A country that is not overly visited from the West, but with so much to offer is Georgia, with its wonderfully cosmopolitan capital of Tbilisi, stunning vineyard-strewn countryside of the Kakheti region and the bizarre Black Sea playground of Batumi, amongst its highlights.
The adventurous and time-rich amongst you might like to take the train and bus route from Istanbul as I did, which will make your entry point Batumi, best described as Georgia’s answer to Blackpool.
No donkeys and acerbic landladies, just lots of neon lights, folly-like architecture that would not look out of place in Vegas and enough karaoke bars to keep even the most avid crooners satisfied for days on end.
Batumi is also well known for rainfall – apparently it gets more annually than Iceland!
The city is just over the border from Turkey and is to its chaste neighbours what El Paso is to the New Mexicans, full of debauchery & sin, far too vulgar for their liking. Batumi does not pretend to be anything else, but is sure to make you smile and keep you entertained for a day or two.
It can also be reached by train from Tbilisi and by flight priced at less than £100 from the Georgian capital or Istanbul.
Tbilisi is a must see for any self-respecting fan of short breaks. A mix of the ancient and the modern, of Islam and Christianity, the city also provides gorgeous cuisine (what they cannot do deliciously with a chickpea is not worth knowing), ample internationally renowned cultural entertainment and world-class wine, all at a fraction of the cost of say a Paris, London or Milan.
A particular highlight is to meander up hill to Tbilisi’s highest point where its ancient fortress and enormous statue of Mother Georgia are situated.
Stand by her big toe for spectacular views along the winding River Mtkvari and admire the Norman Foster like cantilevered Peace Bridge, the regal Presidential Palace and the myriad of domes & steeples. Breath-taking by day, absolutely astonishing at night, the gentle climb is well worth the effort.
The summit can also be reached by super slick cable car and it is a great idea to let that take the strain for the ascent, whilst you zigzag downwards through the Arabic quarter, stopping off for a reviving ablution and invigorating massage at the hamam if you are feeling suitably brave.
Take your pick of tasty cuisine at very friendly prices (vegetarians are very well catered for) and if you happen to prefer beer to the awesome full-bodied reds, then head for Mirzaani Brewery Bar for red, brown and dark ales produced on the premises, coupled with a good variety of hearty dishes.
Georgia claims to be home to the world’s oldest vine, leaving the country to boast themselves as the inventors of Bacchus’s favourite tipple (a claim also made by neighbouring and equally alluring Armenia).
A couple of hours drive out of the capital will find you absorbed into the picturesque and at times brooding Caucus Mountain landscapes of the Kakheti Wine Region.
Think Champagne, Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône without the crowds, the pretentiousness or the price tag. Velvety, plummy reds decanted into plastic bottles are sold at give away prices by the sides of the roads that dissect the lush, green vine-laden fields.
You are welcome to stop off at any vineyard and may be fortunate enough to view wine made the traditional way – grapes picked by hand and crushed by foot.
We took a tour and ended up in our own private taxi – as well as vineyards, we visited the peace and quiet of Georgia’s spiritual home, St Nina’s (The Enlightener of Georgia) Monastery.
Final stop on the tour was ‘Lover’s Paradise’, the ultra pretty & welcoming town of Sighnaghi, the home of apparently the longest unbroken wall in Eastern Europe at an impressive five kilometres.
The town was incredibly laid back – old men played backgammon atop a rubbish bin and looked like they played in exactly the same spot whenever the weather allowed.
There are parts of Georgia that are at best ‘proceed with caution’ (South Ossetia for example) and the shadow of Russia’s mighty bear still lingers over Josef Stalin’s birth nation, but not once did I ever feel anything but totally safe and enchanted during my four-day stay there.
You should go now before everybody cottons on to it.
Flights to Tbilisi – the most cost effective way to fly is to take a flight to Istanbul (perhaps with a stop off at this fabulous destination) and then take a flight to Tbilisi with Pegasus Airlines or to Batumi with Turkish Airlines, both coming in at under £100.
Flights between Batumi and Tbilisi with Georgian Airways are around £60.
For train information between Tbilisi & Batumi visit the Man In Seat 61 website.
You can follow my fascinating & humorous journey to Georgia and 24 other countries in my book ‘On The Beaten Track – Travels In Eastern Europe’. Available for download from Amazon for about £3 – a bargain for well over 500 pages.