I had never even contemplated going to Georgia until I met a guy at a conference who was working in Azerbaijan at the time and couldn’t stop talking about how much he loved Georgia. He was a part-time photographer and showed me some beautiful pictures of various parts of the country.
That was it, I was going to Georgia!
Not long after moving to Munich I had a casual talk with my friend Liz about places we’d like to visit and we made a pact to visit Georgia together.
After consulting the guy I’d met at the conference and another friend who had been there several times we decided to focus on the eastern side of the country, mainly because we only had a week and this area was deemed quite safe.To say we went there with no expectations is an understatement. Even though we had done our research on places to visit and listened to recommendations we still had no idea what delights Georgia would present us with.
And delights they were indeed!
Wandering the streets of Tbilisis
Let’s start with arriving in the country. So your normal reception at customs in a new country is a grumpy or power-hungry customs official who in no way is willing to crack a smile. Ok not all of them are like that but a large majority I have encountered have been. Anyway, upon arrival in Georgia we were each presented with a small bottle of Georgian red wine. Welcome to Georgia! We were already in love with the country before leaving the airport. I know what you are all thinking, “the wine was rubbish”. Wrong. It was actually pretty good and the first of many fine local wines we were to sample.We flew into Tbilisi and stayed in a small kind of B&B or guesthouse. After our taxi driver got lost in the back streets of Tbilisi in the dark, whom we gave up on, and having to stop and ask for directions to non-English speakers we miraculously found our accommodation. It took some searching as the streets are not sign-posted very well, neither was the accommodation. All part of the experience. It was probably a good thing that it was dark when we arrived and couldn’t see the condition of the outside of the guesthouse as we may have run in the other direction… Luckily the rooms were a pleasant surprise, spacious with lovely wooden polished floorboards and our own bathroom!
Once we got settled into our rooms we hit the pavement to explore Tbilisi at night. We quickly realised that it is a city of contrasting architecture, the old ancient Georgian buildings on one side of the river and the modern, innovative designs on the other side. The Mtkvari river is spanned by the funky steel and glass Peace Bridge that has apparently been likened to a sanitary pad!As said, we flew in and out of Tbilisi so we began and ended our trip in this city of contrasts. Like many European cities it is best explored on foot by just wandering aimlessly around the streets. So many of the buildings, including our guesthouse look quite shabby and run down from the outside but they seem to add charm to this city that has seen a turbulent past. Even though we walked around the city most of the time, there were a couple of times that we took the metro and rode the seemingly never-ending escalators to reach the train. It was obviously a tactic of the old Soviet Union to place metro lines far underground as I also experienced subterranean metros in Russia. We had read about and been told about the famous cheese pies (khachapuri) and soon after arriving we made it our mission to try one of many as it turned it. It is worth going to Georgia just for the cheese pies! They are full of absolutely yummy, cheesy goodness and carbs and fatty cheese so don’t even think about the calories. Another favourite speciality of ours was grilled eggplant with a type of walnut paste spread on top (badrijani nigvzit).
Delicious!During our time in Tbilisi we wandered the streets, found the crooked clock, walked up to the old Nariqala Fortress and had fantastic views over the whole city, visited a couple of the churches and just generally enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere of this wonderful city. Oh I mustn’t forget our visit to the Orbeliani sulphur baths, the baths and scrub were divine. We found some great little cafes while in Tbilisi, including Pur Pur cafe and the KGB. Pur Pur cafe was a great mix of cool retro style decor and great food. The food at KGB was good but to be honest we just liked the name and the tag line more than anything.
Our next stop was to head north to Kazbegi along the Georgian Military Highway, a small town in the Tergi valley. The great thing about Georgia is that it is not on the tourist radar.
Shhhhh don’t tell anyone about it!
This of course means the infrastructure of popular tourist destinations does not exist, which makes it even more amazing to visit because you get to meet more of the locals and experience more of local living. We found the best places to stay were in guesthouses and home stays and the best way to travel is to use the local transport of minivans or shared taxis. Plus they are super cheap options!On the departure day, after a while we reached the massive car park where all of the minivans sit and wait to be filled up to take people all over the region. This means that a set timetable is not always adhered to. You do need to haggle the price and be careful about who you go with, some of the men who approached us seemed a little on the dodgy side. Lucky enough, we eventually found a bus with four German guys waiting in it and decided this might be a good option.
