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Posts tagged ‘georgia’

the internet wasn’t lying…

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


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!

a tale of two georgias…

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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