a unique perspective on this crazy world

When I decided to go to Georgia, I started reading about it on the internet to figure out what to do once I got there.  There are a lot of glowing comments, especially about the physical beauty of the countryside.  It is in the Caucasus, a region filled with mountains, rivers and seas.  It is also an ancient land where early Homo sapiens made the journey from Africa through Asia to populate Europe and has some of the most complex ethnography on earth.

So it should be no surprise that there is stunning scenery as well as ancient and elaborate cultural sites.  It’s also the birthplace of Stalin and has a long and complicated history with Russia.  Some of that is Russian tourists!  They made up the majority of the tourists on my day tours and the tour was richer if you could understand Russian.  Luckily for me there was a Dutch guy on my first day tour who told our charming tour guide that the information in Russian was much longer so he needed to tell us more.

The tour guide did a great job as he would take the Russian group through the entire experience while the three English speakers wandered around and then he would take us on more or less the same tour.

view from monastery

Our first stop was the Jvari monastery.  According to local history, a wooden cross was erected over a pagan sanctuary on a rocky mountaintop overlooking Mtskehta, the original capital of Georgia, in the early fourth century.  The cross symbolized the rise of Christianity in Georgia.  In 545, the Small Church of Jvari was built north of the cross.  A larger Georgian Orthodox Church was constructed between 586 and 605 directly above the site of the wooden cross.  In 2004 the monastery was declared a World Heritage Site.  The view from the top of the hill is breathtaking.

outside the church

inside the church

From Jvari, we headed into Mtskehta.  It is definitely a place where I could have spent more time but we just had time for the main attraction – Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.  It is the main Christian Orthodox Cathedral in Georgia built between 1010 and 1029.  It was the main pilgrimage place on the Silk Road.  It is also the burial place for Georgian kings.  Legend says that part of Christ’s tunic fell into the hands of local Jewish man Eliazar.  He brought it to Mtskehta and his sister Sidonia claimed it and gave her soul to God and she was buried holding the tunic.  A miraculous tree grew from her grave and was used to build the cathedral.

cosmopolitan caves

From here we went to another fascinating part of Georgian history.  For people (like me) who want to see Cappadocia but haven’t got there yet, Uplistsikhe will make you smile.  From the 6th to 11th century it was an important political and cultural centre – a city and civilization carved out of rock.  It was eventually destroyed by the Mongols and you will just be able to make guesses about what life was like back then but it is obvious it was a sophisticated place for the time in an extraordinary location.  Back when technology was more primitive, physical location really mattered, why you often have to climb to the top of a hill in ancient sites.  Not only does it provide great views, it was a strategic advantage over enemies.

The final stop on our day tour was Gori.  Being very much a non-fan of Stalin, I chose the option of visiting the ruins of the ancient fortress of Goristsihe rather than the House Museum of Stalin.  It

formidable

proved to be a great choice.  Again, more walking and spectacular settings.  The fortress is probably the most impenetrable place I have ever been.  There were several layers that needed to be breached and it was apparently built by the Ottomans.  According to our charming guide, it was overtaken by the Georgians because there were rumours they were cultivating marijuana and the Georgian king wanted it.

Definitely a fascinating journey through history amid some spectacular geography.

day tripping

Since it is a new travel destination and a former Soviet nation state, infrastructure is not amazing.  There are a few public transport options but it’s a small country so I thought I would try my hand at doing day trips from Tbilisi.  It was tough to find enough information that I felt comfortable booking anything before I arrived so figured I would just wander the streets and see if I got lucky as I have in other former Soviet states.

ancient georgia

On my early morning wander while most people were still sleeping, I spied a travel agency on the main street, Rustaveli Ave 14.  Once I got into my room and had a short nap, I repeated my journey and found that Holidays in Georgia now had brochures on the sidewalk so I took one and sat on a bench reviewing the options.  In the end, I hadn’t allocated enough time to Georgia as I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find day trips and more than five days in Tbilisi was likely too much.

