GEORGIA: THE FIRST ROAD TRIP ABROAD DURING THE PANDEMIC

A fusion between Soviet culture, Asian culture and a bit of European culture, all spiced up by the most tasteful flavours and amazing wine ever experienced!



Although it was on our list for a long time, Georgia was not in the top of our priorities. But this year, after being one of the first countries that started to welcome vaccinated tourists, it went straight away under our radar.

So, with some last minute booked tickets, not too much preparation and off season, we arrived in our first new country after the start of the pandemic. And it proved to be unexpectedly interesting!


Georgia is a country which stands at the border between Europe and Asia, and a lot of people wonder to which continent it belongs to. Although it is a debatable topic, we reached the conclusion that Georgia is technically located in Asia, but, culturally, many people in Georgia consider themselves part of Europe.


We won`t go into many details about the general facts of the country, as these things can be easily found on Google. We will, however, focus more on our impressions and about what might interest you more during these hard-travelling times. That being:


How to get there? What are the Covid restrictions?


Georgia is slowly relaxing the restrictions and is one of the first countries to welcome tourists but during these times everything could change all of a sudden.

At the moment ( end of March 2021), the terrestrial borders are still closed but the air traffic has resumed, meaning that you can enter the country, even as a tourist, if you comply with their requirements. There are different restrictions for vaccinated and non-vaccinated visitors, which can be checked here or on the respective Ministry of Foreign Affairs in your country. For Romanians, the updates about Georgia can be found here.

However, our personal advice is to contact the Georgian embassy in your country, for confirmation, as we did.


For us, being from EU and fully vaccinated, the entry was super straight forward, similar to the good old times. We just had to show the vaccination certificates. It would be advisable to fill in one of the forms on this website, but we didn`t fall in any of the categories.

The border police asked only for the vaccination certificates, but we were asked about the Covid registration paper at the boarding gate.


Anyway, just a heads up, because the entry based on vaccination certificate is quite new, not many people are aware of it ( mostly check in agents ) and we were asked many times to wait while they check if it`s ok to allow us to board without a PCR test.


Regarding the flights, we flew there with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul ( where, at the moment, you don`t need PCR test if you are a transit passenger ). For other options, you can always check skyscanner.com


Sighnaghi and the stunning Caucasus range

Getting around


Although it is not a huge country, Georgia is a bit backwards in terms of transportation and infrastructure and even for a relatively small distance, you need to allow extra time. The main ways of getting around are: renting a car, booking a tour/ driver and using public transportation. We would recommend the first two, as using public transportation during the pandemic might not be neither reliable nor advisable.


We rented a 4x4 car and we think this is the best option as the roads are not amazing and it gives you the opportunity to experience mud and gravel roads. Or even off-road.

The car rental rental company we used it is called CARS4RENT and you can find them on their website or on Facebook. We choose them based on the good reviews they have and we can say that we made the best choice. Honestly, it`s one of the best car rental companies we ever worked with. They gave us a new car, fully insured, extra driver included and no deposit. Super straight forward process for the pick up and drop off. Friendly staff and easy to communicate with. Not to mention that the price was really good!


Regarding the GPS, Google Maps and Waze work, in general, pretty well, but they do seem to have some glitches occasionally.


Inside the cities, BOLT app is the best option: cheap and reliable. We only used it in Tbilisi but should work in all big cities.



When to go?


Well, this is a debatable question. The official recommended season to go there is from May to September, during the warmer months. The best month it is considered to be September as it is warm enough for hiking in the Caucasus, while is the harvest period for grapes and all other goodies.

However, we went there at the end of March, which is the least recommended month to go but despite the weather forecast, we had an amazing time and amazing weather for photography. The only thing that we truly missed was a bit of hiking in the Caucasus and seeing the green side of Tbilisi.


At the end of March - beginning of April, the weather is a bit chilly but comfortable for walking, while the Caucasus are still full of snow and have a more epic look for photography.


Accommodation


Not sure if it was off season or due to the pandemic but the accommodation we found was really nice and cheap. And the breakfast was included mostly everywhere and was simply amazing!

Basically, anything that has good reviews on booking.com is at least decent.

Just for your information, we paid an average of maximum 40 euros per night but you can find way cheaper than that, if you are on a budget.


Tip: if you go to Stepantsminda and you want to experience a really nice Grand Budapest style hotel, build in an old sanatory, just try Rooms Hotel Kazbegi. We found a lot of good reviews about this hotel and it is indeed a super rewarding experience.


Rooms Hotel

What to visit


There are, of course, plenty of things to do and see over there. But you need a lot of time if you want to do all of them.

