Georgia as a Tourist
For most TLG volunteers, the arrival of June signaled two things – the end of the semester and flights out of Georgia to new adventures. Most of my friends were headed back home to see their families but some were headed off to explore nearby countries. I did neither of these things but instead spent the time immediately following the end of the term preparing for a new Georgian adventure – my American mother, father and sister were coming to Georgia. My preparation was quickly derailed by too many unknowns and provided to be largely futile. And so, as the clocked ticked towards midnight on June 20th, I was nervously pacing in the arrivals lounge of Tbilisi’s International Airport, my thoughts flipping through everything that could possibly go wrong during my family’s visit but ultimately coming back to the one question that I had been pondering for weeks: What would Georgia look like to tourists coming from the modern luxuries of the USA?
For their first day in Georgia, we took our time exploring Tbilisi – we walked up to Sameba and the parks nearby, stopped for some refreshing coffee at Prospero’s, wandered through Old Town, stopped for lunch, wandered up to Narikala Fortress and took in the excellent views of the city, explored random churches and made numerous treks up and down Rustaveli Avenue. Still recovering from their jet lag, we turned in early so my mother and I could plan the rest of their trip. Everyone in my family was very busy in the weeks preceding their arrival, and so we had exactly two things figured out – one, the transportation (we’d be renting a car to be driven by my father, easily the best driver I’ve ever encountered) and the places my mother wanted to see: Tbilisi, Batumi, Svaneti, Kazbegi, and Kakheti (also known as Lonely Planet’s Top Five Picks for Georgia). After numerous of scheduling tweaks, we finally came up with a tentative schedule, watched the European Championships, and went to bed.
After another delicious (and western) breakfast on Friday, my parents picked up the car, packed it and we set off for Sighnaghi. We found Kakheti highway without too many problems and spent most of the drive marveling at the lush green and fertile countryside that separates Tbilisi and Sighnaghi. I’d read about Sighnaghi and had friends describe it to me but was still amazed by its simplicity and beauty. The white rock, cobblestone streets blend nicely with the lightly colored stone townhouses. The brick red roofs peak out over the tops of their occupants’ leafy, fertile orchards. And there’s a quiet simplicity that dominates the town, an alluring atmosphere that is hard to find elsewhere in Georgia.
We wandered through the remnants of the fortress, explored a winery, paid a visit to the church and concluded with a quick stop at Bodbe’s Convent. The setting of Bodbe’s Convent is naturally beautiful and serene, just like every other church in Georgia, but it holds a unique spot in the history of the Georgian Orthodox Church – it is dedicated to St Nino, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Georgia. The church is identical to most churches in Georgia – it has the same stone architecture and the same frescos over the interior; but Bodbe’s Convent is also home to St. Nino’s grave. Her grave sits in a tiny chapel just to the right of the altar, unmoved from where King Miriam first buried her in the 4th Century. Standing next to her tomb, with my family around me, represented a unique but humbling clashing of worlds that I’ll never forget. We then returned to Tbilisi for the night and unwound by watching Germany trounce Greece in the quarterfinals of the European Championships.
On Saturday morning, we took a scenic driving tour of Tbilisi before finding Georgia’s main highway (my sister would argue that we got lost) but were quickly barreling west, and then north towards Kazbegi, past a road bike race and countless villages, gardens and corner markets. Evidence of the city gave way to the countryside, and we followed the Georgian Military Highway as it climbed north, winding through unsettled land, past the uniquely colored Zhinvali Reservoir and then beyond the Ananuri fortress. We took a break at the fortress to explore its trio of churches and heavily fortified, stony walls. Each of the three churches clearly represents its own time period in Georgian history and are in varying states of disrepair but my favorite was the oldest and smallest of the three, the insides of which we glimpsed from a tiny window in an underground dirt room. We then climbed to the top of the fortress tower before resuming our journey, deep in discussion about the factors behind the numerous battles that unfolded on the grounds, a discussion prompted by my sister’s question of which came first, the churches or the fortress wall?
The view from the fortress was unique but nothing compared to the views from the Georgian Military Highway. As the road travels through villages and over each mountain pass, it unveils some of the most breathtaking mountainous ranges I’ve ever seen. Steep, rocky, grass-covered ridges form the bases of mountains whose peaks could barely be seen through the clouds that settled in the valley. From the roaring water at the base of the valley to the traces of snow and endless rocky hillsides, this portion of the Caucasian Mountains is intimidating in its own way.
The views alone would be worth the drive but the time spent in Kazbegi made it doubly rewarding. The town itself has an eerie ghost-town feel to it, making it evident that its glory days have long since ended. After a rainy night of cards and soccer, we woke up to perfectly clear skies and began hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church. Gergeti Trinity Church is perched on a hill that towers over the town of Kazbegi but is dwarfed by Kazbeg Mountain behind it, making it one of Georgia’s most iconic images. The hike, like most things in Georgia, was beautiful and the view from the top didn’t disappoint. My mother, sister and I donned the necessary skirts and scarves for a tour through Gergeti Trinity Church. The interior of the church pales in comparison to its placement on the peak of the hill and, after sipping some holy water, we eventually returned to the town and took a quick drive to the Russian border, a place that both of my parents insisted they never expected to visit. We then drove back to Tbilisi for the night, cutting a few hours out of the next day’s trek to Mestia – a trip that required driving almost all the way to the black sea before cutting back into the mountains.
