I am somewhere between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, which sounds like an idyllic – and glamorous – setting to enjoy life. And, over 72 hours in April, I found out it’s all this, and more.
The simple truth is I didn’t know what to expect when booking tickets to visit this under-the-radar gem. But for a country of such small size – 69,700 square km – that was on the ancient Silk Road, Georgia offers almost every landscape you could desire on holiday. Want snow, mountains and roaring rivers? There’s Kazbegi. Sun, sea and sand? No problem, there’s semi-tropical Batumi (and joining AirArabia, FlyDubai’s just started flying direct here.) Rolling hills with vineyards? Yep, it’s in Kakheti. They’re all on hand, due to it being bordered by the sea and mountains, along with Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It’s also perfect for tiny budgets. There are lots of places with free entry, even if you’re not the museum-going type. You could have a meal (and be full, none of that pea-sized-but-oh-we’re-so-arty food here) for about Dh10. And UAE residents get a visa on arrival after taking an approximately Dh1,000 flight (cheaper if you book one of the various flight and hotel packages available online), in about three hours (with no time difference between the UAE and Georgia).
There’s really no reason not to go. Oh, and they also consider every guest to be a blessing from the heavens – you’ll be met with high-spirited hospitality everywhere you go.
My two friends and I stepped off the flight one night to freezing winds and rain, and breezed through Tbilisi airport – in about 10 minutes we were in a taxi, heading to Freedom Square. While staying in a hotel in this beautiful plaza might be a bit more expensive than other areas, its central location is quite convenient, and over the next few days I really enjoyed the square’s lights, buzz and energy, even into the early hours of the morning.
After about 20 minutes’ drive we spotted a glitzy obelisk high up in the air – the flamboyant statue of St George killing a dragon – and knew we’d arrived.
The weather turned quickly, and the morning was sunny as we set out to explore this ancient city. Young-urbanite-filled capital Tbilisi is a good balance of old and new. And it’s very easy to get lost in. Every corner reveals something new. Beautifully frescoed monasteries. Paris-style avenues. Secret courtyards. Many-storeyed flower-studded intricately balconied houses that are peeling slowly, the semi-decaying state only adding to their charm. Oh, and space-age architecture. It’s all an exotic, dense tangle. We walked everywhere and didn’t really need public transport (if you do take a marshrutka, a shared minibus, don’t forget to hold on to something very tightly, and beware of taxi drivers asking for five times the actual fare.) The country is Fitbit heaven.
While Georgia used to be overlooked in favour of Turkey or other Eastern European countries, it, like its neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia, is now a red-hot destination – Georgia saw passenger traffic growth of 26 per cent in 2016 and expects even faster growth of approximately 40 per cent in 2017, according to the Centre of Aviation.
Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans, Russians and Soviets have all been involved in Georgia’s affairs at some point in history. The country then faced political and social unrest throughout the Nineties (even now you have to be careful if you’re visiting the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). But the 2003 Rose Revolution, where protesters carried roses in an anti-corruption movement, ushered in a new era.
All these cultures flirting with each other make for an intriguing cocktail of influences, but somehow, Georgia has managed to carve out a unique identity for itself.
Poverty and unemployment remain challenges (so the country relies on tourism quite a bit) but not once did we feel unsafe or threatened. You can take your selfies without worrying about hands slipping into your bag or pockets.
English speakers may find it a bit difficult to hold a conversation or ask for directions. The younger generation does speak some English, but it’s probably a good idea to hit up Duolingo for some basic phrases in Russian before going.
As we walked around, the old town’s quaint cobbled streets gave way abruptly to steel and glass – we were at the undulating Peace Bridge, over the Mtkvari river. Needless to say, the city’s facelift and shining skyline have come under fire, both aesthetically and politically.
One of the first things we did after walking across the LED-embedded bridge was board a cable car to go high up on the cliff to visit Kartlis Deda, the ‘mother’ of Georgia. You can spot her from almost everywhere in Tbilisi, bowl in one hand, sword in the other – stressing the twin Georgian priorities of hospitality and freedom.
Next stop was a fourth-century one. On the road to Narikala fortress we spotted various enterprises operating from the backs of cars and vans, selling all manner of things, from sandwiches to candyfloss to kids’ games and Snapchat-esque flower headbands – and bizarrely, souvenirs with Georgia’s most famous son, Joseph Stalin, staring out at us (we found out later that he’s seen as some sort of flawed genius, by a quite substantial fan club in the country). Men holding eagles gave us leery grins (2 lari, about Dh3, to touch an eagle, 2 more for a photograph with one). Dating from the 4th century, Narikala fortress used to protect the city, and still dominates the skyline, offering a stunning view of the old city.
