(Editor’s note: This was originally posted on 25 February. It’s been updated after Georgia greeted its 6 millionth visitor in true Georgian style!)
Tell an American you’re going to “Georgia,” and they automatically think of Ray Charles, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.
Which causes endless confusion and the other Georgia to be forever tagged with “the country” on first reference.
Just so you know, for this Dispatches Detours travel post, we’re talking about that mysterious country where Europe and Asia meet.
What kind of person goes to Georgia, the country? Really fortunate ones.
Not too long after we first posted this, Georgia received its 6 millionth tourist.
And it was amazing. (See the Youtube video below.)
It was no surprise to us when the 6th Millionth Man, Jesper Black, turned out to be a Dutch expat living in Barcelona, innocently dropping in on a friend.
(The Dutch are rarely “tourists,” but they’ll be the first people you meet when you arrive at the most exotic destinations in the world.)
Black gets picked up at the airport in a black Mercedes S-Class by a mysterious chauffeur who says nothing.
From the Adweek account:
Arriving at the airport and expecting to be picked up by a friend, Black instead found “a man in a black suit with a piece of paper with my name on it,” and he’s taken to a black Mercedes S-Class sedan. “I have this tiny conversation in my head,” Black says in his own video recap, “‘If they’re going to steal my organs, would they use a Mercedes S-Class?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ So I get in the car without any question.”
Clearly, Jesper was the right guy for an adventure in Georgia.
As we always say, the great thing about being a Europe-based expat is that it opens new travel vistas.
Suddenly the predictable places aren’t enough.
You long for real adventure. Paris and Berlin are great … for awhile. But a lot of us want tp find out what’s around the next bend, which of course is why we’re expats.
Our long-time friend Melahat Ozsimsek, who’s been everywhere twice, is like that.
Mel’s recent adventures took her and her daughters to Georgia, driving the 2,000 kilometers to Tbilisi from her home in Fethiye, Turkey.
What’s the attraction?
The last of Europe’s authentic travel experiences in an unspoiled place with welcoming people. Natural beauty, culture, great wines and savory food position Georgia to be the next hot destination for travelers and adventurers.
Mountain vistas, outdoor adventure and welcoming people
Mel’s favorite place to stay is the town of Mestia, which is more than 200 kilometers northwest of the largest city of Tbilisi, and just south of the Russian border. “Mestia is geared up for travelers,” she said. “It has many homestay hostels as well as hotels that are a bit upgraded.”
This is important because she knows the B&B business having co-created the best little hotel we ever experienced, The Mountain Lodge, in Tlos, Turkey.
Mestia offers a lot of options. Using it as a base, many visitors do routed hikes, Mel said, and in the winter, it’s a small ski resort.
Above it are a number of alpine lakes.
And despite the Caucasus Georgia being less famous than it’s Southern cousin, Mestia is far from undiscovered.
Her first visit was during October, a rainy time when it was getting cooler at nights, Mel said. But even then there were lots of travelers, with Mestia a destination for kids from Israel.
For a country the size of the Republic of Ireland, Georgia offers every kind of experience you can imagine, said Tamar Pharadashvili, a native of Georgia who works in media relations in Eindhoven, Dispatches’ HQ city.
“In six hours, you can go from the mountains to a near desert,” Tamar said.
It’s not a typical European vacation. And is Georgia even Europe?
A fusion of East and West
“Georgia is an interesting fusion of East and West,” Tamar said. “It considers itself Western, but it has Eastern hospitality and warmth.”
You have to visit Georgian villages, “which are so different than (Western) Europe,” she said.
Yes, the capital Tbilisi is modern. But 20 kilometers away is Mtskheta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a castle, a Christian Orthodox cathedral, an acropolis and a 6th century monastery.
Most noticeably, the architecture is different, she says.
The food also is a departure from Western Europe … spicy and aromatic, with walnuts a staple. Georgian pizza, khachapuri, is divine. (Editor’s note: The New York Times has a current post, “Humble Magic in Georgian Capital’s Restaurant Renaissance,” about Tbilisi’s emerging food scene.)
The language is really different, with Georgian actually two languages and multiple alphabets including Mkhedruli and Asomtavruli.
It’s that kind of diversity that makes Georgia so alluring. “(Visitors) won’t get bored, that’s for sure,” Tamar said.
So, what do our two experts recommend?
Melahat has visited nearly all of Georgia, and here are her recommendations:
“My favorite place is the Svaneti region,” Mel said. She flies into Kutasi in the middle of Georgia. Or you can go from Batumi or Tbilisi.
“It’s a bit long, winding drive up through a beautiful narrow valley alongside the river. There is a a dam at the beginning of the road just after Zugdidi, which is the nearest big town. I love going up that road to Svaneti, which ends at Mestia.”
The region is famous for the towers built at strategic points throughout the valley both to keep out foreign intruders, and as sanctuaries during the blood feuds that erupted between neighbors and villages.
In this region, travelers negotiate old villages where farmers let their pigs and cows free to graze alongside the roads or hilly meadows, Mel said.
“You have to be very careful driving because the cows mostly rest ın the middle of the roads!”
The people in the area are poor but welcoming, Mel said.
Mtskheta and Uplistsikhe
Her second-favorite destination is Mtskheta near Tbilisi, “a lovely town on the side of the Kura River, which goes a long way past the border up into Armenia.”
Mtskheta has an Old Town and a New Town.
The Old Town, with its cobble-stone streets, is car-free, “which is great,” Mel said. It features a town hall build in the Roman style on a central square. There’s an old Medieval cathedral and houses have two-stories, with courtyards or small gardens.
“In the evening, the town hall and cathedral light up and lovely old dears sit in front of their gates watching grandkids playing in the square,” she said.
Mtskheta has as a few B&Bs. The new town has a few hotels, too. “It’s a convenient place to visit Tbilisi for day.”
Melahat recommends heading east of Mtskheta toward Gori.
Close to Gori is the ancient site of Uplistsikhe, perhaps the oldest settlement in Georgia. Tamar said Uplistsikhe is famous for its caves and its 12th century monastery.
The Telavi area is the wine region where hilltop villages with pastel colored wooden houses have great views of plateaus and pasture land, Mel said.
The drive from Tbilisi to the Kazbeg Mountains is a long one, but the region attracts lots of tourists with spectacular views of the Kazberg and the monastery.
Here’s Tamar’s recommendations on Georgia’s must-see destinations and when to visit:
Summer – Svaneti, Mestia, Uplistsikhe, Mtskheta, Sataplia and Promete Caves, Martvili Canyons, Okatse Canyon, David Gareja, Vardzia, Jvari, Kazbegi, Gelati Monastery, Borjomi, Mtsvane Kontskhi, Batumi, Tsinandali, Signagi.
Winter – Gudauri, Svaneti, Bakuriani
Tbilisi – Narikala Castle, Mtatsminda Park, The Ethnographic museum, Mtatsminda Pantheon.
• Outside the larger cities, it’s pretty rare to find English speakers. Street names are in English and in general everything that is in Georgian is in English also, Tamar said. “People have a problem speaking English. So it is a bit similar to visiting Italy or Spain ….” Getting restaurant service in English is more common. Otherwise, hiring a guide is a good idea … and affordable.
• Don’t overlook Georgia’s fabled wines and brandies. Georgia has one of Europe’s oldest wine-making traditions amid perfect conditions and U.S. publications such as the Washington Post are promoting it as the next great wine country.
• Almost every European and Middle Eastern airline including Lufthansa and Turkish Air have regular flights to Tbilisi.
For even more information, check out Georgia’s official travel website here.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.