God's own country: Why Georgia is the next rising star in travel

The Wanderlust Travel Awards' Emerging Destination winner will enchant you with its many layers of history, beautiful landscapes, and especially its wine...

8 mins
The Georgian countryside in all its glory (Scott Bennett)

The Georgian countryside in all its glory (Scott Bennett)

Legend has it that when God was dividing the land among the people of the world, the Georgians were too busy drinking and missed out. God was angry at them and asked where they had been.

They responded that they had been toasting his health with wine, and this was why they were late. God liked their answer and gave them a piece of the land that he had been keeping for himself. Thanks to that, Georgians live in a paradise on earth.

That story, which I was to hear several times, gave me an immediate insight into Georgia. It’s a beautiful country with magnificent mountains, fertile soils and plentiful water. It’s one of the most religious countries on earth. The Georgians have been making wine for many thousands of years and enjoy consuming it too. Even Mother Georgia, the huge statue which overlooks Tbilisi, holds a bowl of wine in her hand.

Under the influence

A nice glass of Georgian red (Scott Bennett)

A nice glass of Georgian red (Scott Bennett)

“I’ve had more wine this week than in the last seven years!” said one of my companions as we participated in yet another wine tasting. I was in Georgia with a group of Wanderlust readers, all keen like me to get to explore the country’s rich cultural heritage and natural beauty.

Our tour leader was Dario Ghirlanda, a previous winner in our annual World Guide Awards. Although an Ethiopian he has spent a season in Georgia for several years and fallen for its many charms. Within a few hours of exploring the capital, Tbilisi, we were falling under its spell too.

I’d met a British expat living in Tbilisi. “The Georgians are lovely; they are friendly and fun – they like to party. But sometimes they party too much,” she had said. She shared a tale of how two priests had spent a night drinking, and one of them had gambled his church away while under the influence of alcohol.

Whether the story is true or not (sadly, I have found nothing to back it up) perhaps doesn’t really matter. It’s yet another of the great myths and legends of the Georgian repertoire.

Tbilisi is an intoxicating mix of old and new, historically a crossroads of civilisations, with a beautiful setting, atmospheric old town, sulphur baths, fascinating bazaar and signs for wine tastings everywhere. However, to really appreciate Georgia’s 525 varieties of wine and long heritage you need to head out to one of the boutique wineries that have been springing up around the country in recent years.

Iago Bitarishvili of the eponymous Iago’s Wine explained with passion how the traditional ‘amber’ wines are made.

“We put the whole grape in, keeping the skin and stems in. We don’t need to add anything, we don’t need to take anything. We use a white grape but the wine is a golden amber colour.”

Traditional Quevri clay pots (Shutterstock)

Traditional Quevri clay pots (Shutterstock)

The wine is made in huge clay pots known as quevri, buried in the ground. Some wines in Georgia are made the more common European way but Iago explained that these are known as ‘wines without a mother,’ whereas wines made the traditional way are more natural.

“Wine is part of our culture, we make it for ourselves and for our families. And we have been making them this way for 8,000 years.” As UNESCO says, “wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home.”

We came across evidence of wine making and wine drinking in unlikely places. One of the undoubted highlights was visiting the cave city of Vardzia, about 230km south-west of Tbilisi. First established in 1156, it is associated with Queen Tamar, an icon to many in Georgia as its first female ruler but also a very successful one. Her father first established the city, but she turned it into a monastery complex with 2,000 monks.

It had at least 3,000 chambers over 13 levels connected with each other by tunnels, and it included dozens of wine cellars. However, an earthquake hit in 1283 and a large portion of the cliff-face collapsed with 70% of the rooms damaged or destroyed. But even now you can see shops, stables, wine press, and chambers which housed quevri pots.

