From the rocky plateaus on the Armenian border to world class skiing resorts to nineteenth 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 it’s doors to the outside world – especially now that a new road means you can get here in just two hours from Tbilisi. Samtske Javakheti is an ethically diverse region, home to a large number of Armenians. Before Stalin’s deportations during World War II, there was also a large population of so-called Meskhetian Turks, who were forcibly resettled in central Asia. Today, some families are returning to their ancient villages. Another little known group inhabiting the region are the Dukhobors, who live in several villages around Ninotsminda. Although only a few hundred remain, this small community of Russians, sometimes described as “Christian anarchists”, were moved here by the czars in the nineteenth century, and the area is still main ritual centre for their religion. Life in Dukhobor villages remains very similar to eighteenth century Russia, with many people still wearing the clothes of that time. 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. Akhalstiskhe is a pleasant place with an attractive, tumbledown old quarter, and home to many cafes and guesthouses, making it a good hub from which to explore the region. Just outside town is the lovely Sapara Monastery built in the 14th century. Parched atop a wooded promontory and boasting fantastic views, this is one of the last great examples of classic Georgian architecture, the interior frescoes are also superb. 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 Mtkvari river, 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.

The cave city of Vardzia

The cave city of Vardzia is a cave monastery dug into the side of the Erusheli Mountain in southern Georgia on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. It was founded by Queen Tamar in 1185. The monastery was constructed as protection from the Mongols and consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari River. In 1283 an earthquake destroyed approximately two thirds of the city, exposing the caves to outside view and collapsing the irrigation system. Persians commanded by Shah Tahmasp I raided the monastery in 1551, capturing all important icons and effectively ending the life of the monastery. Nowadays Vardzia is a major tourist attraction in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region and one of the most impressive objects in all the Georgia. About 300 apartments and halls remain possible for visit, including King Tamar’s room, big hall and some wine-vaults. Masterly painted frescoes witness the glory of ancient time. In some tunnels the old irrigation pipes still bring drinkable water. At present the place is maintained by a small group of monks.

Sapara Monastery

Sapara Monastery is a Georgian Orthodox monastery in the Akhaltsikhe District of Samtskhe-Javakheti region. The monastery existed from at least 9th century. Nowadays its’ complex consists of remains of a small church and dominating building – Saba’s Church that dates back to 13th and 14th centuries. Inside the church there frescoes of high quality which belongs to the 14th century.
During the Soviet era the church was used for summer camp. However in the beginning of the Georgia’s independence restoration, Sapara was given back to Georgian Ortodox Church, recently, it has been restored and at present several monks live in the complex, in cave dwellings. Above the monastery, there is a ruin of a medieval fortress.

Akhaltskikhe

The oldest sources mentioning the town of Akhaltsikhe date back to the 12th century B.C. Its ancient part, called Rabat, still remains on the left bank of the Potskhovi River. Buildings seen here include numerous altered fortress, a former palace belonging to the rulers of Akhaltsikhe, a mosque built by the Ottomans in 1752, a palace-like structure, and more. The citadel is surrounded by old residential buildings, hall-like chambers, and a bathhouse.

Borjomi

Borjomi is a resort town in south-central Georgia. It is situated in the picturesque Borjomi Gorge on the eastern edge of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. The town is famous for its mineral water industry (which is presently the number one export of Georgia), the Romanov summer palace in Likani, and Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Borjomi mineral water is particularly well-known in those countries which were a part of the former the Soviet Union; the bottling of mineral water is a major source of income for the area. Because of the supposed curative powers of the area’s mineral springs, it is a frequent destination for people with health problems. Its warm climate, its mineral water springs, and its forests made Borjomi a favorite summer resort for the aristocracy in the 2nd half of 19th Century, and gave it its popular name of “the pearl of Caucasus.” In the 1860s, new hotels were built, and an administration for mineral waters was established. In the 1890s, Grand Duke Mikhail’s son, Nikolay, built a park and a Moorish-looking chateau at Likani, at the western end of Borjomi. Following the Red Army invasion of Georgia in 1921, the Soviet regime confiscated all aristocratic mansions and turned them into sanatoria, frequented by the Communist party elite. The post-Soviet years of political and economic crisis hindered development of the area, but it remained a popular destination for internal tourism. In the 2000s, a growing government and private investment into tourism and municipal infrastructure helped Borjomi recover from a decade of decay.

Khertvisi

Khertvisi fortress is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia and was functional throughout the Georgian feudal period. It is situated in Southern Georgia, in Meskheti region on the high rocky hill in the narrow canyon at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers.
The fortress was first build in the 2nd century BC, the church – in 985 while the present walls – in 1354. As the legend says, Khertvisi was destroyed by Alexander the Great. In the 10th-11th centuries it was the center of Meskheti region. During the 12th century it became a town. In the 13th Mongols destroyed it and until the 15th century it lost its power. In the 15th century Khertvisi was owned by Meskheti landlords from Jakeli family. In the 16th century the southern region of Georgia was invaded by Turks. After Turks invasion of southern Georgia in 16th century, next 300 years Khertvisi was in their hands. At the end of the 19th century Georgian and Russian army returned the lost territories and Khertvisi became the military base for Russian and Georgian troops.