**Updated in May 2017**
I just can’t believe I’m writing this post as I sit at a café in Tbilisi, the capital of this small country in the Caucasus region. I’ve been meaning to write a post about what to do and what to see in Georgia, so here is an introduction.
Just to set things straight, Georgia is sometimes mistakenly classified as a Middle Eastern country. But in fact, it is located where the extreme eastern part of Europe meets western Asia, the area many call Eurasia. It is one of the three sovereign countries in the Caucasus region, the other two being Armenia and Azerbaijan.
I was here less than a year ago and the experience was so positive that I had to return. So, if you’re not quite familiar with this spectacular country, just keep reading and by the end of the post, you should be an expert on most things Georgian.
Despite the 2008 conflict with Russia over the so-called South Ossetia region, which is still officially part of its territory, Georgia is a stable democracy which has come a long way since independence from the USSR and the ethnic conflicts in the 1990s. The country has also seen great development since the 2003 Rose Revolution and has the region’s highest HDI (Human Development Index).
The population is estimated at 4.5 million people, with roughly 20% of that living in Tbilisi. The second largest city, Kutaisi, has only 200,000 inhabitants, and 125,000 people live in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi, the country’s third largest. Despite the reduced size, the country is a real melting pot of different cultures: around 84% of the population is ethnic Georgians, with Abkhazians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Bulgarians, Germans, Jews and Russians, comprising the remaining 16%.
Most people (around 71%) speak Georgian as their first language. Curiously, it is not Indo-European, but the most prominent of the Kartvelian group of languages and has its own alphabet, which looks more like a drawing. The rest of the population speak Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian and other minority languages. In any case, most Georgians speak fluent or nearly fluent Russian, and English is increasingly spoken by the younger generation.
Georgians are very friendly and ready to welcome visitors with open arms. In fact, they are the most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered. Compared to Western Europe and SE Asia, there are not many tourists around, so they will take their time to talk to you, given the chance.
The Georgian currency is the lari (GEL) which is divided into 100 tetri. At the moment (May 2017) the exchange rate for 10GEL = USD4, £3.20, €3.75. Prices are generally low by Western European and North American standards. A meal for two at a budget restaurant cost 20GEL with soft drinks, and journey by metro costs 0.50GEL. However, the price of accommodation is similar to that in cities like Madrid or Budapest, so one should expect to pay around €80 a night for a three or four-star hotel.
I confess I knew nothing about Georgian cuisine until I first came here, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of dishes and the different flavours. Each region has its own traditional dish, but especially close to all Georgians’ hearts, as well as mine, is thekhachapuri, a cheese-filled bread that comes in various shapes. A popular type is khachapuri adjaruli, which is boat-shaped and topped with an egg and butter.
When it comes to drinking, Georgians are masters on the subject – in a good way! – and you can easily find bars with 24 hours’ licence in Tbilisi. There is also evidence that wine has been produced in the region for over 8,000 years. The vineyards are located in the Kakheti region; production has evolved with times and has also been modernised. Georgian wine is the most sought after in the former Soviet world and the variety of grapes abound, being the semi-sweet varieties the most popular ones. Just to name some, the blend of Tsolikauri and Tsiska grapes make the popular Pirosmani white wine and the red khvanchkara, made from the Alexandria and Mudzhuretuli varieties.
Travelling around the country is very easy. From the capital, you can go almost anywhere by bus or marshrutka (shared van). The roads are in general very well maintained and with good signage both in Georgian and English. There’s also a vast railway network, which can take you from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan, via Tbilisi.
In summer the coastal city of Batumi is the focal point for tourists from all over the country, as well as a flock of Turkish tourists also take over this attractive stretch of the Black Sea, in true Côte d’Azur fashion. But hey, let’s not forget we are talking about the Caucasus! The Caucasian mountain range are perfect for those into trekking, but most paths are closed during winter. It also has a number of tiny historical walled villages and picture-perfect scenery.
The region of Kakheti is the focal point of those willing to visit the vineyards, taste good local wine with the best selection of national dishes. It’s easy to find wine tours leaving from Tbilisi and Telavi itself. And all over the country, you can appreciate the beauty of the many Orthodox churches and monasteries. Some completely renovated, others with that old charm that helps you picture old time church goers lighting candles and saying their prayers.My friends were wondering why I was coming back to Georgia less than a year after my first visit. My selfish side is glad they don’t really know what they’re missing, so I can feel I have the place all to myself. But on the other hand, it’s a real pity that people don’t know what they are missing.
HOW TO GET TO GEORGIA
The best way to get to Georgia is by air, given its relative remoteness. Lufthansa flies directly to Tbilisi from Munich. Georgia Airways has direct flights connecting the capital with Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna and Tel Aviv. For those who don’t mind a connecting, Istanbul is a great hub, with Turkish Airlines, Pegasus and Atlas Global offering daily flights to Tbilisi. Another option is with low-cost airline Wizzair, which flies to Kutaisi from many cities around Europe, including Berlin, Memmingen, Budapest and London, offering very attractive airfares as low as €25 on some dates. Even if you’re not based in one of these cities, it’s worth buying a ticket to one of them, then buy a separate flight from there to Kutaisi.
If you’re travelling overland, there are frequent buses from Turkey to Batumi, on the Black Sea coast. The good news is that the border between Georgia and Russia has been reopened at one crossing, and you can now go by marshrutka from Klavikavkaz into northern Georgia. There’s a daily night train from Baku to Tbilisi. From Yerevan, you may take a marshrutka for a 6-hour trip or take a night train for an 11-hour journey.