Batumi 2nd October
Entering Georgia, we head to Batumi, a Black Sea resort, which the LP suggests is a modern lively place. As we enter the town, we are met with dilapidated buildings, torrential rain, flooded streets, huge flooded potholes everywhere and traffic jams. The town feels like a war zone, not quite what we were expecting! Driving through town, we see that many of the cars are in a poor state of repair; 90% do not have a front bumper, few have lights and many have wobbling wheels. We dread to think what awaits us as we drive in the heart of the country over the next few days.
We head towards the port where we surprisingly find the more modern town we first expected. We stay at Hotel Marina and get a large spacious room. In the evening we head to the sports bar downstairs where we grab dinner and a few drinks for about £5.
We awake to the sound of gale force winds and torrential rain, but decide to brave it and walk into town. Walking through 3 inches of rainwater along the seafront, we stop at a modern cafe, playing Georgian techno music and cheesy tunes. We try a traditional Khachapuri; the one we try here has a pizza-like pastry with melted cheese on top and is big- tasty but probably not good if you are on a diet! We grab a taxi back to our hotel for less than a £1!
Kutaisi 4th October
Setting off for Kutaisi (once the capital of Georgia) with the accompaniment of more wind and rain, we drive along the Black Sea coast. On the way out of town we fill up, diesel costing about 50p a litre, which is welcome after the sky-high prices in Turkey.
We drive out towards the Caucasus mountain range which is covered in cloud and mist today. Once out of town we are in open country passing small towns and villagers, with pigs and cattle grazing along the roadsides.
There seems to be an odd mix here of old and new, brand new 4×4’s (so many LC’s) overtaking antique 1960’s cars which look like they will fall apart at any moment! This is probably the result of Georgia’s recent independence from Russia, in 1991.
We pass pretty tree-lined roads; the landscape is comparable to that of the New Forest in Dorset and feels much more welcoming.
In the evening we stay at Giorgi’s home-stay, where we meet several other guests from the UK, Australia, Brazil and Sweden. Martin and the Brazilian guy start drinking the local beer early, (2L bottles of beer cost about £1).
Later that evening we have dinner. We are given a traditional Georgian soup dish which is red, coloured by paprika. Sausages, potatoes, a meat and potato stew then follow, not to mention the local wine and the vodka brought along by a fellow Swedish houseguest, which he seems to be quite fond of! He informs us that he will be stocking his suitcase with the stuff plus cigarettes as it so much cheaper here than in Sweden! An eccentric Australian lady nicknamed Babushka by the rest of the group (Russian for grandmother) brings out desert of Georgian cake which is good! We learn how to play dominoes whilst drinking more wine and vodka!
In the morning Martin is looking worse for wear after drinking far too much the night before.
We drive up to the Gelati monastery, built in 1106, with a couple we met at the home stay. We enter the Cathedral of the Virgin, filled with frescoes from the 12th century. It was Gelati that was chosen as a centre for Christian culture and learning. Next is the Motsameta monastery, smaller than the Gelati but with spectacular views over the wooded valley and the ‘Red River’, so called due to an 8th century Arabic massacre.
In the afternoon we head towards Gori, and drop the UK/Brazilian couple off near the mountains on the way.
Once in Gori we stay at the Hotel Victoria in a large comfortable room with internet. We don’t venture far for dinner, just walking next door! They have live music tonight and we learn that the Georgians like their music ear-deafeningly loud, even when eating! It is a struggle to hear anything other than the music! We order some khinkali-delicious spicy meat dumplings and some roast chicken with potatoes. It comes to £8 including drinks.
The table next to us are making lots of lengthy toasts with vodka; we believe they are celebrating an engagement. As we eat dinner a rather drunk man and his daughter come over to our table with a bottle of champagne which they offer to us, followed by vodka and lots of photographs!
The men in the group suddenly get up and dance with their hands above their heads, not too dissimilar to Indian bangra style dancing!
On our way out we try and say our good buys in Georgian, and in return we are persuaded to have another large glass of wine each. We down them in one, thinking we would then be able to exit. Silly us- this only encouraged more vodka! Several toasts later, to England, India, Georgia, to vodka… we stumble out of the bar to our hotel room!
