The Great Georgian Road Trip

Wedged right between the Black Sea, Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, there exists a charming piece of Europe that has maintained its deep cultural heritage through the Ottoman and Soviet Empires. A land filled with majestic castles and ornate churches that tell secrets of a golden middle age. Free to explore and fill your mind with imagination, the historical landscape beats with the pulse of ancient civilizations. The Caucasus Mountains beckon the thrill of elevation and pierce your eyes with jagged, snowcapped peaks. The fertile valleys below produce the earths freshest ingredients satisfying the roaming stomach with some of the worlds finest cuisine and lifting the spirits with tasty wines. The name is Georgia, and we are not talking about the peach filled state of the south, but the real Georgia with over 7,000 years of civilized history.

Georgia is hardly bigger than the state of West Virginia, but within its tiny borders lie thousands of years of history and months worth of adventure. Take a road map of the country, and you cannot go more than 20 miles without a notable landmark. Whether it is the ruins of a castle, a hilltop cathedral, an active monastery, ancient cave dwellings, or or a bustling old town, there is something around every corner. I only had one week in the country, and with so much to see, and so many stops along the way, renting a car was the only sensible way to see as much of the country as possible. Tbilisi, the capital city, was my first stop and immediately I regretted only planning one week for this country. Tbilisi itself has so much to see and do and many other travellers I met shared stories of their month long trip exploring this hidden gem. The streets of Tbilisi are filled with travel agencies showcasing all the country has to offer and cars line the old town with advertisements to rent them. We chose Tbilisi Auto Rent (www.tbilisiautorent.com). They provided us with a 4WD (necessary!!) Nissan SUV for 72 hours at $60 a day and a one way fee of $70 to drop it off in Batumi on the Black Sea. It should also be noted that there is no great, organized route across Georgia. Because of mountains to the north and the south, one highway runs right through the middle with most of the sites way up north or way down south. This will cause for a lot of backtracking, but again Georgia isn’t that big to begin with and most sites are worth driving by a couple times anyways.

TBILISI

Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a great place to start any trip around Georgia. The vibrant capital sits in the South East and boasts anything that a quaint European city might. Crumbling fortresses line the cities edge, elegant churches dot the skyline, buzzing cafes and bars line the streets of old town, colorful houses line the cobblestone drives, the Kura river lazily floats by, and ultramodern architecture strictly contrasts and compliments the age old city. All of the churches are active Orthodox cathedrals. Every Sunday morning you can witness the procession of the liturgy and sit next to some of the faiths most respected bishops. Climbing the surrounding hills, or riding the funicular, gives you amazing vantage points of the sprawling city below and gives you access to climb fortress walls and stand on ancient castles. The colorful old town sits on the hill and is where most of your budget accommodation can be found. Many hostels and  apartments have patios with sweeping views of the life below. Rooftop bars pump the music late into the night as the castles and churches glow under the moonlit sky. Many days could have been spent in Tbilisi to fully discover the culture of this rich city, but the rest of the country was calling.

MTSKHETA

Mtskheta

Just as Tbilisi ends in the north, the tiny town of Mtskheta swiftly takes its place. Overlooking the small town high on the hilltops across the river sits Jvari Monastery. The church was built in the 6th century and is the best location to view the town of Mtskheta below. In the middle of the town is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It is built in the location of Georgia’s first Orthodox church and is said to be where the faith began in the country. It is even rumored that one of Georgia’s kings was buried beneath the church holding the robe of Jesus Christ. Around the church there is an active old town with quaint hotels, and plenty of amazing Georgian cuisine to be had on the side of the cobblestone streets.

ANANURI

Ananuri

A few hours north of Mtskheta there is a beautiful turquoise blue reservoir. To the far north west end of the u shaped body of water sits the Ananuri castle complex. As you drive towards it you will receive beautiful views of the castle sitting on a small peninsula amidst the vibrant water. There is not much of a town to go with the complex, but it is said that the castle was the site of many bloody battles. In the church today you will find peelings frescoes on the church wall and a nun quietly walking around maintaining all of the candle flames and incense burners.

