The thing about extreme road trips that not many people care to bring up is how incredibly exhausting they can be. How sitting in a car for hours and hours can make you feel as tired as walking around for the same amount of time, I really don’t know, but sometimes it does. So after spending three weeks on the road through Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Armenia…chilling in Georgia, the predetermined final destination of the trip, sounded much more appealing than full-on exploring Georgia as I had originally hoped.
By the way, it should go without saying, but just as a cliché clarification, I am referring to the country of Georgia tucked over there in the Caucasus between Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Black Sea. Not the US state. Because what on earth would I be doing there? I’m a California girl.
საქართველო. Sakartvelo. The Republic of Georgia…
Although I can’t claim to have had the most thorough visit to this Eurasian beauty on my first go, I definitely had a fairly decent sampling of its cities, consumed more chacha than I care to mention, and collected enough khinkali nips (or “kudi”/”hats”, whichever you deem more appropriate) on every dinner plate to hold me over until I have a chance to return and do it real proper. I only spent eight days in Georgia, but what I discovered was a truly magnificent country. One that is so unique to anywhere else I’ve ever been in and around the European continent, and one that quickly became a top place I’d recommend anyone looking for a different kind of travel adventure to check out immediately.
As the first stop over the border from Turkey, Boomshakalaka (ახალციხე) will forever hold a special place in my heart as it’s where I had my formal introduction to the country with all of its squiggly script, the first of what would be many “surprise castles”, and the heaven on earth for your mouth that is khinkali and khachapuri.
Even though the official name of the town was actually something like Akhaltsikhe, personally I think Boomshakalaka has a much nicer ring to it and is a lot easier to remember, so that is how it shall remain in my mind and on this blog. With only one night spent there, I unfortunately can’t tell you many other facts about the place except that it’s the largest town in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, some of its residents drive really sweet cars, and there is a pretty flash castle that you won’t be able to miss.
Rabati Castle (რაბათის ციხე), built in the 13th Century, is expected to become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Georgia thanks to the massive makeover it received between 2011 and 2012. Essentially a Kardashian version of its 800 year old self, it’s very shiny and the whole complex feels almost too revamped for comfort, but definitely a peaceful place to walk around and there are great views of Boomshakalaka and the surrounding mountains from the top. Inside the walls there is also a synagogue, mosque, Christian church, minaret, and history museum which is only fitting for a place that’s been under not only Georgian rule during its time, but also Ottoman and Russian.
Sixty kilometers south of Boomshakalaka (two hours by bus) en route to Armenia is the crazy cave city Vardzia (ვარძია) that looks like something you’re more likely to find in the valleys of Cappadocia or a drug-induced dream – not carved into the side of a mountain in the Middle of Nowhere, Georgia.
When it was originally built in the 12th Century as a shelter for those trying to escape from the invading Mongols, it apparently had some 6,000 rooms spread out over 13 levels with a church in the center, a throne room, wine cellars, and some intricate irrigation system that delivered drinkable water to those inside the caves. While all of that is nice and impressive, I think the more wildly fascinating thing about this complex that I learned only after visiting is not how or why it was built, but by whom.
Meet King Tamar. She was actually a queen, but such a badass bitch that she took on the title of king instead and basically lead Georgia through one of the most prosperous periods of its history. She would have been so disappointed in my limited exploration of her masterpiece, but hopefully the next time I return I can find someone with a key to show me around (quite a few of its interior passages are locked up) or an English-speaking monk who lives there to enlighten me on life as a troglodyte. With 25 wine cellars at their disposal and no electricity, they must have some pretty wicked candlelit parties.
In between Vardzia and Boomshakalaka there are a couple more “surprise castles” just chilling, Khertvisi and Tmogvi – neither of which I checked out, but you should if you have the opportunity. Both are convenient if you have your own car or taxi – otherwise, good luck getting there with public transportation.
Gori (გორი) was a place I had always wanted to visit when I finally made it to Georgia, but once I finally made it, I had absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing there. Infamous for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, it’s probably one of the only towns in the world where you will find not only a museum dedicated to him (including the small, brick house where he lived until he was four), but also a Stalin Avenue and Stalin Square. Since I’ve always been a fan of Russian and Soviet history, I guess I figured it would be interesting, but in actuality, it felt weird.