There are quite a lot of tour options in the Old Town.  I tried to find the website for Holidays in Georgia but without success so here is some contact info per their brochure: (+995) 32 230 53 30; infoholidays01@gmail.com.  It seems very easy to organize day trips once you arrive in Tbilisi.  The only challenge you will face is that most tourists will speak Russian so they will likely get more information and attention from the tour guide but both tours I did were also done in English.

The quality of your tour guide will also impact how much you enjoy the day.  My first tour guide was exceptional while the second was just adequate.  Both tours were inexpensive so I felt that I got my monies’ worth even with the sub-optimal tour guide.

There are places worth spending more time than a day tour will allow.  The time we spent in

modern georgia

Mtskheta and Telavi felt very rushed but we did see some highlights.  Mtskheta was the first capital of Georgia and a cradle of Christianity first settled in the 5th century BC.  Telavi is also an ancient city (it boasts a 900 year old tree) and the capital of the Kakheti, the wine state.  Georgian wine is also off the radar but the country is in an ideal physical setting for growing grapes and there is both cheap decent wine and slightly more expensive excellent wine.

So where should you go?  My first day trip was Mtskheta-Jvari Gori-Uplistsikhe – the original capital, some stunning scenery, an ancient city on the Silk Road and a cave city.  The second day I went to wine country Kakheti-Sighnaghi-Bodbe.  Had I stayed a bit longer, I would have also gone to David Gareja, a monastery complex hewed out of rock and to the Prometheus Caves.  There is also the coastal city of Batumi on the Black Sea.

The country is physically blessed with mountains, cliffs, rivers as well as ancient history so there is an abundance of spectacular sights – and tour companies happy to take you there if you are too lazy to figure out how to get there yourself 😉

am I in asia or europe…

finally!  something posted…

My journey to Georgia was part of my copious reading.  Somewhere I read about it as an emerging travel destination.  I wasn’t quite sure where it was except that it was close to Russia – but being close to the largest country on earth doesn’t exactly pinpoint the location.  Later I did some silly quiz in a magazine about your personality and one of the options was if Georgia was your dream travel destination.  Of course, that was my pick.  I can’t remember the personality description but it definitely meant you were adventurous and a bit intrepid.

the spectacular capital

A lot of my travel destinations are chosen in that kind of random way, like some mysterious force is telling me to go there… It often takes a few years from the initial catalyst until the time and money are gathered to actually execute the idea.  Georgia was no different.  It had been on my radar for a few years but it is on the border between Europe and Asia east of Ukraine and north of Turkey.  It’s small in size and population and it is getting more popular with tourists but is still not the easiest place to get to so it got postponed for other easier to reach locales.

Then I cashed in some travel points, which got me to Zurich business class for very little money so the question was what else to do since I was in the middle of Europe.  Some fooling around on the internet led me to discover that there is a direct flight that isn’t that long between Warsaw and Tbilisi so my itinerary was set.  It’s on LOT Airlines and you fly in the middle of the night so it might not be for everyone but it works really well.  I learned from a late night conversation with one of the hotel staff in Warsaw that there was a close relationship between the countries, especially the former presidents.

Georgia is a complicated place as is the case for many former Soviet regions.  It’s also the birthplace of Stalin so apparently wasn’t treated quite as harshly as other regions.  It’s a stunningly beautiful place that feels both old and modern.  In many ways, it is an experience of the modern 21st century in all sorts of ways – the good, the bad and the ugly.  For tourists, though, it’s all good.

I arrived in Tbilisi extremely early so got to just wander around while people were still sleeping.  Like so many parts of the former Soviet empire, you see faded old architectural glory along with grand images of propaganda.  Tbilisi is also in an incredible physical setting.  Just aimlessly wandering around the city is highly rewarding – and excellent exercise as there is a lot of elevation.

getting out of town

I stayed at the Rooms Hotel.  It was advertised as being in an emerging hipster neighborhood.  It was hard to tell as a tourist but I expect that’s true.  The room and staff were fantastic and I certainly wouldn’t not recommend it but it is quite far from the Old Town so for first time visitors you can spend less and do less walking by staying in or near to the Old Town.  If you like to avoid tourists, the Rooms Hotel is definitely a good choice and there are a selection of restaurants and bars in the vicinity so you don’t have to walk all the way to the Old Town for sustenance.

