JOUR NEYS IN GE­OR­GIA

Star­chi­tec­ture and a lively vibe col­lude with cas­tles and dra­matic land­scapes to make Ge­or­gia a cool get­away. Sangeetha Sa­gar packed her bags and found her­self in an­other world

Friday - - Travel -

Iam 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-sized­but-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

Every cor­ner re­veals some­thing NEW. Se­cret court­yards. Flow­er­stud­ded houses that are peel­ing slowly, the semi-de­cay­ing state adding to their charm. Space-age ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s all an EX­OTIC, dense tan­gle

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

It was truly like be­ing on TOP of the world, iso­lated, with only the wind whistling in my ears, a soft mist play­ing, and the COLOS­SAL Cau­ca­sus loom­ing ev­ery­where I looked, the town a bunch of coloured dots be­low

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 peo­ple­watch­ing 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.

Land­mark stat­ues in­clude Kartlis Deda, the ‘mother’ of Ge­or­gia, and St George killing the dragon; cheese bread – ad­jaruli khacha­puri – is a national ob­ses­sion

Views over the cap­i­tal, Tbil­isi, from the an­cient Narakala fortress; the city’s vi­brant street life is a high­light of any visit

The spec­tac­u­lar Holy Trin­ity church nes­tles in the Cau­ca­sus moun­tains; closer to Tbil­isi is the spooky Ana­nuri fortress (above)

You’ll find churchkhela – nuts dipped in fruit juice – on street cor­ners. Be­low, the coun­try’s di­verse ge­og­ra­phy in­cludes moun­tains and sea

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