Gori 6th October
Gori- the town famous as the birthplace of one Iosif Jughashvili-later Joseph Stalin. We decide to visit the Stalin museum where we are shown around by an English-speaking guide. We are taken through his life from running an illegal printing press and escaping from prison five times to becoming the ruler of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Coming to two photos of Stalin’s wives, the girl asks ‘which is better?’ We choose the Georgian wife against the Russian and this seems to go down well with her! We peer into the tiny room which Stalin’s parents rented for the first year of his life and where he was born, protected by a temple-like structure around it. The museum seemed to focus on his achievements and not portray both sides of the story, including a 1939 pact with Hitler.
Passing the Gori fortress on route, we seem to be on an actual motorway. The temperature drops to 12 degrees.
We arrive in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi in search of the Hotel British House! It is not signposted well and we have trouble finding it. Once inside, we are glad we made the effort, as although slightly more expensive, it is large and modern, with couches and fast internet.
Tbilisi 7th October
In the morning we head to the Azerbaijan embassy to obtain our visas, thinking we would be able to have them the same day as we only wanted a transit visa. Unfortunately, despite or best efforts to bribe them, we are told it will take 3 working days, which is made worse since the embassy is only open on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, which they count as working days.
Given the prices of accommodation in Tbilisi, Martin remembers that he has some Marriot points from a few years ago so we check the website and are able to book a $260 room completely free.
We check into the Marriott and although we don’t want to leave the luxurious room we eventually go for a walk to the Old town, for some site-seeing. Passing churches, mosques and synagogues on the way, we find a street lined with bars and restaurants and stop at Nineteen, a copy of Fifteen in London, for a few drinks.
Once given the menu, we realise the Georgian chef here was a protégé of Jamie Oliver starring in a recent TV series. Dinner consists of the predictable staple of khacapuri with fries!
Telavi 8th October
Check out of the Marriott and drive to Telavi, to spend a few days away from Tbilisi while we await our visas. Telavi is the main town within Kakheti, the wine tasting region of Georgia. We drive over the Gombori Pass at 1650metres. It is shrouded in mist in places, which makes the drive more difficult. Arriving 2 hours later, we check into the Hotel Rcheuli Marani on the Lonely Planet guide books advice, and get a decent sized room. We decide to drive into town to buy some food and supplies and find a small stall selling khachapuri and sweet filled pastries which are delicious.
We walk through the market, passing stalls with large chunks of cheese, the aroma filling the air. Spices, all kinds of fruit and veg, to strips of meat hanging from hooks are all packed into the bustling covered market.
Decide to relax back at the hotel and make a reservation for their restaurant as it seems likely it will be busy tonight. It is very cheap-just £5 each including Tsinadli Georgian wine, cake and ice-cream!
During the day we drive around the area visiting monasteries, churches and citadels, firstly coming to the Ikalto monastery, a small place currently being renovated. Next is the Alaverdi cathedra, Gremi and Kvareli. The area is very picturesque, bright green fields, miles of vineyards with a backdrop of snow capped mountains; we both agree this is our favourite area in Georgia.
Later that evening we check into Nelly’s home stay. The place is freezing as there are no other guests there and the internet is not working… this is a bad choice! We try to stay warm by layering up in fleeces but it just seems to get colder and colder!
Sighnaghi 10th October
The drive from Telavi takes about 45 minutes, driving country lanes alongside the locals on horses and carts.
We take a walk up the tower with good views over the town and go for lunch. For lunch we order a selection of sausages and roast chicken but instead we get a selection of cold meats (twice the price) and what we think may be pheasant; a tiny piece of meat which mainly consists of bones! It is not very appetising. Nicole, for once being quite angry returns it saying ‘this is not a chicken!!’. The owner looks at us as if we are mad and says ‘what did you expect?’ We reply ‘a chicken with some meat’. Deadlocked, they agree not to charge us for the chicken, but then we pay double the price for the meat we did not even order!
We relax back at the hotel then head out for dinner. We order traditional dumplings, chicken and mutton dishes, which is good and makes up for our earlier fiasco!
We drive back to Tbilisi to hopefully pick up our Azerbaijan visa, and after waiting in queue forever, we are told to come back in another hour. When we return, we breathe a sigh of relief as our passports and visas are waiting for us.
We decide to stay one more night at the Marriot for free before heading to Azerbaijan the next day.
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Martin & Nicole