Georgia: Empire state of the south
by Marion Smith
Georgia: At the cusp of Eurasia
I went to Georgia 2 years ago, it was a brief trip but it left me speechless. I Knew I had to return.
Well it was the best decision ever. I decided I wanted to spend my Christmas and New Years in Georgia. It started out like the previous trip, I travelled to Turkey, holidayed there a bit then caught a bus to the border. From there a taxi to Batumi. There is some kind of magic in the air that sucks you in sends you out spinning with awe and wonder. The combination of the old and new architecture is breath taking, where in the world does a person say to you “ you must go and see the Macdonald’s building “ for starters.
We stayed in The Colosseum Hotel, built just like the Colosseum in Italy and located on the beach front of the Black Sea. We were amazed by the surrounding high rise hotels and buildings that were just as unique and modern. Just down the road is the White Restaurant, truly weird by any standards,it is built upside down. It looks like a small version of the US White house resting on its roof at a jaunty angle. You must visit the toilets, there are two floors and on both it looks like you are walking on the ceiling.
There is so much to see in Batumi and it has been made easier for tourists to get around, there are green bicycles located all over the city and you pay at the machine and take your bicycle for the day and follow the various mapped out routes. We soon found ourselves strolling along the Batumis boulevard, the park strip fronting the main beach ( although stoney ) it was still good to walk along. At the end is a large ferris wheel and the Alphabet tower. A personal favourite for me is the Sheraton Hotel, the views from the 20 floor of the city and the Black sea are beautiful and in December you can see the snow on the mountains, there is no better way to enjoy a sundowner.
Georgia is a journey in humanity and friendliness. It has the unspoilt natural beauty that city people seldom get to see and experience. We got to enjoy the authentic experiences like the food and the people and didn’t have to pay for a tour, instead we did it on our own and it was the genuine hospitality of the people that made it so worth while.
We left Batumi and travelled to Kutaisi by train, we spent a night there. The most beautiful sight is the Bagrati Cathedral. We walked up the cobbled streets, half way up we met an old lady who showed us a picture of her son in a wheelchair. We couldn’t understand her but she chatted away to us and accompanied us all the way. Bagrati was built in 1003 and is now on the UNESCO Danger list. Just 6km from Kutaisi sits Little Motsameta Monastery, after much deliberation we decided to hire a taxi driver to take us to see it and the next monastery.
The sun was starting to set but we knew we couldn’t miss seeing them. Little Motsameta sits on a spectacular clifftop promontory above a bend of the Tskhaltsitela River, meaning “ Red Water “ .The next Monastery complex Gelati was situated on a wooded hillside, it was founded by King David the Builder in 1106. The interior of the main Cathedral of the Virgin is among the brightest and most colourful in Georgia. Both sights were breath taking and such a humbling experience. The snowy surroundings gave it the extra magic that only a person from Africa can dream of.
Next morning we were of to the destination that my trip had been about all along, Mestia in Svaneti. “ Svaneyians have come down to the lowlands, give us some land to look after and plough ! “
The poem was composed when Svanetians came down the flat lands of Georgia as seasonal workers. In all regions of Western Georgia, hard-working Svanetians are consider to be the best hired men.
We took a 12 seater taxi on a very long and arduous drive, we had an Orthodox priest with us and some other interesting locals that made the trip even more enjoyable. Four hours were spent in the mountain range, driving on winding roads that were covered in snow and at some points in the tunnels the ice had not been cleared away. We arrived eventually and we delivered to the front door of our guesthouse. The town does not have many hotels ( 9 to be exact ) there are plenty guest houses though. The lady that ran our one, was 60 years old and delightful. She couldn’t speak english but made a delicious breakfast. To our surprise we found her chopping wood in the the morning.
Svaneti really makes a spectacular sight, its gorges are surrounded by high summits and glacial lobes. In summer time you can take a 9km hike to see Shkhara glacier. There are mountain rivers, woodlands, vast meadows and Svaneti towers that were used to protect their patrons from inner and outer enemies. The people of Svaneti have their own language, different to the rest of Georgia.
The highlight of staying here , besides skiing is to take a jeep and its drive to the town of Ushguli. Its a 47km drive from Mestia and reaches 2100metres above sea level and is claimed to be the highest permanently inhabited place in Europe. With more than 20 ancient Svan towers , it has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1996. Set in the topmost reaches of the Enguri valley beneath the snow covered massif of Mt Shkhara (5068m), Georgia”s highest peak, its a superbly picturesque spot.
We had lunch at a locals house where they made us the famous Kubdari, a pie type food filled with chunks of beef . We drove back down to Mestia and enjoyed supper at our local spot, Lailas Cafe where we could make use of the wifi and and pick her brain for more good spots to visit. There is an airport in Mestia but flights are unreliable in winter because of weather conditions. While we were there temperatures dropped to minus 16 degrees celsius at night and during the day that sat at minus 4 degrees celsius.
As much as I loved this town and I was so happy that I had got to spend my Christmas here the time had come for us to leave and travel to Tiblisi. We took a 12 seater taxi again, this time it was 12 hours. But we eventually arrived. The city life of Tiblisi is electric like any other modern city of the world, and with the Christmas spirit and markets everyone was in a happy mood. Peace Bridge, the cable car, old clock tower and The Holy Trinity Cathedral are some of the sights that you must see. You will find all the big names here, Dunkin Doughnuts, Burberry, Nike etc.
Christmas trees were everywhere and Georgia has their own tree called a chichilaki. It is a traditional Christmas tree made from dried hazelnut or walnut branches that are shaved to form a small coniferous tree. I love Christmas and decided to photograph as many Christmas trees as possible, well what a collection I had by the time I left Georgia. I also found out that about 45 million Norman firs – the most popular type of Christmas tree – are sold across Europe. More than 80 % of all seeds for these trees come from Georgia.
We left Tiblisi and headed for Batumi as we had decided we wanted to spend New Years Eve there. The Georgian Railway now has some new trains that travel between the two cities, making the trip a lot more comfortable than the first time I went. We travelled first class and had wifi all the way. We were at The Hilton Hotel that is centrally located. News Year in Batumi was amazing. The fireworks display was breathtaking and the singing of Christmas carols in both English and Georgian made it a moment to never forget. This was a New Years that ranks in my top 3 for sure.
I will most definitely be returning to Georgia again.
The friendliness and the warmth of the Georgian people combined with the magnificent beauty of the county side and to top it off the delicious food there is no reason why every person should not visit Georgia at least once in their life time.
June 18, 2017
May 10, 2017