A Travellerspoint blog

Tbilisi - New Tips

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Downtown Tbilisi

Downtown Tbilisi

I found my way around quite a lot of Tbilisi when I visited in May, and on my second visit in September I dug a bit deeper.

In terms of accommodation, I went back to the same Airbnb apartment for 3 nights in the city at the start of my visit. Its location is ideal and it is quiet and comfortable. At £26 (€29) per night it is great value too.

Top Floor Apartment

Top Floor Apartment

When I returned to Tbilisi from Yerevan I stayed a night at the 5 Rooms before heading north to Stepantsminda. A hotel is better for a 1 night stay. 5 Rooms arranged a transfer from the airport, which is standard but always helpful.

5 Rooms

5 Rooms

I got a super warm welcome from the owner, who is a former player in Georgia’s national rugby team and has played in and against Scotland. In fact he forced me to have two glasses of his excellent home made wine.

The hotel has a great location in a quiet courtyard just across the Baratashvili Bridge from the main part of the city centre. I would definitely consider it again in the future. It was £42 (€47) for a large room, with breakfast.

The other hotel I used was Ilja’s Hotel. It is located in the 19th century Vera area, and is just a short walk from Rustaveli metro station. I chose it because it is close to where I had to drop off my rented car after returning from Kakheti, and again it was a one night stay before flying home the next day.

It is great too. It cost £42 (€47), again including breakfast. In fact they gave me breakfast at 7am when it would normally start at 8am, because I had to leave before that for my 9.30 flight. Very Georgian.

Ilja's

Ilja's

I took two tours when I was in Tbilisi - a food tour and a wine tour. I recommend them highly. I learned a huge amount as well as enjoying what was on offer and the company of other “students’. They are both operated by Tbilisi Free Walking Tours (they were not free, but their other tours are). Both guides were excellent.

The food tour took us to 3 different restaurants - Cafe Leila, Orshimowine and Shemomechama - and then a wine bar.

Food Talk

Food Talk

The wine “tour” took place entirely in Royal Wine at 8/41 Amaghleba St, but we “toured” Kakheti by means of 7 bottles of wine and a couple of glasses of tchatcha.

Wine Talk

Wine Talk

I ventured into 9Mta a couple of times for a beer. They have a great selection. It is 100m from Liberty Square at 10 Galaktion Tabidze St., and easy to find.

Scottish Beer, Danish Glass, Georgian Pub

Scottish Beer, Danish Glass, Georgian Pub

I used a taxi once - my first such venture in the city. It was ideal. He put the meter on without being asked and found my destination first time. It was cheap.

Metro

Metro

I also used the metro for the first time. It is so cheap and easy - 0.40 lari (£0.13 or €0.12) per trip (the same as buses). You need a buy a pre-pay card and then load it with credit. Both are available at sales desks in the city centre stations I used.

Posted by IainT 23:35 Archived in Georgia Tagged food transport georgia tbilisi Comments (0)

Yerevan - Some Basics

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Apartment Balcony

Apartment Balcony

I arrived on a minibus - marshrutka - from Tbilisi, which I had pre-booked on the internet through Hayreniq. It cost US$ 22 single (£17 or €20). As far as I can see, Hayreniq has nothing to do with the bus service, which is just the normal hourly service between the cities.

They are charging you a good chunk of money to “book” a seat on a public service you can get anyway for half the cost, just by turning up and paying the driver.

It was still cheap, but it is a long (5.5 hours), uncomfortable journey, made worse by our driver stopping twice on “private business” to buy oranges and a car door. Yes, a car door. Then he realised we had no room for it in the van.

Non-Lunch Stop

Non-Lunch Stop

We were fortunate to get through the border quickly - I reckon 20-30 minutes in total. We got to the Armenian immigration check just before a coach arrived, disgorging 45 tourists to swell the queues.

Marshrutkas to Yerevan leave Tbilisi from Avlabari metro station. We arrived at Kilikia bus station in Yerevan.

I was booked to return to Tbilisi the same way, but opted to fly instead. I got a one way ticket with Aircompany Armenia (operating as a franchise of Georgian Airways as far as I could tell) for $162 (€147 or £131). That fare included the cost of a checked in bag. The flight takes 30 minutes.

Zvarnots International is one of the most pleasant airports I have ever used. The difference in price between flying and taking the minibus is matched by the savings in time and comfort.

Waiting

Waiting

I had an excellent Airbnb apartment in Yerevan for 4 nights at £27 per night (€30). It was modern, quiet and very comfortable. A minimarket was located almost next door, which was ideal for buying the basics of domestic life during a brief stay.

Breakfast

Breakfast

I only ate out once, at a street food type place, so I am not able to offer much information on the city’s restaurant scene.

