Georgia, Caucasus

Georgia 29 - delicious Georgian cuisineThe north-western-most of the three Caucasus countries that emerged as independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the transition in Georgia wasn't without its problems. And in the case of Georgia, the relationship with Russia, the big and powerful neighbour to the north continues to be "troublesome".
But the main reason why Georgia is covered here is of a more historical nature: because of the country's most famous and infamous son, Josef Stalin. In his birthplace of Gori, there is a Museum dedicated to this Georgian/Soviet hero. A smaller equivalent can also be found in Batumi.
The capital city Tbilisi also has a couple of sites that can vaguely be of special interest to the dark tourist.  
- Tbilisi
Two regions nominally part of Georgia have declared themselves independent, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Most other countries do not recognize these independent states (except, for vested interests reasons, Transnistria) – and it wasn't until the war in the summer of 2008 over South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia that the latter finally did recognize them. The war that was so portrayed in the West as an unprovoked act of aggression on the part of the Russians was in actual fact started by Georgia, in an effort to re-capture South Ossetia. This baiting of the big Russian bear backfired and the province is now probably lost for Georgia permanently; but from a propagandistic point of view the war was still a victory for Georgia.
The dispute over these territories remains unresolved, though – and accordingly hard feelings and accusations remain on both sides too. In Georgia you can even find postcards with anti-Russian propaganda in tourist shops! Obviously they make for extraordinary dark tourism souvenirs – despite, or even because of, their gross one-sidedness!
Georgia isn't covered here as a dark travel destination for these territorial conflicts, however – and neither region can really be recommended as tourist destinations at the present time (and would be difficult to access anyway). In the city of Gori, though, which was bombed and temporarily occupied by invading Russian forces in 2008, does have a few exhibits dedicated to this recent war in a local museum.
In the main, though, Georgia is less a dark place than a downright magical destination for those in pursuit of glorious mountain scenery, topped off with outstanding cuisine, the oldest wine-making tradition in the world, exuberant hospitality and plenty of cultural landmarks, in particular a plethora of churches.
Georgians love to retell the legend that when God created the world he first forgot to allocate some land to the Georgians, and to make up for this mistake he gave them some of his own, i.e. the very best and most beautiful … this God's-Own-Country story may not be unique to Georgia, but it cannot be doubted that the county is indeed "blessed" with some breathtakingly stunning scenery.
The prime piece of this is certainly the Great Caucasus – the image of Mt Kazbek with the Tsminda Sameba chapel perched on a hilltop opposite the glacier-clad 5000m (16,500 feet) mountain is so unbelievably scenic, it's almost too much. No wonder it features on most Georgia guidebook covers.
The road leading past Kazbegi is called the Georgian Military Highway. It's an ancient mountain pass but was only developed as a properly paved road by the Russian Empire, and again further developed in Soviet times, partly with the use of German WWII POWs. The highway continues into Russia, but owing to the troubled relationship between the countries the border is closed (except for Ukrainian and Armenian juggernauts, which thunder along this route in large numbers). In winter some stretches of the road divert into tunnels, for protection from the heavy winter snows.
To the west of the highway lies South Ossetia, so a certain military presence gives the name of the route some supplementary justification, as it were.
Georgia is full of scenic spots elsewhere too, from the Black Sea coast to the parched semi-desert along the border with Azerbaijan (with the mysterious cave monasteries at Davit Gareja), and from the fertile wine-growing valleys of Kakheti to the densely forested hills around Borjormi. The latter name is best known in the region, and in the whole former Soviet Union, for its mineral water. It's an acquired taste, being rather salty for a type of drinking water, but the spa town of the same name is certainly a pretty place.
Of course, there's also less pretty places in Georgia, and it too has some of the industrial legacies of the former USSR, e.g. the rusting steelworks of Georgia's second largest city Kutaisi – though nowhere near as grim industrial wastelands as in parts of Armenia and Azerbaijan (see e.g. Vanadzor and Absheron).
Many foreign tourists will enter Georgia by plane, most likely arriving at Tbilisi's international airport. But travel to Georgia overland is also possible in all directions except via Russia.
Georgia is the most relaxed of Caucasus countries with regard to visa requirements: no visa at all are required for citizens of most European countries, the CIS nations (except, what a surprise, for Russians), Japan, South Korea, USA and Canada and several Arab countries.
