With landscapes so lovely and hospitality so genuine, Georgia has it all, writes Helga Barnard
If you are looking for a fascinating, affordable, visa-free destination, historic Georgia (or “Saqartvelo”, as it is known to locals) is for you. Bordering Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, with a short stretch of Black Sea coastline to the west, it is a Eurasian junction. Georgia is astounding, from its energetic capital, Tbilisi, to the towns in the Great Caucasus mountains and beach resorts on the Black Sea, from the age-old vineyards of Kakheti to ancient, dusty rock towns and quiet, hilltop monasteries and churches.
The people of Georgia are cheerful and generous, proud and sincere. Guests are considered blessings, so expect to be offered gifts of homemade wine, freshly baked cake or homegrown fruit.
Winemaking in Georgia goes back more than 8 000 years, and the traditional qvevri method, by which wine is made in large earthenware vessels, is still practised widely, alongside modern methods.
Food is central to the culture. Dishes are quite unique in flavour, perhaps due to Georgia’s location on ancient spice routes. Blue fenugreek, tarragon, coriander and marigold blossoms are frequently used.
The rich soil produces luscious fruits and vegetables that farmers sell at local markets. A loaf of bread, a chunk of tender Imeruli cheese, plus tomatoes and fruit from the market make a fine meal. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home.
THE PURPLE FOOD
Restaurant menus usually feature the Georgian staple, khachapuri (cheese pastries), meat, dumplings, stews and many veg dishes. These are usually accompanied by what we would call a mixed salad, but with a distinctive ingredient: purple basil. Walnuts, pomegranates, beans and plums are also used in 100 mouthwatering ways.
Whilst Tbilisi has an efficient and convenient metro system, national transport is generally via marshrutky, not much different to our own minibus taxis. They do, however, stick to a timetable (in the loose sense). Private drivers and professional tour guides, at reasonable rates, are widely used.
My husband, Len, and I started our visit in Tbilisi, a fascinating city brimming with history but also modern. An ancient fortress gazes over weathered, balconied houses, countless churches and squares, with interesting contemporary architecture and leafy parks. It’s an ancient city finding itself firmly in the 21st century with a vibrant art scene, theatres, lively bars, restaurants, cafés and wine shops.
Our next stop was Stepantsminda, a popular base for mountain-biking and hiking. Set in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, the small town is a strange mixture of activity and tranquility. A rough 4x4 trip up a winding dirt track brought us to the remote, iconic and altogether photogenic Gergeti Trinity Church.
Then we headed to Signagi and Telavi, two very different towns in the wineproducing Kakheti region. Signagi is a charming place, if somewhat touristy, with a hilltop setting and Mediterranean ambience. Telavi is more of a working town. A day trip into the countryside to visit the monasteries, churches and wineries dotting the vineyards of the Alazani valley was a definite highlight.
MOVED TO TEARS
Visiting Georgia was an emotional journey for both my husband and me. I cried often. I had to leave behind so many friends over the course of the holiday: my young Tbilisi street cat with her two kittens, my bovine neighbour in Stepantsminda, my street dog at the Signagi bus station, my 15 cats in the 9th of April Park in Tbilisi, and all the hosts who treated us like close family.
I also cried because there were moments that I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of Georgia, or when something would remind me of my family, some no longer with us. Sometimes it was the chacha (a drink similar to grappa). And once, because a hidden speaker in the tranquil park of the Chavchavadze Estate at Tsinandali was playing the most soul-stirring music.
But mostly I cried for the homeless animals of Georgia (there is a sterilisation programme in place in Tbilisi, but much still needs to be done outside of the capital).
So, should you visit Georgia? A resounding yes! Meet the warm and welcoming people. Enjoy the magnificent cuisine and traditional Georgian wine. And go beyond, to the mountains and vineyards, where a herd of cattle is the only roadblock you will find. Remember to buy pet food to feed your furry friends along the way. And travel light. And go soon.
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STONE ROSE Nekresi Monastery is one of the most sacred places in Georgia.