Wedged between the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north, where Europe’s highest peaks make a border with Russia, and the Lesser Caucasus to the south, separating Georgia from Turkey and Armenia, lies Tbilisi, the colourful and cosmopolitan capital of Georgia (the country, not the US state).
The valley between the two ranges has been an ancient silk route through history, and just over a decade ago, a short-lived war with Russia turned it into a no-go zone. Since then it has embraced tourism in a big way and tour companies are putting it and neighbouring Armenia on their itineraries, with travel to the Eurasia region seeing an unpredented boom.
Where to start your Georgia holiday
The cobbled old Tbilisi town is a great place to get a feel for the place, while the cable car from Rike Park up to the Narikala Fortress gives an exhilarating overview of the city.
Tbilisi was built on top of thermal springs and the bathhouses are a popular attraction.
Some 20km to the north the exquisite 6th Century Jvari Monastery has stunning views over the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
Other top attractions include the ancient cave cities at Vardzia, 140km south-west of Tbilisi, and Uplistsikhe, near Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. To sample beach resort life on the Black Sea, head for Batumi near the Turkish border. It’s the Caucasus mountains, however, that steal the show, offering nature and adventure lovers splendid hikes, white-water rafting and skiing.
An under-rated culinary destination
Georgia has a notable claim to fame: it’s the world’s oldest wine producer. Three years ago 8000-year-old pottery fragments with traces of wine were found south of Tbilisi. Foodies have a lot to savour too: Georgian gastronomy is a mix of local, Greek, Turkish, Persian and Mediterranean flavours.
Favourite dishes include khinkali (spicy meat dumplings), khachapuri (bread stuffed with cheese and often with an egg on top) and churchkhela – colourful strings of nuts dipped in a flour and grape juice paste.
One of the joys of travel to lesser known destinations is the warm welcome of the locals, many of whom have had little chance to travel and relish the chance to mingle with international visitors.
Tours to Georgia with companies like Trafalgar offer connections with the locals including visiting local homes to enjoy regional food and wines, learn about local life, in the process, help sustain the communities.