What to do in Samtskhe-Javakheti
Samtskhe-Javakheti is a region in the southern part of Georgia. It is split by the mountains, so that half of it is in the western, and the other half in the eastern part of the country. The existence of mountains obviously affects the landscape - from the springs of Borjomi to the ancient cave city of Vardzia. The region is very diverse - mountainous, traversed by ravines, springs, and lakes, as well as large and fast rivers.
Samtskhe-Javakheti’s location at the crossroads of three civilizations contributed to the intense development of relations between the ancient cultures of Georgia, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. Archaeological remains show that the area was particularly advanced by the Bronze Age and developed further through the medieval period. Today many monuments still stand to tell they're remarkable stories. (source georgia.travel). Samtskhe-Javakheti is great for horse-riding, mountain biking, rafting, hiking and skiing (cross country and downhill as well as off-piste). Getting to the region from Tbilisi became also easier recently - a new road means one can get there in just about two hours from Tbilisi.
Khertvisi fortress - is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. It is situated on the high rocky hill in the narrow canyon at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers. The fortress was first built in the 2nd century BC. The first record of Khertvisi is part of a legend, in which it was one of the first fortresses that Alexander the Great came across in Georgia. An inscription on a damaged stone reads “The King of the Kings” and is dated from 985. A small church located in the central part of the fortress was built in 985 and had been ruined by invaders - the present building is its reconstruction from 2000. The present walls were built in 1354. The fortress suffered many raids between the 13th and 16th centuries, however, parts of it have remained unharmed - it still has a tunnel leading to the river and a twenty-meter high tower which is still in good condition.
Zarzma Monastery - was founded in the 8th century by St. Serapion of Zarzma, however, the original construction of that time has not survived. The stone slab set above the entrance of the small chapel next to the bell-tower is the earliest of all historical monuments of the monastery. There is an inscription narrating a real historical fact dating back to the end of the 10th century curved on that slab. The stone with the inscription is older than the building as it was brought from another, currently nonexistent building. The monastery is located on top of a hill and it includes a church bell tower, a chapel, ruins of two churches and a spring. The murals of the church have survived till nowadays with the mix of traditional religious motifs and portraits of the members of the local noble house of Jakeli, as well as with the portraits of several other historical figures. Presently Zarzma is an acting monastery.
Vardzia complex - is one of the must-sees of Georgia. This rock-cut monastery is a very impressive cultural and architectural monument. It is located about an hour drive south-east from Akhaltsikhe, on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. The caves excavated from the slopes of Erusheti Mountain stretch along the cliff for about 500 meters and up to 19 levels. The caves are interconnected by a complex system of tunnels. Vardzia was established by King George III and its main construction period is during the king's and later his daughter's (Tamar) reigns - second half of the 12th century. At that time the town grew quickly and consisted of over 3,000 caves that could accommodate 50,000 people at a time. Vardzia complex had living quarters, refectories, barns, wine cellars (Marani), stables, drugstores, and even libraries. The town also had an aqueduct and a sewer system. After a heavy earthquake that considerably destroyed Vardzia in 1283, it was rebuilt. One of the buildings constructed during that period is the two-story bell tower (only one story survived till our times), that forms kind of entrance to the complex. It replaced caves ruined during the earthquake. The place was devastated and abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the middle of the 16th century. Nowadays it is again functioning as a monastery. The main temple of the monastery is the Church of Dormition (sometimes referred to as Church of the Assumption) dating back to the 12th century. The church is carved from the rock but reinforced in stone. Initially, it had a chapel attached from the west, but it was partially destroyed by the earthquake. The paintings inside the church represent finest examples of murals of the times. Apart from religious scenes, one can see their portraits of historical figures: the founder - King George III, his daughter Queen Tamar and a local nobleman Rati Surameli. There is a nice legend about how the site got its name. King George came here hunting taking Tamar with him. She went exploring the place and got lost. He started calling her and she replied: "აქ ვარ ძია" [ak var dzia], meaning "I am here, uncle". Yes, I also wonder, why she would call her father "uncle", but I guess this is the part of the legend... While visiting Vardzia, it is also worth stepping by to Vardzia Nunnery, which is a few kilometers further along the same road. It is a nice, quiet place, with a small church in a garden and very friendly nuns living around.
