After the launch, we went to the cafe next to the library, Cafe Iberia, and had a little snack. There weren’t any special Akhaltsikhuri dishes, but the Megruli khachapuri (khachapuri with extra cheese on top) was good (the lobiani was a bit lackluster). Now that Akhaltsikhe is attracting more visitors, I imagine there are plenty of little cafes available with similar menus.
The town of Akhaltsikhe is interesting because of its history at the crossroads of many different principalities/empires/countries/religions. All of Georgia exhibits this trait to some extent, but it’s even more noticeable in Akhaltsikhe. On the modern political map, it’s very near the Armenian and Turkish borders–in the past, Persians, Turks, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians have all had major presences in the city, which changed hands amongst the regional powers repeatedly and also boasted periods of self-rule. It has also historically been home to a significant Jewish population. Interestingly, many of the Georgians in the region are actually Catholic rather than Orthodox (under either Persian or Turkish rule, I don’t remember which, it was advantageous to be Catholic rather than Orthodox). The current population is majority Georgian with a significant Armenian minority. It’s also located in a particularly scenic part of Georgia. The road from Tbilisi goes through Borjomi, one of my favorite places in Georgia, and continues through the mountains before reaching the city. For some reason, we thought that Akhaltsikhe was in the plains (probably because the “big” mountains in Georgia are in the North), but it has a beautiful mountainous skyline, and the mountains in the area feature both craggy rocks and rolling green slopes.
The primary attraction in Akhaltsikhe is the Rabati Castle complex. (Many visitors also use Akhaltsikhe as a starting point to visit the Vardzia cave city, but we didn’t have time so I haven’t made it there yet). Like Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Rabati has been recently (and no surprise, controversially!) renovated, and it’s magnificent. Because of Akhaltsikhe’s multi-ethnic history, the castle contains a Christian church, a mosque, and a synagogue and is thus hailed as a symbol of Georgia’s religious tolerance. (though there are crosses in the mosque, which is angering the Turks…so, about that religious tolerance?) We couldn’t actually find the synagogue, though.
The grounds are extensive, nicely landscaped, and in good shape. There are fountains and gardens, and…well, everything a castle should have. The lower levels of the castle complex feature businesses–souvenir and wine shops, a hotel, and something that looked like a spa. To enter the upper levels, you have to buy a ticket for 5 GEL. It’s worth it. That’s where the mosque and church are located, as well as the highest tower (which offers great views), and the museum of Samtskhe-Javakheti history. The museum is incredibly well-presented. The whole museum is dimly lit, and the lighting is such that the artifacts appear suspended in space and glow from within. They had some lovely jewelry from archeological sites, and displays of more-recent history contained lovely examples of traditional regional dress. If you aren’t interested in the fashions, don’t worry–they also had weapons, books, and burial urns. The castle is not used just as a tourist attraction, but also as a meeting location–I talked my way into the most unique conference room I’ve ever seen–medieval walls and art, the same furniture as every other conference room in Georgia, and a fancy pants crystal chandelier. I’m not sure I explored the whole complex, but eventually we had to leave and make our way back to Tbilisi.