Rolling hills

The lack of roads in Tusheti mean packhorses are still used (Scott Bennett)

The lack of roads in Tusheti mean packhorses are still used (Scott Bennett)

Hiking in Tusheti (Scott Bennett)

Hiking in Tusheti (Scott Bennett)

However, there is more to the country than wine tasting. We visited numerous churches and monasteries, struck into awed silence by their simple beauty.

And we were all eager to explore the country’s natural beauty. It was time to head to the mountains, and more specifically the remote Tusheti region in north-east Georgia, accessible by road only from early June to early October. 

To get there, we transferred into a convoy of 4WDs driven by men from Tusheti. As we headed up the twisting gravel track (‘road’ being an overstatement) with its horseshoe bends and vertiginous drops I appreciated the calm experience of the driver. He couldn’t speak much English but joked “Free car wash!” when we passed under a waterfall. Heavy cloud was sitting over the mountains, and we entered it as we went above the treeline.

The Abano Pass is the highest drivable pass in the Caucasus at 2,826m high, but visibility was down to a few metres as we went over it. As we descended, the clouds cleared and we started to see large patches of ice. We stopped at one ice tunnel that had formed over a fast-flowing river, which we then forded. The scenery changed again to grassy meadows and forested hillsides.

Finally, three and half hours after starting on the road, we rounded a hill and suddenly had a view of the medieval watchtowers of Keselo Hill in front of us, overlooking Omalo, the main village of the Tusheti.

Cattle, sheep and horses freely grazed the pastures around the cluster of wooden buildings that make up the village. Being at altitude the temperature dropped at night and our warm layers came out.

We were glad of the hearty mountain food; soup and stew, roasted veg, chips, and the local cheesy bread known as khachapuri throughout Georgia.

Village life

Early morning in Omalo (Scott Bennett)

Early morning in Omalo (Scott Bennett)

The next morning we drove about an hour north to the village of Dartlo. It’s effectively a “village-museum” with traditional houses of wood and slate, reminiscent in style of the houses one finds in Nepal. The village and its medieval watch towers have been carefully restored using traditional materials and methods. The village was surrounded by flocks of sheep, and some were being sheared by a group of men.

Local guide Alex took us to a small enclosure where a ring of 12 stones emerged from the grass. He explained that this circle would have been used for a meeting of elders, and would have judged anyone who had committed a crime.

A café overlooked a rushing river, and a mix of nationalities were tucking into eggs and dumplings as someone strummed a guitar. A couple of animist shrines sat on the opposite hillside and were a reminder that this region still follows its own beliefs.

The interior of a church in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi (Shutterstock)

The interior of a church in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi (Shutterstock)

Christianity came here much later than elsewhere in Georgia and it was a centre of paganism, with a mix of the two still followed. Churches are not common here, women are not allowed in or near the shrines, animal sacrifices are sometimes made, and pigs are not found here. Indeed, before the drive the previous day, our drivers had checked that we had no pork products with us.

Taking the track which left the village we walked through a grassy valley thick with wild flowers. The hillsides on each side were covered in conifers. A shaggy and friendly Caucasian shepherd dog tagged on to us, whether for a share of our picnic lunch or simply for the company.

Strings of packhorses passed us, a drover at the back; it is the only way to get supplies to some of the remoter villages. We finished the walk at the base of the abandoned hill village of Parsma.

The road to Albano (Scott Bennett)

The road to Albano (Scott Bennett)

The next day we started in the pretty village of Shenako about 20km south-east. At the top of the village it was a surprise to find a splendid church sitting on a grassy plateau, commanding fine views.

Dedicated to the Holy Trinity it was built in the 19th century but on the site of an earlier 13th century church. As droves of butterflies passed us it was a magical spot to sit awhile in the sunshine.

We walked up a long hill and then through a grassy valley to the village of Diklo, with sheep and birds the only signs of life en route.

The village had been left empty for a while in the last century, due to attacks from Dagestan, just a few kilometres away. But now it is being regenerated and trying to attract low key tourism.

While some of the group walked to abandoned Old Diklo, overlooking the border ridge between Georgia and Dagestan, I stayed in a small café with a friendly owner.

