I tried making my own soap

Sometimes I get excited about the most random things: the other day as I was washing my face in the shower with my regular face wash, I figured that there must be a way to make a custom soap bar for that. Turns out it’s surprisingly easy as you can just buy a melt-and-pour soap base and add your own ingredients.

Now, here comes a bit of philosophical oversharing about my skin type, so just skip ahead to the soap photos if you don’t care. My skin has gotten a bit weird after my teenage years, as I still get blemishes and pimples, but the skin itself went from oily to randomly oily and super dry depending on the day. I’m not a person who spends too much time worrying about these things and although I have my fair share of cosmetic products, I can’t remember to use half of them and I can’t be bothered with the other half, so the only thing I actually use regularly is a face wash. They either don’t do anything for my zits or they are too aggressive and end up drying my skin more than necessary + they come in retardedly small plastic packages or cost a ton if they are a bit more natural. Yes, I know I could just keep trying to find a good one or ask a professional or do some other reasonable thing, but since I’m me I decided to just give it a go and make my own, because I like doing DIY projects.

I figured what’s the worst that could happen – I could always use the soap for hand washing if it doesn’t work on my face and soap bars last for years, so it can’t be a waste. I bought a glycerin soap base online (here), which is apparently fairly inexpensive for the amount of soap you get, even if you get a fancy one like the one with goat milk that I got (I wanted to buy the one with shea butter, but they’d run out, so this sounded weird and the label said moisturising, so I bought it). All you need to do is melt it, mix in your ingredients and leave it to cool, so I was done within 30 minutes.

Since I’m an engineer and need to study and plan every little project, I did a quick Internet search a few days before and it turns out that I had most of the ingredients I needed at home. Apparently active charcoal is good at drawing out dirt from the skin, i.e. zits, and I had plenty of active charcoal pills meant for stomach issues at home. Most of them were already years past their expiration date (can these things really get bad though?), so I figured it would be better to use them like this instead of eating them if the need struck. The next thing I added was tea tree oil, which is supposed to be antiseptic and also good for zits. I had that at home too, because it was a gift from a friend a few years ago, but I’d rarely used it. I’ve started using it now though and it’s awesome.

Additionally, I bought some peeling particles when I bought the soap base, because apparently most store-bought peelings come with microplastic particles, which do exfoliate, but also end up polluting the water, so why contribute to that? The ones I bought were two different sizes, one made from bamboo and the other from wax. They are both very fine and resulted in a super nice, pleasant texture. And yes, I admit I fell for the must-buy-everything advertising effect while browsing the soap making website, because the last thing I added was green tea extract, which is supposed to energise the skin (whatever that means) and contains vitamins C and E. I absolutely love drinking green tea, so I couldn’t help myself + it smells nice.

So, I melted the soap base, mixed in all of my powder ingredients with a whisker and poured the black mixture into silicone muffin moulds. I figured why buy an actual soap mould, when these would do just fine and it’s not like I was mixing in highly dangerous chemicals. Everything was quite easy to wash off with hot water afterwards, since the soap just melted away, so I didn’t make too much of a mess in the kitchen either.

I was left with 7 black hearts, which cooled off and hardened fairly quickly. That’s quite a lot of soap, since soap bars tend to last longer than liquid soaps, so I think we’re good for the next 2 years (my boyfriend likes them too). The whole experiment was super fast and quite fun. The soap seems to do what I wanted it to do (I waited a few weeks before posting this), so I think I’ll just permanently switch to this. It’s fast and easy to make a huge amount, involves less plastic packaging, custom ingredients, it’s more sustainable and dare I say even cheaper in the long run, so what’s not to like?

Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever made your own soap. 🙂

What coming back home after living abroad really feels like

I recently finished my 2 year Masters programme abroad and returned from a rather introspective solo trip to Australia before that. Both times I made a choice: to return home. It may seem like a simple, natural choice, to come back home, but for me it wasn’t. In fact, it never has been.

Choosing to come home

Often when I travel I fall in love with the place I’m visiting and I feel like I left a piece of myself behind when I leave. We have a name for that, post-holiday blues, and there’s even fernweh, the feeling of missing a place you’ve never been to. We know all about how hard it is to leave your homeland and move abroad for whatever reason, particularly when you are forced to due to unfortunate circumstances, but we never talk about how unnaturally hard it is to choose to come back home when you have other options.

In my country, much like in many others, we like to compare ourselves to others. All of our issues with politics, employment, healthcare, schooling and the general quality of life are surely better fixed in the mythical land of abroad, where everything is always great and the sun always shines out of everyone’s butts. Well, when I was younger, I actually believed that to an extent. I never thought my country was particularly horrible and I’m well aware that we Slovenians are much better off than many parts of the world, but it always felt like there were too few opportunities and that many things could be handled much better (which is most certainly true!). So, I worked hard to get the chance to go beyond the borders of our little European chicken and I made it.

