Before disembarking at Kutaisi airport I knew next to nothing about Georgia, apart from that used to be part of the Soviet Union, was in the past part of the Silk Road and now aspires to be an EU member state. One fact I was not aware of and which immediately made it an attractive destination was that there are direct weekly flights from Larnaca to Kutaisi, a trip lasting a mere one hour and 45 minutes.
The Wizz air flight was short and Kutaisi airport modern and small – so small in fact there is only one belt for arriving luggage, but as there are only 16 international flights a day this doesn’t create a problem. We arrived on time and swiftly passed through to Georgia proper where we were met by the knowledgeable and friendly guide David Datonozadze.
After a two hour drive our first stop was Borjomi, a spa well known for its mineral water, but not before we were first introduced to local food at a ‘restaurant,’ called Jargvali. Delicious. Restaurant is a loose term; a group of six, we were shown into a room all by ourselves and this is how it is done by establishments on the road. People stop on their way, eat and get on their way again. The food was served Meze style, something that is bound to appeal to the Cypriot traveller. We ordered Khachapuri, which is sometimes described as the local pizza, a term that doesn’t do it any justice.
Finally we reached the five-star Crowne Plaza hotel in Borjomi, a journey of only 130km although it took us so long to get there. As yet only a short part of the drive is covered by a motorway, and trucks travelling to and from other countries create a problem for many roads. The geographical position of the country is part of its attraction as it borders with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia but its lack of motorway connecting all these places is problematic, especially as there is one road from the north to south and one from East to West.
Borjomi is a not only known for its mineral water but, more important for the winter traveller, the ski resort of Bakuriani is only 30km away. We accessed it by a cute little train which is a nice slow way of travelling through forests and bypassing deserted railways stations and all for €0.70. Although some people take this train to ski for the day, it again is time consuming; the 30 kilometres trip takes two and a half hours but is worth it for the scenery.
The ski resort is located at 1,700 metres and much of is it under construction though modern ski lifts leading to pistes are working. However, those looking for quaint villages complete with cafés, pubs and restaurants may be disappointed, they may be better advised to wait a couple of years before going.
On our journey here, as with elsewhere, not only in villages but along the roads including the motorway cows roam freely, as do pigs, sheep and horses. Georgians don’t believe in fencing animals, they train them to know their way home and the family expects them back in the evenings.
We encountered a very different scenario on the following day in the capital Tsiblisi, where half of the country’s citizens live. On the outskirts Soviet-style ugly buildings were in abundance to house the more than 2 million people who live there. A culture shock after Borjomi and also a relief for those who crave city life with its cafés and restaurants, which offer excellent value – cappuchinos and mochas for five came to €5.90.
Revitalised it was time to explore the old city: places of worship from Moslem to Catholic were all in the same area, reflecting that there has never been a ghetto in Tsiblisi, not even separate neighbourhoods. “There were never Adjherbajanians or Geogians or Waldoga Germans who moved here, once you moved to the place, you became a Tsibilien citizen and this what you were and you lived with the others,” said David. This melting pot culture is also reflected in the diverse architecture, in the clothes people wear, in the food and the current population. Though they come from so many backgrounds, citizens are united in not only wanting to be part of the EU – 90 per cent of the population voted for it – but the government actively promotes actions revolving around it.
And there is more skiing in reach from the capital. On the way to the most prominent ski resort, Gudauri, we visited Mtsketa. This small town located 20km from Tsibisi is one of the country’s oldest cities and was declared a world heritage site in 1994. The government remodelled the exterior of houses according to old photos and financed the changes, with the result that a lot of the residences have a unique character. Further along the winding road with the inevitable Azerbijian, Armenian, Turkish and Russian lorries is Gudauri, located 120km north of Tbilisi.
The season lasts from December to April and eight ski lifts cover an area of 50 kilometres of pistes. In November, there was much construction going on but we were told it would be finished by the beginning of the season. The resort has been operating since 1985 so there is an infrastructure in place with a number of hotels and a first-rate ski lift which opened in 2011. A definite advantage over skiing in Cyprus is the vast number of pistes available and the prices. A ski pass for a day costs €10 and an additional €10 to €14 will secure a private ski instructor for the day.
For those who value their surroundings over the nearness of the piste, the Kazbegi Rooms hotel a 40-minute drive away is located at 1,200 metres above sea level and just six kilometres from the Russian border and one can view the third highest peak in Europe, at 5,044 metres high, from all areas of the hotel. This hotel offers a relaxing environment… the sauna and indoor swimming pool compete with that view while the lobby is cleverly divided by bookshelves which contain hundreds of books in all sorts of languages.
A walk through Kazbegi itself reveals some of the reality of village life which may be charming for the visitor if maybe not for the villagers. Every house is humble, and cows and sheep walk around. According to our guide, the Soviet ideology of ‘everybody being the same’ is still in place, meaning some people have more money than others but this is not evident in appearances such as buildings and clothes.
One major excitement not to be missed by the adventurous is to travel via jeep, on foot and horseback to one of the higher peaks accessible from this area, at the top of which sits the 2,800 metre high Gergeti Trinity church. We travelled there by jeep via what our guide described as “one of the most challenging mountain tracks in the world”. Indeed, it was and rather bumpy too. The drive takes 30 minutes. Well worth the view and despite the bumpy ride I eventually relaxed. Amazingly, there is a village on the way, complete with Wifi access, which is widespread. How the villagers get to other places in bad weather conditions is a mystery.
The five-hour drive back to the airport from the mountain resort is a reminder that driving in this country is a challenge, and if you plan a skiing trip to Gudairi keep in mind that the mountain road which leads back to the airport may be closed at times due to the weather. This, we were assured, is going to change soon as the ski lifts are going to be joined with another resort much lower.
Georgia is a great country to visit now while it is not too touristy, and has great food and hotels all at value prices. I am sure for some years at least everybody will respect the cows and sheep on their way. And travellers who know little about the place but are willing to learn. Just keep in mind those roads.