Georgia on my mind

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

by Randy Keck (First of two parts)

Journeying to the developing nation of Georgia was admittedly not on my immediate travel radar screen when I was unexpectedly invited to join a group of travel professionals for a trip to that former Soviet republic. Our September 2011 exploration was hosted by Panorama Travel and the Georgian National Tourism Agency.

A Georgia perspective

Georgia, about the size of Switzerland and with a population of 4.7 million, is a land blessed by nature with a mild climate — Mediterranean in the coastal regions and cooled and moderated by the breathtaking main Caucasus range on its northern border with Russia. To the south, Georgia is bordered on the Black Sea by Turkey and farther inland by Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The 12th-century Gelati Monastery near Kutaisi, Georgia, is filled with amazing frescoes. Photos: Keck

With its diverse landscape in a compact area, Georgia is touted as one of the few places where you can swim in the warm sea in the morning and ski down magnificent slopes in the afternoon. Regionally, it also is known for its plethora of health-oriented, warm mineral spring resorts.

Georgia and its immediate neighbors rest within the east-west “cradle of civilization.” Its long legacy of wars and lesser conflicts over the centuries has, unfortunately, reached into recent history with the 2008 five-day war with Russia. It concerned separatist movements and resulted in a loss of Georgian territory but also in an all-important strengthening of alliances with the West.

Traveling in Georgia today is quite safe. Most importantly, enhanced by the government’s commitment to being a transparent democracy, it feels safe for visitors.

Unquestionably, two of Georgia’s main attractions are its churches and fortresses dating back to the fifth century. Both the external architecture and awe-inspiring internal frescoes of the churches are particularly impressive.

While Christianity was established in the fourth century, Georgia’s Golden Age took place during the 11th and 12th centuries, largely due to the reign of King David the Builder, who initiated the building of many significant religious structures. During the same period, the Georgian poet Rustaveli flourished, ushering in a period of substantive literary achievement.

Tbilisi reckoning

Georgia’s thriving capital, Tbilisi, population 1.4 million, rests on the banks of the Mtkvari River and is surrounded by hills. In the evening the city is brightly illuminated, creating an inviting environment. Evening strolling is a tradition, particularly along the riverbank near the Friendship Bridge, the entertaining dancing fountains and the adjoining Old Town.

Tbilisi has several significant historic attractions, including the fourth-century Narikala Fortress, on a hilltop overlooking the city and the Mtkvari River. Near the river, the preserved, red-brick, domed, 17th-century Turkish-style sulfur baths invite visitors to partake of a variety of spa services.

Also beckoning visitors are the fifth-century Metekhi Church, precariously perched overlooking the river and several fine museums. Both Rustaveli Avenue, with its high-end shops, and Chardin Street, with its outdoor cafés, are favored day and evening pedestrian venues.

We were accommodated at the high-rise Holiday Inn (doubles, $142-$198, including breakfast), but I would recommend the more central Marriott Courtyard (doubles, $170-$235, with breakfast) or carefully choosing one of the city’s smaller, boutique-style, three- or four-star properties.

Tbilisi boasts many restaurants offering fine Georgian cuisine. Some in our group touted the restaurant at Hotel Kopala, in Old Town, which offers excellent views from its dining terrace. Meals cost $12-$20, excluding wine.

Wine culture and cuisine

Georgia proudly boasts the largest number of indigenous grape varieties of any location in the world, and there is evidence that the first wines may have been produced in Georgia 7,000 years ago.

A moment captured on a street in Sighnaghi, Georgia.

Wine is a basic part of the Georgian culture, and home wine making is a longstanding tradition, even in Tbilisi. Homemade wines are traditionally stored in wine jars, large clay vessels that are buried in the ground.

The Kakheti region of eastern Georgia is the center of grape growing and the burgeoning wine industry. Quality vintages produced there are currently being sold abroad, and the industry seems to have unlimited potential.

Many an occasion in Georgia, such as the opening of a wine jar to taste the new wine, is reason for a supra, or feast. On formal occasions, the table is headed by a tamada (toastmaster), who is a skilled organizer and speaker and offers many toasts during the lengthy meal.

Georgian cuisine utilizes a wide array of fresh meats and vegetables, particularly eggplant, tomatoes and cheeses as well as walnuts in paste and sauce form. My impression is that Georgian cuisine seldom disappoints visitors.

Entertainment culture

Traditional Georgian folk music and dance are alive and well and remain important facets of life throughout the country. We enjoyed several excellent music and dance performances during our touring and were not surprised to learn that Georgian singing and dancing troupes regularly tour abroad. I was particularly taken with the haunting Georgian chanting.

The Caucasus beckons

Unfortunately, time constraints on our journey kept us from exploring one of Georgia’s significant attractions, the Greater Caucasus Mountains, which extend from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea along the northern border.

The range is home to the highest settlements in Europe and has numerous peaks over 4,000 meters high, with the crown jewel being Mt. Shkhara (5,068 meters). Hiking and winter sport options abound, including two well-developed ski resorts at Gudauri and Bakuriani.

Before you go

For information concerning traveling to Georgia, 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.

They also specialize in arranging travel to health/medical spas and resorts and provide consolidator air ticketing for destinations worldwide.

You also can contact the Georgian National Tourism Agency.

In part two of “Georgia on My Mind,” I will reveal some of Georgia’s important destinations and suggest strategies for visiting the region.

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