GERGETI TRINITY CHURCH

Gergeti

A 4 hour drive north will start to take you deep into the Kazbegi mountain range. Driving becomes very slow as you are taking switchback after switchback to weave up to the mountain town of Stepantsminda. After arriving in the quaint mountain town, it is still a 2 hour treacherous hike, or even more treacherous hour drive up the steep mountainside to sneak a peak at the Gergeti Trinity Church. On a clear mountain day, jagged, snowy peaks will be all you see as the backdrop for this isolated cathedral. Unfortunately, after all of our driving and treacherous offloading in the rain, the skies were filled with clouds only giving us a blurry glimpse of the iconic church against a white backdrop. After the disappointing weather, we had to turn around and backtrack all the way to Mtskheta to hit the highway going east.

KHERTVISI CASTLE

Khertvisi

This is why renting a car is the only way to travel Georgia! If you were to take a tour bus, your driver would absent mindedly drive past the countless castles and churches that are right off the main road all the while, the abandoned castle screams “Climb me!” With your own car, you can pull over whenever you want, take back roads, and get wet off the beaten path. The best part is Georgia has so many of these abandoned castles that just seem to be completely forgotten about that they are hardly ever regulated for tourism. You can climb in and around and up them as much as you like without paying a thing! So thats what I did as the Khertvisi castle revealed itself off the highway. 

VARDZIA

Vardzia

Just an hour south of the abandoned Khertvisi ruins are the amazing Vardzia cave dwellings. In the middle of the fertile farm lands, a sheer rock face has been punctured by the ancient dwellings of an age old civilization. For $2 you can climb up this rock face and weave in and out of the holes that once served as homes, barns, wine cellars, churches, markets, and public libraries. Behind one of the still functioning monasteries there is a tunnel that forces you to your hands and knees as you dig deep into hillside losing all sense of light or direction and causing quite a bit of panic and anxiety until a few hundred meters later when the light at the end of the tunnel appears taking you to a completely different segment of the cave dwellings.

ATSKURI CASTLE

Atskuri

Once again backtracking up north is the only way to return to the major highway across Georgia. Along the way we stopped at another amazing castle ruin that we simply neglected on the way down. The orange moss and the jagged hill it sat upon beckoned us nearer on the way back north however. Once again, no-one oversees this castle or controls its entry, but it is just open and free for the public climb and feel like a king as you stand upon its spires overlooking the kingdom.

KUTAISI

Kutaisi

Kutaisi is the third largest city in Georgia, but that isn’t saying too much as it only has 200,000 residents. Its a sleepy little town dotted with many churches, as usual, that sit right along the meandering river. The Bagrati cathedral is its most noticeable church as it sits high above the city creating an amazing vantage point for the town below. Little street side markets fill the town square as local restaurant and cafe owners grab the needed ingredients for the evenings meals. A small park filled with fountains draws an evening crowd as old men lightly gamble and kids run around with ice cream. A funicular that appears to be from the soviet era transports brave passengers to the top of the hill for a stunning sunset. Just a few kilometers away, tourists and locals are thousands of meters below ground experiencing one of Europe’s most extensive cave systems, Prometheus Caves. 

BATUMI

Batumi

As we continue west along the highway, we run straight into the Black Sea. Along the coast is a beautiful scenic coastal drive that takes you through many small beach towns. The Black sea sparkles with an ironically turquoise blue color as waves crash against the shore. A few abandoned castles are found along the way as you make it to Georgia’s premier entertainment capital. Batumi is unlike anything else you have experience in Georgia. The skyline is filled with modern and ever expanding architecture. The rocky beach is filled with loud bars and cafes and the beach boulevard is filled with tourists from all over the world. Theme park rides line the boardwalk and a 2.5 kilometer long funicular will take you way out of town to the mountainous circus groves of the region. The nightlife is ripe as pier bars play music and flash lights through the night and flashy casinos fill the streets. Suddenly there are hardly any churches or castles in site and you that your time through ancient Georgia has come to a close. But make sure you stop at a few of the local restaurants one last time to taste the delicious  Khachapuri (cheese bread) and Kharcho (a beef, walnut, and cilantro stew).

