In October 2015, a group of us, decided to take a short trip to Georgia.
No, not Georgia, USA. Rather the Country of Georgia in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Geogia is bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan.
The capital and largest city is Tbilisi.
Flight time from Dubai was a mere 3.5 hours. Visa on arrival for UAE residents. So far so good.
A bit of research and we found that it is a beautiful country with varied landscapes ranging from low-land marsh-forests, swamps, and temperate rainforests to mountains, hills and glaciers, while the eastern part of the country even contains a small segment of semi-arid plains. Most of the hotels that we looked at were clean, functional and affordable, so we picked one in Tbilsi on the advice of a friend who had been there. Betsy Hotel - situated on top a hill right in the heart of Tblisi, very affordable, clean with good service.
Since we were only there three days, we decided to book a tour driving down to Kazbegi and stopping along the way to visit Ananuri Fortress, and driving to Gergeti Trinity Church.
First things first, their driving is not for the faint hearted. There is no such thing as driving in your own lane, everyone cuts everyone else off (there is a lot of robust honking and yelling), parking on the sidewalks, even when it’s obvious that particular sidewalk is not meant for parking and trying half-heartedly not to run over pedestrians. Usually people stay on the right side of the road in town, but driving on the line appears to be more popular than driving to the right of it. Cars do u turns in the middle of the road right in the middle of a busy intersection. At least that's how it looked to me. Perhaps there is a method to the madness but I wasn't there long enough to figure it out.
Once I stopped being a back seat driver and annoying our driver, I started to enjoy the scenery. First stop was the Ananuri fortress which is located next to Aragvi River, not far from Zhinvali water reservoir and about 70 km from Tbilisi, Georgia. It was built by the Dukes of Aragvi and its earliest parts date from the 13th century. The fortress is on the UNESCO Tentative list.
Next was the Gergeti Trinity Church, built in the 14th century, the church is located near the village of Gergeti in Georgia. Its around 160 km from Tbsili and our tour guides told us that it would take us 3.5 hours to get there. In actuality, it took almost 6 hours because we stopped at Anauri Fortness the same day, kept asking our guide to stop at various spots during the drive so that we could take pictures and insisted on a spot of lunch at the marvellous Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi. On a side note, this hotel is AMAZING, with outstanding views and fabulous food.
Back to Gergeti Church, the first thing that struck me was it's location - isolated, 2170 meters on top of a steep mountain right below the summit Mount Kazbegi. The Church is often used as a navigation point for trekkers, who make a three-hour mountain climb to reach it. By Jeep, it takes 30-40 minutes going up an extremely rough up hill terrain. We drove and I can tell you that there were several moments where I was hanging for dear life and praying. Every time another car met us on the road our driver scraped over as far as he could and I ended up looking through the window down a vertical inclines that completely unnerved me. But once we got to the Church, that rough painful drive was so worth it. The views of the Church against the background of the green and white Caucasus mountains, the vastness of the mountains surrounding it, was absolutely magnificent and took my breath away .
Once we were finished running around the Church, it had struck 5.30 pm and we decided to head back. It took us 4 hours to get back to the hotel and again was a very rough and uncomfortable drive down the mountainous, rough, back roads for the first half and then curvy dark roads for the 2nd half. By the time we got home, the whole group was completely exhausted. A quick meal and we all hit the sack.
The next morning, we had a booked a city tour. Despite still being quite tired from the day before, we headed out at around 10 am with our lovely guide, Roman Burduladze. Roman runs a tour company with a group of 5 other Georgians. He was well informed, very patient, funny and half way through day tour, we had become more friends than clients. First stop was at the Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures, after that we went down to Old Tbilsi, via the Bridge of Peace, a fantastic feat of modern architecture. There is a funicular that takes people right up to Mtatsminda Park but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance that day.
Sitting at the foot of the imposing hill capped by the Narikala Fortress and climbing the slopes, Tbilisi Old Town consists of a labyrinth of narrow streets where wooden balconies look down from old brick-build homes. Doorways lead to hidden courtyards an ancient vines climb to the skies using anything vertical for support. Despite some overenthusiastic renovation in some parts of Old Town, the buildings are for the most part, ramshackle, cracked and crumbling - delightful, enchanting, picturesque and real. I especially loved the balconies and the fact that a lot of these buildings looked liked they were precariously built on the edges of the hilly cliffs. The style is a mix of two influences, the tight winding streets of an Asian or Arabic town interwoven with European, classical Russian and Art Nouveau architecture. The northern edge is the recently renovated Abanotubani area, famous for its Sulphur Baths, the square Moedani with its many restaurants situated right opposite the Mekhi Cathedral and the Monument of The equestrian statue of King Vakhtang I Gorgaslan.
I think Roman would have been happy to spend the entire day with us and more. In fact, he re-assured us that he was totally dedicated to us that day and would keep going until we dropped - which we did. Quite early really, around 4 pm. I think the long drive the previous day had really exhausted us and in an ideal scenario, we should have kept a day between both tours.
Half our party were departing (grudgingly I must say the third night) so we decided that we would go back to our hotel, relax and have a leisurely meal at the hotel.
The next day, with just my husband, son and I left, we took it easy for the first half and then proceeded to go back to Old Tbilsi via taxi where we had another wonderful meal and spent a good portion of the evening walking around enjoying the cold. Old Tbilsi, by night, is very festive. Shops and restaurants remain open till late and there were a lot of people milling about till late.
Our departure from Tbsili was next day at 3 pm; when we woke up it was raining cats and dogs! So we decided to stay in the hotel, reading, relaxing, and generally enjoying the rain under a canopy on their terrace.
Long story short, I cannot recommend Georgia enough. It's beautiful, the weather in October was bracingly cold, warm in the day, cold at night (Just right), the food was AMAZING and very affordable. VERY AFFORDABLE. Can't say anything more than that. Oh, do try the khachapuri and their Tomato and Cucumber salad in walnut paste. We also tried the "Georgian Snickers", walnuts dipped in grape juice and honey, a bit of an acquired taste that one, I think :)
The reality is that 3 days is a very short time especially when going to a new place, just letting us touch the tip of the surface of what Georgia is and I can't wait to go back and explore it more.
Oh, and I am planning to back again so that should tell you how much I liked it.
If you do decide to go, please do try Roman and his tour company. We loved him. His website is http://www.tushetiland.ge
And if you do, tell him "Granny" from Dubai recommended him. (Private joke, less said the better).
Here is the link to the full gallery of images from the trip.