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Feature photo by miss rubov / Above photo by fatboyke

Georgia will again become safe for travelers long before the image of Russian tanks rolling through its towns dissolves.

At first glance, Georgia appears dark and dangerous. On our first day in the capital Tbilisi, we descended into a barely lit metro station. A sea of people dressed in black with long dark faces to match, took us in with curiosity as we boarded the train. Kids craned their necks around parents to get a peek at us.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” we wondered.

Appearances couldn’t be more deceiving. Over a month later, we found it difficult to tear ourselves away.

Most of us had barely heard of the Republic of Georgia until the conflict with South Ossetia, Russia and Abkhazia erupted in August 2008. Georgia will again become safe for travelers long before the image of Russian tanks rolling through its towns dissolves.

Here are ten reasons why you should keep Georgia high on your travel wish list.

1. The People

Mention Georgia to someone who has visited, and he’s likely to place a hand over his heart, “Oh, the people.” Friendly, spontaneous, passionate, Georgians have a deserved and growing fan club.

Strangers took us under their wing to proudly show us their city, their country, their lives. We were overwhelmed with invitations and genuine kindness.

Simply put, the Georgian people alone are worth a visit.

2. Georgian Cuisine

The second response from those who have visited Georgia is to put a hand over their stomachs, “Oh, the food!” Though Georgian cuisine is relatively unknown in the West, it was deservedly viewed as the best food in the whole of the Soviet Union.

Influenced by Turkey, Persia and Greece, Georgian cuisine is unique. One part comfort food and another part fine cuisine, it stands on its own. Seek out warm, gooey khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) rich pkhali (spinach with ground walnuts and garlic), and broth-laden khinkali (herbed meat dumplings),

You’ll undoubtedly be invited to a Georgian feast, called a supra. Accept the invitation and you will find yourself inundated with food, drink and an endless string of emotional, long-winded toasts delivered by the tamada (toastmaster). It’s something you will never forget.

Photo by Daniel Noll

3. A Pleasant Unpredictability

During our visit, every day seemed a new adventure. Planning was unnecessary, for experiences unfolded naturally. One day we met some locals at a picnic table in the hills; the next day we were on a forest-bound adventure to discover some 8th-9th century caves and picnic in the shadow of a ruined 800-year-old church.

Georgia is a land of pleasant surprises. You’ll repeatedly say to yourself, “I couldn’t have planned this if I tried.”

4. Hospitality

Georgians don’t utter word “guest” lightly. Since they view guests as a gift from god, the term carries real meaning. And although many Georgians may have very little, they won’t hesitate to share every last bit of it. We were often treated to meals and experiences that left amazed, touched and humbled.

At the covered food market in the western Georgian town of Zugdidi, we asked a honey vendor if she knew of a restaurant where we could find lobio, a Georgian bean dish we had been seeking. After a flurry of conversation and activity, a veritable feast – including the dish we sought – appeared in front of us. Salad, bread, adjika, honey and cha cha (the Georgian version of grappa), were all provided by the neighboring vendors.

When we tried to reciprocate, Leila, our host responded in Russian: “You are our guest. Welcome.”

5. Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, has to be one of the most authentic and charming capital cities in Eastern Europe. It has been ruled and razed by over a dozen different conquering forces since its emergence in the 5th century. Always at an historical crossroads, Tbilisi features a diverse community, to which its Georgian Orthodox Church, Azerbaijani baths, Jewish synagogue and Armenian church – all located within a few blocks of each other – will attest. A walk through Tbilisi’s old town is a walk through Caucasian history.

The ideal way to explore Tbilisi: get lost in its unrenovated back streets. Life unfolds in the courtyards and on sagging balconies. Don’t be afraid to poke your head into a courtyard or two, where you may receive a history lesson or be treated to an impromptu serenade of Georgian folk songs.

Photo by Daniel Noll

6. Mystical Churches

Having traveled extensively, we were saturated with churches and temples. But Georgian Orthodox churches – alive with people and filled with incense, history and an unassailable mysticism – were something else altogether.

Take Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, the most holy of Georgian churches. Just outside of Tbilisi, it has been a place of worship since the 4th century. This cathedral and its atmosphere proved one of the most powerful and moving experiences of our travels throughout Europe and Asia.

7. Mountains and Trekking

When it comes to the height of its mountains and the breadth of available treks, Georgia’s High Caucasus may not compete with the Himalayas. However, with five peaks higher than Mont Blanc (4,808 meters), Georgia’s High Caucasus mountains are comparable to the European Alps and by far less crowded.

The fabled region of Svaneti, nestled in these mountains, is a place of magic and fear, even for Georgians themselves. Access to peaks like Mount Shkhara (5,201 meters) and Mount Ushba (4,710 meters) and opportunities to stay with Svan families in villages make trekking in this region an outdoor and cultural adventure.

Photo by Daniel Noll

8. Wine Culture

Georgia claims to have invented wine. While other countries may dispute this assertion, there is evidence of wine production in the region dating back to 5,000 B.C.

