Monday, July 17, 2017

L'Etape du Tour 2017

Well, I finished it. I'm not entirely sure how, and the last 9km nearly killed me. But I finished the Etape du Tour 2017, have a shiny medal to prove it, and did not walk up any of the hills.

I didn't sleep well the night before. I turned out my light early, snuggled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. And then the French kids in the glamping tent next door started chattering and going to and from the loo or something. When they stopped, there was a very long and drawn-out fireworks display going on. So I definitely didn't get as much sleep as I wanted, but I still woke before my alarm and was at the village dumping my bag and availing myself of free coffee and a rather excellent pain au raisin ages before I needed to. I got to my start pen early too, which meant standing around in the cold people and bike-watching for a while.

Pre-ride selfie

At just gone 7.30am my wave headed out. I knew from recce-ing the course the day early with my friends Soph and Pete that the first section was fast, with a particularly rapid descent about 10km in. Aware there was a long day ahead I tried to pace myself, not push the little ramps too much and not worry about the people racing past me. Later on I was extremely glad of this. The first part of the course was absolutely stunning, especially arriving on the shores of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon which is, apparently, one of Europe's largest artificial lakes. It's a stunning turquoise surrounded by mountains and it was beautiful to cycle past.

The first climb of the day was the easy Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées, literally the 'hill of the girls with hats on'. It was a nice little climb by the lake and again I tried to take it easy, without pushing too hard. The climb was followed by a really thrilling, stunning descent with the lake ahead, on a wide road with several hairpins. I'm not good at descending really but I rather enjoyed swooping around the corners (being passed by more fearless riders as I did so) in such stunning scenery. 

After that we headed into a gorge with mountains ahead. I tried to take a picture but had left my phone on selfie mode after my morning selfie and couldn't manage to switch while riding, and I didn't really want to stop. I passed the 100km to go sign and felt okay and then as my Garmin ticked over to about 90km in, 90km to go I hit a mini-wall. Luckily some food helped and I picked up the pace again.

I reached 100km in within about 3 1/2 hours, well ahead of the four-hour limit I'd mentally given myself, and feeling pretty good about life. Every village had come out to support us, with the constant shouts of "Allez les filles!" particularly motivating somehow - the French, especially women and girls, are very good at supporting the few women who do the Etape. Only 594 women completed it this year according to the  results, out of 11,206 participants. 

Coming out of the 100km feed station I got chatting to a British guy called John, from Surrey, who had smashed out the first part of the race. We had a good natter which meant the next 20km flew by, although our attempts at creating a mini-peloton backfired when everyone who had hung on our tails decided not to play ball. John asked if I minded him cycling with me up the first big climb of the day, the Col de Vars, which was fine by me. However only a little way into the climb - which averages 7.5% over 9km - he was flagging. I was struggling to keep my pace at the same level as his and when he said "go on", checked he had enough water and food and then carried on at my own pace. 

Near the top of the Col de Vars
 I didn't find Vars too tricky actually although I did stop once for water as it was so hot by this point, and I felt I wasn't taking on enough when drinking while I was cycling. I refilled both my bottles at the top and then whizzed down the descent - almost 20km of non-stop downhill to Guillestre, the final feed station, which had a nasty kick up as you entered the town. But the whole place was out cheering for us. With more food on board and only 30km to go I was feeling pretty good about myself as I rolled out - tired, sure, but certain I could finish. 

The road carried on up a 'false flat' averaging around 2% gradient for about 15km, also through a gorge. There were several little groups it was easy to latch on to for a while and I enjoyed slinging my way from one to another. There was some shade, the climb wasn't too bad, I had plenty of water ...

And then we hit the Col d'Izoard proper. Izoard is a hors categorie climb in Tour de France parlance, allegedly 14km at 7.3% average, although I kept seeing10%+ on my Garmin so I'm not sure I believe that! And just after the start of the climb my back got suddenly very painful, I really needed the loo, and I stopped dead for a while. It was about 5km to the next water station and I could see the slope ahead. Somehow I got back on the bike and, with my stomach and back sore, struggled to the water stop.

At the water stop the place was full of prostrated cyclists. Bikes were abandoned all over the place and people were sitting in the few patches of shade panting and agreeing it was extremely hot. I caught my breath, had a drink, decided what my game plan was for the last 9km and got to my feet.

