Mobile phones
Getting around

Tbilisi, Mtshketa, Uplistsikhe, Gori, Kutaisi, Svaneti, Kazbegi, Alaverdi, Sighnaghi, David Gareja

2.6: Munich -> Tbilisi
3.6: Tbilisi
4.6: Tbilisi -> Kutaisi
5.6: Kutaisi -> Mestia
6.6: Mestia -> Ushguli -> Mestia
7.6: Mestia -> Tbilisi
8.6: Tbilisi -> Kazbegi (Stepanzminda)
9.6: Kazbegi -> Sighnaghi
10.6: Sighnaghi -> Tbilisi
18.6: Tbilisi -> Munich

Planning and overall impression

Georgia is a small country in the Causasus, not a main tourism destination for European travellers, even if it can be accessed visa-free and relatively easily from Europe. Despite the small size Georgia has a lot of touristic highlights, the main one being the Greater Caucasus mountain range with peaks well above 5000m. Since Georgia is a former Soviet republic, located between eastern Europe and Central Asia, I was wondering a bit how easy it would be to travel around the country, given that the local language (Georgian) is not even Indoeuropean abd perhaps many people wouldn't be able to communication in English and I didn't speak any Russian. In the end, thanks to the support of local guide, things went very well and I was impressed by how much there is to see in Georgia.
Georgia has a number of historical sights (mainly castles, monasteries and churches), and due to its mountainous terrain many natural sights. Food is also not bad, although the local wines falied to impress my brother (but he is used to quality Iralian wines, so his expectations may have been a bit too high).
Georgia seems to be a destination for all seasons, because in winter it is possible to do winter sports on the slopes of the Greater Caucasus range.
It's also a deeply religious country, with its own Georgian Orthodox state church. I got the impression that people in Georgia are a bit traditional.


The cost to travel to Georgia is relatively moderate. Budget flights connecting Western Europe with Georgia exist, and Georgia has a wide range of budget accomodation (outside of Tbilisi for instance, you can easily find rooms in pensions or guesthouses for less than 20 Euro/night). Restaurants are also relatively inexpensive. 


Generally speaking the food in Georgia is quite good. My kids enjoyed eating freshly baked flat Georgian bread (the one made in the cylindrical oven. There are a number of local specialities, all with unintelligible names, for instance Khachapuri, the round flat cheese bread. Or Khinkali, giant dumplings with a meat filling, or several types of skewer meat. Probably the food is so good and varied, becazse the climate is good and Georgia has been exposed to various cultural influences over the centuries.
The wines supposedly are very good. However in the restaurants we were mostly served quite unimpressive wines. Even during the wine tasting in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia we didn't find very good wines.


Georgia  has a well developed tourist infrastructure, with a multitude of hotels, pensions and guesthouses everywhere. It's a country with a strong tourist focus and plenty of budget accomodation options, especially outside of the capital Tbilisi. Easy to find accomodation through the booking portals.

Money  / Exchange rate (June 2017)

1 Euro = 2.7 GEL
1 Euro ~ USD 1.12
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

Mobile phones and prepaid cards

We bought SIM cards from Geocell at the airport in Tbilisi upon arrival. Package with 6GB of data, unlimited local calls and 30 minutes of international calls for 30 GEL - very good price. In addition to Geocell, which supposedly have the best coverage, there are two other mobile communications networks: Magti and Beeline. My brother bought Beeline SIM cards and had no problems with them. He even had a line in Svaneti (Mestia).

Internet access

While a number of hotels, apartments, guesthouses etc. offer free WLAN Internet access, we mostly used the mobile phone (as a locla hotspot) to access the Internet.


We were lucky with the weather, as it was mostly sunny with daytime peak temperatures around 25-26°C. It only rained a bit on a few days. Even in the mountains we found good weather.

Health / Vaccinations

No vaccinations needed for Georgia.

VISA / Entry requirements

VISA free entry for EU nationals and nationals of several other countries (including Malaysia).


No issues here - Georgia seems a very safe country.

Recommended things

Things to avoid

Getting around

We didn't do it, but it would have been possible to rent a car and use that to drive around. I got the impression that the traffic in Georgia is relatively easy to cope with. In any case, we relied on a local travel agency to visit all places except for Svaneti. To access Svaneti we flew from Kutaisi to Mestia, then used local taxis to travel to Ushguli and back to Mestia.
It would have also been possible to get around with buses or minibuses (socalled "marshrutkas"), but being a large group of six people it made sense to charter our own transportation.

Travel agencies and guides who helped us on this trip

2.6: Munich -> Tbilisi
Hotel White Neptun, Tbilisi. 202 GEL for a room with two small bedrooms, each with its own bathroom (one with a bathtub, one with a shower). Good A/C in the room, fridge, TV, balcony, comfortable bed, WLAN. Waterbowl in the toilet not so good: the water tap is very hard to adjust. Shower with not enough water pressure. Good location near the opera, in walking distance from the old town.
Weather: a mix of sunny and cloudy in Munich, around 23°C. Fresh in the early morning in Tbilisi, dry, not cold.

We leave home shortly after 6pm, travelling with the S-Bahn train to the airport. Today the S-Bahn to the airport is quite full of travellers. Beginning of the Whitsun holidays, lots of people are moving.

At 7:35pm we reach the airport. Three minutes later we are in terminal 2 and try to check in with the automated machines. It's possible, but they claim I have no baggage allowance, when in reality I do have one (we purchased three suitcase transfers). As we hear later, it's for this reason that the machine refuses to acknowledge the luggage. In my opinion it's a mistake in the systems of Lufthansa.

