6 Nights in Georgia (The Country)
Say the name “Georgia” and most people will think of Georgia State in the US. Or they break out into the song, “Georgia on my mind,” which is, arguably, about a person. You’d be forgiven if you were one of the latter because after our visit to Georgia, the country, we certainly still have Georgia on our minds.
Nestled just north of Turkey and Armenia and just south of Russia, Georgia is bordered on the west by the Black Sea, and on the east by Azerbaijan. Go on now, Google it. You know you want to…
What the maps app won’t tell you is that Georgian culture is famous for 2 of our favourite things – Hospitality and Wine Making. Add to this the fact that South African passport holders receive a visa upon arrival, and you have a most alluring holiday destination.
How we traveled to Georgia
It’s a 2 hour and half hour flight from Kuwait (KWI) to the Georgian capital Tbilisi (TBS). We flew Jazeera airlines, leaving Kuwait from the new Terminal 5 / Jazeera Airlines building. Terminal 5 is new, with modern facilities. Checking in was a breeze and the customs officials were friendly and efficient. We had checked in online earlier, which made the process rather efficient. Not so much when we flew back. On the return leg, despite being e-mailed an online check-in option, when we arrived at the airport there was no online check-in counter at Tbilisi airport. The queues were long and it we spent at least an hour waiting.
Jazeera airlines offer reasonable fare prices to Georgia, but we paid something of a premium because we were travelling in high season (Second Eid / summer in Georgia); and because of said high season there was significant pressure on the car rental companies at Tbilisi airport. Though we had to wait a long time to be served, we were wide-eyed tourists, excited about our adventure, and it gave us time to visit some of the shops in the airport. Here it was that we bought our first bottle of Georgian wine, and a bottle of Cha-cha. No, it’s not a dance, but consumption of this rather delicious elixir could lead to something that resembles dancing. Plainly stated, Cha-cha is Georgian Vodka. They distill it in various flavours and it is always potent.
Car Hire in Georgia
One of the reasons we often hire a car on our travels is because a holiday is not a holiday without self-determination. We don’t do well in crowds, and we don’t enjoy being held to a schedule unless it’s our own. Even then we rebel against our own scheduling.
After a long wait, and half a bar of Georgian chocolate (Mouthgasm), we were beckoned to the counter of the car-rental company, only to learn that they had given away our vehicle. Apparently, we booked the car for 03H00 (3am) instead of 15H00 (3pm). Checking our papers we noticed that the young man was, technically, correct in his assessment of our blunder, but they had our flight number – would it have been too much trouble to confirm the arrival time? Lesson learned: Double check the times of all bookings.
Things happen for a reason, though. Right next to Disappointing Car Rental was a local Georgian Car Rental place. Yes, they could help us. Yes, they had a car available. But it was a luxury 4×4 (One of those with the 3-pointed star and a German name). Yes, it was more expensive than the Yaris (or equivalent) we had booked with Disappointing Cars but, as it turned out, we came to appreciate the extra ground clearance, an engine designed for performance and the obvious street-cred.
The car came with a (damaged) GPS, but fortunately we had bought a local SIM with internet access. We recommend using the service provider called Magti because they seem to have the best coverage #localcellgeorgia
The car was also calibrated in miles, not kilometres and Georgia’s speed limits are in kilometres. I’m familiar with miles per hour but doing conversions in your head while you’re driving is something of a distraction, so make sure you’re comfortable with this.
Driving in Georgia
The quality of the roads in Tbilisi are generally good but, as in many cities we’ve visited, potholes occur. We came to appreciate ground clearance one morning when, in search of a place for coffee and breakfast, our GPS, which always seems to have more of sense of humour than direction, ushered us onto a thoroughfare where the road was no more. Gone. Only pipes sticking up and undulating gravel tracks.
It seems the road was being redone. Not just resurfaced but re-bottomed as well. We bounced around with expletives for a while before ignoring the GPS and making our way back to civilization.