Kakheti, Georgia’s wine region, is the ideal place to fully absorb Georgian wine culture. The region even features a home-stay network to help visitors learn about local wines. In autumn, take in a village wine festival or two.

9. Layers of History

Georgia’s depth of history – both ancient and modern – is laid bare right before your eyes. Ruins of a thousand year old church and living monasteries that date to the Middle Ages sit amidst crumbling Soviet remains.

In a Soviet-era Volga sedan, we trundled along to the 12th century monastery at Vardzia (a lesser-known network of Christian church caves like those in Cappadocia, Turkey). From the hillside caves, we admired a defunct, monstrous Soviet hotel dating to the Brezhnev-era. History, near and far, is always present.

10. Still Relatively Undiscovered

Though travel agents would like to convince you otherwise, independent travel in Georgia is not only possible, it’s delightful.

Sure, you might end up crammed into a minibus (marshrutka) screeching around turns and floating on downgrades as the driver cuts the engine to save on petrol. But you’ll have several women taking care of you along the way, offering up food, drink and a phone number to call in case you have problems.

While traveling independently in Georgia may offer some challenges, it’s not particularly frightening, dangerous or difficult. But it is rewarding. And it will leave you feeling like a rock star and provide you endless stories to share afterwards.

AMAZON LINKS:
Georgia Armenia & Azerbaijan (Multi Country Guide)

Republic of Georgia Map by ITMB

Trip Planning


 

About The Author

Audrey Scott

Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll left their secure jobs and their expat home in Prague, Czech Republic at the end of 2006 to explore the rest of the world. Twenty months into their journey, they still have a long ways to go. They serve up their latest adventures, street food escapades and travel photography at Uncornered Market.

  • Tim Patterson

    great post Audrey – I'd love to visit Georgia, and it seems like now is the time to do it – the people deserve some support!

  • James Mann

    I love your images, especially the mountains. As one who has never been out of North America I am most eager to travel to these places. Just 4 more years before my wife retires and we hit the road as they say.

  • Hal

    Georgia has always been on my list, though I'd say it's moved up a few slots after reading this!

  • Audrey

    Thanks for your kind words about this article and photos. I could continue with a part 2 of the list…there's much more to write about Georgia. But you get the gist… A British friend just returned from a visit to Georgia this weekend. He goes every year and said that this visit was remarkably normal. Even the Russian checkpoint we remember last year on our way to Svaneti was operating without problems. He also was able to cross by land from Turkey without difficulties. So, maybe now is the time.

  • Jenny

    It's all about the food and the people!

  • David

    Hi, I love the article. I traveled to Georgia last Christmas with my two children, 14 and 12 at the time. I know many Georgians, their food and culture so none was a surprise when I was there. I want to go back for a honeymoon. Does anyone know of a good quality package tour? As in 5 star. Madam is a little particular. Thanks.

  • Audrey

    David, glad you enjoyed the article! You could try Caucasus Travel in Tbilisi as a reputable tour agency. I remember leafing through their tour catalogs last year and it looked like they had something for every comfort level and desired activity (eg., hiking, wine region, history, culture, etc.). I hope we can return sometime in the next few years as well!

  • Kevin

    Sorry, getting to this article a little late. :) I lived in Georgia for two years and agree with everything you wrote Audrey. One of the most interesting things about Georgia is the relative diversity in such a small country. I lived in the Kakheti region – the Eastern part of Georgia especially associated with wine-making. A trip to Telavi is a quick and very worthwhile day trip. The far Western part of Georgia – Adjara and its capital Batumi are absolutely beautiful – warm and subtropical and a summer destination for Georgians. Perhaps the most exotic trip would be to Svaneti – the most isolated and mountainous of Georgia's regions. Mestia, its capital and Ushguli are among the highest inhabited places in all of Europe. Sventi is famous for its ancient defensive towers and bandits – best to go with a tour group. Another great trip is to Kazbegi – very close to the Russian Federation border. There is an absolutely beautiful church perched high above the city in the mountains – a good 3 hours hike. Plan to attend on Mariamoba – St. Mary's Day – in August and you'll be accompanied by hundred of Georgians climbing the mountain carrying food for picnics. Beautiful and unforgettable.

  • Audrey

    Kevin, just saw your comment…also a little late. The amount diversity in Georgia was also a surprise to us. It must have been a fascinating two years that you lived there. While Svaneti has a bad reputation, we found the people incredibly warm and hospitable…once they trusted you. We didn't take a tour, but arranged for a trekking guide and home stays through the Svaneti Mountaineering Tourism Center (opened June 2007). It includes the community in tourism services so that the people of Svaneti benefit from tourism development. We had a great experience using their services on our hike from Mestia to Usghuli (3 days). Hiking in Svaneti was not only a physical challenge, but an emotional one as the weight of history – distant and recent – is everywhere.

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