From the Mountains to the Valleys
Mountainous Georgia borders Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia and Turkey, with a culture influenced by the Mongols, Persians, Greeks and the Byzantine Empire. During the 19th century, Russia invaded and integrated Georgia into the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991.
Today it is a popular destination for visitors: it’s home to green valleys spread with vineyards, where old churches and watchtowers are perched in fantastic mountain scenery, making it a great canvas for hikers, skiers, rafters, and travellers of every kind.
Surrounded on three sides by mountains, Georgia’s ancient capital city spreads out on both banks of the Mtkvari River. Thanks to its unique history, Tblisi is known for its distinctive architecture, with its eclectic mix of Medieval, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Stalinist and Modernist structures.
The Old Tblisi district, known for its sulfur bathhouses (open to the public) fed by natural hot springs, is a charming area of old-style balconies, ancient churches, and winding streets. Soaring above it is the 4th century Narikala Fortress.
While Tblisi is steeped in history as a Eurasian crossroad, it is also moving forward in the 21st century, with contemporary buildings, good public transport, and ever-improving facilities for visitors.
At a 20-minute bus ride from Tblisi, the UNESCO-listed city of Mtskheta is the birthplace and centre of Christianity in Georgia, and is often referred to by Georgian Orthodoxy as the “Holy City”. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is one of the most sacred places in Georgia, where Christ’s robe is said to be buried.
Situated on a rocky mountaintop 5km from Mtskheta is the 6th-century Jvari Monastery which is fortified by a stone wall and gate overlooking the town of Mtskheta, located at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers.
Not far from Zhinvali reservoir and about 70km from Tbilisi, the Ananuri Fortress is situated above the Aragvi River. The earliest parts of the fortress date from the 13th century and has witnessed a number of massacres and peasant uprisings.
A dirt path snakes up through the fortress which contains a well-preserved upper fortification with a large square tower (Sheupovari), domed churches featuring centuries-old frescoes, and a bell tower. Climb the watchtower for views of the reservoir and surrounding mountains.
Situated within the Kakheti Region about 100km (2 hours) from Tblisi, Sighnagi is known as the “city of wine and love”. Sitting on the steep hill overlooking the vast Alazani Valley with a view of the Caucasus Mountains, this town – with its narrow cobblestone streets and pastel-coloured houses – is popular as the heart of Georgia’s scenic wine-growing region.
Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine; ancient wine vessels, golden wine cups and wine barrels found here date back to at least the 2nd millennium BC. Today, over 500 varieties of grapes grow here, and in the Kakheti region, you’ll find the semi-sweet wines of Kindzmarauli and Akhasheni. You can also tour around the wineries for wine-tasting sessions.
Sighnagi retains its original fortress walls which are crowned with watchtowers where one can climb to get magnificent views of the Alazan valley. Within the walls are well-preserved 18th and 19th-century inns where you can enjoy traditional Georgian cuisine with local wine.
Just 2kms away is the St. Nino Bodbe Shrine, or the Bodbe Monastery, one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia where a 4th-century female evangelist was buried. She is credited with bringing the Orthodox Christian faith to the country, and her grave lies within the old church. Down the hill from the monastery lies the spring of St. Nino – the waters are believed to have healing powers.
Kazbegi National Park
The Kazbegi National Park is located on the northern slopes of the mighty Caucasus range – capped by the towering Mt. Kazbek (5,033m), the third tallest mountain in Georgia – and dotted with hot springs and carbonated lakes.
Surrounded by spectacular mountains and picturesque gorges, Stepantsminda(also known as Kazbegi), is a popular base for trekking in the region and is just 10km south of the border with Russia. Local taxis (mashrutkas) have regular departures from Tblisi to Stepantsminda, with a journey time of about 3 hours.
One of the most popular hikes from this city is to the nearby Gergeti Trinity Church that’s set against the backdrop of the mighty Mt. Kazbek. This 14th-century church towers over the city at 2,170m; you can hike up to it (1.5 hours from town) for stunning views of the surrounding mountains. You can continue the hike up to the Gergeti Glacier (3,200m) which is within a day’s hike from Stepantsminda.
Also near Stepantsminda is the impossibly steep 11km-long Dariali Gorge that connects Russia and Georgia; in places, the cliff faces are over 1,000m high, dotted with medieval watchtowers, waterfalls and wildlife, making this one of the most incredible roads in the world. The steep valleys are home to eagles, hawks and the massive griffon vultures that all nest among the rocky outcrops. There is a hiking trail from Stepantsminda to the Devdoraki Glacier, which follows along the gorge past the Gveleti waterfall and through a birch forest.
There are plenty of other gorges to hike to, including the Upper Truso Gorge with its historic sites, abandoned villages, as well as rich mineral waters; Khdi Gorge which is accessible via Dariali Gorge along a hiking trail that passes a monastery complex; and the Artkhmo Gorge with its abandoned villages and beautiful waterfalls.
Tblisi International Airport is 17km from the city and is serviced by airlines like Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, and Turkish Airlines. Its location is also ideal as a base to neighbouring countries like Azerbaijan and Armenia. For more on Georgia, visit http://georgia.travel.
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