Travel – Georgia: Lush & Full of Promise
By Lalaine Chu-Benitez
The air was thick with that distinctive scent hinting of dried flowers, a certain aromatic-sweet “something”, anchored to the musty smell of old marble. I’ve always thought that places have their own unique scent – that distinctive whiff implanted in one’s memory bank. And if places indeed had a scent, on that crisp early morning, as we stepped out of the international airport, I could only describe Georgia’s as ancient and utterly intriguing.
It was summer and a sweet 18 degrees centigrade welcomed us as we disembarked from our flight – quite a change from the Gulf’s stifling heat. The 2:45 AM FlyDubai “red eye” out of Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 2 wasn’t as bad as we’ve expected, especially since it was such a joy to land at an airport where Filipinos could avail of visa upon arrival – no muss, no fuss. So there we were, in the quaint intersection between east and west, in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia – a small country of 4.5 million people in the Caucasus region.
The little known former soviet republic sits at the crossroads between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and is bordered by Russia in the north, Turkey and Armenia in the south; Azerbaijan in the southeast, while at the west sits the Black Sea. Georgia’s location, largely protected by the Caucasus mountain range from harsh winters, has blessed the country with a temperate Mediterranean climate, making it suitable both as a cool summer getaway wherein one can enjoy culture and café life, or a kinder winter destination perfect for skiing and other outdoor pursuits.
Just a mere three hours away by plane from Dubai, Tbilisi provides not only a great alternative from the madding crowd of western Europe’s usual tourist haunts, but also a fresh holiday experience especially with the country’s rich history dating back to medieval times, its beautiful countryside and charming old streets, not to mention the warm and easy going nature of the Georgian people.
Treasures of Tbilisi and Beyond
Tbilisi is a sprawling city filled with a hodgepodge of ancient structures – forts, buildings and churches, intermingled with Soviet architecture, as well as Georgian monuments. Interestingly enough, this city founded in the 5th century, is also home to some curiously contemporary buildings, like the Philharmonic Building, the Bridge of Peace and the Tbilisi Public Service Hall, which provide stark contrast to the place’s antique appeal.
There’s a lot to see while you make your way around Tbilisi’s busy thoroughfares. In fact, the best way to explore the city is on foot so that you can appreciate not only destinations like the Old Town, Narikala Fortress, Orbeliani Baths, the Open Air Museum of Ethnography, among others, but even the quiet side streets where both restored and dilapidated buildings sit side by side, some with balconies replete with grape vines and fruit, with the smell of fresh baked leavened bread wafting through the air, giving off that distinctive vibe that is the spirit of Georgia. Just make sure you wear sensible shoes for going up and down the hilly city’s cobbled side streets.
We stayed at Makashvilli Street, in homey Betsy’s hotel which probably has one of the best views overlooking city. There, breakfast is an al fresco affair – with gentle sunlight, cool wind blowing on your face, while the charming city lies before you. From here, just a hop and a skip away is Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare Rustavelli Avenue – a lively stretch full of restaurants, cafés, fashion shops, souvenir markets, as well as hostels, guest houses and five star hotels catering to every type of traveler.
A walk along buzzing Rustavelli will take you through interesting landmarks which include the Parliament Building, Freedom Square, the old opera house, as well as MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) Tbilisi where you can easily lose half a day or more, just viewing the works of national artist Zurab Tsereteli. In our case, most of our time there was spent on leisurely afternoons eating and drinking al fresco, watching both locals and tourists go by, soaking in the laid back atmosphere and breathing in that old-aromatic-sweet scent that we will always remember Georgia by.
As you go around and outside the city, a ubiquitous part of Georgian life you can’t miss are the Orthodox Christian churches that dot the country. These churches are not only significant for their architectural and artistic value, but also their importance to Georgian history and way of life. Tourists are allowed to go in and observe religious proceedings as long as they observe proper decorum. It is must for men to wear trousers (instead of shorts) and women to wear long skirts and cover their head with a scarf. For ladies who are wearing trousers and have no head covering, wrap-around skirts, as well as scarves are often kept at the entrance for visitors.
We have visited quite a number of churches and monasteries during our trip. One of the most impressive was Trinity Church (Sameba) which overlooks the city with its impressive copper roofs, and looks like a fairytale castle at night. Thirty minutes away from Tbilisi, sits a revered pilgrimage site in the country, 6th century Jvari Monastery (Monastery of the Cross). The monastery sits atop a mountain and has an amazing view of World Heritage Site Mtskheta – the former capital of the medieval Iberian Kingdom and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. My personal favorite though is the St. Nicholas Church located in Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi’s most dominant historical landmark built in the 4th century. The church, which dates back to 1701, was destroyed in 1827 and was rebuilt in the 90’s. Here, under the paintings of saints, amidst the solemn polyphonic singing of hymns and the smell of burning candlewax, one is transported to a different time, a different world altogether.
