“Abastumani, hidden in the wild Georgian mountains, was a once-secret Soviet observatory. The area was at the forefront of astronomical development. The town, famous in the 19th Century for the quality of its air and thermal waters, was a popular summer resort for the Romanov royal family who then controlled Georgia as part of the Russian Empire. Tsar Nicholas II’s brother, Georgy Romanov, was an avid amateur astronomer, and it was he who brought the first wave of scientists over from St Petersburg,”- BBC.
The resort itself (a little past the official ‘town’ of Abastumani) is now a little run down. Once touted as one of the best anti-tuberculosis resorts in Georgia, it is now a shadow of its former grandeur. That said, it is interesting to see the ornate woodwork on dilapidated buildings constructed by German Prisoners of War, the stone building of the old baths ordered by the Romanov royal family in the 19th century, the ruins of Tamar’s Fortress and the surrounding deep green forest. Take a dip in the 40-degree mineral pool (follow signs to the Sulphur Baths); while nothing glamorous (unisex, changing rooms lining the pool and divided from it by curtains, no lockers, one toilet and one cold shower), the water itself is sure to soothe away your aches and pains. 10 GEL adults, 7 GEL for under 12s, not recommended for those with heart disorders.
Back outside, drive or walk up to the Space Observatory (well-signposted)- a narrow winding road through the forest. At 1650-1700 m. above sea level, the air is spectacularly clear and crisp and begs for a picnic spread, walk or sit- and-chill moment or two.
Park outside the gate to the Observatory complex, pay the entrance fee (9 GEL, kids free) and go for a wander. There are 14 telescopes, mounted between 1934 and 1978, most of which still function today, though they look a little worse for wear from the outside- unchanged since Soviet times. The first building on the left, housing the a 40cm Zeiss refractor from 1937 was in 2008 brought under the aegis of the Ilia State University. A USAID program turned a portion of the observatory building into a museum and the office of founder Eugeny Kharidze was restored to look as it had when he worked there in its heyday of 250 employees.
Take the tour: it begins in the round telescope room. The safety barriers are minimal, so keep small children close as they won’t have the concentration to absorb the lecture. The guide (Georgian/Russian speaking) will explain the history, the technicalities and answer questions, before taking you back out into the hall to look at images captured through the telescope, including the sun’s rays, Saturn’s rings and a valley on the moon named after scientist Mikhail Vashakidze, who was also among the first to discover polarized radiation in the Crab Nebula. Enjoy the abovementioned office and a display of space and observatory goodies in the main museum hall.
If you come after dark (last visit 9pm), you’ll get to peer through the giant telescope into space, as thousands of scientists have done before.
A cable car runs infrequently down into the village, worth the stunning views if you can get on it.