Anyway, we queue up at the check-in counter. Very long queue, only two open counters which later will become three. After 50 minutes of waiting (why can't they open new counters if there are so many passengers, any supermarket adds new cashiers if there are long queues) it's finally our turn.

 By now it's around 8:40pm and we rush to the McDonalds restaurant for some quick food. While there I receive an SMS that the flight tp Tbilisi is delayed by 30 minutes to 10:15pm. Brilliant, instead of 3:30am we'll arrive at 4am in Tbilisi.

But actually this 30 minutes delay turns out to be quite useful, because we lost a lot of time at the Lufthansa check-in and this way we have more time to eat.

Shortly after 9pm we get back to the terminal, go through security, then through passport control. Long queue at the passport control, we probably lose 20 minztes there. Finally, shortly after 9:45pm we are at the gate. Now the declared boarding time is 10pm.

At 10:05pm the boarding starts, at 10:35pm the plane (an Airbus A321) starts rolling, at 10:45pm (with one hour of delay) the plane takes off. The plane is completely full. Surprise, they even serve a simple dinner later in the plane.

We land at 4:20am at the airport in Tbilisi. Seems to be a somewhat old airport. Passport control happens quite quickly. By 4:35am we walk to the baggage retrieval area. Then it takes a while to get the suitcases. We finally walk to the arrivals hall, get some cash from an ATM and meet Marc and his fiancée who landed about 20 minutes earlier. Then we buy some SIM cards from Geocell. Package with 6GB of data, unlimited local calls and 30 minutes of international calls for 30 GEL - very good price.

Shortly after 5am we walk out of the arrivals hall and look for a taxi. By now it's already getting bright. Messy discussion with some guys who claim to be taxi drivers. And these individuals claim that the price to get to Tbilisi is 50 GEL when on the board it is clearly mentioned that the price is 30 GEL. And then these are not even real taxi drivers - they want to walk us to some car parked somewhere. Actually three taxis are parked in the taxi area, but the drivers are nowhere. In the end we stop some taxis which are just arriving and use these to get to Tbilisi. Marc pays 20 GEL for his taxi, I pay 40 GEL for mine (perhaps because we are four?).

The taxi driver doesn't know the hotel, so I have to guide him with the Google Maps navigation system. It's almost 6am when we are finally in the room. Difficult to fall asleep, as outside it is getting very bright.

3.6: Tbilisi
Hotel White Neptun, Tbilisi.
Weather: beautiful sunny day in Tbiisi. Temperatures peak at about 24°C, but under the sun it gets hot.

I wake up around 10am, Shirley and the kids will wake up later. Long time to get ready. Marc sleeps until after 12pm. We leave the hotel without Marc (who is still getting ready) at 12:40pm and start exploring Tbilisi.

Immediately we are on Shota Rustaveli avenue, next to the Opera. Beautiful neoclassical building. Some time spent taking some pictures of the building, then we slowly walk towards the old town. This part of the town is the one built during the Russian/Soviet period. It sort of reminds me of Bishkek and Almaty - similar architectural style. Long, tree lined avenue with neoclssical buildings of Russian/Soviet style.

 We pass by the Marriot hotel, then have a look at the Kashueti church. Later we pass by the parliament building. We reach the Freedom square at 1:30pm. This is a big circular square, with a column with a golden equestrian statue of St George slaying the dragon on top. Not terribly interesting.

 There Shirley spots a Dunkin Donuts restaurant. We have some food there around 2pm. Inexpensive meal - total of 11 Euro for the four of us.

At 2:30pm we are ready to continue exploring Tbilisi and walk down Alexander Pushkin street. After several stops along the way, to buy things in shops, at 3:20pm we are still in this street. Marc and his fiancée are supposed to join us here, but do not show up. Several phone calls, in the end I walk back to the Freedom square and tell Marc to meet me there. It's 4:10pm when we finally meet.

We walk then down along Alexander Pushkin street and join with Shirley and the kids who have been waiting for us next to a shadowy trees area. So we start walking into the old town, or let's say what is left of it.

Most buldings here are more or less of neoclassical style, i.e. not that old. The only old buildings are some churches. This area is more touristy because there are more restaurants, cafes and shops. A wedding is going on in the Anchiskhati church.

At 4:35pm we are at the Peace bridge, a glass and steel pedestrian bridge over the river. Quite nice architecture, fits nicely into the surroundings. We cross this bridge and reach the other side of the river. This is an area with greeneries, a nice park and some modern architecture. There is also a cablecar crossing the river and leading up to the castle. Some photo stops with Natasha posing with a chamaeleon borrowed from a guy (5 GEL). Some more breaks and finally at 5:10pm we are in the cablecar (2.50 GEL ticket). Nice views when crossing the river.

Even nicer views when we are on top on the other side. The castle is just a ruin, open to the public, no entrance ticket. Lots of people at the cablecar top station this Saturday afternoon.

While Shirley and the kids explore the area, I try to get into the caste with Marc and his fiancée. We walk down the staircase, then at one point take a path to the right. Turns out that this path leads to the castle walls, but from there it is impossible to get beyond the wall. So we just walk down and stop further down the staircase where there are some benches. There we wait for Shirley and the kids.

