Tbilisi at night
Standing before the Narikala Fortress, above the Abotubani district in the old city of Tbilisi, the whole story of Georgia’s capital is laid out before you like a tapestry of history. You can see the domes of the hot springs, where it is said the king of Iberia found healing waters and then established the legendary city. Beyond lays the Mtkvari River, lined with eclectic architecture spanning the ages, including futuristic pieces from the past decade such as the Bridge of Peace. Any visit to Georgia should include an evening doing nothing but staring at the sun setting over this beautiful and historic capital, preferably with a glass of outstanding Georgian wine.
The Chronicle of Georgia is a colossal monument chronicling 3,000 years of Georgian sovereignty in towering steel sculptures and reliefs of Georgian heroes, kings, and queens. It is not on most tourists’ itineraries, but definitely worth exploring. From this spot you can also see what locals refer to as the Tbilisi Sea, an artificial lake above the city perfect for swimming in on hot summer days.
Myths and monasteries
St Nino’s Church at the Bodbe Monastery is stunning in its simplicity. St Nino, it is said, performed miraculous healings and converted pagans Queen Nana and King Mirian III of Iberia. Mirian declared Christianity the official religion of Georgia in 327, and Nino has been honored for that ever since, with a reverence near that of the apostles, with this church and the Monastery next to it. Queen Nana’s tomb in the church is still visited by the faithful, and surrounded by stunning frescoes.
Vashlovani National Park is a wild and extremely remote area of eastern Georgia known for its desert-like badlands, deciduous forests, and abundant wildlife. The name Vashlovani comes from the Georgian word for apple, but actually refers to the many pistachio trees that make the hills feel like an endless wild orchard. A word of advice - go during dry weather, and the best season to visit is autumn, though the green of spring is worth a try if you have a 4x4. If you are adventurous enough to visit, be sure to give yourself a couple of days to enjoy the park and there is comfortable lodging run by park rangers.
The large wooden cross in the dome of the Jvari Monastery is a replica of that erected by St. Nino over the site of a pagan temple symbolizing the rise Christianity in Georgia. The monastery is located near the town of Mtskheta at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. Try and time your visit for sunset – the light is beautiful.
Step back in time
The Bakhmaro resort area, in the lower Caucasus, sits at an altitude of just over 6,500 feet. It's surrounded by dozens of hillside villages made up of a patchwork of old wooden cabins on stilts clustered together, tucked away well off the beaten track. It is a place where you can traverse the green rolling hills surrounded by layers of clouds and mountain fog. Don’t expect fancy hotels, but you will find incredibly generous hosts at local lodges that will pile your plates with food until you can’t eat another bite.
Kaghu Waterfall is a hidden gem for intrepid travelers to discover - on hot days of summer it is well worth the short hike into this nature preserve for a swim. The place is well known to locals who come to stand beneath the cascading water or float in the pool below. Stay long enough and you will inevitably end up eating at one the various wooden huts that act as improvised food stalls. While busy with locals, it is less well known with visitors than the popular Martvili Canyon.
Bakhmaro has a great tradition of horse racing, and each August the region’s top riders come here to tackle a rugged oval course in the center of the village. This usually quiet place of makeshift shacks transforms into a sprawling picnic of thousands who gather to cheer the riders. There appear to be no rules beyond crossing the finish line, and the race is open to any rider of who thinks they can stay on their horse for a lap. The river crossings, like this one pictured, are closely watched by the crowd as they make for the most dramatic moments of the race.
If one were to name the seven wonders of Georgia, the waterfalls of Martvili Canyon would be one of them without a doubt. Paddling though deep caverns, the crystal blue and green water and cool air offer a respite from the summer heat. There’s no need for boating skills, as a guide will do most of the work from the back of the boat, but one lucky rider will get to help with the second oar.
The mountainous region of Svaneti offers sweeping vistas of deep gorges and dramatic peaks. Still not overly crowded with tourists, Georgia retains a wildness that is a joy to discover. It is still possible to feel like you’ve stepped through time as you spend your days visiting 13th century churches and witnessing ceremonies that date back to pagan times. Be sure to wander through villages like this that aren’t featured in blogs or guidebooks, and take snacks, but it is likely that a family will find you wandering and insist you join them for Khachapuri (cheese filled bread), and may even offer you a bed for the night.
Sunlight strikes the medieval towers of Ushguli, Georgia, in the mountainous region of Svaneti. Behind the village stands Skhara,the highest peak in Georgia at around 17,000 feet high, shrouded in clouds. With a population of just over 200, Ushguli is the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ushguli is one of those places straight out of a storybook – it seems to be paused in time, and pre-Christian traditions can still be found here in many ceremonies.
Mythical Mount Ushba is hard to miss if you visit Upper Svaneti. Its massive twin granite peaks are where, it is claimed, Prometheus was bound to a rock by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans. Another story tells of Ushba’s relationship to nearby Tetnuldi peak. The Svans say that Tetnuldi, a girl, and Ushba, a boy, loved each other, but their families refused to allow them to marry. Frozen with grief, the star-crossed lovers now stand as two facing mountains. Tetnuldi, a dramatic snowcapped pyramid, is always dressed in a bridal veil, and looks across the valley to Ushba, the pair forever separated by a deep gorge.