Driving in Tbilisi is much like driving in Dubai. You need to drive for ages to find a place where you can make a U-turn. Unlike Dubai, though, Tbilisi does not have a solid concrete barrier or raised verges separating the traffic. No. Tbilisi has a double white line. Yup, that’s all.
We were amazed. What was this sorcery? How is it possible that people obey this visible, yet invisible barrier? Georgians, though, obey the rules of the road. If you cross the double white lines, and you’re caught, there are stiff penalties.
Drivers in Georgia also do not hoot the very nanosecond that the traffic light turns green. In fact there was very little hooting at all, except under special circumstances, as you will see further on; and if you can drive in Kuwait, you can drive in Tbilisi, assuming you know where you are going.
Some people might describe Georgian drivers as aggressive, but no more aggressive than you might be after being stuck behind a diesel-tanker in a single lane up a mountain pass with no space to overtake. Think about it… I know who you are. Accordingly, you would need to limit your road rage to hand gestures because not many Georgians speak fluent English. So, let’s get onto communicating in Georgia.
It seems the older generation speaks Russian, from those days when Georgia was part of the USSR (I think) and they speak Georgian. Very little English. Georgian is its own language. We learned a few handy words before going but we were eternally grateful when we encountered somebody who could speak English.
The “middle” generation speaks more Georgian than Russian, and better English; but the younger generation, especially since Georgia’s independence from Russia in the early 90’s, are the up and coming ones who not only take pride in their Georgian heritage, but also in their ability to speak English.
What we found, however, was that, regardless of our inability to speak Georgian, or their ability to speak English, people always respond well to kindness, and Georgians, possibly most well-known for their hospitality, will appreciate it.
Oh yes! I nearly forgot. How could I forget? Road signs. Or rather, the absence thereof. On our third day in Tbilisi we set our sights on visiting the Chronicle of Georgia. This is an impressive monolith built on top of a hill near the Tbilisi sea. As we approached it we could clearly see the monument dominating the landscape. So imposing was it that we pulled off the road into an open field. I hopped out of our German beast and proceeded to take a few photo’s, mainly to remember the right settings on the camera, but also to capture the scale of this edifice. As I was climbing back into our vehicle another vehicle screeched to a halt next to us. Two overly large men, dressed in black and carrying walkie-talkies hopped out and demanded, in Georgian, to know what we were doing.
There’s a unique mix of chemicals that gets dumped into the bloodstream at a moment like this. It’s something between Oh Fuck and What-The-Fuck, maybe a mixture of both, but in any case, you’re going to need to change your pants.
“Tsuchvar” means “sorry” in Georgian. We used it several times, proving Elton John wrong. Sorry is not the hardest word. After checking that our photo’s were only of the monument, and that we were naught but humble tourists, the men waved us away.
Be ye warned then, that there are buildings in Georgia the photography of which is forbidden, and for which there will be no sign.
Signs and Buildings
Road signs (the ones that do exist) are in Georgian and English. However, once you leave the city, signs for speed-limits are conspicuous by their absence. For example: I’m used to seeing a sign that says “110km” and then sticking to, or below it, until I see a new sign that says otherwise. In Georgia, however, you’ll see a sign that says “40km” as you approach an intersection on the road to Kakheti, but then after the intersection, no sign. Previous experience and a recently heightened sensitivity to signs, prompted me to stick to 40km, much to the ire of following motorists. This is one of those special circumstances I mentioned above. This is when they will hoot. And flash lights. And come tearing past with hand gestures that do not mean “Praise Jesus.”
Churches, you will notice rather quickly, make a regular appearance on the Georgian landscape. Being an Orthodox Christian nation the Georgians have dedicated significant resources to the preservation of some of the most impressive churches I have ever seen; and most if not all of them require that men and women be “properly” attired, i.e. legs and arms fully covered. No issues with bare feet. It’s sacred ground, after all. If you arrive at a church not suitably attired, a covering may be provided. Given that we left our apartment with the intention of exploring old Tbilisi on foot in 30 degree C heat (Cool compared to 50 deg C in Kuwait), we had dressed in shorts. We were also disinclined to don robes previously worn by other sweaty tourists so we never actually went in to one of the churches. One day, though, we’d like to return to experience Sameba; a truly impressive cathedral.
