Republic of Georgia
During the years it was part of the Soviet Union, Georgia was the top destination in Caucasia, offering magnificent monasteries, historic sites and scenic mountains. Wedged between Russia and Turkey, with a long shoreline on the Black Sea, it was known for its balmy climate and its fabulous food and drink. Although the sights are still there, the country is enduring economic difficulties and a separatist struggle between the government and the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia is one of the most fascinating countries in the region, but visitors must still exercise caution. There are a number of areas of high risk, and travelers should avoid the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Nevertheless, adventurous travelers will delight in discovering the cave monasteries, beautiful mountain scenery and legendary family feasts that once made Georgia a top tourist destination.
Evidence of the Georgians’ determination to build a tourism business, particularly through infrastructure development, is widely evident. Much has been accomplished in recent years, but plenty remains to be addressed.
Georgia is bordered by Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Turkey and Armenia to the south, and the Black Sea to the west. Much of the country is dominated by mountains. The Caucasus Mountains form a natural border with Russia in the north, with the Lesser Caucasus along the border with Turkey to the southwest.
The Likhi Range links them running north-south through the center of the country. West of these mountains, particularly along the Black Sea coast, the climate is moderate, even balmy at times. The area east of the Likhis is colder and drier.
The chief attractions of Georgia are monasteries, fine wines, great food, mountainous terrain, historical and mythological sites, a beautiful coast, cave settlements, art and outgoing people. Though parts of the country are too dangerous to visit, the rest of Georgia is an appropriate destination for adventurous people who are looking for someplace truly different, who are accustomed to travel in eastern Europe or the Middle East and who enjoy roughing it.
Some of the oldest people in the world live in Georgia. Some villages near the Black Sea claim elders of 130 years and more. Supposedly, yogurt has something to do with the long lifespans.
Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece isn’t the only mythological story set in the Caucasus Mountains. As punishment for giving the gift of fire to humanity, Prometheus was said to have been chained to Mount Elbrus. The Amazons, a legendary race of women warriors, were supposed to have lived on the banks of the Terek River. And Kutaisi is said to be the city of King Aetes and Medea, possessors of the Golden Fleece.
Hominid remains 1.7 million years old, the oldest in Europe, have been found at Dmanisi, near the border with Armenia.
Georgians have probably been making wine since the Bronze Age (they claim the word comes from the Georgian ghvino).
“Georgian Snickers” is an apt nickname for churchkhela, a chewy bar made by threading nuts and raisins on a string, dipping them in simmering grape juice and hanging them up to dry.
Most Georgian fortresses had a secret tunnel leading to a river escape route. Ask the caretaker of any castle you visit about the particulars of his place.
The square watchtowers of the Svan people, scattered around the town of Mestia, are more than 1,000 years old. Some 20 watchtowers are concentrated in Usguli, which at 7,220 ft/2,200 m claims to be the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe. (Tourists have been robbed in this area—check to see if it is safe before going there.)
Not for all the tea in … Georgia? Nearly all—95%—of the tea consumed in the former Soviet Union comes from this country.
The nation’s name came from the Persian word for the inhabitants of the country: Gorj. The “Gorj,” however, call themselves the Kartveli and their country Sakartvelo. It’s pure coincidence that the country’s patron is St. George.
See & Do: SIGHTSEEING
WINERIES, BREWERIES & DISTILLERIES
All arriving foreign-passport holders who pass through immigration at Georgia’s Tbilisi Airport are given a gift after their passport is stamped.
The small bottle of red wine comes with a message that says in part: “We warmly welcome you to Georgia, the country that gave wine to the world.” This gesture leaves no doubt about the country’s desire to please foreign visitors.
Georgia already is realizing some of its potential for wine tourism, with vintners in Kakheti, the country’s top winemaking region, offering tours and tastings.
Georgia claims to be the place where winemaking was born around 8,000 years ago, though some scholars credit other locations in the general vicinity.
Regardless of who got to the starting line first, winemaking, using millennia-old methods, is a vibrant 21st-century business in Georgia. The country counts more than 500 indigenous grape varieties, all with unpronounceable names unknown in the West. Some popular European varietals have been imported recently, and today, selected wines are made using European techniques.
