Holidaying in lands that don’t exist: Abkhazia

Sascha Duerkop May 22, 2020
Holidaying in lands that don’t exist: Abkhazia

Abkhazia, a small speck of land on the northern shore of the Black Sea, is a former Soviet Union beach holiday destination. Wedged between the sea and the High Caucasus mountains, the tiny self-declared republic of just under 400,000 citizens allows its visitors to watch permanently snow-capped mountains while sunbathing at the beach.

How do you get into Abkhazia?

Getting to Abkhazia is a bit more complex than simply having to book a connecting flight. You generally can either come from Russia or from Georgia – and whichever way you choose, you would have to return the same way, too.

Coming from Russia, you fly via Moscow to Sochi. Just 4km south of the Olympic Stadium from 2018, the recognised world abruptly ends. A short border procedure later, you are in Abkhazia. This option comes with the pain of getting a Russia visa, but with the benefit of being able to get through to Abkhazia relatively smoothly.

Coming from Georgia almost always means you are flying into Tbilisi. A simple five or six-hour taxi, bus or train ride later, you will arrive in the border town of Zugdidi, which has nothing to offer, except for a few beds for a stopover. The next morning, you can finally make your way to Abkhazia.

As you are crossing a Cold War front here essentially, cars are strictly forbidden and you will have to walk or pay a horse-carriage for the 1.5km wide no-man’s-land. The Abkhazia border post on this side of the country is known to be a bit more unpleasant and waiting a few hours is not unusual.

Once you’ve slipped through the controls, you will find yourself in the poorest and only rough part of the country and will have to take at least two buses to get to the capital city of Sukhum (Sukhumi in Georgian). In all cases, you will need an Abkhazia visa, which you can apply for by mailing a pdf to their Foreign Ministry.

The Soviet Nice to New Athos

Gagra Beach and the Caucasus mountain range, by Sascha Duerkop.

Once in Abkhazia, you can hang out in one of the many beach resort cities along the coast, which were a popular tourist destination in Soviet times and are slowly returning to old glory.

Gagra, which is close to the Russia border, clearly stands out with great vistas of the high-rise mountains, nice sandy beaches, plenty of five-star resorts and architecture that made Soviets call the city “Soviet Riviera” or “Soviet Nice”.

If you’re looking for a bit more culture, you should pay a visit to the monastery of Novy Afon (Russian for “New Athos”) with its gold-coated onion domes. Legend has it that at least one, but possible two, of the Apostles are laid to eternal rest here. Next to the incredible architecture, you will find impressive gardens and a great Abkhazian restaurant serving the famous “Adjika” spice sauce that is popular across the former Soviet Union.

The Novy Afon monastery, today seat of the Abkhazian Patriarch, by Sascha Duerkop

Riding on Stalin’s speedboat

The jewel in the crown of the region, however, was explored and developed by no less than Joseph Stalin himself.

Stalin built a small dacha on the shores of Lake Ritsa high up in the Caucasus mountains. He used prisoners of war to make the remote lake accessible by road.

Today, you can visit Stalin’s favourite dacha, see his famous red phone and check out where some of his friends, like Fidel Castro, used to hang out with him. If you are lucky enough, you will even be able to have a short trip on Stalin’s wooden speedboat for a few dollars.

Stalin’s speedboat on Lake Ritsa, by Sascha Duerkop

When should you visit Abkhazia?

The best season to go is definitely summer or you can take advantage of the less crowded shoulder seasons in spring and autumn.

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Sascha Düerkop is a German mathematician, economist, football maniac, geography nerd and traveller. He has travelled to most unrecognised countries and way beyond, organised football tournaments for not-quite-states and has over 500 football national team shirts in his wardrobe.