Small city of Akhaltsikhe is located 70km from Khashuri and 200km from Tbilisi. This is the capital and biggest town of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Akhaltsikhe means ‘New Castle’ in Georgian. In fact, far from being new, the fortifications on the easily defensible hilltops actually that dominates the town date from the 12th century, long before Paskevich stormed the Turkish defences in 1828 and built a new fort. The local power in Akhaltsikhe from the 13th to 17th centuries was the Jakeli family, but from 1688 until 1828 it was the centre of a pashalik (an Ottoman administrative area governed by a pasha).
The town was an important centre for the Circassian slave trade in the 18th century. It's now a city of 20,000, about a third of whom are Armenian - the Meskehetian Turks who were numerous in the region in the period following the Ottoman occupation have long gone, exiled to central Asia by Stalin in the early 1940s. These days, Akhaltsikhe is quite noticeably down-at-heel, a fact somewhat ironically reflected by the large number of 'slot clubs' dotted around town. Nevertheless, there is enough interest here for an overnight stay and it makes a good base for visits to Sapara monastery and Vardzia cave-city.
The bus station is on a square on the north side of the Potskhovi River. Cross the bridge over the river and bear right at two forks and you’ll be on the main street, Kostava.
A wander around Akhaltsikhe’s rabati (old town), with its multicultural architecture, is well worthwhile. This district is on a hill on the north side of the Potskhovi, just west of the bridge. This part of town is characterised by narrow, roughly cobbled streets and darbazi houses that have the enclosed loggia-style balconies typical of the region. The main focus here is the hilltop castle, still in relatively good shape, where you'll find the Museum of History and Art here, , whose interesting exhibits include a 16th-century manuscript of Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Tiger Skin and a large collection of Caucasian carpets. The rabati also has a mosque, built in 1752, a madrasa (islamic school), a ruined two dome Armenian church by the road just beyond the second entrance to the castle. If you explore the backstreets beyond the castle you should also come across an austere 18th-century synagogue, a tiny, partially ruined 17th-century Georgian church.
Getting There & Away
In 1995 it was agreed to open road and rail crossings to Turkey from Vale, just southwest of Akhaltsikhe; the road crossing to Posof is open, but the 124km railway from Vale to Kars is likely to take a while to build. Originally scheduled to open in 2010 it is now hoped that the route will be complete by 2012.
Aybaki buses from Tbilisi to Turkey can be caught at the Akhaltsikhe bus station, costing US$15 to Trabzon or US$50 to Ankara.
A taxi to the Turkish border, 20km southwest of Akhaltsikhe, costs 15 GEL to 20 GEL; taxis and minibuses run between the border and the first Turkish town, Posof (12km from the border). It’s a four-hour minibus ride on from Posof to Kars.
There are also daily buses to Batumi (six hours, at 8.30 and 11.30am), (4½ hours, 2.20pm and 3pm), Vardzia (two hours, 10.30am, 12.20pm, 4pm and 5.30pm) and Akhalkalaki; almost all Tbilisi (four hours) traffic take the faster route via Borjomi (1½ hours) . To Vardzia you can also take a marshrutka for GEL 10 or a taxi for GEL45-60 round trip including waiting time; the drive takes about two hours each way.
There are also buses to Yerevan (seven hours, 07.00 and 08.00) and Gyumri (four hours 07.00) in Armenia. Armenian buses to Gyumri have the name Leninakan written in Cyrillic on their destination board.