Georgia travel destinations: You will find Georgia cultural guide in this article
Georgia on my mind: Cultural travels in Turkey’s northeast neighbor
People ride in a cart in front of the ancient church of Metekhi. (Photo: David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters)
Georgia travel destinations
Covering a land area of some 69,700 square kilometers, the Republic of Georgia is a fraction of the size of its two major neighbors.
Ranked according to land area, Russia, bordering Georgia’s northern frontier, is the world’s largest country, laying claim to a staggering 17,075,200 square kilometers of territory, whilst to the southwest, Turkey, ranked a creditable 37th, sprawls across some 780,508 square kilometers of land. Even Georgia’s distant namesake state in the US is twice the size of this small country in the Caucasus region.
Small it may be, but as I’d found out on an initial foray three years ago, Georgia is anything but dull. On that first back-packing journey, having crossed the Turkey-Georgia frontier east of the Black Sea town of Hopa, I’d spent a few days in the sultry heat of the Art-Nouveau-tinged port of Batumi and nigh on a week in the country’s fascinating and beautiful riverside capital Tbilisi. My real goal, however, had been the High Caucasus, much of which lies in Georgian territory. One of the world’s great ranges, the Caucasus are riven by plunging gorges filled with the roar of icy torrents, scored by gleaming glaciers, punctuated with lush green meadows spangled with multi-hued alpine flowers, peppered with the curious defensive towers of a mountain people well-used to surviving both foreign invasion and inter-tribal warfare, and pocked with the distinctive churches of a fiercely Orthodox Christian peoples.
Tbilisi travel ideas
The Caucasus had not disappointed, and I’d spent a happy week wandering down remote valleys and scrambling over high passes. Now I was back in Georgia, with a rather different agenda, in the company of 20-odd culture vultures from the UK, US and Australia intent on learning more about a country which, when viewed from afar, can seem impossibly remote and exotic. Yet, here we were, blithely trundling our wheeled cases across a bridge spanning the sluggish river marking the boundary between the tiny, land-locked Republic of Armenia, which we had just spent a compelling week exploring, and Georgia. Our passage eased by the fact that none of us required entry visas, we were soon aboard our waiting tour bus and wending our way north to Tbilisi.
A meander down Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue
Tiny in comparison to İstanbul and small even compared to the Turkish capital Ankara, with a population of around 1.5 million and a compact historical center, Tbilisi is an ideal city to explore on foot. As we tramped down Tbilisi’s elegant, Parisian-style Rustaveli Avenue, we were drawn, like Odysseus to the irresistible call of the Sirens, by the sound of sweet voices emanating from the elegant, early 20th-century Kashveti Church of St. George. This introduction to the polyphonic singing for which Georgia is so famous (it developed here many centuries before it was first heard in Europe) was an impromptu delight, as were many of the graceful buildings lining this grand avenue, from the Moorish style Paliashvili Opera House to the Neoclassical Rustaveli Theatre. Even the severe, brutalist lines of the Soviet-era parliament building were impressive.
The real wow factor for our band of history and archaeology-loving travelers was, however, to be found in the bowels of another of Rustaveli Avenue’s distinguished period buildings. In as fine a display of Bronze-Age to Byzantine-era bling as you’re likely to encounter anywhere, the Gold Rooms of the State Museum contain a cornucopia of beautifully worked objects, largely gold, ranging from embossed goblets to chunky bracelets, delicately-wrought diadems to cute animal statuettes. Much to the delight of the avid shoppers in our party, decent copies of some of these delights were to be found in the museum’s excellent gift shop, whilst those with a thirst for more modern history found it in the upstairs Museum of Occupation, a predictably damning indictment of the period when Georgia was trapped between the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.
Georgia culture facts
Crossing the silt-stained waters of the Mktvari, we ascended a steep road to the famous Metekhi Church, splendidly perched on a bluff above a bend in the river. From a vantage point on the steps outside the church our guide lecturer and local guide pointed out the splendid array of churches, bath houses and domestic dwellings that comprised Tbilisi’s old town, tucked away beneath the citadel just across the shallow river gorge. Several adventurous members of the group had, however, already made their way into this splendid 13th-century church. Here they found, to their initial consternation, that a funeral was taking place. Fortunately the mourners, unperturbed by the entrance of a handful of strangers, simply handed them lighted candles and incorporated them into the moving service.
