I Just Can't Get Georgia (the Country) Off My Mind
The country of Georgia is red-hot when it comes to tourists seeking the next experience, so go before everybody else does.
The dog picked an idiot for its mark.
That idiot happened to be me. Unfortunately for the dog, my idiocy meant we were 12,000 feet above sea level at the foot of Gergeti Glacier near the Georgia-Russia border, sans sunscreen, good hiking boots, multiple bottles of water, toilet paper, and most important to the dog, food.
And yet, I was euphoric, having reached the turnaround point of what had been one of the most beautiful hikes of my life in the middle of an adventure-filled visit to one of the “hottest” destinations in the world right now—the Republic of Georgia.
My journey in Georgia began a week earlier, after crossing over from my road trip around its southern neighbor, Armenia. What may have ended up as a beautiful road trip did not start out well, as the road from the border entry point we chose (not a popular one given that we were the only car) had more craters than actual roadway. After a mind-numbing number of miles pitching up and down (thankfully, we paid extra for an SUV), we realized that Georgia was even more beautiful and scenic than Armenia had been.
The infrastructure hell ended once we hit the mid-size town of Akhalkalaki, and exiting it, we entered the Georgia everybody raves about—dramatic nature, good food, and well-preserved medieval ruins that make you wonder what took the world so long to fall in love with this place.
Given the boom in coverage and interest in Georgia, I won’t pretend that my journey will uncover some unknown corner of the world for you, but rather it might give you a couple pitfalls to avoid and inspire you to pull the trigger on a trip to this peculiar part of the world.
One of those pitfalls appeared on the first leg of the trip. After spending a beautiful day exploring the cave city of Vardzia and its surrounding valley, we headed over Akhaltsikhe to visit Rabati Castle since it was on our way to Borjomi, our first overnight stop. The castle complex mostly reflects the period of Ottoman rule in this region, with a decommissioned mosque, and buildings that reflect a more Islamic style. But if I have one overarching criticism of Georgia, it’s that in its zeal to restore (and capitalize with tourists on the restorations), it can create a Disney-like quality to historic buildings and sites. That is certainly the case with Rabati, and so while I would wholeheartedly endorse visiting Vardzia, if you’re crunched for time I would skip the castle complex.
We had planned to stay in Borjomi for just one night so we could rush up to the medieval tower villages and mountains of the Svaneti region. But we ended up taking three days off from the road, as something we ate or drank in northern Armenia worked its way through our systems. Mostly famous for its mineral water (I’m not a fan, it’s very salty) and as a resort destination for Russian nobility (a mansion built for Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich of Russia still exists), the town is a charming little place full of spas nestled in the mountains.
Rested and with stomachs ready to handle Georgian cuisine, we headed out to Tbilisi, stopping in Gori to check out Stalin’s hometown. While the museum commemorating him was just a context-less collection of Stalin propaganda, it did have an unintended side benefit—after viewing hundreds of photos of Stalin and then wandering Tbilisi, I suddenly noticed just how Georgian he looked.
Plenty has been written about Tbilisi, whose rabbit warren of streets, and their array of architectural styles, are sure to please the strolling tourist. The city is picturesquely situated, with some parts rolling up from the Kura River and others perched on palisades à la Pittsburgh. The national museum was mediocre, and getting a handle on the local food and drink was proving challenging. Our first attempt at a wine tasting had us unwittingly crashing a wine importer event at 8,000 Vintages in which we B.S.’ed our way through tasting rounds. The first khinkali (savory Georgian dumplings) were rubbery—not the divine experience I had been led to expect.
So I tagged along on a tour given by the journalist Paul Rimple at Culinary Backstreets. His help in finding good food (if you’re a sauce person, his sauce lady at the local market will make you tingle. His pickle lady, who had the world’s best pickled carrots, sadly passed away last month) and in navigating the nuances of Georgian cuisine (I am now my extended friend group’s menu interpreter for one of D.C.’s hottest restaurants, Supra), sprinkled with deep knowledge of the country’s political and cultural scene—were just what I needed. Plus, the day finished at what ended up being my favorite restaurant in the city, Ezo, which is just around the corner from the famed Cafe Littera.
Despite its size, Georgia has a huge number of regions to visit. I didn’t make it to the Black Sea playground of Batumi or get to hike in northwest Svaneti or northeast Tusheti. Nor did I make it to the Kakheti region that is the center of Georgia’s booming wine industry. And under time constraints, the disputed region of Abkhazia was out of the question. All of those await my eager return. Instead, determined to explore beyond Tbilisi, I got back in the rental car and drove three dreamy hours through verdant valleys and snow-capped mountains to Stepantsminda, where I could hike in Kazbegi National Park.
I love hiking, and do it often, but there are occasions where I’m what one might call ill-prepared. Sometimes it’s because I just go to check a place out and once there realize I MUST hike it immediately. Sometimes I’m forgetful. Sometimes I just don’t have what I should, but am still determined to go. And so it was that I found reaching the summit of Gergeti Glacier without items one would consider necessary. I’d been chased by sheep dogs as big as Shetland ponies when I lost the trailhead, my knees were screaming thanks to my frugal decision to bring year-old running sneakers with no support, and my stomach felt ready to eat itself. Sorry, little dog, we’re both out of luck.
But it was worth it. Kazbegi has something for everybody. The less fitness-oriented can drive to the first scenic point of Gergeti Monastery, a 14th-century church perched on a small mountain surrounded by towering peaks. The word “scenic” is utterly inadequate. Others hike to the monastery and stop there. Some, like me, hike to the glacier a few thousand feet above it. Others hike from nearby Juta to the alpine Abudelari lakes (which was my intention until I destroyed my knees).
After saying goodbye to the pup, I head back to my hotel and ice my aching knees. I’d treated myself to a room with a mountain view at the iconic Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, and was now grateful that I had a pool to swim in and spa to relax at. Plus, they had a magnificent breakfast spread for me to gorge myself on.
Fast forward a few days later: I’ve had the chance to wander Tbilisi some more and stop my homesickness in its tracks at the chic new Stamba Hotel and its international restaurant. On the car ride out to the airport with a gregarious taxi driver, I realize that as enthusiastic as I am about jumping over to Azerbaijan for my next leg of the journey, I am suddenly, surprisingly reluctant to leave this beguiling country. I just can’t get Georgia off my mind.