It was typical of the homes here, with a woodpile in one corner of the garden, a haystack in another, and a small vegetable patch.

It overlooked the village square, including a water pump where a steady stream of people filled up their buckets. Children were running around, laughing as they played. There wasn’t an electronic device in sight.

Along the Watchtower

Omalo Towers (Scott Bennett)

Omalo Towers (Scott Bennett)

Several pretty cows roamed around the village, looking a little like brindle versions of Jersey cows. They were mischievous, trying to raid gardens, with one jumping a rail and having to be chased away with much shouting and stick waving.

It was a timeless scene. We’d had a young local walking guide, Luka, join us and as we headed back to Omalo I quizzed him about the watch towers that were such a striking part of the landscape.

He explained that in the early Middle Ages they would have been used for fortification, but also for living. Animals would have been stabled on the first floor, while the family lived on the second and third floors, with men and women having separate living space. The top floor was used as a watchtower. Omalo has restored seven of their original 12 towers, and Luka said there are plans to rebuild the other three.

Alex had been translating, commenting that Luka’s Tusheti dialect was similar to 18th century Georgian. Luka was shyer talking about himself but revealed that eight generations of his family have lived in Omalo, and they all come here from June to September each year. 

A Georgian woman with an image of Stalin (Shutterstock)

A Georgian woman with an image of Stalin (Shutterstock)

asked the 17-year-old about spending his summers here and didn’t really need a translation as Luka’s shining eyes told me his answer. “I love it here.”

It was a wrench to leave the mountains, although we were at least blessed with clear skies on the way back down and stopped several times for photos and to admire the views. The next stop was Gori, about an hour and a half north-west of Tbilisi and notorious for being the birthplace of Stalin.

We knew that millions of deaths were attributed to Stalin’s regime, so it was with mixed emotions that we arrived in the city. We were staying in The Victoria, a Soviet style hotel, and it was a shock to be met at the entrance by a large mural of the man himself.

The next morning we strolled to the Stalin museum in the sunshine, accompanied by a small posse of friendly street dogs, a typical fixture of Georgian towns. In front of the imposing Italianate-style museum building is the simple house in which ‘the man of steel’ was born

The humble house where Stalin was born, Stalin Museum (Scott Bennett)

The humble house where Stalin was born, Stalin Museum (Scott Bennett)

Inside the museum was a small souvenir shop stocked with T-shirts, mugs and all the other merchandise one would expect of a celebrity figure. One image of him as a young man was particularly dashing, all smoldering eyes and pop-star hair.

We joined a one-hour guided tour with a young woman, Natia. She explained that the museum was started when he was still alive as a planned Museum of the Revolution, but that after his death in 1953 it became a museum of his life.

She talked us quickly through his life and times, his humble origins, his time in a seminary before becoming a revolutionary, various internments in Siberia, and the years in power. “How do local people feel about him?” I asked her. “It’s complicated,” she said. “Some older people, particularly around here, still admire him as a strong man.”

Natia was full of knowledge but I got the distinct impression she wasn’t a fan. “I always tell people it’s important to see the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi to get another perspective.”

Lyn with Uncle Joe (Scott Bennett)

Lyn with Uncle Joe (Scott Bennett)

“It’s complicated,” she said. “Some older people, particularly around here, still admire him as a strong man.”

I left Georgia with a bulging notebook, not a page left blank.

My brain was overloaded with historical facts, and wrestling with layer upon layer of information. And yet I felt I had barely scratched the surface.

A few weeks later I met some of the group at a Georgian wine festival in London. There were wine tastings, music, dance, and khachapuri. And naturally there were a couple of black-robed priests there, walking around with glass in hand.

The night was still young so we found a nearby restaurant and ordered more wine.

As we made a toast to ourselves, absent friends, Dario, I thought, ‘Yes, this is what Georgia is all about. Good friends, good company, a glass of wine.’

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