People, landscapes, culture … what’s not to love about Georgia
We had set the benchmark. We spent a wonderful week and a half exploring Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, but with several more weeks up our sleeves, we were certainly not going to stop here. Where to next, where to next? Depending on how much time you have here, the world is your oyster. There is a hidden treasure around every corner in this spectacular country. You are just going to have to choose. Be prepared to be constantly surprised! Get ready for the wonders of Georgia!
The true allure of this country is that so few people visit and that by default it really is well and truly off-the-beaten-track. We had spent some wonderful time with Nana, the woman who ran one of the Airbnbs in which we stayed, and she invited us to spend Easter with her in Sagarejo, where some of her family live. Only 63 kilometres from the capital, it’s a peaceful world away. It was just beautiful to break bread with Nana and her delightful family, who were truly exceptional hosts.
David Gareja Monastery
After lunch, the family took us to the David Gareja Monastery. The one hour or so ride, by car, took us through beautiful fields of trees and flowers that looked like a scene out of The Sound of Music. And then we arrived.
David Gareja is a very important historical monument and of prominent religious and cultural significance. It is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery complex located in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia, on the desert-like slopes of Mt Gareja. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels and living quarters carved out of the rock face. It juts out of nowhere, like the Emerald Palace in the Wizard of Oz.
Intriguingly, part of the complex is located in Azerbaijan (one of Georgia’s neighbouring countries) and has, unfortunately, become the subject of a border dispute between the two countries. We had lots of fun exploring but, needless to say, we stuck to the Georgian side! Just let yourself wander … that’s where the fun lies!
Sighnaghi: The Tuscany of Georgia
Our next stop was Sighnaghi, in the Kakheti region of Georgia. It is known as The City of Love or the Tuscany of Georgia. It really did not take long to work out why! Sighnaghi sits on a hilltop some 110 kilometres east of Tbilisi. It looks just like a little Italian village, with cobblestoned streets, 18th and 19th-century architecture and lots of colourful wooden balconies … except that the backdrop is the spectacular Caucasus Mountain Range! The town is almost completely encircled by some extremely well-preserved fortifications. J.R.R. Tolkien’s, “Not all those who wander are lost” could not be truer here. In fact, if you don’t wander and get lost in this delightful little town, you are doing something wrong!
In Sighhnaghi, we chose to stay in family-run Maya Guest House, where both the host and guests were as delightful as the town. The lady who ran the place, Maya, could see that I loved learning about food and cooking, so was constantly showing me things that she had cooked, as well as giving me things to try. It was here that I tried, and fell in love with, buckwheat. This grain is to Georgia and eastern Europe, what bread is to the Italians, or rice to the Asians. It remains one of my favourite grains. We also first tried (homemade) Georgian wine in this guesthouse and to our surprise, it was excellent! To be honest, I did not even know Georgia had wine, let alone good wine!
It was also in this family-run hostel that we met fellow world travellers Julie, Pascal and their 8-month old daughter, Arielle. We just hit it off and did some fun stuff together over the next few days, including visiting a winery. Did I say winery? Yes, I did! How many of you know that Georgia, and indeed Sighnaghi, has some of the best wine in the world? Seriously! Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world! Indeed the traditions of wine are considered entwined with and inseparable from the national identity. I told you that you should be prepared to be surprised!
If you get a chance, go and visit Pheasant’s Tears, a winery in the centre of town. It is a Georgian-US venture and it really does have some top-class wines, which you can also sample. They use the ‘qvevri’ method for fermenting, storage and ageing of wine, which is the traditional Georgian method of using clay vessels buried in the ground. There are actually a number of wineries in the region that you can visit. Ask around; some are family-run small places and others quite big and commercial.
There’s lots to see in and around town from the Church of St Stephen to the fortress gates and walls. At around five kilometres, it’s one of the longest in Georgia and has 23 towers. Although the fortifications almost entirely encircle the town, you can only walk along a small section of it. Walk along the wall a couple of times (and climb up into the towers) at different times of the day because you get different views of the valley and the mountains. You can even see the Caucasus Mountains in the distance from some of the towers.
One of my favourite places was the Bodbe Monastery, or the Monastery of St. Nino. Part of the fun was the two-kilometre, half an hour walk to get there. Slightly uphill all the way, we were eventually rewarded with some more spectacular views of Sighnaghi and its surrounds. Originally built in the 9th century, but significantly remodelled, the monastery now functions as a nunnery and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia, due to its association with St. Nino, the 4th-century female evangelist of Georgians, whose relics are enshrined there. She is said to have brought Christianity to Georgia. Just a beautiful and tranquil place to wander around!
Being vegan, we don’t always get a chance to try some of the national foods. Enter Nigvziani Badrijani. OMG, this has to be one of Georgia’s best dishes. Slices of fried eggplant served with a walnut paste! It seriously has to be one of my favourite international dishes ever! I have yet to meet a person who tried it and did not like it. Do yourself a favour!
Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi – Northern Georgia
The next place we visited was Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi, right up in the north of the country, only 12 kilometres from the Russian border. The climate is the exact opposite of the Meditteranean-like Sighnaghi that we had just visited. Nestled in the Greater Caucasus Mountains, it’s a trekking and mountain climbing mecca. It’s just quite stunningly beautiful.
We found a homely and comfortable family-run place to stay in, which made a wonderful base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. Stepantsminda itself is not that big, but there is plenty to do in the surrounding area. Mt Kazbegi looms in the near distance, like a mother watching over her child. I just loved the energy of this place.
The Gergeti Trinity Church, or Tsminda Sameba, makes for a scenic, relatively short hike away. It’s a popular spot for trekkers and can be reached by a steep 1 1/2 hour climb up the mountain. It is situated on the bank of the river Chkheri, at an elevation of 2170 metres, underneath the awe-inspiring Mt Kazbek. It was a breathtaking hike with jaw-dropping views around every corner. If you are a hiker or have an above-average fitness level, this should not be missed. Although we did not go, there are also some amazing walks in the alpine meadows and forests of the surrounding Kazbegi Nature Reserve.
And thus, this beautiful country continued to amaze and delight! But we weren’t done just yet. We still had some more exploring to do.
Next: We visit some more breathtaking spots in Georgia as we make our way towards Turkey.
Read More on Georgia: Exploring Fascinating Tbilisi in Georgia
FACTS ‘N’ OTHER USEFUL STUFF
Capital City: Tbilisi
Country Population: 3.7 Million
Language: Georgian (The language is written in its own writing system, the Georgian script)
Currency: Georgian Lari (GEL)
Transport: We moved around the country mainly in marshrutkas (local mini-bus). They are cheap, go to most places and fill up once they are full (although you can also book in advance).
Security: This country is super-safe!
Accommodation: Georgia has everything from budget and family fun hostels and hotels, to Airbnb and more top-end hotels. We found the accommodation to be exceptionally clean and comfortable and the hosts friendly and helpful.
Our choice was a combination of family-run places and Airbnb. We rarely book ahead, and in Georgia, we stayed in a mix of family-run pensiones and Airbnb (Get your FREE gift from us when you sign up). Also, check out bookings.com for more options.
NOTE: If you are not already a member of Airbnb click above to create an account. In this way, you can save on your first stay, anywhere in the world. Why Airbnb? The cost is less than a hotel room and you can choose to stay in your own apartment or share with the host. You also often have a laundry and the golden egg … there’s usually a kitchen so you can cook to your heart’s delight!
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Photo Credits: © Alex Benavides (Photography) &
Ombretta Zanetti (Content)
veryitchyfeet.com Ombi & Alex