Georgia is getting more tourists but tourism is still pretty young so you will receive a warm welcome and find there is plenty to do.  It’s a very budget friendly destination.  If you want a western European experience, it will cost you but, if you want to live like a local, your dollars will stretch very far.

So, if you’re looking for a destination off the normal traveller path, Georgia is the answer!

savannah 2.0

finally, a new post!  Listening to Andrew Duhon as I edit this post and fondly remembering an incredible birthday trip to New Orleans.  He’s singing Girls from Other Countries as I type this.  For me, it’s boys but the song resonates strongly and that trip was one of many that proved the serendipity and magic that comes from leaving your comfortable home base can make your life feel rich beyond your childhood dreams.  I check myself when I am about to say something obnoxious like “yeah, I am kind of bored of Paris”.  As a child growing up in the middle of nowhere, getting to Paris even ONCE seemed like a fairytale.  Paris was one of those fantastic places that taught me to just be more adventurous,  Stay in a cheap hotel near Gare du Nord, which was way too dangerous the first time I went, but now just provides a new, fresh Parisian experience 🙂

 

If you read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you will also gain an understanding of why Savannah has such an Austin feel.  If you stay in the Historic District you will likely pass the building that really shook up Savannah several times.  John wrote the book because cheap airlines were new and he started travelling from New York to Savannah on a regular basis and became more or less a local.  One of the other developments happening at that time was a push to expand the Savannah College of Art and Design.  According to him, Savannah was the conservative southern place you likely envision at the time and there was a definite clash of cultures but the college expanded and added a layer of hip to sleepy Savannah.

you could be in france!

What you get now is a fascinating mix of genteel southern manners and modern 21st century comforts and enticements.  For me one of the most delightful parts of Savannah was just wandering the streets from square to square.  It’s worth going into the Cathedral of St John the Baptist.  It was dedicated in 1876 and is one of the most spectacular in the region.

The other area worth checking out is the riverfront.  There are lots of options for eating and drinking and plenty of shops catering to tourists.  Two of the best options are River Street Sweets for pralines, salt water taffy and other sweet treats and the Arts and Crafts Emporium (up a staircase) for local arts and crafts you can take home as non-edible souvenirs.

Two places to check out in this neighborhood are Chart House and the Bayou Café.  Chart House is right on the water and you can have a meal on the patio.  The Bayou Café has live music every night so was where I spent my Monday night birthday.  It’s more Louisiana than Georgia but in the ‘hood and with basic but delicious seafood and Cajun fare.

I decided to try snow crab for the first time.  It took a few tries (and several stains on my top) to get

the beauty of latin squares

the hang of it but it was delicious and I acquired a new skill.  The singer noted that I was eating alone, found out it was my birthday, sang me “happy birthday” and bought me a shot of bourbon.  As already noted, there are a lot of friendly Americans.

He had recently broken up with his girlfriend so to make sure things didn’t get weird after last set, I left a bit early and encountered a young late night busker so ended up listening to him and then conversing for quite a while as he gave away some of his earnings to beggars.  I kept giving him money as I didn’t think he could probably afford his generosity.  He insisted I couldn’t walk back to the hotel (I had been doing it every night) so I waited for some sort of Uber arrangement he had made. I gave him money for that too so he had a great night but I remember being young and poor and am very generous to young people if they treat me well and I like them.

For shopping, the other street to check out is Broughton Street. It’s the main thoroughfare.  Nearby is a wonderful restaurant that is a Savannah institution, Belford’s.  The restaurant only arrived in 1996 but is housed in a historic building and is one of the best rated restaurants in town.  I managed to indulge in happy hour, which is a great bargain.  I also discovered that, like New Orleans, you can get your wine to go as long as you stay within a certain part of the Historic District so you can indulge in happy hour prices while strolling the historic streets with your beverage of choice.

