The place where I first met my favourite Georgian food, which of course involves cheese.
Akhaltsikhe is a rather small city in Southern Georgia, with an unpronounceable name and a majestic fortress. The name translates to new fortress, after the imposing Rabati fortress, which used to be the most important landmark in the region. It was originally built in the 9th century as the Lomisa castle and served as the residence of the Jakeli princely family, which controlled the Samtskhe region and also built the Sapara monastery.
Today Akhaltsikhe is still the capital of the Georgian Samtskhe–Javakheti region, but most of the buildings of the Rabati fortress complex are no longer in their original form. It was completely rebuilt by the Ottomans during the 17th and 18th century, when they controlled the territory, and then restored in 2012 by the Georgian government to attract more tourists and make Akhaltsikhe more than a gateway to the cave city of Vardzia. I guess their plan worked, as the castle looked quite pretty when I visited with my boyfriend in May 2018 and the best part is, you get to see most of it for free, but more on that later.
We arrived to Akhaltsikhe with one of those chaotic Georgian public transport minivans called marshrutkas and since we were planning to go to Vardzia the next day, we booked one of the taxi drivers hanging around at the station. He took us to the Sapara monastery the first day, as described in that post, and helped us out with our sleeping situation after coming back from the monastery. We’d booked a room online and since Akaltsikhe is a small city, our driver naturally knew the owner and exactly where to go, which was a blessing, as it turns out. To this day I’m not sure whether the owner was the frail old woman dressed in black, who didn’t speak a word of English or Russian or anything else, or whether she was the owner’s wife, but without our driver I’m not even sure we would’ve been able to get our room or pay for it due to the language barrier. The room itself was quite decent, if you disregard the weird boat-like shower, but there was no sign whatsoever identifying the hotel/homestay and the woman only came out after he called her on the phone.
After we sorted out the mess with the room, we went off to explore the city centre and get some food. Besides the castle and some churches the city is rather unremarkable and, like in most Georgian cities, the streets were surprisingly clean. We managed to find a good restaurant serving the Georgian speciality I’d been dying to try since we came to the country: Adjarian khachapuri. Adjarian khachapuri is quite literally art made of cheese, bread and butter, as the bread dough is shaped like a boat from the Black sea and filled with Georgian young cheese, which melts in the oven. Butter and raw egg are added into the molten cheese at the end, when the khachapuri comes out of the oven and the raw egg represents the sun sinking into the sea. The whole thing is then mixed together inside the bread boat and it’s so wonderfully cheesy and creamy you could cry. My boyfriend the grump said there was too much cheese for him, but there’s no such thing, so you should definitely try the khachapuri if you get the chance.
The next morning it was time to explore the Rabati fortress. Our taxi driver picked us up at our accommodation early in the morning and drove us to the castle. Since he was a local, he knew all the tips and tricks for avoiding payments, so he told us of a way to see most of the fortress for free.
Travel tip: the Rabati fortress consists of two parts, the lower courtyard and the inner castle. Entrance to the lower courtyard is free, you only need to buy a ticket if you’d like to visit the castle museum and the mosque. Since we were on a budget and had seen plenty of other sacral objects while in Georgia, we decided to skip the inner castle part. Beware though, as they will try to sell you the ticket upon walking through the fortress gate, even though you don’t actually need it, so you need to be quite firm in saying no.
Impressions of the Rabati fortress
The fortress inside the walls is beautifully renovated and definitely worth having a look around, particularly early in the morning, when there are no people around. There’s also a cafe in the courtyard, which wasn’t open that early, but looked quite nice. After we were done with our castle exploration, the taxi guy picked us up in front of the castle and we headed towards Vardzia. On the way there he pointed out some of the city sights and, since he was Armenian, he told us all about the local history gossip: which churches were taken from the Armenians by the Russians or the Georgians, which buildings were rebuilt and used by the Russians and everything else about what life used to be like in Akhaltsikhe during the Soviet Union era. Naturally, we took it all with a grain of salt, since political issues are always two-sided, but it was nice to get a local’s perspective and most of it sounded quite similar to what I normally hear from my older relatives about Yugoslavia. Just goes to show that the more you travel, the more you see that everything everywhere is really the same…
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