Suddenly I was living in the UK and then in Sweden and I had all these options of good engineering positions allover the world, because I had earned them. I was living in two countries with objectively better living standards than the one I’d come from, but unfortunately, all their issues were not magically fixed just because they were higher up on the world’s critically acclaimed ladder. They were dealing with rather the same issues as us – there’s a lovely Balkan expression, which translates to “same shit, different packaging” isto sranje, drugo pakovanje, and well, it’s very true. Now, we could go into the whole “human beings are fundamentally made to be unhappy with their circumstances” thing, but my point is somewhere else.

Suddenly returning back home no longer seemed like a total personal and career suicide as, unlike a lot of immigrants, I had the advantage of coming from a reasonably good country. There honestly wasn’t that much difference in returning or going forward to another country, other than the number on my paycheck, which doesn’t always indicate the quality of life (once it’s past that pesky little threshold of not struggling daily, of course). But despite that, everyone always talks about ambition, achieving more and being better, which, in engineering, is partly measured by where and who you get the chance to work for. Imagine the kick in the head from reality I got, when I realised I didn’t actually want to permanently move abroad, that I wanted to return home, continue my career there and carve out my own opportunities if I had to.

The pros outweighed the cons and back home I went to start my PhD at my home university. As stated in the beginning, for some it would’ve been the easiest and the best choice in the world, the chance to return home and get most, if not all, of what you want and need in life, as most people are quite attached to their home countries. I wasn’t really, but I do acknowledge that sometimes it takes looking in from the outside to see the good in something you’d otherwise take for granted…

What coming back home is really like

Once you’ve chosen to come back home you become a stranger in a familiar world. No one seems to understand exactly why you came back and why you’d throw away the wonderful opportunity of moving to the magical land of abroad (to be honest, every time I take a bus in Ljubljana even I don’t). It becomes a bit impossible to relate to others and their daily struggles when you suddenly see the beauty in completely ordinary things that just weren’t there while you were abroad. Everyone around you is so used to it that they fail to see the good and focus only on the bad; it gets increasingly hard to keep your mouth shut and not call them petty and short-sighted, because you know you were exactly like them and probably will be again soon, once the novelty wears off. It’s even harder to enjoy the art of complaining and to get into the community spirit as much as you used to: the great land of abroad is now tarnished by a faint patina of bullshit, since you’ve seen that everything everywhere is pretty much the same or, in many cases, worse.

It is however, very nice to be back in your own cultural background, where you stand on firm feet every time you tell a joke and people understand your stupid references and sarcasm. Unfortunately, you soon notice that your mother tongue has become rather uncomfortable: the language that once freely flowed through your thoughts now feels a bit clunky and awkward after you’ve spent 2 years thinking in a different one. Also, you now have an accent as people constantly ask you where you’re from in your own hometown…

Coming back is walking down the streets of your hometown fascinated by all the little shops and cafes that popped up while you were gone, by every brick that’s new and undiscovered… to the soundtrack of everyone else grumbling on about how no renovations were really necessary and how every improvement costs money that someone probably lined their pockets with, because corruption is a national sport in Slovenia.

It’s the urge to put up Christmas decorations on the 1st of December, even though you’ve always hated Christmas and all its glitter and kitsch, because you don’t want to miss a single moment more with your loved ones and because you want to make up for all the moments you’ve lost while you were away… all the while half of your heart is secretly breaking for the micro-cosmos you’d made for yourself during your life abroad and the people that made it awesome.

It’s knowing that you can never go back to that, that the world you had abroad no longer exists in the same way and never will again. People move, places change and most importantly, you change as a person, so the circumstances will never be exactly the same, even if you decided to return. On the same note, it’s also hugging your significant other at home extra hard in the morning, because they’re there within your reach when you wake up and you’ll never take that for granted again.

It’s taking the time to cook complicated stuff, because you finally have the right ingredients to make them smell like home, because even the basic things like bread and oil don’t taste the same in a different land. It’s also trying to recreate the dishes you loved eating while abroad and finding that same bittersweet taste of difference there.

