Akhaltsikhe (Georgian: ახალციხე, "New Fortress") is a small city of about 50,000 and the capital of Samtskhe-Javakheti. The city has been around for at least 800 years, and was a regional administrative center for the Ottomans from the sixteenth century up to the Russo-Turkish War. Until the twentieth century Akhaltsikhe was majority Armenian, but today, unlike most of the province, it is majority Georgian. It's a rather sleepy town, but its Old City is worth a visit, and it's a great base for exploring the surrounding areas, including Sapara Monastery and Khertvisi Fortress in the immediate vicinity.
The mosque inside Akhaltsikhe Castle, Old City
Sapara Monastery's cupola
The principal route to Akhaltsikhe runs from Georgia's main East-West highway (E60) at the spur in Khashuri leading to Borjomi. Marshrutkas run to Akhaltsikhe's main market/bus station from Tbilisi's Didube market, as well as from the bus stations in Kutaisi and Khashuri. Coming from Kutaisi or Tbilisi, it's best to catch your ride early in the morning if you want to avoid finding another marshrutka upon arrival in Khashuri. But it's not terribly difficult to catch a marshrutka going between Akhaltsikhe and Khashuri before dinner time.
Akhaltsikhe is on the most direct land route between Armenia and Turkey (the border between these countries is closed that and is not expected to change soon). Since there is a considerable Armenian community in Akhaltsikhe, there is an easy minibus connection with Yerevan (leaving Yerevan at 08:00 in the morning). There is no early bus to Turkey, but a taxi ride from the Akhaltsikhe bus station to the Turkish border will cost no more than 20 lari (€ 9). At the Turkish border, you may autostop to Posov, the first city in Turkey, which is connected by minibus to Ardahan an Kars. Kars is currently the eastern end station of the Turkish railways, with a diret connection to Ankara and beyond. Remember that it is one hour earlier in Turkey (in summer). You probably need to spend the night in Akhaltsikhe, otherwise the schedule from Armenia to Turkey will be very tight.
Since 2010 there is no connection between Akhaltsikhe and Georgian railway network; the line inside the city is abandoned.
A new railway between Tbilisi and Turkey is scheduled for completion in 2014.
Sapara Monastery, hidden in the mountain forests
- Akhaltsikhe Castle
- St. Marine's Church
- Sapara Monastery (საფარის მონასტერი) is about 10-12 km outside of Akhaltsikhe up into the mountains. The monastery was established in the tenth century, but the principal church, St. Sabas, was built sometime in the thirteenth century. Until the twentieth century, the monastery had been perfectly preserved, as its hidden location saved it from Ottoman discovery throughout the empire's three-century long control of southwestern Georgia. Alas, the Soviets found it, and abused it in the usual soulless fashion, albeit not to the same extent as many other Georgian Orthodox establishments—the frescoed walls were not whitewashed, and remain in good condition (especially following a recent restoration). During a visit, make sure to climb up the nearby slopes towards a rocky outcropping to get lovely views over the monastery and the valleys in the distance. Also make sure not to use flash photography in the churches, unless you want to see some seriously angry monks. If you can make yourself understood, you can overnight in the monastery's chambers.
The walls of Khertvisi Fortress
- Khertvisi Fortress (ხერთვისის ციხე) looms over the village of Khertvisi. The outcrop was used as a fortress from the second century B.C., and was reputedly destroyed by Alexander the Great. The "modern" fortress, however, was built around the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, and saw fighting during the Ottoman invasion (and subsequent occupation) in the sixteenth century. The walls on the far side drop down a sheer cliff to the Mtkvari far below, so if you fancy a bout of vertigo, pull yourself up and look straight down.
As with most of Georgia you will find mostly Georgian food. In town there is one "Georgianized" pizza place on Rustavelli street at the intersection of the road that leads up to the village of Grelli (and is also the route that is taken to get to the Sapara monestary). If you go down stairs you might get lucky and get a room and be able to shut out the noise and smokers. Do not expect Italian or western style pizza though.
Other western food options can be found in the "Smart" supermarket which is across from the bus station, they have a deli of sorts with sandwiches and various other foods.
Most the the restaurants in town have standard yet tasty Georgian food, not always menus (you can try, usually in Georgian, sometimes in Russian or English) but if you have eaten at one restaurant then you already know the menu of most restaurants as they all tend to be the same (with occasional subtle regional differences).
