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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).