Often overlooked by travellers, Georgia represents the perfect location for a pit stop in any journey in and around the regions of western Asia and Central Europe, sandwiched as it is by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and the Black Sea. It stands, too, as an interesting travel destination on its own given the ancient history and classical culture it developed before - and somehow managed to maintain to some degree during - seventy years of communist rule. Much like a number of its former Soviet bloc inmates, the country suffered serious civil unrest and various episodes of economic crisis through the nineties as it tried to come of age and catch up with the rest of the world. Since then, however, despite a 2008 skirmish with Russia over disputed territories, Georgia has managed to pick up its socks and attract more positive international attention. Backpackers and short-term visitors alike can find pleasant, relatively undisturbed surprises here and can do so safely, though journeying near the Russian border is ill-advised. A great deal of what Georgia has to offer for its visitors to enjoy visually is ecclesiastical in nature. Given that the Orthodox Church in Georgia dates back to the 1st century, the country is home to some of the oldest churches in Christendom and has several pieces of art and sculpture celebrating that part of the national fabric. Another source of national pride for Georgia is its winemaking history. Grapes have been cultivated for higher purposes here for millennia, with the country reportedly hosting the world's oldest archaeological remains related to grape seeds and winemaking. Wine is still being made to appreciate here, so be sure to lift your glass to your host at least once on your journey. As one might expect, tourism infrastructure leaves a bit to be desired but the opportunity for a memorable learning and travel experience far outweighs any inconvenience you'll likely experience as a result. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
As the train pulled into the Zugdidi train station in Western Georgia, the drivers started shouting "Mestia! Mestia!" assuming that most tourists getting off the train here would be heading north to the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site, as I did on a previous trip. On this day, though, I had a different end. A driver approached me like he would any tourist, offering his services to the Upper Svaneti region of the country. Curious, a small group of drivers gathered to chat when I answered that I was not headed far. I was hesitant to answer as I was going to a place that was still controversial for many Georgians. I reluctantly replied that I was heading to Gali.
One of the rarest things in this life is a trip without prior expectations. It's so extraordinary not to have any preconceived notions of what a country or a region will be like, so I was pleased to find myself flying into the Tbilisi, Georgia airport with little idea or expectation on what I was going to find there. Of course I did have some vague notion of Stalinist architecture, and perhaps an occasional tractor factory, so I can’t say that I was entirely without prejudice. It’s probably fair to say, though, that I really didn't have so much of an image formed in my mind as to present reality with too great a hurdle.
Certainly any images of tower blocks and tractor factories vanished as I found myself stumbling out of the mashutka - the yellow minibuses that pulse through the arteries of the former USSR’s public transport system - and into the heart of Tbilisi’s old town. If I did have lingering ideas of grey modernistic post soviet architecture, this is where they were finally dispelled. Tbilisi sits at the bottom of a broad valley, straddling the Mt'k'vari River. The main result of this is that the streets and alleyways of Tbilisi find themselves winding and snaking their way up either sun drenched bank of the Mt’k’vari, making their way between dilapidated villas, whose balconies jut out at random angles in naked defiance of both gravity and physics.