Shortly before 6pm Shirley and the kids join us. We walk further down the staircase and discover the entrance to the castle. So we get in and spend some time visiting the castle ruins. It's possible to walk up to the castle walls by using some steep and a bit dangerous paths. Good views of Tbilisi from the castle walls.

At 6:30pm we walk down towards the river. There we look for a place where to eat something. Between 7 and 8pm we have some dinner. The food is not that impressive and Marc complains about the wine and the cheese which is too salty. This area looks like the most touristy of Tbilisi (lots of cafes, restaurants, shops).

After 8pm Marc and his fiancée get back to the hotel by taxi, while I walk back towards the hotel with Shirley and the kids. In the meantime Maia, my local Georgian travel agency, calls me and we agree to meet at the Freedom square.

We are there at 8:40pm. There I meet Maia, who will give me an introduction into Georgia, while Shirley and the kids walk back to the hotel.

Maia basically has her own travel agency in Tbilisi, together with her husband. We spend about 40 minutes walking across Tbilisi, with me taking some photos, while Maia gives me a lesson about Georgia (history, culture, economy etc.). At 9:40pm I'm back in the hotel.


4.6: Tbilisi -> Kutaisi
Rioni guesthouse, Kutaisi. 29 Euro for a room in a family run guesthouse. Sort of interesting room, artistic and old fashioned with a chandelier. Lots of furniture, even a piano. Looks like when they don't have customers they use this room other purposes. A/C, heating, attached bathroom with shower (water boiler), cannot darken the room well. WLAN in the room. Central location, about 300m from the fountain square.
Weather: sunny the whole day, top temperature of 26°C, quite strong sun.

Shortly after 10am the minivan (Mercedes Viano) with Maia and the driver arrives and we get into it. We manage to put all suitcases into the boot and get into the minivan, which is comfortable and big enough for the six of us. So we start driving towards Kutaisi.

 Our first stop is in Mtshketa, which is not far from Tbilisi. We arrive there at 10:42am. Mtshketa seems to be a collection of restaurants and souvenir shops around a fortress with an old church inside. Very scenic setting in the hills. Lots of visitors and tourists today. Actually it's a church in a compound surrounded by walls, doesn't seem to be a real fortress. Because today there is wedding we can't go into the church. I hear that women are only allowed in with a modest dress, have to cover their hair and walk behind the men. There is no ticket or fee to get into the compound and photography is allowed everywhere.

We spend over an hour in this place, longer than the 30 minutes initially planned, then we have some fresh fruit juices and Marc has a coffee in a bar. Around 11:50am we start driving to the next place, which is the city of Gori. There we will visit the Stalin museum. By the way, it's really hot under the sun.

At 12:40pm we reach Gori and park the minivan near the Stalin museum. This is a large, interesting building with some kind of artistic architecture and a tower which looks like a clock tower. The building is in a park with nice greeneries and in front of it there is the birth house of Stalin, which is protected with a structure from the rain and the sun. Seems the people in Gori value a lot Stalin.

We get into the museum. The ticket costs 15 Lari. Inside the building is very artistic and there are many exhibits about the life of Stalin. Lots of pictures, some statues and busts of Stalin. Some emblems of the Soviet era. At 1:10pm we are done with the museum and walk out. There we have a look at the armored train carriage of Stalin, basically a bullet-proof train waggon. Relatively unimpressive thing. Then we check out the birth house of Stalin. All well preserved with some exhibits inside. By the way, all the time Maia is explaining in great detail everything about the places we visit. She is really an expert about her country.

It's 1:40pm when we start driving to the next place, the cave city of Uplistsikhe. We get out of the car shortly after 2pm and because there is no parking we have to walk for a while along the road to the entrance of the compound. It's now really hot under the sun.
Lots of people today visiting Uplistsikhe, long queue at the ticket counter. While Maia buys the tickets for us (5 Lari for an adult), we buy some drinks and snacks because we haven't had lunch today yet.

Shortly after 2:20pm we enter the compound and start walking towards the cave city. According to Maia these caves were inhabited in 1000 BC. It's basically a hill with many caves on the top of the hill, overlooking a plain with a river. Below the hill in the plain there are the ruins of a village. On top of the hill there is a church.

We spend an hour here and then start driving towards Kutaisi. On the way we stop in a motorway rest area and buy some take away food, because there is no time to sit in a restaurant and have the food there. Beautiful scenery along the road, with plains, hills and forest. Very green area. Then we cross the intermediate mountain range and reach Kutaisi after 6pm.

Once there we lose some time looking for the road. It seems that the shortcut road is closed today, so we take another longer road. At 6:30pm we reach the Gelati monastery. This is a monastery near Kutaisi, built in the 11th century and then used also as a learning centre. Very scenic setting, but the central monastery is undergoing renovation and is surrounded by scaffolding. There are also other structures on the compound (which again is surrounded by a wall) such as towers and buildings.

At 6:40pm we get into the main church. This is entirely covered with frescoes, apparently all of the old period. We spend 15 minutes inside the church then walk out. At 7:18pm we drive back to Kutaisi. Brief photo stop at the fountain square, then at 7:35pm we drive to the guesthouse. There we split from Maia and the driver, who will drive back to Tbilisi.

In the evening, while Shirley and the kids have dinner in a restaurant I walk to the Bagrati cathedral and take some blue hour shots.