One final suggestion if you like local history is a drink at The Desoto.  It’s now super modern 21st century complete with mixologists but its origins come from 1890 when it opened as a luxury hotel that became known as the Dowager Empress of the South.

Beaches and resorts are not far away if that is more your scene.  For me, pretending to live in different century is always a delightful adventure. Of course, I prefer my experience to not be TOO authentic.  I love the glamour and romance of the 17th and 18th centuries but I also totally enjoy actually living in my own.  Savannah offers you the best of both 😉

kermit would love it

I started this post a long time ago and then realized I forgot to mention the most surprising discovery of my trip to Savannah to listen to music.  Apparently they do St Patrick’s Day better than maybe anywhere else in the world.  One of my best friends had a dream of seeing it in New York City so I’ve done that.  I would love to check out Chicago but I’m not sure it will surpass Savannah.  It is so huge they sneak in and practically every fountain is green a few days before March 17th.  It is also WAY nicer weather in Savannah in March so that is part of the reason it is so successful.  Northerners are happy to come and celebrate in a climate that is much more hospitable than Ireland 😉

Any proper Irish person would consider them pussies 🙂  Being partly Irish, I have discovered it is more an Irish-American thing than an Irish thing.  I’ve been an immigrant a couple of times and totally understand that nostalgia for home.

So, what are you waiting for?  Savannah in March has so much to offer.  As I was heading to the airport, my taxi driver (who looked like a character from the Dukes of Hazzard 😉 teased me… “you don’t really want to leave, do you?  Quite honestly, I said, “no, especially as I am leaving just before St. Patrick’s Day.  Next time I stay longer…”

 

southern charm

Even if you are not interested in music, there is still plenty of reason to visit Savannah.  It first got on my radar when I saw the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  It’s always fun to read about a place while you are visiting so I bought a copy of the book in Savannah.  I would highly recommend it. The book is far superior to the film and the author (John Berendt) provides a lot of insight into Savannah.

I had always envisioned Savannah as a grande dame of the mythical South, one of the few parts of the United States I had not yet seen.  This is definitely Confederate country but Savannah is closer to Austin and Portland than to the old Deep South, at least the parts that I checked out.

I am very interested in history, architecture and all manner of artistic expression so the Historic District seemed the perfect place to hang out.  It’s also where all the Savannah Stopover events occur.  It’s a perfect place to play tourist.

What is astonishing and commendable is that this area actually exists in the grand form you will find it in 2018.  Like most of North America, the 1950s saw young families rush for the suburbs using new highways and the historic centre was abandoned and the historic homes became rundown and the neighborhood’s crime rate rose.  Many buildings were demolished.

Then, everything changed.  Seven local women formed the Historic Savannah Foundation to purchase and preserve the Davenport House, saving it just 24 hours before the scheduled demolition.  They mobilized others and saved and restored many historic homes.  Most of them are now inns or tourist attractions.  A few even sport ghosts.  If you aren’t staying in a “ghost” inn, you can take a ghost tour.

While I wouldn’t recommend staying in historic inns while doing the Savannah Stopover as you miss some of the benefits, I would definitely recommend them when you have an easy schedule and can take advantage of all the extra amenities, which generally include breakfast, pre-dinner wine and appetizers and post-dinner port and dessert.

eliza thompson house

I stayed in two different inns and both were excellent but the offerings were a little different.  At one, I had my own separate entrance.  At both I had a large room filled with antiques and history.

gastonian

The staff were amazing.

I think southern hospitality is a real thing.  There was an extra level of charm to many of my encounters and the accent is seductive.  The inns I stayed in were Eliza Thompson House and the Gastonian.  Eliza Thompson House is closer to the action of the Historic District while the Gastonian is closer to Forsyth Park.  The attractions of the Historic District are walkable from either inn.

There are some tourist attractions you can check out but it’s a small city so the prices for the small

famous fountain

museums seemed a bit steep and I was worried I would be disappointed so I spent my time wandering the streets from square to square.  Savannah has a European feel and there are small squares every few blocks.  They are filled with statues, flowers and benches and many are surrounded by stately mansions.

