Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Akhaltsikhe has seen better days. The town has had Georgian, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet masters. Today it is one of the remotest towns in Georgia, and still engagingly multicultural, for Akhaltsikhe has a large Armenian minority.

article summary —

The road from Borjomi up the valley skirts the Mtkvari River — fast-flowing water that leaps over boulders like excited fish. Dense forest cloaks the road, fire-red and yellow on this autumn morning. There are glimpses of a railway across the river — one of those romantic routes that carries just a handful of trains, none of them evidently in any great hurry to get anywhere. Eventually the terrain opens out a little, the forest does not hug the river quite so intimately, and we turn west up the valley of the Potskhovi, a tributary of the Mtkvari.

Before long, a settlement starts to reveal itself, with grey apartment blocks on the valley floor and brighter rustic housing spilling up a hillside towards a fortress. This is Akhaltsikhe, capital of the Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. This is the poorest mkhare (province) of Georgia, a district that is a world apart from Tbilisi. The mkhare abuts onto northwest Armenia and eastern Turkey.

Few are the foreign visitors to Akhaltsikhe who make their way up the Mtkvari valley from Tbilisi. The once daily train takes eight hours. Most western visitors arrive from Posof in Turkey, the backdoor route over the mountains into Georgia. Akhaltsikhe detains few of these new arrivals. Most take a bus or marshrutka on to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Those who put up for the night here tend to use the city as a base for visiting the nearby Sapara monastery, or striking out to the southeast to Vardzia. With its spectacular cascade of caves, Vardzia was once one of the most important monastic complexes in the Caucasus region.

Akhaltsikhe is typically Georgian in name: almost unpronounceable to Anglo-Saxon tongues, it sounds like a sneeze and requires a hardened palate to spit it out convincingly - vodka probably helps.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 27.