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.