A top-tier Eurasian destination that most Western Europeans haven’t visited yet
I’ve always felt sorry for people who have the same name as someone famous. Georgia is a small country in the Caucasus, a mountainous strip of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. But everyone thinks it’s in America.
The US state that shares its name is over twice as large and has roughly three times the population. It’s the birthplace of many widely-recognised and popular people: Martin Luther King, Kanye West, Julia Roberts and Jimmy Carter.
The only person most people know from the country Georgia is Joseph Stalin.
Still, for a small country, Georgia is crammed full of things to do, see, eat and drink. It’s long been a hugely popular spot with tourists from its neighbours Russia and Turkey, and frankly it’s about time it got more visitors from further afield. Here’s why.
1. Georgia has excellent mountain hiking
If you google “Georgia Mountains”, you get a load of pictures of the grassy Appalachians in the USA. Georgia the country has its own far more imposing mountains though. The Caucasus range sprawls across its northern border with Russia and eastern border with Azerbaijan. The tallest snow-capped peaks reach over 5000 metres.
One of the most popular Georgian hikes lasts 4 days and takes you between the mountain villages of Mestia and Ushguli. Both are recognised by UNESCO for their medieval buildings and Svan towers – lookout posts dating back to the 8th century used by locals to watch for invaders.
I’d not done proper hiking before visiting Georgia, so the sharp changes in elevation combined with the June heat and weight of a backpack were quite tough to get used to. But by day 4, I felt like Legolas, bounding over hills and surveying the landscape for invading Uruk-hai/Russians.
According to some of the more seasoned hikers I found along the way, the elevation changes make the Mestia to Ushguli hike harder than a lot of the trekking you find in the Himalayas. It’s definitely a worthy challenge for anyone who’s reasonably fit and loves the outdoors, but there are also plenty of easier trails if that all sounds a bit too ambitious!
2. Georgia produces some fantastic wine
Not many people know this, but Georgia is the oldest wine-producing country in the world.
Winemaking is such a part of the culture that everyone gives it a go. Head down to the market and you’ll find Georgians selling their own recipe in old plastic water bottles. Get into a chat with a taxi driver and there’s a decent chance he’ll proudly present you with some wine he made in his garden.
I’ve even had one driver take a swig of his own chacha – a strong spirit made with grape residue left over from the winemaking process – before trying to sell me that same bottle while still at the wheel.
The traditional Georgian wine-making method is on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. It involves crushing grapes and pouring them into giant earthenware pots called Kvevri. These are buried in the ground and left while everything ferments. If you spend a night or two at a Georgian vineyard – and I strongly recommend you do – you can buy bottles and bottles of wine straight from the ground for a few pounds. And it’s very flavoursome.
So why don’t we see more Georgian wines in the supermarket?
Georgia gained a reputation for making the best wine in the USSR. So about 60 percent of the 94 million bottles of wine Georgia exported in 2019 were snapped up by Russia. A lot of it also goes to Belarus, Poland and China.
There is hope that there’ll be more Georgian wine on the shelves soon, though. Last year saw a 60 percent increase in exports to the UK and a 48 percent increase to the US.
If you want the best stuff for the best price, you should visit Georgia itself, of course.
3. Georgian cuisine is hearty, comforting and delicious
Georgia’s culinary relationship with Russia is a bit like India’s culinary relationship with the UK.
You have an imperial power with (let’s face it) not a great reputation for appetising and varied food. Then you have a former colony with a rich, diverse cuisine that uses an array of ingredients.
Just as curry houses are now a British staple, you can’t go far without finding a Georgian restaurant in Russia.
Georgian food is lovely. There are too many great dishes to mention here, but my favourites are without a doubt khinkali – dumplings filled with minced meat, broth and spices – and pkhali – chopped and fried vegetables that are often stuffed with a walnut and garlic paste.
You could spend weeks just moving between each region of Georgia and trying regional specialities. There are soups, breads, cheeses, meats, salads, stews – you name it, Georgia has it.
4. Georgia is packed with very old churches and monasteries
I’m not going to pretend this was my main motivation for visiting Georgia. If you’ve read my post about avoiding Southeast Asian temple fatigue, you’ll know that I think religious buildings start to get a bit samey after a while.
But if churches and monasteries are your thing, Georgia has you covered.
Many visitors from the UK will probably land in the city of Kutaisi, because that’s where Wizz Air opened a base in 2016. From there, you can visit Bagrati Cathedral (11th century) and Gelati Monastery (12th century).
If you fly straight to Tbilisi, you can visit Mtskheta – the former capital – on a day trip. You’ll find a couple of monasteries there, including Jvari, (roughly 7th century) which is perched precariously on a cliff edge.
As in neighbouring Armenia, the most striking thing about the churches and monasteries in Georgia tends to be where they were built. When you see little churches on a mountaintop or carved into the side of a ravine, you can’t help but wonder if anyone actually turns up for Sunday service.
5. Georgia is famous for its water
Because Georgia is endowed with impressive mountains, its springs produce ever-so-slightly carbonated water that’s full of minerals. This water accounts for 3 percent of Georgia’s exports.
Borjomi is the most famous brand and in my opinion the tastiest. It takes its name from the Borjomi Gorge, a canyon in the centre of the country.
Georgians swear by Borjomi’s potency as a hangover cure and it is rumoured to have all sorts of general healing properties. The owner of one of the guesthouses I stayed at insisted her husband had reversed the effects of his diabetes by drinking bottles of Borjomi before bed.
If you are interested in trying out this supposed remedy or if you simply want to show off to your work clients with superior conference water, here’s the link to Borjomi’s site.
And if you fancy combining everything on this list to get the full Georgian experience, why not try a food and wine binge followed by a bottle or two of Borjomi. Then you can see whether you feel like taking on the mountains when you wake up the next day!