Discover a Different Side of Tbilisi.
Hiking in the Tbilisi city area would probably not cross the minds of most visitors to the Georgian capital. Strolling the Old Town, a bath at one of the ancient bathhouses and the botanical garden below Narikala Fortress are surely the top targets in town for any traveller. However, we wanted to discover a different side of Tbilisi. I had read about a walk from Mtatsminda Park to the Turtle Lake, a popular spot for locals to cool off during the summer heat. This sounded like the perfect day out for us, especially with the prospect of a swim at the end of the hike.
Our Neighbourhood of Chugureti
Starting our day with a large breakfast from the generous buffet at Fabrika Hostel we set out with our swimming costumes and some drinks in our backpack, ready to wander through the “wilderness” in Tbilisi. First we had to cross the river and head towards the funicular that would take us up to Mtatsminda Park. We strolled at a faster pace than normal through the neighbourhood of Chugureti.
Brutalist Concrete Building
However I had spotted a brutalist building from our roof terrace and forced the boys to take a small detour. The “ugly” structure, housing local government offices, showed off an interesting design upon closer inspection, round arches seemed to float in front of the windows, like fish scales. My heart for concrete architecture was truly satisfied, although I would have liked to take a peek inside as well. The boys kept telling me to move on, sadly do not share my as much my passion for concrete monstrosities.
Rustaveli Avenue – A Disappoinment
We bought some filled kachapuri in a local bakery for our hike to the Turtle Lake. Further on, Jerome admired some cute little ducklings that a women was selling out of a card board box on the pavement, bound to eventually end up in someone’s pot for dinner. Crossing the Galaktioni Bridge we entered the “New Town” of Tbilisi with its grand boulevard, Rustaveli Avenue. I had been looking forward to a stroll through this part of town, only to be disappointed by the busy traffic along its multi-lane thoroughfare.
Some Hidden Gems
Some of the impressive buildings had been turned into luxury hotels by prominent western chains and the usual high-street shops had already taken hold of the retail spaces. It almost felt like we could have been anywhere in a large European city, although admittedly there were some hidden gems along Rustaveli, such as the Opera, Kusheti St. George’s church and the Parliament among the them. They also had not made it easy for pedestrians to cross the vast street, with only a few foot tunnels here and there, we found one subway near the government buildings. Taking the steep road to the right of the Parliament, we soon reached the funicular station for Mtatsminda Park.
Riding the Mtatsminda Funicular
The ticket for the funicular also functions as a charge card for the rides at Mtatsminda Fun Park, a popular destination in Tbilisi for families and other thrill seekers. There was no queue and we soon started ascending in the funicular, which was reopened in 2012 after years of closure and replacement of the old carriages. Any child loves a ride in a funicular and even for adults it is fun, especially on a sunny day offering exceptional views of the city below. Climbing higher, we could spot some sights we had seen on our first day in Tbilsi, the impressive Peace Bridge, the copy of the German Bundestag and the hideous Sameba Church, albeit seen from far a way it appeared less oppressive then up close. We also noticed the large number of housing blocks, built under Soviet rules providing thousands of Georgians a cheap roof over their head.
Mtatsminda Fun Park
Upon exiting we immediately noticed the tall red and white telecom tower, like a giant toothpick reaching for the sky amidst the varying fun rides for kids at Mtatsminda Fun Park. We had decided to completely ignore the rides but after having discovered that we had some money pre charged anyway, Jerome and I went for a spin on the chair-’o’-plane carousel, although not as nostalgic as the one at Margate Dreamland we had flown a few weeks before.
Starting Point of the Hike to Turtle Lake
After our brief spin we took the central walkway towards the wood and parkland behind the rides for our hike to the Turtle Lake. On the way we passed the ghost train ride and roller coaster. Shortly after we left the fun park behind and after passing some old abandoned funicular carriages and an army barracks we turned right on a dirt track, our starting point for the hike to the Turtle Lake.
