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Borjomi was the bizarre wonderland of the Russian tsars. I say “bizarre” because if I was the supreme ruler of the Caucasus, than it really is a peculiar place to choose. It’s certainly a beautiful place, but kind of on a second tier of beautiful places in a region that abounds in beautiful places. And the thing that’s really made it famous, the springs, is a far cry from something I’d spend two weeks and a large guard to get to and hang out at. But it became the local Romanov go-to vacation resort, and as such, what once was a military garrison town popped up palace after palace to cater to the affairs of the Court and the hundreds of attendants and secretaries that would follow along.
When I first went to Borjomi 10 years ago, I saw what appeared to be the ruins of a resort town. Something of a town post-collapse, mites and beetles hiding underneath the remains of what must have been a glorious Soviet getaway. But in the weirdness that was Soviet and Russian culture, it was all ruins of a strange children’s kitsch, as though some factory in China were busy making slight alterations to Disney characters to make second-rate themed amusement rides for developing countries. And though that’s still very much the case now, back then it was even weirder, what with all the vines and vegetation that was then growing over everything (now it's only growing over half of everything).
Random corner near the park
The parks are filled with falling apart buildings, old hotels and past-Pioneer lodges, swimming pool projects that were never finished, half-planned dreams that were never even half-realized. But around these crumbling concrete aberrations there is still life. A small bazaar of Chinese children’s toys here, Russians having a faux-supra with rot wine there, some Saudis piling onto a jeep to ride the nature trail over there. Sometimes a new guesthouse sprouts some life like a hopeful seedling trying to break free through the shadowy undergrowth.
I do find this kind of living ruin a bit charming, and it certainly is a quiet escape from the bustle and hubbub that Tbilisi can get to be. The town is snuggled in a valley in the low Lesser Caucasus, following the Mtkvari River north and south, and going up a gentle gorge along a rapid spring perpendicular to the river. There’s a nice boardwalk that follows the river, with several bridges spanning the way. It forms the main artery of life for the town, where the locals wander and gather and live primarily. Most of the towns shops and amenities can be found here, as well as a growing number of guesthouses.
Still a few fancy hotels along the tourist route
The gorge features a whitewater spring as well as the premiere boardwalk of the town. It was along here that tourism was originally oriented. Indeed, it’s a cozy and beautiful stretch, almost a walk in the woods along a river except for the woods on occasion being broken up by high dollar hotels, palaces, and glamorous buildings-that-once-were. Truly, at every turn it’s hard to tell if Borjomi is a town coming up or coming down.
a river runs through it
The founding of a resort
Borjomi was “discovered” (in much the same way white people discover things everywhere where people are already living) by the Russians in the 1810s (indeed, Georgians have been living there since practically the dawn of time, but to be fair the Ottomans had basically murdered or forced out everyone living in the valley, so perhaps “discovered” is an okay enough term). Russians, like Europeans anywhere during that time, were obsessed with the fad of “curative waters”. When Russians had finally annexed Georgia and gave the Ottomans a romping, the soldiers who were garrisoned there found some curative waters of their own. They set up some baths and had a party.
But then the governor discovered the party. The Russian Viceroy Yevgeny Golovin brought his daughter there, which triggered a whole array of Russian nobility to flood the valley and brought the place back to life, with palaces, resorts, and several mineral water bottling companies, giving Borjomi its current fame.
Because of the huge attention then brought on by the nobility, it became a destination of sorts for Russians. Many just wanted to get out of the cold, wintry hell that was (insert Russian city name here) and relocate to somewhere inhabitable and friendly (give or take an Ottoman or two). Some came with the military and decided to stay, having now a Georgian son or daughter. Whatever the case, it was quickly Russified and by the turn of the 20th century there ended up being more Russians than Georgians even.
Even today, Borjomi is very much a Russian town. Russians still flock there, despite it being something of a forgotten paradise, enjoying the Chinese trinkets available in the rows of souvenir shops, and the broken, run-down amusement park left behind by the Communist overlords of days past, the swings and ropes dangling in the wind as if still played on by the ghosts of an economic Chernobyl. And though more Georgians live there these days, they’ve kind of given up on being Georgian and many continue speaking Russian as the main language, indeed it’s more useful business-wise with all the tourists. When I try to speak Georgian to local staff, they mostly ignore it and continue speaking Russian. The assumption being that I’m a tourist in Borjomi and the ONLY tourists in Borjomi are Russians (unless of course, my wife were clad in a niqab), so I must speak Russian (of which I do, but that’s beside the point).
