“Perfect!” I reply, shuffling for a non-existent seatbelt.
There are few things which deep dive me into a culture quicker than a burst of local music and, as a balalaika-infused dance beat stomps through our battered Toyota Prius, I feel like I’ve officially arrived in Georgia. The Caucasus nation has spent time out of the limelight, but recent years have seen it emerge as a trending destination. This, it already feels, is the true eastern Europe.
After rumbling through the cobbles of Freedom Square, I’m dropped off at Fabrika Hostel, a former Soviet-era sewing machine factory refurbished as Tbilisi’s hottest social hub. It’s a cool spot: a courtyard of indie retailers leads to a warehouse lobby lush with cheese plants and French electro, while private rooms deliver more industrial chic than a Brooklyn loft.
A little too early for check-in, Tbilisi is mine to wander, so out I venture in dawn’s golden hour to witness the city coming to life. There’s an unplugged beauty to it at this hour: the roll of beer kegs, the purposeful stride of early commuters, traders sweeping the cobbles with traditional birch brooms. And, as the sun rises over Narikala fortress, it gently gilds the city’s churches, mosques and synagogues and reveals a gorgeous old town, tumbling over with ornate balconies. I’ve never quite seen a city like Tbilisi, but a medieval New Orleans might describe it best.
With such a gorgeous aesthetic, you’d wonder why Georgia hasn’t emerged as more of a tourism player. But the truth is, it has. The country enjoys a thriving tourism industry (almost 9m annual visitors is close to the number Ireland welcomes every year) – it’s simply that most of its visitors originate east of the Volga. Wandering the streets here, you’ll hear Turkish and Russian, Farsi and Hebrew spoken. But you’ll also sense an increasing smattering of Germans, Scandinavians and American back-packers tapping into Georgia’s new-found vogue.
With the morning tourist trail beginning to heave, I seek out solace in one of Tbilisi’s most popular refuges: traditional sulphur baths. Tbilisi (meaning warm) was founded upon the hot springs which bubble beneath its foundations, and today Abanotubani is the city’s old-school spa district, with a dozen bathhouses to dip into. I robe up in the most striking of these, Chreli Abano (chreli-abano.ge), with its blue-tiled mosque-like facade dazzling like an urban hammam heaven. Inside, beneath marble, chandeliers and with a burly local masseur scrubbing me down, I’ve discovered the most blissful antidote to the red-eye from Istanbul (and for just €15, too).
Paired with its baths, Georgia’s wine scene is also ready to woo. The country is lauded as a cradle of viticulture with original vintages dating back 8,000 years. Fortunes have been mixed since – Georgian wine was the go-to house gift during Soviet times, but after the Russians corked Georgian imports following their 2008 war, the industry has taken a hit. As a result, there’s a lot of good stuff on the ground and for a local degustation, I head to the charming Wine Buffet located up a backstreet old-town alley. Ella Fitzgerald tunes lure me up the staircase of the locale where outstanding native reds along with a cheeseboard with honey, walnuts and figs awaits. It’s the simplest of pleasures and Georgia does them so well.
When it comes to exploring beyond the capital, Tbilisi is the hub for Georgia’s lively excursion scene with myriad outfitters offering tours to everywhere from Black Sea resorts to day trips to Armenia. Inspired, but keen to go solo, the next morning I head to the labyrinthine Didube station and hop aboard a shared minibus taxi (€5) towards Mount Kazbegi and the great Georgian postcard.
Leaving the capital, Tbilisi’s cityscape soon peters out to a rawer landscape. First, cobalt river valleys, then some of Europe’s highest mountain passes, then pristine Alpine landscapes where imperial eagles patrol the skies.
In the 2,200m-high village of Gudauri, a flurry of condo construction signals that I’m in Georgia’s thriving skiing region. These would be million-dollar views were I in Interlaken or Aspen – but here, new pads are advertised from just €30k.
From Gudauri, we continue towards my end destination: the hamlet of Gergeti, one of the final stops along Georgia’s historic Military Highway. And, given both past and recent histories, it’s hard not to be struck by the Caucasus’ dense crossroads of cultures. In the distance, snow-capped Mount Kazbegi marks the border with the Russian-occupied region of South Ossetia, while infamous names like Chechnya and Beslan lie less than 100km up the road. Fortunately for go-slow Gergeti, natural beauty overshadows it all.
For my stay here, I’ve booked a spot on Airbnb, though finding it proved easier online than in reality. Armed with a Google screenshot, I ramble through a potholed track of roosters and donkeys before my host, Mrs Ketino, finally answers my call. With limited English, she proudly welcomes me into her home, a rustic villa meets rambling boarding house for foreign hikers. Amid a warren of rooms, I’m shown to my top-storey refuge, a kitsch explosion of Georgian grandma interior with stunning mountain views outside. It’s nature and nurture at its best.
Gergeti is most famous for its 14th century Trinity Church, perched upon a mountaintop scene so spectacular, it’s almost become a symbol of Georgia itself. An hour’s hike is all that separates me from its majesty, so off I strike up the mountain trail, a stray dog offering welcome companionship en route.
As the air thins, the relaxation heightens and scenes of pastoral beauty unfold around me. Surmounting the steps to the breathtaking chapel, I’ve reached peak Georgia and the most epic crescendo to my stay.
Below in the valley, a real-life shepherd lies watching his flock before yelling out to a camera-wielding tourist. Word is out on Georgia’s beauty – but hopefully he’ll still enjoy some solitude here for a few more years.
Thomas was a guest of Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com), which flies from Dublin to Tbilisi daily via the new Istanbul Airport. Fares start from €369 return with a flight time of around 6.5 hours, excluding the layover.
For more info see georgia.travel.
Where to stay
Private rooms in Fabrika Hostel (hostelfabrika.com) start from €40 per night while dorms will cut your budget to just €6.
For a downtown hotel, the Ibis Styles (ibis.accorhotels.com; €99) is a slick design hotel with colour-burst rooms inspired by Georgia’s shepherding roots.
Georgian homestays on Airbnb (airbnb.ie) make affordable, hospitable bets; my stay in Gergeti cost just €10 per night.
To get around Tbilisi, Yandex (yandex.com) is the city’s incarnation of Uber, where you’ll find less that €5 will zip you anywhere around town. If venturing beyond Tbilisi, Marshruktas (shared minibus taxis) are a great way to travel door to door. Most signs are marked in English but familiarize yourself with the Georgian script of your destination just in case.
Slovenia: An unlikely Adventure Eden
(function() window.facebookInitHandlers = ;
var initFacebook = function() FB.init(
appId : ‘714861305308164’,
status : true,
cookie : true,
xfbml : true
var handlers = window.facebookInitHandlers;
window.facebookInitHandlers = undefined;
for (var i = 0; i < handlers.length; i++) handlers[i].call(this); ;
window.onFacebookInit = function(handler) if (window.facebookInitHandlers) window.facebookInitHandlers.push(handler);
if (window.FB) console && console.log && console.log('window.FB loaded');
initFacebook(); else handler.call(this); ;
window.fbAsyncInit = function() console && console.log && console.log('fbAsyncInit called');
var js, id = 'facebook-jssdk', ref = d.getElementsByTagName('script');
if (d.getElementById(id)) return;
js = d.createElement('script'); js.id = id; js.async = true;
js.src = "http://connect.facebook.net/en_US/all.js";