The capital and biggest town of Samtskhe-Javakheti, Akhaltsikhe means ‘New Castle’ in Georgian. The Rabati castle dominating the town from the north side of the Potskhovi River hasn't been new since the 12th century but it was lavishly restored a few years ago, helping to turn a town that was previously a sad case of post-Soviet decline into a reasonably attractive stop and jumping-off point for Vardzia.
The Rabati area and castle was celebrated for its ethnic and religious diversity and tolerance, in a frontier area where different empires, kingdoms and peoples met. Rabati today still has Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, a synagogue and a mosque, and Akhaltsikhe still has a large Armenian population.
The newer parts of town are mostly on the south side of the river: cross the bridge near the foot of Rabati and bear right at two forks and you’ll be on the main street - Kostava.
How to Go:
Marshrutkas run to Akhaltsikhe main market/bus station from Tbilisi Didube market, as well as from the bus stations in Kutaisi and Khashuri.
Akhaltsikhe is on the most direct land route between Armenia and Turkey (the border between these countries is closed that and is not expected to change soon).
Apart from Rabati Castle and nearby Vardzia, we recommend visiting:
- Sapara Monastery is about 10-12 km outside of Akhaltsikhe up into the mountains. 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. Also make sure not to use flash photography in the churches, unless you want to see some seriously angry monks. If you can make yourself understood, you can overnight in the monastery's chambers.
- Khertvisi Fortress looms over the village of Khertvisi. The outcrop was used as a fortress from the second century B.C., and was reputedly destroyed by Alexander the Great. The "modern" fortress, however, was built around the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, and saw fighting during the Ottoman invasion (and subsequent occupation) in the sixteenth century. The walls on the far side drop down a sheer cliff to the Mtkvari far below, so if you fancy a bout of vertigo, pull yourself up and look straight down.