Uniquely in the region, Georgia is getting on OK with both its Caucasus neighbours as well as with Turkey, so borders are quite easily passable. Georgia thus also serves as a travel link for journeys between Azerbaijan and Armenia or Armenia and Turkey, where direct travel is made impossible by closed borders between those countries. There's a very handy overnight train between Tbilisi and Baku, and a less convenient one very slow and roundabout train route to Yerevan. Buses are the better option for the latter.
Getting around within Georgia is fairly easy too. Trains go all the way to Batumi on the Black Sea coast as well as to Borjormi; other parts of the country are better reached by bus or (if you don't have much luggage) marshrutka – those typical minibuses that provide the bulk of local transportation. Going by car is of course also a good option, but driving in Georgia can be a challenge, given the daredevil, often downright suicidal driving habits of the Georgians. Hiring a car with a driver, who will at least be accustomed to this kind of road behaviour, can also turn out more economical than a self-drive hire-car.
Georgia also has the best-developed tourism infrastructure of the Caucasus in terms of travel agencies and tour operators – and many different packages from day excursions (e.g. to Davit Gareja) to whole holiday programmes of two weeks or more are readily available. None of this will be required by the dark tourist who just wants to see the dark places outlined on this website, which can all easily be done independently. But for going further, e.g. to the wine country or into the Caucasus, such packages can be very convenient. Prices and service levels vary, though, so do shop around (or contact me for consultation).
As far as food & drink is concerned, Georgia easily beats the other countries in the Caucasus hands down. It's in fact one the world's greatest cuisines, and popular in the whole Caucasus and the entire former Soviet Empire (where the option of Georgian food is frequently a saviour from far less appealing local staples, e.g. in Kazakhstan).
Also quite unlike the neighbouring countries' almost exclusively carnivorous orientation, Georgian food is a delight for vegetarians. It's not for the calorie-conscious, though, with cheese and walnuts featuring in lavish amounts. Amongst the classic dishes is a variety of mkhali, pastes based on ground walnuts and garlic with added spinach, beetroot, beans or other ingredients, or spread onto sliced aubergines and rolled up into bite-sized morsels with a few pomegranate seeds on top (the most prototypical fruit in Georgia).
The most ubiquitous staple, from restaurants to hole-in-the-wall- snack food stalls in the streets of the cities, is khachapuri. This is a kind of flat cheese pie, either round (like a tomato-free pizza) or folded or sometimes layered, or, especially in the area around Batumi, boat-shaped (like Turkish pide) with a runny egg on top. No real Georgian feast is complete without some sort of khachapuri as the centre piece.
And speaking of feasts, Georgians have developed this form of hospitality to an art form, quite literally: the feasting is led by a designated "toast master" called a 'tamada' whose job it is to propose endless rounds of toasts in a lengthy and often poetic manner before everyone can drink from their raised glasses (or other drinking vessels). But there's also less formal everyday drinking – in particular of wine.
Georgia has the world's oldest wine tradition. In fact it is believed (on the basis of archaeological finds) that the process of wine-making was invented here some 5000 to 7000 years ago. During the Soviet days, Georgia's quality wine-making tradition was compromised through planned economy mass production where bulk was more important that quality. This severely damaged the reputation of Georgian wines. Indeed, much of what you could encounter in Russia labelled as Georgian wine was pretty ordinary semi-sweet plonk frequently bordering on the undrinkable (not that the Russians minded much). Since the post-independence falling out of Georgia with Russia over South Ossetia, there has been an embargo on Georgian wine imports to Russia. Economically that hit Georgia hard at first, with the country losing about 80% of its export market virtually overnight. On the other hand, it has helped bringing back quality. Now chateau-level high-end wine making is back and en vogue, and with some well-deserved success.
Quite a lot of the wines are produced in a more western style (and with western viticultural techniques and equipment), but the old style of making wine in a traditional earthenware vat called Qvevri, which is buried in the ground for fermentation, is having a sort of comeback with boutique wine estates too. When I travelled through the Kakheti wine-making region in eastern Georgia I had the pleasure of tasting some of the best wines I've ever had anywhere. The very resin-heavy style of a pure Qvevri wine is a bit of an acquired taste maybe, but I happily acquired it almost instantly. It's a shame that such superb Georgian wines are so difficult to get hold of outside the country.
Completely unavailable other than strictly locally is "home-made" Georgian wine. This too is made in the traditional way, but is lighter and for easy drinking by the jug. While not of the same complexity as the star wines from the professional estates, it can still be very agreeable indeed.