Wanders Through a Captivating Flower Meadow
At first we wandered through a low forest before it opened out onto a large plain, with a tall mobile mast in the distance. The meadow was covered in tiny pink blossoms turning the entire open countryside into a captivating sight.
Sweeping Views Over Tbilisi
We suspected that it was the same flowers that we had seen the day before turning the landscape onto our drive to David Gareji Monastery into a colourful painting. Over the top of this pink beauty we were able to glance through the gaps in the trees at the sweeping views over Tbilisi and its hinterland. Tower blocks were sticking out between the lower buildings like random teeth.
Turning Right Towards Turtle Lake
Further along we reached a signpost, telling us to turn right towards Turtle Lake. The track was slightly downhill and soon enough we got to another sign advertising a viewpoint. We had been slightly confused by the times on the various signs, as they changed between the top and bottom and some of the times seemed rather long and far to reach Turtle Lake – when on the map it looked so close. Although Turtle Lake was signposted left and a long way, we on instinct and a feeling decided to take the path to the viewpoint and see if we could find out more about the actual terrain.
A Shortcut to the Lake
At first the path led us steeply downhill, before ascending rapidly again. Once we were out of the trees we reached the viewpoint and in line with our feelings Turtle Lake lay peacefully, just below, in front a narrow trail appeared to run forward and then zigzag all the way down to the lake’s shore. It did not take long for us to decide that we were going to take this route to Turtle Lake rather than heading back and walking the longer hike that was officially signposted. I am sure it would have been good but the day was hot and we were eager for a swim. From our vantage point we could see people swimming below between the trees fringing the lake and some pedal boats crossing the blue green water.
Perfect Spot to Cool Off in the Capital
Upon our arrival at the Turtle Lake shore we could make out two large restaurants/beach clubs on the opposite side, closer to us we discovered a stretch of reeds and then a stretch of grass and sand where others had already laid there towels and blankets to enjoy the serenity, away from the busy streets of downtown Tbilisi. The boys could not wait to get into the water, they would have probably loved to swim the entire length of the lake, however a section had been clearly cordoned off for swimming the rest was reserved for the pedalos for hire. I was happy to just wade into the green lake water knee deep. In a way it was easy to see why the locals would seek the lake shores during the summer, the atmosphere was very relaxed and we could easily have imagined to be in the middle of the countryside rather than in the midst of a capital city.
Avoid the Weekends!
I would anticipate Turtle Lake to be exceptionally busy during the weekends though and so perhaps these days should possibly be avoided. One of the beach clubs even had set up a large outdoor plunge pool for those wanting to jump into clearer waters and a stage for shows so it must be a popular spot in the evenings for music fans. Later on we would discover the Tbilisi Sea, the largest water reservoir in the area, another great place for anyone seeking respite from the heat and to cool off.
Return to Tbilisi
By then we were in desperate need of a refreshing drink and moved on to a small local vendor. Ice cream in hand, drink in our backpack we set out on our final leg of the hike to return into Tbilisi from Turtle Lake to finish our wanders. Instead of taking the main road we took a track past the football court, which quickly turned into a narrow hiking trail. We were still surprisingly high up and the views opened across the city. The trail wound down towards the houses steep at the end.
Dinner at Lolita
Once back in the civilisation of Tbilsi we used Google maps to find a route back towards the Rustaveli district. Now hungry we decided to have an early dinner at Lolita, opposite the fabulous Rooms Hotel. Besides the delicious food – they serve imaginative Italian fare, which was welcome by Jerome – the open air dining was an experience itself. That night we happily retired to our room early, after our through the wilderness of Tbilisi and a swim at the Turtle Lake. We had a busy day ahead, as we would need to drive to our next destination, Borjomi, we checked the route and planned stops at Uplisthike (another cave monastery) and a visit to the Stalin Museum in Gori, which would give us an unexpected insight into a different aspect of Georgian history.