5.6: Kutaisi -> Mestia
Apartments KM Rest, Mestia. 33 Euro for an apartment with two bedromms, a kitchen and a bathroom with shower. From the outside it looks like a ruin of a building with broken windows. Inside the rooms are more or less ok. Slow WLAN in the rooms. Windows can't be darkened enough. When we move in there is no water - only some mud comes out of the water tap. It takes about one hour of phone calls, discussions etc. to get the water running. I even call other hotels in Mestia, planning to move somewhere else. In the evening when we are back, again there is no water. More phone calls to get the water running again. Then a second problem emerges: there is no hot water in the toilet. How to take a shower? More phone calls, discussions etc. In the end we find a way to make the water boiler warm the water. It's very slow - more than one hour needed to get the water hot. Not so convenient location about 10-15 minutes from the centre of Mestia.
Weather: sunny the whole day. Very hot, like a sauna in Kutaisi, strong sun (no fun walking on the streets). More fresh in Mestia when we arrive, but still hot and the sun is even stronger. I'm already sunburnt, so I use an umbrella as a parasol when walking on the streets.

In the morning I walk to the Bagrati cathedral and visit the interiors. There are almost no decorations, frescoes or paintings inside the church. Not sure why this place should be a UNESCO world heritage site. By the way, the entrance is free.

At 11:15am I leave the cathedral and walk down to the Baraqa restaurant in the fountain square. There I join Shirley and the kids who are having a brunch. I'm back in the guesthouse shortly after 12pm. At 12:20pm we leave the hotel and drive to the airport in a taxi (which seems to be the car or the son of the owner, just guessing - 25 Lari; car has no A/C). We reach the airport at 12:45pm and there meet Marc, who also arrived in a taxi with no A/C.

The Kutaisi airport is a quite modern, glass and steel building. Small gates area. One café where we have some drinks. We check in and luckily today the flight to Mestia is not delayed. The plane is a small propeller machine with 24 seats (perhaps a Fokker one). The flight leaves Kutaisi punctually at 2pm.

It's a short (30 minutes), but very scenic flight at an altitude of 3000m. The plane crosses the snow-covered mountain range, then turns into the valley and finally lands in Mestia airport at 2:30pm.

The Mestia airport is very small - just one L-shaped building. We quickly get our luggage and walk outside. There we find a guy offering the trip to Mestia in his minivan for 20 Lari. It's actually just a 2km trip, so could be cheaper, but we just take it without discussing.

Then the driver cannot find our place (the KM Rest) so we drive first to the hotel of Marc (the Lileo). Later I realise it would have been better to book a hotel in Mestia rather than the KM Rest apartment. Anyway, I finally manage to call the KM Rest place and put the driver in touch with the place owner who explains him how to get there.

 By the way, also in Mestia Geocell has coverage (and so does Beeline). Good mobile Internet speed. It's really good to have a flat rate for the local calls, because I'm making so many calls.

Once we are in the apartment we have the mess with the water (see above). Some discussion with the driver who offers to bring us to Ushguli for 200 Lari. Today we might take a cable car to a place at 2500m of altitude but it's already 3:15pm and the cablecar already stops the operation at 4pm, so there is no time.

At 3:30pm we walk out and go to buy some water. The road on which the hotel is (and which continues to the airport) is a mud track, but it seems that works are ongoing to pave it and make it a real road. After we buy some groceries in a shop we walk back to the apartment. More discussions about the missing water with the manager. Finally, at almost 4:30pm we get out again and walk towards the town. I'm using an umbrella as a parasol because I'm a bit sunburnt.

After 5pm we meet Marc and his fianceé who have already had a look at the town of Mestia. Together with them we slowly walk towards the town centre. At one point we turn right and walk up the hill, to the towers. The idea would be to reach a high point from which to take a photo of Mestia and its towers. In reality, after a while we ask a lady if it is possible to climb up the towers. The answer is yes, and the lady brings us to a place where you can walk up one tower. It's 2 Lari per person.

So we get into this old house and walk up the tower. It's not that easy actually, because the various levels are connected by some not so stable and very steep wooden ladders. It takes some balancing and climbing skills to get up. And in fact the last ladder is so challenging (you have to do so rock climbing to get to the top level), that only Alissia and I manage to get there while Marc and his fincee prefer not to try to get to the top level. In the end I'm with Alissia on the wooden roof of this tower. Great views over Mestia and the entire valley.

After 6pm we walk back to the town and meet Shirley who chose to go into town with Natasha. There we spend some time exploring Mestia. It's actually a cute mountain village with nice buildings, shops, restaurants, good tourist infrastructure. Plenty of travel operators offering transfers to different places, including Tbilisi. I wouldn't have had to pre-book the transfer to Tbilisi via Suntransfers.

In one of the travel agencies we book a tour to Ushguli for tomorrow for 200 Lari. Then, at 7pm we have a dinner in a restaurant. The food is not cooked terribly well, but is not that bad either and actually tastes quite well. Marc orders a bottle of white wine and tells me it's not that special. Not bad, but not very good either. If there are excellent wines in Georgia, we haven't found them yet.

After 8pm, as it starts getting fresh we slowly walk back to the apartment. On the way I try without success to withdraw cash from an ATM. Once back in the apartment we have a longer discussion with the manager because first there is no water and then there is no hot water.

We manage to wash the clothes in the washing machine and hang them on the clothesline in the kitchen.


6.6: Mestia -> Ushguli -> Mestia
Apartments KM Rest, Mestia. The water in the water boiler is barely sufficient for one person.
Weather: despite the bad weather forecast, today the weather is not so bad and it only rains a little bit in the evening. A mix of sunny and clouds. Strong sun at 2100m of altitude. More fresh in Ushguli than in Mestia, but you can still walk around in a T-shirt when the sun is shining (a bit fresh when the sky is overcast). Some light rain in Mestia in the evening.