It’s knowing that you made the easy choice by returning to tackle life’s battles on familiar grounds, but also the hard choice by returning to deal with the problems you left behind head on – it is easy to avoid one’s issues while living abroad and to forget exactly how miserable certain aspects of your life back home made you. It’s also knowing that you’ve made the choice your wide-eyed childhood self would’ve hated you for and realising, that you’ve really, irrevocably grown up, when the joy of simple things outweighs the impossible, exciting dreams of undefined adventures. Sure, I’ll always travel as much as I can and even try to go abroad for projects or temporary placements, but I know now that I’ll probably never permanently move abroad from Slovenia, unless it’s to retire.

It’s also finally truly understanding, why people who’ve had to leave their homelands in desperate search of a better future always yearn to return, even though it was bad there, and why people who chose to move somewhere else because they fell in love with a person or a place never look back and wholly appreciate their new homes.

It’s realising, that home is not really a place, but a feeling inside you. It’s acknowledging that you did leave pieces of yourself scattered allover the world when you travelled, attached to the people you met and the places you saw, and that each of them represented a possible future you could have had if you had chosen differently. And it’s actively deciding, that just because those pieces of you are now scattered allover the planet, that doesn’t make you full of holes, but rather a solid whole, shaped by all the experiences that chipped away at it.

Coming back home is accepting that you’ve come full circle and not perceiving that as a failure, but acknowledging your personal progress instead. It is wondering what things would’ve been like if you’d remained abroad and not stressing out about it. Most importantly, it’s taking full responsibility for the choices you’ve made that have led you back, for choosing this particular future and all the futures that will follow it. Because there is always a choice.

We are our choices.

J. P. Sartre


Vardzia is the largest cave city complex in Georgia, dug deep into the Erusheti Mountain. It was built mostly in the 12th century by Queen Tamar, an interesting Georgian historical figure, who was the only queen in Georgia ever to be crowned king as the successor of her father, King Giorgi III. She ushered in the prosperous Georgian Golden age and even today the Georgians will proudly mention “King Tamar” without a hint of sarcasm.

Vardzia as seen from afar.

The cave city was built from preexisting natural caves to protect the medieval people of Georgia from the invading Mongol hordes in the form of a fortress/monastery combo. It is located at about 1300 m above sea level and contained over 600 rooms built in up to 13 levels, including a refectory with a bakery, a forge, a throne room and quarters for King Tamar, a pharmacy and several chapels, as well as 25 wine cellars and over a hundred wine jars sunk in the floor (Georgia is known as the cradle of wine making). There’s also the main Church of the Assumption, complete with a bell tower and a cemetery. The entire complex was excavated within about 50 years, which is quite an impressive feat, and the name supposedly comes from King Tamar as well. According to the local legend, she got lost in the caves and when they went looking for her, she’d shouted back აქ ვარ ძია: ac var dzia or “I am here”, which gave the future city its name.

All of Vardzia is connected with an intricate network of access tunnels and was supplied with clean water via an irrigation system, which also enabled them to grow food on terraces carved into the outside mountain slope. At the height of its power, the city was pretty self-sufficient and had an advanced defence system to complement its strategic position, which made it impenetrable to any attackers. However, in the 13th century, a massive earthquake ripped the mountain apart and destroyed about 2/3 of Vardzia. After it was partially rebuilt, the city served as a monastery until the 16th century, when it was sacked by a Persian Shah. It was mostly abandoned after that, but some of the irrigation pipes still supply drinkable water to this day and there are in fact a couple of monks living there since 1999 and maintaining the site. Apparently they ring the church bells every morning at 7 am.

Inside Vardzia

There are several surviving frescoes from the New Testament inside the Church of Assumption and the chapels, including a portrait of King Tamar and her father. When I visited in 2018 with my boyfriend, most of Vardzia was open to the public (except for the monks’ living quarters) and the entrance fee was rather minimal, but the staff didn’t speak very good English, so I suggest you read about its history online. If you wish to see the church, you need properly respectful attire and there’s a tunnel leading up from the church to the higher levels, which is quite narrow and claustrophobic, but you will be rewarded with beautiful views when you’re out. You can explore all the rooms on your own and the visitor trek is kind of circular, so it will spit you out somewhere on the lower levels when you’ve seen it all.

You can get public transport shuttles from nearby towns about 3 times per day, but the easiest option is to hire a taxi driver to take you to Vardzia and all the nearby sites, as there are quite a few. We hired a driver for a day and a half in Akhaltsikhe, who took us to Vardzia, the Sapara monastery and some other sights on the way and we paid him about 35 euros, including a generous tip, since he was extremely helpful and friendly. Be prepared for nerve wracking driving though, as there were several times I was convinced we were going to die screaming, like when he was overtaking a huge truck on half of a narrow road, between a construction site and the edge of a cliff. Georgians don’t really indicate when they are planning to overtake someone, they just drive up tight beside them and start honking the horn in a “hey, I’m here, now move aside or we’ll both crash” kind of way, but it seems to work, so who am I to say they shouldn’t? I do know I’d never drive a rental car in Georgia though.

