Georgia Beyond Tbilisi: Recollections of Roads Less Travelled

Georgia Beyond Tbilisi: Recollections of Roads Less Travelled

name Georgia is said to derive from a Persian word meaning
“land of the wolves”. Indeed, the fabled canine is a fitting
representation of a country that is the subject of both myth and
legend, at once wild and graceful. Its capital, Tbilisi, is a
cultural meeting point of vivid tradition and youthful vision, but
despite the city’s increasing popularity among global travellers,
there’s a world beyond that. Escape the city and discover a land
marked by ancient prosperity and modern occupation; a land that is
still governed by history and ritual in many ways; a land of warm
characters and compelling personalities; a land of wolves. These
are a few of my own tales from beyond the capital.


I’m pacing a gravel track, back and forth, while our
forlorn-looking driver is smoking a cigarette and chattering
anxiously into his phone. In the distance is the silhouette of a
ski resort, framed against white mountain peaks. The momentary
promise of coffee is quickly dashed. It’s out of season, I’m told;
the lifts are empty and the cafés shuttered.

I’m in Georgia,
high in the Greater Caucasus, and our stop isn’t on the itinerary.
The van that so steadfastly carried us from Tbilisi to Kazbegi has
decided the next leg of the journey is frankly too much work, and
has given up the ghost.

On any other trip the delay might be a nuisance, but I’m still
riding high on the revelation of Kazbegi and this is, as they say,
all part of the
. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to reflect on
the past few days, in which seemingly every hour has been ripe with
new experiences. Such is Georgia.

Less than an hour out of the capital on the journey
mountain-ward, the faded rows of Soviet-era housing gave way to
breath-taking countryside, punctuated with ancient monasteries and
charming towns that tell a tale of the nation’s rich and
complicated past.

The Jvari Monastery, our first stop on the road, dates from the
sixth century, and from its high perch overlooks the meeting point
of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. The road below is flanked by
stalls selling dried fruit and churchkhela; a candle-shaped local
sweet that I consumed in quantities best described as unholy –
given our surroundings. But if my own indulgence was less than
pious, the same can be said of the monastery’s resident Orthodox
priest. On suspecting a fellow traveller of taking his picture, an
almighty tirade was unleashed that Dato, my guide, declined to
translate, joking only that they weren’t the kinds of words he’d
use in front of his mother. “To be honest, I’m surprised he even
knows them,” he quipped.

A stream flows nearby and it was here that I took a few moments
to appreciate a passing shepherd, herding his affable flock through
the currents. These nomads traverse the mountains, moving from high
to low ground as the seasons dictate, making their home only for as
long as it takes for the leaves to change. It’s a world apart from
the hip cafés and booming restaurant scene of Tbilisi.

As we re-joined the road and ascended, green gave way to vast
swathes of snow and spectacular mountain views. The route to
Kazbegi is a storied one: the Georgian Military Road connects
Georgia with Russia and is the path that has been taken by traders
and invaders alike. Just beyond the rim of the Higher Caucasus lies
the occupied region of South Ossetia, while the spectre of Chechyna
looms beyond the nearby border. There’s a palpable sense that this
isn’t the average holiday spot, which in turn brings its own
inimitable thrill.

Just past the Jvari Pass, where the road reaches its highest,
the now somewhat ironically titled “Friendship Monument” is a bold
remnant of Soviet-era architecture. Suspended on the edge of a
cliff face, a meander around its imposing arches is as though
walking in the footsteps of a not so distant, but unsettling,

On we trundled into Kazbegi itself, which is small but
characterful and – like much of Georgia – full of surprises. Amid
rustic traditional houses and humble restaurants selling kebab sits
Autobus, a former bus-turned-coffee-shop staffed by
knitted-hat-wearing hipsters, while on the hill overlooking the
modest town is one of Georgia’s coolest design
, Rooms Kazbegi.

But despite the undeniable comfort and good looks of the hotel –
not to mention the spa – Kazbegi’s appeal lies outdoors. After an
early rise watching the sun burst from behind the peaks, I
surrendered my safety to a wizened driver and his well-worn truck
for an off-road expedition through the mountains. Not for the faint
of heart, or weak of neck, we scaled the slopes in suitably
energetic fashion; often at physics-defying angles that would
sometimes see the ground reach up to meet my – perhaps inadvisably
– outstretched arm. Once at the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity
Church, action was replaced with contemplation, looking down onto
the model town below. The mountain air was clearly keeping the
priests in good spirits here – despite being used to a relatively
solitary life, they chose smiling over swearing when greeted by a
camera-touting foreigner.

Dato tells me the area is popular with Georgian city dwellers
looking to escape, and I can’t help but find humour in the fact
that a region known for delivering peace of mind would, for me,
later end in a breakdown.


“Excuse me sir, can I ask where you’re from?”

“The United Kingdom.”

“Wonderful! What a pleasure to meet you. What brings you to

It’s late on my last night in Georgia’s third-largest city and
I’m enjoying a glass of local red on the hotel’s rooftop bar. The
memory of this morning’s encounter with a friendly stranger prompts
a smile. Early (as I frequently am), I’d been waiting for Dato to
meet me on the pavement outside, when the well-dressed middle-aged
gent approached, full of energy and clearly eager to strike up
conversation. My bone-white complexion and bulging backpack had
unsurprisingly given me away as a tourist. “It’s so nice that you
would want to visit us here in Kutaisi. You’re very welcome and I
hope you have an excellent stay,” he said, before sauntering off
with a wide grin.