Sorry, Gori. I totally understand from a tourism perspective why a town would try to capitalize on one of its world-famous residents, but a world-famous mass murderer responsible for the death of nearly 50 million people? No thanks. Would rather take that 15 Lari entrance fee and put it towards a better cause – like more chacha and khinkali for this Larry. Was way more pleasant than viewing a bronze copy of a deranged dictator’s death mask and walking through the interior of a bulletproof, Soviet-era train car.
This is the one and only photo I took in Kutaisi (ქუთაისი). This was also the one and only thing I found interesting enough to take a photo of in Kutaisi, but to be fair, I was only there for one evening before I caught my flight to Kiev. As the second largest city in Georgia and with an airport where quite a few budget flights are coming in and out, it’s likely you might end up here at some point, and if you do, please let me know what I did (or did not) miss.
Saving Georgia’s capital and one of the most confusing to pronounce for last – Tbilisi (თბილისი). Tee-bee-ill-iss-ee. Considering little to no research was done prior to arriving, I’m really lucky to have had (and still have) an awesome friend living there who was able to give me a last-minute briefing on basic highlights to cover. So paying it forward, it went a little something like this:
Check out around Freedom Square and Rustaveli Avenue, stroll through Old Tbilisi, walk up the stairs to Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda) from Asatiani Street at Betlemis Arghmati – from there you can walk to the Narikala Fortress and the botanical gardens. Take the nearby cable car down to Peace Park to see a statute of Ronald Reagan and walk over the Peace Bridge and have some dinner on Erekle Meore Street.
Along Rustaveli Avenue down to Freedom Square is your typical “main drag” with everything from alfresco book/trinket stands, government buildings, souvenir shops, designer stores and international fast food chains like Wendy’s, KFC, and McDonald’s. The McDonald’s that finally discredited the theory that no two countries containing one have ever gone to war. Quite an interesting contrast to what I encountered next in the older part of town.
To say I was shocked by the state of the Old Tbilisi is an understatement. Never have I seen a historical center crumbling before my eyes at such an alarming rate. Sure, there are some areas that have been restored, reKonstructed rather, but much still seemed on the verge of total collapse or in need of some urgent repair, restoration, love, ANYTHING. This is where I might also throw in the cliché “better go now before it’s too late”, but I’m afraid it already is.
Old Tbilisi has and continues to become for the most part a gaudy New Old Tbilisi (good one, “New Life for the Old Town”) much to the dismay of the locals who are losing their homes over it, residents of the city who fear they are losing their architectural heritage to a corrupt government system and foreign investors, and those intrepid travelers who are always seeking more “authenticity”. But sadly, there doesn’t really seem to be much else that can be done at this point. It’s not just a little too late, it’s far too late.
So what am I trying to say with all of this? I guess don’t be too quick to judge Old Tbilisi by the poor choices the Georgian government and some international institutions have made, because it’s easy to do. Especially if you’re not a fan of façadism and out-of-place architecture. The loss of original character is indeed a tragedy, but I think it would be unfair to claim that because of it, it’s also totally losing its soul.
Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time in a region where many cities and towns have been rebuilt or are still in the process of rebuilding not only due to years of neglect, economic troubles, and irresponsible governments, but something far more destructive and demoralizing – and that is war. One thing that has always struck me about a lot of them though is that regardless of the fact that they may change in appearance from subtle to drastic and things may get shifted around during the rebuilding process, a city’s soul is something that can never truly escape if its strong enough. There is always authenticity to be found, you just need to know not only where to look, but how to look.
(Yes, that is a kiddie claw machine – with cigarettes and balloons)
There’s a lot I missed in Georgia, no doubt, but sometimes that’s just how it goes. As you can see I had my fill of mid to large-sized towns, ridiculous roads (those drivers be INSANE), glorious Georgian cuisine, chacha and its world-famous wine…but, still. It remains on my mind with all of its intriguing idiosyncrasies, wild beauty, and general lack of foreign tourists. With that, I definitely saw enough potential to not only recommend it as your next great travel adventure, but can guarantee that when the road finally leads me back again, it’s also going to be one of mine.
Have you been to Georgia? You’ll have to let me know what are the must-sees for when I return – particularly in the mountains, along the coast, and in the countryside because I hear that’s where it’s really at…