But traditional methods, which involve aging the crushed grapes with their seeds and skins in clay jars buried in the ground, are alive and well. The reds are so dark Georgians call them black.
Skiing is possible in the resorts of Bakuriani (75 mi/120 km west of Tbilisi) and Gudauri (50 mi/80 km north of Tbilisi) December-March. The adventurous can even try heli-skiing using old military transport helicopters.
Various operators in Tbilisi (increasingly working with foreign tour companies) can arrange hiking, horseback-riding and mountain-biking trips, particularly in the Trialeti hills, just southwest of Tbilisi, and the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, farther west, as well as mountaineering in the Caucasus.
Other activities available in Georgia include rafting, trekking and rock climbing.
Georgia is not the place to go for shopping. Supplies are low—stores in Tbilisi are the only ones with any variety. Things to shop for include pottery, wine, regional clothing and handicrafts (wooden goblets, wine horns, Georgian daggers and well-crafted copies of religious icons). Tbilisi’s central market is a bustling place where you can buy just about anything, but especially local foodstuffs.
Extensive paperwork is required to take modern works of art (including carpets) out of Georgia—the artist should know what is necessary. It’s illegal to export antiques.
Shopping Hours: Hours are generally Monday-Saturday 9 am-7 pm.
Georgia boasts a storied and varied cuisine. The emphasis is on freshness and the flavor of primary ingredients (though some dishes can be quite spicy). Some of the dishes you might encounter are mtsvadi, or shashlik (lamb shish kebab), chakapuli (lamb, plum and scallion stew), khinkali (meat dumplings with plenty of black pepper), badrijani (tiny eggplants stuffed with hazelnuts) and chanakhi (a stew of lamb, whole tomatoes, eggplant and peppers). Other dishes emphasize chicken, cheese, fruit or bread. We particularly enjoyed khachapuri, a sort of tomatoless pizza.
Georgians love wine, and there are numerous excellent Georgian wines. Some of these are Tsinandali and Gurdzhaani (dry whites), Chkaveri (a semisweet white), Mukuzani (an excellent dry red) and Khvanchkara (a semisweet red, said to have been Stalin’s favorite). Beware chacha, the local firewater (50% or greater alcohol content). Teetotalers can enjoy Borjomi, the regional mineral water.
Travelers should avoid Abkhazia (a region in the northwestern part of the country), where insurgents are still fighting for an independent nation. Other parts of the country are also unsafe: Ethnic unrest has led to sporadic fighting in South Ossetia (in the northern part of Georgia). Traveling anywhere near the border with Russia, especially around Dagestan, Svaneti and Chechnya, is asking for trouble.
Travelers in Tbilisi should avoid walking anywhere at night. Guard your belongings against pickpockets, especially on the metro and the minivans that serve as public transportation. It’s wise to register with your embassy upon arrival.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
Medical care is limited. Hospitals are available in larger cities, although common medications are not. Travelers needing medical care should ask their hotel or guide to direct them to the proper facility. Visitors with specific medical needs, including the use of antibiotics or disposable needles, should take along their own, as these are in very short supply. Consult with your physician before departure about vaccinations against tetanus-diphtheria, typhoid, hepatitis and polio. Those in poor health should not visit the country.
Most hot, freshly cooked food should be safe (especially if it’s included on a package tour), but peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables before eating, make sure that meat is cooked thoroughly, avoid local dairy products and assume the water is unsafe (stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks). The best hotels serve food that’s generally considered safe.
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Don’t call Georgians “Russian.” Neither the language nor the national culture is Russian. Do, however, learn Cyrillic (Russian) phonetics before heading there. It’s not that difficult (especially if you’re already familiar with Greek phonetics), and certainly not as difficult as Georgian script. Many signs are posted in both Georgian and Russian, and knowing the Cyrillic pronunciation will help immeasurably.
Do attend a choral concert. Whether praising God or their oxen, Georgian singers can be spellbinding, haunting and beautiful.
Don’t refuse an invitation to have dinner with a Georgian family. Meals frequently become elaborate celebrations, with an abundance of food, drink and ritual. Do your best not to disrupt the flow of the celebration. For instance, if you’re invited to a feast, do not raise your glass before the tamada (toastmaster) has made his toast to those assembled. Never change the theme of the toast—to do so is an insult to the tamada (an appropriate response to a toast made in your honor is a simple speech of thanks). The tamada may make as many toasts as he wants during the meal—don’t be surprised if he makes more than 20 of them.