To anyone with at least a passing interest in wine I can whole-heartedly recommend that a trip to Georgia should include a loop through the wine-region(s) for some tasting around. Some fantastic discoveries can be made. I don't normally offer unsolicited advertising of my own, but I'll make an exception here and give three names to look out for: Pheasant's Tears (for 100% Qvevri-made wines), Shumi (for western style wines) and Vinoterra (for a combination of both). White grape varieties to try in particular are Kisi and Rkatsiteli, with reds the Saperavi grape dominates, but many others are equally good. There are actually more grape varieties grown in Georgia than in the rest of the world put together, so there's almost unlimited scope for exotic exploration.
Finally, a word about the Georgian climate: winters can be very harsh, especially of course in the mountains, while in the summer, the lower-lying regions and cities and get very steamy hot, though I found Tbilisi slightly more tolerable than Yervan when I travelled around the Caucasus in August 2010. Best times for travel would rather be late spring or early autumn, especially October (which is also wine harvest time).
  • Georgia 01 - Georgian flags galoreGeorgia 01 - Georgian flags galore
  • Georgia 02 - Communist legacies on the wall of a Tbilisi hotelGeorgia 02 - Communist legacies on the wall of a Tbilisi hotel
  • Georgia 03 - The Great CaucasusGeorgia 03 - The Great Caucasus
  • Georgia 04 - Mt KazbekGeorgia 04 - Mt Kazbek
  • Georgia 05 - Kazbegi Caucasus sceneryGeorgia 05 - Kazbegi Caucasus scenery
  • Georgia 06 - Russian border on the Military HighwayGeorgia 06 - Russian border on the Military Highway
  • Georgia 07 - POW cemetery on the Military HighwayGeorgia 07 - POW cemetery on the Military Highway
  • Georgia 08 - German POWs built the Military HighwayGeorgia 08 - German POWs built the Military Highway
  • Georgia 09 - winter tunnel on the Georgian Military HighwayGeorgia 09 - winter tunnel on the Georgian Military Highway
  • Georgia 10 - remote village near Truso ValleyGeorgia 10 - remote village near Truso Valley
  • Georgia 11 - military helicopter near the Ossetian borderGeorgia 11 - military helicopter near the Ossetian border
  • Georgia 12 - Ananuri FortressGeorgia 12 - Ananuri Fortress
  • Georgia 13 - classic Georgian viewGeorgia 13 - classic Georgian view
  • Georgia 14 - village near the Armenian borderGeorgia 14 - village near the Armenian border
  • Georgia 15 - Khertvisi Fortress in south-west GeorgiaGeorgia 15 - Khertvisi Fortress in south-west Georgia
  • Georgia 16 - less scenic industrial view in eastern GeorgiaGeorgia 16 - less scenic industrial view in eastern Georgia
  • Georgia 17 - old steelworks in KutaisiGeorgia 17 - old steelworks in Kutaisi
  • Georgia 18 - Borjomi mineral water springGeorgia 18 - Borjomi mineral water spring
  • Georgia 19 - interesting house in BorjomiGeorgia 19 - interesting house in Borjomi
  • Georgia 20 - Black Sea coastGeorgia 20 - Black Sea coast
  • Georgia 21 border region with AzerbaijanGeorgia 21 border region with Azerbaijan
  • Georgia 22 - Lavra monastery at Davit GarejaGeorgia 22 - Lavra monastery at Davit Gareja
  • Georgia 23 - Udabno cave monastery at Davit GarejaGeorgia 23 - Udabno cave monastery at Davit Gareja
  • Georgia 24 - Sighnaghi in KakhetiGeorgia 24 - Sighnaghi in Kakheti
  • Georgia 25 - wine countryGeorgia 25 - wine country
  • Georgia 26 - earthenware Qvevri wine vatsGeorgia 26 - earthenware Qvevri wine vats
  • Georgia 27 - traditional Georgian wine making in buried QvevrisGeorgia 27 - traditional Georgian wine making in buried Qvevris
  • Georgia 28 - pomegranateGeorgia 28 - pomegranate
  • Georgia 29 - delicious Georgian cuisineGeorgia 29 - delicious Georgian cuisine
  • Georgia 30 - mkhali, adjika and herb saladGeorgia 30 - mkhali, adjika and herb salad
  • Georgia 31 - all sorts of khachapuriGeorgia 31 - all sorts of khachapuri
  • Georgia 32 - from Georgia with loveGeorgia 32 - from Georgia with love

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2017