The view from Vardzia

As I mentioned, there are also a couple of other points of interest near Vardzia, which are worth checking out if you have the time. We got to see the well-preserved Khertvisi fortress and an interesting hanging bridge next to it, but there are also the smaller Vanis Kvabebi caves about 2 km from Vardzia, the Tmogvi village and fortress, the golden village of Saro and lots of hiking opportunities, if you fancy getting a different view. Unfortunately Georgian tourist attractions are not very well-documented online yet, so your best option is to ask the locals for directions (all the taxi drivers should know) or hire a driver, if you’d like to visit those.

Khertvisi fortress

Pure fish delight at the Žeja inn

Žeja is a family-owned restaurant/inn in Ozeljan, in western Slovenia. Their philosophy is all about simple, honest food with a few quality ingredients, which are somehow put together in the fanciest, tastiest way possible. The name means thirst in Slovenian, which is ironic as they will serve you so much food and drinks that you won’t be thirsty or hungry until next week, but that’s what they chose.

My uncle found out about the Žeja inn somewhere and we’ve gone there a couple of times for family celebrations. The restaurant is located in a small, cosy house and every time we came it was full of people, some Slovenians, Croatians and plenty of Italians due to its proximity to the border. Their ambience is quite homey and inviting and despite the fancy food it is not a place where you’d have to show up in high heels and a tie. They serve both fish, meat and vegetarian options from the menu and you could go there for a simple lunch, but what we come for is their slow food option, i.e. basically the whole menu served over several hours.

We always go for the fish option, but the meat dishes I’d seen also looked extremely tasty, so I’m quite sure you can’t go wrong with anything. The last time we went was in November 2019, when we decided on a joint celebration of 4 birthdays and I managed to take photos of all the food we got. Trust me, it was pretty hard to remember to take photos when faced with such awesome food, but I persevered!

If you are there for the whole culinary experience, you can expect to get about 15 courses of fresh raw appetisers, soup, warm appetisers and main courses with an oven-baked fish at the end, followed by different desserts and herbal liquors to settle your stomach after so much food. They tend to change the menu based on the availability of fresh ingredients, so you’re never quite sure what the next plate will hold, which adds to the experience. Speaking of the menu, there isn’t one per se, as the owner likes to greet each guest, explain what the inn is currently serving and help the guests select their meal based on their personal preferences.

Since Žeja’s main vibe is unpretentious, I’ll let the food speak for itself:

As you can see, all of it was absolutely delicious, even if I couldn’t remember or translate all the things we ate. The food came with copious amounts of malvazija (a type of white wine), which I’m not a fan of, but the others were more than happy to guzzle it down. Even the simple stuff like the bread and olive oil were so good your stomach could cry and we also had some coffee, espresso of course, to wrap up our meal.

Know before you go

Naturally, there’s no public transport to Ozeljan, so the only way to get there is by driving. Due to their limited opening time and popularity, reservations are pretty much mandatory, especially if you want the whole experience we had. It is by no means a budget place, but the prices are actually relatively reasonable for what you get (cca. 50 – 70€ per person depending on the quantity of food and drinks), considering the sheer amount of food and the awesomeness of it. The friendly owner always makes sure you’ll leave happy and well fed, as he seems to know his guests’ preferences better than they themselves, so it’s more than worth a splurge if you can afford it.

Logic does not apply to the Georgian public toilets

So much happened in the little Caucasus nation of Georgia due to its friendly, resourceful people and chaotic public infrastructure, that I just had to share the most quirky stuff. The Georgian public toilets definitely made the list, as logic just refuses to stick within those premises, and I will prove it to you. In a sense, this is a part 2 post following the stories from the Georgian public minibuses, which you can read here, but otherwise let’s get started with my review of the insanity of the Georgian public toilets:

Like in many non-Western countries (but also looking at you, Italy!), the Georgian public toilets were all squat toilets, i.e. toilet holes in the ground. That’s usually not a particularly big deal for men, but for us women it can be a bit more annoying… Fortunately I was pretty used to that type of toilets by the time I visited Georgia, but what I did not expect were all the weird things they had going on at some of them.

