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.
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.
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.
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 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
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, 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.
a dog hanging out near the beach
There are some beach fronts with good small pebbles, and a couple of places for decent camping. Be warned though, that large, wild shepherd dogs do roam about in small packs. On the one hand, this probably keeps the wolves away, on the other, instead of wolves you’ve got gigantic wolf-killing canines. They did seem unusually friendly though, and they just come up and hang out for a bit until they realize you’re not going to feed them. Which is slightly amusing given that the beasts could easily take down any number of humans to feature in their own banquet.
Is it a lion or a dog?
With a little bit of investment, I can imagine Ananuri booming. They could build a small boardwalk and “old town” just below the fortress, along the water front, and provide for kayaking and fishing docks. They could develop a biking trail going some distance around the lake. They could do a lot, but as it is, it exists only as a stopover to Kazbegi and not as a destination in itself, mainly for the next reason.
As it stands right now, there is a makeshift souvenir bazaar in the parking lot outside the fortress and little else.
a souvenir bazaar outside the fortress
As there seemed to be no less than 300 tourists for the two hours we spent at the fortress, I can’t imagine how much damage is being down to the structure. As it’s free to visit, there are no funds to repair any damage or to maintain it, let alone improve the area. Why they don’t charge a nominal 3 to 5 lari for foreign visitors is beyond me. Think, that would be an easy 2000 lari a day to make improvements and maintenance to the site, and that could easily help cover any future developments in the village.
How to Get to Ananuri
If you have a car, it’s very easy to get to, and it seems like the tourism strategy (and the greater transit strategy) of the country is just for people have their own cars to get around.
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Though Ananuri is close to Tbilisi, if you don’t have your own car, expect to spend the greater portion of your day visiting it (and this is almost to an extent that you might just skip it).
Getting there isn’t hard. From the Didube metro station, turn right in the tunnel and walk straight out. Walk past all the taxi drivers (though maybe if you’ve got some money you should take one, max to pay would be 60 lari there and back). Walk straight until you hit the fruit bazaar, then turn right and you’ll see marshrutkas for Kazbegi and Pasanauri (though mostly written in Georgian). Ask people for Pasanauri, and then someone will direct you to the right marshrutka. The fee to Ananuri is 3 lari. Tell the driver you’re going there and he’ll stop for you.
thru that tunnel and to the right
To get back is a bit more complicated. The problem being is that marshrutkas don’t generally leave from Kazbegi until they’re full, and nobody seems to know the schedule of the Pasanauri marshrutkas. We waited for two hours, until finally a random taxi pulled up, saying, “I just drove some people to Kazbegi and going home. I’ll take y’all for 10 lari each.” Looking at our luck, we went ahead and took it.
This problem is also true for those going to Kazbegi. Marshrutkas to Kazbegi from Didube don’t usually leave until they’re full. So if you have jumped off at Ananuri, it’s not likely you’ll find an easy ride to continue up north.
Hitchhiking is another mode, and if I were alone or with another guy, I wouldn’t have a problem jumping in a random car. However, with my wife, and concerning a recent incident in the area, we were a bit weary doing the ole autostop.
The best way then, is to just go with a tour group that’s already arranged the ride, or to find a driver who will drive you there. Or if you’ve got a private driver taking you to Kazbegi, it’s an easy stop. This is, in fact, the method I’ve done to see the place on my other two visits.
Long story short, it’s definitely an incredible place to see. But if you can’t get a private taxi, then you might just have to skip it.