The most spectacular statue and flower place is Forsyth Park.  If you read the book, you will also want to look for the Mercer-Williams House.

You can take a riverboat cruise but some other tourists at the inn said it was boring and I took a steamship up the Mississippi in New Orleans so I stayed on shore.

It’s not healthy to live in the past too much but Savannah allows you to indulge in a little nostalgia and spend some time pretending you lived in a different century (but with 21st century plumbing and food! 😉

music lover nirvana

That is the fun of a much smaller festival.  I didn’t generally run into people more than once but it was easy to make connections and the venues are all close together and it is easy to hop between venues generally without having to wait in long lines.

Later that night I got braver and found W. Congress Street and was lured into The Jinx by the music, discovering Sun Parade.  I wanted to get my full breakfast at the inn so didn’t stay out too late the first night.  The charming gentleman at check-in had given me a good map with various highlights, including the route back to the inn from W. Congress along Bull Street.

My ability to navigate both the streets of Savannah, the locations of the various clubs and the band schedules improved considerably on day two and I think I hit every venue before the festival was over.  One of my favourites was the Congress Street Social Club.  Not only did it have an outdoor patio, it also had Shiner Bock, my favourite beer from my visit to Austin.

It also ended up providing the most fun story of the trip. By Friday night, I was pretty comfortable with Savannah and so checked out the after-hours lounge that was just for VIPs, volunteers and bands.  As a bonus, drinks were free 🙂  On Friday night, it wasn’t too busy but there was one lively young woman who decided we should all be dancing.  I’m not sure why but being lured onto dance floors to boogie with strangers is a very common activity in my travel life 😉  At least there were no fancy twirls and dips this time.

birthday club

I didn’t think much about it until the next day at the Congress Street Social Club when I was waiting in line to get a Shiner Bock and the guy behind me commented on my dance moves.  What was extra fun was that it turned out he was the lead singer for the band I had come to see, Birthday Club (from Houston).  While I was waiting for them to get set up, I also met Zack and John David who were incredibly entertaining (almost as good as the band).  That added some pressure for the band to be good so that they would be impressed by my musical taste.  Luckily, the band was great and I bought them a CD and a poster since they had bought me a beer and introduced them to the band as new fans. Everyone was thrilled.  I had even more fun at the after-hours club on Saturday night since I knew some band members by then and it was a lot livelier.

Unfortunately Zack and John David didn’t find me later in the night as we agreed then but it was

plastic picnic

easy to meet people and there was a really relaxed atmosphere everywhere I went.  The next band was also very good (Plastic Picnic from Brooklyn). Unfortunately they didn’t have any CDs.  I tried my best to buy CDs and support the artists since I know it’s a tough industry these days for emerging artists.

spectacular entrance

The most impressive venue is the stage at the Ships of the Sea Museum where the opening and closing acts are showcased.  The closing act was Of Montreal, a friend of the event and definitely a band to check out live.  They are a bit more established so likely a bit easier to find beyond the Savannah Stopover.

Another impressive venue was the Trinity United Methodist Church.  That’s where I discovered Colter Wall.  I went because he is from Swift Current

colter wall

in Canada not that far from where I spent my childhood.  To see someone from my own environs in faraway Savannah, Georgia was a no brainer.  He is a country guy so I didn’t know of him before Savannah.  While his performance was a little stiff, his voice is a revelation.

It’s the kind of event where you can talk to the performer so I told him I had been to Swift Current, that he sounded like a young Johnny Cash and asked which album I should buy. He acted like a nice Canadian kid and seemed pleased with all of it – and I loved the album so have been talking him up ever since.

vegabonds

I do have a soft spot for country so checking out bands from Nashville not out of character but also loved the Vegabonds who are Nashville but more southern rock than country.  I have listened to their album, What We’re Made of, a LOT.  Highly recommended.  And again, band was very friendly.

You get the idea… I would definitely recommend to come and check out Savannah Stopover for yourself and find your own musical discoveries.  You can also just come for the local talent, especially if you live nearby.  My final musical encounter of sorts was meeting Danielle Hicks at the after party.  Her show had been on the same time as another on my list so I just stayed at the same venue and missed her but she kindly gave me a CD at the party and converted me into a fan.

