The great Russian writers of the 19th century raved about the Caucasus, and little wonder they did. Georgia has something for everyone, in its own special way.
It’s just over two hours by plane to Tbilisi from Moscow, with economy return flights going for about $300. Once you are in the capital, excursions to most of the sites are just a couple of hours travel away, and even the longer journeys are not much further.
Visa free-travel for EU and many other citizens has put Tbilisi back on the list of great cities to visit. Legendary hospitality, the unmatched beauty of the Caucasus, and centuries of architectural wonders await the visitor.
A walk around the center of Tbilisi, taking in the old town, is as good a way as any to start a trip to Georgia. The Maidani and Sololaki districts are probably one of the few places outside Jerusalem where you can find churches, mosques and synagogues within sight of one another, reflecting this city’s history as a place where empires clashed and people of many faiths lived together afterwards. It’s possible to visit most of these places if you ask, and if you speak Russian, those inside are usually only too happy to relate how and when the building was put up.
Indeed, the remarkable thing about Georgia is just how wonderfully friendly and hospitable everyone is. Don’t be surprised if your travel plans are put aside by local people, who will insist on you sitting down with them for a glass of wine or an impromptu meal – and no is not an acceptable response down here.
The old town districts are a photographer’s dream and an architect’s nightmare, with buildings from various centuries and traditions stacked on the hillside in random states of disrepair. And the tablets on the walls listing the former occupants are like an on-going history essay – Siemens (of engineering fame), and the poet Yesenin were just two famous residents whose houses we saw on one street.
The walk through Sololaki can take you up to the Narikala fortress, which overlooks the center and is beautifully lit-up at night. The view from this imposing castle, which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, gives great views over the city. From there, it’s possible to climb up to the top of the ridge, on which Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) stands – a huge monument built around 1960, offering wine to visitors and a sword to invaders.
There is a small state museum at the foot of the monument, which is well worth a look, for 2 Lari (just over one dollar). It shows various Georgian national costumes, art, home objects and weapons.
Behind the ridge are Tbilisi’s botanical gardens – the well cared-for and beautiful collection of plants and flowers makes this a great spot for a relaxing stroll.
The area around Maidan has seen a growth in the number of restaurants in the last few years. Food is cheap in Georgia, and is very good. Expect your usual favourites that you see in Moscow’s Georgian restaurants – khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), shashliks, lobio (bean-paste), salads, kharcho (rice and mutton spicy soup), chachokhbili (chicken with tomato and herbs), and many others. Be aware though, that many of these dishes are considered seasonal in Georgia, and what restaurants in Moscow serve all year round may not be available here.
A good meal for two can be had for around 20 lari, with drinks.
Drinking is, of course, close to a national sport in Georgia, and with good reason. One of the joys of a visit to Tbilisi is sampling the wine, and also the quite good Kazbegi and Argo beers. Beware the chacha, which is a grape-derived spirit, which may well be pressed on you (men only) by Georgian friends. The stuff starts at 60% proof, and is often stronger!
Wine is dirt cheap (2 Lari a jug) in restaurants, and is reminiscent of the stuff you might have made at home – fruity, cloudy and often not so strong. If you want the dark red stuff, ask for black wine (chorny). Don’t be surprised if your requests for red wine are met with something more like pale pink, bordering on white.
Incidentally, despite the obsession with drinking, public drunkenness is very rare in Georgia and is a big social faux-pas – even drinking beer on the street is not often seen.
One good place to get a taste for the local brews is Tbilisi’s central market, near the main railway station. It’s pretty similar to any large Russian or Soviet produce market, but with rather more colour and variety. The sellers are only too happy to let you try bites of cheese and gulps of wine, and it’s fun to chat to them about where the produce is from and what they make with it. Pig’s feet make a great soup for breakfast, so they say! I also saw the biggest freshwater fish I have ever seen here – it was hard to imagine how it was caught, and harder still to imagine what someone might do with it.
More fun was had when we got talking to a man selling drinks here. He insisted I try his cognac, tarragon flavoured-vodka, chacha, wine, beer, and a few other bits and pieces besides, complete with a toast as various friends passed by.
“Meet Artur, he’s Armenian – and this is Onisei, he’s Ossetian – let’s drink a toast to all nationalities of the Caucasus…”. Don’t ask me what happened between this visit and lunch, because it’s all a blur!
Eating is a big social event in Georgia, so don’t be too surprised if your quiet evening in the restaurant turns into a massive binge and sing-song and dance session with the folk from the next table (as happened to me).
