Georgia

Georgia – Tbilisi

Welcome to Georgia!

I loved Georgia the minute I reached the border and 2 custom officials waved me straight through with “Enjoy your visit!”  If only they’d handed me a glass of wine it would have been No.1 on my list.

The ride from Sheki, Azerbaijan had been an enjoyable one on good roads, skirting the base of the Caucasus Mountains with great views over the plains below.

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Georgian wine plains below the Caucasus Mountains

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Sunny, hot and wet – ideal for wine

I even managed to find a nice piece of gravel track to play on when I diverted north of the M5 in favour of a more direct minor road.  I crossed the border into Lagodekhi with no problems whatsoever, and followed the main road south away from the mountains and into Georgia’s wine country and endless vineyards.

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Heading south into Georgia

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Caucasus Mountains

Wine

Archaeologists have found proof that Georgians have been making wine for around 10,000 years (longer than any other nation), and anyone that’s been making wine for that long has to be OK in my book.  I can’t think of anything better than a Sunday ‘Sabre-Toothed Tiger’ Roast washed down with vast quantities of Georgian wine followed by a Mammoth hunt for next week’s dinner.

Although I’m not into religion, I would happily place a Georgian cross around my neck, mainly because theirs is made from grape vines and brings you good luck in choosing the right wine.  Having said that, you’d be unlucky to find a terrible wine, because all the Georgian wines I tasted were delicious.  And strangely, the more you taste, the more delicious they become; Halleluiah!

Wine is such an integral part of the Georgian lifestyle, they even have a famous hymn called ‘Thou Art a Vineyard’.  I agree totally, and if I had to convert, their wine religion would certainly be favourite.

Guide

I don’t usually go out of my way to find a guide in new places, but when I arrived in the capital of Tbilisi I thought I needed one for 2 reasons:

  1. I quite happily sup beer on my own, but Georgia has a huge variety of delicious wines that must be sampled, and drinking wine is a sport for two.
  2. I’d need someone to guide me back to my guesthouse after all the wine supping in part 1) above.

This is where the wonders of social media come to the fore, and in Tbilisi I was lucky on two counts: I found a great, cheap hostel with fantastic staff, and I also found an amazing guide.

Tbilisi Classic Hotel

Tbilisi Classic Hotel was a good find.  It was cheap, clean, well located and flawlessly run by Shiad from Pakistan with the help of young Mr James from India.  Both were fantastic people and couldn’t do enough for their guests to make them feel at home and comfortable.  James even helped me by filming the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ I’d been nominated for by 3 people – all done in the best possible taste for a great cause, of course.

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Mr James and I

The hotel was situated a short walk from the city centre, surrounded by fresh fig trees (I love figs!), apple trees, grape vines and an assortment of other fruit and vegetables.  It was like living in the ‘fruit n veg’ section at Tescos, and was a great place to spend 4 days relaxing and exploring the sights.

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Shaid and James at the fantastic Tbilisi Classic Hotel

Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a beautiful capital city.  It was founded on the Mtkvari River in the 5th century when it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Iberia, and it now has a population of roughly 1.5 million (almost a third of Georgia’s entire population).

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The Mtkvari River running through Tbilisi

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A random street in Tbilisi, just to show you what a random street looks like here

Fate had matched me up with Mari, a fun, friendly and knowledgeable local to show me around this picturesque, scenic and lively city.  Mari wanted someone to practice her English with, and I wanted a guide, so it worked out to be a perfect partnership (except now she speaks with a rooomantic Naarwich accent).

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The bestest guide in Tbilisi – Mari – and great fun to boot! (taking me up in a cable car)

Mari took me just about everywhere, including a trip up in a cable car up to see the city’s symbol – the Kartlis Deda, a 23m high aluminium woman symbolising the Georgian national character: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine.

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The Kartlis Deda – The city’s symbol: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine

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Tbilisi

After a morning walking around the city, it was time for lunch and my first foray into the magical world of Georgian wine, under the watchful eye of my chaperon.

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Lunchtime! And time for my favourite wine – Kindzmarauli

A bit more about Georgian Wine, in case you’re interested

Georgia has an ideal climate for producing fine wines, namely plenty of sun, heat and water.  Many of the best Georgian wines are produced in an area called Kakheti in the east, which I had ridden through on my bike.

If you think you’ve tasted most types of wine, but haven’t tried Georgian wine, then you are in for a shock.  For thousands of years Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside double-walled clay jugs called Kvevri to undergo fermentation at ground temperature.  Sometimes wines are left buried for decades (when people forgot where they buried them?), but also wines can be produced much quicker in a number of months.  I liked most of the wines I tried, but my favourite was one Mari introduced me to – a delicious bottle of Kindzmarauli from Teliani Valley.

