Caucasus calling: 6 reasons to visit Georgia
Straddling Europe and Asia, and cradled between the greater and lesser Caucasus ranges, Georgia’s rich culture and diverse landscapes belie its modest size. Sub-tropical valleys and imposing mountains immediately inspire awe, while the near legendary hospitality of the Georgian people invites visitors to share in a deeper understanding of the country and its heritage. There are many reasons to visit this surprising and welcoming country; here are just six of them.
Tbilisi's capital charisma
Georgia’s capital is charmingly chaotic. Its grand, wide boulevards whittle down to a criss-cross of cobbled streets away from the main thoroughfares, and old, meandering alleyways beckon for attention amidst angular glass-and-steel modern architecture.
Wander through the streets of its hillside Old Town for the best insight into Tbilisi’s past. Many of the buildings have been meticulously restored, their intricately carved wooden verandahs overhanging the once-again-colourful houses beneath, while the city’s famous sulphur baths, or abanotubani, continue to invigorate visitors today, centuries after the restorative hot springs were discovered.
Behind the Old Town, Narikala Fortress has crowned the settlement since the 4th century. These days it’s accessible by cable car and offers sweeping views across Tbilisi including the undulating mesh-metalwork Bridge of Peace (2010), commemorating the end of the war with Russia. Just to the west of the fortress, the dramatic, Soviet-era Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) monument surveys the city with both benevolence and strength; a bowl of wine to welcome friends in one hand and a sword to fight enemies in the other.
Incredible ancient monasteries and cathedrals
It’s almost impossible to visit Georgia and escape the deep reverence for its ancient monasteries and cathedrals. Although the churches may seem similar, each is uniquely beautiful and historically significant in its own right. Unesco-anointed Gelati Monastery in Kutaisi, for example, was built during the country’s Golden Age in the 12th century and was a thriving centre of academia during this time. Its founder, King David the Builder (so called for his aims to unite eastern and western Georgia), was also laid to rest here, and the church is under continuing renovations to faithfully preserve it.
By contrast, Bagrati Cathedral has been restored in a far more arresting fashion. Also in Kutaisi, its dome was badly damaged during a 17th century Ottoman invasion, but it didn’t begin renovations until 2010, when Italian architect Andrea Bruno ambitiously rebuilt sections that had been completely destroyed using modern materials such as polished steel and glass. In spite of its modernity, the result is visually stunning yet sensitive. But, while the forward-thinking project won the architect several international prizes, it ultimately cost the church its Unesco status.
But not all of the most beautiful holy sites are cathedral-sized – modest Motsameta Monastery is less imposing, but the sacred relics of two canonised brothers kept here still inspire the congregation to worship today, while its spectacular location overlooking a gorge amidst a rich green forest draws visitors from afar.
Ancient history at Uplistsikhe
On a windy hill close to Gori in the country’s east are the fascinating remains of one of the most important pagan settlements in Georgia. Dating to the 7th century BCE, the warren of caves which made up the city of Uplistsikhe once numbered 700, but only around 250 remain. Though paganism died out when Christianity was adopted in the 4th century, Uplistsikhe was inhabited until the 1300s, and the settlement continued to thrive in its strategic position on the Silk Road trading route.
Today you can wander the dusty, rocky streets at the complex to look back through almost two millennia and see traces of daily life: an apothecary with dozens of individual recesses carved into the rock to display and store medicinal items, a theatre for entertainment and rituals, pagan temples for worshipping, a grand hall for welcoming noble visitors, and even a wine-pressing station. More unsettling is the hole in the main street, a window down to the jail where prisoners were kept as a warning to those who passed by.
The wonders of Georgian wine
Winemaking is a part of Georgia’s national psyche and, with evidence of the craft dating back 8000 years, it’s not hard to understand why. Georgians are deeply proud to still be using traditional methods to create their vintages: here, the grapes are pressed and the whole lot, including seeds, skin and stems, is transferred to large clay pots called qvevri, and placed underground for several months to ferment. The process results in a more ‘natural’ flavour, and wines with a much deeper colour. If you are a wine drinker, there is no shortage of places to sample a few different varieties.
Winery Khareba, in the eastern Kakheti region, produces both European-style and qvevri wines using Georgian grape varieties. The sprawling hillside winery is set in stunning landscaped grounds, and wines are aged and stored in the perfect conditions afforded by a Soviet-era tunnel carved into the mountain.
Iago’s Winery in Mtskheta is a much smaller, family-run affair, producing a limited number of wines from Chinuri grapes grown in Iago’s own vineyard. Wine tours are an intimate experience here, with tastings served alongside delicious Georgian food in a homely setting.
And if you’re feeling brave, sample some chacha, the lively spirit distilled from the pulp remaining from grape fermentation. Go easy though – homemade varieties can be up to 65% proof. Gaumarjos (cheers)!
Come to Georgia hungry – the food here is unashamedly comforting, and meals are hearty, social occasions, with dishes traditionally served as large sharing plates. Spicy stews of lamb, beef or chicken line up with khinkali (spicy dumplings filled with meat or potato and steaming broth), fresh salads, smoked cheeses and vegetable dishes such as pkhali (crushed aubergine, walnut and garlic paste).
While each region has its own specialities, there are some ubiquitous dishes that feature on menus across the land, such as the khachapuri. Essentially a flat, bread-like pie stuffed with molten cheese, this dish has several regional variations, which should all be sampled for research purposes, and then swiftly followed by a nap.
And for a not-too-sweet treat to accompany an after-dinner coffee, try a piece of churchkhela. Made from dipping a string of walnuts into a caramel-like grape paste and strung up to dry out, these colourful confections can be seen hanging at stalls all across Georgia.
Happily, you'll find restaurants serving excellent Georgian cuisine countrywide, but for a truly authentic taste, head to Barbarestan in Tbilisi: their menu has been created using traditional recipes from a 19th-century cookbook.
Batumi’s coastal charms
Shimmering on the Black Sea coast is Batumi, whose laid-back atmosphere lends itself perfectly to a relaxing seaside soujourn. Batumi Boulevard, a 7km-long, tree-lined pedestrian stretch right behind the beach, has landscaped gardens, sculptures, fountains and cafes, and is ideal for a leisurely stroll.
Each day, locals and visitors gather at the northernmost end of the boulevard to watch the moving sculpture Man and Woman, by Tamara Kvesitadze, in action. Also known as Ali & Nino after the tragic characters in a romance novel of the same name, the 7-metre-tall figures rotate and pass through each other, representing their separation following a Soviet invasion.
Meanwhile, Batumi's architecture is a point of difference to its capital cousin, Tbilisi: the style here is eclectic, ranging from the restored belle époque buildings of Evropas Moedani (Europe Square) to the soaring Batumi Tower (complete with a Ferris wheel halfway up the building), via former Soviet buildings which have been given a Gaudi-inspired facelift. Fun, gaudy and in the midst of a development boom, Batumi is one to watch.
Make it happen
Wizz Air offers direct flights from London Luton to Kutaisi, while Georgian Airways flies direct from London Gatwick to Tbilisi. Other airlines such as airBaltic and Turkish Airlines offer connections from other European cities via Rīga and Istanbul respectively.
Article first published in August 2018, and last updated in December 2019