 At 9am we walk to the shop near the apartment and buy some drinks. On the way we meet Marc who is already in the minivan with his fiancee. We get into the minivan and, after a brief stop in town to change drivers, we start driving to Ushguli at 9:30am.

The first 12km of the road are paved, then there is a brief section where road works are going on and after that it's a horrible piece of shit mud track. Looks like they are slowly extending the (paved) road from Mestia towards Ushguli.

The scenery by the way is very, very nice. Fine alpine scenery with green forests, meadows with cows, rivers and villages. Short stop at 11:10am somewhere in the mountains where they sell some locally made yogurt. No network coverage for a section of the road (coverage comes back when we are in Ushguli).

At 12:10pm, when we are very close to Ushguli, the car stops due to a punctured tyre. About 20 minutes later we continue driving and soon reach Ushguli. This is a small, remote village in a valley surrounded by meadows with cows and mountains. Extremely picturesque setting due to all those towers and old houses in between the great sno-covered mountains. Despite the altitude (2100m) trees still grow here.

 It's too late to take the 4WD to the glacier. It's an 8km drive, which might take another hour to go and and hour to come back. So we spend some time exploring the village, walking around the towers and the old houses. Supposedly there is a museum, but we can't find one.
We look for a restaurant, but only find a number of cafés, no obvious restaurants. Several hostels and guesthouses, although we don't see so many tourists.
We finally walk on top of a hill to check out where the village ends (Google Maps is a bit inaccurate in Ushguli), and realise that Ushguli indeed is the small village we have seen.

So we walk back to one of the cafes we saw earlier and check the menu, then place orders. It's amazing that in such a remote place as Ushguli, over two hours from Mestia on a horrible road there is a restaurant offering so many dishes. Probably they get all supplies daily by 4WD trucks travelling on this road.

Anyway, we order some quite delicious dishes, fresh salad and Marc even orders some wine. Again the meal is inexpensive - for the four of us I pay 45 Lari in total (about 17 Euro).
By the time we finish the meal it's 3:15pm. Until 4pm we walk around the narrow alleys and the small houses in Ushguli. The kids play with all animals they encounter (dogs, pigs, cows). Behind Ushguli there is a big rock and snow mountain, the highest mountain in Georgia.

At 4pm we start driving back to Mestia. This time the drive takes only two hours and 20 minutes. Once in Mestia we have some light dinner and drinks in the same restaurant of yesterday, then walk back to the apartment. On the way I try again without success to withdraw cash from the ATM.


7.6: Mestia -> Tbilisi
Apartment Tamara On Khandzteli Street, Tbilisi. 40 Euro for an apartment with two bedrooms, a kitchen with washing machine, frigde, microwave, cooking plates, toilet with shower. Centrally located in Tbilisi. Quiet place at night.
Weather: mostly overcast the whole day, every now and then some rain (more in the mountains). Not so hot due to the cloud cover. Even in Tbilisi in the evening it's cloudy and it rains a little bit.

 Basically we spend the whole day in the minivan driving back from Mestia to Tbilisi. I had to book the minivan (via suntransfers.com) because the flight from Mestia to Tbilisi was fully booked. But then I wonder if the plane to Tbilisi today made the trip because of the cloud cover (they don't fly if the weather is bad). But we have been very lucky with the weather - we got two days of sun in the mountains and are leaving when the weather is bad.

At 9:30am I'm on the main road waiting for the driver. As he is not here yet by 9:35am, I call suntransfers, but by the time I have explained everything, the driver finally shows up. At 9:45am we start driving towards Tbilisi.

Initially it's a mountain road with many curves, breathtaking views of the valleys and the 5000m high peaks of the Caucasus mountain range. The road is mostly in a good shape, but there are many sections on which roadworks are ongoing. It's also the mountain which is quite active, i.e. frequently stones fall down because the rock is not very strong and perhaps because there are earthquakes.

By 12:30pm we are out of the mountains and are driving towards Zugdidi, where we arrive around 1pm. We don't have a break in Zugdidi and instead continue driving. We'll do the lunch break in Kutaisi at 2:20pm. Before arriving in Kutaissi Marc spots the Kutaissi hotel where he spent the night and forgot to return the key. We stop the car and the fiancée of Marc returns the key. Otherwise she would have had to send back the key from Frankfurt.

So in Kutaisi the driver brings us to a restaurant of his choice. It has sort of the atmosphere of a night club, but indeed it is (also) a restaurant. There, after an initial discussion about chicken meat, we have a lunch. They don't have chicken meat, but in the end go and buy a chicken for us. Big long lunch with plenty of dishes (and the ckicken is not bad).

 At 4pm we continue driving towards Tbilisi. Now the road is completely in the plains, except for the section which crosses the central mountain range. The driver consistently drives above the speed limits and overtakes where it's not allowed but he seems to know how to drive a car. The police doesn't seem to care either - the driver overtakes at high speed several police cars.

We reach Tbilisi at 7:40pm, get stuck in some traffic jam, then are in the hotel shortly before 8pm. In the evening we go out to eat something and buy some water, then head back to the hotel.

These past two days we have spend 6-8 hours every day in the car, which is definitely too much driving. Much better to cover long distances in a plane or train.