It was so much fun and I am sure I will return but it was agreed I had probably travelled further than anyone else at the festival so likely not every year – but for those living on the east coast, you don’t have that excuse 😉

p.s. also check out these bands.  They are all emerging and could use your support.

p.p.s. since I started writing this, had a fun random encounter.  Since the government mostly controls liquor distribution in Canada and sin taxes are insane, it is really rare to find a decent bottle of wine for under $10.  I’d taken a chance on a Chilean rose at my local store and apparently I was not the only person who thought it was a great deal so had to take the train to a bigger store that had some in stock to buy more.  It’s a specialty store that has products I can’t get at most stores so bought enough to make the visit worthwhile and looked like a pack mule when I got on the train.  A young woman named Jessica kindly offered me her seat but I told her I was fine.  While Canadians aren’t unfriendly, there is definitely some British reserve to the culture so assumed that would be the end of the conversation but I could see she wanted to chat so I found out she didn’t normally drink alcohol but did like rose so I showed her the label and provided some background on the Australian wine industry (where it all began for me).  More was discussed and I felt a little sad that I didn’t have very many stops on the route.  It made me realize how delightful human interaction can be and that we could all use more of it.  I do it a lot when I travel.  One of the reasons travel makes me so happy.  Some cultures are especially easy to interact with when you are a stranger so a little shout-out to Americans.  The rest of the world is wondering a little about some of their choices these days but they are one of the friendliest cultures on the planet and that made my trip to Savannah so much more enjoyable.

 

 

I am going to skip the chronology for a while and bop between continents so…

A lot of my travels are booked really far in advance so it was purely accidental when I realized I was hitting both Georgias within a couple of months of each other.  Both trips were great but about the only thing they have in common is the name.

stunning gardens

Getting to the state of Georgia was pure coincidence.  A couple of years ago I went to a Christmas party for a client and some consultants from Portland were able to attend the party.  I had been to South by Southwest not long before and got into an animated discussion of indie music with Brian, which made him recommend the Savannah Stopover.

It’s a fairly new music festival focused on young bands that are generally undiscovered except by a few fervent fans.  His sister had moved to Savannah from NYC and discovered a lot of fledgling bands drove through Savannah on their way to Austin and were keen to have more chances to showcase their music so she found some likeminded people and started Savannah Stopover where bands can play the weekend before South by Southwest.

If you are like me and knew about SXSW before the internet back when indie music was very indie and new band recommendations generally came from college radio stations or word of mouth, you will love the Savannah Stopover because it is like South by Southwest was in the early days before the corporations and Ashton Kutcher discovered it.

It’s actually fun to do both but Savannah will be a lot cheaper and easier to navigate than Austin.

Since it was going to take me close to a day to get there and get home, I went for the full VIP package, which is very reasonably priced and comes with some extra perks like hanging out with the bands late at night and an after party where I actually got to meet Brian’s sister, which was very cool and closed the loop on the whole lucky chapter.

she started it all

I got a little overly ambitious and tried to do historic inns at the same time so it was late and dark by the time I got to headquarters to pick up my festival pass so decided to not be too ambitious about finding all the venues that night.  Wanted to first enjoy the early evening complimentary wine and

they said kayne gives them the best bands 😉

snacks perk at the inn.  Was good enough to count as a light dinner.

I’d walked by the El-Rocko Lounge on my way to pick up my pass so decided I could give it a try.  The place was fairly deserted as the first band was just warming up so I got a seat at the bar with a great view of the stage and met one of the volunteers who was sitting beside me eating his dinner.  It would end up being extra meaningful.  Once things got started, a friendly young girl from Florida with some links to Canada sat down beside me and we chatted a bit.  In a completely bizarre twist of fate, I would learn her name was Danielle since we ended up completely unplanned in the exact same seats at El-Rocko for the final show of the festival.

There was lots of happy coincidence and serious fun, which we will explore more in the next post…

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