Naturally, you had to pay a few lari (Georgian money) to use the public toilets and there was always a stern, black-robed grandma there to show you the ways of that particular toilet. My first encounter was at the bus station in Kutaisi, where the toilets were housed in the lower storey of one of the buildings, inside ancient, high brick arches. There were no curtains or anything to cover the toilet entrance and the toilets were built in two opposing lines, so you could chat to the opposite person while squatting down. Sure, I can deal with that and also with the old grandma staring at me the entire time while I was there. I guess she was trying to make sure I wasn’t stealing the ratty doormat-rug placed before the toilet to wipe your shoes on – that was the only thing that was not attached to the walls, so I assume she was worried about that? She must have thought I was insane when I brought out a piece of paper to wipe myself, as she started wildly gesticulating to put it in the nearby bin. I did and that was the moment logic stopped working and didn’t reestablish itself for a while. She took out my used toilet paper with a stick, offered it to her dog to sniff it and threw it in my toilet before flushing it down with a water bottle. I mean, sure maybe the dog determined it will flush?

Next up was the lovely public toilet in Akhaltiskhe, where they actually had curtains for each individual toilet, but they only reached down to your midriff, meaning they became completely redundant once you squatted down. That toilet had an intricate homemade plumbing system, consisting of plastic hoses and ancient Coca-Cola bottles, which somehow supplied flushing water to all 6 toilets, when the attending grandma poured some water into the first bottle. Quite the engineering feat, I tell you. But they kind of lost me when I realised the water then run into a ditch that once again circled through all the toilets before going down the drain, so they could have just poured it into the ditch in the first place? They also recycled the water used for hand washing into their toilet flushing system, so bonus points for sustainability.

The third one was somewhere in Tbilisi. It was quite busy and probably the strangest one. One of the three attending grandmas acted as a policeman, directing men and women towards their respective toilets. Only, we were all going to the same room, which established a sort of one way traffic, as of course men and women couldn’t be in the room at the same time when either of them used the open squat toilets. So, the grannies would wait for a larger group of either gender to assemble and then send them in, which took a while. But apparently if someone was fussy and in a hurry, they would also send them in, even if they were the wrong gender, so what exactly was the point then? To make it even less logical, one of the grandmas would then unroll a sort of a shower curtain in front of the toilet where the “wrong gendered” person was, but the curtain was transparent, so again… completely baffling, although the locals seemed to think it was entirely logical.

In general though, the toilets were actually not horrible. Sure, they were weird and they didn’t exactly smell like roses, but none of them were truly disgusting or soiled in the way sitting public toilets often are. Their improvised flushing systems also seemed to be quite decent as I never knowingly stepped into any human discharge and my shoes never smelled like I had – massive thanks from me to the toilet grandmas for their hard work. So, fear not, the Georgian public toilets are a wholly survivable experience!

We also experienced plenty of other quirky things I didn’t specifically write about here, from all the stray dogs everywhere, to the junkyard window view and the unintentional candlelit dinner without power in Kutaisi; the accommodation we had in Borjomi; the screwdriver embedded in the concrete wall in our bedroom in Tbilisi, the cows on the road to the Sapara monastery etc., and all of it was just part of the adventure. After all, it’s always good to step out of your comfort zone a bit.

The chaos of marshrutkas, Georgian public minivans

My boyfriend and I encountered many strange and quirky things during our 2018 trip to Georgia and one of them was the minibus/van public transport system. They’re called marshrutkas and they’ll get you almost anywhere around the country for a cheap price, at some point. While they do have an official schedule, their departure times are largely dependent on the mood of the driver and the amount of people wanting to go in that direction, so getting to where you want to go requires a bit of patience. We managed quite successfully actually, so there will be a separate travel tip post on how to do that, but this one is all about the tales from inside the minibuses, because that’s where the real fun happens.

#1: It can be hard getting started

When we first arrived to Kutaisi, we were trying to catch the minibus to Chiatura, a rather unpopular destination with a typically unpronounceable Georgian name. Since we couldn’t find any reliable timetables online, we arrived early to the bus station and started asking around which minibus was the one we needed. Usually that’s the way to go, right, but this time we hit a rather large language barrier.

We didn’t speak Georgian and only I spoke a very limited, improvised Slovene-Serbo-Croatian-ish Russian besides English, while they didn’t speak English or in most cases even Russian and naturally wouldn’t speak to a woman if there was a man present. We couldn’t pronounce the name Chiatura properly and they had no idea what we meant, so we tried writing it down on a piece of paper: turns out, they could only read their Georgian letters and not the Latin alphabet, and we couldn’t read their scribbles either… The whole thing was getting quite hilariously frustrating, to the point where we were sitting in front of the wrong minibus for a while, because we thought that was the one they were pointing at. We finally managed to get the right bus, but its departure time was about 40 minutes later, so we settled in to wait.

