21.01.2013. From the fertile wine region of Kakheti—full of beautiful churches, monasteries and wineries—to the ancient villages of mountainous Svaneti, Georgia is a land of unparalleled natural beauty, with a long, fascinating and largely under-appreciated history. A small and obscure nation located at the eastern end of the Black Sea, wedged between Russia and Turkey, Georgia has been given little attention by Western travelers, and many treasures await those willing to make the journey.
A few facts you might not know to stir your interest in this tiny Caucus nation:
Georgia is the oldest wine-producing nation in the world, with 521 original varieties of grape and production dating back to 7000-5000 BC.
Georgia’s many languages are unrelated to the Indo-European or Semitic languages of the surrounding region.
Georgia is home to some of the most ancient churches in Christendom (it was the second nation to adopt Christianity, after Armenia).
Colorful bath house in Tbilisi’s Old Town. Photo credit: Violator1 via Flickr.
Nestled in the foothills of the Trialeti mountain range, on the banks of the Mtkvari river, Tbilisi is by far the most beautiful capital city in the Caucasus.
According to legend, Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali, who was inspired to build the city after a pheasant he shot fell into a warm spring there and was healed.
One could spend days strolling around Tbilisi’s Old Town, with its colorful balconies, ancient churches, meandering streets and eclectic shops. During its long history the area has been destroyed nearly 30 times, but its layout remains largely intact. Here you will find Tbilisi’s famous Central-Asian sulfur baths, a charming puppet museum and some of the city’s oldest churches.
Another highlight is the ruins of the once-great Narikala Fortress, located above the Old Town. It offers panoramic views of the city below and is a fine place to watch the sunset while enjoying a glass of wine.
Be sure to also check out Sameba Cathedral, the largest church in Georgia and one of the most grandiose orthodox churches in the world.
Svaneti region. Photo credit: Gogi Bedenashvili via Flickr.
High among the jagged peaks of Northwestern Georgia lie the ancient villages of Svaneti, home to a people known as the Svans, known throughout the region for their chivalry and ferocity. They have never been truly subdued by any invader, including the Soviets, and even Georgians tend be a little afraid of them.
The region is also known for some of the most complex polyphonic singing in the Caucasus, as well as some of the country’s most dignified and mysterious dances, some of which date back over two millenia.
The entire region is a UNESCO world heritage site and the landscape is surreal, littered with imposing watchtowers, craggy peaks and glaciers.
Most travelers come here for the trekking and mountain climbing. The Shkhara and Ushba climbs are both challenging and should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers, but there are countless other treks for every range of fitness, including the four-day trek from Mestia, the Svan capital, to Ushguli, the most picturesque village in the region, which lies at the base of Mt. Ushba, Georgia’s highest mountain.
Marshrutkas (minibuses) run to Svaneti from Tbilisi, but take a full 12 hours over horrendous roads before reaching Mestia. Altenatively, you can fly.
The best time to visit is during the religious feast of Kvirikoba at the end of July.
Charming Sighnaghi. Photo credit: Ilona Margalitadze via Flickr.
It is known as “the City of Love” and it’s not hard to see why. Populated by friendly villagers and lording over a steep hill that overlooks a vast valley rimmed by enormous, snow-capped mountains, Sighnaghi is easy to fall in love with.
For most travelers the town itself, which is ringed by one of the biggest fortifying walls in Georgia, serves more as a base for exploring the surrounding region. However, many have said their most treasured experiences in the country occurred in one of Sighnaghi’s cozy home-stays, eating delicious food with their host family and drinking the never-ending jugs of wine that are included in the room price.
Exploring the region via private taxi is cheap and easy to arrange. The most popular route is the road from Sighnaghi to Telavi via Gurjaani, visiting wineries on the way. Another option is a day trip to Kvareli lake resort or Lagodekhi National park.
Be sure to do a bit of wine-tasting while you’re here. A good place is the Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant and Wine Bar, which produces organic wine made in the traditional qvevri method, focusing exclusively on Georgian varietals.
Gelati Monastery. Photo credit: Vladimer Shioshvili via Flickr.
Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city and widely considered the capital of Western Georgia, is a great place to spend a night or visit on a day trip.
Highlights include the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites and offer commanding views from their mountainous perches over the city and the Rioni river.
One of the Stalin statues in Gori. Photo credit: Martijn.Munneke via Flickr.
Gori hasn’t changed much since the Soviet era. It’s a small, poor city and may seem a bit drab and uninspiring after a city like Tbilisi. Nonetheless it is still an essential destination on any Georgian itinerary, due to its status as the birthplace of Joseph Vissarionovich Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.
Most Georgians are not so ecstatic about the fact that Mr. Stalin emerged from their homeland, but in Gori you’ll find quite a number who still revere the man for the undeniable effect he had on world history.
The city’s main attractions are all monuments to Stalin, all located near the main square, along Stalin Ave. This includes the Stalin Museum, an enormous and impressive complex filled with paraphernalia and media telling a one-sided tale of Stalin’s life and career. Nearby you can visit Stalin’s personal train car, as well as his birth house, located in front of the museum surrounded by neoclassical Doric columns. Gori is also home to one of the most magnificent and well-kept of Stalin’s surviving statues.
David Gareja Monastery
David Gareja Monastery. Photo credit: Ilona Margalitadze via Flickr.
This stunning, rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery, located on the dry slopes of Mount Gareja in Georgia’s Kakheti region, is a must-see for anyone passing through eastern Georgia. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters that have been hollowed out of a sheer rock face.
Founded in the 6th century by St. David Garejeli, the monastery has remained an important center of religious and cultural activity ever since. It is known for the considerable artistic skill displayed in its many frescoes and murals, a number of which were damaged when the area served as a military training ground during the Soviet War in Afghanistan.
Today the monastery is still active, and serves as a popular destination of tourism and pilgrimage. It can be visited on a day trip from Sighnaghi.
Batumi. Photo credit: Olga via Flickr.
Our last stop on the list is the party capital of Georgia: Batumi, which is located on the sub-tropical Black Sea coast near the border with Turkey. Vacationers from around the Caucasus pour into the city during the summer. It is justifiably famous for the nightlife that occurs in its beach-front clubs, where you can party all night in the sand with your new Georgian, Russian, Armenian, Azerbaijani and Turkish friends.
Batumi can be reached by bus or train from Tbilisi, and has regular marshrutkas to the Turkish border, as well as buses further afield to Trabzon.
If you’re hungover and itching for something cultural, check out the ruins of the Gonio Fortress, which offers some impressive architecture and stunning views of the surrounding area.
And don’t even think about leaving until you try a acharuli khachapuri, a famous khachapuri native to the area. It looks like a canoe of bread of filled with cheese, butter and topped with a raw egg.