We returned from a (unusual for me) Easter Holiday… ummm, over six weeks ago. We even celebrated Easter twice. Once in Armenia – a country that is so special that it has its own church and a quarter of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem- and then, a week later, in Orthodox Georgia. Georgia is the larger country and more varied in landscape. I found it somewhat easier to travel in, because of its more extensive public transport network. Armenia is smaller but because it is less visited, it feels somewhat more relaxed. But work full time and the recent siren call from my old hospital gave me a little less spare time than expected.
So, while the memory is still fresh and until I’ve sorted through the pictures, I would highly encourage you to think about Georgia if you are looking for a destination for a holiday with culture and nature. Not too much beach, I am afraid. Batumi is already called the “Miami of the Caucasus” and I am not sure this means more Miami Vice than South Beach, but I gather it is rather busy these days. The largest part of the coastline now is part of the disputed territory of Abkhazia where the security situation can be unstable.
1. There is always mobile reception, wherever you go.
There is almost always free WiFi, wherever you go. Honestly, had you asked me five years ago, I couldn’t have cared less – I barely carried my mobile phone around with me. It’s not even posting pictures and social media, but being able to be contactable in an emergency has become more important as I grow older and more paranoid. Also, I have become quite dependent on the maps on my phone, which tend to work better when online. And you get very cheap SIM cards with data for phone calls and online access.
2. Language Diversity is amazing.
Although the Caucasus has some of the most diverse languages in a small space (Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani are totally different languages with different scripts), no one expects you to know them. English and Russian are widely spoken. Russian is pretty much the lingua franca in the ex-Soviet Union, and people are generally okay speaking the language of the old oppressor, and you may get further with a bit of Russian outside cities and tourist attractions.
3. Public Transport is cheap, plentiful and easy.
Marshrutkas go anywhere, and Tbilisi has a cash-less payment System that is more sophisticated than Berlin, and probably more frequent inner City buses, too. It might seem a bit chaotic and the destinations are a bit of a pain to read with that Georgian script but we happily report we may have gotten a bit lost but never ended up anywhere dodgy.
4. Georgian cuisine rocks
In the Country that Claims to have invented shashlik, you eat well even as a vegetarian. Mainly fresh seasonal produce is used, there is a lot of veggies, and some unusual flavour combination. The Mexican potato (enormous potato wedges with sour cream dip) is very popular. If you eat meat, most meat is reared locally and free range.
5. Kindness to animals
Although Georgians eat rather a lot of meat, they are relatively kind to animals – at least this is what we observed. We observed a lot of free-range cattle while travelling around there, and There are no governmental rules enforcing animal protection- but in a week of travelling we did not see any stray cats in poor condition (hardly stray cats but quite a few stray dogs), and in Tbilisi, stray dogs (who are often looked after by locals) are tagged and vaccinated.
6. Georgian Wine – underrated and, um, interesting
The traditional method of winemaking may be a bit special (and the wine not to everyone’s taste, including ours) but the culture of winemaking is widely celebrated, and the wine is drinkable and flows freely. In Tbilisi, you will find lots of wine bars everywhere proudly selling the native wine, most of which comes from the wine-growing plains of Kakheti. A lot of wine produced is in the unique traditional style, where the whole grape is used and the wine matured in clay jars in the ground. Georigan wineries tend to be quite innovative and grow a variety of grapes, and produce “Modern” European and New World Style wines as well. We tried a few modern style wines, which were excellent. You can really buy them anywhere. Carrefour in Tbilisi is a pretty good outlet for them.
7. It’s safe, walking-round-after dark safe.
Georgia is no rich country, but theft and robbery do not appear to be an issue. Hardly any one locks their doors. Its not unusual to put your handbag on a table somewhere then go to get food. I’d say road traffic might be a different matter but we always felt safe – even on the most vertiginous marshrutka rides in the mountains
8. The Architecture
As a committed concrete fan, first of all, the Soviet Architecture stuck to my mind. The Bank of Georgia AKA Tbilisi Tetris and the Wedding Palace in Tbilisi are just two examples that even I hadn’t heard of before our trip. You will find many more, and there are now even tour operators who offer trips for a bit of leisurely Urbex compared with a Tour de Beton. The traditional balconied houses and turn of the century grand European-cum Moorish architecture in Tbilisi isn’t to be sniffed at, either. You can easily compile a nice walk seeing them all, and the Georgian National Tourism Administration has already done a great job in compiling a booklet of themed walks. Get yours in the airport tourist information, which is open 24/7 and has much more material than the one in town. I’ll do a separate post on architecture in Tbilisi!
9. Old Soviet cars and their radiant colours
Dare I call them classic cars? No metallic or silver here, of course. In 1985 I driving one was the height of luxury and status for us Eastern Germans, and I wouldn’t say I want the old times back, but seeing an aubergine Shiguli exactly like the one my granddad had in the early Eighties melted my heart. Is it some weird nostalgia or are their colours brighter and more pleasing to the eye than modern cars with colours in all permutations? Travel to more rural regions to see a plethora of Shiguli/Lada, Volga and even the elusive Saporoshez. And if you want a 4×4 for your onwards travel, you could get a nice Lada Niva (rugged, colourful but terrible on fuel consumption) at the Rustavi Car Market. I’d take the khaki green one.
10. Georgia is relatively untouristed
11. Georgia is a friendly country!
This is not really an alternative reason, and should come in first place, and I feel like everybody has this on their “list”, but I cannot omit it: People are genuinely friendly and welcoming. I cannot recall the many conversation we had on the bus, in a cafe, even half-naked in the public baths: Georgians welcome visitors and are really helpful in a genuine way. In a particularly crowded marshrutka, a woman held my backpack in her lap for half an hour – try that in Berlin and you’re likely to have abuse yelled at you. Honestly, the only people who tried and sometimes succeeded ripping us off a bit were a couple taxi drivers. I can live with that.
More Georgia and Armenia posts are coming up – “postponed, not waived” – I promise. I’m pretty busy at work at the moment, as I do some additional shifts in the hospital on weekends. I’ll add more articles and pictures as I go along, so please return! Meanwhile, here are some resources that I found useful for planning our trip: For Soviet-style architecture, look no further than this excellent post by Concrete and Kitsch. You will find a lot of practical informationin the blog of Megan Starr and The Wandering Quinn. It was too late (in fact, on our last days in Tbilisi that I discovered Chiatura – but it remains high on my wish list: you can read about it here, here and here.