Essentially I decided that I'd stop every 3km to the summit. There was a little less than 9km to go. Every kilometre I had a drink and I stopped twice for several minutes of water and Jelly Babies (melted to a lump, but still capable of delivering a crucial sugar boost) before carrying on. But I got back on my bike each time and pedalled the whole way up. Lots of people had just given up and started walking. According to the official timer, including the stops, it took me just over two hours to complete those 14km.

At the finish
Crossing the finish line was weirdly intensely emotional. I was short of breath from the altitude (2,360m) and completely exhausted. I did the obligatory selfie, took some pictures for a couple of other people, and then just sat down and cried for a moment until I'd caught my breath and gathered myself together. I don't know why I felt so emotional. 

And then it was just another 20km, mostly downhill, back to the village in Briançon, where they hung medals round our necks and handed us water bottles (got to say the Etape did well on the stash front this year).

It was a good ride. I'd go so far as to say 100 miles of it was incredible. The scenery was phenomenal and there's a real buzz from riding with so many other people from other countries. But it was really, really tough at the end there. The comfort was that everyone was struggling, of all ages and genders, so I didn't feel too bad about it!

Will I do another Etape? Probably, because I'm a sucker for punishment and need a challenge. I just hope it's not quite so hot next time.

My Strava data

Friday, July 14, 2017

Une petite semaine en France

I like France. I had a thoroughly enjoyable year in Nantes while doing my degree. I like the language, the culture and the food and yet I've barely spent any time in the country since leaving university.

Travelling to cycle 180km with a mountain-top finish is possibly an extreme way of resolving this issue, but that's what I'm currently doing.

The Etape de Tour is a massive cycle event which happens every year during the Tour de France. Its organisers pick a stage of the Tour and, a couple of days before the pros come through, about 15,000 mad cyclists from all over the world sign up to try and complete it. I did this two years ago on a fiendishly difficult stage with several climbs, and while it was the hardest thing ever I kind of enjoyed it in a masochistic sort of way. So in December, when I was feeling a bit post-South America bluesy, I rashly signed up for the 2017 edition. And then did nothing about it until the end of May, when I decided that yes, I was going to go.

This uncharacteristic lack of organisation means I probably haven't done enough training. It also means I travelled out independently, failing to get sorted to team up with the few friends who are also riding it (though we're meeting up tomorrow). So I sent my bike on a bike transport service and flew with Ryanair to Grenoble and stayed the first night in Grenoble, which was a lovely city with a nice old centre that I enjoyed wandering around before treating myself to steak-frites for dinner. I got a bit worried my French had completely gone when I couldn't communicate with the waiter, but it turned out he was part-Corsican, part-Vietnamese and both of us were struggling with each other's weird accents.

View from the train

Yesterday I caught a train from Grenoble to Gap and another from Gap to Briançon, where the Etape starts and finishes. It was a nice journey with lovely views, the trains were comfortable and exactly on time, and I rather enjoyed the trip. 

I'm staying in a campsite a little outside Briançon, having failed to find a hotel with rooms. I haven't camped for ages either and although it took me a while to get to sleep last night the campsite's nice, with really friendly owners and a little pool for a dip. And it's only 10 minutes by bike into town.

Today to warm up my legs a little - and give myself confidence for the Etape on Sunday - I picked a relatively short (11.4km) but also relatively tough (9%) climb, the Col de Granon. It's a good climb with lots of amazing mountain views and finishes quite high up so was also good for altitude acclimatisation. I was pretty slow, but steady, and even the 11.1% section wasn't too bad. The descent was fast but less fun. I don't like descending!

Traditional top-of-col selfie
It's nice to be in France again and speaking French a bit, and hearing it all around me, and I'm now actually looking forward to the Etape and its challenge on Sunday!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hot springs, caves and ... Stalin

(A belated catch-up on the rest of the Georgia trip).

The last destination on our tour of Georgia was the spa town of Borjomi. During the Russian Imperial era Borjomi was a favourite hangout of the Tsars and Grand Dukes of Russia, who came to sample the waters just like the rich and famous did with Bath and Harrogate in the UK.

