Georgia – a country in the spirit of generosity!

I had 2 Lari left – but the chocolate bar cost 4 – with a gesture of spontaneity and probably because I bought 2 packets of tea she threw it in with pleasure – what was 2 Lari in the greater picture of things!

I was waiting for my plane at Batumi airport, having just been dropped off by my driver David and guide Elene Rakviashvili, spontaneous and generous with her knowledge and reflecting on a hectic but satisfying journey through this gem nestling in the lee of the great Caucasus mountains – A week of indulgence in a culture that emerged from a wonderful mixed bag of civilisations that passed through on this trade route between the Caspian and Black Seas – Roman, Greek, Mongolian and Persian all leaving their mark.

It had taken us 5 hours from Mestia in the northern Svaneti region, through mist and along fast flowing rivers cutting through glorious greenery to get here. Arriving at 2pm we indulged for an hour on schnapps and kachpuri– a bake of egg, cheese and butter in the beautiful garden of the Megrul – Lazuri restaurant.

I had arrived a week earlier in Tbilisi the capital of 1 mill on kind invitation of the Georgian National Tourism office to experience first -hand the cameos I want to use in future tours – a city of many foundations with quaint pedestrianised back streets and restored manor houses reflecting the styles of art nouveau and classicism. Chapels of the 10th – 16th century are interspersed with squares and galleries, underground ancient wine tasting bars, boutique hotels with high ceilings and sulphur baths – a major contributor to the founding of a city that also boasts the ultra- modern Bridge of Peace and Concert Hall designed by the Italian architect Michele De Lucchi.

Sunday started early at Sion Cathedral to experience polyphonic singing whereby voices sing in multi parts usual unaccompanied and is only practised in Georgia. A quick visit to carpet shops and galleries in the neighbourhood followed before heading out to Mtskheta. One of the oldest cities of Georgia at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers, it is considered to be one of oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia (2rd century BC to 5th century AD) and site of Georgia’s adoption of Christianity in 334 AD. Today it is the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church based at the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the coronation and burial site of Georgian monarchy.

The afternoon saw us visiting the Georgian National Museum which I specially requested to view its superb gold collection from the 3rd millennium BC to 4th century AD. Well laid out with sensitive lighting it’s another cameo. The same museum contains the Russian occupation exhibition – a very painful experience but necessary to get the full picture of what Georgia went through. After a short performance at the Rustaveli Theatre in Empire Style it was time to meet various Georgian friends and agents who I had met in S.A. Pur Pur restaurant is delightfully rustic with period pieces and huge billiard table lampshades dangling overhead – a true opera –set of which there are many waiting to be explored. Over delicious trout and superb Georgian wine we exchanged gifts and vital info for the busy days ahead. Tbilisi by night followed, mainly in quaint cellar bars to prepare me for the morrow’s tour to Kakheti the wine region of the east.

The culture of wine making dates back to 2000 years BC attested to by fossilised grape leaves and seeds from the Miocene and Bronze age. Besides the conventional method of wine fermentation similar to that of the west, Georgia offers Qvevri (organic) wine fermented in ceramic pots set in the earth. A tasting of old Georgian wines accompanied by khinkali – dumplings filled with mince meat, was celebrated at the old Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant in Sighnaghi – a quaint town of narrow streets and wooden balconies where festivals of traditional dance are held annually. This ancient royal town is surrounded by defense walls with 23 towers and served as an important place for Silk Route travellers passing through from Asia and Europe.

Through the good connection of Nino Turashvili, a tourism specialist, I was privileged to see the newly restored Paliashvili Opera and Ballet Theatre in old Moorish design. It is truly superb and no expense was spared to put it in line with the other great opera houses of the world. The orchestra stage has been enlarged to accommodate a Wagnerian orchestra, the majestic chandeliers comes from the Czech Republic and Georgian marble graces the foyers and reception rooms. It will again open in Oct this year when Georgian opera singers, now living abroad will be invited home to raise the roof!

Another highlight was to follow. I had read about the Arshakuni Palace in Tbilisi which is now the State Academy of Arts and requested a visit to view the magnificent Persian rooms. Built some 90 years ago it is a blend of Russia Neoclassical architecture and rich Persian decorations dazzling with a myriad of colours, inverted cornices and inlaid mirrors alternating with carved and painted stucco work – such magnificent work covering 14. As it is sorely in need of restoration, one can only hope that Unesco takes this jewel under its wing.