We did a bit of research and we reached the conclusion that, in 8 days, we can only visit 3 places plus Tbilisi. We got about two nights in each destination, with an additional 3 nights in Tbilisi. So, the main attractions are:


Sighnaghi


This was actually our favourite location in Georgia and one of the most unique places we`ve ever been to. The location is the most incredible thing about it, as it lies on top of a hill with a majestic view of the Caucasus mountains. Down the hill there is a completely flat land, part of the famous Kakheti region, where the locals cultivate grapes. The vibe of the city is very nice and chill, as it has numerous terraces where one can taste wine and admire and scenery.


The town is really small so you don`t need more than a full day over there. And when we say a full day, this means that you can visit everything in 3-4 hours and then spend the rest of the time tasting wine and their amazing food!



Vardzia


Is a cave monastery site in southern Georgia, excavated from the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Kura River, thirty kilometres from Aspindza. The main period of construction was the second half of the twelfth century. The caves stretch along the cliff for some five hundred meters and in up to nineteen tiers. The monastery was an important cultural center, a place of significant literary and artistic work.


It used to have 6000 chambers but after a severe earth quake only 600 remained intact.

Vardzia flourished under King Giorgi III, predecessor of Georgia's only female monarch, King (or Queen) Tamar. Legend says the duo gave the site its name Vardzia sounds like "c var dzia', or "I am here, uncle", a phrase apparently uttered by a young Tamar after she got lost in the caves.


Important stuff:

- The visiting hours vary from winter to summer, so do check before hand!

- Allow for about an hour to visit

- There are many locations named Vardzia on Google maps, the correct one is this one:


More information about visiting Vardzia can be found here or here.


Vardzia monastery

Kazbegi or Stepantsminda


Who hasn`t seen at least once a picture of the Gergeti Trinity church against the massive Caucasus landscape ?

This is, probably, one of the most well known symbols of Georgia!

But why wouldn`t be? The location is truly epic and, although we didn`t expect it, the landscapes over here almost beat those from Himalayas or Andes.


The region is mostly famous for its infinite trekking trails, but make sure you come during the warmer months for that.

Since we came at the end of winter, we could only enjoy the uphill walk to the church and back and a lot of photography moments. Therefore, this time we cannot help you with trekking information. But you can check out these pages:

https://www.caucasus-trekking.com/regions/kazbegi/best-hikes-in-kazbegi

https://mountainfreaks.ge/en/the-most-beautiful-one-day-treks-from-kazbegi/

https://www.packing-up-the-pieces.com/maps-routes/juta-valley-hike/


Time needed? Well, if you come during winter, like us, you don`t usually need more than 1 or 2 days, depending on the weather. If you come during the warmer months and you want to do some trekking, then, you can stay as much as you want because you won`t get bored for sure.


Be careful, though, as in the Caucasus mountains, winter lasts significantly longer and the road to Stepantsminda can close due to snow. Even at the end of March or beginning of April! The tricky stuff is that the road authorities are not very reliable and they tend to tell you that they will open the road soon, but in reality it doesn`t happen.

We were lucky enough to wait only 3 hrs in Gudauri ( about 50 km before Stepantsminda ) but at the moment of our arrival the road was already blocked for almost a day!


The amount of snow on the road after Gudauri!

What we did in one an a half days? Lots of pictures! :)

We did the walk up to Gergeti Trinity Church and back, which took us about 4 - 4 and a half hours, including taking pictures and walking slowly due to the thick snow. The rest of the time we spent by travelling back and forth on the military road to Russia boundary and did some off-road driving in Juta valley, until our car couldn`t go anymore. :)


As mentioned above, if you get can afford it and you get the chance, do try the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, at least for one night.

Another cool hut, in Juta valley this time is Fifth Season Hut, which is worth giving a try! We couldn`t personally try it as Juta valley was partially closed due to snow, but the pictures look amazing!!


The view from Stepantsminda at 5 am : Gergeti Trinity Church and Kazbek peak, which is over 5000 m high!!

Tbilisi


Tbilisi is the city of contrasts. Here you can find both luxurious hotels and fancy residential complex buildings next to dilapidated inhabited houses. Or super poor people next to cool hipsters. But all in all, the city has a cool vibe and a great potential and we really loved spending few days over there!

Everything is really cheap ( even cheaper than eastern Asia! ) while the services are of a very good standard. Unless you find some street vendors to cheat on you. :)) But this doesn`t happen often if you make sure to ask for the price beforehand.


Like everywhere in Georgia, the food and the wine are absolutely delicious and the prices are super cheap! It is almost worth to come over here only for the food and wine! We had 3 full days over here and we feel that we didn`t have enough time to try not even half of the restaurants and wine bars that we wanted!