Tomorrow Maia will pick us up at 9:30am for the 3-days Kazbegi-Kaakheti trip.


8.6: Tbilisi -> Kazbegi (Stepanzminda)
Guest House on V. Pshavela 36, Kazbegi. 130 GEL for an umimpressive room with attached toilet with shower. The room has a heating and no furniture at all. Could actually be a bit cheaper considering what we pay for and the overall price level in Georgia. Centrally located in Kazbegi. Free WLAN in the room.
Weather: the day starts sunny and warm in Tbilisi and surroundings. Then, as we move into the mountains, it becomes mostly overcast and there is also some rain. A bit cold in the evening in Kazbegi.

In the morning Maia was supposed to arrive at 9:30am, but she arrives only at 9:55am because the road through which she had to pass was blocked. So we start the trip at 10am.

The first stop is in Mtshketa, where we arrive at 10:37am. Basically we are returning here because last time we couldn't get into the church (Svetitskhoveli cathedral of the twelve apostles). All ladies have to cover their hair and their legs before getting in. Quite scenic interior full of frescoes and decorations. We'll spend more than half an hour in this church and only leave at 11:20am, after having bought some freshly squeezed orange juices.

The next stop is the Mtskheta church of Jvari (Holy Cross) which is on a hill overlooking the Svetitskhoveli cathedral. Again a quite old and interesting church, although here the interiors are less impressive than in the other church. The main reason to come here is to enjoy the views over the river and the Svetitskhoveli cathedral.

At 12pm we continue driving, this time towards Kazbegi. Our next stop is the Ananuri fortress (or castle), which overlooks the Zhinvali reservoir. Here there are the ruins of a 12th century castle, in which a big church was added in the 18th century. We arrive there at 1:15pm, after a stop in a take-away restaurant to eat some quick lunch. The Ananuri fortress is cute and interesting. The church interior is not so impressive, but it is possible to walk on the walls and get into the tower for some good views of the complex.

At 2pm we start driving towards Kazbegi. By 3pm we pass by the ski resort of Gudauri, which at the moment is closed because the season is over. Then, at 3:10pm we stop in a place where there is a good viewpoint and sort of a monument and some souvenir and food stalls. We spend about 20 minutes there, then continue driving towards Kazbegi arriving shortly after 4pm.

Kazbegi is a small village in the mountains along the Georgian military highway, in a valley surrounded by high mountains. The main attraction here is the Gergety trinity church on a mountaintop overlooking Kazbegi.

After arriving we unload our stuff in the guesthouse we booked. Some more discussion, then Marc leaves with his fiancée and the driver and Maia for their hotel. They don't manage to find the place in half n hour of driving. In fact they come back, pick me up and finally we manage to find the hotel after calling it on the phone.

Now the question is how to get up to the Trinity church. From here it seems to be reachable by foot in less than an hour, if leaving from the other side of the village. But Maia insists that it takes one hour and a half just to go up, total of three hours to go and come back (including the time spent at the church). In the hotel of Marc the receptionist even insists it takes two hours to walk up. This all seems very strange, because the distance really looks very short and the difference in altitude is less than 400m. By the way, a car to go up costs 100 Lari according to Maia.

Since none of the ladies wants to go up to the church, I decide to walk up and Marc agrees to follow me. It's now 5pm and it will be bright until almost 9pm, so there is plenty of time to walk up and down. Maia insists that she wants to follow us. We start the climb at 5:08pm.

 The path initially goes through the forest and is very steep because we take all the shortcuts. We quickly lose Maia who is too tired and decides to walk back. Turns out that indeed it's possible to go up in less than one hour, because by 5:50pm we are the church. Lots of tourists, most came up with a car. Very scenic setting in the mountains, rich decorations and artifacts inside the church. We stay at the church until 6:40pm, then start walking down.

With a few stops along the way, we are down in the village at 7:15pm. There Maia pick us up and brings us back to the hotel. Between 8 and 9pm we have a dinner in a restaurant (outside table, we cover ourselves with blankets because it is fresh).


9.6: Kazbegi -> Sighnaghi
Tsminda Giorgi Apartment, Sighnaghi. 60 Lari for a large room with bathroom and shower. Not much furniture besides a cupboard with drawers. The room is in what seems to be the private accomodation of some people. About 300-400m from the centre of Sighnaghi. Good shower and good toilet. The next day when we leave they offer us a simple breakfast (not included in the room price). We then leave a tip of 10 Lari.
Weather: sunny with some clouds the whole day, depending on the place. Warm in Sighnaghi in the evening (no jacket needed), more fresh in the restaurant at 1400m altitude where we stop for lunch. No rain.

Lots of driving today. We leave Kazbegi at 10am and only reach the hotel in Sighnaghi at 8:30pm. The total driving time from Kazbegi to Sighnaghi is shown by Google Maps as 4:05 hours. In practice we'll do countless stops and end up arriving so late. We also lose some time finding the hotel in Sighnaghi because either Google Maps has incorrect maps of Sighnaghi or perhaps booking.com contains the incorrect address or coordinates of the place.

Anyway, in the morning we are ready for leaving shortly after 9:30am. We'll end up leaving at 10am, because Marc has a problem with his VISA credit card, and at the same time can't call Germany to check with his bank because his Beeline SIM card expired today (apparently the SIM card he got for 25 Lari at the airport has only one week of validity and then must be topped up).

