Is Georgia in Europe or Asia? That was the first question I had to answers for my self when I received an invitation to visit Georgia for a few days in March 2017. So I found my old and big world atlas. Here Georgia is marked as a country in Asia and I read some places on the net that Georgia is where Europe meets Asia. So what can I expect?
I arrive in the capital of Tbilisi in the middle of the night. The short drive from the airport to the city center takes place in the dark and there is little traffic on the road. Like so many other countries outside Europe, my friendly driver runs consistently on the center line and passes several police cars while driving far beyond the speed limit of 80 km. Giant enlightened memorials along the way are reminiscent of Soviet influence. So also do the major housing blocks where little has been maintained for the past 20 years.
The former Soviet Republic of Georgia gained its independence in 1991. The country borders to the Black Sea in the west and constitutes, together with Azerbaijan and Armenia, most of the mountainous Caucasus. The Caucasus Mountains are a challenge for the country’s infrastructure, but at the same time the mountains have helped to preserve traditional culture and ancient traditions. The capital Tbilisi is situated in a pot with mountains around and it can get very hot in the summer. Winter is mild and now in March it’s full spring, soon summer.
I only got a few hours of sleep before I met the city in glorious sunshine. It is a modern capital with exciting architecture, beautiful avenues, but also tired residential areas. Tbilisi turns out to be a nice city with many offers for cultural enthusiasts. Together with our guide Josef, we start the tour of Tbilisi at Sameba Cathedral. It is also called Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral and is the main church of Tbilisi for Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church. Georgia is essentially a Christian country and the church plays a major role for most people.
It is a Sunday mass and the church is packed. Soldiers participate in full uniform and with lighted candles. It is not only one priest, but many and many of them walk slowly and honorable around the church room. The priests are dressed in long black robes, a round tall calotte and have a long beard. There is no confessional chair like in Catholic churches, but if anyone wants to confess, they take hold of a priest and together they pull into darker corners and talk silently together.
We cross the river Kura on the Peace Bridge, an impressive glass building and white painted steel where “the whole city” walks at a slow pace. The bridge is 150m long, illuminated in the evening and is just for walking. On the other side, Rike Park is where you can take the cable car up to the Sololaki Mountain and the memorial Kartlis Deda, Georgia’s mother. The statue is huge, almost grotesque and in aluminum. It was put in place in 1958 and is made by Georgian artist Elguja Amashukeli. But we choose to cross back over the river Kura on the bridge and take the walkway up the mountain.
The smell of sulfur meets us as we approach the old bathing area, Sulfur Baths at the slope of the mountain. Here you can visit both private and public Hammam baths. These bathrooms are based on the natural sulfur sources and are built in Persian tradition. We went inside and looked at one of the private bathrooms and I quickly found out that a bath here was not an option. It smelled cruel of sulfur and it was very dirty.
It is said to be very healthy to swim in sulfur water, but we continue up and through a gap and arrive at a waterfall. The little houses that cling to the mountainside remind me of Turkey and Iran with their colorful balconies in wood and lush carpentry. The trip goes upwards and the view of the city is fabulous. Down again, we take the cable car and the view from there is no less impressive.
North of the Sulfur Baths, parallel to the river, the Old Town is situated. Here you will find cozy cafes, small parks and bustling street life. This is where you discover that Tbilisi is a modern city with a young generation that is Western-oriented. Free Wi-Fi is available in many places, also in the streets. The city has several museums, an open street market with crafts and souvenirs and a popular puppet theater, among many other things.
I notice that many dogs are loose and that they have a green button on their ear. Joseph says that they are street dogs and that the green buttons tell us that they are sterilized. This means that this is the last generation of street dogs in Tbilisi, Joseph tells us.
Another thing I wonder is why all the police cars have flashing lights on? The street image is constantly looking like it’s something very serious happening. But it is only a result of an open policy introduced by President Saakashvili in 2005. Then he resigned the entire police force because of corruption and rebuilt it with new and young police officers. At the same time, all police cars had to have the lights going when they were in service. New police stations were built in glass and many old were renewed with glass facades. A definite expression of the new transparent transparency policy! If it has helped, I do not know, but many I talked to, meant that the regular police man is no longer corrupt, but they are more doubtful when it comes to higher officers further up in the system.
Rural areas in Georgia
You don`t have to travel far from Tbilisi before time is turned back and the living conditions for ordinary people are quite bad. Many villages in rural areas are struggling with relocation and large beautiful wooden houses are decaying. In some villages it appears to me that more than half of the houses have been abandoned. But in the Kakheti region, where wine growing and wine tasting are offered to tourists, things look better. The city of Sighnaghi is also called the Pearl of Kakhetia and the love city. Here you can get married on the day, 24 hours a day, just like in Reno!
