May 2 – 30, 2018 (Spring)
Greeting: გამარჯობა (Gamarjoba)
Gratitude: გმადლობთ (Gmadlobt, “thank you”) / მადლობა (Madloba, “thanks”)
Currency: Lari (₾)
Visa: 1 year
Cost of living: Low
Borjomi is a small city to be sure, but is hardly an obscure stop on Georgia’s tourist circuit. This mountain town between Tbilisi and Batumi is well known for its mineral waters and as a gateway to the eponymous Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. But unlike those other cities, life moves more slowly here. We came hoping for a respite from the sounds and smells of big cities. We got exactly what we hoped for. A chorus of bird song in the morning and a starry sky for a nightlight felt worlds away from construction noise and clanging manhole covers (ahem, Tbilisi↗). Hiking though forest trails and along mountain ridges reinvigorated our appreciation for Georgia’s charms. Sure, we missed the luxuries sometimes, like options at the grocery store (or electricity… or running water…). But strolling down hilly roads, past roaming chickens and grazing cattle, it was easy to feel at home on our most bucolic stop in ages.
Where we stayed
Our Airbnb↗ host advertised this apartment with lots of caution, making very clear that it was a tranquil getaway in a quiet village. NO GLAMOR! This was music to our ears. It was also a bit overstated. Our home turned out to be incredibly livable and was the perfect way to enjoy Borjomi.
We stayed in a building right on the edge of the forest, away from the hotel zone near Central Park. Our hosts thought of everything and stocked the apartment with toiletries and even a few snacks. The surprisingly spacious flat included a game room with a foosball table and a deck with limited views but plenty of space to dry clothes or sip coffee in the morning. Our kitchen had enough pots, pans, and utensils to assemble any ingredients we could get our hands on, and a still-humming retro fridge to store them in.
Grocery stores were accessible enough. Just about 20 minute’s walk downhill, especially if we took the shortcut down the straight dirt trail rather than the winding road. The trek was a little daunting early in the month while Kevin was still healing, or on rainy days. But the local minibus (or marshrutka) stopped practically at our doorstep and cost about 8 cents US. And we were equally close to the national park, and isn’t that just as important as food?
Like Tbilisi, the power flickered off from time to time. Our host warned us this was a possibility and had flashlights ready for us. The outages was infrequent and short enough to basically be a non-issue. Drinking water was the bigger concern. Borjomi bottled water is recognized across Georgia and throughout the post-Soviet world; the stuff that came out of our tap, meanwhile, was questionable at best. That’s if anything came out of the tap at all – some days, not so much! We drank a mix of bottled and boiled water and got along fine.
Everyone was incredibly nice and always ready to wave. It didn’t matter that we could only exchange the most basic of pleasantries with our neighbors. May brought quite a bit of rain, but we hardly minded. Watching clouds roll over the mountains was a great way to relax while laid up indoors anyway.
What we did
Mineral baths near the City Park earned Borjomi its original fame. The healing waters used to be a destination reserved for the rich and royal but now everyone (with ₾2 in their pocket) is welcome. Manicured park grounds extend deep into the valley, then turn into a gravel road hugging the river for a few kilometers before reaching the modern bath complex. The route is flat and pleasant, perfect for a stroll in the shade.
The developed front half mixes green space with carnival amusements. Playgrounds for children and small rides line the foot path. The crowning attractions are the mineral water spring and a small roller coaster, but the grounds also contain a ropes course, bumper cars, and an arcade. A cable car links the entrance area to a hilltop development with a ferris wheel that looks over the city and surrounding mountains. The park contains a few hiking trails too. The road from the city to the park gates is essentially the town’s tourist district. It’s lined with hotels, restaurants, and stands selling identical souvenirs or jars of honey and pine cone jam.
Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park was right across the river from us. It starts at the valley’s edge, covering the forested mountainsides that back the city and stretches over more than 850 km² beyond (1% of the entire country!). The park, and the hiking trails that criss-cross it, are free to visit. Only the overnight cabins require a small fee. It was mandatory to register at the visitor’s center before hiking, but luckily, this was just a kilometer or so away from our house. Park staff spoke English and readily offered suggestions for the season’s best trails. We started with the simple three-kilometer loop just behind the building. It wound around the woods to a couple scenic spots, a ruined chapel, and a little amphitheater.
As Kevin’s strength returned, we branched out to the much more strenuous Likani Gorge Trail (#12). This 7-kilometer route began in a river valley at the back of Likani township, circled up to the top of a mountain ridge, then came back down to a different part of town. We hiked it on a warm, windy day. The bottom part of the trail was in fabulous shape. First, a rocky road followed a stream. This diverged into several trails; we followed a surprisingly well-developed set of switchbacks uphill. Eventually, the trail evened out and we stepped out from under the canopy to a breathtaking vista. We broke here for lunch, savoring our victory. An enormous eagle circled both below and right above us, once swooping so close we could hear air rushing through its feathers. It sounded powerful, and big. Descending from the ridge, the trail lost altitude fast. No switchbacks this time. Recent rains muddied the path too, making for a treacherous and tedious trek down. That last kilometer or two took longer than the first five. If we knew better, we’d have just turned around and gone back the way we came! At the exit point, enterprising locals hung around to offer unlicensed taxi service back to town. With our legs burning and no desire to wait around for a marshrutka, we took them up on the offer.