Nowadays Borjomi is a nice little resort town and the mineral water park is the centre of tourist activity. They've restored the springs, built a little amusement park with some rides and so on (closed in April) and there are some big hotels and plenty of guesthouses. We stayed in a guesthouse run by former teacher Nino with help from her policeman husband Temuri and, on the first night, found ourselves fed yet more (homemade) chacha which left us all a bit bleary-eyed the next morning.

Borjomi's supposed to be a great place as a base for walking but we were a little short of time and we agreed that the day we had there should be used to visit the cave city of Vardzia. Vardzia is a large complex of caves dating from the 12th century, used not only as a monastery but also as a place where normal people lived, once. It suffered from a major earthquake in 1283 and the front of many of the caves fell off as a result, but what is left is pretty amazing. We were there quite early and spent a good three hours wandering around the site, listening to the world's slowest-paced audio guide - which was informative, but took its time getting to the point!

The highlight was the secret passageway built round the back of the church. The tunnel was designed as a refuge in case of invasion, and could be closed off with boulders. It was pitch black and we navigated it by the light of mine and Andrew's phone torches, occasionally banging our heads on the very low roof and eventually coming out a couple of layers above where we started, looking down on the church and the rest of the city below.

The fact that people delved into the cliff like this all those centuries ago is really mind-boggling and the scale and sophistication of the place equally so. There are stables and wine-presses and storage rooms, frescoes and carvings, and all incredibly well-preserved.


After a long day driving to and from Vardzia we decided to end the day with a swim in Borjomi's outdoor pools. There was a walk to the pools through a pine forest, which was lovely, and the pools were nice although not especially warm - warmer than the air temperature, but not hot-hot. Still, we splashed around and soaked for a little while before heading back to the guesthouse via dinner.

On the way back to Tbilisi the following day we made our last touristy stop in Gori, the town where Josef Dzhugashvili - better-known as Joseph Stalin - was born. Following Stalin's death work began on a vast museum dedicated to him, and the house where his parents live is preserved on the site where it always stood, covered by a canopy bearing the Communist hammer and sickle. Apparently it's the only place in Georgia where that symbol is still permitted.

Stalin's birthplace under its canopy

The museum gets a lot of criticism for not adequately dealing with Stalin's terrible crimes against humanity, and this is fair - there is a small section on the ground floor, tucked away, which talks about the gulags and those who died under his rule, but it's tiny. Most of the museum is dedicated to Stalin's life, displaying pictures and documents and so on telling you about the young seminarian who became a follower of Lenin and then one of the world's most powerful men.

I knew very little about Stalin's life and his family and found the place fascinating. We had an English-speaking guide who whizzed us around but we were able to go back later and revisit at a slower pace (although not too slow as the museum has marble floors and high ceilings and is freezing). The most interesting section was perhaps the gallery devoted to the gifts Stalin received from all around the world for his 70th birthday; we couldn't find anything from Great Britain, but he was given a whole load of entirely useless presents with his face on.

It was a weird place in many ways, but one we're glad we stopped at and a good staging-point on the road to Tbilisi and home.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Springtime in Georgia

We woke up on Wednesday morning to a snowy Mestia and trudged in our walking boots through the ice and slush to the marshrutka stop. Three hours later we were jumping off in Kutaisi, with sunny skies above us and blossom on all the trees. We'd found springtime.


Kutaisi is Georgia's third-largest city, behind Tbilisi (according to Wikipedia), although its population is still only around 200,000. Since 2012 it's also been the seat of Georgia's parliament. It is the capital of the Imereti region and is surrounded by high snowy mountains, although it is situated in a green valley. In late March we had a couple of really warm, sunny days there and all of us found we liked the city a lot.

Kutaisi's Bagrati Cathedral
We were helped by a warm welcome from Giorgi, who owned the apartment we rented, who got his mate Leo to pick us up from the bus station in a huge BMW which was battered on the outside and pristine on the inside. Giorgi's apartment is a beautiful, ornate place on the top of an otherwise-ordinary block, filled with lovely furniture and two rooms with huge double beds - nice for me after a few single beds in other places! It was just 15 minutes' walk from the centre, which we explored thoroughly over the next few days.

