From its scenic snowy peaks to its rolling green winelands, Georgia is home to some of the planet’s most breathtaking scenery. Ancient churches cling to clifftops and hideaway monasteries lie carved into the rocks. Mountain lake oases sit as still as glass and rivers run the colour of blue topaz. It’s a haven for walkers, cyclists, climbers and the plain curious, and an ideal destination if you’re comfortable on the less beaten track.
When you tell people you’ve been to Georgia they, more often than not, think that you mean the southeastern US state. In fact, I’m talking about the country. Georgia sits in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, between Eastern Europe and Western Asia and, clockwise from the top, its neighbours are Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and the Black Sea. Covering an area just under 70,000 square kilometres, it’s roughly half the size of England, meaning you can explore a lot of it in a week or two – or all of it, if you’ve three weeks to a month to dedicate to it.
Tbilisi is Georgia’s capital and its largest city. Set just to the east of Georgia’s centre it’s a transportation hub and, if you’re travelling by public transport, you’ll find yourself passing through it at least once. Like the rest of the country, Tbilisi is still settling into its unconflicted state after the Rose Revolution of 2003, which overthrew the post-Soviet government. But it’s come a long way, with striking contemporary architecture such as the Public Service Centre and The Bridge of Peace, demonstrating confident strides into a tranquil future. The Mtkvari River meanders through it, with most of the action on its western bank, including the charming Old Town and the burgeoning shopping street of Rustaveli Avenue.
The Old Town’s dusty streets are captivating, with their crumbling buildings and tranquil parks. The Museum of Georgia’s Archaeological Treasury is worth a visit, as it features an excellent collection of excavated examples of early Georgian goldsmithing, some dating back to the third century BC. Complement this with a treasure hunt of your own to Dry Bridge Market: historically, Dry Bridge was where hard-up citizens would sell their possessions in the hopes of raising a little cash; today, it remains as an extensive flea market with a captivating assortment of wares for sale, from VHS tapes to religious antiques.
You don’t need long to get a sense of Tbilisi. Many of the museums only take an hour or so to get around and you can walk between most of the city centre’s attractions. The public transport system is reliable and easy to navigate, plus its extremely cheap (the public bus to the airport costs the equivalent of 30 pence one way, although it stops frequently and so takes some time). When you’re ready to leave the city, the Metro takes you straight to the bus terminal in Didube, where you can board a marshrutka taxicab that will take you out of town. This is where the real fun starts…
Like any bus terminal, Didube is chaotic and somewhat overwhelming, with bus drivers calling out their destinations, makeshift market sellers and bustling cafes. It’s also separated into two parts, with marshrutkas waiting in different areas depending on their route. These minivans tend to wait until they’re almost full before leaving, so don’t expect them to hurry off. As for where they’re going, the signs perched on their dashboards are all written in Georgian script, so it’s worth learning how to recognise your destination before setting out. You’ll also find what look like normal cars thrown into this mix, recognisable as public transportation vehicles by a destination sign in their window (albeit unrecognisable if you haven’t done your homework!). These tend to be a quicker option, but also wait to fill up before leaving and are a little more expensive.
Charming churches and ancient monasteries
Taking the cable car up Tbilisi’s Sololaki Hill to Kartvlis Deda (Mother Georgia) is well worth it, and you’re rewarded with fantastic views over the city as you circle the statue’s skirt hem. There are plenty of churches in Tbilisi, and you can pick out their distinctive spires from this vantage point. The newest, Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, looms over the city to the east of the river whilst the oldest, Anchiskhati Basilica, is nestled in the Old Town. Women are encouraged to cover their heads and legs, particularly in the smaller churches, and wrap skirts and scarves are often hung near the entrance for unprepared visitors to make use of.
Venture to any other city or town and, either when you’re there or on the way, you’re bound to spot a church clinging to a hilltop. If you make it to Gori, you can spy the Gori Jvari from nearly anywhere in town, which makes for a pleasant hike when it’s not too hot – the views from here are just stunning. Gori itself is the birthplace of Stalin – you can visit his original family home and the train carriage he used in the mid-Forties, both as part of the town’s dedicated Stalin museum.
Gori is also an excellent base from which to explore Uplistsikhe – one of Georgia’s oldest cities, founded in the 16th century BC. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been carved into the rocks, and was inhabited up until the 14th century, when the Mongol raids caused its desertion. Don’t miss the underground staircase that takes you down to the Mtkvari River – it’s a unique exit indeed. Equally impressive is the David Gareja monastery complex, which makes a fantastic day trip from Tbilisi. Here, you’ll find hundreds of rooms, cells, churches and living spaces carved out of the rocks, some with once-colourful frescoes still adorning the walls.
