view of city
The old city section of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Photo: Fotolia

Georgia On My Mind

“Watch out—there’s a lot of money here,” says my guide, Merab, with a smile. “You will get very rich.” In the former Soviet of republic of Georgia, when you walk through cow dung, you supposedly become wealthy. I sidestep the muck and continue behind Merab up a steep, rocky trail, past the small village of Gergeti. The odor is foul. “Village perfume,” says Merab with a laugh.

We are headed for the sacred Georgian Orthodox Holy Trinity Church, about 7,000 feet above sea level. While a handful of people go by horseback, most tourists take the 30-minute Jeep ride up a rutted mountain road to the famous 14th century icon. I’m hiking, which should take about three hours. I’m not on a pilgrimage, but I’ve spent the last three days driving with Merab from one highlight to the next, and I need some exercise.

Georgia is where Jason and the Argonauts came in search of the Golden Fleece. The real story, Merab says, is that the early miners stretched a lambskin across the river to capture the gold flakes, and eventually the entire fleece turned gold.

I’d barely heard of this country when my tour operator, Houston-based Ker & Downey, told me Georgia would be the next “in” destination with its rich history and art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, the highest range in Europe. I like to be among the first to discover a place and, in fact, I’ve yet to see a single other American here.There are plenty of tourists, though—mainly Asians, Australians, Israelis, and a few Brits. There are also Russians, Turks, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. Merab can spot everyone’s nationality just by looking at their faces. He can also tell who’s from East Georgia and who’s from West Georgia.

Our driver figures it out another way. He looks at someone and says he’s Armenian. Armenians and Azerbaijanis, he says, both wear pointed shoes, but the latter group also wear tight clothes and cut their bangs in a straight line like the early Beatles.

As he says this, two eagles fly directly overhead. I turn, looking for the snow-covered peak of 7,530-foot Mt. Kazbek, the third-highest mountain in Georgia, but fog now covers it. This morning, I stood on the balcony of my Kazbegi hotel room, mesmerized by the gigantic glacier as the clouds parted. Its massive peak was golden in the sunrise.

The hill becomes progressively steeper. “We are less than 10 miles from the Russian border, and I am cursing the Russians,” Merab says. “You can go there, but we cannot. Well, we have no desire to go.”

Merab—who besides being a guide teaches linguistics at the University of Tbilisi—echoes the feelings of his countrymen. Georgia, which gained its independence in 1991 when the Soviet empire broke up, is bordered on the west by the Black Sea, on the south by Turkey and Armenia, and on the east by Azerbaijan; but the entire north neighbors the Russian Federation.

Merab explains that the Soviet Union’s war against the church started in 1917. Under Lenin, from 1921 to 1925, the Russians demolished 1,500 Georgian churches and killed 1,100 Georgian monks. From 1937 to 1939 the Bolsheviks killed thousands of people. Yesterday, when we visited Jvari Monastery, a sixth-century church a couple of hours from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Merab explained that the Russians destroyed fifth- and sixth-century frescoes there out of jealousy.

“It was to wipe out all the beauty of Georgia,” he said. “First they vandalized the church frescoes, then they whitewashed them. They burned down everything Georgian. They were jealous because Georgia had a fifth-century B.C. church, and the oldest Russian church was 15th century.” His voice was bitter.

We’re about halfway up the mountain as he says this, and my quads are beginning to ache. I wish I were back in Tbilisi, where I went to the Orbeliani Baths to recover from jetlag. First, I luxuriated in a soothing hot sulfur bath. Then, my attendant led me to a tiled bench and scrubbed me raw with kisa, a dark mud. After, using her fingers, knuckles, wrists, and elbows, she massaged every knot out of my body, poured a sack of warm soap bubbles all over me, and directed me to the shower—all for the equivalent of $10, including tip.

It’s easy to be jetlagged on arrival to Tbilisi, which once served as the connection between Europe and Asia on the Silk Road. Tbilisi still maintains some of the character it had when the first traders and camel trains stopped here, and the first day I felt as though I, too, had traveled a long distance by camel. Coming from New York City took 21 hours, including airport waiting time and airplane changes in Paris and Istanbul. But I’m not complaining.

Tbilisi, a city that has inspired everyone from Pushkin to Tchaikovsky, has a quaint old town of narrow cobblestoned streets and 14th century homes with hanging balconies, thermal bathhouses, and bars. It also has a national museum filled with 4,000-year-old objects, a sixth-century walled fortress, and on top of a hill, a 92-foot-high aluminum statue of the Mother of Georgia. Erected in 1958 to commemorate Georgia’s 1,500th anniversary and symbolize its character, the Georgian-dressed statue depicts the woman with a sword in her right hand to protect against enemies and a bowl of wine in her left hand to greet visitors. “One must always give guests grapes and wine,” says Merab, who never stops treating me as a guest.

I once thought Turkey offered the freshest European food I’d ever had, but its cuisine pales in comparison with Georgia’s fare. I love the khachapuri, a cheese bread similar to pizza, which is served everywhere with various kinds of cheese (my favorite is sulgani, goat cheese). Then there’s a cucumber salad with fresh tomatoes and candied walnuts; beef and pork kebabs served in thin pita bread; and grilled river trout. The restaurants are simple but the food is always delicious.

One night in a restaurant, the lights suddenly dim and five dancers take the stage: four men and a woman. They begin with a dance in which their feet move faster than in an Irish jig; in another dance, two males fight with real swords and shields, like knights. It’s not touristy—it’s authentic and beautiful, and you can see the dancers have had many years of training.