We came to Borjomi mainly to escape it, but the town itself offered plenty of charm, too. Lots of opportunities to explore. We enjoyed the nice walk over the river and associated views, and also visited the Gogia Fortress and Borjomi Cemetery. The fortress is one of many crumbling towers situated on the hills around the Mtkvari River. It is reachable by a signed, paved trail running between the houses it overlooks. Only one tower and a few rock walls remain. From its perch we could see much of the city and the progression of the river. The city’s cemetery is scattered all across one of the neighboring hills. Graves cluster here and there in groups woven between the trees. It was a quiet spot to visit and very picturesque. Many grave stones were engraved with detailed representations of the departed. These images of past people embodying their passions – cooking, learning, hunting, spending time with loved ones – were attention-grabbing even without any personal connection to us.
Food & Drink
Borjomi is light on supermarkets, but offers a selection small-to-medium grocery stores as well as an open-air market of independent vendors. We picked our vegetables out from the seasonal, local produce and got most of our meat from the butcher or the chicken lady. Strawberries and cherries were pouring in and easy to come by. Local chicken eggs surprised us with darker yolks and richer taste than store-bought. We mostly saved the bigger shops for dry goods and beverages. And candy. Every single store had an expansive sweets section (as much as a fifth of the floorspace) with chocolate and gooberish candies for sale by the kilo and at least a dozen types of cookies. We have no clue how a modest-sized town could go through such staggering amounts of sugar. Danielle, at least, was in heaven.
Other than the candy surplus, there wasn’t a whole lot of variety to choose from. Not coincidentally this turned out to be our cheapest-ever stay in terms of food budget. We ate a lot of bargain staples like pasta and buckwheat. Khinkali was again sold frozen by the piece or by the bag, and for a couple lari we could fill up on that. The local bakery kept us supplied with shotis puri and sweet bread as a treat. Bakeries in the touristy part of town had more desserty fare, like cake drizzled with chocolate.
Though we mostly cooked at home, we had a few meals out, usually to celebrate a long walk or hike. Shaurma Club was our favorite fast food. Pretty much the only fast food, actually. But their filling döner was legitimately tasty in a pinch. Cafe Tourist, despite the misleading name, was a thoroughly local mom-and-pop shop and a our absolute favorite meal in Borjomi. We were skeptical of Georgia’s famous tomato-and-cucumber salads – we make them pretty well ourselves, what’s the big deal? This place made the deal crystal clear. The rich, doughy Imeruli khachapuri and homemade kebab likewise blew us away. We were the only customers and got a warm reception despite having no language overlap. Easily one of our most charming meals; not just here, but anywhere!
Georgian beer and wine was light on the ground this month, so we stuck with a few basic red wines that were decidedly middle-of-the-road. A bottle of white wine went into a beef roast and made a surprisingly delicious gravy. Beer continued to underwhelm. Kazbegi was our only new contender; it barely edged out national brands on flavor, but was ultimately pretty blah. Of course, we also tried the spring water at the City Park. Jugs are sold at kiosks for kilometers around so visitors can take some of the precious liquid home with them. We… weren’t fans? The stuff coming from the park fountain was unsettlingly warm and tasted strongly of sulfur. Probably better for bathing in than drinking. Even the bottled Borjomi water was too mineraly for us. We mostly bought Bakuriani (a rival resort town/water brand) instead. Don’t tell!
Borjomi didn’t have Uber↗ or even Yandex available, but local marshrutkas and taxis weren’t hard to come by. Getting from the middle of town to our apartment cost just ₾0.20 on the public marshrutka or ₾0.40 on the private one, with service roughly once an hour. A taxi around town cost ₾5 or less, and they charged us 8 or 9 lari to get to the national park trailhead in Likani.
To reach Borjomi from Yerevan↗, we first returned to Tbilisi and then caught an intercity marshrutka from Didube station. The smooth and scenic ride cost just ₾7 each and took about 2 hours. Most of those long-haul routes start and end at the central bus station, across the street from the Borjomi Municipality building. Our trip to Batumi was no different, with scheduled service hitting the road at 9 in the morning. That one set us back a slightly-heftier ₾17 per person.
Stuff of interest
Our SIM cards↗ came from Magti. We recharged the same numbers we used in Tbilisi. Standalone screens around the city can add credit to any local phone card; we paid about $3.25 for two gigs of data.
Russian seemed to be the second language of choice, but we encountered enough basic English to not feel absolutely isolated.
In Georgian, Georgia calls itself საქართველო or Sakartvelo. It’s a beautiful and unusual name and we wished it was used more often.
Dogs in Borjomi were quite vocal about anything they saw that was different or moving. Our experience was more bark than bite, and most of the loud ones were in gated gardens, but we still paid attention to where we stepped.
The Prius is, for whatever reason, an incredibly popular vehicle in Georgia. We more of them here than in any other country. Surely there are a number of explanations, but it never stopped feeling strange to see so many of one kind of car everywhere!
Seemingly every farmer in the Caucasus lets their animals wander freely. The local herd of cattle meandered through the hills and around the mucky dirt road behind our home. Sometimes they ended up in the grassier lowlands in town, causing momentary traffic jams as they plodded across the road.
What we learned
Borjomi was a powerful reminder that even though it can be challenging to visit small, remote towns, the effort usually pays off. Seeing a different side of Georgia gave us a completely different impression of the country than its noisy capital had, and resulted in some of our favorite memories.