Discovering Georgia Low Cost Destination

Five hours at heart rate. The trip from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, by all accounts, lasts a maximum of two and a half hours.

Starting at 10.30, one imagines, there is plenty of time to catch the plane at 16.30. Instead Google Maps proposes ring roads still under construction and the signpost indicates the distance to Kabul, Baku, Istanbul, Terun but never once to Kutaisi, the most obvious destination for those traveling on the only stretch of Georgian highway. Not a sign. For the airport, Google suggests to turn left, the people in the street signs to the right, and after an hour of empty lap, we must recognize the popular wisdom. Without navigator, it is better to rely on people. A metaphor of existence: a zero for the human factor on technology, even if the speeding fines arrive instantly on the phone, as soon as the detector realizes! At 3:45 pm, finally the airport, baggage control and passports. Fortunately, it is small and with little traffic. So ends the 15-day trip to Georgia, a former state of the Soviet Union that was still unstructured and disoriented.

Medieval parks and monasteries

The country is small, 69700 square kilometers, as Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna. But with the lack of a modern road network it seems immense. Often the road is not there, it is at best a dirt road, if not a path where you proceed at a crawl, with the abdominals in tension, praying to God not to pierce. Only a few venture on certain roads, giving themselves a slow and never crowded holiday. It takes a 4X4, exhaustive, otherwise the range of exploration is drastically reduced, and it would be a pity. Often the tourist attractions suggested by the guides or the tourist office are naive and disappointing. You can save without water the cascades with walkways for selfies and caves with colored lasers. Medieval parks and monasteries, on the other hand, are the destinations to be preferred, the more beautiful the more remote: the number of pilgrims is inversely proportional to the number of steps to spend to reach them, leaving subject to contemplation. Kutaisi, home of the Georgian Parliament since 2012, is an atypical capital, with few paved roads and the Cathedral of Bagrati which was removed in 2017 from the Unesco heritage for the rough restoration and neglect of the frescoed chapels used as storage for buckets, ramazze and detergents. The old bridge is closed, the sidewalks are full of potholes and the family pensions are preferable to the pretentious hotels, but often they are in white streets where trolleys and shoes wobble. The city has no major attractions, except the animal fountain, the theater, the central market and some fine restaurants where you can eat well, like Paolo (5 Shota Rustaveli Ave), trendy and contemporary, and Story House (Pushkin Street), which it looks like the dining room of a house both for the menu and for the atmosphere, with the intimate light of the lampshades, the knick-knacks, the piano and the TV on a silent film by Charlot.


Low cost rates for hotels (simple) and restaurants with home cooking

It is nevertheless a reassuring starting point, where gentle people meet, who do not try to plunder the disoriented stranger. Obviously, the tourist costs everything more, but not in a shameless way. The most expensive dinner for two costs 40 gel (it is divided 3, then around 17 €), a clean three-star hotel – like the Crown Hotel – costs 150 gels per night. The prices are tempting, the holiday is slow, the people are welcoming and they go out of their way to show the beauty of the country that tourism is opening timidly, and still lives on agriculture and pastoralism. Tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons are tasty, the fresh cheeses row on the white katchapuri pizza, the kimkali stuffed with broth and mixed meats are mysterious and exquisite. Few things, cooked and served with homemade care everywhere. Always the same, more or less, but so tasty and healthy that they do not bore. No, nouvelle cuisine has not yet arrived, and it is still far away. Authenticity is the characteristic of Georgia, which can not lie on its past, with Soviet barracks and factories abandoned to pastures of cows, horses and flocks, such as Rustavi, brutal but fascinating. There are no neat fields, and terraced houses with hedges. The immense, wild, indomitable nature prevails everywhere, from the mountains of the Great Caucasus on the border with Russia to the desert of hills to Azerbaijan, from the rural steppe that leads to Armenia and Turkey to the Black Sea where the worldly Batumi and, just outside, lonely beaches and bays.

Turkish border and model of peaceful coexistence with the Georgians.