So we leave at 10am and a bit out of Kazbegi stop for a while under the antenna of the radio base station. There we use my mobile, and with Skype Marc calls Germany and manages to clarify that there is no issue with his credit card. But this thing has cost us a delay of about 40 minutes. And, my goodness, they shouldn't sell SIM cards which have only one week of validity.

After a stop at a petrol station supermarket along the way where we buy some food, we reach the Ananuri fortress at 12pm. There we briefly stop for some photos.

Then we continue driving and at one point our car gets stopped by the police. Seems that the policeman is blaming the driver to have crossed the continuos white line in the middle of the road. Some discussion with the driver who disagrees, but in the end has to pay a fine of 50 Lari. I must say that these drivers in Georgia do not take the road driving rules too seriously. Our driver from Mestia to Tbilisi for instance was driving as if no rules existed. But at least he wasn't doing too dangerous things such as driving very closely to the car in front.

So we continue driving, pass by Tbilisi (northern motorway ring I guess) and continue driving.

At 2:08pm we stop at the mountain pass at 1620m of altitude (we are crossing a mountain range) because Shirley needs some fresh air after so many mountain road curves. The small one immediately befriends a dog and hugs him (small one and dog posing for pictures; another dog who likes young girls). Beautiful scenery of green meadows, hills bushes etc. Georgia is really picturesque in June.

At 2:20pm we stop at a roadside restaurant which Maia knows. There they serve good grilled meat according to Maia. And indeed these guys know how to grill meat, it's just that the meat they use is a bit too cheap (my pork is mostly spare ribs with a lot of fat and bones; only a couple of pieces of fillet).
We have some late lunch here until 3:40pm. When we start again, most of the day has already passed and we haven't yet started our program for the day.

We reach the Alaverdi monastery at 4:25pm. This is another 11th century church, again surrounded by walls like a fortress, in a very nice setting. Some parts of it were destroyed by an earthqake and rebuilt in the 17th century. Women have to wear some kind of long skirt and a headscarf to enter the church.
The interior of the church is quite void of decorations, but there are some frescoes. Strong sun by now, you have to look for a place in the shadow.

We only spend 20 minutes in this place and then drive to winery which has a wine museum and where you can do some wine tasting. Marc, our wine expert, is very eager to taste some Georgian wines, to see if finally we can find some quality wine (until now the wine he drank in restaurants wasn't very good). We reach this winery at 5:20pm.

There they offer us a number of options. We choose to taste four wines and visit the wine museum. Interesting tour of the museum where they show that the wine is fermented in big terracotta jars (one month to make a big one; only three locations in Georgia where these jars are still made). Then they explain the various steps of the wine production process. It's not a very precise and clean process, which might explain why the quality is a bit variable.

 After the museum visit we sit down and start tasting the wines (they give us some pieces of bread and tasteless cheese to eat between the different wines). I'm not a big wine fan and seldom drink wine. Anyway, I don't particularly like any of these four wines they serve. They all have a weird taste and are not a pleasure to drink. Marc is also not overly impressed. Seems that the Georgians still need to put in some effort to improve the quality of their wines.

We leave the winery at 6:20pm and drive towards Sighnaghi. On the way, we briefly stop for a photo at the Gremi fortress, then continue driving to Sighnaghi. At 7:55pm we are at the city gate. Sighnaghi is surrounded by a 4km long wall. Beautiful medieval city in a nice setting on a hill. A very inviting and relaxing place.
Shortly after 8pm we drop off Marc at his hotel. We only reach our hotel at 8:30pm because of the incorrect location data in Google Maps. We then have a simple lunch between 9pm and 10pm.


10.6: Sighnaghi -> Tbilisi
Apartment Tamara On Khandzteli Street, Tbilisi.
Weather: sunny with some thin clouds layer until about 3pm. After that it starts raining, initially very lightly. Heavy rain in Tbilisi in the evening after 9pm.

Shortly before 10am, when we are about to leave, the guesthouse lady offers us a simple breakfast. This delays our departure from the guesthouse until about 10:15am. Then we put the luggage into the car and start a brief tour of Sighnaghi with Maia. She explains a bit the details of the city and leads us on a walk which ends on the city walls, from which there is a nice view of the city.

 At 11:40am we leave for the next stop, the Bodbe monastery (Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe). This is a pilgrimage centre not far from Sighnaghi, dating back to the 9th century but with structures built in the 17th century and even more recently.
When we arrive at 11:55am the monastery is overflowing with people. It's a Saturday and the local Georgians are coming in large numbers to visit this monastery. Very scenic place, with gardens with flowers and trees. Quad bikes for rent. The architecture itself strictly speaking is not terribly impressive.

We are in this place until about 12:30pm, then we start driving towards the David Gareja monastery. This is located in the east of Georgia, along the border to Azerbaijan. Initially the road is paved, but after a while it becomes a bad dirt track. Very slow driving speed. The terrain gets more dry - it's still green, but it's only grasslands with almost no trees. Supposedly a semidesertic area according to Maia.

With a couple of stops along the way, we reach the David Gareja monastery at 2:35pm. The monastery consists of a church complex and quarters for the monks in caves carved in the sandstone rock. These caves are spread over a very large area and at its peak the monastery housed 6000 monks. Today we only manage to see a tiny fraction of the complex, because it starts raining around 3pm and Maia aborts the planned excursion to the caves because it's too dangerous to walk on slippery rocks. While in the church complex we see a singing ceremony of some Russian orthodox pilgrims.

