If a quiz game asked you to name the capital of Georgia, would you have to phone a friend?
I had no idea either – until a pal took a job in Tbilisi, which gave me a brilliant reason to explore this tiny country tucked just below Russia.
It’s a beautiful land, dotted with countless ancient fortresses and lookout towers to fend off invaders, and quaint hilltop towns looking out towards snow-capped mountains and lush valleys filled with walnut groves and rivers.
Its precarious position between eastern Europe, Russia and Arabia has caused a head-spinning history of invasions, but the Georgians have a fighting spirit that’s seen them rebel against endless conquerors.
Massive reforms have created enormous progress, while its complex history gives it more texture to unravel than the average holiday hotspot.
Here are some of its man-made and natural highlights.
Georgia’s capital city is divided by the Mtkvari river and confined by hills that cause its roads to twist and twine like serpents.
I spent hours exploring narrow cobbled lanes and broad avenues flanked by buildings with grand façades, some gracefully crumbling into dereliction.
Most sights are concentrated in an easily walkable area, starting with the old town, where clusters of domes bulge up from the ground as the roofs of bathhouses, built around hot sulphur springs.
On summer nights, these streets become a playground of pavement restaurants and competing groups of buskers.
A 20–minute stroll away is Liberty Square and Rustaveli Avenue, with modern shopping malls, the National Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and an imposingly stripy Opera House.
There’s a fascinating blend of elegant pre-Russian architecture, brutalist soviet blocks, and incongruous shiny modernism.
The prettiest new addition is the pedestrian Peace Bridge, an undulating glass–and–steel creation opened in 2010.
An absolute must is to jump in the cable cars that carry you to the ruins of fourth–century Narikala Fortress to admire the city below.
In a quick reminder of the past, my guide on a free walking tour asked us to guess how one church survived the communist era despite a crackdown on religion.
We couldn’t, so he told us: KGB agents infiltrated the priesthood, so the congregation tended to diminish as religious zealots were identified and eliminated.
The view from the village square in Stepantsminda, a little town in the Kazbegi district, is spectacular.
One morning, I gazed in awe at an ancient monastery perched on a distant hill, with snow sparkling on the massive mountain behind it.
Gorgeous – and dauntingly unreachable. Except our young guide Levan Chalauri marched us into the foothills with a promise that we’d be there and back in time for lunch.
It turned out to be a surprisingly moderate two-hour hike, but I wouldn’t like to be one of the resident monks assigned to fetch the groceries.
Kazbegi is close to the border with Russia, reached along the impressive Military Highway that clings to the sides of the Caucasus Mountains.
It’s worth a visit for the ride alone, with snowy peaks on one side, a river on the other, and hairpin bends that must be treacherous when the heavy snows melt.
The capital of ancient Georgia is about 45 minutes’ drive from Tbilisi. It has been inhabited since 1 000 BC and is now a UNESCO heritage site.
Its small, pedestrianised streets are lined with souvenir stalls, cafes, and stands selling delicious wine ice cream.
The main attraction is the impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, dating back to 326AD. But for wonderful views over the town and two converging rivers, get yourself to Jvari Monastery on the opposite bank.
Ancient Georgians were an agile bunch, living in cities built completely out of caves linked by narrow ledges or long, low tunnels.
At first, I thought some fur–and–leather-clad cavemen still inhabited Uplistsikhe, the oldest complex in the country.
Turns out they were just romping through the rock-carved theatre, pharmacy, churches and living spaces to film an advert.
Even more mind-boggling is Vardzia, carved out 800 years ago as a hiding place in case the Turks invaded.
After inching my way through narrow tunnels linking a vast complex of vertiginous caves, I reckon I’d have taken my chances with the enemy.
Funkily Flavoured Wines
Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine, and an exciting revival is underway.
The communists pared-down Georgia’s 525 varieties of grapes to only a handful and processed them all through collectives.
Now, wine estates like Pheasant’s Tears are rediscovering old varieties and promoting the traditional method of Qvevri winemaking. A Qvevri is a huge clay vessel that’s buried underground.
After crushing the grapes by foot, it’s poured into these vessels for a natural fermentation process.
World-class sommelier Shergil Pirtskhelani usually works at the Four Seasons in Dubai, but he’s also the Pheasant’s Tears sommelier, and has helped to track down and replant more than 400 long-forgotten varieties from seed banks.
“Wine-making is very risky when you’re working with new varieties,” he says. “We’re discovering so many types and invested by planting, pruning and nurturing them for six years before the first harvest.
“Then, you may find treasure in your hands – or you may say the Soviets were right to do away with them! But so far, every grape we are working with is absolutely amazing. When you sip the wine, it really makes you proud that we worked hard to revive that grape variety.”
It’s also risky working with Qvevris, since the results are less predictable than modern methods.
Slight oxidisation through the porous clay adds an amber shade, and wild yeast can impart a musty flavour. Pirtskhelani pours another sample and grins. “I call them funky flavours,” he says.
Investigating Georgian food is as much fun as exploring its towns and villages. I’m a sucker for stodge, and there are some hearty, rib-sticking meals to be had.
Most famous are khinkali, or little parcels of dough stuffed with meat and gravy, mushrooms, or cream cheese, then boiled or steamed.
The trick is to hold them by the nobble of pastry at the end, bite in, and try not to let the contents dribble down your chin. Don’t scoff the pastry handles though – that’s considered cheap and lower class.
Another favourite is khachapuri – warm, gooey bread stuffed with cheese, sometimes with an egg cracked on top.
Familiar ingredients are often used in inventive ways, such as a salad of broad beans and cauliflower in a rich brown sauce, or strips of aubergine rolled around walnut paste. One of my favourites was savoury bean pots, a rich stew cooked and served in a metal bowl.
The travel company Living Roots organises tours and day trips to help visitors understand Georgia and its people.
Tour coordinator Tamara Natenadze took me to Sighnaghi, a hilltop town in the wine region with narrow cobbled streets and pretty restored buildings.
After a wine–tasting session in town and lunch at the Lost Ridge guest house and microbrewery, we visited a museum dedicated to native artist Niko Pirosmani.
It looks like a bomb shelter, but inside you can admire his work and paintings of him by other artists, since he was obviously a prolific socialite.
Our final stop was to meet herbalist and silk producer Lamara Bejashvili. In a shed full of ugly-cute white worms we paused and listened to what sounded like gentle rain – the noise of happy silkworms chomping on mulberry leaves.
When To Go
Winters from November to March are often freezing, while June, July and August are blazing hot. For maximum comfort, aim for May or September.
SAA flies to Munich, then catch a short connection to Tbilisi. South Africans don’t need a visa.
Words by Lesley Stones