At least for the first time, to understand the extraordinary geographical variety of the country, there are some obligatory stages, even if not exhaustive. From Kutaisi you reach the monasteries of Gelati, center of religious life and Neoplatonic academy in 1106, and Motsameta where there is always a marriage, a baptism, an Orthodox ceremony. To the south we pass to Akhaltsikhe, city of the singer Aznavour, predominantly Armenian, close to the Turkish border and model of peaceful coexistence with the Georgians. It is also an example of the changes under way: in front of the barber’s empty shop – the hipster has not arrived yet, in fact, more likely they have already gone – and fake Nike cheap, there are the first b & b. They are shy attempts, even if the castle, the only historical heritage, has been restored as a Lego game for children. Nothing compared to the rock monastery in the Vardzia valley, a sort of Matera of the East, to visit or to contemplate as a whole from the rooms and the pool of the Vardzia Resort, one of the rare stops that comes close to our concept of luxury. The journey proceeds to the west, to Davit Gareja, with 15 monasteries scattered in a lunar landscape of hills in layers colored until Azerbaijan. It goes back to the Kakheti, the wine-growing region where the grapes have been grown for 8000 years, and the same number of ceramic wines, as some fragments of the amphora of the period testify. Wherever they organize tastings, even in the marvelous Cathedral of Alaverdi, where the patriarch greets with a bow and a kiss.

Population that observes the animist religion in inviolable sacred pens
A few kilometers and you enter the Tusheti National Park, reachable only by a road that according to the Georgians is not only the most bumpy in the country, but the whole world: 70 kilometers of fords, waterfalls, climbs up to 3200 meters, and descents interminable among infrequent flocks, for a total of 5 hours. With the local driver, used to the route it takes three, but if you drive, at the end of the path, with explosions of flowers and mountains covered with soft carpet, you feel like a real traveler. The destination is Omalo, one of the small villages inhabited only in summer, with a population that observes the animist religion in inviolable sacred pens, raises horses (even for walks in the park) and lives on tourism offering simple family-run refuges like the Guesthouse Lasharai where half board costs 200 gels per couple, less than € 70 per day. The effort of the route is rewarded by good food, walks on the lawns and in the shade of the woods, the endless and steep landscapes, the bucolic life, unforgettable stars.

Even the Rooms of the capital is the jewel of hospitality

Just as it is satisfying to reach the end in Tbilisi and discover, surprisingly, a modern, lively, young, exuberant city that finally clarifies the ideas on the direction chosen by today’s Georgia. The capital, still wounded by the last war with Russia in 2008, opted for the Western model. The engine of change is a generation of forty-year-old visionaries, such as Kakha Kaladze, the newly elected mayor of Milan, and Temur Ugulava, founder of the Ajara Hospitality Group, the first Georgian chain inspired by the innovative American Ace Hotels, Freehand and Edition, and is part of the prestigious international association of Design Hotels. For the project, Ugulava recalled two brilliant thirty-year-olds from New York, Valeri Chekheria, appointed CEO of the group, and Levan Berulava, general manager of the project. Together they opened in 2012, the first Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi, a mountain village in the homonymous national park, along the military road that leads to the Russian border. It must not have been trivial to transform a Soviet summer colony into a luxury hotel, but the result is surprising, with living rooms, bookcases, fireplaces, USSR propaganda posters and at least half of the rooms with a view of the Katzbeg’s 5000 meters of snow. A hotel like this had never been seen in Georgia, and its success was such that in 2014 they opened in Tbilisi, in a former publishing house. Even the Rooms of the capital is the jewel of hospitality: contrasts of colors, eclectic and vintage style, bookshops protagonists with volumes of history, art and photography. It could be the setting for a film by Wes Anderson. And the group continues to grow. In 2017 Fabrika arrived, a hostel with social spaces and a courtyard with various activities, including a ramen restaurant, art workshops and a tailor’s shop with its own collection and a clothes rack of Soviet work clothes found in the factory warehouse. packs of which the hotel has taken its place. Since Fabrika arrived, the neighborhood has resumed life and today it is full of small rooms and beautiful murals that adorn the crumbling facades of buildings waiting for new destination. The last hotel of the group is Stamba, inaugurated in May in the still empty spaces.

Vegetarian restaurant with Moorish-style

On the other hand also the bohemian neighborhoods of the old city are in full revival with modern and research restaurants, such as Café Littera (13 Machabeli St), in the courtyard of the house of writers, Café Leila (18 Shavteli St), vegetarian restaurant with Moorish-style interiors and small tables in a pedestrian alley, and Keto and Kote (3 Zandukeli Dead End), a Georgian restaurant with a terrace overlooking the city and the Mtkvari river running through it. As befits the capitals, even the old city with the baths, the mosque and the cobbled alleys has its contemporary skyline, entrusted to two Italian architects: Massimiliano Fuksas who signed the building of the administrative offices and the Music Theater and Exhibition Hall in the park Rike, completed in 2016 but never inaugurated, and Michele De Lucchi, who designed the presidential palace and the pedestrian bridge of the Peace that ideally connects the past to a future of modernity. Work in progress.