The trip to Kazbegi took us along winding mountain roads with some hair-raising moments thanks to our driver who thought he was in the formula one. However the scenery was gorgeous. It was autumn so the reds, oranges and yellows of the season were starting to show on the trees and on some of the higher peaks snow had already settled. We even drove through a ski resort that definitely looked worth going back for.After approximately three hours we arrived in Kazbegi. We had a detour on the way to our homestay as the driver recommended some accommodation for the German guys in the van, I’m sure it was his brother’s house or something. However, when one of them went to check it out there was a gun openly lying on the kitchen table. Needless to say they did not stay there. So off we all went to our lovely home stay with out host Anano in her house at the foot of Mt Kazbek with glorious views of the Tsmibda Sameba church perched high on top of the mountain. There we were fed delicious local dishes for dinner until we could barely move. The main attraction in Kazbegi is Tsmibda Sameba church so off we hiked not long after we arrived to check it out. It is a reasonably easy hike and well worth the views. We arrived at the church to the sounds of monks chanting which added to the ethereal feeling of being on top of the world. After our bit of exercise for the day we decided to reward ourselves with a local beer. It turns out that not only do Georgians produce some excellent wine, their beer is pretty good too.
We found the Georgians to be incredibly friendly people, especially these two below who practically insisted that I take their photo when we were walking back down the mountain. The following day the guy was on the same bus as us and gave us what we could only assume to be a very enthusiastic, friendly greeting.
Enjoying wine in the Tsinandali area
After Kazbegi we headed back to Tbilisi and then caught a shared taxi to the wine growing area of Tsinandali. Shared taxis are a common way to get from place to place in Georgia. They work exactly as the name implies, you find a taxi and share it with complete strangers for all or part of the journey.
We had an unusual experience on this trip and later realised the significance. We stopped at a petrol station to fill up and were instructed to get out of the car by our driver who spoke very little English. Our fellow passengers didn’t speak English either (yet another reason to explore this intriguing country!) so couldn’t explain what was going on. We were thinking all sorts of over dramatic thoughts like the driver was going to take off with all of our possessions and abandon us in the middle of nowhere. Of course we were overreacting. Once the tank was full we got back in the car and headed to our destination. After having this happen several times we realised that a large majority of the cars use gas and the giant gas bottles are stored in the boot (trunk for non-Australians) that fuel the cars. Hence, slight risk when filling up with petrol for all concerned.In Tsinandali we stayed at what we thought was going to be a winery. Liz and I were picturing ourselves sitting on a porch, wine in hand and a cheese platter on the table, overlooking endless vineyards. The reality was that we stayed at the house of the owners of a vineyard which was out-of-town. However, even if our imagination had gotten away from us, we certainly can’t fault the hospitality that was shown to us. The food was incredible and endless and there was a choice of wine at each of the dinners. At some point, we went for a walk not far from where were staying to Chavchavadze Family Estate. This winery is on lovely sprawling grounds. Now I am not one to visit a winery without sampling the wares so of course we did some wine tasting. I also find it hard not to actually purchase wine when attending a tasting so I naturally bought some wine. Luckily my backpack was pretty full so it limited how much I could buy. Here a good one. There was a ribbon tree on the Estate where hundreds of coloured ribbons had been tied by hopeful visitors. Each colour represents a different type of wish. Liz and I both bought, yes it was a money-maker, a red ribbon for love as we were both single at the time. Well I don’t know if it was coincidence or if it actually helped fate along but both Liz and I actually met our current partners within six months of the ribbon tree incident. Cue Twilight Zone music….
The walled town of Sighnaghi, the Davit Gareja monastery complex and some more wine
The lady at our homestay was kind enough to organise a driver for us the next day to go to Davit Gareja via Sighnaghi with a brief stop at Schumi winery. A very nice lady took us on a tour of the winery, teaching us about the wine making process. Again, my arm was twisted to try some of the wine (the fact that it was ten o’clock in the morning did not deter me) and of course purchase a bottle.
Ok, I’ll admit it, I didn’t need any persuading 🙂We stopped for a few hours in the walled town of Sighnaghi. Liz and I both agreed that if we went back to Georgia we would like to spend a night here. It is a cute town with cobble stoned streets and Italianate architecture, surrounded by a wall that is like a much smaller version of The Great Wall of China the way it snakes its way up and along the surrounding hillsides. Many spots around the town offer fantastic views of the surrounding Alazani valley and in the distance on a clear day you can see the Caucasus. After quite a few hours of driving in rural areas we finally arrived at Davit Gareja. The landscape in the area is quite surreal. I can only describe it as some sort moon-scape. It is a religious complex containing monasteries built into the rock, one of which still has monks living in it. The area has a long history dating back to the sixth century. We hiked up to the top of one of the mountains and were rewarded with fantastic views of the moon-scape below, including the Azerbaijan border. After this amazing adventure, both Liz and I cannot recommend enough that you visit Georgia, though do it soon while it’s still a bit off the beaten travel path.
A special shout out to my friend Liz for travelling with me to Georgia and refreshing my memory of our trip while writing this post.
Have you been to Georgia? Would you like to go? Where have you been that is not on the regular tourist trail? Leave a comment and let us know!
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