Lovely spice lady
The highlight of Kutaisi town itself for us was the market. Like the Tbilisi market the stallholders seemed delighted to see tourists and were keen to chat. Those who had had a glass or two of chacha at lunch were keen to shake hands too! We visited the market twice; on our first visit we were charmed by a lovely lady selling spices, so on the second trip we went back to buy some from her. On the first visit I was swept away by another lady selling churchkhela, the strings of walnuts or grapes covered in grape caramel ("Georgian Snickers"). She managed to sell me more than I wanted at a price slightly above that of other stalls, mainly because I wanted some anyway and was unable to say no to her.

We also wandered the old town looking at churches, and spent a couple of relaxing evenings cooking for ourselves and chilling in our enormous apartment.

As we now have a hire car we also did a couple of trips out of Kutaisi. On day one the plan was to visit Okatse Canyon, where there's a viewing platform, but our offline map app took us literally offroad down a rather rocky track and then told us we should cross a wooden suspension bridge. We gave that up as a bad idea, and went to see some stunning caves lit by coloured lights instead. I can't tell you much about them as we joined the Russian language tour, and dawdled behind the tour guide taking pictures instead of trying to follow her breakneck pace.

Prometheus Cave
We also went to see a couple of monasteries outside Kutaisi situated on hilltops. Gelati Monastery stood out the most for its beautiful frescoes, dating back as far as the 11th century, and for the grave of the 12th-century Georgian monarch King David the Builder who is routinely depicted around Georgia holding a church in his hand.

Overall we really liked Kutaisi, and toyed with the idea of another day there, but eventually plumped to move on.


Andrew in particular was keen on Batumi as a destination - I was less enthusiastic but it's an interesting place and one I'm glad we came to. Batumi is (according to Wikipedia) the second-largest city in Georgia, and it looks like it's growing with endless construction work on various apartment and hotel blocks. The city sits on the shores of the Black Sea just north of the Turkish border and is a popular seaside resort town in summer for Turkish, Georgian and Russian visitors.

The place is slightly bonkers. On the one hand you have lots of fancy hotels (a Sheraton, a Hilton, a Kempinski) and a whole load of casinos, and some really insane buildings including one with a ferris wheel about 15 to 20 storeys up. On the other hand you have a lot of dilapadated apartment blocks, some which look like they're unfinished and others which look like they're falling down. The old town is pretty and well-kept. At this time of year most of the restaurants and bars are closed (or just empty) and the long boulevard running along the seafront very quiet. In the summer it must be packed.

Batumi by night
The city is also the capital of Adjara, which is apparently an autonomous region, and there's lots of signs that the Adjarans are proud of their autonomy. They have their own flag and there are Adjaran public buildings everywhere. They also invented the famous acharuli khachpuri, the first one we had, a boat-shaped piece of bread filled with cheese and a poached egg (yum). We went to a café for lunch to have one in Batumi to check it was better here than in Tbilisi and it was.

Historically Adjara was known as Colchis, and they've found a whole load of beautiful gold artefacts in this part of the world. It's also where Jason and his Argonauts came looking for the golden fleece! 

Sadly the weather wasn't great for either of the days we had in Batumi, with grey skies and a chilly breeze, so we didn't manage to get the full seaside effect. Of course being British and at the seaside we did have ice-cream, consumed in a warm gelato shop!

After Batumi, it's on back towards Tbilisi via our final couple of stops. The trip is almost over.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Into the mountains

I love mountains. There's something about the sight of a peak soaring above my head that makes my heart sing.

Georgia is ringed by mountains, with the whole of its northern border a line of high peaks that at this time of year are snowcapped. We knew we wanted to try and visit the mountainous areas, but weren't sure if the weather was going to let us get there. Enquiries at the not terribly helpful tourist information office in Tbilisi suggested we'd be all right, so we duly added mountains to the itinerary.


The first mountain stop was Kazbegi, officially known as Stepantsminda. Above the village there's one of the most famous churches in Georgia, the Holy Trinity Church perched on a cliff edge - the sort of sight used in tourist information to attract you to Georgia. In fact it was one of the things which had attracted us to Georgia and we were really looking forward to Kazbegi. In the event it probably surpassed expectations.

The trip there was easy - a simple marshrutka, or minibus ride, from Tbilisi which took about three hours including an unexplained stop in a traffic queue at the top of a beautiful mountain pass. The scenery was spectacular.