Sighnaghi is located on a hillside with stunning views of the Alazani Valley. We drive on a winding mountain road and get a great view of the city before we park on the square. With extensive restoration work of old buildings and the fortress wall with 23 watchtowers that revolves around a large area, Sighnaghi is aiming to become Georgia’s main tourist attraction. The fortress is located just outside the city and does not encircle the city itself. You can walk on parts of the wall and it may remind you of a mini-edition of the Great Wall in China. The fortifications were commenced in 1762 by King Heraclius II of Georgia as protection against tribal people from Dagestan, bordering Georgia in the northeast.
On our walk in the city we meet old ladies, knitting and crocheting colorful socks and slippers. The goods are sold in the square and along the street down to the fortifications. I ask if I was allowed to take a picture, but no – do not talk about it! The answer is obvious after the facial expression so I’m pulling away. But in the next street the old ladies smile and laugh and pose happily with colorful knitted goods.
At the Pheasant`s Tears Winery, we meet the boss himself, Gia Rokashvili, who enthusiastically finds various wine types and lets us taste the traditional, unfiltered Georgian wine. And there will be more wine throughout the day. At the next wine house a lavish Georgian lunch is waiting and we are told that it is tradition to serve huge amounts of food, so much that one dish is placed above the other. The table is not big enough for all the lovely dishes brought to us. We eat and drink and listen to stories from the area and the mood becomes more and more merry.
The traditional Georgian food is incredibly tasty. Many dishes are served and much is based on vegetables and nuts. A vegetarian is eating well around a Georgian dining table. Meat is also served, in several varieties, especially lamb and chicken.
Before lunch, we’ll be baking the special bread they use here in Kakhetia. The bread is baked in a large pot. At the bottom you make a fire and let it burn until it gets into coal. Bread dough is rolled into long sausages and fastened to the jar. The smell of freshly baked bread sharpens the appetite and it tasted delicious.
A good meal should always end with something sweet. We’ll be making traditional Georgian sweets, called Churchkhela. We take nuts on a string; all kinds of nuts can be used. Walnuts are probably the most common and also raisins are used. But they must be put in water first so they become soft. The strip is dipped in a thick mass of grape juice evened with flour that has first been boiled. Traditionally, sugar was not added, but today it is done now and then. The process may remind you of light casting. Everywhere in Georgia, churchkhela is found hanging in bundles of many different colors. Children and adults lick on them like lollipops.
Georgia is a mountain country and one of the most important border crossings to Russia is at the Darial Pass, 10 km north of the small town of Stepantsminda, former Kazbegi. The road from Tbilisi is called Old Georgian War Road and is far from being described as a freeway. Several kilometers before Stepantsminda we meet columns with trucks and trailers parked by the roadside. At the border crossing there are tight and small possibilities for parking more than a few trailers. The police keep the order and send them in pools to the border crossing. Our guide says that at worst, they have to wait 14 days to cross the border. But we are waved further on in our passenger car, we ware only going to Stepantsminde where we will continue on the mountain to visit the Gergeti church.
The trip through the mountains is one of the nicest drives I’ve ever had. There is still a lot of snow and sunshine with light clouds creates a magical atmosphere. We stretch our neck and snap wildly through the car windows, for every 100 meters. It’s just more beautiful and even more majestic around the next curve. It is a lot of investments in skiing and hotels pop up on the mountain slopes, along with organized ski slopes. It seems a bit chaotic and not all development is particularly beautiful, but fortunately concentrated in a few areas. Fortunately, most of the mountain massifs are untouched.
At last we are in Stepantsminda, located 1740 above sea level in a beautiful valley surrounded by high mountains. We will visit the area’s most famous landmark, Gergeti Church, built in the 14th century. Also one of the most famous photo objects from Georgia. It takes about 3 hours to get up, but it is steep and requires a little more than normal physical fitness. We have neither time nor energy and are therefore driven by 4×4 car to 2170 above sea level. To invest in a 4×4 terrain car to drive tourists up to the church is an important way of living for the residents of Stepantsminda. The trip takes about 30 minutes and is quite frightening for those with fear of heights and frayed nerves. But the trip is worth it!
Nobody can visit Georgia without eating khinkali, a kind of chopped bowl filled with grounded meat. I have to admit that there was no great culinary experience, but in Georgia you get this anywhere and can almost be called a national dish and they are served with pride.
In one of Georgia’s oldest cities, Mtskheta, we attended a cookie class learning to make khinkali. On with the apron! It is a special technique for spinning and folding the dough to hold the meat in place. We try over and over again, with lots of laughter and finally we get a fairly acceptable result that can be boiled and served for the following lunch.
Mtskheta’s historic buildings, including the Great Church, are on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. In the narrow streets around the church there are market stalls selling Georgian food specialties, silk scarves, blankets, knitwear, enamel jewelry and much more.
Georgia is a beautiful country and the people are very hospitable. Tbilisis is a modern city that is well suited for a long weekend and the country is also exciting and has a lot to offer. Hotel prices are the same as all over the world and it is surprisingly expensive to live in Georgia. But travelling to Georgia is definitely recommended.