I would have never known Georgia had it not been for a work trip I was invited to in mid October, a time when Europe is getting ready to welcome the winter chills while South Africa’s heat intensifies. When I received the invitation in my mailbox I assumed it would be the south eastern American state of Georgia. My eyebrows were raised when the company secretary stated that I would not require a VISA. I thought it very strange that Donald Trump would allow free access into the states to South Africans. I was surprised, but pleased.
The trip was still months away so I held off reading up on the country. I mentioned to a colleague at a Gala dinner in Durban that I’d be traveling to Georgia, Tbilisi, later in the year. She obviously is more well versed in geography than I am because she aptly pointed out that this Georgia is in Eastern Europe. I disagreed, still convinced that there is only one Georgia and it is in the United States of America. It took Google to settle the dispute between us. She was right. There is a country in the crossroad between Asia and Europe, home to 1.2million people, bordered by the Caucasus Mountain ranges and the Black Sea, neighbors with Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, called Georgia. I would have never planned a trip here, except maybe drawn by Mount Elbrus, the highest point in Europe which lie at the border between Georgia and Russia.
Having been there now, and having loved it, I want to let you in on the secret that is Georgia in the hope that you’ll pick the road less travelled and book a trip there some day soon.
Secret 1: As stated above, South Africans do not require a VISA to enter Georgia. The South African passport, valid for the period of stay, is sufficient for entry into Georgia for a stay of up to one year.
Secret 2: Georgia’s currency is the Lari, not the Euro. While the Euro to the Rand is R16.26, the Lari to the Rand is R4.96. How beautiful? Georgia did not break my bank like Italy did.
Secret 3: Georgia is a pleasant county to travel in. Although it is is ranked number 99 of 172 on the Global Peace Index 2019, I expected a much higher rating. It felt safe, which is particularly important for me because I want to enjoy an early morning or evening jog without having to run away from a criminal.
Secret 4: Tbilisi is a dog friendly city. Not that I am a big fan of dogs but it took what looks like a black Bernese Mountain Dog or a Rottweiler (I really know nothing about dog breeds) to soften my heart to dogs. This friendly little chap joined me on a morning jog down Telavi Street along Mtkvari river and then back to the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace where I was staying. She or he (this is how little I know about dogs) was so protective and a champ on the road – I wondered if it had to do with the color of both our skin?
Secret 5: Hospitality to foreigners is a big thing to Georgians. My colleague and I arranged a day excursion out of Tbilisi to Juta Village for a hike along the Chaukhi mountain range with Omar who became more than a tour guide on the day. Omar runs Visit-Geo which does tours around major cultural and adventure sites in Georgia. In the true spirit of Georgian hospitality, it was as if we were with a long time friend – sharing family stories and the mutual love for Hugh Masekela’s music. Omar tells us that guests in Gerogian culture, are a gift from God.
Secret 6: There is so much to learn, see and do in Georgia. Where oh where do I begin? Let’s start with Tbilisi. A good way to get a feel of the city is the World Sightseeing tour on the red bus. It is absolutely pleasurable – giving you an overview of the city from which you can spot places you’d like to spend more time in. For fellow outdoor lovers, Georgia is a mountainous country to satisfy those of us with an affinity for heights. If the craving still lingers after flirting with altitude on the Caucasus mountains, then you can go paragliding at Gudauri – that should exhilarate you enough to satisfy the craving for heights. In the winter time Gudauri becomes a skiing resort to distract from the winter blues.
Secret 7: The wine. Oh I loved wine even more in Georgia, a love I acquired while living in Cape Town, in a province that produces world renowned wines and has landscapes stretching out with luscious wine farms. The production of wine in Georgia though is not something that is left to farms – families make wine right in their backyards. Every home you’ll see as you drive out of the city into the countryside will have a vineyard adorning its yard. I’m no wine connoisseur, but Georgians have perfected the art of viticulture, it’s a skill Georgians grow up with.
Secret 8: Georgia is feminist. One of the first people you’ll meet when you arrive in Georgia is Kartlis Deda, a tall statue standing on Sololaki Hill overlooking the city. She holds a cup of wine in one hand to symbolize the hospitality of Georgians, and a sword in the other hand to symbolize wrath for those who do not come in peace. She’s feminine, also referred to as the Mother of Georgia, speaking to the national character’s high regard for women. Omar tells us that it is better for a man to die than to be convicted of rape, “his jail mates will make a chicken out of him”.
Secret 9: Georgia is a religious country with an estimated 80% of the population practicing christianity, predominantly members of the Georgian orthodox church. I found the culture and places of worship of this strikingly ancient practice of christianity fascinating. Georgia is one of the first countries in the world to adopt christianity as its state religion in the 300s CE and has preserved its culture over the years. Interestingly, there is religious harmony in the land and tolerance for other minority religions.
Georgia is a hidden treasure that very seldom makes it to the instagram travel hit list. Tamar Bagashvili writes in a National Geographic issue on Georgia, that with the country’s pearls of nature and cultural sites, it fulfills the desire for the most discerning traveler searching for authenticity. I find that Georgia is not pretentious and greedy like many countries which attract many tourists are. It is, as Tamar writes, a perfect getaway or holiday escape to satisfy most if not all requirements, even for those on a budget.