Grapes, Sunflowers and the Mighty Caucasus
Another plus in visiting Tbilisi is the fact that the wide open big country and the mountains are just a few hours away. Once we’ve had our fill of Georgian city life, we headed out for some unforgettable day trips – the first was through wine country in the Kakheti region, and then off to the imposing Caucasus range to commune with nature at a higher altitude in the town of Stepanstminda (Kazbegi) at 5,710 feet above sea level.
It is very difficult to talk about Georgia without touching on the subject of wine. Viticulture is closely tied to the country’s history and is part of Georgian national identity. The country, touted as the birthplace of wine with Neolithic wine production dating from 6000 BC, has its own unique aging process where wine is kept in large round earthen vessels called qvevri, which are buried in the ground.
On the road to Kakheti, we drove past meadows teeming with vineyards and sunflower plantations, with a view of green mountains in the distant horizon. It was such a pleasant ride through quiet roads, with a section of it covered by forests. We visited a couple of monasteries along the way known for wines produced by monks, and then took a break at the Chavchavadze House Museum at Tsinandali. The house of the Father of Georgian romanticism – writer, inventor and military leader – Prince Alexandre Chavchavadze (1786 to 1846), who also had a penchant wine growing, is known for housing notable works of arts and for hosting significant cultural events.
It was here in Tsinandali, in front of the charming museum standing in the middle of an elegant garden lined with towering cypress, exotic and endemic plants serenaded by the sound of classical music, that I have come to realize that Georgia’s scent was – in fact – rooted on the grape vines that abound almost everywhere.
Post Chavchavadze, we moved to the romantic mountain top locale of Signaghi – a small picturesque village straight out of a fairy tale book. There, we visited Pheasant’s Tears, a wine cellar co-owned by American painter John H Wurdeman who was so enamored with Georgian music, culture and the passion for wines that he moved there over 16 years ago. We were met by Chef Gia Rokashvili, who took us through an interesting afternoon of artisanal wines, local bites savored to the sounds of polyphonic singing playing in the background.
Away from Kakheti’s warm weather, we travelled further north the next day to Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi, famous with skiers, trekkers and mountain climbers for its majestic land features and Mount Kazbek – the 3rd highest peak in Georgia. Three hours away from the capital towards the Russian border, the ride provided breathtaking vistas of snow-capped mountain peaks and the idyllic countryside dotted with isolated monasteries and forts, quiet villages, bridges, tunnels, and the odd herd or two of grazing cattle and sheep. The route was sometimes broken by dusty roads and backed up tunnels undergoing construction. However, the sights more than made up for the slight inconvenience.
We made a few stops along the way – first at Ananuri Fortress which overlooked the stunning Zhinvali Reservoir whose turquoise waters sparkled in the sun, bringing even more life to the verdant mountains and trees that fed on its banks. Further taking in the sights, we got down at several viewing decks, among them a fascinating but nameless circular structure adorned with Georgian art, jutting off a cliff.
We arrived in Stepantsminda by noon – slightly shivering in its chilly summer air despite the vigorous sunlight. The small town center, which had a handful of restaurants and cafés, was full of trekkers in full climbing gear. In as much as we wanted to dare ourselves to climb, we didn’t follow suit. Instead, we were content to enjoy a Georgian lunch in the exhilarating open air while the imposing Mount Kazbek stood witness like a gentle giant.
It seemed like a fitting end to a week in this scenic spot on the crossroads between east and west – soaking up the quaint and the place’s age old spirit, amidst the majesty of nature. This beautiful country and its scent will both stay in our memory, just like Georgia’s favorite wine Saperavi – as distinctively lush and full of promise.
Georgia, the Irresistible
There are a couple of reasons why travelers won’t be able to resist Georgia as the next must-visit destination in their bucket list. Here’s why –
Visa upon Arrival. There are a few places outside of the ASEAN nations where Filipinos enjoy this privilege and this country is one of them. You can travel anytime because there’s no need for appointments or visa processing time.
Europe on a shoe-string budget. Travel, stay, eat and enjoy in Georgia even with a small budget. Airfares are affordable, different types of accommodations abound to suit different pockets; while food and transportation are relatively cheaper than the Gulf and other European destinations.
Beautiful weather just three hours away from the emirates. Whether you are looking for a long vacation or a weekend break, Georgia provides a quick getaway. Just hop on a plane and presto – you are in cooler clime.
Special thanks to our tour guides, father and daughter team Kaha and Lika Iosawa for their exceptional service and kindness – a great example of legendary Georgian hospitality. For tour bookings – contact them at +995 599 144 654 or +995 574 072 401