by GEMMA GRAHAM
Straddling Europe and Asia, Georgia’s rich culture and diverse landscapes belie its modest size. 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. Old, meandering alleyways beckon for attention amidst angular glass-and-steel modern architecture.
Wander through Old Town for the best insight into Tbilisi’s past. Many buildings have been meticulously restored, their carved wooden verandahs overhanging the once-again-colourful houses beneath.
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.
Incredible ancient monasteries & cathedrals
It’s almost impossible to visit Georgia and escape the reverence for its ancient monasteries and cathedrals. Although they may seem similar, each is beautiful and 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.
By contrast, Bagrati Cathedral was restored in a more arresting fashion. Its dome was damaged during a 17th century Ottoman invasion, and renovations by Italian architect Andrea Bruno began in 2010.
Ancient history at Uplistsikhe
Find the remains of one of the most important pagan settlements in Georgia. Dating to the 7th century BCE, the caves that 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 position on the Silk Road.
Today you can wander the dusty, rocky streets at the complex to look back through almost two millennia and see traces of daily life.
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 proud to still be using traditional methods.
Here, the whole grapes are pressed and transferred to large clay pots called qvevri, and placed underground to ferment. The process results in a more ‘natural’ flavour and deeper colour.
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.
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.
Try khachapuri: essentially a flat, bread-like pie stuffed with molten cheese, this dish has several regional variations.
Try a piece of churchkhela: made from dipping a string of walnuts into a caramel-like grape paste and strung up to dry out, they can be seen hanging at stalls all across Georgia.
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 is ideal for a leisurely stroll.
Batumi's architecture is a point of difference to its capital cousin, Tbilisi: the style here is eclectic. Fun, gaudy and in the midst of a development boom, Batumi is one to watch.
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