But we`ll give you the list:

https://wander-lush.org/tbilisi-wine-guide-bars-shops/

https://wander-lush.org/tbilisi-georgia-food-best-restaurants-cafes-guide/


Out of these, we tried DADI Wine Bar and 8000 Vintages and both were really nice. While DADI is more cosy and more personal (with a nice lady explaining the origins of the food and wine ) 8000 Vintages has way more options for tasting and take away ( even online orders ). We cannot choose one as these are completely different experiences and you must try both!

Regarding the restaurants, a really nice one is Shavi Lomi which is supposed to have the best contemporary Georgian food and a very nice location, at the same time. We tried it and we enjoyed our food in their interior garden and we absolutely recommend it!

Also, we tried a more local restaurant which only has a Georgian menu but is regarded as the best Kinkhali restaurant is Zakhar Zakharich. Although is not as fancy as the other one, the food was delicious and even cheaper than the rest!

You can even find hipster places like Fabrika: a multi purpose spaces featuring urban style cafes and bars, artist studios, shops, educational institutions, co-working space, hostel, open space courtyard and ever changing one-off events.


Taxis are extremely cheap and downloading the BOLT app on your mobile will make your life way easier. We didn`t hire any taxi from the street but if you do, make sure to agree on the price with the driver, as they never use taxi meters over there.


Bonus, we even found some hipster design shops which are worth having a look: Yuliko&Friends and The Flying Painter.



Next, we will make a brief review of the destinations that were on our list but we didn`t have enough time to check them out.


Svaneti


Was on top of the list, after seeing a post from National Geographic depicting Ushguli village. However, considering the time of the year we went, we reached the conclusion that we had either the option of going only to Svaneti and Ushguli ( and maybe not seeing anything due to the weather ) or having the chance to go to more destinations. So we opted for the second one.


The trouble with Ushguli village is that it is super far away from Tbilisi. First, you need to get to Mestia, which is almost 8 hrs driving from Tbilisi. Then, you need a 4x4 car or get a car with a driver in order to reach Ushguli, which is another 60 km away from Mestia, on a mountain road.

In March, even if we were told that the road could be open, there were chances that we couldn`t make it to there.

In the summer months, things are much easier and there is even a 3-4 days trek to the village. Which must be super cool!

More infos can be found here:

https://thesandyfeet.com/mestia-ushguli-trek-svaneti-georgia/

https://frans-photos.com/how-to-visit-ushguli-georgia-europes-highest-and-most-remote-mountain-village/


Tusheti


We didn`t do much research about it, as it is a closed destination in winter. The region is connected by a mountain road, which apparently only gets cleared up in late May. However, we heard only good words about Tusheti, so, if you come at the right time it might work out for you.

You can read more about it here:

https://www.caucasus-trekking.com/regions/tusheti

https://www.bigworldsmallpockets.com/tusheti-georgia/


David Gareja monastery


This monastery is similar to Vardzia but is older and less known. We really wanted to visit it initially, but then we realised there is not enough time. However, it`s closer to Tbilisi.

You can check out this blog for more details.


Uplistsikhe


This is an ancient rock-hewn town in eastern Georgia, some 10 kilometers east of the town of Gori For those who didn`t know, Gori is the birth place of Stalin.

This is actually on the way to Kutaisi, Vardzia, Svaneti and Batumi. So it`s easier to check it out.

More about it here.


How much time you need?


In order to do what we did, meaning Tbilisi - Vardzia - Kazbegi - Sighnaghi, no trekking, no extra time, you need at least 6-7 days. We had a total of 8 days but we used the last 3 to check out Tbilisi.

If you want to do some trekking, just add to this time. Or give up some locations in favour of others.

However, if you get about 10 full days, you should be fine to do the extra stuff we couldn`t do, such as Ushguli or some trekking in Juta Valley.


Summary


Although unexpected, Georgia was a great experience for us. It is that kind of country rather poor but full of flavours and surprises. It is a very interesting combination between Europe and Asia, having one of the best cuisine we ever tried. And, of course, some of the best and oldest wine recipes in the world.

The country is super cheap while the hotel standards are quite high for that price. Similar to Turkish hospitality, I would say.

Caucasus mountains are really incredible and the scenery beast many other well known places.

Apart from the mentioned places, the rest of the country looks extremely poor and dirty. So, adjust your expectations accordingly.

But, all in all, we had a great surprise coming here and we really recommend you to experience on your own. Even if it`s only for their amazing food and wine!


Next, feel free to enjoy our photo gallery. We used the same camera Sony A7III with the following lenses: Zeiss 55 mm, Sony 135 mm GM and our new Tamron 17-28 mm.








































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