Georgia is synonamous with the Caucasus forming a formidable border with Russia in the north. To appreciate both areas accessible for great hikes and skiing, we firstly took the Georgian Military Highway running north of Tbilisi to Kazbeki. This road is a major artery for goods trucked to Russia from Armenia and Turkey – the anomaly being that Georgian trucks may not enter Russia. There are no diplomatic relations between the countries with a severely chilled attitude from the Russian side. They in turn are welcomed in Georgia, which with its Mediterranean climate, Black Sea beaches and superb wine is a huge attraction – the Georgians are certainly not going to throw away a good market on their doorstep!

From the deck of the highly comfortable and unique Rooms Hotel, I had a splendid view of the mountains, their snow capped peaks bathed in a full moon – my luck!

Across the valley the 14th Century Gergeti Trinity Monastery was situated at 2170m. The inside like most of their churches is simple with minimal frescoes and icons allowing the sacred silence to pervade. A moving cameo here was a monk praying over a retarded child whose parents had made a two day drive from Moscow to this special place.

As South Ossetia takes up a northern chunk and is under Russian dominance we had to skirt around it to reach Gori the birthplace of Stalin. Although a part of history, which should be seen, one nevertheless enters with foreboding the museum that documents the life of this monster who treated his own people with equal harshness.

Continuing via Kutaisi and Zugdidi with stops at villages still practising crafts of woodwork and weaving and selling along the roadside delicious honey, cheeses and breads we headed northwest to the Svaneti Region.

Mestia the main town is totally charming – a place of solace nestling against the majestic mountain with a view of Mt Elbrus (5642m) on a clear day. The valleys with their rich black soil offer maize and potato fields while the gardens of the stone and slate houses abound with fruit and nut trees.

Svaneti is an old region, almost cut off, where feudalism and vendettas by powerful families were the order of the day. The valleys with numerous stone towers for past defence and holding back the snow avalanches reminded me of San Gimignano in Italy.

At night these bastions are all lit up creating a magic enhanced by moonlit peaks. I spent 2 nights in this snug paradise and could have spent a month walking the countless trails and returning at night to fires and Georgian dishes of veal, trout and fresh vegetables served with a multitude of mountain herbs.

In the quiet of the early morning I woke up to rushing rivers and wood burning fires and peaks slowly emerging from the clouds reminding me of Bhutan. From my balcony I could see the museum which offers a superb collection of icons seen the previous day. We made an early start to Ushguli the highest village in Europe and furthest east in Upper Svaneti. More serious treks start from here with overnight huts plus horseriding available along an abundance of trails.

Flying out over the Black Sea for a brief stop in Istanbul en-route home, I reflected on another unique destination which certainly called for further exploration. Georgia is still authentic, its people friendly and generous and its soul genuine – that certainly fits our collection!

Autumn in Georgia & Armenia small but fascinating countries bordered by the Caucasus Mountains & Black Sea offering art, wine making, orthodoxy and hospitality that goes back centuries. The tour will be preceded by 2 days in Istanbul

23 September – 14 October 2016

Fri 23 Sep 2016

Depart Cape Town at 15h15 on Turkish Airlines flight TK059 to Istanbul

Sat 24 Sep

On arrival 05h25 we are met and transferred to the Erboy Hotel in the old Sultanahmet area where we stay for 2 nights with breakfast. The day will be at leisure to explore the famous and nearby sights of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Museum etc. We will meet in the early evening for drinks and proceed to dinner in an authentic Turkish setting.

Sun 25 Sep

After breakfast our guide Necdet will meet us at 09h00 to show us the unique and unusual back street sights and treasures off the tourist beat!. The tour will end about 15h00 and allows for a coffee break around midday. We will assemble again in the early evening for drinks and have dinner at a different Turkish restaurant!

Mon 26 Sep

After a leisurely breakfast we will be transferred to the airport for our flight TK382 departing at 13h10 to Tbilisi. On arrival 16h30 we are met and transferred to our central hotel for 3 nights with breakfast. Visit to the Sulfur baths for a relaxing massage before our welcome dinner at a traditional Georgian restaurant.