Don’t take sides in political discussions, especially ones dealing with internal problems.
Do take plenty of small items for gifts (for example, hometown postcards). Georgians love to give (and receive) gifts on almost any occasion.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Citizens of Canada and the U.S. need passports. Visas are no longer required for visits of up to 90 days. All travelers must fill out a currency declaration form that will be checked closely by customs officials upon leaving Georgia. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Languages: Georgian, Russian.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Georgian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox), Islamic.
Time Zone: 4 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+4 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 995, country code; 32,city code for Tbilisi
The lari is the official currency, but U.S. dollars, euros and Russian rubles may be accepted, and can be exchanged in the omnipresent exchange counters. Traveler’s checks can be exchanged in banks only.
ATMs are available in Tbilisi, and major hotels, restaurants and shops there will accept Visa and MasterCard credit cards; outside the capital, it’s a cash economy. Do declare all of the money you take into the country if you want to take it out untaxed. Don’t exchange too much money at once.
Tip 10% in restaurants and taxis, or at least round up the bill. Tips in hard currency (U.S. dollars) should be reserved for extraordinary services.
The best time to visit is mid-April to October, when days are warm or hot. Tbilisi can be very hot in July and August. Evenings tend to be cool, even in the summer. Don’t go December-late February, when inland temperatures can be bitterly cold. The climate varies considerably from east to west. In the eastern mountains, the weather is drier and more extreme. The western part of Georgia, near the Black Sea, has a more moderate climate. No matter when you go, be sure to take along a sweater for the cool evenings.
Novo Alexeyevka Airport (TBS) is 11 mi/18 km east of Tbilisi. Note that power outages have sometimes disabled the airport’s guidance beacon, and aircraft may have to land using visual flight rules.
Fuel shortages affect all modes of transportation—expect frequent air, rail and road delays. Rental cars are scarce, as are taxis. Most Georgians try to flag down passing cars, but the shortage of vehicles on the roads—even in Tbilisi—makes this technique difficult. In any case, foreigners face issues of communication and security. Driving can be complicated—facilities (such as fuel or repair service) may not be readily available off the main roads. A good rule of thumb is to fill up whenever you see gas available. Traffic moves on the right.
Buses cover most of the country, mainly leaving from the Didube terminal in Tbilisi, but they are slow, overcrowded and unreliable. A better option is a marshrutka or private minibus, running frequently on most routes.
There is limited rail service through the central and eastern parts of the country (book first class whenever possible), but no trains run to the secessionist region of Abkhazia. From Tbilisi, there are day and night trains to Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Poti and Makhindjauri (just outside Batumi). A night in a sleeper compartment is a pleasant way to get from Tbilisi to Batumi. There are also international trains from Tbilisi to Baku, Azerbaijan, and—only on alternate nights—Yerevan, Armenia.
Cruise ships call at the Black Sea port of Batumi. Sukhumii, in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, was also a favorite and may be again when things settle down.
Within Tbilisi, there is a good range of public transportation, including a subway system (called the metro), minibuses (called marshrutkas), the occasional taxi and trams.
For More Information
Georgia does not have tourist offices in Canada or the U.S.
U.S.: Embassy of Georgia, 1101 15th St. N.W., Suite 602, Washington, DC 20005. Phone 202-387-2390. Fax 202-393-4537. http://www.georgiaemb.org.
Georgia does not have diplomatic representation in Canada.
Foreign Embassies in Georgia
Canada is represented by its embassy in Turkey: Cinnah Caddesi 58, Cankaya 06690, Ankara. Phone 90-312-409-2800. Fax 90-312-409-22714.
U.S. Embassy, 25 Atoneli St., Tbilisi. Phone 995-32-989-967. Fax 995-32-933-759.
The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein (University of California Press). A splendid introduction to Georgian food.
The Caucasus: An Introduction by Thomas de Waal (Oxford University Press). A deft look at Georgia’s troubled
The tourist agency has an office at 14 Nishnianidze St. in Tbilisi. http://www.visitgeorgia.ge/en.