Food and Lodging
For the first 3 nights of our stay we rented a delightful AirBnB in an area known as “Vake” in Tbilisi. There were met our host called Boris who not only saw to our every need, but fed us with Georgian bread (“Shoti”) and cheese. His place was spotless, magnificently positioned with grand views over Tbilisi and our stay was all the more memorable for him. As it was his birthday on our second day in Tbilisi we gave him the bottle of Cha-cha we had bought at the airport and I think that is when our host became our friend. An absolutely wonderful man. It was Boris who recommended that we order in from a local restaurant and he took care of the order so that we enjoyed Katchapuri and Kinkhali.
Katchapuri is a delicious pizza-shaped bread (similar texture too) with a cheese centre; and Kinkhali are similar to dumplings, just better. The highlight for me was a delicately fruit-flavoured Cha-cha that I savoured at a little restaurant before we embarked on our walking tour of old Tbilisi. I forget the name of the place, but it was a truly delightful little find. The owner (I assume) spoke better English than we spoke Georgian and was only to happy to suggest items from the menu or drinks, like said yummy fruity Cha-cha (I so wish I could insert a sound file with festive music, here).
If you’re a wine lover, then you’re in for a treat. We can confirm that Georgian wine is superb, but you have to be choosey. Wine-making is a national pastime. It seems almost every self-respecting Georgian has a vineyard, even if it’s grown on a trellis in an apartment. When you do wine-tasting then, you stand the chance of finding some rare treasures. Or not.
In hindsight, it would have been better to do the exploring first because some parts of the road had reached a temperature too hostile for my soles. Yes, I wore my sandals for about 10 or 20 minutes as we made our way to the cable car that would take us across the river to Narikala Fortress.
Upon reaching the cable car we discovered it was swarming with tourists, so we diverted into new Tbilisi, crossing the river, where we explored Meidan Bazaar, the history of which goes way back to the silk route. After this we ambled along cobbled streets, passed street vendors, sampled more local cuisine and crossed the Peace Bridge. This brought us back to the cable car and this time there were far fewer tourists so we hopped in and five minutes later we explored the ancient ruins of a castle that has its roots in ancient empires like the Ottomans.
On our third day we left the city, heading east towards to the region known as Kakheti. This is wine country. We booked into Akasheni wine resort and spent the next 3 days just relaxing at the pool, or giggling on our balcony. To end off, here are some final thoughts / footnotes:
- I found Georgia to be vary barefoot friendly. Surfaces were delightful and temperate until around 13H00. Not a single eye batted, and only the local guide / historian person at the Chronicle of Georgia monument made a bemused comment. I also appear to have been the only barefooter in Georgia. When I reached out to some of my fellow barefooters on Facebook about attitudes towards barefooting in Georgia, the response was a resounding silence. Hopefully my post featuring #tbilisibarefoot and this blog will serve as a voice for any prospective barefooters wanting to visit there;
- Being an Orthodox Christian country, naturism does not exist like it exists in other countries;
- We took our cameras with us because we were bent on returning with some impressive show-n-tell material. However, most of our adventures were conducted when the natural light was harsh and the heat robbed us of the enthusiasm to compensate for it. I think the lesson here is to decide on your objective (take photo’s or explore) before you go, and then stick to it;
- Cost of living in Georgia seems to be on par with South Africa. While we did not do an intensive investigation, we deduced that when we paid 100 GEL (Georgian Lari) for a meal in Tbilisi, we’d probably pay R500 for in Jo’burg / Pretoria;
- Georgia is considered one of the safest countries in the world and the numbers of tourists per year are on the increase;
- Emigration to Georgia seems possible. However, from the little research we’ve done it seems you’re in better stead if you’re a teacher of English (TEFL certificate required).
Tags: #tbilisibarefoot #barefootauthor #localcellgeorgia #drivingingeorgia #exploretbilisi #markpdavies, Explore Georgia Travel Tbilisi Barefoot-in-Tbilisi