As soon as we got off the marshrutka in Stepantsminda we could see the church high above us, and we had a great view of it from the terrace of our homestay. Our host Gela was utterly delightful - he spoke only Russian and Georgian, and preferred Georgian - but with the help of Google Translate and Gela's son over the phone we managed to have a perfectly good conversation. This was helped by Gela insisting on us toasting our arrival with chacha, the local vodka or whisky which is made with grapes - like grappa in Italy or pisco in Peru. After initially telling us we must have three shots we ended up with five, so by the time he left us (to drive to church!) we were a bit giggly.

The next morning dawned clear and bright and watching the sun rise over the church opposite was a magical experience. Gela bundled us all into his minivan and drove us up the road to the smaller church on the village side of the valley, where we arrived just as one of the monks was ringing the bell for prayers. Inside the tiny church, painted in bright beautiful frescoes, we listened as the monks chanted and lit candles which Gela got for us. Georgia is a very religious country, especially by British standards, and everyone has enormous respect for their Orthodox branch of Christianity. Julie and I are now quite used to donning a scarf and sometimes a sort of wrap-around skirt in order to go into a church.

The village main street is full of men - including Gela - who spend their days driving Mitsubishi Delicas up the hill to the church. Even if you've literally just come down someone will stop you and say "church?" But we wanted to walk, and followed the Lonely Planet's basic instructions to get there. We crossed the river, walked up through the smaller village of Gergeti, turned left at a T-junction, and followed the path up past a ruined tower and round the hillside to the top. It was a fairly steep climb but the scenery was lovely and I think we all felt better for having walked it!

We spent a good two or three hours up there wandering around, taking endless pictures of the church and the high peak of Mount Kazbeg. The church itself was fairly simple, but lovely anyway, but it was the views from it and the views of it from various vantage points around which really made the place special.

In the evening we stuffed ourselves with Georgian food cooked by Gela's wife Lela, who had been in Tbilisi when we arrived. The following day we wandered along the valley floor, accompanied by a very pregnant friendly dog who we named Tamar after a famous Georgian queen. Dogs tend to pick up tourists round here, wanting food or company or both.


After Kazbegi the next stop was the Svaneti region. You have to go back to Tbilisi and travel west to get to Svaneti, as while they're pretty close as the crow flies the disputed region of South Ossetia lies in between and you can't go through that. We took an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi and then another marshrutka to Mestia, the main touristy town in Svaneti.

The Svaneti people are known for their very distinctive architecture. Back in the Middle Ages they built high defensive towers to protect themselves against invaders and all the villages have a huge number of these towers still standing. They're pretty impressive and on our arrival in Mestia we set out to find one of the local museums where you're supposed to be able to visit a tower. The museum was closed, but we bumped into a bloke from Milton Keynes called Trevor (as you do) who was working in one of the guesthouses, who showed us the way to a tower you could climb. We scrambled up several rickety ladders to the top and stuck our heads out of the roof; Trevor said when it's not covered in snow you can sit on the roof but we all decided it was too slippy and snowy to risk!

On Monday it snowed, heavily and constantly. The flakes were enormous and the town quickly became a picture postcard. We ventured out around lunchtime to find something to eat and do some grocery shopping, which included a giant 3L plastic bottle of red wine for less than £6, but otherwise stayed in the warmth of our guesthouse and looked at the snow falling.

By Tuesday morning the snow was lying heavy on the ground, but nevertheless we'd found a driver to take us up the valley to Ushguli. This is a UNESCO heritage site, a half-abandoned village which is the highest continuously-inhabited place in Europe at over 2,000m above sea-level. Vakho, our guesthouse owner's brother, owns a decent 4x4 and there was space not only for the three of us but also a Korean girl and Japanese guy who'd travelled to Mestia on the same marshrutka as us. They made good company on an eventful day.

The 4x4 was making easy work of the snow, which was thick but packed hard under the previous night's dusting. There were cheesy tunes on the radio and it was all going well until we approached a corner on a switchback, saw another vehicle coming up fast, and Vakho didn't quite have time to brake. Crunch! The other 4x4 hit ours and we stopped. We'd come off worst with significant damage to the front of our Mitsubishi, prompting Vakho to comment wryly to our Japanese companion: "Japanese Mitsubishi. Russian tank." But the car still ran and so we carried on to Ushguli.