Inside the Georgian Orthodox Church

One of the most interesting parts about traveling overland is seeing how neighboring countries and cities directly compare to each other. As you go east to west you see cultures and people groups change. You watch as wardrobes slowly morph into the next wardrobe and taste as the foods gradually add flavors. One thing that has been of most interest is watching the religion change. In fact one day I hope to be able to publish a whole book on just some of the religions of the world. We started with Buddhism in China, which actually quite suddenly and drastically changed to very conservative Islam in Xinjiang province, which then changed to more cultural islam in south Kyrgyzstan, to nominal and mixed islam and Russian Orthodox in North Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, then back to predominant Islam in Azerbaijan, but then a sudden and complete change to Georgian orthodox in Georgia. Minarets that once used to break the skyline and calls to prayer have been transferred to crosses on every building and church bells ringing on certain hours. The women continue to wear skirts and head coverings and the men continue to wear robes and funky hats. Countries right next to each other, with such similar religious conduct, but with such different purposes.

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In Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, there is a church on every corner. Though throngs of tourists step in and out of these churches every day to observe the art and architecture, there are also dedicated monks, nuns, and church members in and out of the church doors performing their religious ceremonies. Incense is being waived, candles are being burnt, crosses are being kissed, scripts are being read, and religious icons are being adored. Gold fills the room as every painting is outline with golden castes of figures with only faces poking through. Colorful motifs of saints occupy the church pillars with angels painted on the walls. Every church has a floor plan shaped like a cross with a large wooden chair in the middle facing the front. This is where the archbishop of the church conducts his liturgy every Sunday morning to the masses. Throughout the week activities are going on. The priest in this photo was offering this cross to repentant sinners to cleanse them of their wrongdoings. In the corners, other priests were discussing other topics with people seeking refuge. On one side 3 young women continued chants of praise as the flow of ceremonies continued. Others were circling the church, lap after lap, reciting prayers. It was a cathedral full of life, seeking, and wonder. 

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Tbilisi: Modern yet Antiquated

Weaving in and out of cobblestone streets of old town Tbilisi, the view is ever changing as church steeples come into view at every turn. Whether you are looking at the opposing hill at the monstrous Holy Trinity Cathedral or discovering little hidden away churches amidst the colorful apartments and hotels, there is history and culture around every corner. The old town of Tbilisi is built right into the hill that ascends to Narikala fort. The streets have no pattern or order, but just wind through the hills at the landscapes convenience. Whether you are looking for your hostel, a niche shop, or a unique place to eat, the colorful old town will never disappoint. Every establishment has a porch that overlooks the Tbilisi valley offering sweeping panoramic views of the remarkable capital city.

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Much of the valley is dotted with cathedrals poking above the buildings. However, throughout the city yo will see little sparks of modernity that starkly contrast the old architecture. The Peace Bridge has a very sleek, bubbly glassy look that spans the muddy river transporting you from old town to the very eclectic city park. Up the hill is the glass domed parliament building and just below that is the brand new modern arts building that is shaped as a giant metallic horseshoe. Above the hills in the distance, you also see a jagged, mirrored building reaching above the mountains. The brand new Millennium hotel is Tbilisi’s first 7 star hotel and will open within the month. Along the river, there is also the iconic Public Service hall that puffs up out of the water taking the shape of floating fungus. 

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Atop Narikala fort you can climb upon castle walls overlooking the whole city. As you look down you will immediately notice this strange contrast of architecture. The red roofs of old town, the stone church steeples, the towering chapel across the river, the Millennium hotel down the river, as well as the shiny, modern shaped pieces of art along the central park. The view is strange and a bit confusing, but it is what makes Tbilisi, Tbilisi. Its modern and hip, yet old and historic. The cobblestone streets and castles take you back to medieval eras, but then the the modern architecture reminds you you are in the 21st century. You could get yourself lost in either of these worlds, but enjoying how they work together is the wonder of Tbilisi. 

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My 3 Favorite Places!! — so far….

There  are many ways to ask this question, and even more ways to answer it. So many beautiful places dot this planet and for so many different reasons can they be considered beautiful. Also, the word favorite is only relative to the person being asked and is completely subjective. Just because one place is my favorite, does not mean it is another persons favorite, or in fact it may be there least favorite. 