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Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside these Kvevri for 1,000’s of years

Although the second largest wine producer in the former Soviet Union (after Moldova), Georgian wine is pretty scarce in the UK, as most of it is exported to Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  However, it is well worth seeking out.  I found it to be incredibly fruity and tangy (in my expert wine-speak), I assume the result of burying it in the ground and also commonly keeping the grape skins on.  Keeping the skins on after the crush also imparts a unique colour into Georgian wines, and often the whites almost appear orange or rose, which went well with the shirt I was wearing.

Back on Tour

Mari was fun to be with, and also liked laughing at my strange accent, so we both got on well and she didn’t have to run away after the first 10 minutes with some excuse (as she said she’d had to do on several previous occasions post-meeting tourists she’d offered to show around).

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Back on tour!

Mari even took me on a bus ride several miles outside the city to a small 3,000 year old city called Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The walls of 3,000 year old city Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world

While we were there, we thought we’d venture back through the years and took a horse and carriage ride through the old city and around the 11th century impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

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Going back in time….

Then we thought we’d better get some more wine in.

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Nothing better at the end of a hard day’s sightseeing than a bottle of wine or 2

The evening is a great time to take a wonder around old Tbilisi town.  The array of colourful lights is mesmerizing, and there is a lively buzz from the crowds of locals and tourists wondering around the bars and restaurants enjoying the good food and good wine.  What more could you ask for?

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Tbilisi at night

There was even a musical dancing fountain.

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Tbilisi’s dancing, musical fountain – every city should have one!

Summary, if you need one

Before I came to Georgia I knew very little about it.  What I have discovered is a little known treasure, certainly amongst many people in the UK.  In summary, if you are into your wine, then put Georgia near the top of your list – immediately.  It is a beautiful country full of beautiful people, cheap, cheerful and just waiting to be discovered.

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Cheers from Tbilisi! 🙂

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Georgia – Batumi

Heading for the Seaside!

Tbilisi to the Georgian coastal retreat of Batumi was an easy 5 hour, 400km ride through the picturesque Georgian countryside.

I reached the coast just south of Poti, Georgia’s largest port city, and headed south.  I passed through several coastal tourist towns and stopped off to peek at the beach where I could.  The coast was lined with trees for much of its length, and the beaches were generally sandy.

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Back at the seaside!

In many places you could ride right up onto the beach itself.

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I thought about camping here, but it was forecast to rain

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It was nice to be on the beach again

As evening approached the sky grew overcast, so I raced to Batumi before it started raining.  I checked into TJ Hostel, a short ride outside Batumi, just before the sun set and watched it with a beer from the lovely view I had from a shared balcony.

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A good day’s work – arrived in Batumi alive and in time for the sunset and a beer 🙂

One of the things I love about Georgia is the great food, and that night I treated myself to a 3 course dinner at an excellent restaurant down the road – delicious Ostri (beef stew), Lobiani (bean filled bread), chicken salad and local beer – Yum!  I was pretty stuffed on completion, but successfully completed the mission.

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I could easily get fat in Georgia (but happy)

In the morning the clouds had gone and now I could see the full beauty of Batumi laid out before me from the height of our balcony.  I couldn’t wait to take a dip in the Black Sea which looked so beautifully calm and inviting.

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The stunning view of the Black Sea and Batumi from the hostel balcony

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The magic shared balcony where I spent so many a memorable hour relaxing, chatting and drinking Lemoncini (try it, it’s nice!)

I jumped into a taxi for the short ride into town to explore and walked along the coast.  Of course there was a Ferris Wheel – obligatory in any seaside town – and plenty of tourist boats offering booze-cruises and fishing trips.  I really fancied a booze-cruise, and set my mind on finding someone to do it with me.

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Batumi harbour, with giant Ferris Wheel and Booze Cruise Boats (I wanna do one!)

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Batumi’s giant Ferris Wheel

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Super smooth water down at the docks

The beach was nice, especially if you like pebble beaches, and the Black Sea crystal clear, warm and irresistible.

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Batumi Pebbly Beach on the Black Sea coast

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And again (not your typical Georgian woman bottom left, by the way!)

I liked the fresh, wide-open feel of Batumi.  There was plenty of space to do whatever you wanted; there were cycle lanes, tennis courts, table-tennis tables, giant chess boards and even snooker tables lined up all along the promenade.

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Sports galore!

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Batumi promenade is the place to get fit!

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I picked up a bit of work on the Pirate Ship 😉

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Batumi Pier

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Anyone for fishing?

Adoption

Just when I thought Batumi couldn’t get any better, I was adopted by two wonderful women from Ukraine – Luba and Natalia.

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Luba and Natalia – if I run off to Ukraine, this is why 😉

Luba was into motorbikes and one evening I found out she had been secretly posing for photos with The Tiger.  Lucky Tiger!

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Luba and her new boyfriend

I took her for a ride and she fell in love with the bike immediately.  From then on she would hardly let it out of her sight!

The Good Life

Over the next few days the three of us had a memorable time exploring Batumi and the surrounding area together, enjoying more wine and excellent food.

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Going out in Georgia is all about eating and drinking too much – my kind of night out!