The road was pretty hairy at times, with the last section the most nerve-wracking - a track hugging the cliff with a sheer drop to the river below, covered with snow and quite windy. When we finally arrived in Ushguli, safe and sound, the place seeemed deserted, but Vakho found us a café where we watched the owner make fresh khachapuri and khubdari (the local Svan meat-filled bread pie) and gorged on hot carby goodness.

After lunch we ventured out into the cold and visited the local museum, which had a collection of beautiful ancient icons housed in one of the towers. Outside it was bitter, but with the sun starting to come out there was much less snow on the way back to Mestia. It was a good day, despite the accident, although we felt bad for Vakho who'd incurred more cost than he'd earned from the day's work.

We left Svaneti on Wednesday with the mountains clearing and all of us vowing to come back - probably in the summer, when there's supposed to be a lot of good walking in this part of the world.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Monasteries in caves!

After a week in Tbilisi it was good to get out of the city and on to the road. Through our helpful guesthouse host Irakli we booked a tour/transfer to the Georgian wine region Khakheti via the Davit Gareja monastery complex.

Davit Gareja was founded in the 6th century by a Syrian monk called Davit, or David. These days it sits on the Azerbaijan border, just under two hours from Tbilisi, with the second hour or so on increasingly bad roads. Luckily our driver Giorgi has been to Davit Gareja a lot, and he navigated around the potholes admirably.

First up you visit the part of the site still in use – a collection of attractive brick buildings and some cells built into the rock walls. The monastery is still working and monks were praying in the small church; as ever the chanting was haunting.

We then climbed up a pretty decent hill to the ridge line separating Georgia and Azerbaijan. En route we passed a couple of Georgian border guards keeping watch – we didn’t see any Azerbaijanis the whole day and it was unclear whether we’d ever technically crossed the border or not! My phone thought we had as I got one of those “Welcome to Azerbaijan” messages telling me how much calls cost.

On the Azerbaijan side of the ridge we came upon Urbano monastery, a complex of about 80 caves hewn into the mountainside. It’s soft sandstone so must have been fairly easy to dig out and some of the caves have brick elements too.

More interesting are the ancient frescoes still visible in a number of the caves, some dating from the 11th century. Despite the years many of the colours are still bright and you can easily pick out the scenes the monks were depicting. One of the little churches built into the mountainside needed a bit of scrambling to get into but once inside we were rewarded with frescoes of deep indigo blue and well-preserved faces painted over 800 years ago.

But the beauty is slightly marred by history. Davit Gareja was a popular tourist destination during the Soviet era and the Soviets had no respect for religion. So the walls are covered in graffiti from across the years, mostly in Cyrillic although there’s some Georgian too, the signs of 20th century visitors erasing the legacy of the monks who once lived in this harsh environment.

It was an extraordinary place, the other worldliness accentuated by the strong wind whipping up the dust from the rock face.

From Davit Gareja we drove on to Sighnaghi, a town in the south of the wine region perched high on a hilltop. It’s almost Tuscan in look and feel although less well-preserved than most Tuscan towns. Giorgi drove us down to the local convent where one of the best-known Georgian saints, St Nino, is buried. They’re in the process of finishing a new church which has some stunning coloured stonework on the outside, and the old chapel where Nino is buried also has some good frescoes.

Eventually Giorgi dropped us at our guesthouse, run by a warm-hearted lady called Nana, a rickety old house with poor heating that was nevertheless a great place to stay in the heart of the town. We spent that afternoon and the next day meandering the small town, walking a bit of their old city walls (not really a patch on York’s, but to be fair that’s a big ask) and going to the excellent little museum.

The two nights concluded with a lovely meal and wine-tasting at a celebrated local restaurant, where we tried several unusual wines and I taught the waiter how to say “feijoa” – turns out these fruit, beloved of New Zealanders, grows well in Georgia and is a popular ingredient for making fruit brandy. It was a chilled-out couple of days perfect for getting the hustle of Tbilisi out of our systems, before the next adventure.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Six days in Tbilisi

Our Georgian journey began in the capital Tbilisi, a lovely little place with a population of about 1 million. It's a fairly compact city with hills all around and we all liked it a lot.

We stayed in the old city, in a little guesthouse which from the outside looks like it's about to fall down but was furnished with modern furniture and had a friendly and helpful (and talkative!) host, Irakli. He gave us some good food and sights recommendations and helped guide our stay, which after a day of wandering around we decided to extend from the four nights we'd originally planned to six.