About three hours after we start our hike, Merab and I reach the top of the mountain. I enter the Gergeti Holy Trinity Church, considered the symbol of Georgia, after donning a long skirt and scarf. (The church loans the garb to tourists.) The church is beautiful but it is the surrounding mountains that most resonate with me.

On my last day in Georgia, I visit an elementary classroom in a village near Signagi, one of Georgia’s smallest towns. Merab has arranged for me to meet a group of second graders who grin as I enter their classroom. First, two seven-year-old boys play me a beautiful song on flute. Then, I entertain the students with a slow blues song. They look spellbound.

Whenever I visit a country where I don’t speak the tongue, I pack around 30 harmonicas to give away, because music is a universal language whose words are the joyful sounds an instrument makes. I take the harmonicas out of my backpack, each nestled in a red, white, and blue Hohner case, and hand one to each child. As they open their gifts, they scream with joy. Soon, we are all blowing in and out together, making music.

I walk from child to child, putting my face close to theirs and listening to them play. One shy girl has her eyes cast down, but I blow in and out, point to her, and she does the same, then takes the harmonica out of her mouth and grins. I give her a thumbs-up sign, and move on to the next student. Their teacher lines them all up and puts me in the middle for a class portrait taken with her phone.

I grab my backpack and start to leave, but they won’t let me. They form a line and approach one by one with their open cardboard harmonica cases. They want my autograph. I am touched. I remember Merab telling me on our hike to Trinity church to watch out for the money, that I will get very rich. And as I look at the kids and the huge smiles on their faces, I know that I couldn’t feel richer.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS:
Georgia is in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. It is bordered by Russia, the Black Sea, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Ninety-five percent of the four billion residents are Georgian Orthodox. Georgia is unspoiled, with centuries-old churches and fortresses, cave towns and rock monasteries, ­beautiful national parks, and the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, the highest range in Europe.

CLIMATE:
The western part of the country is subtropical while the east has both subtropical and continental climates. Bring layers of clothing, because the weather constantly changes between Tbilisi and the Caucasus Mountains. The best months to visit are June, July, and August.

GETTING THERE:
Private jets land at Georgia’s Tbilisi International Airport (TBS), which has a 9,842-foot runway. No airline flies direct to Georgia from the U.S., however—it’s easiest to go through Istanbul. You’ll pass through Turkish customs before reboarding and must produce a Turkish visa, which is free and available online. For private-jet arrival info, contact Levani Tsertsvadze (cercvi703@yahoo.com, +995 577444970).

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Leave your suits and high heels at home, as Georgia is extremely casual. The currency is the lari (GEL) and, while you’ll find ATMs in the larger cities, your guide will direct you to a reputable moneychanger for the best rate. For some churches, women need scarves to cover their heads. The official language is Georgian, and your trip will be more pleasant and easier if you have a guide/translator and driver.


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS (A-):
In Georgia, I stayed at the Rooms Hotel Tbilisi ($233–$813), the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi ($171–$242), and the Kabadoni Boutique Hotel in Signagi ($118–$407). Considered the country’s most deluxe lodging options, they all include a large hot and cold breakfast, free Wi-Fi, robes and slippers in room, and mini bars. The Kabadoni has an indoor swimming pool and spa. All three are small, contemporary, and sleek. Make sure to request a room with a balcony at the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi (which offers views of the glacier and distant Trinity Church) and the Kabadoni Boutique Hotel in Sighnaghi (which overlooks the historic walled town).

FOOD (A+):
While I ate only breakfast in the hotels in Georgia, the hot and cold buffets were excellent and plentiful. Every dining establishment I visited in the country—from the plainest ones to the well-known Restaurant Kalanda, in which five folk dancers entertained—offered fresh and delicious food. Every meal featured homemade soups and cheese bread, and other options included just-picked vegetables, beef and pork kebabs, and dumplings.

ACTIVITIES (A+):
The Republic of Georgia offers hiking (easy to extreme), dance performances and visits to monasteries, fortresses, cave cities, walled cities, national parks, and Black Sea beach resorts. From December through mid-April, you can go skiing in Gudauri in the Caucasus.

QUIETUDE (A):
In the Botanical Gardens and national parks, you’ll hear only the sound of birds and waterfalls. Even the cities and villages are quiet except for the sound of heels clicking on cobblestone streets and church bells chiming the hour. In the Caucasus, you’ll hear sheep and cows and horses.


A Side Trip to Russia
Moscow and St. Petersburg are a short hop from Tbilisi, and well worth a visit. Private jets can land at three airports in Moscow, where runway lengths are 12,447 feet, 11,807 feet, and 11,482 feet; and at two St. Petersburg airports, whose longest runways are 12,401 feet and 11,145 feet. It’s an ideal time to visit, as the Russian ruble is weak compared with the dollar.

I went on a Ker & Downey bespoke tour to Russia with guides, drivers, luxury vehicles, early entrance to Kremlin grounds, a private tour of Armoury chamber and Grand Kremlin Palace (which is normally closed to the public), a special late opening of St. Basil’s Cathedral, a private choir concert in an 18th century church, and orchestra seats to the Bolshoi Ballet.

The spacious suite I stayed in at the new Four Seasons Hotel Moscow (steps from Red Square and the Bolshoi Theatre) offered views of Red Square, the Kremlin, and the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. I took the first-class fast train to St. Petersburg, where I toured the Hermitage, visited the Peterhof, and stayed in a balcony suite overlooking St. Isaac’s at the Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace, a former 19th century royal palace. —M.G.


Margie Goldsmith, a regular BJT contributor, has visited 130 countries and written about them all. Ker & Downey covered the author’s airfare, drivers, and guides, as well as most lodging and meals. Four Seasons provided hotel stays in Russia.

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