I took one “excursion” while I was in Yerevan, to hike up Mt Aragats. It cost US$120 (€109/£97), which might seem like a lot but it included the services of a local guide and door to door transport. As it happened I was the only one booked for that day, but the price comes down according to how many people have signed up.

Mountain Calling

Mountain Calling

I took a taxi from the apartment to the airport just picking it up on the street. On the meter it cost 2,200 dram (less than £5, so let’s say €5) for a fairly long journey across the city centre and right out the other side.

Posted by IainT 22:33 Archived in Armenia Tagged transport flights georgia airlines tbilisi yerevan armenia aragats Comments (0)

Kakheti

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Top Class

Top Class

Kakheti is in the very east of Georgia, and whilst it is quite a large region, I based myself not far from the border with Azerbaijan. I stayed on a vineyard in a tiny place called Tkhilitstskaro. Try saying that after a couple of glasses…

Ripe

Ripe

Kakheti is the country’s main wine region, but it is also produced in other areas.

It was 10⁰c warmer than in the mountains, and like another planet. I had dinner outside both nights, and breakfast outside both mornings. The foothills of the Greater Caucasus started about 500m from the hotel, so they made a fabulous backdrop, but Tkhilitstskaro is in the plain of the Alazani River.

Dinner Time

Dinner Time

Driving there from Kazbegi mostly it went according to plan, but roadworks on a 20km section made it very slow. I suspect it was also the time for bringing animals down from high pastures. Herds of sheep, cows and horses blocking the road were almost as common as cars. The herders and their dogs are very helpful about clearing the way, but still. There is a technique for getting through.

Anyway, it took 5 hours in the car to cover 150 miles/241 km.

Georgian wine made the traditional way involves fermenting the whole grape in a clay pot which is buried underground up to its neck - a qvevri. It is in there for 6 months. The winemaker does not control the fermentation and nothing is added - it is 100% natural.

For a white wine like the Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane (pictured) the end result is an amber colour and 14% alcohol. The aroma is of honey, but the taste is dry. Although they state what grapes are used they emphasise where the wine has come from just as much. A wine using that combination of grapes from a vineyard a short distance away could be quite different - different soil, different sunshine, different cultivation and production methods.

Just Cut

Just Cut

With only Friday and Saturday nights in the area, and having to drive back to Tbilisi after the second one, my ambitions for exploring were limited. A wet morning on my only full day resulted in plenty enforced relaxation but a bit less exploration.

As Saturday lunchtime approached, I set off to explore the area, heading south to Sighnaghi. By the time I got there an hour later, the rain had stopped and the sun had started to appear. Ideal.

Sighnaghi Skyline

Sighnaghi Skyline

The town was fortified with a wall around it in 1772 by Erekle II, and most of the older buildings are 18th and 19th century. With an eye to future tourism, many were renovated during the time of the Saakashvili government.

The town is a bit of a tourism hot spot, of the day trip kind, as it is only 103 km from Tbilisi. It does look great in spite of that, however.

I enjoyed a gentle wander around but the highlight was a great cup of coffee (with cake) at Art Cafe Qedeli. It is a social enterprise supporting a nearby home for disabled people. They bake the cakes sold in the cafe. I had read about it in my guidebook but when the urge for coffee hit, I just went into the first attractive place I saw and it turned out to be Qedeli.

Qedeli

Qedeli

Sighnaghi lies on a hilltop, but other than that the countryside was totally flat and agricultural.

Sighnaghi Style

Sighnaghi Style

On the Sunday I drove from Tkhilitstskaro to Tbilisi via Kvareli (fuel stop) and Telavi. It was a gentle drive through seemingly endless vineyards, including well known Georgian wine names like Tsinandali and Mukuzani, then across the 1,620m (5,314 ft) Gombori pass.

I could easily have spent more time exploring the Kakheti region and its wines, which seems like a good excuse to go back.

Posted by IainT 13:14 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia tbilisi kakheti sighnaghi tkhilitstskaro Comments (0)

Stepantsminda

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Mt Kazbeg

Mt Kazbeg

The name of the village is also written Stefantsminda, and it is also known as Kazbegi. Stepantsminda is its original name. It was renamed Kazbegi and has since resumed its original name - but is still often called Kazbegi.

It has a population of less than 2,000. It is 12 km (7.5 miles) south of of the border with the Russian Federation, and only 28 miles (45 km) south of Vladikavkaz - a city of 300,000. It is 96 miles (153 km) north of Tbilisi.

It lies at a height of 1,797m (5,895 ft).