Tue 27 Sep

After breakfast a sightseeing tour of Tbilisi. Known as the capital of Georgia from the 5th century, the city is extraordinary for its turbulent history, elegance and remarkable architecture destroyed and restored through the centuries but keeping the style of the Georgian orthodox religion and traditions. Walk through the old city and visit the Metekhi church from the 13th century followed by a cable car up to the Narikala fortress of the 4th century. Stroll along Sharden and Erekle II streets and visit the Old Caravanserai from the 18th century, Sioni cathedral built in the 7th century and the Anchiskhati basilica from the 6th century. Lunch at a city restaurant. After lunch we visit the Tbilisi National Museum and Art Gallery. Our walk continues along Rustaveli Avenue – the main Avenue of the city on which the former Vorontsov Palace (Youth Palace), former Parliament, Rustaveli Theatre and the Opera and Ballet House are situated. Time to relax at the hotel before dinner at a local restaurant.

Wed 28 Sep

After breakfast we visit the museum of cinema and theatre and continue to the Mtatsminda, Mama Daviti church and Pantheon. Lunch at the Funicular restaurant, where you can see Ignatov’s unique mosaic. Thereafter a visit to the artist Elene Akhvlediani Home museum and the local flea market. This evening a performance in the recently restored magnificent Tbilisi Opera House and dinner at Pur-Pur restaurant – typically Georgian.

Thu 29 Sep

After breakfast we drive to eastern Georgia, the Kakheti wine growing region. En-route we visit Ninotsminda village near Sagarejo from the 6th century – one of the most beautiful places in Kakheti. Continue to Telavi – centre of Kakheti province. We visit the Ikhalto academy and architectural complex from the 12th century and Alaverdi cathedral of the 11th century. Visit the old winery run by the monks and taste one of the best Georgian wines. After lunch our trip continues to the Gremi architectural complex dating from the 16th -17th centuries – former residence of the Kakhetian kings. Dinner and overnight at a local guesthouse.

Fri 30 Sep

After breakfast we drive to the Tsinandali estate, the winery founded by the famous poet and public figure Alexander Chavchavadze in the 19th century. Continue to Velistiskhe village and visit the family of a local artist. We enjoy wine tasting and lunch with the Marani family and then drive to Nekresi monastery dating from the 4th century. Dinner and overnight at a local guesthouse.

Sat 01 Oct

After breakfast we drive north along the Georgian Military Highway to Mtiuleti and Khevi provinces. This ancient road is still important as a main link connecting all south Caucasus countries with Russia. A stop at the Ananuri architectural complex from 16th -17th centuries followed by lunch at a local restaurant. Continue to Kazbegi – at a height of 2180 m the road crosses the main Caucasus range which is the geographical border between Europe and Asia. Dinner and overnight at design hotel “Rooms Kazbegi” where we stay for 2 nights.

Sun 02 Oct

After breakfast a 4×4 drive up to the 14th century Gergeti Trinity church located at 2180 m from where, in good weather, it is possible to see Mt. Kazbeg. At a local family, we enjoy a master class of khinkali (meat dumpling) making and have lunch with them. Thereafter a drive to the Dariali Canyon near the Russian border. Free time for rest and relaxation before dinner at the hotel.

Mon 03 Oct

After breakfast we drive to Mtskheta the old capital of the Kartli-Iberia kingdom known as a political and cultural centre from 3rd century BC. We visit Jvari monastery from the 6th century. It represents the high achievements of early Georgian Medieval Architecture. Thereafter a visit to the Svetitskhoveli cathedral of the 11th century before driving to Tbilisi. Dinner at restaurant Zazanova with live music and overnight at Hotel Sharden.

Tue 04 Oct

After breakfast we drive to the Georgian – Armenian border at Sadakhlo via Bolnisi and view the Sioni basilica from the 5th century. After border formalities, change guides and drivers and continue to Armenia. We visit the Haghpat Unesco World Heritage monastery complex followed by lunch at Qefo restaurant in the village of Haghpat. We continue to the Sevanavank monastery complex on Lake Sevan via the villages of Vanadzor, Fioletovo and Dilijan. Tonight dinner and overnight at Hotel Ani Plaza in the capital Yerevan where we stay for 2 nights with breakfast.

Wed 05 Oct

After breakfast we visit the Garni pagan temple and thereafter to the Geghard monastery complex – a 4th century Unesco world heritage site. Here we enjoy a performance by the Luys Vocal Quintet who are superb! We return to Yerevan for lunch. Thereafter we visit the Matenadaran museum of ancient manuscripts and the archaeological museum. Dinner at the studio of artist Ararat Sarkissian.

