In Summer 2017, we were looking for a destination that was not yet firmly on the travel radar of Western Europeans to satisfy our thirst for off-the-beaten-track adventure. It was a trip for me and Mr only, so we were ready to step up the physical activites, be less picky about hotel accomodation as well as cover more ground in a shorter time. As we only had a week of holiday available, we focused the search on the Middle East and Central Asia. Georgia seemed to tick all the right boxes. So, even before we saw Lonely Planet’s list with the top countries to visit in 2018, we had bought plane tickets to Tbilisi.
As Georgia is bordered by the Caucasus Mountains that also cover about 1/4 of the territory, the time of the year when the visit is planned will play an important role in establishing the itinerary. In our case, autumn was well under way and the temperatures were expected to be around 10 Celsius in the low lands and 2-3 Celsius in the mountains. We therefore chose to focus on the Eastern part of Georgia and did not venture at the seaside. You should keep in mind that, due to the mountaneus terrain, some parts become inaccesible in late autumn, winter and even early spring ( Svaneti). Also, if your main objective is hiking in the Caucasus, choose Summer or early autumn so that snowfall does not prevent you from reaching the best hiking trails.
The roads are overall of good quality and self drive is completely possible. You should count however on winding and congested roads if you plan to reach Kazbegi or Stepansmida from Tiblisi on the old Forest Highway. If travelling later in the year, snow is very likely as you will reach altitudes of about 2000 m so check if the car has snow chains. The drive from Tiblisi to David Gareja will take about 2h each way (of which 1h30 on a rough terrain road). If renting, consider a 4×4 vehicle as it will make it more comfortable and faster to reach the border region with Azerbaijan. Expect to spend some time navigating (asking around basically) for lesser known wineries or sights as streets are not always correctly signposted or identified by the GPS.
We decided against self drive for a few of the reasons stated above but mostly as Mr did not want to spend half of the day behind the wheel but rather admire the landscape from the comfort of the back seat. This also meant we had more energy for activites and sightseeing once our different destinations were reached. Finally, we wanted to spend some time in Kakheti region (wine region) and sampling all the nice varieties would not have been possible with a long drive ahead.
About a month before our trip I contacted a few local travel agencies providing multi-day trips from Tiblisi via TripAdvisor and asked for a quote. I had a rough ideea about the itinerary and that we wanted to spend time in two regions outside Tiblisi. We got quotes from 600 USD up to about 1000 USD for 5 days driving, depending on the car, wether the driver was trained as guide and some tweaks to the itinerary. We finally went with Makho Tours and were very happy with the service. The car was not a 4×4 vehicle but the only area where this was a bit of an inconvenince was the trip to David Gareji monastery complex. Our driver was also a trained guide with a very good English, which made communication easy. He accompanied us on the hikes in the Kazbegi area and knew lots of smaller family wineries that are not mentioned in any travel guide.
Our itinerary was a great mix between relaxing winery visits, city visits and hiking in the mountains. I will focus here on the capital and reserve the coutryside and mountains for the a future post.
We landed in Tiblisi to spend there the first 2 nights. As we arrived quite late in the evening of our first day, took a taxi from the airport to our accomodation – Hotel British House – grabbed some dinner and went directly to sleep.
We spent the next day walking through the city. We started on Rustaveli avenue, an important backbone to the city bordered by the Opera, Ballet theatre, Old Georgian Parliament and a couple of Museums. The street ends in the Freedom Square, with St George’s statue is in the middle. The tourist info center is located near Freedom square at Pushkin park, Working hours 09:00-21:00, everyday. Here you can get free maps and brochures and some transportation advice regarding traveling in Georgia.
From the Square, we followed the Kote Afkhasi street, which lead to Old Tbilisi. We then immediatelly crossed the river on the Peace Bridge and went to the cable cart station that brings you up the hill to Narikhala Fortress and Saint Nicholas Church.
Built in the 4th century but mostly in ruin, the fortress will provide a birds eye view of the whole of Tbilisi. A few meters away from the fortress is the 20 statue or Mother Georgia, an imposing feminine figure that holds vine in one hand for the friends of the nation and a sword in the other, for the enemies.
As we made our way down the steep hill, we arrived back in the winding streets of the Meydan area of Old Tiblisi. We passed by the roman baths and the blue mosque. The old city area is the best place to spend a couple of hours admiring the old (and almost falling) houses, narrow streets and many cafees and wine bars. Under the Meydan, there is a winding bazar, filled with souvenir shops. If you get tired of the city, on the other side of the hill, you will find the Botanical garden. It makes for a nice stroll in autumn, when the leaves turn into different shades of yellow, orange and red.
We stopped for a late lunch at Organique (go for the fresh and tasty salads as well as stakes) and a drink at g. Vino. For a more traditional meal, go for the Khinkali (dumplings filled with minced meat). You will find the on the menu of many restaurants but a local favourite seems to be the Khinkali House. We visited there on our last night of the trip and you could hardly find a palce.
The etiquette of eating the khinkali dictates that you should hold them by the pointy end, bite from the base and then try to suck the hot cooking brooth from the dumpling. Once the broth is finished, you may start to bite into the filling. The pinched part is not typically eaten.
If you still have time on your hands or an additional (half) day before your departure, the television tour makes for a great trip as well. It is located on the opposite side from the fortress, high up the hill. There is a funicular to bring you up and you can enjoy even more views and even an amusement park for children of all ages.
Will share more of Georgia’s countryside secrets and great surprises in my next post.