View of Khertvisi from the fortress
- Edemi guesthouse, Akhaltsikhe, 105A Rustaveli Street, Contact: Marina Nariashvili, ☎ +995 599 18 51 59 / +995 599 93 73 38 / +995 265 2 00 35. The guesthouse is located well outside the city of Akhaltsikhe in a quiet area. There are two double bedrooms with a shared bathroom, one bedroom with private bathroom, three bedrooms with bathroom, a sitting room with a fireplace, dinning room, kitchen, jacuzzi. In the yard there is also a small cottage with a double bedroom with a fireplace, kitchen and bathroom.
- Guesthouse Tbili Sakhli, Akhaltsikhe, 33, Gvaramadze Street, Contact: Marina Aghoshashvili, ☎ +995 599 93 73 43. On the first floor of the guesthouse there is a large dining room, a sitting room with a fireplace and a bar, a kitchen, one double bedroom and two shared bathrooms. On the second floor, there are four double bedrooms; three with private and one with shared bathrooms and a sitting room. The family has a small farm.
- Village House Klde, Village Klde, Contact: Diana Kurtanidze, ☎ ++995 555 77 54 34; +995 790 71 54 34. The village house is located 6 km from the town of Akhaltsikhe. There is one double bedroom, a sitting room with a fireplace and a kitchen on the first floor. On the second floor there are three double bedrooms and a sitting room. There is one shared bathroom on each floor of the house. The house has a large balcony on two sides. The hostess has a farm and serves her guests with the dishes made of fresh and natural products.
- Hotel Star, Parnavaz King Sreet 16 (The hotel is located just 2 streets away from the main town park), ☎ +995 593 224 224. Hotel Star is a simple but very nice, clean hotel located in the center of Akhaltsikhe just a short walk from Rabati fortress. It opened in 2013 and everything is in very good condition with modern bathrooms and plenty of heat in the winter. There are 10 rooms (double, family, twin and triple rooms) and some have nice balconies where you can sit and people watch. The owners speak English, Russian, and Georgian. There is a cafe, free tea/coffee, and Wifi. Email: Nikasaqidze@mail.ru edit
- Vardzia — the cliffside cave monastery, former city, and UNESCO World Heritage site is the biggest reason to visit Akhaltsikhe, and the region more generally. A round trip by taxi from Akhaltsikhe might cost about 60 lari.
- Safara — a monastery on a lovely, lush hillside about 12 kilometres along an untarmacked road. Very worth visiting. A round trip by taxi from Akhaltsikhe might cost 15-25 lari.
- Akhalkalaki — the center of Armenian culture in Georgia is nearby to the southwest, easily accessible via marshrutka from Akhaltsikhe
- Borjomi — every Soviet traveler's favorite Georgian retreat, for its parks, Romanov palace, and internationally renowned natural mineral water
- Turkey — You can buy bus tickets to Turkey from the central bus station. Ticket to Posof (city on the Turkish side) is $10 and leaves at 14:30. If you are going to Kars/Ani and have a tight budget, hitching to Kars is a very easy and quick option and can be done in far less than a day. If you leave in the morning, hitching to the Turkish border or to Posof can be quicker than the bus. From the central bus station, ask for the road to the Turkish border (Turetskoĭ granitsy) and start flagging cars about a kilometer from the bus station down the road. The road will pass through the small town of Vale (note: although Vale does not appear to be on the route to Turkey on the Georgian tourist maps found at the tourist information centers, it is indeed on the way). You will be able to walk across the border.
- Alternatively, take a taxi from Akhaltsike to the border (20 GEL). At the border, find a car that is willing to take you to Posov in Turkey. This is the most difficult part of the itinerary, since it is a very quiet border, and normally no taxis are waiting to take you into Turkey. Note that Turkish time is earlier than Georgian time (1 hour in summer, 2 hours in winter), so if you arrive early, it is very early by Turkish time. From Posof, there is a choice again of buses and minibuses, e.g. 25 TL to Kars. This alternative also has the advantage that you do not have to waste time waiting for the afternoon bus from Akhaltsikhe.
Note that Georgian lari are not changed by Turkish banks, so give the taxi driver a generous tip - the rest of the money is worthless for you, unless you return.