The minibus progressively filled with local people over that time and a couple of sellers came by the van with the most random assortment of things. They were selling everything from flower bouquets to toilet brushes and disposable razors (both out of their original packaging), individual batteries, dubiously fresh fruit and FA shower gels. I’m not sure how that paid off for them, but I guess it did, because a man next to me bought a shower gel.

Here’s a woman selling random cosmetic and shower gels out of her bag.

Finally, two very old drivers arrived to take us there. Seatbelts were of course non-existent or even if they were there, most people thought they very unnecessary accessories, including the two drivers. I imagine that they assign two old guys together as drivers for unpopular destinations, in case one of them falls asleep or has a heart attack – not to be prejudiced, but those two had probably met Moses at some point. My theory was further confirmed by the way they drove, as brakes are apparently only to be used in emergency situations and road boundaries or traffic signs don’t apply to anyone, particularly not to those over the age of 60. Anyhow, we survived, which is all that matters.

#2: The goat incident

During one of the longer marshrutka rides at the beginning of our Georgian adventure when my boyfriend was still adjusting to the whole non-Central-European environment, someone brought a goat on the minibus. Mercifully, my boyfriend was asleep at the time, as the van was extremely crowded, smelled like feet and way too hot despite the open windows, which, in combination with the culture shock, was making him a bit grumpy. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling particularly cheerful either and I couldn’t sleep to escape that, but it’s all part of the experience.

So, at one of the stops where two more people somehow squeezed in, a guy brought in a goat on a leash and told it to sit down a row ahead of us. The wizened old white goat wasn’t particularly thrilled by all the people in close quarters, so it kept bleating and shifting until it promptly pooped on the floor of the minivan. The goat owner wasn’t particularly bothered by the poop though, as he casually swiped it up with his hand and tossed it out the window. Everyone else around us was also perfectly cool with the defecating, stir-crazy goat, so I figured I was probably suffering from a bit of a culture shock too.

I ended up feeling like a crazy spoilt European, up to the point where some woman started shrieking at the goat’s owner because the goat was licking her shoes. Luckily, both the goat and its owner got off the bus quite soon and everyone seemed a bit happier for it. Naturally, the whole goat experience was accompanied by the typical farm animal smell meets sweaty people smell, so I was desperately praying the whole time that my boyfriend wouldn’t wake up and curse me for dragging him to Georgia.

Here’s a prime specimen of a marshrutka.

#3: Wine is for sharing

Since we were in Georgia, it was only natural that we’d encounter crazy Russians with alcohol at some point, and we did. I believe it was on the road to Tbilisi, when we were sitting near the back of one of the more modern minibuses, which actually had ventilation (amazing how simple things become a blessing as soon as they’re absent). Behind us were a couple of Russian men, which looked exactly as you might imagine: pushing 40, bordering on overweight, dressed in white short sleeved dress shirts and wannabe fancy shoes, loud and friendly with big smiles and limited English.

They enthusiastically brought out bottles of vodka and white wine and started passing them around the bus, which was much appreciated by most of the locals. When they realised we weren’t local, the words “drink, my friends!” in thick Russian accent were repeated an infinite amount of times and half-assed attempts at communicating about our lives were made on both sides. Since I was a woman sitting on the inside seat by the window, I was allowed to refuse the bottles after a few rounds, but my boyfriend had to take it like a man. Next came the loud Russian music played on mobile phones, naturally accompanied by singing, so we got the whole party minibus experience.

The whole thing was so stereotypically Russian, like from a bad American movie, that I had trouble keeping a straight face and the men were almost adorable in their sincere desire to get the whole bus drunk. It finally came to an end when we had to stop for a toilet break and some water, as they fell asleep in their seats after that, like big snoring bears.

The Georgian adventure stories continue in part 2: Logic does not apply to the Georgian public toilets.


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.

Akhaltsikhe (probably the most Georgian photo I’ve ever taken).

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 great adjarian khachapuri.

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…

Sapara monastery

Sapara is a monastery complex in Southwestern Georgia, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region near Akhaltsikhe. It is considered one of the most important historical sites in the region, but it is sadly often overlooked. Most tourists head straight to the cave city of Vardzia, which I also went to, and disregard Sapara altogether. All 3 of them are marked on the map below and as you can see, the Sapara monastery really is close enough that it’s a shame if you don’t visit.

The name Sapara translates to hidden in Georgian, and the monastery is hidden indeed. It is situated deep within the mountains and perched on a cliff edge. Its orange brown bricks blend perfectly with the surrounding forests and slopes and you almost don’t see it until you drive right up to it. Unfortunately Sapara cannot be reached by public transport, so when I visited in 2018, my boyfriend and I hired one of the taxi drivers to take us there. The guy was quite a character who immediately adopted us after hearing we came from (former) Yugoslavia. He ended up driving us around for two days and kept trying to take care of us in the rather pushy, but friendly Georgian way.

