If ever a destination was off the radar, it’s Georgia – and no, we’re not talking Georgia USA; we’re taking you to Georgia in the heart of the Caucasus. At the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and sandwiched between Turkey and Ukraine, you need only blink to find yourself confused as to just which part of the world you’re in! But don’t let that put you off because Georgia is stunningly different and easily accessible via air (budget flights leave from Greece – Athens – and Turkey – Istanbul). Better still, train your way there from Istanbul along the scenic Euphrates River, to Kas, then bus into Georgia across a landscape seldom seen by Kiwi tourists.
Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi (and, yes, we realise those consonants don’t sit easily on the tongue!), is a heady mix of seriously good wine bars (Georgia is famous for its tannin-rich reds) and street food you may never have encountered before. Be guided by the scent of fresh bread wafting through the streets, and meander your way to a bakery serving the country’s national treat. Khachapuri is an oval-shaped, leavened bread filled with delicious, salty Georgian cheese, melted to perfection. You’ll also find it topped with a sunnyside-up baked egg. For a dairy-free snack, go for the Lobiani, a baked bread pie filled with a peppery bean stew.
Tbilisi is also famous for its open-air market which stretches across the river that runs through the centre of this fascinating city. Allow yourself 2-3 hours to peruse stalls that sell almost everything you can imagine from sewing machine parts to antique china. And be sure to visit the stalls on the bridge itself which offer intriguing glimpses into the country’s former Soviet connections. With every Soviet souvenir you could ask for from Stalin lapel badges to Russian postcards, history buffs and collectors won’t be disappointed. For a more mainstream tourist experience, check out the old Turkish baths in the town centre, and take the scenic walk up the gorge (it leaves from right beside the Turkish baths).
When you want a break from Tbilisi, hop on the train for an overnight ride in a private compartment, all the way to Batumi. Situated on the edge of the Black Sea, this vibrant city is a favourite destination for Russian holidaymakers. With kilometres of sea frontage and some seriously quirky constructions just behind (be sure to look out for the 130-metre high tower sporting a gigantic geodesic ball on top – it’s purported to be an unfinished restaurant), the area comes alive in the warmer months, especially at night.
When you feel like a real treat, walk yourself to the city market – but be sure to watch for trains while you’re there. The rail tracks cut straight through the stalls which are often shunted to one side as the locomotives plough through! The sprawling market holds every fruit and vegetable you could wish for – and some you may not even recognise. It’s also where locals pick up their wads of tobacco leaf, blocks of salt, and have their fortunes read by well-trained budgies which pick a promise from a box of papers while you wait. In the indoor section of the market, up a short flight of stairs, you’ll come across more butter and cheese than you ever thought you’d see in one spot. Dairy is Georgia’s forte – as you’ll soon find out!
If Georgia has you curious, don’t delay your visit. It’s already a holiday destination for Eastern Europeans, and will soon be discovered by the West!