The city has a lot of grand but faded buildings, houses and apartment blocks which evidently nobody can afford to quite renovate but live in anyway. The style includes beautiful balconies everywhere, in the old part of town at least.

There are a couple of grand avenues, notably Rustaveli Avenue with a lot of large 19th-century buildings including the wonderfully stripy Opera House and the Georgian National Museum. We've been very impressed with the museums here - clear, detailed exhibits which are well-curated. The national museum's Treasury was particularly good with a gorgeous selection of jewellery and artefacts unearthed from burial sites. Georgia has a long rich history and they keep finding stuff from the Bronze Age and on which is really spectacular.

Bank of Georgia HQ
Otherwise the old architecture is interspersed with a selection of crazy modern buildings. The Peace Bridge, spanning the river below the old town, is really quite nice - an undulating glass curve with the stars of Europe on top (they light up at night). Opposite the bridge there's a concert hall and exhibition centre of two glass and steel tubes, as yet unused, which is pretty cool. Other architectural gems we visited included the 1970s building which is now the Bank of Georgia headquarters, a set of boxes stacked on top of each other in a location which is miles from anything useful except a couple of the university campuses.

The city is also filled with churches of all sizes, from very small to very large. Georgian Orthodox churches are quite different to Western European churches - they're generally square-ish inside, and empty of furniture. The walls are hung with gilded icons and people wander in to pray at all times of the day. Often there's a priest chanting too.

Tbilisi's main cathedral is fairly new, consecrated only in 2004. Inside it's still plain plaster although they're beginning to paint frescoes at the altar end. It's huge and lofty and rather lovely. We got there about an hour before sunset and the sun on the golden sandstone turned the building the most gorgeous colour; inside, we listened as four very ordinary blokes just out of work sang prayers in harmony as a priest chanted.

We also visited the museum of ethnography, which was a little disappointing as not many of the houses from around Georgia were actually open. The ones which were had guides to tell you about the culture of the people who had lived in them. We liked our first guide best, a young lady wearing semi-traditional dress who was happy to chat and answer questions. We discovered that the traditional Georgian nappy involved strapping your baby into a cot and positioning a pipe (different shapes for boys and girls) strategically to catch urine and funnel it into a pot!

Ethnographic museum

The best bit was probably our trip to the market, where we wandered for ages looking at the produce on sale and trying to have conversations with the stallholders in our limited Georgian/Russian (hello! thank you! English!) and their limited English. They seemed genuinely thrilled to have three Brits stopping by and we scored a number of free samples.

A lady checking beans in the market
On our last day in Tbilisi we caught a marshrutka (basically a minibus) to the nearby town of Mtskheta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where there's a stunning old cathedral decorated heavily inside, and a church on a hill overlooking the town. Normally you pay a taxi driver to drive you up to the hill but, being us, we decided to walk. The tourist information office was helpful in giving us instructions, although Julie had found instructions online too which suggested that the best way to cross the highway below the hill was through an underpass. So we duly trotted along to the underpass, which is by a gravel pit, only to find that the gravel works was guarded by at least four aggressive dogs. Backing off we decided to cross the road at road-level instead, which actually wasn't too bad. Coming back was much easier and far more direct!

We ended our Tbilisi stay with a trip to the public baths, which was if nothing else an experience. Tbilisi has a hot spring running off the hills into the river and they have a number of bathhouses where you can soak in mineral-rich water. Julie had researched online and thought she'd found one where you didn't have to book but there were hot pools to soak in; only we turned up and it was expensive, reservation-only.

Instead we went to one of the other public bath options, where the women's baths were only showers. But it was cheap and we soaked for a while under steaming hot water smelling slightly of eggs. We tried to get a massage or a back scrub but, through the medium of miming mainly as our Russian is not great (well, mine's non-existent, Julie knows a little) and the attendants' English was worse, we ascertained that this wasn't going to happen. We also had to borrow some flip-flops after a lady had a go at us for being bare-footed.

We came out and discovered that Andrew had had a far different experience on the men's side, with a pool and a massage. Typical.

Overall Tbilisi was great - it's still not too touristy, and British tourists especially are few and far between. It's easy to get around (the metro is cheap and reliable) and seems pretty safe. Definitely a good spot for a city break, or, as for us, the starting point to a tour around Georgia.