Georgia is so steeped in history that locals will look at a 300-year-old fortress and tell you “it’s not that old.” “It’s older than my country,” I would respond. To be clear, we are talking about the country of Georgia, which is located at the intersection of Eastern Europe and West Asia, although it is generally regarded as part of Europe. The country is bordered to the south by Turkey and Armenia, to the southeast by Azerbaijan and to the north and northeast by Russia, which still occupies about a fifth of Georgia following the five-day Russo-Georgian war of 2008.
“Why Georgia?” was a question posed to me by numerous people. The country had long been on my travel bucket list. Those who had visited — it tends to attract a more adventurous traveler — spoke of dramatic landscapes, unparalleled hospitality, good food (Georgia is known for its produce and a cheese-filled bread called Khachapuri) and even better wine as its home to the oldest wine-producing region in the world.
I started my 12-day trip in the capital, Tbilisi, where the diverse architecture features Eastern Orthodox churches, elaborate old-style homes with ornate woodwork, Art Nouveau buildings and Soviet modernist structures. Perched above the city is Narikala, a 4th century fortress. The city features all the trappings of a modern capital: good public transportation, museums, high-caliber restaurants and a thriving nightlife scene. And it’s safe, often called one of the safest capitals in Eastern Europe. In recent years, it has become a hub for digital nomads and a haven for Russians looking to flee their country for reasons surrounding the war, the latter causing both the city’s population and cost of living to swell, leading to a sense of resentment among locals.
From Tbilisi I caught a shared taxi (known as a Marshrutka) to Sighnaghi, Georgia’s wine country, two hours east. I showed up with nothing reserved and rented a room for $15 at a guesthouse (though I think it was really just someone’s house) from a lovely woman named Lela — she communicated with me via Google translate and served me a side of homemade cognac every morning with my coffee, despite my protests.
I spend the better part of the week working remotely with the most spectacular views, visiting monasteries, horseback riding and, naturally, drinking copious amounts of Georgian wine. While the natural wine craze has made its way to cosmopolitan centers like New York City, Los Angeles and Mexico City, nearly all wine in Georgia is natural, because that’s the way they’ve always done it.
The wine-making process in Georgia involves skin-contact fermentation and naturally occurring yeast. After the grapes are crushed, the juice, as well as the skins, pips and stems are placed underground in a large clay vessel known as a Qvevri, where the mixture is put left to ferment for between one and five months, depending on the grape.
Once the wine is removed, the remaining matter is distilled, becoming a potent drink known as chacha, or grape vodka (similar to Italian grappa). When I tell you everybody in Georgia makes their own wine, I’m not exaggerating.
With six days left of my trip, I decided I had to visit one of the country’s most remote regions, Tusheti. This involved a 90-minute taxi ride to the meeting point for shared 4X4 vehicles, the only type suitable for the four-hour journey on the Abano Pass, also known as Georgia’s death road. The highest drivable mountain pass in the Caucasus, the Abano Pass is only open from around May to October. The one-lane dirt road is carved into the side of the mountains, with steep drop offs on the other side. Locals say about 10 to 12 people die on the road each year, as evidenced by the many memorials we passed. While not for the faint of heart, the drive is beyond stunning.
Tusheti has several villages you can stay in, with many travelers doing days-long treks between them. I settled on Upper Omalo and booked a room at a guesthouse where the price included breakfast and dinner — there are no stores or restaurants around.
I’ve traveled quite a bit, and this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.
I spent my time hiking, horseback riding, and even spent a day with some insect researchers while they conducted fieldwork (the fact that they had a car and driver allowed me to see several other villages). Each night I would return in time for the most excessive dinners — a combination, I think, of Georgians’ love of food and the unusual presence of a solo diner.
I left Georgia with my heart full and my pants more than a bit tighter, but I wasn’t sad. I already know that Georgia is one of those exceptional places that I will be back to again and again. With popular destinations in Italy, Spain and Greece becoming overcrowded, overheated and prone to natural disasters, perhaps you too should consider Georgia for your next getaway