Ananuri Fortress is one of the more scenic and captivating castles in the country, and it’s only one hour away from Tbilisi! It’s got a known 700 year history, but I imagine there have been fortifications there much longer than any of the current rock stacks date to.

Ananuri

Ananuri fortress

The fortress belonged to an eristavi, or duke, and controlled the key access road that wound from Tbilisi and Mtskheta, to Stepanitsminda, and finally up the Terek River to modern day Russia. The fortress had once stood on a cliffside looking down on a much smaller Aragvi River, but the Soviets dammed it up at the confluence of the Aragvi and the Pshavis Aragvi Rivers, creating the lake now known as Zhinvali Reservoir, which provides Tbilisi with much of its freshwater supply.

The valley and history

The lake is captivating. Huge foothills rumble out of the ground, rising like spears towards the heavens, leaving little room for settlements, villages, or even roads. There were villages that were flooded during the damming, and now rumor has it that when the water is low enough, you can even see a spire of a church that still sits somewhere underneath the surface.

zhinvali reservoir

Zhinvali Reservoir

The Aragvi clan ruled the valley from the fortress until 1739, when the nearby duchy led by Shanshe of Ksani attacked it and murdered the entire family. The peasants of Ananuri soon revolted and killed Shanshe, after which they pledged their fealty to the king ruling in Tbilisi, Teimuraz. Though the villagers of Ananuri would cause much later trouble for the kings of Georgia, they would also provide some of the fiercest fighters, and in 1795 provided warriors in defense of Tbilisi against the incoming Qajar army under Agha Muhammad Khan. Like the Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae, there were just 300 Aragvelians—not just from Ananuri, but from across the region—who lost their lives defending Tbilisi from a much larger horde of Persian invaders, but in doing so provided the king and people to evacuate the city. This allowed many to be saved, but still saw the razing of the city by Agha Muhammad's command.

Ananuri

looking up to the Church of the Assumption

The Fortress and Churches

What’s left standing now is but a pale reflection of the grandeur that must have been standing before. It features a rectangular curtain wall, with a square tower at its peak, called “Sheupovari”.

sheupovari

Sheupovari Tower

Sheupovari is still in excellent condition, and its many levels can be explored. Though there’s nothing in it, it does provide for some excellent views from the windows. The other circular towers are mostly in ruin. There is also a central tower that cannot be entered, and the architecture of that tower is much closer to the mountain settlements further north, resembling more of what you might see in Tusheti, Chechnya, or Ingushetia.

note the architecture of the central spire

ananuri

climbing up to Sheupovari Tower

The two large churches that fill the interior of the complex were built in the later life of the complex. Both churches date from the 17th century, though the upper church is a bit older. The interior of the older church is largely barren, but has an interesting shrine inside. Last we visited it was closed off to the public though. The other church, the Church of the Assumption, was built in 1689 and is much more decorated, with stone carvings across the exterior and some murals leftover in the interior, though much of it was destroyed by fire.

Church of the Assumption

Church of the Assumption, Ananuri

Church of the Assumption Ananuri

Church of the Assumption, Ananuri

Church of the Assumption, Ananuri

Church of the Assumption, Ananuri

Where to eat

If you’re looking for food, there are a range of restaurants along the highway, but very little that’s walking distance. You can purchase some pastries on site, or walk along the highway for twenty minutes to Restaurant Mtiuleti. We ate khinkali there, and though khinkali is supposedly native to the region, I wasn’t impressed. The place seemed to mostly just bank on the fact that the Georgian Military Highway has been flooded by Russian tourists, and they slop out second grade dumplings knowing that Russians won’t know the difference. I’ve had better in Stepanitsminda and in Tbilisi.

There is also the Restaurant Veranda, a bit closer and with a much better view of the valley on its rooftop terrace. We had “Mexican potatoes” (a delicious style of Georgian potatoes that are curiously not remotely Mexican) there, and the quality of that definitely beat the Mtiuleti, though was still far from anything impressive. The place definitely has more of a “local feel” than “touristic feel” to it, though. If you have a car though, I’d advise venturing further up or down the highway.

Where to stay

If for some bizarre reason you are like us and decide to stay in Ananuri, you’re basically left with two options. One run-down looking homestay and one upper class palatial looking homestay, but both homestays. We stayed in the nicer one, the Villa Ananuri which had a great view of the scenery, a beautiful garden and a nice pool. Given that there’s not much else to do, having a pool was a great thing.

What to do

Outside of the fortress, there is very little to do in Ananuri, which is a huge shame. The Aragvi valley is amazingly beautiful, as I’ve stated before. And whereas the not-so-scenic Bazaleti Lake nearby has somehow been lucky enough to get a large deal of investment, Ananuri remains mostly untouched. I imagine it’s in large part to sewage concerns, given that it does provide the drinking water to Tbilisi.