Georgia: Suggestions and Such (Part 1)
So you’ve decided that Georgia looks beautiful, the people sound lovely, and the food delicious. Right you are! Now you want to visit. Hurrah! Tourism is a quickly growing sector of the economy, and as I’ve said before, it’s definitely worth it.
Now then, you may ask : “where and when should I go, what is there to see, how do I get around, and what does it cost? And I have other questions too!” Today we focus on the where…obviously it’s biased towards where I went in the limited time I had, but having done my research, as a hard baller should, I determined that the following would be the highlights of the country, and I was right.
Where to go? Well, you’re almost certainly going to fly into Tbilisi, unless you’re dead set on a beach holiday in Batumi, which is reachable at a minimum from Istanbul via Turkish airlines. But let’s assume Tbilisi, which is just as well, because it’s a spectacularly charming city, with its mix of Caucaso-Mideastern and Russian Imperial architecture, its lovely trees, and the cobblestoned cafe-filled old town. Plenty of museums, galleries, and culture to make it worth a weekend or even 3-4 days. It’s very laid back, and a welcome respite from intercity travel. Also, it’s easy to make day trips from there, to places like Mtskheta and Jvari, Ananuri, the Alazani Valley in Kakheti, and if you’re up to it, Davit Gareji (be aware the last 10 or so km of road to the latter SUCK SUCK SUCK. Take a jeep).
The most interesting parts of town are in the old town, around Rustaveli avenue, and across the Mtkvari River, from the Dry Bridge Market (a fantastic bazaar/flea market) to the Tsminda Sameba Cathedral. Nightlife in Tbilisi is mostly centered on the old town, with its cafes open and busy until quite late. The streets of note in this regard are the pedestrian Erekle II, Sioni, Shardeni, and Bambis Rigi (the latter two are more fancy and have many places serving rather overpriced nargile/shisha). These areas also have plenty of places to stay, though for ease of going out at night, opt for the old town.
Outside Tbilisi, Georgia overflows with worthwhile sights and destinations, almost all within a few hours away. The heart of the Caucasus mountains is undoubtedly the most dramatic place to go, with the area around Kazbegi, AKA Stepantsminda, the most accessible mountain area, and incredibly scenic. It’s here that you find the Gergeti Trinity Church, silhouetted against 5000m+ Mount Kazbek. The road there is no less dramatic: known as the Georgian Military Highway, it leads more or less from Mtskheta, past the marvelous fortress of Ananuri, and slowly but surely into the mountains, switching back up to the nearly 3000m Jvari Pass, at which point the route consists of gravel, mud, and potholes big enough to swallow one of the innumerable cows.
On the descent, the road magically regains paving (thank God), and soon you’re here:
As mentioned, Kazbegi is the most accessible mountain area from Tbilisi, at about 2-3 hours away. However, if you have time, by all means go to Mestia, or Ushguli, the highest village in Europe, in the ultra-remote Svaneti, or the slightly closer but even more wild and untouched Khevsureti and Tusheti. All are breathtaking, and so out of the way that the latter isn’t even accessible from October to May. But it is here, Georgians told me, that pure Georgian culture is best preserved.
Where else? Fancy wine and absurd levels of hospitality? Hie thee off to Kakheti, with the towns of Telavi and Sighnaghi as good bases, though note that currently, Telavi is under massive renovation and is kind of a nuisance to drive through. It’s by far the biggest place in the region, and has a cool castle, but at the moment is rather chaotic. It is, however, very close to the ancient monastery site of Ikalto;
the enormous and beautiful Alaverdi Cathedral;
And lots of vineyards, many of which you can tour:
Good vineyards to drop in on and get a tour and tasting – in English no less! – are Shumi and Teliani Valley, both between Telavi and the community of Tsinandali.
The real gem of Kakheti is Sighnaghi, though, a walled town in the hills above the Alazani Valley. Completely restored a few years to improve tourism, it’s fair to say it’s succeeded. Sighnaghi is beautifully situated, with sweeping vistas of the valleys and the rising Caucasus beyond, and has a charming town feel, with stone houses lining cobblestoned streets and spilling onto tree-lined squares.
Also technically in the province of Kakheti, but feeling a world away is the bleak awesomeness of the Davit Gareji monastery complex. In the middle of what I call the Georgian Steppe, and in fact on the border with Azerbaijan and surrounded by ethnic Azeri minorities (if an empty place can be called surrounded), it feels like entirely different country. Get lost here, and you end up in dry grassland with the odd cow or sheep here or there. Go on the right track, and you end up on the worst road I saw in Georgia. When you think your poor car can take no more, you keep going. Finally, after your car curses your name and your descendants, you get there:
It’s worth noting that Georgian trails, ESPECIALLY the ones at Davit Gareji, are really only suitable for particularly fit goats, so at a minimum make sure you have sturdy shoes. Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66es are not recommended…Also this place is really, truly in the middle of nowhere. Either have a rental Niva or Hard-Ballin’ Range Rover (or suffer in a normal car), or prepare to shell out for a taxi; the nearest proper town is Sagarejo, but you can surely get a taxi from Tbilisi or any other city in Kakheti.
If, after all this, you need some relaxation – go back to Tbilisi, get some rest, and some killer grilled quails at Puris Sakhli, and head out to Borjomi. Made famous by its bizarre yet refreshing, salty-sour fizzy water, the city and its surrounding area are engulfed by forests, springs, and streams, and in fact is largely amidst the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, which takes up nearly 8% of Georgia. The mountains are low (it’s in the Lesser Caucasus), but it’s less than two hours west of Tbilisi, and is a truly relaxing and beautiful area. And the spring water’s pretty good too!
Where else can you go? As I said, there’s Batumi, capital of Adjaria and home to the intimating Adjarian khachapuri, as well as Georgia’s second largest city, and summer vacation favorite for Georgians as well as visiting Turks, Russians, and others. Why not have a swim in the Black Sea?
That’s really all I can suggest. Everywhere in the country is nice, but you have to be selective with your time, and the places mentioned really pack it in. Got more time? Lucky you! Check out TrekEarth and see what strikes your fancy.
Stay tuned for more soon.