Hiking Up

Hiking Up

I had a rented car to get me from the capital to Kazbegi. The Tbilisi road is slow. It is all 2 lane from the time you turn north off the Gori/Kutaisi/Batumi road, and then when you reach the mountains it twists and turns all the way. Close to the Kazbegi end, you cross the Jvaris pass at 2,379m (7,805 ft). That section is very slow.

The border crossing is the only one open between Georgia and Russia, which is reason enough for it the road to be busy. You have to add in that it is in effect the only border crossing between Armenia and Russia, because Armenia’s borders with neighbouring Azerbaijan are closed. A lot of the super slow trucks on the road have Armenian plates.

You will see a lot of lunatic driving by Russians and Georgians to get past the slow traffic.

Morning Visitors

Morning Visitors

During the day you will find an hourly marshrutka (minibus) service from/to Tbilisi. The marshrutka drivers are among the crazy gang, but I guess they know the road and the limits of their own skills.

I stayed at the Hotel Vache. It is a 4 room family business which is a 10-15 minutes walk from the village centre. It is modern and the room was top class. So was breakfast. I did not eat lunch on any of my days there - just coffee and cake mid-afternoon.

Hotel Vache

Hotel Vache

All the rooms have a fantastic view of the mountains.

Mt Kazbeg

Mt Kazbeg

Some building work was under way but they made sure it did not start early. It did not disturb me. Owner Tamo is friendly and very helpful. I booked through booking.com. It cost 170 lari (£46 or €52) per night, inclusive of the breakfast.

I ate dinner at Shorena’s twice and at Khevi once. In both cases the food was good and so was the service. Khevi is a bit soul-less inside, but lots of people choose it to eat outside on the terrace. Shorena’s has much more ambiance, even if it is of the backpacker/outdoor type variety.

My favourite place was the Avtobus coffee shop. A real bus, converted. Good coffee and home baked cakes, plus friendly service.

Avtobus

Avtobus

I hiked up to Gergeti Trinity Church from the village, and also hiked up the Khdi Gorge - the latter being just at the Georgian customs and immigration post north of the village. In terms of hiking, I could easily have spent another 2 or 3 days in the area.

Khdi Gorge

Khdi Gorge

The mountain scenery is amazing, although driving meant I had to try to keep one eye on the road.

My car - rented from JeepRent in Tbilisi - cost 123 lari (€38 or £34) per day. It turned out to be a Toyota Camry with 160,000 miles (yes miles - I guess it is from the USA or Canada) on the odo. On those mountain roads I would have preferred a new car with new brakes.

On the other hand, it was automatic and that saved me a million gear changes.

Posted by IainT 13:33 Archived in Georgia Tagged landscapes mountains restaurants georgia tbilisi stepansminda Comments (0)

Armenia - Impressions

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Moskva (Moscow) Cinema

Moskva (Moscow) Cinema

I have blogged about travel around this part of the world.

I have blogged about Mt Aragats.

What about my other impressions of Yerevan and Armenia?

Yerevan Sunset

Yerevan Sunset

Yerevan city centre appears prosperous. The other parts of the country I saw - all the way from the border crossing in the north, and then getting out to Mt Aragats - seems very poor. The scenery was amazing, however.

Katoghike

Katoghike

For most things, prices are very low by British standards. One example was my taxi to the airport, coming in at 2,500 dram (just over £4) for a 30 minute journey from the northern suburbs to the southern edge of the city.

Then I paid 2,200 dram for a coffee in the airport. It is one of these places which charges “western prices” which are twice or triple the local ones.

Pricey Coffee

Pricey Coffee

I saw less of the city than I expected. Partly this was because it was very warm. It was 28-31⁰c on my first two days. On one of those days I was not feeling well, and hardly left the apartment.

I did have one long wander around the city centre. It is a place of squares, statues, sculptures, boulevards and parks. I enjoyed the experience.

Smiles

Smiles

My food impression was very limited. My “unwell” day was not particularly gastric - it felt like I was getting ‘flu - but I was not taking any chances with restaurant food.

I did eat street food at a Mac Truck - nothing to do with McDonalds - and it was great! It was a burger, though.

I stayed in an Airbnb apartment. It is a modern building and offered no particular insight into local life, apart from my regular visits to the corner shop next door. It was great - it stocked most things I needed.

My Apartment

My Apartment

Most locals speak Russian as their second language, but many managed a bit of English too. My hiking guide was fluent in English and openly talked about political life, including the ongoing problem with Azerbaijan, of his own volition.

One reason for spending only 4 nights in the country was I just wanted to get an idea of whether I would like to spend more time exploring it on a future trip. The answer to that is a definite positive.

Posted by IainT 23:30 Archived in Armenia Tagged yerevan armenia aragats Comments (0)

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