Georgia charms with amazing architecture, multiculturalism and its claim as the land that invented wine. Mike Peters explores its allures.
You can tell if a country is a prize by checking how many times it has been invaded.
By that measure, the little Caucasus land of Georgia is a treasure indeed.
Long an important Eurasian crossroads, Arabs overran the place in 645, making the captured capital, Tbilisi, an emirate for four centuries. Later came the Mongols, Huns, Persians, Ottomans and Russians in turn.
Visitors today will encounter all of those influences and more, coming together in a Caucasian people with a distinctly European outlook.
An ancient wine culture is flourishing, and beautiful Orthodox churches have become social centers for a newly energized faithful.
After relative isolation in the Soviet era, the old Silk Road hub is back to its old ways, making a trade pact with the European Union and a brand-new free-trade agreement with China.
The country’s scenic charm is apparent as soon as you land in Tbilisi, which straddles the Mtkvari River and commands good views of the surrounding mountains.
The Old Town gives smartphones and selfie sticks a workout as tourists flow through narrow lanes amid colorful two-story houses fronted with charming balconies. There are lots of small wine bars and an occasional tree-lined square.
The village feeling is enhanced by street stalls jammed with colorful rugs and fabrics, fresh pomegranates and figs, vegetables, honey, fragrant cheeses and nuts fresh from the surrounding countryside.
A spiritual heart
Our visit starts with some of the city’s most intriguing architecture.
We cross an elegant glass bridge created during the buoyant decade of the 2000s and head for Mtskheta, Georgia’s ancient capital.
It’s an hour’s drive from the city center and a popular day trip that begins with a visit to the Jvari church and monastery, visible on its hillside perch long before we actually arrive.
King Mirian erected a wooden cross here soon after his conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, and the church was built around it about 100 years later.
The symmetrical domed building has a cross-shaped plan with an imposing, bare-stone interior. Outside, hawkers sell sheepskin hats, silver hand mirrors and pendants decorated with jadeite and turquoise, as well as souvenirs from colorful refrigerator magnets to whistles.
Our next stop is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
An early triumph of the golden age of Georgian church architecture, this immense 11th-century stone building is laid out like a stretched-out cross. The color has faded in the church’s many frescoes, but the dramas that inspired them remain vivid, from the religious conversion of the ancient land, then known as Kartli, to the crucifixion of Christ.
Nodar Khutsishvili, our cheerful guide, recounts one legend: A local Jewish man was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion and returned with Christ’s robe.
His sister Sidonia took it from him and immediately died in a fit of ecstasy. The robe was said to be buried with her, but as years and invasions passed, folks forgot exactly where.
However, after an all-night prayer vigil by the country’s patron saint, Nino, a felled tree that locals had been unable to move miraculously transported itself and stood erect on the burial site.
While local lore abounds with such exploits of Nino, there’s no doubt that she was a real historical figure and responsible for the Christian conversion of the region.
The seriously ill Queen Nana was believed to have been saved by Nino’s prayers, and miracles that followed prompted King Mirian to arrange a mass baptism in the Aragvi River and make Christianity the official religion.
Faith went underground in the 20th century, but today about half of the country regularly attends church services and the Orthodox Church is a vibrant social force.
Eat, drink and be merry
Hospitality is Georgia’s middle name. Much like in China, people are as quick to ask “Have you eaten?” as they are to say hello.
Whether you are eating at a restaurant or a private home, a dinner may end with the appearance of a guitar and a round of songs. You won’t know the words－no one asked us to sing Take Me Home, Country Roads－so just sit back and enjoy.
The country also lays claim to be the birthplace of wine: Ancient stone vessels with vinegary grape residues have been dated back to 6000 BC, and people who have been making and drinking wine for 8,000 years clearly know how to have fun.
Wine bars proliferate in the capital as well as in the Black Sea resort of Batumi and the eastern region of Kakheti, the country’s wine-producing heartland.
It’s hard to escape being offered a glass almost everywhere you go, which can keep tourists pretty mellow on an afternoon or evening stroll.
Say, hypothetically, that you emerge from one of Tbilisi’s hopping nightspots at 5 am a bit bleary-eyed. You’ll want to follow the locals to a surefire restoration: the sulfurous warm waters of a bathhouse.
Tbilisi is famous for its hot springs－the city’s name comes from the Georgian word tbili (“warm”)－and there are several bathhouse options in the capital’s Old Town area.
Most are not modern or luxurious. They’re comfortable and safe, and usually offer private rooms with their own pools if you aren’t keen to get naked with strangers.
We checked out what is reputed to be the fanciest: Royal Bath, with mosaic-domed private rooms and helpful attendants bearing tea and beer.
There’s also a bonus across the street: The popular bistro Culinarium offers a great brunch and a bar with a cheeky menu of hangover cures.
If you go
Cafe Littera is the delicious creation of Tekuna Gachechiladze, the owner chef who also has a TV show and a small restaurant group called Culinarium. Cafe Littera serves dishes in the charming garden behind the Georgian Writers’ Union building; it moves inside in winter. 13 Machabeli St, Tbilisi.
Vino Underground celebrates natural wine made in Georgia’s traditional way, in huge ceramic urns (qveri) set underground. Georgia has 525 indigenous grapes, and while this wine bar doesn’t have them all, it does have a mind-blowing selection: ask for suggestions. www.vinounderground.ge; 15 Tabidze in Old Town Tbilisi; the Georgia Tea museum is next door.
Lounge Bar Funicular requires a short ride up a mountain for one of the best views in town. The oval bar is cool, as is Koka Ignatov’s 1960’s fresco Tribute to Piromansi. Funicular complex, Mtatsminda.
Winery Khareba is like a wine theme park: You can get a cooking and bread-baking lesson, taste wines, explore tunnels carved out of rock for storing wines, and then go up to a viewing deck with a restaurant. www.winerykhareba.com; in Kvareli, about 5 km from the town center.
Wine bars and wineries offer a variety of tasting experiences; ask a hotel concierge or tourist information office for options. Hiking is a national sport, with mountains and river valleys offering routes from casual touring to strenuous climbs. Guides can arrange kayaking and boat trips.