Georgia, situated at the border between the greatest civilisations boasts a rich, although turbulent history since the ancient times. Because of its location it has always been a target for the neighbouring empires: Persian, Ottoman and Russian. Unresolved conflicts are present in some parts of the country (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) even to this day and these are the places that should be avoided by tourists. All the rest of the country, however, is very safe; people are warm and welcoming, the nature and landscapes are breathtaking and the architecture of the cities (both old and modern) is astounding.
While traveling in Georgia you will be truly surprised by how diverse this little country – the size of Ireland – is. Within the 350 km (217 miles) drive you will pass through three different climate zones: from semi-arid with spectacular canyons, gorges and sandstone rock formations, continental, where you can feel like in the middle of Europe with snowy mountain peaks and ski resorts, to finally reach the sub-tropical Black Sea region with beautiful beaches and ubiquitous palm and banana trees.
Georgia has been famous for its wine since the antiquity. There are many vineyards around the country and it’s a must to have some local wine while traveling there. You might even have a chance to try it for the first time while entering the country at Tbilisi Airport. The staff at passport control desks, along with a stamp in your passport will also give you a bottle of Georgian wine as a gift. That’s what you call a warm welcome!
Let’s go into detail about what places to see in Georgia…
The capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi is one of the most charming cities I have ever seen. Although a bit neglected due to the recent conflicts, the restoration works are in full swing. The new, very modern architecture is stunning. You can’t miss the illuminated Bridge of Peace on the Kura river, the new theatre building in the shape of tubes, the glittering TV tower and the crazily shaped Public Service Hall. The Holy Trinity Cathedral (Sameba) with the perfect, symmetrical design is also worth seeing. When it comes to the old architecture, the first thing you will probably notice is the 4th century fortress Narikala built on the hill overlooking the city. While walking up to the fortress through the old town, it’s difficult not to notice the distinctive wooden balconies of the houses situated right on the edge of the cliffs. Also, in the main city square there are remains of ancient fortresses that were preserved and literally stick out of the ground, creating a unique mix of old and new style. To get an unbelievably amazing view of the city (especially at night when literally every building is illuminated) take the newly constructed cable car to the top of the hill. On one side you will admire the panorama of Tbilisi, on the other the city’s botanic gardens. And, finally, after a day of walking around when you will rightly deserve to have some rest, take a relaxing Turkish bath in the sulfur baths right below the Narikala fortress.
Uplistsikhe and Vardzia Ancient Cave Cities
Those interested in ancient history must visit cave cities in Georgia. The most popular are Uplistsikhe and Vardzia. Uplistsikhe, near the city of Gori, dates back to the second millenium BC. It was an important cultural center for the kingdom of Iberia located there at that time. You can still see the ruins of the city as well as the chambers and smaller holes carved out of the sandstone rocks. They all form astonishing abstract shapes looking like, for example, a face or a head. On the top of the hill, there’s a 9th century Basilica still open to this day.
Vardzia is larger than Uplistsikhe made up of complex caves and tunnels in Southern Georgia on the Mtkvari River. The construction of this Cave Monastery began in the 12th century. There are many corridors that connect the chambers inside the cliff wall and it’s still possible to pass through a few of them, from one level to another. There are still monks living in some of their cave homes. You can’t miss the beautifully painted and decorated 12th century church of the Dolmition (of course, also carved from the rock) with three magnificent bells. The views, both from the Cave Monastery and along the way are stunning; you can admire Georgian villages squeezed in between the canyons, picturesque valleys with little streams and also castles and fortresses, like the Khertvisi Fortress from the 10th century.
Batumi and the Black Sea Coast
When you get tired of the dry, desert-like landscape, within a few hours drive you can reach the lush green sub-tropical Black sea coast. Batumi, the Black Sea resort city, is lovely, colorful and architecturally diverse. There are many weirdly-shaped buildings along the beach, including old-style soviet blocks, very modern hotels, completely abstract constructions or restaurants looking like ships or towers. This mix is a bit chaotic but charming anyway. After dark, you might feel as if you were in a fairy tale. Every building, every fountain and every palm tree shine with various colours. You can’t miss the moving statue of love – two figures of a man and a women literally go through themselves, move away from each other, then turn back and the spectacle starts again.
Mtskheta, on the Kura and Aragvi Rivers is one of the oldest towns in Georgia. Just 20 km (12 miles) from Tbilisi, it is easily accessible and perfect for a one day trip. The old town is beautifully renovated with great restaurants where you can eat delicious food and drink wonderful wine. In the town, visit the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a great example of Georgian Christian architecture. On top of the nearby hill, there’s the 6th century Jvari Monastery overlooking the town. The views, like almost everywhere in Georgia, are spectacular.
Gori – Stalin’s birthplace
Gori is usually a stop for visitors coming from Tbilisi to Uplistsikhe Cave Town, only a few miles away from the cave city. This town is different than other places in Georgia, you can feel the Soviet era atmosphere here to the maximum. Damaged apartment blocks (although being renovated) remind of the painful past and recent tensions with Russia. One thing you should definitely see in Gori is the Museum of Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union who was born in the town. The exhibition includes Stalin’s home (and the bed in which he was born), Stalin’s railway carriage and even the toilet that Stalin supposedly used. Gori is an off the beaten path place which has a surreal climate and you’ll feel there as if you’ve entered a different era in a different world.
Georgia is such a rich land in history, culture and natural beauty that it’s difficult to fit everything about it in a short article. If you wish to discover a completely new, undiscovered place, not seen by many, don’t hesitate to begin the adventure through the crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East!
By Tomasz Lisowski