“Georgia?!! Where is that?!”This was my sister’s reaction when I told her we were planning a holiday there during the spring break. I was not surprised by her reaction, I had myself come to know about Georgia as a tourist destination only about three years back when the intrepid traveller, my brother-in-law travelled there for a break. The erstwhile Soviet country was an unknown, visa on arrival facility for the GCC residents, however, changed its accessibility. Suddenly it became a destination of choice for the travel agents offering attractive deals. Almost everyone in my circle of friends in Dubai has either been or are planning to visit Georgia.
Our short trip started with a short three hour, very turbulent flight from Sharjah to Tbilisi. If you are travelling in spring/winter during day-time, try and grab the window seat. You will be amazed as the barren desert landscape changes to snow-covered mountains. Driving through Tbilisi from the airport to our hotel I was struck with a sense of déjà vu. The landscape was alien yet familiar. The mountains, the trees with a hint of green from the spring buds, the flowers blooming by the road all reminded me of Dehradun. Even the children who are not the most observant remarked on the similarity of the road with the one to Dehradun.
Our hotel Shota@Rustaveli was sandwiched between the Parliament of Georgia and the No1.Public school giving us the views and the feel for the heart of the city. The children had a good time peeking into the classrooms if the curtains were not drawn fully across the window. In a trip lasting six days we had new experiences: playing in snow; new adventures: a flat tyre on a busy highway; new trials: wine tasting; new delights: experiencing Prometheus caves. We had a crash course in the Soviet Union, Stalin and the atrocities committed by the KGB, learned chemistry by finding out how the Stalagtites and Stalagmites were formed, appreciated the differences in culture at the Ethnography museum, found out about evolution and the cousins of Homo Sapiens at the National Museum of Georgia.
We were lucky enough to visit Georgia with the spring just starting, the weather was cold but not unbearable. Snow still fell in Gadauri, the mountain resort making it a winter wonderland for us, the snow virgins. To one, who is used to the artificial snow of Ski Dubai, the mountains covered with pristine white powder were like magic. The extreme cold notwithstanding, you could play in the snow to your heart’s content or if you felt adventurous enough, you could try skiing. Most of all, however, you were in awe of the spotless white and the grandeur of the mountains. You had to acknowledge the beauty of nature at it’s best.
Georgia is one of the world’s oldest wine producing countries and thus it is no surprise that wine tasting is an integral part of a trip to Georgia. I am not a wine aficionado, but even I was impressed by Georgian wine. Wine is made throughout the country, however, the region of Kakheti is more popular with the tourists. Winemaking, in fact, has been given the UNESCO status with different varieties of wine being produced in almost the traditional way. We were lucky enough not only to tour the Kakheti region but also experienced wine-tasting at “Pheasant’s Tear” a family owned winery. Though we didn’t see the vineyards laden with grapes ( it was spring, the vines had yet to bud), the views were worth admiring. Huge green and brown vineyards, the snowcapped Caucasian mountains in the distance and the brilliant crystal blue of the sky contrasting with both. The winery was something we hadn’t experienced before. Located on a quaint steep street of Signagi, you stepped through the wooden door across its stone threshold into a restaurant/winery with exposed brickwork, tables set for lunch complete with blue table covers and flowers in jars as centrepieces. We were served a platter of bread and olive oil with a young man offering us the range of wines made by them, from a dry white to mellow reds. He also explained from which region of Georgia the grapes were sourced, so that we could appreciate the subtle differences in taste. He rounded off with a shot of Cha-Cha ( very famous, very strong), which I politely declined. I had already tried more than five different kinds of wine and had passed my threshold limit long time back! My only regret, however, maybe we could have brought back a couple of more bottles of wine. (Traveller Tip: wines bought from boutiques/family-owned wineries are more expensive than the ones from the factory, though the former have a better quality.)
Travelling through Georgia I was struck by how familiar the country felt. Georgian words for tea, sugar, cashew etc were similar to the words we use for them in Hindi. The script though new, looked Indic(in fact some of our friends also remarked on its similarity to a particular South-Indian language). The flavour of the food was also similar, Georgian cheese is salty like Halloumi but its texture is quite like paneer. A variety of beans is known as “Lobiyo“, any North-Indian will notice the familiarity with our “Lobiya” though don’t expect the same taste. Beggars are quite common, especially around the churches.If you take out your wallet for even a second be prepared to be swarmed by them! On busy highways, especially the one on the way to Bojormi there are street markets selling cane artefacts, farm produce and the ubiquitous wine, quite reminiscent of the highways of India. We even bought a sweet bread with raisins from the roadside, still warm from the oven. A walk through the main Rustaveli Avenue has outdoor cafes jostling with roadside vendors selling books, flowers, souvenirs and even freshly squeezed juice, not unlike any of the main thoroughfares of Indian cities.
Perhaps the fact which was most remarkable was that they still remember Raj Kapoor! If they recognized you as an Indian they would say “Hindi?!Raj Kapoor!!”. Of course, after that, they would try and sell you something.
Georgia does have its own set of challenges for the tourists. The biggest challenge is the language, an English speaking guide is an asset as most people do not know/ converse in English.Though people do try to help, even ordering at McDonald’s gets to be a bit of a challenge. For vegetarians, the options are quite limited. The most common easily available dish in a Georgian restaurant is the “Khachapuri”, a Georgian bread with cheese. If, you were however like me whose palate was not impressed then potatoes and salads were your best options. We did, however, find a wonderful desi restaurant near our hotel and thus our cravings for dal roti were satisfied.
The pros however far outweigh the cons. Georgia is a wonderfully beautiful country with history and people still untouched by the idea of looting of the tourist droves. It is only a three-hour flight away from UAE and no time difference. Plus it offers something to do for all kinds of travellers, from people who want to experience natural beauty to those who are adventurous and wouldn’t mind some hiking to those who would want to just sit in a cafe and watch the world go by…….