From here we decided we’d quickly nip into the botanical gardens – and spent the next four hours there, exploring its bamboo groves, orange trees, pines, multitudes of flowers, waterfall, and river, complete with charming bridge. It’s a magical maze, all sun and blue skies and greens and vivid colours.
After a quick look around the famed sulphur baths (Georgians consider the waters to have miraculous effects, and their shallow domes look beautiful from the outside, but I wasn’t in the mood to take a dip in pungent egg-smelling waters with lots of other people), come evening, it was time to explore the vibrant nightlife. Neoclassical Rustaveli Avenue is the main artery of Tbilisi, and is full of shops, cafés, clubs, bars and five-star hotels. Nowhere is Georgia’s new face seen better than in the glittering chaos here. Young aspiring musicians serenade passers-by at various spots in the street and there’s a calm, relaxed feel in the air, despite the huge crowds. Tbilisi moves at a frenetic pace, but it also knows how to slow down.
While here you can also visit the old parliament building, the Opera and Ballet Theatre House and Kashveti Church.
There’s plenty to eat in Georgia… provided you’re not the gluten-free Goop-following kind. There’s lots of bread. And cheese. More bread. Did we say cheese? Meat and egg feature, too. High-end restaurants share space with kitsch cafés and family-run spots. Highlights are the khinkali, dumplings stuffed with meat and spices or cheese or potatoes (always slurp the broth inside first before chewing), and spicy ajapsandali, a take on ratatouille but with more crispy than mushy veg. And boat-shaped adjaruli khachapuri, cheesy bread topped with a runny egg and bricks of butter and more cheese (it’s even sold in the local Dunkin Donuts) – one of these and you might not need to eat for hours (I did). Wash it down with Georgian lemonade that’s not made of lemons (only water and sugar) in a lot of fun flavours like cream and chocolate and tarragon. If your arteries haven’t clogged up already, for dessert buy churchkhela – they’re sold every few metres and look like sausages but are crispy candy strands made of nuts soaked in grape or pomegranate juice and hung to dry.
Back near our hotel, we stopped at a tour operator and booked a bus to Gadauri and Kazbegi the next day (45 lari per person).
Another sunny day in Tbilisi, and we set out, a group of 10. Our first stop an hour in was the Zhinvali dam. Glassy waters, perfect blue surface surrounded by mountains speckled with snow, and time stood still – our cameras didn’t.
Nearby is the Ananuri fortress, a castle on the banks of the Aragvi river that once belonged to the dukes of the Aragvi dynasty, which ruled from the 13th century. Beaten dirt paths take us to it, and after nervously exploring a secret room through a dark, scary passageway set deep within the grounds, we quickly got climbing the narrow stairways to get to the highest tower, where we would be rewarded with a fabulous view. Parts of the fortress are crumbling, so we had to tread very carefully, but it was good fun navigating the steep low-ceilinged stairways (not for the claustrophobic), and stepping over circular wood panels that formed floors in age-old rooms inside. When we got to the top, the walls are about 2m tall, so we had to look through little slits built into them to catch the breathtaking panorama of lake and land that spread out below. It was a good space to reflect on the tragedy that beset the castle’s inhabitants in the 18th century, when the duke’s family was murdered as the fortress was sit on fire by a rival.
As we drove on along the Georgian Military Highway, the landscape slowly changed from brown to green to white. In 90 minutes we were at Gadauri, 2,000m up in the Caucasus range, Georgia’s biggest ski resort and running up to more than 3,000m. We donned the ridiculous but effective traditional furry hats that we had bought earlier, covered up with about five sets of clothes and stepped into sheets of white. While the forecast had said it’d be mostly sunny, it was starting to snow as we huffed our way to the gondolas.
My friends and I had planned to paraglide over the exhilarating landscape, but the strong winds and lots of snow meant that was a no-go. So as avid non-skiers who find even the slope at Ski Dubai threatening, we spent a good time throwing snowballs at everyone who passed by and riding back and forth towards the middle of the mountain on the closed gondolas.
The wind was picking up, but my friends then decided it would be fun to take an open chairlift up the top of the mountain, 3,000m high, where it was about -15°C. I refused to partake in this episode of insanity and walked to a nearby cafe to have a cup of hot chocolate in the warmth.
