Famous throughout the former Soviet Union for its salty-sour, love-it-or-hate-it carbonated mineral water, Borjomi is an attractive resort town clinging to the hills either side of the Mtkvari River, 850m above sea level.
At an altitude of 800m the spa offers both health-giving waters and a bracing mountain atmosphere; in August the average temperature is 20°C, but it freezes from late October until March or later, and in January the average temperature is -2°C.
Situated in the beautiful Borjomi Gorge between the Vakhani and Trialeti ridges, Borjomi (population 17,000) is the largest mountain spa in Georgia. Famous for its curative mineral waters, mountain air, favorable climate, and dense forests, the town is home to numerous sanatoria where many Georgians return every year for the 24-day cure. Georgians swear by the healing effects of the water and believe that the regimen followed here in the summer is the only way to prepare adequately for the next season's round of parties that will inevitably exact a high price on their livers.
The town has a large plant bottling the water which used to be shipped all over the Soviet Union. In 1995 a French-Dutch joint venture, the Georgian Glass & Mineral Water Company, bought it with the Borjomi brand name, only to find that others had also been given licences to use the name; this was sorted out, but the company then lost US$7m when the Russian economy collapsed in August 1998. It merged with two Ukrainian companies in 2004 and had 8% of the Russian market until it was banned from Russia for political reasons in 2006.
Borjomi was, in fact, called the Caucasian Vichy. The town dates from 1829 when some soldiers discovered the health-giving mineral spring here. Its waters became widely known when the daughter of the Russian Commmander-in-Chief of the Caucasus, Yevgeni Golovin, was cured of her gynaecological problems through treatment. The spa was further developed by Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, who replaced General Golovin in 1841. Count Vorontsov, developed Borjomi as a resort, one that became fashionable with the aristocracy after Duke Mikhail Romanov (brother of Tsar Alexander II) took a liking to it. Tsar Alexander II, visiting the spa in 1871, found it sufficiently beautiful to make Borjomi and its environs a gift to Grand Duke Mikhail, son of Tsar Nicolas I. In the 1890s Duke Mikhail built a summer residence, the Likani Palace, 2km west of the modern centre off the Akhaltsikhe road. It’s now a Georgian presidential residence.
During the Soviet era Borjomi attracted enormous numbers of visitors from all over the USSR. After the Soviet collapse, Borjomi’s flow of visitors slowed to a trickle, but things are now looking up, with a steady number of new hotels and restaurants opening. Borjomi is a good jumping-off point for Vardzia, and the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, right on its doorstep, offers some of the best hiking in Georgia outside the greater Caucasus.
The main road through town and also the main commercial street, Rustaveli, runs along the northern bank of the Mtkvari River. Arriving from Tbilisi in the northeast, you’ll notice the tourist office in a glass pavilion between Rustaveli and the river. Beside this, a white suspension bridge crosses the river to the southern half of town, where the Borjomi Mineral Water Park is. The sparklingly renovated Stalin-era Borjomi Park train station is on the south bank, just east of this bridge. Rustaveli changes its name to Meskheti 300m west of the bridge, continuing 300m more to the bus station and then a further 1km to the national park visitors centre. There are places to stay on both sides of the river.
There's a tourist information centre (www.borjomitourism.ge; 09.00- 19.00 all year) on Rustaveli just north of the bridge that crosses the river to Borjomi Park station. Helpful English-speaking staff provide maps and information on accommodation and travel, and can also supply permits for the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park when the national park headquarters is closed.
Borjomi’s Mineral Water Park (summer admission 0.50 GEL, other times free) dates from 1850 and is a lovely place to walk. This was where the original water spring was discovered, and named Yekaterinsky Spring after the governor’s daughter, who was cured here. It belonged to Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich Romanov, brother of the tsar and viceroy of the Transcaucasus; he renovated the spa in 1862, built a summer residence in 1871 and then the Likani Palace in 1892-96. The railway opened in 1894 and Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, other members of the tsar's family and Stalin were among those who came to take the waters here.
Inside the park a stately pile on the left now houses a library, and a covered pavilion has taps spewing out the famous Borjomi water. Together with Narzan (from the northern Caucasus) this was the former Soviet Union's favourite mineral water, with 300 million bottles a year being filled when times were good. It's flavoured with sodium carbonate, tasting something like Vichy water - slightly warm and salty. Mineral water flows from taps in a pavilion straight in front of the entrance, and a modern cable car carries you above the park to a hilltop Ferris wheel. If you walk about 3km upstream through the park, you’ll find a small, natural, spring-fed swimming pool.
The park was refurbished in 2005, and now has a modern pool near the entry, as well as restaurants, bars and a cinema. To reach the park cross the little Borjomula River just east of Borjomi Park station, turn right and go 600m.
The Borjomi Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy (Tsminda Nino 5; 10am-5pm Tue-Sun) Although dark, largely without captions, and with no English spoken, its exhibits do give interesting insights into the life of the Borjomi region. Starting at the top with tatty stuffed animals, there's then the Romanov porcelain collection on the floor below, and Bronze Age agricultural implements, photographs of ancient churches and 19th-century spa life, and by the entrance, furniture made for the Romanovs from the antlers of deer they'd shot. The collection includes photos and documentation about the Borjomi mineral waters, some exhibits of local flora and fauna, and a papier-mâché map of Borjomi made in 1917.
In the small park in front of the museum stands a statue of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky looking rather dandy. The composer used to holiday in the town.
Getting There & Away
Borjomi is 29 km (18 miles) from Khashuri and 160 km (99 miles) from Tbilisi. Marshrutkas to Borjomi (2½ hours) leave Tbilisi’s Didube bus station about hourly from 8am to 7pm, with a similar return schedule from Borjomi’s bus station (Meskheti 8). Other marshrutkas from Borjomi bus station go to Akhaltsikhe (1½ hours, about hourly), Gori (1½ hours, at 7.30am, 10am and 1pm), Kutaisi (three hours, 11.30am and 2.15pm) and Batumi (six hours, 9am). Frequent buses and marshrutkas run between Borjomi and Khashuri (30 minutes), on the main Tbilisi–Kutaisi road, 32km northwest of Borjomi, until early evening.
For those with plenty of time, elektrichky from Tbilisi’s Borjomi station leave at 7.15am and 4.55pm, taking 4¼ hours to Borjomi Park station. Trains back to Tbilisi leave at 7am and 4.20pm.
A taxi from Borjomi to Tbilisi costs around 80-100 GEL, while one to Akhaltsikhe costs 30-40 GEL.