After leaving Turkey and entering the Great Caucasus, Georgia was my first country to visit. As you’ve noticed, I’m not using plural yet because Rochelle joined me in Georgia two weeks later.
As I entered at the beginning of November, the weather was already in winter mode. Heavy rain and strong winds welcomed me in Batumi, Georgia’s first port of call. Although a busy port, Batumi is Georgia’s summer holiday centre with new hotels and attractions popping up like mushrooms in recent years. In reality though, it still owes much of its charm to the elegance of its boom time a century ago. For me arriving from Turkey, Batumi made a great introduction to Georgia, with its relaxed atmosphere, plentiful accommodation and good restaurants. Old buildings have been renovated and attractive new structures have joined them side by side. Strolling around the leafy parks and low-rise central streets is a real pleasure and although grounded in a family-run guest house by the weather, I managed to explore almost the entire old city centre. Unfortunately my pictures and videos were limited due to the bad weather).
The thing that stood out for me, even after almost a month in Georgia, is the balanced blend of the new and the old. This is one of the few countries, if not the only one I have come across, that super modern structures blend in harmony with medieval fortifications and Russian era buildings. That became even clearer as I moved on.
Next stop was the capital Tbilisi where Rochelle would join me. Tbilisi is a modern city trying to move forward in the 21st century after the stagnation of the late 20th. Its streets are crowded with pedestrians and new building projects are ongoing, from a new cathedral and presidential palace to revamped parks and museums. At the same time you can see the crowded old markets, confusing bus stations and shabby Soviet apartment blocks that all complete the picture of the modern capital. Tbilisi is still the beating heart of the South Caucasus and should not be missed by any visitor.
Our plan was to spend no more than the absolute necessary time for our onward visas to Iran and Azerbaijan. In reality, we ended up staying there almost three weeks since the procedures to get our visas were long and endlessly stretched.
The two most difficult to get visas, as we knew from our research back home, had to be taken care of in Tbilisi. The Iranian visa was the first with a total of five days coming and going and a weekend in between. At the end we managed to get it with the help of a travel agent that added another 80 Euros to the already 100 Euros for Rochelle and 50 for me. After that it was time for the visa of Azerbaijan. We picked the option of a five-day transit visa, hoping that it would be easier. Another seven days and 40US$ later, we finally got it.
With all this waiting and with no passports in our hands, since they were in one embassy or the other, we enjoyed every minute of our Tbilisi escape and we did only side trips around it. The first one was to the nearby Mtskheta, a world heritage site with a huge church- for its time of construction- surrounded by thick fortifications. According to the myth, the robe of Jesus was caught in the foundations of the structure when he got there from Jerusalem. The whole city was a really peaceful place with friendly locals that, despite their poor knowledge of English, were eager to help.
After that we got the last news of delay for our visa in Azerbaijan and as my birthday was coming up, we headed to Kazbegi in the north, a small village under the Kazbeg peak (5047m), 15 km from the Russian border.
As a last stop in this republic we planned to visit Davit Gareja (or David Gareji), one of the most remarkable of Georgia’s historic sites, that makes up a great day trip-stop on the way to Azerbaijan. At least that’s what we had in mind. In reality and as the monastery is located a few meters from the Georgia – Azerbaijan border, our GPS directed us into a military zone in the middle of nowhere. Or to be more accurate, in a shooting range that the Georgian military uses for weapon tests, a definitely no-go zone. As soon as we realized where we were, we turned around and rushed out of that forbidden area before we got arrested. It was already late so we decided not to cross the border and find somewhere to stay. All this brought us to Sighnaghi -the city of love- a beautiful hillside village in the middle of the wine area which was for both of us Georgia’s favorite place. Our hosts in Central Guest House went out of their way to accommodate us and made our overnight memorable.
As a total experience, Georgia was a very pleasant surprise for both of us. Although forced to stay much longer than planned, neither Rochelle nor I regret any of it, starting from “The Green Stairs”, a home stay in the centre of Tbilisi, and the Central Guest House in Sighnaghi. Both our hosts made us feel like home. They are both highly recommended. From the endless exploration of the cities, the old and modern sites to the unique cuisine and the Khachapuri options (cheese filled bread) this country has a lot to offer. Georgia, thank you for a wonderful time, it’s been a pleasure.