I recently spent a week in Georgia, a country smaller than Scotland, but with a set of traditions and sense of cultural heritage just as strong. I hadn’t known what to expect from my visit to this ex-Soviet state, nestled below the Caucasian mountains, and it was with a total lack of prior knowledge about modern Georgia that I set off on the bus from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia towards Tbilisi.
It would be 24 hours before I arrived in the Georgian capital, but I had no regrets about opting for bus over plane. I talked with my fellow passengers, most of whom were Georgian, and I instantly recognised how welcoming people were. By the end of the journey, I had been invited to meet with several of my new friends, who would happily show me around the city and prepare traditional dishes for me. Even the small hiccup of a 5 hour wait at the border, where I was taken away for questioning (seeing my British passport, the Russian guards had decided that I merited a personal interrogation: “Why are you in Russia?” “Why are you in Russia alone?” “Why are you going to Georgia alone?” “When are you coming back?” “Where are your parents?” “Why are you in Russia alone?” – you get the idea), could not dampen my spirits as I saw the first signs of this new country; flags over the border, the looming snow-peaked mountains and signs written in the Georgian language, a beautiful script that has a unique alphabet amongst only 46 in total in the world. გამარჯობა! [Gamardjoba! Hello!]
Over the week that I spent in Tbilisi, I experienced various aspects of Georgian culture. The beautiful old city and its history, Georgian dancing, Georgian cuisine, the breathtaking mountains in the North and the lush green valleys to the West, and so much more. A week was definitely not enough time there, and I can only hope to return to this remarkable country. As I reminisce about my adventures there, here are my top 10 tips for a visit to Georgia, and in particular its capital of Tbilisi:
- Mountains – If you are coming from Russia, or even from neighbouring Armenia, or Azerbaijan, I can’t recommend travelling by land enough. The Caucasus region is stunning, and you will get to experience some of the best views before you even arrive in Tbilisi, without paying for a tour later on. If you arrive directly to the city, travelling North is a must. Go to Kazbegi national park, or Svaneti in the North-West, for some of the wildest ice-climbing and hiking routes in Europe.
2. Sample the local cuisine – Even though I’m pretty sure I have never seen a Georgian restaurant in Scotland (if you know of any, DO let me know), and had therefore never heard of most of the dishes, it has become my favourite cuisine. I had already tried some Caucasian dishes in Russia, but nothing quite compares to the real deal. Fresh bread boats, stuffed flat breads [khachapuri], home-made lemonade, sweet wine, stuffed dumplings [khinkali], grilled meet [shashlik], falafels, and the famous “Georgian snickers” [churchkhela], sausage-shaped sweets made from nuts dipped in grape juice concentrate… The food here really is delicious! It’s lightly spiced, but not hot like Asian cuisine, and with flavoursome meats and vegetables, but with more of a Turkish feel than Russian or Western European. Some foodie highlights were the 144 Stairs Cafe and Cafe Leila.
3. Old Tbilisi – Tbilisi is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Set in a valley along the Mtkvari river, the culture here is vibrant, the old buildings ornate, and you can smell the faint scent of sulphur if you venture close enough to one of the old bathhouses. Outside of the old town, the city is (surprisingly?) modern, but equally as welcoming and interesting. It may be the old churches that tower above the rest of the skyline, but there are plenty of cafes, shops, street art and galleries to explore.
4. Mother Georgia – No visit to the city would be complete without a walk up the steep Narikala hill to the fortress and the statue of Mother Georgia, who looks over the city with a glass of wine in her left hand for friends, and a sword in her right for her enemies. You get a great view across the city, and you are close enough to the old town to watch the traditional dances that take place each evening on the squares below. On the other side of the hill are the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens, which are the perfect setting for an evening stroll or to catch a moment’s quiet before returning to the city buzz.
5. Kus Tba [Turtle lake] – On the other side of the city, above Vake Park and the outdoor steadings of the Ethnographic Museum (unfortunately closed when I visited, but I’m told is worth a visit), lies a small, green lake. You can bathe in the lake, have some lunch on its banks, or follow the trails in the surroundings hilly woodland areas. Very picturesque.
6. Para-gliding – If you are a mountain-lover like me, why not literally get off the beaten track with a spot of para-gliding? If you are lucky to get good weather conditions, there are several companies who run trips into the mountains with trained gliders. I went into the hills beyond Tbilisi Sea, which is a great area for beginners, and a lot cheaper, but if you are really seeking views of the highest Caucasian peaks, head to Gudauri, a winter ski resort, where you can sail down through the valley for an exhilarating experience.
7. Take a tram ride up Mtatsminda – Turn off main avenue Shota Rustaveli (named after the famous Georgian poet), lined with art houses, designer shops and the national dance and opera halls, and head for the tram that takes you up Mtatsminda hill. There is a fun fair, and an ice cream stand offering treats that I can highly recommend. The steep tram journey up provides a great vista across the city, but when you reach the top, have a go on the giant ferris wheel or take a seat to properly admire the views.
8. Opera – Whilst you’re in the area, head to the opera house or one of many theatres on Rustaveli Avenue to watch some Georgian opera or national dance. The dance in particular was like nothing I had ever seen before, and is an intrinsic part of Georgian culture. The costumes alone are pretty remarkable, but the dancing is really impressive.
9. Caves – The Georgian landscape isn’t all rocky mountains; there are wide expanses of green valleys, rolling hills dotted with small villages and gorges that are perfect for kayaking, canyoning and rafting. From Tbilisi, head west towards Kutaisi (a city I’m told is known for 2 things – rugby and the mafia), and explore the Prometheus caves nearby before making your way to the Kinchkha waterfall and Okatse canyon. If the weather is good, you can take a boat down the blue waters of the canyon.
10. Meet the locals – Whilst the places I saw were stunning, the museums interesting, and the food delicious, the highlight of my trip was most definitely meeting the people. As I mentioned, I had not even reached my final destination before being welcomed to Georgia, and I found everyone to be totally hospitable, friendly and full of enthusiasm to introduce me to their country. Head to any bar, restaurant, market or park and get chatting. People will be more than happy to offer insider advice about what to do and where to go.
This list is from my own personal highlights, but there are still many more places I would like to explore in Georgia. The cave city of Vardzia in the south, the mineral spa town of Borjomi and the Black Sea resorts in the west. This time though, I found plenty to keep me busy in the capital and surrounding area. Usually when I go to a new city, I find a few days to be enough time before getting itchy feet to move on and find a mountain or two. But I loved the atmosphere, the art, the people and the culture of Tbilisi, and would have happily stayed longer than a week. Georgia is inspiring, beautiful, and most definitely worth a visit for those not only interested in its Soviet history, but in learning more about the contemporary culture that thrives there today.