Vanis Kvabebi (Vani's Caves) -
Vanis Kvabebi is a cave monastery not far from Aspindza town and another (more famous) cave city of Vardzia. It consists of about 200 caves built into the rocky cliffs and rises over 16 levels. The complex dates from the 8th century and consists of a defensive wall built in 1204 and a maze of tunnels running on several levels in the side of the mountain. There are two churches at the territory of the monastery.
The newer one stands near the top of the wall and is in quite a good condition. A smaller, domed church clings to the rock on the level of the highest tunnels. In this church inscription in the original Mkhedruli alphabet which dates back to the late 15th century can be still found.
Tmogvi Fortress - is a ruined stronghold on the left bank of the Mtkvari River, a few kilometers from the cave city of Vardzia and not far from Khertvisi fortress too. The fortress is first mentioned in sources from the 9th century. It was built as a defensive complex to control the trade route between Armenia and Kartli (nowadays in eastern Georgia). Tmogvi gained importance after the neighboring town and fortress of Tsunda was ruined around 900 AD. By the beginning of the 11th century, the fortress had passed under the direct control of the United Kingdom of Georgia. The medieval Georgian writer, an honorable political figure and philosopher, Sargis Tmogveli, lived and worked here. In 1088, the castle suffered from an earthquake. Between the 11th and 16th centuries, the fortress belonged to many major local noble families. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire gained control over Tmogvi and the fortress was under Turkish occupation until 1829, when it was transferred to the Russian Empire. The castle of Tmogvi was built on top of a mountain and it expands over 3 hills, joined and encircled by a wall (150 meters long, 3 meters wide), which supplements the natural defense offered by the cliffs. A number of towers were built on each hill. A secret tunnel connects the castle with the river to provide access to water even during a siege. The western part of the fortress is better preserved. The ruins of an old village, located on both banks of a river, can still be seen.
Saphara Monastery complex
Saphara Monastery complex - is one of the most interesting monuments of Georgian architecture. It is located close to Akhaltsikhe, deep in a gorge, hidden by the mountains and away from residential areas. First records of the monastery date from the 10th century and by 13th century it became the residence of one of the local nobles, rulers of Samtskhe - Jake. In the 13th-14th centuries, the monastery included 12 churches and chapels. The earliest monument of the complex is a single-nave church of Dormition of Mother of God constructed in X century which is famous for its icons decorated with sculptures. The main temple of the complex is St. Sabah's church of the end of 13th century. Inside one can see murals depicting local nobles of Mandaturtukhutsesi family. The name of the architect of this church(Pharezasdze) has survived till nowadays - it is mentioned in the inscription carved on one of the window framing slabs. The monastery is surrounded by a wall with an observation tower and even has a fortress where people from neighboring villages used to hide during times of war. These were built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. All other chapels and churches scattered on the territory of the monastery were built in between the 14th and 16th centuries. While during the Soviet times the monastery was turned into a Pioneer youth camp, its monastic status was re-claimed in 1988 and is still functioning today.
