Off the beaten track in Georgia

National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey’s love affair with Georgia began many years ago. Returning to uncover more unique experiences, he rediscovered a country brimming with urban energy, diverse landscapes and rich culture.

Hiking the dramatic desert terrain of Vashlovani National Park in eastern Georgia, you may see Eurasian lynx, or wolves, but are guaranteed incredible vistas.
Photograph by Aaron Huey

There is no place on earth like Georgia. The country’s 18,000-foot mountain peaks, ancient wine country, Black Sea Coast, stunning cathedrals and simple monasteries, and a tradition of feasting, singing, and dancing, have brought me back time and time again over the past two decades. Not to mention they have wine flavored ice cream outside their churches!

Georgia still has a wildness not yet smothered by large crowds of tourists, and it is still possible to feel like you’ve stepped through time here when walking through mountain villages, like those made up of dozens of 13th century stone towers in places like Svaneti. This mountain region opened its arms to me long ago on my first journey to this country, and it seemed there was never a day without some form of celebration. I still see that alive today, and open to all who come here. Many times it is as simple as a family that finds you on your walk and invites you into their home to eat fresh Khachapuri (traditional Georgian cheese bread) and Kubdari (bread filled with spiced meat) with them. On another day you may stumble upon an ancient ritual at a 1000-year-old hillside church, and watch a scene play out that has been happening for 20 or 30 generations. And on some days, the celebration may involve no people at all, just you and the landscape, and comes in the form of a technicolor sky, exploding above some of the most dramatic peaks you’ve ever seen.

Traditional Georgian folk musicians perform in Mestia, a village high in the Caucasus mountains. Getting to watch folk musicians perform is a rare treat, and worth seeking out music nights at village cafes.
Traditional Georgian folk musicians perform in Mestia, a village high in the Caucasus mountains. Getting to watch folk musicians perform is a rare treat, and worth seeking out music nights at village cafes.
Photograph by Aaron Huey

From the peaks of the Caucasus you can find the extreme deep in Martvili Canyon, where boats carry you through lush greenery on rock faces that resembles hanging gardens, and waterfalls that cascade into pools of crystal blue and green water. The landscapes of Georgia are so geographically diverse that within that same day you can find yourself in places like Vashlovani, where you can wander the deserts and badlands looking for hawks, and if you are extremely lucky you may even see a Eurasian lynx or wolves crossing the open plains, or silhouetted on the ridgelines of those far flung eastern lands.

In the in the Chokhatauri district in western Georgia, the countryside is a patchwork of tiny villages with old wooden cabins on stilts, and you can traverse the green rolling hills surrounded by layers of clouds and mountain fog. One of those villages, Bakhmaro, has a great tradition of horseback riders. Time your visit right and you may be able to see their annual horse races, where some of the best riders in the country take to a rugged oval course in the center of the village, cheered on by thousands. Or again, you may just find yourself again walking the silent hills far from it all. That’s part of the magic of Georgia, it is far far (far) from the beaten track.

On your walks around the country you will, at some point, likely stumble upon a couple of old men sitting around a table drinking homemade wine on the side of the road. And if you do happen upon a scene like this it is almost certain you will be asked to join them, because the Georgians are unrivalled in their hospitality. Many do not know this, but Georgia is considered the birthplace of wine. The word “vino” comes from the Georgian gvino, which has been made in the southern Caucasus in underground earthenware containers called qvevries since 6000 BC. You can still find wine made in these large qvevries around the country, but also in highly refined modern wineries in places like Tsinandali where innovators are combining old world traditions with high end luxury hotels. And that’s one of the things that define Georgia right now, the juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary.

In the capital Tbilisi, contemporary architecture dots the skyline and crosses the rivers in the form of bridges, cultural centers, and government buildings interspersed amongst the characterful traditional buildings that date back 1500 years. Sitting above the city at sunset looking down on the Abanotubani district and its ancient hot springs, one can imagine the city’s birth and growth over the millennia. Legend says that Tbilisi was founded when the king of Iberia found these healing waters while falcon hunting, and so established the city.

Tbilisi has always been a cultural crossroads, home to those of varied religious, and ethnic, backgrounds - that can immediately be felt in not just the architecture, but also the art and music, food, and nightlife. New spaces like Fabrika, a converted textile factory, are defying simple labels of hotel and café and becoming cultural hubs covered with art, and bathed in music, where you can stay and work or play from sunrise to sunset.

When you visit Georgia, come ready for adventure, and that means not planning out every minute of your itinerary. Be sure to save enough days to not rush your time in the mountains. Let yourself wander and be caught up in the encounters and meals and festivals that you may find along the way. Be ready to learn a song with locals, drink some wine, and dance even if you’re shy, because I assure you when you look back on your life you won’t remember the experiences you shied away from, only the ones you said “yes” to. And if any place in the world is a place to say “Yes” it’s Georgia!

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