Perhaps to my shame, but after years travelling the world I’ve
been conditioned to view such happenstances with an air of polite
suspicion. And had this been a few days previous, I may still have,
but Kutaisi – Georgia’s “city of smiles” – had corroded my

We arrived under darkness; faint outlines of high-rise flats
rolling past as we entered the city proper. Dinner at Our Garden, a
family run restaurant beside the Bagrati Cathedral, was nothing
short of a feast, with newly familiar dishes spilling across the
table: spiced roast chicken, trout, pickles, khackapuri (a staple
cheese-filled bread), fermented jonjoli and an unctuous
hazelnut-flavoured stew. If the way to someone’s heart is through
their stomach, Georgia knows how to woo.

If the first dinner in Kutaisi was the courtship, then the
following morning’s visit to the bazaar was the marriage. Boundless
interconnected halls are divided by foodstuff: a veritable hanger
for fresh veg, another for cheese and on and on. The closest
comparison might be Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda, but with less

The market seemed predominantly staffed by chuckling women, who
gleefully force samples on passers-by. Such is their doggedness and
charm that it’s difficult to leave unburdened by handfuls of
swollen brown paper bags. One elderly stallholder – squeezed in
behind a crowded counter – insisted we take a picture together. As
Dato would later explain, she has a thing for redheads. Finally, it
seemed, I’d found my city.

Part of Kutaisi’s allure, though, is in its multiple
personalities. It’s at once frenetic and sleepy. Wander a
neighbourhood or two from the bazaar and streets with beautifully
crumbling architecture are almost deserted; the odd bike creaking
past or a neighbourhood dog jogging up to sniff of your

Leaving my own canine companion at the gates, I stumbled upon
the city’s historic synagogue. The impressively ornate interior
speaks to a once vibrant Jewish community that existed in the city,
but today there are just nine men left to tend to it. It’s not even
enough for a minyan (prayer service), but enough to keep the
building alive for those visiting who wish to observe. For such a
flourishing city, and indeed country, the echoes of what was still

Just outside Kutaisi, lies Tskaltubo, a former Soviet spa resort
that once played host to Stalin;
Wes Anderson
-esque and decidedly otherworldly. Part of it still
operates, and is particularly popular with visitors from
Azerbaijan, who avail of health-giving treatments in radiated
water. Elsewhere on the grounds, cosmic-style Soviet bathhouses
have been left to decay. I kick about in the concrete ruins of an
immense, almost alien structure. It is slowly being reclaimed by
the surrounding foliage – a leftover of the empire that didn’t
stick; a photographer’s paradise.

My hotel is beside the river and in the black I can hear its
currents raging. I’ll shortly be pushing on myself, away from
Kutaisi and to try canoeing in the canyons of Martvili. We’ll stop
at a patskha, a humble wooden hut on the road where weary
travellers can enjoy a banquet of flavoursome fare for the price of
a coffee and a sandwich in my home city. Just another thing to
smile about.


Where there is wine there are personalities. Or such was my
experience of Kakheti, where grape vines stretch to the horizon and
where, seemingly, the sun always shines.

I’d set off early from Lopota Lake Resort, a scenic stay that
involved some quickly stolen time by the pool during a dramatic
sunset. My first stop was the Pheasant’s Tears Winery, where I met
with John Wurdeman, the owner and resident storyteller. American by
birth and Georgian by choice, Wurdeman arrived in the country two
decades ago and has since become a star name in the field of
natural wine. His boutique label is stocked internationally and, as
well bringing quality vino to the world, he co-owns two of
Tbilisi’s top restaurants. The food and folk singing I can vouch
for, from my own time in the city, even if I didn’t join in on the
latter. Much to the gratitude of the neighbours I assume.

His Santa Fe accent has long ago dissipated and he speaks of
Georgia with the kind of passion that, perhaps, only an outsider
can bring; bestowing an appreciation for the things that some
locals at one time took for granted, not least their distinct
wine-making process and culinary traditions.

Wandering the vineyards, Wurdeman explained his mission to bring
almost-lost grape varieties back to the country and conveyed his
own pride in being – in no small part – responsible for Georgia’s
increasing prominence on the global natural wine scene. I
begrudgingly sample several and we enjoy a hearty lunch at Crazy
Pomegranate, the winery’s sublime restaurant, his wife occasionally
cocking her head from the kitchen to check the food is hitting the
right notes.

At the nearby town of Sighnaghi, which hangs off the side of a
hill, I take in the sweeping vista, as a fertile landscape unfurls
beneath me, with only the distant mountain ridges of the Caucasus
to break the horizon.

For wine lovers, there is something uniquely compelling about
Kakheti. Unlike
in South Africa, the dense tourist throngs have
yet to arrive. But yet there’s little doubt that, in time, they

It’s my last evening in Georgia and I’m spreadeagled on a sofa
in the lounge of Tbilisi’s Rooms Hotel. It’s been an eye-opening
and horizon-broadening trip. Next door, the stylish Stamba Hotel is welcoming its first guests. I blagged
a tour of the property while the bookcases were still being stacked
and the dust covers yet to be removed. A former Soviet publishing
house, it’s now a
design-led destination
waiting to be occupied by bright young
things, keen to see what this increasingly on-trend city is all
about. But thriving as it is, I’ve learnt there’s much more to
Georgia than its buzzing capital.

I think back to my first night in the country. It’s the early
hours and we’re strolling home from dinner along a busy road when a
somewhat beaten-up car begins to slow alongside us. It’s occupied
by three, maybe four, young guys and heavy bass music thuds from
the sound system. They wind down the window and I feel my chest
tense, as Dato and the rest of our international gang edge closer
to one another. Then comes the yell.

“Welcome to Georgia!” they holler, speeding off again while
waving earnestly, as we muster a surprised “thank you” in response.
It’s something of a testament to the welcome one can expect in
Tbilisi, but more than that, it’s a testament to the welcome one
can expect in Georgia – only if there’s a willingness to take the
roads less travelled.

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