Georgia, although sharing England’s patron saint of St George, is a complete contrast to England, with glaciers, mountains, orthodox churches, cave towns, vineyards and beach resorts.
The Georgia Explorer trip covers most of this former Soviet republic, which now considers itself to be part of Europe and is actively progressing its relationships with the rest of the European continent, despite Russia as its neighbour. Indeed European Union flags are flown in abundance alongside the national flag of Georgia and many projects receive European Union funding.
The tour starts in Tbilisi which is an interesting mixture of old and new. The old town - consisting of winding streets, old balconied houses, beautiful churches and countless bars and cafes - is a delight to wander around and contrasts sharply with the new Presidential Palace on the other side of the river overlooking the old town. On this side is the new Tsminda Sameba cathedral, consecrated in 2004. Looking up to the presidential palace is Ronald Reagan sitting on a seat.
The Georgian Military Highway is another highlight. The road leads to the border with Russia and along the way there is the photogenic orthodox church of Ananuri, the ski resort of Gudauri and the town of Kazbegi with another photogenic orthodox church of Gergeti Trinity set against the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains. Lined up along the road into Kazbegi are over 100 lorries of various nationalities waiting to take the narrow road to the border with Russia.
Gori was the birthplace of the notorious 20th Century leader Joseph Stalin. The museum complex is a must see sight still in a Soviet style time warp. A homage to Stalin from his birth in 1878 to his death in 1953 with fascinating pictures of him with other members of the Soviet Communists and at the Yalta conference at the end of WW2. His death mask is also on display. The more distasteful aspects of his leadership of the USSR – the political purges and Gulags are tucked away in small room under the main stairs.
The beautiful Svaneti region of Georgia is a delight. Picturesque villages with defensive stone towers, snow covered peaks and flower strewn alpine meadows means you never want to move away from this area. Delightful walks abound including up to glaciers and along ridges with fantastic views of the mountains and valleys.
In complete contrast, Batumi, Georgia’s Black Sea resort is brash and modern. Now Georgia’s main seaside area since the loss of Abkhazia to Russian backed independence, building developments are moving ahead fast. The promenade is a delight to wander along with all the typical seaside attractions. A 145m high tower with a revolving restaurant and bar is a must at one end. As dusk approaches and temperatures cool the nightlife of Batumi begins with every form of activity available throughout the night.
Georgia is well renowned for its high quality food and wine. Wine tasting is a must especially if from a local family producer still making and storing it in the traditional way.
One sad aspect of Georgia is the amount of redundant and decaying buildings. Empty Soviet style factory units are located in towns and countryside rotting away and stripped bare of any useful fittings.
Once beautiful houses are also in the same condition depicting the down turn in the Georgian economy since the days of the USSR. However signs are that investment is beginning to have a positive effect on the economy and tourism is certainly increasing dramatically year on year. My advice would be to visit soon before the word gets out that is a truly beautiful, diverse and historical country to visit.