Mountain landscapes and beaches, speciality wines and delicious traditional cuisine. There is more than one reason why Georgia has developed from an insider tip for backpacking adventurers to perhaps the most popular destination in the Caucasus in recent years. Nevertheless the country between Asia and Europe continues to be an underdog, especially when compared to other European destinations. So you still need a little bit of adventurous spirit to enjoy the so-called balcony of Europe. Those who venture into the sparsely populated country on the border with Russia however, can look forward to warm hosts, delicious food (even for vegetarians, which in Eastern Europe is not always a matter of course!) and a lot of tranquillity in front of wonderful natural backdrops. These can be explored particularly well by hiking, because as Goethe already knew, “only where you walked, have you really been.”
Our program director Lydia caught the wanderlust in September and therefore went from Berlin with WizzAir to Kutaisi, the third largest city of Georgia. This is not only the home of several world cultural heritage sites such as ancient churches and monasteries; around Kutaisi numerous stalactite caves and impressive gorges with thundering waterfalls are waiting to be discovered. Of course you can book organized excursions to the scenic highlights in advance. For those who prefer a more spontaneous experience, simply ask for a driver at your accommodation who can show you the more famous as well as the hidden places. Although not everyone is able to speak English, you will most certainly be able to find ways to communicate through hand gestures as well as the common translation apps. Georgia is very laid-back and easygoing anyway, and the locals welcome their guests with a relaxed cordiality, which one is missing in many of the European regions threatened to collapse under the burden of overtourism.
The northwest of Georgia is where it is time to put on your hiking boots. In the midst of the mountains of the Great Caucasus lies the small town of Mestia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lydia’s second stop on her Georgian journey and a popular starting point for hikes to Ushguli. The most famous village can be reached from Mestia after a four-day trekking tour. However, the quiet, solitary mountain landscapes also invite casual hikers and travellers with limited time to day trips. A relaxed hike leads, for example, to the Chalati glacier, whose ice masses are really impressive. But the effect of climate change is also noticeable here.
Adventurous ways to the beach
The tranquillity of the mountains and the lively pebble beaches of the Black Sea are only separated by a five-hour drive with a “Marschrutka”, the typical means of transport in the country, which are sure to elicit some adrenaline rushes and prayers. These rickety minibuses, into which about ten to twelve passengers squeeze themselves, are one thing. In addition, there is also the fast traffic, which seems unorganized and arbitrary to outsiders. On the serpentine roads of Georgia, everything with wheels and the ability to move from A to B is on its way. Whether the steering wheel is on the right or on the left quickly becomes a minor matter. But as so often in life, there really is some method to the madness and eventually one arrives undamaged, albeit with soft knees, in the port city of Batumi. Instead of rock faces, modern skyscrapers tower up here and the palm-fringed beach promenade with its stalls and shops as well as well-kept green areas invite you to stroll. The Caucasus protects the country from cold winds, so that the Black Sea provides a Mediterranean climate in Batumi, which, after the cooler and often rainy mountain regions, is a welcome change. The city also boasts an exciting contrast between its historic old town and glittering casinos and gambling establishments. The latter brought it the nickname “the Las Vegas of the East”.
If you have had enough of lazing by the sea and no longer want to travel by minibus or plane, you can take a ride on one of the modern trains from Batumi to Tbilisi within six hours. Like everything else in Georgia, the train tickets are comparatively cheap, for the trip to the state capital about ten euros per person are due.
Tbilisi itself welcomes its visitors with an exciting mixture of street art, historical monuments, Art Nouveau buildings, urban cafés, nightclubs and charming cobblestone streets. The local mountain Mtazminda provides an initial overview. In fact it resembles a hill rather than a mountain, but there is still not only a hiking trail, but also a cable car in place to get you up to the top. From here you can enjoy the view of the lively capital, a small amusement park and numerous barbecue restaurants that attract attention from afar with the smell of charcoal fires and spices.
A stay in the Rooms Hotel, which is housed in a former publishing house in the historic city centre, guarantees a special overnight experience. The Fabrika Hostel is a bit more urban, but no less stylish. On the site of an old sewing factory, the hostel is surrounded by various cafés, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants, including the first Ramen Restaurant in Georgia. The courtyards also host regular events, many with free admission. And those who have to answer one or two emails during their stay in Tbilisi can do so in the Co-Working Space of the Fabrika. Whereas techno lovers and night owls will enjoy a visit to Basssiani, the so-called Berghain of Georgia.
It is all about the grapes
However, a trip to and through Georgia is only really complete when the country’s own wine has also been tasted – after all, wine has been cultivated here for over 7,000 years. The noble drops are aged in Quevri, amphore-like clay vessels. For this purpose, crushed grapes or their juice are put into the bulbous vessels impregnated with beeswax and buried. Since 2013, this special process is even part of Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Tbilisi is an excellent starting point for day trips to the various wineries in the vicinity of the city. Daria Kholodilina, who was a speaker at this year’s Berlin Travel Festival, for example, presents smaller producers and their wines in her individual tours. Lydia went with Daria to one of the few remaining Qvevris producers as well as to a young winegrower who, after giving a tasting of his wines, also serves the typical Tschatscha schnapps. The high-percent drink is made from the remains of the grapes and should not be drunk on an empty stomach, especially after an extensive wine tasting. Fortunately, Georgian cuisine is ideally suited for this. Apart from meat in all its variations, there are also many vegetarian (and sometimes even vegan) delicacies on the table, influenced by Persian, Armenian and European cuisine. One of the most popular ingredients is aubergine, which can be grilled, stewed or stuffed and roasted in the oven with pomegranate and nuts. Puri, bread baked in a clay oven, is also a must-try in Georgia. It tastes particularly delicious with cheese and onions as so-called Khachapuri or filled with kidney beans as Lobiani. And the price level also ensures that nobody has to go to bed hungry. For a dinner including drink and different dishes, a couple pays about ten euros. The question “Where is paradise?” can therefore be easily answered with: “on the shores of the Black Sea in Georgia”.