Phoka Monastery and Homemade Cheese
Phoka Monastery – its establishment is credited to St. Nino of Cappadocia who is said to have brought Christianity into Georgia. Saint Nino came to Georgia through Javakheti and stopped near Pharavani Lake where she had a vision of an angel, who gave her a letter addressed to the pagan King. In the 11th century, a cathedral was built at this very spot. As a result of invasions in the 17th century, Javakheti, and the cathedral were destroyed but you can still see the remains of the original stone church, including fragments of the original frescos. In the early 19th century Georgia regained the territory. At the end of the 20th century two Orthodox Christian monasteries were founded in Phoka. The St. Nino Nunnery and a monastery located one and a half kilometer from the village. Both monasteries are still open and in use. At Phoka Monastery the nuns make 18 different types of cheese, including their famous blue cheese. (source: georgia.travel)
Chule St. George Monastery Chule St. George Monastery
Chule St. George Monastery is dating back to 1308 is located in the foothills in the vicinity of Adigeni. The site was home to the monastic community already in the 11th century, however, only in the 14th century, it became an important religious and cultural center of southern Georgia. One of the medieval manuscripts (written in oldest Georgian script - Asomtavruli) even mentions the name of the artist who frescoed the interior of the church at the end of the 14th century. The frescoes present a group portrait of the local Nobel family, Jaqeli, who were the patrons of the monastery. The monastery shares many common features with the nearby Zarzma and Saphara monasteries. After the Ottoman conquest of the area, the Chule monastery declined and had been completely abandoned by 1595. The locals, still Christian at that time, saved the bells and some other church items by burying them in the adjacent wood. The bells were accidentally discovered in the 1980s and donated to the Akhaltsikhe local museum but were eventually turned over to the monastery once it was restored to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate in October 1999. (source: Wikipedia) Its access road passes through a narrow rocky ravine covered by coniferous forests and a tight passage through the hills and it makes a really nice walk.
Borjomi Park is located in the center of Borjomi. It is a very old park dating back from 1850. The park is exactly the place where the original water spring was found, although mineral springs have been known here for more than a thousand years. The spring was named Yekaterinevskiy after the governor's (Yavgeniy Golovin) daughter who was cured here. It is the pavilion in front of the entrance, where people come to fill in bottles with Borjomi water. Another spring in the park was named after the governor himself - Yevgenevskiy. By 1854 healing properties of the local water got so popular that the authorities decided to construct the first bottling plant. The park was renovated a few years ago and now it is a nice place to walk - old trees, shadowed benches, flowerbeds, playgrounds for kids. One can also cross the cultivated part of the park and get into a more wild one. A pleasant forest path (suitable both for walking and biking, even with the kids) will lead you to a Soviet-type open pool with iron-rich water. The facility is old and not in the best shape, but there are still quite a lot of people swimming there.
Atskuri is a former feudal fortress that dates back to at least the 10th century. Aktskuri Fortress located on the river Mtkvari and the only entrance is a narrow tunnel cut into the cliff. The fortress was very difficult to access and not without reason - if conquered it would open Southern Georgia to the enemy. The area around Atskuri has been settled since ancient times. Archaeological excavations revealed graves and artifacts from the second millennium B.C.
Akhaltsikhe Fortress (Rabati Castle)
- 18th-century fortress is often called the symbol of tolerance. It occupies around 7 hectares and has recently been returned to its original appearance. A church, a mosque, a minaret, a synagogue, Jaqelebi Palace, the historic museum, old baths, and a citadel, have been restored on the territory of Rabat Castle. The museum located in the castle accommodates rare and well preserved archeological and ethnographical materials, old manuscripts detailing the stories of the region including a fragment of the manuscript of “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin,” Georgia’s most famous poem, consisting of over 1600 verses and written in the 12th century at the Royal Court of Queen Tamar of Georgia. (source: georgia.travel) The castle still smells with the fresh paint and recent construction, but it is nice to walk around and is beautifully illuminated at night.
Abastumani - a small town located about 30km from Akhaltsikhe in the valley of the Otskhe river. The settlement was founded here in the mid-nineteenth century and acquired the name Abbas-Tuman after a nearby located village. Soon it became popular for its climate and thermal waters. Its development as a resort is chiefly associated with Grand Duke George Alexandrovich Romanov, a member of the Russian imperial family, who had retired there due to his ill-health. Nowadays, Abastumain is popular among tourists because of its hyperthermic springs rich in sulfate-sodium chloride waters. The place has been long renown for treatment of tuberculosis due to its climatic qualities and the presence of the hot springs. Another tourist attraction in Abastumani is its Astrophysical Observatory which was opened in 1932 Mt.Kanobili (1700 m. above sea level). The observatory's distance from pollution and sky illumination together with excellent natural conditions makes this place a great observation spot. Abastumani is also a starting point for hikes into the National Park.