Mountains, hilltop monasteries, the Black Sea, a fantastic capital city and much more. The wonders of this tiny Caucasus country are endless, and what made my visit yet more rewarding was just how small the distances were, making its many attractions easy to reach. I spent only 18 days in Georgia, and it felt like I had travelled to several different countries, for the landscape changed so much, so fast!
An off the beaten track destination to look out for!
Introducing Georgia - A bit of history
Most people think of Georgia by associating it with its most well-known citizen, Stalin. But there is just so far more to the pearl of the Caucasus.
Bordered by Turkey on its west, Azerbaijan on its east, Russia on its north and Armenia on its south, this lovely little country has had a turbulent history dating back to the 7th century. Its constant struggle to survive, fighting against occupation from the Mongols, then Turks, resulted in a brief independence in 1918, but it only lasted three years, and the country was then taken under Soviet rule.
It wasn't until the 1990s that the country gained its independence, but struggles with Russia continued until very recently. Standing on a critical position within the route to the old Silk Road on the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, its location was very significant geopolitically speaking, which explains so much interest from invaders trying to have control of it.
Interestingly enough, such a problematic history could lead readers to picture Georgians as cold and introverted people, but they are precisely the opposite. Their hospitality and friendliness towards guests to their country are unimaginably high, as they believe that taking care of guests is a matter of personal honour, for guests are seeing as "gifts from God".
Religion is important in Georgia, and beautiful Orthodox Churches can be found everywhere. But their Christianity doesn't impede them from enjoying themselves, like drinking and having fun plays a significant role in their society. They are hard working people, proud of their history and value friendship over most things in life. I came across outstanding people nearly everywhere I went, and it must have been the most friendly country to hitchhike that I have ever been.
Tbilisi - A truly enjoyable capital city
Tbilisi is an enchanting and easy to navigate city! Located between hillsides, cut by the Mtkavari River. My visit started in its Old Town quarter, that although was rather old, immediately strike me as being exceptionally well preserved, clean and civilised.
Old churches and large squares are everywhere, and although there are broad avenues, such as the new looking Roustaveli Avenue, hosting many of the city's shops and restaurants, the centre is also filled with old houses in narrow alleys.
A visit to the Nariqala Fortress, and old Persian Citadel, provided me with a panoramic view of the capital. Not too much of a walk away, is Georgia's most holy church, the Sioni Cathedral, also overlooking the city.
Activities in the city are plentiful, but strolling in Old Town, bordering the river was undoubtedly my favourite. Freedom Square was a central point in which to start strolling around, and a short walk from there would lead me to the art galleries of Chardini Street or the old balconies and small bookshops of Old Tbilisi.
The nightlife in Tbilisi was bustling, and I was delighted to notice that people of all ages were out and about. Whether hanging out in inexpensive student-oriented bars, or having drinks one of Rustaveli Avenue's many bars and restaurants around the Parliament Building, enjoying the night was a serious business in Georgia's capital city, and it seemed to last until the early morning hours, regardless of it being a weekday or weekend!
Some other highlights of my time there was a visit to the Tbilisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography and the National Museum of Georgia, displaying some serious national pride.
Different mountains, very different natural settings
My first adventure outside of Tbilisi took me towards the Russian border through the old Georgia Military Highway. Fellow travellers had told me that Mount Kazbegi would be one of the highlights of my visit, and indeed, it was.
The scenery was rather dramatic, with incredible flora and fauna, and then, about an hour after my departure, I could spot perpetually iced top of the giant Mount Kazbegi, one of the Caucasus highest peaks, at over 5,000 metres above sea level.
The small town of Kazbeg was charming to walk around, and I had been informed by a local that its atmosphere indeed resembles Chechnya in Russia, an area that cannot be missed. Old brick houses, old stone houses, livestock everywhere, children running around, and all this in a stunning mountainous setting, with a river running through it and lots of green fields. Remarkable!
Back in Tbilisi, I was ready for a second mountain adventure the following morning: David Gareji, a complex of monasteries set in a very remote desert area, bordering Azerbaijan, in the Northeast of Georgia.
These remarkable old monasteries were all built into rocks, which reminded me of my visit to Cappadocia in Turkey. But what made the visit truly special for me was the actual setting where all of this was: a deserted area with dry mountains and oddly shaped rock formations, that seemed to resemble the images of the moon we have seen on TV.
It was an entirely different mountainous region that the one I had found myself visiting just 24 hours before. Hiking opportunities around David Gareji are plentiful, but there is not a lot of infrastructure, so I decided to return to Tbilisi that same day.
My third visit up the mountains would eventually take me to the Svaneti region, but as that was a bit further away, I ventured there after spending a day in Gori, Stalin's hometown, and a day in Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city. As I was anxious to visit the mountainous region said to resemble the Swiss Alps, my time in pretty Kutaisi was short.
Differently than the first two mountains I visited, the Svaneti region was not very easy to reach. Transportation seemed scarce, and most people would either visit on a rental car or tour groups. I am happy and proud to report that I managed to hitchhike all the way up there, which made the experience yet more rewarding.
To properly explore the region, travellers base themselves in the tiny village of Mestia, where I found a lovely family that had a spare room in their house, used as a homestay for travellers like myself.
And what an incredible scenery it was! Indeed my favourite part of Georgia, and one of my favourite parts of the world. A somewhat rural area, hosting old stone houses with watchtowers, surrounded by the most incredible snow-covered peak mountains! Shepherds were walking around leading their cows, people riding horses and donkeys, lots of greenery and rivers flowing everywhere under a beautiful blue sky.
But it wasn't until I reached Ushguli, 40 kilometres uphill from Mestia, that I understood why the area why said to be so hard to visit. Ushguli is supposed to be the highest situated inhabited village in Europe, and the drive up there was outstanding! The town managed to be yet smaller and prettier than Mestia, and had almost no cars at all, making it for me, idyllic.
Batumi and the Black Sea
Batumi is Georgia's hotspot for holidaymakers, on the Black Sea coast, bordering Turkey. Although I wasn't blown away by the beach itself, Georgia's most important port town hosts an attractive relaxed and bohemian atmosphere. Lined with palm trees, the city is packed with visitors during the summer months and has plenty of excellent accommodation and restaurant options for travellers of all budgets.
But Batumi's charm is not all on its beach. Its architecture is diverse, as a result of so many different past invasions. Its beautiful Piazza Square resembles Italy and is the place to be at night if the idea of a beach DJ playing music by the water isn't desirable. That was my case. I enjoyed strolling around while observing a lot of young travellers venturing into the many busy clubs all around. The Batumi Astronomical Clock was unique as well as the Alphabetic Tower, both found in the centre of town.
A destination not to be missed!
My visit to Georgia was one of the most rewarding visits during a journey that took me around the world for two and half years. There was so much more I could have visited had I had more time, such as fortresses, wineries, the national park of Borjomi and more.
Georgia hosts a very well developed tourism infrastructure in most of the country, and all at rock bottom prices, in a land of a preciously diverse landscape. What else can a traveller ask for? Certainly one of my very favourite countries around the world, I can't recommend it enough!