The spectacular scenery of the high peaks of the Caucasus stretches across Georgia, which perches on the far eastern edge of Europe, bordering Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. It’s finally starting to attract visitors in greater numbers, thanks to cheap flights from Europe and Russia, but it’s still relatively unknown (many people thought I was visiting the US state!)
Georgia was a great surprise…I have to admit I didn’t do much research beforehand for this one but my husband found a recently-launched tour company called Budget Georgia who tailored two day trips for us. Giga, the company owner, is a great host and travel companion who I can definitely recommend!
The scenery is really fantastic in places, from wooded gorges to wide valleys, all circled by peaks of varying heights. We were there in September, when temperatures had dropped from the summer highs of up to 40C, but it was still 32C during our time in Georgia.
Borjomi, Georgia’s original spa town
Borjomi’s name was well known in the old Soviet Union, due to its famous mineral water, bottled from the hot springs in this pretty wooded valley. The scenery here is lovely for walks – pay the small entrance fee to enter the pleasure grounds of the old spa where there are many activities on offer in summer, including an old-fashioned fun fair, thermal pools and a cable car with a lovely view out over the valley. The street that leads up to the spa gates is also home to some pretty old buildings with traditional carved Georgian balconies – this one used to be the embassy of Azerbaijan! (The contrast between the old Georgian architecture and the Soviet-style apartment blocks is really striking throughout the country)
Vardzia, ancient cave city
Vardzia was the one place I really wanted to visit in Georgia, after seeing it in Levison Wood’s recent series From Russia to Iran. It didn’t disappoint. So far south that it’s almost on the border with Turkey, Vardzia is an ancient cave city which dates back to the 12th century when it was used as a monastery by local monks. Set in a wide valley, thousands of cave dwellings were carved out of the soft limestone cliffs on dozens of different levels, including a larger cave which served as a church. It’s a really fascinating place and must have been really isolated back in the Middle Ages – definitely somewhere that should be on your list to visit in Georgia.
Even more intriguingly, what you see today is only a third of the original cave city – two thirds were destroyed in an earthquake in 1283!
Rabati is an interesting place – the castle is very obviously (recently) restored so if you’re looking for a crumbling romantic ruin, this isn’t the place. But it’s actually good to see how it originally looked, including intricately carved wooden panelled rooms, a gold-domed mosque and wooden boxed windows. The mixture of architectural styles is one of the most interesting things about it – you never know what will be around the next corner!
The churches that form the monastery complex are filled with frescoes and also hold the grave of David The Builder, king of Georgia in the 12th century and considered as one of the greatest figures in Georgian history. The Monastery has a rich cultural history and stills holds many manuscript dating back to the 12th century.
The famous Georgian hospitality!
Wine-loving, hospitable Georgians will welcome the chance to show off the local food or offer a glass of chacha (homemade grape brandy) while raising a toast or two. In fact there’s a whole culture around toasting at a feast called supra – there’s a good explanation of it here.
Georgia is a 4hr15 hour flight from the UK – we flew from London Luton to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city. Most countries don’t need a visa for stays of less than 30 days but check with your embassy before travel.