You cannot come to Georgia and not try the national dish – Khachapuri.  Also called ‘heart attack on a plate’, it is a delicious (but heavy) meal of bread filled with cheese, egg and lots of butter.  Another famous national dish is Khinkali – steamed dumplings filled with anything and everything you can imagine.  Some Georgians have competitions to see how many they can eat (I was pathetic and only managed half a dozen).

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You cannot come to Georgia and not try this ‘heart attack on a plate’ – Khachapuri

One restaurant I definitely recommend is ‘Shemoikhede Genatsvale’, where we had the most delicious local food and wine in a great atmosphere; they even rolled out the Ukrainian flag for Luba and Natalia.

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The girls under their Ukrainian Flag, tucking into Khinkali, Ostri and beautiful Georgian wine

Early Morning Swims

Early every morning the girls would go swimming in the sea at the quiet beach at the bottom of our road, and every morning they insisted I accompany them.  This was great for me, because I’m rubbish at getting out of bed in the morning, and this gave me no alternative but to do so.

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Wakey Wakey! Time for your early morning swim!

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“OK!”

Luba always made a pot of fresh coffee to take down with us (along with their essential, life-saving Snickers Bars), which added an extra nice touch to the morning routine.

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Ukrainian Coffee on a Georgian Beach – lovely!

Soon I found myself almost a kept man, with breakfast and lunch being made for me daily (Ukrainian style), and great company for fun evenings out.  I must admit, I found it very hard to find a reason to leave, and ended up staying a week in blissful harmony.  I would certainly recommend two attractive Ukrainian women for any physical or mental ailment you may be suffering from 😉

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Getting ready to tackle another huge plate of Khinkali

Like the hostel in Tbilisi, TJ Hostel had a wealth of fresh fruit growing everywhere, particularly fresh figs and grapes.  Everyday Luba would run up the fig tree and throw down handfuls of delicious fresh figs to accompany our meals.  It seemed that everything was easy to grow in Georgia, and all down the road to the beach we passed kiwi, grapes, oranges, lemons, limes, walnuts, pomegranates and cornelian cherries (or dogwood, which I’d never tried before, and took some getting used to!)

Every night we would invariably watch the sun set over the Black Sea from our balcony, and they just kept getting better.

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Sunset over the Black Sea

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And then moon rise

Fearless Exploration

Because Batumi enjoys a humid sub-tropical climate – warm with lots of rain – they have one of the best and most varied Botanical Gardens I have ever visited.  Thinking I was not really a flower kind of guy, my Ukrainian minders dragged me along one day, and in the end I was really pleased I went!

If you’re ever in the area, don’t miss it.  The gardens consists of plants & flowers from all over the world and has them arranged in 9 different sectors, including Caucasian, East Asia, Australia, North & South America, the Himalayas and Mediterranean (tip: it’s easy to get lost!).

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Batumi Botanical Gardens

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Lovely views of the sea to boot!

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An Australian Pond (I think)

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Are you sure this is the right way?

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A Flower (of some sort)

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And another

Mtirala National Park

Another trip well worth doing is Mtirala National Park, which lies 25km outside Batumi in the Adjara Mountains.  Natalia caught a taxi with some other hostel guests, and Luba bravely perched on the back of her beloved Tiger.  The last 10km or so was over a very rocky (and steep in places) track, but both Luba and The Tiger coped well and survived to live another day (just) 😉

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The Tiger did a good job getting us there on the rocky roads, so we left her with some cows as a reward

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Exploring Mtirala National Park

As well as a very pleasant place to amble around, Mtirala National Park had a couple of nice surprises, the first of which was an incredibly beautiful waterfall with a large plunge pool at the bottom perfect for swimming (which we needed after the hot climb up to see it).

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A spectacular waterfall in Mtirala National Park – perfect for swimming!

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Mtirala National Park

The second surprise was the delicious pan-fried fresh trout, straight from the river, that the local park restaurant cooked up for us, along with several other delicious dishes (and a touch of wine, of course).

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Delicious dinner of pan-fried river trout, et al

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These lads had the right idea!

Booze Cruise

Not forgetting about the booze cruise, one evening I dragged the girls down into town and onto a boat for a cruise up and down the coast.  We managed to grab the sunset cruise, and so had the added bonus of watching the sun go down.

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One of the Booze Cruise Boats

The boat had a bar onboard, and somehow I ended up with a bottle of Georgian Champagne, which always goes down well.

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Champagne anyone?

Then we relaxed and watched the colourful array of dazzling lights switch on up and down the Batumi seafront as the ship slowly cruised back into port.  What else could you wish for?

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Cruising back under the lights of Batumi

Well, I actually wished for one more thing – a ride on the giant Ferris Wheel!

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All aboard the giant Ferris Wheel!

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Batumi under the full moon

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And more dancing fountains!

As usual, all too soon the time came to move on; the girls moved onto Armenia and I was going south into Turkey.  But that’s part of the wonder of traveling – good friendships made all over the world and shared memories that create a special bond.

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