Our first stop was the Sapara monastery and on the way there he decided we were practically kin due to our Balkan origins, so he started to educate us about the local facts and food. He almost killed us by forcibly braking and stopping next to a bakery, where he bought us a huge amount of freshly baked Georgian white bread, shotis puri. He insisted it was the best bread in the world and that we just had to try it, so we did. It was still warm and quite soft inside, a bit like the Balkan lepinja. We knew he wouldn’t take any money back for the bread, so we give him a tip at the end.

We drove further into the mountains, up a narrow winding road, which was suddenly full of cows impersonating cars. I guess that was normal and our driver didn’t even slow down, he just kind of slalomed around the mooing cows.

Cows on the road.

The views of the countryside we were driving through were quite beautiful, so we stopped on top of a hill to take some photos and out came the famous Georgian shots. He brought out the Georgian Chaca, grape pomace liquor and some Russian vodka, as he had several bottles in the trunk. I was really thankful for the bread we ate earlier, since we kept downing shots on an empty stomach and I was getting a bit worried how he was going to drive afterwards.

The beautiful Georgian countryside

Even though I don’t approve of driving under the influence, I turned a blind eye when we continued on towards Sapara, which we could already see in the distance. When we got there he waited for us at the parking lot while we went in to check out the monastery complex and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about leaving all our bags in the car, despite his friendly nature. But I figured our dirty laundry wasn’t particularly valuable and since we agreed to pay at the end of the journey, the promise of money would surely prevent him from leaving, so I went with it.

The Sapara monastery was built in the 10th century by Sarkis Jakeli, a local ruler who later became a monk at the monastery. The complex is composed of many buildings, such as the Church of Assumption, which was built first, many chapels, a fortress with walls and towers, farm buildings and a bell tower, which were added sometime between the 10th and 14th century. The domed church of St. Saba was built last, in the late 13th century, and was considered one of the most architecturally important churches of its time. Its walls are decorated with beautiful carvings and frescoes, which managed to relatively survive the Turkish raids in the 16th and 17th century. The monastery was mostly abandoned then and all of its treasures and paintings were taken to safe places in the surrounding villages. There are records of a single monk living at Sapara in the 18th century, but the monastery was fairly neglected until the 19th century, when service was restored under the Soviets. The Russian Orthodox church established their monastery there until the collapse of the Soviet Union and today Sapara is once again an active monastery, with a few dozen monks and novices of the Georgian Orthodox church.

Impressions of the Sapara monastery

Visiting Sapara

Not all of the buildings are open to the public and the fortress with its walls and farm houses mostly lies in ruins. You can however visit the churches and take a look around the complex. The monks are quite strict regarding the dress code required for entering any of the churches and taking photos, so I didn’t take many. It is free to visit and if you come during any of the services you may get the chance to listen to the men’s choir singing religious songs in Georgian.

Travel Trivia: 11 facts about Georgia

This Travel Trivia post will be all about Georgia, the small South Caucasian country at the intersection between Europe and Asia. Georgia is indeed a very proud country: her people seem to share a quiet, apparent dignity and they have always struggled to remain autonomous. The origins of Georgia can be traced back to the ancient times, with Georgians claiming to originate from Noah’s great-great-grandson Kartlos. Its history is quite fascinating, so this time the facts will be a bit more historically coloured than usual:

  • As mentioned, Georgia is quite small and there are only 3.7 million Georgians. It is in fact not called Georgia, but rather Sakartvelo by the locals (Kartveli), which can be roughly translated as the land where Kartveli live. The more modern name Georgia likely comes from the country’s fascination with St. George.

