Georgia seems made for a two-week trip. This ancient, fascinating, plucky country is small, on a European scale, and its sights – cave cities, ancient spiritual centres, even a Stalin Museum – are mostly within an easy drive of each other.
Throughout, yummy Georgian wine (the country’s been making the stuff as long as anyone) promises to revive your travel spirits.
Day 1-3: Arty, raucous, still exotic Tbilisi
The great bulk of visitors to Georgia fly into the capital, Tbilisi. Doing so has got easier in recent years: whereas you once had to brave a red-eye flight via Istanbul or Kiev, enhancing Georgia’s reputation as an intrepid destination, now Georgian Airways flies directly to Tbilisi from Gatwick three times a week.
(Note that Wizz Air also flies twice weekly from Luton to the Georgian city of Kutaisi, closer to the Black Sea, allowing you to chop and change the below itinerary.)
Arty and raucous, elegant in parts and distinctly ramshackle in others, still exotic but with more and more modern touches, Tbilisi woos many a traveller with its own distinct charm.
Starting your sightseeing at the Orbeliani baths makes sense if you’re staying around the old town; following its recent renovations, you can now actually perform your ablutions once again at this impressive, blue-tiled, 17th-century Georgian version of a hammam. (Turkey’s next door to Georgia, after all.)
Experience a little time travel nearby along the alleys off Kote Abkhazi street. Lined with unrestored wooden balcony houses, these narrow passages seem to transport you to the Tbilisi of a century ago.
You’ll see more spruced up versions of these timber dwellings, the capital’s particular architectural statement, if you wander up through the pretty neighbourhood of Betlemi. There, too, you’ll find the evocatively named Ateshgah Fire Worshippers’ Temple, a relic of the Zoroastrian religion from when Georgia was part of the Persian empire.
Back on the river, the flea market of so-called Dry Bridge, with (more or less authentic) Soviet and other bric-a-brac on sale, is a famed Tbilisi gathering place. Indoors – offering tempting shelter in the sometimes fierce Georgian summer – the National Museum has an astounding display of intricate pre-Christian gold jewellery.
The Bazroba Central Market provides plenty of farm-fresh picnic fare, as well as an equally raw slice of ordinary Tbilisi life. The Fabrika complex is of more recent advent, a converted factory with galleries, international dining and clothing boutiques – including one, the Flying Painter, selling funky original Soviet-era garments.
Tbilisi easily repays two or three days’ exploration. Dropping into one of the city’s burgeoning so-called art cafes is a good way to break things up. Furnishings in these casual dining spots cum galleries typically mine a cheeky Georgian retro theme – Cafe Linville shows off the prevailing spirit well.
Day 4-6: Spiritual centre and splendid isolation
Drive north (and this itinerary assumes you’ll be driving) next towards the mountain village of Stepantsminda. Stop off on the way, though, not far from Tbilisi at Mtskheta, Georgia’s spiritual heart. The town’s cathedral is the main, glorious draw here – Tbilisi’s seems timid by comparison – but it’s just the intricate icing on the spot’s many-layered religious cake.
Followers, again, of the local Zoroastrian fire-worshipping cult revered this site, where two rivers join, around the 4th century BC; they were building on even earlier, mysterious Hittie and Sumerian creeds that fade into the mists of time. A Christian house of worship itself dates back almost 2,000 years here; its present incarnation, Sveti Tskhoveli Cathedral, is pretty unmissable, with its great, green-hued dome rising above the red rooftops. Inside carved bull’s heads are pagan remnants symbolising fertility.
You could make Stepantsminda, three hour’s drive away, your next stop for a taste of what Georgia, along with wine, does so well: picturesque isolation with a vaguely mystical feel. The village itself is a low-key place but it’s a base for superb hikes into the surrounding terrain, where brown bear roam and vultures soar.
Day 7-10: Stalin’s hometown and power-water
Onward! Loop south again, through Mtskheta, to Gori, workaday base (although with one controversial exception; read on) for one of Georgia’s most unforgettable attractions. Around 10km from the town, Uplistsikhe is a cave city that was inhabited since at least 1,000 years before Christ and at one point housed 5,000 monks – all unfortunately slaughtered by Mongol invaders. Your imagination will have to reverse some of Uplistsikhe’s considerable weathering now but the prison cave and basin for sacrificial animals’ blood help to bring it all back.
Back in Gori, some might feel queasy at visiting the town’s museum to its most famous son – one Josef Stalin. See in the town (if you so choose) the modest dwelling in which the dictator was born, sample some of his not-bad poetry and inspect his formidable armoured private rail carriage.
Speaking of the Soviet Union, Bortomi, your next stop, used to ship its prized product, supposedly health-giving natural mineral water, throughout that former empire. There’s still a spa and, with historical mansions galore, the pretty, elevated town has the pleasingly bygone air of a 19th-century health resort. Gentle forest trails about also suggest curative potential.
Two hours further west, towards the Black Sea, Vardzia, another remarkable cave city, originally had 3,000 chambers chiselled into the rock. There were stables, barracks and stores; now perhaps the most celebrated sight is a fresco of the first woman to rule Georgia, the revered Queen Tamar.
Back on the highway and to Kutaisi, post-Soviet mafia stronghold in the immediate years after Communist rule but since cleaned up literally and metaphorically. The vast, impressive, 1,000-year-old Bagrat Cathedral is the main draw here; nearby the town are the monastery of Gelati, one of the loveliest sights in Georgia, and a number of vast caves, including one called Prometheus, with stalactites and other striking natural formations.
Arriving, finally, at the Black Sea, Batumi is a resort town pumped up with development money (there was even going to be a Trump Tower here) that’s sometimes gaudy but often fun. The beach, albeit stony, draws the crowds, along with funfairs, restaurants and a dolphinarium.
Post-seaside-fun, head back east, overshooting Tbilisi, if you have time, to explore Kakheti, Georgia’s main wine-producing region. Everybody wants to share a drink with you here, and your memory of sights such as the exquisite hillside town of Sighnaghi and the elaborate monastery of Davit Gareja may have a pleasantly gauzy feel.