Getting a marshrutka from Tbilisi to Telavi, one of the main cities in Georgia’s premier wine making region, Kakheti, is rather straightforward… as long as you can find Ortachala bus station, that is.
As you might know by now, the main bus station of Didube is easily reached by metro. Ortachala, (sounds like a dance, doesn’t it?) the bus station with services to Kakheti and some international destinations, is a bit trickier.
The Ortachala trials
We arrived in Tbilisi from Kazbegi, which meant we arrived at Didube. According to the Lonely Planet, local marshrutka 150 or bus 55 would bring us to Ortachala. That is, if you can find them in the clusterfuck that is Didube.
Note: If you’re trying to get to Ortachala from central Tbilisi, you can take yellow marshrutky 71 or 80 from near the clock tower in the old city.
After walking all around the Didube area, then waiting for a while on the main roundabout, watching every marshrutka except #150 go by, we decided to ask. That is to say, Alex asked for us–due to my lack of Russian language skills, I am utterly useless in this country when it comes to finding anything.
Lo and behold, the first guy we ask says his bus goes to Ortachala. Success! We got in, much to the disdain of all our fellow bus riders–our backpacks are rather ungainly, and marshrutky have no real luggage space.
Welcome to… Ortachala?
After about 10-15 minutes of driving, we were told to get out, as we were at Ortachala. To our left: no buses. To our right: … also no buses.
“…uh, where the fuck are we?”
We were once again lost with purpose, albeit this time with the rather dull purpose of finding a bus station.
It turned out we were dropped off at a roundabout some 5 minutes’ walking from the actual bus station, near a building with a surprising amount of military personnel walking around. With some help from the ever-friendly locals, we found the way (go across the street and follow the road), otherwise we might still have been lost!
Ortachala is not an obvious bus station, even if you do know where you are, so if you aren’t sure which direction to go in, ask around. Disregard taxi drivers that tell you they will bring you wherever for $50.
Once at the bus station, everything worked itself out. We paid 10 GEL each for a ticket to Telavi. 20 minutes later, we were on our way. The ride from Tbilisi to Telavi should theoretically take 2 hours… but ours took almost twice as long, thanks to our driver being averse to accelerating after speed bumps, and his stopping for half an hour at a random convenience store because ??? My butt is still recovering.
Make sure to bring some water and snacks, preferably bought away from the bus station (where prices are inflated) to last the ride.
Where to stay in Telavi
We stayed at Guest House Medea for 30 GEL, the cheapest option in Telavi. It had great hilltop views, they gave us a free bottle of their homemade wine, and there was decent wifi in the guest area of the house.
Telavi et vino
Telavi is not a big town, and the bus station is a five-minute walk from the city center. Just walk uphill from where you are dropped off, and you can’t miss the city center (although we managed to get lost several times while finding our guest house). There’s a big open square/driving intersection sort of point, and an old fortress-like structure.
Telavi itself is not particularly interesting. There is the old city wall, an old tree, a park with a nice view, and the museum apparently has a nice collection. The real attractions are out of town, and include several monasteries, churches–yes, more churches!–and wine, lots of wine. Many consider Georgia to be the birthplace of wine, circa 4000 BCE, and Telavi is in the center of Kakheti, the heartland of Georgian wine culture. To Alex’s (alcoholic) dismay, our bodies were still recovering from our time in Kazbegi, so we didn’t indulge in much wine while in Telavi.
We were admittedly getting a bit church-weary, so we decided to only hit up the Ikalto and Alaverdi monasteries and Shumi winery. We paid 30 GEL for a taxi to bring us to these three places over the course of a day. Expect to pay around double that if you want to pack in more stops; there’s a few more churches to be seen, and you can visit several family wineries along the way.
Ikalto monastery is beautifully located between two hills. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a post-party frat house: dilapidated, crumbling walls surrounded by empty drink vessels. It was renovated within the past decade, and we were amused to see that the 12th century foundations were holding up much better than the 21st century renovations. The grounds include an old academy that contains artifacts and remnants of wine-making from the 12th century, and a cemetery with yet more interesting, if bizarre, graves. Admission is free.
Alaverdi monastery is surrounded by a huge estate and winery. The outer wall looks pretty cool, and is beautifully juxtaposed with antennas so that the estate dwellers can watch their favorite
porn soap operas. The interior of the church could have rivaled Gelati, but alas, most of the frescoes and wall paintings have deteriorated beyond the point of recognition. Admission is free.
Finally we went to Shumi winery. Here we got free entrance, a free tour, and a free tasting (oh my poor body). Fun fact: Shumi’s crest is of a griffin, as in Georgian mythology it is said that a griffin brought the first grape seeds to the Georgian people.
We bought a bottle of nice red wine for 15 GEL out of guilt for getting everything else for free. Not too shabby, eh? There are several wineries around Telavi, so if you are a Grade A vino snob, check around. Blue Danube Wine has a nice list of wineries in Georgia you can check out.
After Telavi, we decided to visit Signagi, a painfully picturesque hilltop town less than an hour away. This should have been easy, but the opposite held true once more! Never a dull moment in the wonderful world of marshrutky.
Have you ever had to go on an epic quest to figure out how to get somewhere while abroad? Share your story in the comments.