20.03.2015. You would never have known it was 3 a.m. in Georgia's Tbilisi Airport when our Lufthansa plane landed. Flights were arriving and departing, passport control was packed and the airport was brightly lit.
In fact, most air service in and out of Georgia takes place in the middle of the night, and locals are clearly used to these arrivals, for, like the airport, the Holiday Inn Tbilisi was fully staffed and busy when I checked in.
Admittedly, these quirky arrival times, along with a few other drawbacks we encountered in the days to follow such as long stretches of roads without basic amenities and an unsophisticated tourism infrastructure, could be an issue for the casual or inexperienced Europe visitor.
For the right traveler, however, these inconveniences are minor in return for what Georgia has to offer: ancient castles and churches as beautiful as anything in Italy and France, but without the crowds; a wine culture of increasing international renown; a stellar cuisine; and a warm reception from locals, who seem to have hospitality in their DNA.
"We know this is an unusual trip," said Max Johnson, founder and head of product development for the Great Canadian Travel Co., which, together with the Georgian National Tourism Administration and Living Roots, an inbound travel company, arranged the itinerary.
"We know travel agents may have only one or two clients who are looking for new, interesting programs like this, and we focus on them," he said.
The biggest draw for most of us, and the reason Georgia is slowly making its way onto mainstream radar, is its wine, which we sampled during a prelunch wine tasting at Vino-Underground, a wine cellar in Tbilisi.
Georgians have been producing a kind of amber-colored wine in clay pots called qvevri for more than 8,000 years, taking advantage of the country's 500 varieties of grapes.
Georgian wines aren't widely available in the U.S., since local vintners are reluctant to use the additives needed to preserve the wine for export. That said, Georgian wine is becoming so famous that Tbilisi was the site of the 2014 International Wine Conference, which, to put it in perspective, will be held in Champagne, France, this year.
Our initial wine tasting introduced us to the history of local varietals, and we were to sample many more during our visit.
Standout experiences included dinner at Azarphesha Wine Restaurant in Tbilisi and the sixth century Alaverdi Monastery, just under two hours south of the capital, where we toured the property and cellars and sampled the award-winning wines.
Another highlight was lunch at Iago's Winery in Chardakhi about a half-hour northwest of Tbilisi, a country estate where the proprietor showed us how he made the wine in buried qvevri pots and his wife served us regional specialties.
The 1,500-year-old city and especially its Old Town, or Sololaki, is beautifully authentic, with lovely architecture — some ancient, some startlingly modern — and multicultural elements that speak to a troubled history but also a tradition of tolerance.
In Tbilisi, I saw active mosques, synagogues, Armenian and Catholic churches and even the ruins of a Persian Zoroastrian temple so ancient that historians can't pinpoint its exact origin.
A tower from the Soviet era, illuminated year-round, overlooks the city, as does the aluminum Mother of Georgia statue, which stands about 160 feet tall and looks down from Sololaki Hill with a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other.
Sulfur baths in ornate grottoes draw locals and visitors, as does the open-air flea market near Freedom Square, offering everything from antique silver and Russian coins to ornate rugs. Chardin Street, one of the city's oldest, is charming and teeming with cafes and art galleries.
From Tbilisi, we drove east several hours to Sighnaghi, a tiny hilltop town, comprising remnants of towers and the original fortress wall, so picturesque that you could easily imagine being in Tuscany.
In Sighnaghi we had a wine-pairing dinner at Pheasants Tears Winery, which boasts a 300-year-old wine cellar and a sophisticated take on locally sourced cuisine.
We also visited Bodbe Convent nearby, which contains the remains of St. Nino, who is said to have brought Christianity to Georgia around 300 A.D. Here, as at the other monasteries and churches we visited, the women in the group were given make-shift skirts and scarves to wear, although no special attire was required of the men.
One can take in Sighnaghi's highlights in just a few hours, but visitors with more time can make this a jumping-off point to explore the region, with its lush, rolling hills dotted with wild horses and red-roofed stone cottages.
We continued east to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, home to the sixth century Jvari monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site, and the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, used for centuries at the coronation of its kings. The historic city, where Alexander the Great is said to have been defeated, has withstood attacks from outside invaders for centuries and is now a popular wedding destination.
In Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born, we visited the Stalin Museum. I was surprised by the laudatory nature of the museum, which contains paintings and artifacts from the dictator's life. There is a tiny anteroom, added on in 2008, dedicated to his "mistakes," as our museum guide put it.
Taking a wellness break, we visited the Tskaltubo Spa Resort, known for its natural spring baths. While the grounds and exterior of the extensive property were created on a grand scale, the sparsely furnished accommodations are best suited to visitors who can appreciate the historical context and kitschy, KGB-esque decor. The property boasts a Swarovski Crystal chandelier weighing more than 3 tons, which our guide said was stolen from Austria during World War II, and an intriguing bar-turned-museum full of Soviet uniforms, a bust of Karl Marx and a red phone from the Cold War days. The staff can suggest day trips and arrange a car and English-speaking driver.
Moving northwest, we embarked on a five-hour drive to Mestia in the Svaneti mountain region, a town dominated by dozens of stone towers once used to fend off invaders. A highlight was a visit to the Mestia Historical-Ethnographic Museum, which houses a stunning collection of religious icons.
We used our stay in Mestia as a starting point for a long and hair-raising four-hour drive in four-wheel-drive vehicles along a winding, mountainous road that featured no bathroom facilities or other amenities en route. Our destination, the tiny Unesco World Heritage Site of Ushguli, proved to be a highlight of the trip. The village, one of the highest in Europe, looks like something out of a medieval painting, and life hasn't changed much since then.
We ate lunch at a local home, then visited the 11th century church, with its frescoes of St. George — ubiquitous in Georgia — and its tiny cemetery with unsettling pictures of faces on the headstones.