Thu 06 Oct

After breakfast we drive northward to Gyumi with a stop on route at Mastara and its 4th century church and beautiful cross stones. After a short lunch we enjoy a city tour including an art gallery. Dinner is at the excellent Cherkezi Dzor fish restaurant where caviar can also be purchased. Afterwards a visit to the studio / foundry of famous sculptor Albert Vardanyar. Overnight at the Berlin Art Hotel with breakfast.

Fri 07 Oct

After breakfast we drive to the Armenian – Georgian border at Bavra. After border formalities, change guides and drivers and drive to the Vardzia cave city. This spectacular rock-hewn monastery of the mediaeval period contains over six thousand apartments, a church, throne room and an irrigation system for terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari River. Vardzia is also well known for its preserved frescoes, among which is the fresco of Queen Tamara (12th – 13th century) the founder of the complex. Lunch at a local family run restaurant near the site. Drive to Borjomi Mountain resort for dinner and overnight.

Sat 08 Oct

After breakfast we drive to Kutaisi, former capital of western Georgia, through the Likhi range that divides eastern and western Georgia. Lunch at a local restaurant. Thereafter we visit the Gelati monastery complex from the 12th century. Dinner and overnight at the Tskhaltubo Spa resort, which was used as a sanatorium in the Soviet period.

Sun 09 Oct

After breakfast we drive via Zugdidi to Mestia the capital of Svaneti province. Of all the regions of Georgia, Svaneti is the most ecologically unspoilt and largely unexplored. These ancient settlements are known for their medieval towers, still-preserved rituals and customs, fascinating views of snow-capped mountains, alpine meadows, roaring rivers and waterfalls. We drive through the spectacular gorge along the river Enguri connected to the legend of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. A brief stop at the village Khaishi for a scrumptious ‘Kubdari’ lunch – a typical Svanetian pie with meat and local spices at a family-run restaurant. Thereafter we continue to Mestia. Dinner with traditional Svanetian cuisine at the hotel restaurant. We spend 3 nights here with breakfast.

Mon 10 Oct

After breakfast a full day exploring Mestia. We visit the Ethnography and History Museum and continue to a local family where we enjoy a master class of local traditional meals – Kubdari, Chvishtaqri, Cheese etc followed by lunch in the family house. In the evening, local polyphonic singing and dancing in the hotel restaurant with a local traditional dinner.

Tue 11 Oct

After breakfast we drive to Becho village to walk and explore the village followed by lunch. Drive back to Mestia and continue to Chalaadi village to enjoy the local scenery and architecture. Dinner and overnight in hotel.

Wed 12 Oct

After breakfast we drive to Batumi on the Black Sea – centre of Adjara province. At Zugdidi we visit the Dadiani Palace. Lunch at a local restaurant. Evening stroll in Batumi with dinner at a local restaurant. Overnight in hotel.

Thu 13 Oct

After breakfast we drive to the Batumi Botanical Garden with its different types of landscape zones that co-exist side by side. After lunch we transfer to Batumi International Airport for our flight TK393 departing at 17h05 to Istanbul with arrival 18h10

Fri 14 Oct

At 01h05 we depart on TK058 to Cape Town with arrival 13h45 after hopefully a wonderful journey

Bon Voyage

The cost of this tour is a combination of A + B as detailed below

  1. Land Arrangements

US$ 3 800.00 per person sharing which includes :

All accommodation in very comfortable hotels or guest houses reflecting the character of the countries, all meals in Georgia & Armenia ; dinner & breakfast in Istanbul, tours, transfers, transportation which includes 4 x 4 vehicles in Kazbegi & Svaneti provinces, wine tasting as per programme, visit to local families for cooking master class, entries fees, local guides and services of professional English speaking tour leader.

Single supplement US$ 650.00

  1. International airfare with Turkish Airlines

Approximately R 12 500 – R 13 000 depending on time of booking.

The cost excludes gratuities, visas, laundry, insurance, personal expenses and entrance fee for Tbilisi Opera Performance.

On reservation a non-refundable deposit of R 12 500 is payable with balance due Mid June 2016.

For further enquiries call Hans van Heukelum at Unique Destinations

021 462 7032 / 073 145 2191

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