Chinese trinket shops (and some local honey) line the walk
In every way Borjomi is truly set to be a tourism paradise if it just can get out of its post-Soviet spell of sluggishness. From Borjomi, it’s a short train ride/drive to Bakuriani, one of the main Alpine ski resorts in the country. Across the river is Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, one of the better developed hiking zones in Georgia (granted, whoever made the trails there needs to learn about switchbacks). About 2 hours away is the cave monastery of Vardzia, one hour to Rabati, and a score of other historic monasteries, and all up and down the valley in which Borjomi sits there is littered monastery and castle after monastery and castle.
So why is it still so… sleepy?
I brought my guests there this last time around, and nothing was open before 10. Literally nothing. Which meant not even a coffee or a croissant (if you’re lucky, you might find a Mobile Coffee van lingering about in the morning mists). The restaurants for the most part are still focused on only serving the Georgian “peasant food”, that is, khachapuri and khinkali, neither of which are local to Borjomi, and each restaurant isn’t that much different from the next. Price and atmosphere are really the only variations here. Do you want faux-fancy, with white everything? Then head to the rail station and stop at Rcheuli or Metropoli. Do you want faux-folk? Old Borjomi is a good choice (probably the tastiest option) or Inka. Everything in town though seems leftover from a previous Age, a general feeling of malaise… or waiting… Hanging about town gives you the constant feeling that something is going to happen... and then nothing ever does.
Crowning the boardwalk in what once was a beautiful square and now is a beautiful parking lot, there’s a long children’s park most of which I’ve described that follows the river. There are some neat things, like a children’s ropes course (not that it functions) and some bumper cars. There are a lot of things that don’t operate anymore too, like a rollercoaster, swimming pool, and whatever the heck the permanently under reconstruction building was.
The main thing to see in the park is the Statue of Prometheus, which sits at the base of a 20 meter waterfall. It’s surprisingly easy to miss. However, as you walk along, you’ll pass over a bridge and then there will be a little sitting area on the left. The statue is on the opposite side of the river.
Prometheus, who was chained to a mountain in the Caucasus
Past the developed park is the nature trail. It’s a pleasant walk, except that you have to jump out of the way of the occasional 4X4. I’m not sure why Georgians seem to want to develop tourism around people who don’t want to walk, but that’s the thing, so better to just get over it and stay on your toes.
Also near the entrance is the famed "Borjomi spring" where you can fill up your own non-carbonated Borjomi mineral water. For some reason, you're not allowed to bring 5-gallon jugs, but anything smaller is fine. You could even bring 5 one-gallon jugs if you wanted to.
fill up your jugs with this self-prescribed hangover medication
There's a nominal fee of 2 lari a person into the park.
You can also ride the Soviet cable car up to another amusement park above the city, which has a ferris wheel, some lookouts, a couple of cafes, a monastery, and a long walk along a auto road to come to the springs from above.
I mentioned before the sorry state of the springs. But now they’ve renovated it. After about a 45-minute walk down the river, through the children's park and down the hiking trail, you’ll find yourself at a modern swimming pool with changing rooms and fairly clean squat toilets. The entry is 5 lari a person, on top of the 2 lari you paid into the park itself. There’s a little bar too, but prepare to pay exorbitant amounts of money for anything to drink.
Don’t expect hot water though. It’s not a “hot spring”, but a “mineral spring” (smells of sulfur, like the baths in Tbilisi, but not hot). The water is lukewarm at best. I actually think they should just install some water heaters and fake it. We went in autumn, and it was barely enough to knock the chill off. So best time to partake in mineral water activities is in the summer.
Borjomi could do more to highlight its connection to Bakuriani, making the jump from train to train easier (for now you have to go across town, with no clear public transit—there actually is a modern bus that follows the river, but you’ve got to figure that one out on your own). Update the train, currently it’s just an elektrichka that clugs along—why depend on marshrutkas when you HAVE A BLEEPING TRAIN LINE?!!! The recreation area can be tended a bit better too. Though it’s great they’ve made the effort for a family inclusive environment, half of the playground equipment in the main park isn’t maintained or used. Clear it out. Make some places for romantic getaways (don’t forget how babies are made in the first place!).
Rent from the best company in Georgia, Family Cars
My ultimate dream though is to be able to take a canoe down the Mtkvari from Borjomi to Tbilisi. Really, my dream is from Vardzia to Tbilisi, but I realize that might be stretching it. As it is, it’s not really a near possibility, but I’ve got my fingers crossed… We also ran into a lot of bicyclists, but that’s got to be a nightmare route, contending with the drivers on the narrow Borjomi road. Now a bicycle/hiking path… okay, the sooner I get back to drinking some wine the sooner I might get my head out of the clouds…