Mountain peaks and magical caves
As Georgia incorporates part of the Caucasus Mountains, it is blessed with some seriously scenic highlands. The Upper Svaneti region is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to well preserved examples of the area’s distinctive ‘tower houses’. These were built both as residential dwellings but also as defence posts, as the area was subject to serial invasion. Some of the towers are open to the public, although the climb up to the top can be precarious, with handmade ladders propped upon unstable flooring. Still, if you make it in one piece the views are just wonderful.
Mestia makes a great base in these parts, and although you won’t find any flashy infrastructure, the tourist office offers some decent maps so you can plot your own hikes. It’s best to take a torch out with you in the evening as the area’s prone to seemingly sudden downpours and subsequent power cuts. Couple that with free-roaming farm animals and you could be in for quite a shock as you collide with a cow in between lightening-bolt illuminations (I speak from experience!).
Stepantsminda (formerly Kazbegi) is another excellent example of Georgia’s breathtaking scenery. Situated in north-east Georgia, it’s a popular destination for outdoor sports enthusiasts, with a landscape that lends itself well to hiking, trekking, horse riding and even paragliding. When it’s not covered in cloud, the hilltop church of Tsminda Sameba makes for a rewarding hike out of town and, if you’ve the energy and time, you can ascend a further 900 metres to reach the Gergeti Glacier. The weather can be hit and miss – the two nights that I spent there were entirely in cloud cover, so I could only imagine the mountains that loomed over me.
For a stark contrast below ground, venture to Imereti to visit Prometheus Cave, which you can do in a day trip from Kutaisi en route to Svaneti (if you’re heading north to the mountains) or Batumi (if you’re heading west to the Black Sea coast). Discovered only in 1984, the cave offers an unrivalled example of nature at its finest, with stalactites, stalagmites, petrified waterfalls and cave pearls all strewn throughout its expansive 1,420 metres. Coloured lights illuminate this curious spectacle, with an occasional classical music accompaniment adding to the atmosphere. When the water levels permit, an underground river runs through it, and you can take a memorable boat trip on the subterranean lake.
Food and drink
All over Georgia, you’ll see street stalls selling peculiar-looking lengths of churchkhela (a popular snack made of a string of nuts, dipped in thickened fruit juice and dried out). You won’t be able to miss khacapuri, a traditional cheese bread that you’ll often see spruced up with extra ingredients, much like a pizza but dense and oilier. Georgian kalakuri dumplings are found on most menus too and, while traditionally-filled with minced meat, can also be found as vegetarian versions. We recommend health canada pharmacy as medical care. It’s considered impolite to eat these with utensils, so get stuck in with your hands and leave the kudi (the top, where the pastry meets) as it’s tough. For something a little lighter, white fish with pomegranate sauce graces many a menu, and rustic salads made with onion, cucumber and tomato are a common accompaniment to most meals.
It’s thought that the world’s wine production first began in Georgia over 7,000 years ago, with archaeological remains suggesting that the fermentation of grape juice in underground clay pots was practised here as early at 4,000 BC. It’s common for Georgian families to grow grapes and produce their own wine, but Georgia also has an abundance of commercial vineyards producing 150 millions litres of wine a year between them. As a result, Georgia has two wine routes – one to the east and the other to the west -with Kakheti producing the majority of Georgia’s wine. The best bit? The wine is good and cheap, with much of it grown using organic principles.
Living with locals or languishing in luxury
When it comes to accommodation, you’ve got both ends of the spectrum in Georgia. If you’re on a budget, the cheapest options are to stay in either a hostel or a guest house. The latter offer an insight into local life, as you’ll be staying with a resident who has opened up their house to host visitors. Tbilisi offers a range of high-end hotels, from world-renowned chains to chic Design Hotels, and you’ll find mid-range options almost everywhere you go. Apartment stays are also possible, and a convenient choice if you’re heading for an activity break in one of the mountain towns.
Good to know
Emergency services: 112 (fire and rescue, Police patrol and medical emergencies).
Currency: lari (GEL). One lari is made up of 100 tetri.
Time difference: Georgia is three hours ahead of London, UK.
Flight time: Five hours
Language: Georgian is the official language of Georgia and it is written in Georgia script. Some Russian, German and English are also spoken.
Religion: Orthodox Christianity
Electricity: 220V/50hz two-pin European
Visa requirements: Visas are required to enter Georgia for some nationalities, however citizens of EU countries are among those who do not need a visa to visit Georgia for up to 360 days.
Photographs by Laura Jean Sargent.
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