For the sake of this blog, however, I will simply be displaying three places that if you were to ask me in this moment, where I would buy my next plane ticket to, these might be top of the list. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in these places and would not mind at all a second visit, just to take even more in and relive the beautiful moments I had.

Every traveller has things that make a place interesting to them. For me, I love the mix of nature and civilization. I love places that are naturally so beautiful, and the people that settled there had good taste in how to aesthetically settle. They made decisions based on their surroundings on how to best respect the surrounding nature. They complemented their surroundings instead of disrupting them. Therefore, the mix that is created compounds awe and wonder upon itself. That is why I name these three places my favorite:

  1. Queenstown, New Zealand

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In the middle of the Southern Island of New Zealand sits the adventure capital of the World. The small town of Queenstown boasts over 300 adrenaline pumping activities. There is snowboarding in the mountains, jet boating in the lake, hang gliding off the mountains, and of course bungee jumping. Queenstown is the birthplace of Bungee Jumping and offers a few different jumping locations. Much of the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed in this region with many vast mountain backdrops offered. The Remarkable Mountain range in the background has been highlighted in many feature films for its perfect, jagged form. The peninsulas in the lake below just complete Queenstown’s unique, iconic landscape dotted with unique hostels, cafes, and bars. Allow at least a week when visiting the adventure capital of the world!

  1. Kotor, Montenegro

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Kotor sits right at the base of the mountains and right on the edge of this inlet from the Adriatic Sea. Below sits the remains of an ancient civilization, one that used coins with the face of Caesar on them. In the winding cobblestone backstreets, you will hear harps, see antique shops, and find gelato shops galore. There is a castle wall, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, that winds up the steep mountain side. Although it may look intimidating at first, it is well worth the 3 euros and 30 minute hike. You will look down from this viewpoint seeing the castle wall you just climbed, a few church steeples, ships coming in and out of the harbor, and the bright orange rooftops contrasting the bright blue of the water and black of the stone mountains. 

  1. Santorini, Greece

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Santorini is what remains of an ancient sea volcano. The eruption blasted off most of the top of the mountain, leaving only this crescent shaped rim in the Mediterranean Sea. The remaining rim has since been developed into one of the most picturesque islands on the planet! The hotels and restaurants scale the sides of the cliffs, giving every single building a beautiful vantage point of the rest of the crescent island. The buildings are all painted bright white and blue to match the tones of the water and the sky. The little alleyways between the buildings have no rhyme or reason and could get you lost for hours as you climb up and down the stairs of this seaside community. But no matter how lost you get, you will never want to leave this most enchanting island!

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Budapest: Where Castles and Fairytales are Real

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Walking around the streets of Budapest is like taking a walk down the lanes of Renaissance history. Art and architecture dominate these elegant buildings and tell stories of the two towns that used to war each other.

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Right down the middle of this city runs the Danube river dividing the ancient Buda and Pest sides of town. Until 1873 the river divided these cities and therefore different political ideas and principled were developed, governing two very culturally different Hungarians. The building of the Chain Bridge ultimately linked the two cities unifying one of the European Unions largest cities.

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This divide left two very distinct parts of Budapest, creating two very pleasant adventures. On the old Buda side you have an ancient walled in city with a couple of huge spired castles and churches. The castles are built on a hill overlooking the river and the cities counterpart, Pest. On the Pest side you have the distinguished Parliament building right on the river as well as St. Stephens church. The architecture is so varied and unique as each building tells a different story of Budapest’s history.

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Budapest has a very modern hipster vibe to it. One of the largest, most eclectic bars in the world is built in an old renovated hotel building. Every room has a different theme and the winding steep staircases take you from floor to floor. The streets are filled with little cafes representing the mix of modern cultures that now call Budapest home. 

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But of course there is still a deep tradition to the city. You will still see hunched old women with their head coverings hobbling down the cobblestone streets. There are still the guards watching over the castle and parliament building. There are still horse drawn carriages transporting locals and tourists alike. You can still find old traditional Hungarian treats such as Kurtoskalacs (funnel cakes) being roasted over the fire or a warm bowl of Goulash at the street market. 

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There is a magic in the air of Budapest that takes you back in time and reveals the life of royalty during the Renaissance.

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