Like most drives in Georgia, the time we spent on the road was an adventure in its own right, requiring my dad to account for a malleable definition of lane lines, vehicles driven at dangerous speeds, countless potholes, livestock out for their daily stroll (or nap on the pavement) and unmarked construction zones that left my sister promising to never again get annoyed at the single-lane tracking and carefully controlled construction zones that one encounters when driving in the west. As we headed from Zugdidi to Mestia, the road felt more like a cow-dominated slalom course than a driving road, but it took us past countless bee keepers, through another portion of the Caucasus and eventually into Mestia.
Our late arrival in Mestia was greeted by typical Georgian hospitality and a delicious dinner at our guesthouse. We awoke the next morning to clear blue skies and, after a typically Georgian breakfast, left for our planned day hike to the cross over looking Mestia. We walked to the trailhead through a town square in Mestia that is being completely rebuilt, past numerous crumbling houses and a few of the notorious Svanetian towers. As the trail gained altitude and took us past seemingly random cow pastures, the views became increasingly beautiful. The pine-tree covered slopes that surround Mestia became diminished in scale as their taller, snowier, and rockier mountain peaks grew in prominence in the distance.
And the cross itself is perched on the edge of a ridge, directly above Mestia. It provides an unparalleled view of the town and its surroundings but also a tantalizing jumping off point to the glaciers and mountain lakes that are further back in the mountains. As we took in the view and tried to keep ourselves cool from the brutal summer heat, my dad remained captivated by the presence of the towers and the idea that people have eked out lives and survived countless harsh winters in this remote mountain village, with the towers providing their best refuge from mountain feuds and the worst of winter. A post-hike afternoon drive in the direction of Ushguli took us past scattered houses at the base of intimidatingly tall mountains, forcing us to wonder whether the houses had been abandoned or whether the random satellite dishes signaled that they were still occupied. We didn’t have enough time to make the trip to Ushguli but all left amazed and humbled by both Mestia’s natural beauty and the resilience of the human condition that would allow for centuries of life to have unfolded in such a remote place. After another restful night at our guesthouse, we packed up Wednesday morning and headed for the Black Sea.
After a brief stop at a cow-filled beach in Poti, we decided to complete the drive to Batumi, the final place on my mother’s list for Georgia. I’d been to Batumi such much during the spring to visit my friends that, for me, it had lost its charm. But, watching my family see it for the first time, made me appreciate what a unique place it is. My sister went swimming in the Black Sea, and we wandered along the rocky beach, through the old town and took advantage of its plethora of coffee shops (at least by Georgian standards), western food and clean bathrooms. The wide and well-maintained boardwalk, busy atmosphere and mostly European feel made it my mother’s favorite Georgian city.
We left early Thursday morning to return to Tbilisi but, since Georgia has one major highway, this drive took us straight through Kutaisi, where I spent most of the spring, and so we stopped for a visit with my host family. Upon arriving, my family and I were greeted by my Georgian family with kisses and numerous hugs. We stayed for a cup of coffee, which turned into a breakfast Georgian supra, caught up and took numerous pictures. Listening to my very large and extremely well-fed Georgian grandfather tell my tall and lean American father that he couldn’t possibly be full was one of the most memorable exchanges from the trip. After eating far too much, we left and took a quick driving tour of Kutaisi, past the crumbling buildings, around the park, renovated traffic circle and updated restaurants. On our drive back to Tbilisi, we stopped at the Stalin Museum in Gori. The Stalin Museum is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating museums in Georgia. Built during the height of the Soviet Union and as an attempt by the USSR leadership to increase support for Stalin himself, it is a wonderful snapshot of Soviet propaganda and their preferred, although incomplete, view of history. There are few museums anywhere quite like it. We then returned to Tbilisi, returned the car, and spent the rest of their time in Georgia unwinding from the week and exploring Tbilisi’s various street markets.
Over dinner their last night, I asked for their impressions of Georgia. They all agreed that it is a naturally beautiful country, perhaps one of the most beautiful they’ve seen. And they agreed that it possessed a remarkably intriguing history, one that only adds to the country’s natural beauty. My sister found the differences between Kutaisi, Tbilisi and Batumi to be stark, striking and very telling. All were struck by the drastic differences between the worn, crumbling exterior of my family’s apartment and its welcoming, developed and luxurious interior. We spent a lot of time discussing prospects for Georgia’s economic and political future, two topics that will be endlessly discussed.
I’ve spent most of the time since their visit reflecting on both their trip and how it compares to the experience of living in Georgia. On one side, there’s a list of uniquely Georgian experiences that my family didn’t have the time or opportunity to experience – we didn’t make it on a marshutka ride, to a Supra or into the villages. But their visit gave me the opportunity to see Georgia from the perspective of a Western tourist. We always had access to hot water, clean bathrooms and a wide variety of food. I was surprised, and relieved, by how little Georgian I needed to help us navigate the country. That is, there is a lot of English on the tourist track – enough to enable tourists to explore without knowing Georgian. In the ten days they were here, we spent only a short amount of time in each place but were consistently amazed by the ruins, churches, farms, mountains and cities that make Georgia one of a kind.