Too soon, it was time to leave. I collected my shivering, wet snowballs of friends who were into their 10th cup of hot chocolate and headed towards the bus. We drove past the raging Terek river, clusters of sheep, and fields decked out in white and green, into the town of Stepantsminda, in about an hour. Stepantsminda is not the easiest word to master, so thankfully it’s also called Kazbegi.
If we drove on for another 20 minutes, we’d be in Russia.
Kazbegi is a valley town with a population of a few thousand in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, one of Georgia’s highest peaks. And its main claim to fame – if you’ve ever been sent postcards from Georgia you’ll have seen it – is the 14th-century Gergeti or Holy Trinity church, perched high upon a mountain peak. In times of war, this church was used to store valuables sent from areas under threat.
We got into a 4x4 (10 lari per person), and passed hikers and the odd monk – they were all walking up to the church. We were silently grateful that we didn’t particularly enjoy hiking. Our Jeep crunched to a sudden halt amidst all the snow – we were at the church all right. That is, right below it. A very, very steep hill sat between us. There wasn’t much time to register shock that we were expected to climb this almost-mountain in minus 5 degrees. It had started to snow, so we quickly set off. After many falls during what seemed like too long a time, and right when we felt our collective hearts giving out, we got there.
The view was astonishing. It was truly like being on top of the world, isolated, with only the wind whistling in my ears, a soft mist playing around, and the colossal Caucasus looming everywhere I looked, the town a bunch of coloured dots far below.
We slipped on the black robes given to us, slipped inside the low-lit church, and crowded around a fireplace as women whispered prayers, a priest sang softly, his voice haunting, and everyone lit candles.
Both inside and outside, Gergeti had an ethereal quality we’d never forget.
We walked to our 4x4 – read, skidded down on our jeans – as elegantly as we walked up.
The sun was setting as we made our way back to the village and ordered some kachapuri and coffee in a cosy little inn. The proprietors had plastered notes and coins of almost every currency in the world on the ceiling, a testimony to the nationalities to have passed through the village – in just a few minutes we had exchanged hellos with Saudis, Ukrainians, Kuwaitis, Pakistanis, Canadians, Romanians and Germans. An hour in, drinking in the merry vibe and flowing conversation, and playing the fun game of Guess the Currency, we looked out and saw everything blanketed in white. Our guide was on the phone and looked worried. The police had closed the roads leading out – we were snowed in.
Unprepared, we walked across to a nearby supermarket to stock up on hot chocolate and snacks. Our guide was taking us to a nearby hostel where we’d stay for the night.
It was difficult to get upset over this little damper in plans as we walked across the silent street, fat snowflakes falling on our shoulders, lights glowing in little cottages around. We could have been standing in a postcard at that moment. We looked at each other and burst into huge smiles.
In 10 minutes those smiles disappeared as we pulled into a huge mansion straight out of your favourite horror movie. Surrounded by menacing-looking trees, we rushed in to discover inside wasn’t much better – long corridors with a deafening stillness and staircases that screeched with every step as the homeowners gave us wide-toothed grins.
We were out of there before you could say “demented little pale girl with long black hair”.
Another 10 minutes’ drive, and we were at the Rooms Hotel. Stylish, funky and plush, this was the only hotel-class accommodation in Kazbegi. And we found out just how spectacular a locale we were staying at the next morning, when we parted the curtains to see the Caucasus straight ahead. Pure, unadulterated peaks forked with snow were covered in orange as the sun came up, almost within touching distance.
In the 19th century, Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi left Tbilisi to become a shepherd and live in the mountains. It’s easy to see why.
We spent an hour the next morning waiting among long lines of trucks for the roads to open, and back in Tbilisi at about 3pm, it’s a good 20°C. Our overnighter means we missed out on a trip to Kakheti and its expansive vineyards, but we weren’t particularly upset – we knew we’d be back.
We spent the few hours we had exploring the radio tower we’d seen shining every night from our hotel room. We rode the funicular up the mountain and got off at Mtatsminda park. Most of the rides aren’t working (we tried a haunted mansion, a roller coaster and a find-your-way-out mirror maze), but the incredible panoramic view of the city is what makes the park a must-visit. Have cake and coffee in the restaurant while people-watching and drinking in the vista below.
On the flight back home, our group debated what exactly Georgia was. What was its essence? European, my friend Zara suggested. Russian, Annie wondered. Middle Eastern? But none of it fitted.
Boris Pasternak (of Doctor Zhivago fame) described Tbilisi as ‘a city as if not of this world’. And Georgia is just that – it’s a dream realm. And however much it might be trying to conform, Georgia will forever remain other-worldly.