As it starts raining, we walk back to the car. Good that I brought the umbrella with me today. Seems that with this place the program for today is finished. It's actually just 3:40pm, a bit early to finish the day. But I hear that we'll only be back in Tbilisi at 6pm.

So we start driving towards Tbilisi. At 4:15pm we stop in the village of Udabno in the Chaos cafe for some brief lunch (place run by a group of hippie Polish people who for some reason decided to move here).

After a brief stop under a bridge (Maia thinks we might soon be hit by a hailstorm with tennisball sized hail), we reach the Eastpoint mall at 6:15pm. This is a nice and modern shopping centre about 10km east of Tbilisi, with a series of supermarkets, a Carrefour hypermarket, several international brands outlets and so on. Food court and children play area. We stay here until 7pm, then drive to Tbilisi and arrive in the hotel at 7:30pm.

In the evening we have a dinner with Marc and his fiancée from 9pm to 10pm.

Continues with the Azerbaijan 2017 travelogue

17.6: Sheki -> Tbilisi
Hotel Marcos, Tbilisi. 60 Lari for a (simple) room with attached bathroom with shower. Some furniture: fridge, sofa, chair, table etc. Free WLAN.
Weather: sunny with a few clouds the whole day. Quite hot, no rain.

At 10am we take the car for Tbilisi. It's the same driver who drove us from Baku to Sheki. The trip proceeds smoothly and at 11:15m we reach Zaqatala.
Zaqatala is a city along the way which the Lonely Planet guidebook highlights. And near Zaqatala there is the village of Car (or Zar) which is also recommended.

Zaqatala is a pleasant city with some historical highlights (the walls of a fortress, the ruins of a Georgian church), a nice mosque and some nice parks. But that's it more or less. And the compound of the walled fortress/castle is a bit messed up, because instead of preserving it, they have built all sorts of modern buildings inside. Disrespect for history.

We continue driving at 12:10pm and, after a stop, reach the border at 12:50pm. We'll end up spending almost one hour at the border. First, I make the mistake of changing the excess Azeri Manat into Lari at the Liberty bank. Very bad rate. Should have changed the money on the Georgian side, where the rate is much, much better.

We have to get out of the car, and take one piece of luggage with us. With that we have to walk for about 100-200m to the Azeri checkpoint. Longish time there to process the passports. I have to get back to the car and fetch the printouts of the Azeri VISAs.

Long time to process the Malaysian passport of Shirley. Then we walk to the Georgian passport control. Very long time to get through this checkpoint. The guy asks me if I have two passports. Totally stupid question. Then he needs forever to process the passport of Shirley. Alissia is relatively fast, but with Natasha everything gets stuck again.

Finally we reach the Georgian side. Surprise, surprise, there are several money changers with good rates, and taxis waiting for customers.

Because it is already 2pm we decide to get to Tbilisi without stopping for lunch somewhere (from the border to Tbilisi it's about two hours). We proceed quite quickly and reach the hotel at 4pm. There we pay the driver the 340 AZN (180 for Baku-Sheki + 160 for Sheki-Tbilisi) and a 23 AZN tip (all remaining Azeri cash we have).

Once in the hotel we check in and unpack our stuff. Some discussion with the hotel manager. For 15 Lari a driver will bring us to the airport tomorrow morning at 4am. A bit pricey for the 2km distance, but we have no choice. But they'll bring us for free to the East Point mall. So at 5 something pm we drive to the East Point mall. We'll be there until about 7:30pm, eating something and shopping a bit.

After that we take a taxi back to the hotel. Some effort to find a driver, because it is not so obvious where the hotel is (nobody knows it). 25 Lari to get back to the hotel and from there drive to the city. At 7:50pm I drop off Shirley and the kids at the hotel, then drive with the taxi to the Trinity cathedral (Sameba cathedral).

There I meet Maia, who until 9:30pm will show me around a bit. First we experience how the old patriarch of Georgia walks out of the church. Quite interesting, very local culture scene. Then we drive on the other side of the river (at the base station of the funicular) and walk up to a church where there is a very artistic cemetery (lots of statues). Finally we drive back into town and visit the mansion of a rich guy (very decorated interiors). After 9:30pm Maia drives me back to the hotel.


18.6: Tbilisi -> Munich
Home, sweet home
Weather: sky with almost no clouds in Tbilisi in the early morning. Sunny, blue sky in Munich, fresh in the morning (temperatures below 20°C).

We get up at 3am and at 4am we take the taxi to the airport (15 Lari + 2 Lari tip). We reach the airport at 4:05am, just in time to see a large group of travellers pass in front of us and queue up at the Lufthansa check-in counter. When we finally check in, we are initially placed on non-adjacent seats (later in the plane we'll swap seats and be in adjacent seats).

I change the remaining 55 something Lari into 20 Euro. It's not exactly the 55.6 Lari needed to get a 20 Euro bill (something like 0.2 or 0.3 Lari are missing), but the exchange counter guy still gives us a 20 Euro bill. So we proceed to the gate. Some short queues at the security and passport control counters. We are at the gate at 4:55am.

Then we board the plane. Today the plane starts rolling at 5:35am and takes off 12 minutes later (almost on time). The plane is (again) completely full. On board they serve a breakfast; croissant and bread not fresh.

We all manage to get some sleep on the plane. The plane lands in Munich at 7:35am local time, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Then we go through the passport control and by 8:12am we are at the luggage belt and have already retrieved the suitcases. We take the 9am train and are home around 10am.

Copyright 2017 Alfred Molon