Samtskhe-Javakheti

From the rocky plateaus on the Armenian border to world class skiing resorts to 19th century spa-towns, Samtskhe-Javakheti is a region that never stops surprising visitors. Historically one of the most important cultural centers in Georgia, much of the region today is virtually unknown to tourists – but this ancient land of cave cities and hilltop monasteries is once again opening its doors to the outside world – especially now that a new road means you can get here in just two hours from Tbilisi.

The region’s main town is Akhaltsikhe, meaning ‘new castle’, but built before the 12th century. The castle still dominates the town centre, and contains an excellent archaeological museum. Just outside town is the lovely Saphara Monastery. The monastery was established in the tenth century, but the principal church, St. Sabas, was built sometime in the thirteenth century. Until the twentieth century, the monastery had been perfectly preserved, as its hidden location saved it from Ottoman discovery throughout the empire’s three-century long control of southwestern Georgia. Alas, the Soviets found it, and abused it in the usual soulless fashion, albeit not to the same extent as many other Georgian Orthodox establishments – the frescoed walls were not whitewashed, and remain in good condition (especially following a recent restoration). During a visit, make sure to climb up the nearby slopes towards a rocky outcropping to get lovely views over the monastery and the valleys in the distance.

Akhaltsikhe is the best place from which to visit the amazing cave town of Vardzia as well as the jaw-dropping Khertvisi fortress.

Borjomi is probably where most tourists find themselves when visiting Samtkhe-Javakheti. This charming, 19th century spa town was built as a resort by the Czars, whose summer residence at Likani nearby is a wonderful example of fin-de-siècle Russian eclectic architecture. The town itself is set in the picturesque Borjomi gorge of the river Mtkvari, with plunging cliffs and verdant forests. It is also home to the famous, love-it-or-hate-it Borjomi mineral water, which has been produced here since 1839. You can try the original, straight from the ground type of Borjomi in a park in the town centre, but it is not to everyone’s taste. Most travelers will enjoy the spectacular Borjomi-Kharagauli national park, one of Europe’s finest, which can be accessed from the town.

A narrow-gage mountain railway dating from 1903 takes you through spectacular mountain scenery from Borjomi to the ski resort of Bakuriani.