A cable car whisked us up to the top of the citadel, Narikala, originally built back in A.D. 360 by the Persians but rebuilt by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. The views from here were even more impressive than from Metekhi, down across the old town to the river and northwest to Sioni Cathedral, seat of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and the spiritual heart of a nation that so prides itself on its Christian heritage that its national flag, adopted in 2004, boasts not one, but five crosses. Apart from the Ottoman Turkish rebuild of Narikala citadel, the only reminder I’d had so far on this trip of Turkish influence on its northeast neighbor was an empty Efes Pilsen crate I’d spotted outside a downtown Tbilisi bar. But passing the open door of an attractive brick built, late 19th-century mosque, I heard the unmistakable cadences of the Turkish language — though it was quite possibly of the Azeri variant as the area we were wandering through was home to a small population of Azeri Turks.
At the bottom of the citadel hill, beneath the mosque, a complex of domed buildings signified that we were in the Abanos Kucha or bath house quarter. In many ways the city owes its existence to the presence of the warm springs bubbling from the ground here. Indeed the name Tbilisi derives from the word tbili, meaning warm, and in the 12th century there were some 65 bath houses here. Sadly only three remain today, the finest of which, boasting a glorious, Persian-style tiled façade, is the late 17th century Orbeliani. A hot soak and scrub-up were a tempting post-walk treat, but the absence of bathing suits, the language barrier, lack of time and a dash of British reserve meant they’d have to wait for another time.
A day in the Georgia
The lush, green and hilly countryside to the east of Tbilisi, a wine-growing region known as Kakheti, centered on the Alazani river, is remarkably neat, tidy and positively European-looking. Our first sight of the day was the Shumata monastery complex, where three churches, from the fifth, seventh and 17th centuries respectively, clustered together on a grassy glade amidst quite beautiful beech forest. It was a national holiday, and a welcoming gaggle of young holiday-making Georgians were clearly proud to see foreigners at this relatively little-visited site. Next up was another monastery, Iqalto, the main church of which followed the classic and distinctive Georgian cross in a square plan, the nave surmounted by a tall drum and conical roof.
These two complexes, set in green and pleasant countryside, reminded me of the churches of the so-called “Georgian valleys,” situated between Erzurum and Artvin in northeastern Turkey. Just as beautiful as Shumata and Iqalto, and occupying even more beautiful settings, Turkey’s Georgian churches are a reminder that whilst today a resurgent Turkey is exercising its economic influence in Georgia, Georgian political and economic influence had once been very strong in territory that is now part of Turkey. Dating back to between the seventh and 10th centuries, these abandoned churches had been part of a Georgian fiefdom known as Tao Klarjeti.
Today they stand as a stark reminder of how the fortunes of nations, peoples and their religions wax and wane. Lacking either a congregation or visitors in sufficient numbers, most are in a parlous state of disrepair, though at least one (Barhal) is used as a mosque. In Georgia itself, of course, many of the churches and monastic buildings had fallen into decay, victims of the vicissitudes of time and the atheistic grip of the Soviet-era. Now, however, most are returning to life, with money pouring in for repairs and worshippers lighting candles in their entranceways.
The Caucasus cuisine
Having worked up an appetite exploring the monastic complexes, we sat down to eat lunch at a rustic farmhouse that would have been equally at home in France or Tuscany, and were treated to flagons of home-produced wine. It wouldn’t go down well in predominantly Muslim Turkey but the tender pork kebabs, cooked over a roaring fire of dried vine tendrils, were much appreciated, as were the copious salads.
After such a hearty lunch it was hard to summon up the necessary enthusiasm to explore the pretty, Italian-looking ridge-top town of Sighnaghi (actually derived from the Turkish word sığınak or shelter, suggesting the Ottomans were here at some time or other), especially in the enervating heat. Some hardier souls amongst us wandered up to the ancient fortifications, others flopped in a pleasant square straight out of a Tuscan village and drank Lavazza, a suitably Italian coffee for the setting.
The views from Sighnaghi, down and across the fertile Alazani valley, were wonderful. The white, snow-crested ridge of the High Caucasus, however, dramatically visible on clear days according to our local guide, was screened by an impenetrable heat haze. I’d have to wait a few days more to see the mountains I’d so enjoyed three years previously.
Terry Richardson was traveling with Andante Travels (www.andantetravels.co.uk).