The day after such a session can of course be a bit tricky. One great solution is to have a breakfast of Georgia’s matsoni (live yoghurt), fruit, and mineral water, and then head for the Orbeliani bath-houses, just across the river from the statue of Tbilisi’s founder, Vakhtang Gorgesali, in Maidan. The baths are supplied with naturally hot spring water, and have been enjoyed for centuries. None other than Pushkin himself took the waters here – a plaque on the wall notes that Pushkin said that nothing was more luxurious than a soak in the Tbilisi baths.
He was dead right, and for just 2 Lari you can enjoy a great soak in the hot pool of mineral water. The waters can be an efficient cure for a variety of ills, as well as a great way to relax. For a few lari more, one can summon a masseur to wash you down with a huge sponge, and give you a beating disguised as a massage.
Another compulsory visit is to the main state museum on Rustaveli (open every day except Monday), which has a magnificent collection of art, jewellery, national costumes and articles illustrating Georgian life.
The best time to visit Georgia is spring or autumn. Mid-summer can be far too hot for strolling around, and winter limits excursions to the mountains, unless you are keen to ski. In spring, the countryside is a riot of wild flowers, with whole fields red with poppies. The end of summer and autumn have a special attraction – the grape harvest.
Kakheti, in the east of the country, is the home of Georgia’s finest grape-growing, and is well worth a visit. A two or three hour trip by bus from Tbilisi will take you to the towns of Telavi or Gurdzhaani, where you can see groups of eager pickers gathering the new crop. On our visit to Gurdzhaani, some local folk guided us to their vineyards to see the grapes, and then onward to their home by way of the local market. Food supplies ready, we were treated to yet another meal before sampling their fortnightold homemade wine. It was closer to English rough cider in taste than most wine I’ve had before, but it was great fun to try!
Another good day-trip from Tbilisi is the town of Borzhomi, a familiar name to anyone who has tried the town’s principal product, the Soviet Union’s favourite mineral water. The town lies along a river, and a walk up the hill via a park takes the visitor to various sources of the water – some cool and easy to drink, others rather more hot and sulphurous. There are pools to bathe in, if you fancy a dip. Sadly, a new amusement park is being built at the bottom end, spoiling a tranquil spot, but the rest of Borzhomi is a beautiful place.
It was also the one place in Georgia where we saw Stalin’s portrait on the wall in a restaurant!
Another good day-trip from Tbilisi would be a trip up to Kazbegi, on the Georgian Military Highway, leading to Vladikavkaz and the Russian border, high in the Caucasus mountains. This is just about possible in one day, but an overnight stay in Kazbegi village is a better option. Make sure you get weather information before you go, and take some food and water with you – it’s pretty wild up there. The views are breathtaking, and well worth the visit — reminiscent of the Himalayas. I walked from Kazbegi in the morning, down to the next village, and heard wolves howling in the distance.
For souvenir shoppers, Tbilisi has a good art market (reminiscent of Moscow’s Vernisage), near the south side of the river in the center, and also a flea market at Sukhoi Most. Naturally, wine and chacha make great souvenirs too, as well as reproduction kinzhals and wood carvings.
Above all, enjoy the Georgians – there are few people in the world as spontaneously hospitable, charming and full of life.
Getting around: Marshrutka type buses go from Didube metro, to all points north and west of Tbilisi, and Sangori, heading east. An overnight train goes to Batumi, in Adjaria. Taxis can be hired anywhere for the day if you can make a deal with the driver. Tbilisi’s metro is 20 tetri a ride (100 tetri – 1 Lari).
Safety: Tbilisi is as safe or as dangerous as Moscow, so the usual precautions should be taken. Pickpockets operate on the metro. Should you need the police, don’t hesitate to use them – unlike Russia, the government has “purged” them, and they are helpful, friendly and take the job seriously. The one thing Georgians say is better under the new regime is the police!
Health: The tap water might upset some stomachs, but is regarded as safe by the locals. Bottled mineral water is cheap and available everywhere. Matsoni is a great cure for upset stomachs.
Accomodation: There are more hotels opening all the time now, but in general Tbilisi has too few, and budget options are limited (but far more than in Moscow). Ask the taxi drivers at the airport about who to stay with if you want a cheap homestay – they are often very knowledgeable.
Paperwork: Citizens of the EU, USA and most other western nations don’t need visas for anything up to 90 days stay. Russians do need one, but it is easy to get from the consulate in Moscow, and quite cheap - $20, ready in four days. There is no ridiculous registration regime.
Language: Russian is almost universally spoken, especially by older people. Little English is spoken, but when it is, it is predominantly by young people who now learn it at school (and often have little knowledge of Russian).
Money: Currency is the Lari, currently $1 = 1.8 Lari. There are exchange points all over town, but only $US and Euro are widely accepted. Credit cards are in use in Tbilisi, but rarely elsewhere, and scams involving numbers being used have been reported. Best use cash.