (grape residue left after making wine). The wine definitely won that round.
The main attraction in the town is undoubtedly Rabati Fortress. Built in the 13th century, it was mostly a ruin site until significant renovation and restoration work was completed in 2012, which perhaps makes it feel a little artificial. The complex is a rather unusual mix of architectural styles and cultures imposed by those in charge during the different eras. In the lower courtyard there are couple of restaurants, a Wellness Hotel, and a wine shop – all quite commercial, although a nice spot to have a beer during the summer evenings. The upper courtyard includes a Church, Synagogue, Mosque and Minaret, in addition to the fortress walls and towers which offer splendid views of the complex, the town, and surrounding landscape. Access to the upper courtyard costs 7 GEL.
It is worth mentioning that Akhaltsikhe probably had the most organised bus station in Georgia, with departure boards at each stance – a very different scenario from Kutaisi. I managed to take photos of each departure board and compile the information in this table. Times are likely to change, but at least gives a little indication as to destinations and frequencies. Hope it’s of use to someone.
Akhaltsikhe will probably see increasing numbers of visitors over the coming years, especially given the money spent on the restoration of the Fortress and it’s relative proximity to Kutaisi Airport. Thus I’m fairly pleased we managed to experience it before the crowds arrive and was certainly worth the two nights we spent here. A good introduction to Georgia. Next up, the day trip to Vardzia.