  • The first Europeans, i.e. the very early humans who crossed over from Africa, likely came through Georgia. Archaeologists found 1.8 million years old skulls of a couple in Dmanisi and they named them Zezva and Mzia. Those two have rekindled the debate of where exactly modern humans come from and it’s still raging.
  • In addition, Georgia also has two of Europe’s oldest cities: Kutaisi, the capital of today’s Imereti region, which dates back to 2000 B.C., when it was the main city of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Colchis; and Mtskheta, the former capital of the kingdom of Iberia in 1000 B.C..
  • Georgia is also the home of winemaking, as they were producing wine as early as 8000 years ago, gold mining (6000 years ago) and thread. They found the world’s oldest thread in Georgia and it is supposed to be 34.000 years old.
  • Surprisingly, despite all that history, Georgia is also full of futuristic architecture and their main dream is to become western enough to join the European union, so they could cement their freedom from Russia.
  • Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia, so their relationship towards him is rather complicated… You can find tons of Soviet era memorabilia at the local flea markets.
  • Georgia is situated in the Caucasus region, so it has plenty of breathtaking mountain areas and is extremely diverse in terms of terrain.
When God apportioned the Earth to all the peoples of the world, the Georgians arrived late. The Lord asked them why they were tardy. The Georgians replied that they had stopped on the way to drink and raise their glasses in praise of Him. God was so pleased with their response that He gave the Georgians the part of the Earth that He had been reserving for himself. A visit to Georgia will confirm that this legend is indeed true: Georgia is a natural paradise. (a Georgian legend, photo from Akhaltsikhe)
  • In terms of language, Georgia has its own unique language and alphabet with 33 letters, which is intelligible and unpronounceable to anyone except Georgians.
  • They also have their own version of the Orthodox church, are majorly religious and considerably homophobic, despite the abundance of physical contact between people. Most things in Georgia stay within the family and they greatly rely on their relatives for help.
  • Georgia is famous for its brutally generous hospitality: a guest is a gift from God and it shows. A traditional dinner feast can last up to 6 hours and liquor must be drunk in large shots every time someone says mshvidoba! (for peace).
  • They are equally famous for their polyphonic music, which made it on the UNESCO list. More here and their folk songs are quite beautiful too.

Also, Georgia is full of impressive monasteries – they are literally at every corner, UNESCO and non-UNESCO ones, so I dare you to spend a day there without seeing at least one. As you can see, there’s quite a lot more to Georgia than you might expect and since they’ve only started with tourism efforts about 20 years ago, it is still relatively undiscovered, so there aren’t many visitors tramping about yet. It is also quite cheap by Western standards, which makes it a great destination for anyone who isn’t afraid of visiting an authentic place where they don’t speak perfect English (or any at all).

P.S.: Georgian public toilets are an experience in itself…

Travel Trivia: 10 facts about Germany

Visiting a new country or a certain place is all about expanding your horizons, so my next Travel Trivia post here is going to be all about Germany. Let’s learn something new about the land of industry and lederhosen:

  • The Federal Republic of Germany is one of the largest countries in Europe – its population is about 81 million and it is the 7th largest by area. Despite that, 1/3 of Germany is still somehow covered in forests and woodland.

  • Germany in the form of a nation exists since the 19th century, when the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck united the German speaking lands into the Second reich, which Adolf Hitler later tried to emulate with his Third Reich. More on Germany’s history here.
  • German is Germany’s official language and also the language spoken by the most native speakers in Europe.
  • It is one of the stranger languages, as it allows the formation of long compound words such as Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, the longest word ever published, acc. to the Guinness world records book from 1996. It means the Association for Subordinate Officials of the Main Maintenance Building of the Danube Steam Shipping Electrical Services, which was allegedly an organisation in Vienna, Austria, before the 1st World War, although it is not entirely clear whether it actually existed.
  • Furthermore, German can be quite tricky: in 1963 the U.S. president J. F. Kennedy visited Berlin and gave a famously blundered speech, where he said “I am a jelly doughnut” instead of “I am a citizen of Berlin” and I bet the Germans had a good laugh about it. Ich bin ein Berliner… You can check it out here.
  • There are over 2100 castles, 300 types of bread, 1000 versions of sausages and 1500 kinds of beer in Germany.
A detail from the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin.
  • On a related note, beer is considered food in Bavaria, Germany’s largest state – Germany consists of 16 largely autonomous states.
  • However, they also gave us books, as press printing was invented there. The first book ever printed was the Bible in 1455, by J. Gutenberg.
  • Additionally, the first magazine, Kepler‘s laws of planetary motion, the Christmas tree (Tannenbaum), telescopes, heroin, clarinets, many poets and writers like F. Schiller, H.Heine and B. Brecht, bacteriology, SIM cards and SMSs all came from Germany, as well as of course the Nazis and the Holocaust.
  • German’s capital city changed 7 times, finally settling in Berlin, which used to be divided by the Berlin wall from 1961 until 1989.

Now you know a bit more Germany, the country where people love to wear Tracht, the traditional German costumes, which include lederhosen (leather pants). These days it has mostly been replaced by Dirndl dresses, the stereotypical industrial made versions, particularly in Austria, where some people wear them even in everyday life.

The facts I shared this time were probably not as exciting as in the previous Travel Trivia posts, but Germany is known for their ordnung und disziplin (order and discipline) approach to life after all. Their history is pretty bizarre though, particularly the World War eras, and their engineering feats are more than worth a look if you’re looking for some more interesting reading. 🙂