Georgia on my mind

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 61 of the February 2012 issue.

by Randy Keck (Second of two parts)

My September 2011 exploration of Georgia, hosted by Panorama Travel and the Georgian National Tourism Agency, revealed several options for day touring while accommodating in the capital, Tbilisi.

The closest attraction is the nearby ancient capital of Mtskheta with its hilltop sixth-century Jvari Monastery and, dating to the 11th century, the impressive Svetiskho­veli Cathedral, where it is said Christ’s robe is buried.

Georgian farmers selling grapes at a roadside market outside of Gurjaani, Georgia. Photo: Keck

Svetiskhoveli, with its lavish interior, is the largest preserved church in Georgia and has been used for centuries for the coronations and burials of Georgian monarchs. Its massive defensive wall is well preserved and continues to stand vigil over this treasure on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

In the eastern province of Kakheti, a progressive wine industry holds great promise for the future economy as does tourism. The scenic hill town of Sighnaghi is reminiscent of Umbria, and the winery Pheasant’s Tears, owned by a savvy American with long ties to Georgia, is the perfect venue at which to sample the highly regarded regional wines.

At Wine House, in nearby Gurjaani, visitors can watch the process of vodka distilling as well as the baking of Georgian pit bread and the unique dipping process for making churchkhela (nuts encased in grape fruit leather) before enjoying a traditional supra (Georgian feast) accompanied by Georgian folk songs.

During my “Indian summer” visit, the Kakheti roadside fruit stands were awash with the many varieties of local grapes.

Even the alluring high mountains of the Kazbegi region near the Russian border can be accessed on a day trip from Tbilisi. The most impressive visitor attraction there is the hilltop, 600-year-old Gergeti Trinity Church at the base of towering Mt. Kazbek (5,033 meters.) Preferable to just a day trip to this area would be an overnight at the skiing and mountain resort area at Gudauri.

Stalin lives again

A bit over an hour’s drive east of Tbilisi is Gori, the hometown of Joseph Stalin and site of the intriguing Stalin Museum. Our impromptu visit allowed all of us to glean — from documents, photos and other detailed exhibits — a much greater understanding of the life and times of one of history’s most dominant and brutal world leaders. The museum is a “must see” for any history-oriented visitor.

En route to Gori, we were shocked when we passed two large settlement camps consisting of tiny row houses occupied by Georgian refugees from the separatist territories lost to Georgia in the brief 2008 war with Russia.

These settlers, representing all levels of society, arrived only with what they could carry and, sadly, are currently reduced to an existence of subsistence farming.

Mineral springs mecca

Georgia boasts no fewer than 103 health resorts, typically situated to take advantage of warm mineral springs renowned for their healthy, curative properties. While many of these properties are a bit worn, today there is a resurgence of interest from foreign visitors, resulting in much updating and new development.

We saw a massive new complex under construction in an idyllic gorge in Borjomi, one of many areas that acquired fame in the 19th century due to the medical properties of their mineral springs.

Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, is an important regional center and a logical overnight stop if traveling by ground between Tbilisi and the Black Sea coast. We visited the expansive city markets to buy spices and experience the shopping practices of the locals.

Overnight, we enjoyed the cozy, 10-room Hotel Old Town near the city center (doubles for $50-$110, including breakfast).

Located not far from Kutaisi is the Bagrati Cathedral, which, together with the Gelati Monastery, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gelati features utterly amazing floor-to-ceiling frescoes.

Caves beckon

Upon departing Kutaisi for the Black Sea, we stopped to visit two sets of caves.

The Sataplia Cave is important for the showcased footprints of dinosaurs but otherwise is not very interesting. However, I found the Prometheus Caves staggering, with extensive caverns of remarkable stalactite and stalagmite formations accented by great lighting. The walking paths through the caverns were excellent.

Black Sea coast

While Georgia is not a traditional beach destination for Westerners, the azure sea of its Black Sea coast attracts hordes of summer visitors from neighboring countries.

During our visit to the port and resort destination of Batumi, the city was quiet, the sea temperatures were inviting and the beaches along the broad pedestrian boardwalk, virtually empty. The best and most scenic beaches were at nearby Sardi, right at the Turkish border, where I enjoyed an unplanned swim in the pristine sea.

In Batumi we traversed the extensive botanical gardens and explored the ruins of the large, Roman-era Gonio Fortress. All were awed by the lavish architecture of the brand-new Batumi Art Center, which was enjoying its grand opening during our visit.

In Batumi, we were accommodated centrally at the stylish, high-rise Radisson Blue Resort (doubles, $150-$280, including breakfast). Located a short stroll from the beaches, town center and port harbor, the property sported outstanding views and was user friendly in all respects.

Georgia facts & visitors’ options

A general-interest visit to Georgia’s primary attractions could occupy about a week, depending on the level of interest in visiting the country’s coastal region. Panorama Travel advises that a Georgia visit can easily be combined with either or both of its southern neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, in an itinerary of 10 days or longer.

Georgia’s currency is the lari, with an exchange rate of approximately $1 = 1.60 Georgian laris (GEL1.60).

Georgians have a distinct and difficult language with an unfamiliar alphabet, but English is being taught to most children in the schools, and many Georgian adults also speak at least some English. Also helpful — much signage is bilingual with English.

Georgia boasts a higher literacy rate, at 99%, than does the US. Most Georgians are Eastern Orthodox, with only about 10% being Muslim.

Visas are not required for American and Canadian travelers. ATMs are widely available, and credit cards are accepted in many stores and restaurants.

Lufthansa, LOT Polish Airlines and Turkish Airines provide one-stop service to Georgia from the USA via Europe. I suggest traveling to Georgia in the spring or, particularly, the fall harvest season for the best touring weather and to avoid the summer heat and Black Sea resort area crowds.

For information concerning traveling to Georgia and the greater Caucasus region, contact Panorama Travel (989 Avenue of the Americas, 21st Floor, New York, NY 10018; 800/204-7130), a full-service travel company that specializes in air and land travel for both individuals and groups (including visa services) to Russia, Georgia and all former Soviet CIS nations.

Also contact the Georgian National Tourism Agency.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝ Where past collides with present and future promise, revealing an abundant feast for the senses ❞
— Randy reflecting on his Georgia sojourn