Guest Post Alert
Our second guest post is out and its our favorite guest blogger once again – Antarlina. She lives in Dubai and thrives as a banker over the work week and an avid traveler during the weekend. She is also a foodie and loves to cook up a storm in her kitchen. Her trip to the wonderful country of Georgia and its surroundings in June 2018 was truly a memorable one.
As narrated by this lovely traveler, in her own words. Read on.
My trip to Georgia was a little too short noticed (so much so that all flight tickets, bookings and travel insurances were done two nights before the date of travel). I couldn’t have taken more than a day’s leave so three days including travel was what I had to make the most of.
We reached Tbilisi at about 6 in the morning. Tbilisi airport is quite compact and well managed. Since Indian passport holders have a VOA, they might ask you your purpose of the trip and hotel bookings at the immigration counter. Once cleared, we headed to get our rented car.
Dubai airports give a very poor exchange rate for GEL (Georgian Lari). There was a currency exchange counter at the TBS airport which seemed to be giving a good sell rate of 2.44 GEL per 1 USD. Please make sure to carry Euros or USDs as they can be exchanged easily in the city as well and some hotels and restaurants even accept USD/ EUR for their payments. Please discuss with your hotel or Airbnb if they are willing to accept USD payments (without any commission). As for restaurants, they might charge a commission.
We had rented a car with a local company which gave us the car from right at the airport parking. We were told that the car shouldn’t be driven in Stepantsminda region in the event of which we shall lose our deposit. Tip:
Take full coverage, remember you are driving in a mountainous region and the roads and weather conditions can be a little unpredictable.
Study the restricted area map carefully. Some travel companies may allow you to drive to Stepantsminda but definitely not up the Trinity hill (the car insurance doesn’t cover that area) while some companies may totally restrict that region altogether.
Try to book your car with a global rent a car company as the rules & regulations are much clearer and you don’t have to haggle with the car inspection agent while returning your car as they might try to charge you for scratches or dents you never made.
Day One: The capital on foot
We had booked our hotel on the Rustaveli Avenue and had to spend an unfortunate hour sitting outside the hotel as the receptionist slept off unaware of his incessantly ringing desk phone. (The proceedings of the eventful hour call for another account). Finally, we checked in by 07:30 am and went straight to the breakfast table. We took a quick nap post that and were up for our first day out by 11 am.
We walked down the Rustaveli street (which is bordered by Freedom square on one side and Statue of Shota Rustaveli on another) passing numerous apparel stores, apothecaries and exchange counters. These are small box windows unlike a big currency exchange outlet as we see in the UAE. Rates for buy and sell are displayed outside on an LED display and you can choose to exchange it there if you like the rate. Walking down the street we passed by the National Museum of Georgia on the left and the Parliament of Georgia on the right. The street took us to the 200 year old Freedom square which celebrates Georgian independence from the Russian empire and is also the site of the infamous bank robbery worth 4 Mn USD, a failed attempt of assassination of erstwhile US President George W. Bush and various mass celebrations and demonstrations through history. Note that it is a huge roundabout and can get very busy so be careful while crossing it; make sure that the cars see you; better still try to cross the street with a group of pedestrians.
We went left from the roundabout onto Kote Afkhazi St. The street had quite a few eateries and was well shaded by the tree foliage thus saving us from the sun. We reached the Bridge of Peace in another 10 minutes. We left the Bridge to our left and headed to the Sioni cathedral. The place had a few restaurants and we decided to grab our lunch. We tried the famous Georgian Kachapuri. Do not take it to be a pizza. It fills you up really well as it is bread stuffed with cheese. Post this we walked ahead to Abanotubani – the sulfur baths. Some of us stayed back to take a bath, which were very decently priced. Besides the natural phenomenon, that’s a great place to buy souvenirs. We kept walking by the domes and got to Tbilisi waterfall. On our way back we got ourselves three show pieces of the Tbilisi city (moderately sized) and a couple of key chains at 90 Lari. We then crossed the Mtkvari River (the arterial river of Tbilisi) and proceeded towards the Metekhi church which is a bit of a hike up the road by the Europe Square. There’s a statue of King Vakhtang overlooking the city street, by which you get a beautiful view of the city’s bustling street, the river, the Bridge of Peace and the hills that surround the city. The street has a lovely mix of restaurants serving the traditional Georgian dishes and Chacha, the Georgian vodka. A nice garden is developed around the church overlooking the Europe square where you can sit and relax after all the day’s walk. We sat down at a restaurant by the Square for a quick drink and took the cable car up the hill to Narikala fortress. The place offers a magnificent view of the city, including the Presidential Palace – a structure you cannot miss. There’s a zip line looking down the green cover of the hills. We rode back in the cable car and made our way to the Iconic Holy Trinity Church of Tbilisi, the most notable landmark in Tbilisi you shall find on Georgian souvenirs. By this time I was completely out of fuel and I somehow managed to climb up the steep stairs to get to the road to hail a taxi. You shall see very modest looking cars plying as taxis as anyone with a driving license can become a taxi driver and they are not regulated. Make sure to negotiate the price before you start your trip as they can fleece you if they figure that you are a tourist. When we asked the fare to the church he said it was 5 GEL but while getting down he told us that the fare was 5 GEL per person.
It was almost 5 pm in the evening and our timing couldn’t have been better with the setting sun brightening up the church with magnificent golden tinge. Having walked about the perimeter and visited the church from the inside, we spotted a café inside the complex near the entrance which I absolutely recommend. The coffee was amazing!! (Just what I needed at that time).
We had spotted the Avlabari metro station on the way to the church and decided to take the metro to Rustaveli. The walk to the metro was about 10 minutes and not tiring since we were treading downhill. The metro ticket was very cheap (just 1 Lari) for two persons. And multiple persons could swipe the same token. The Tbilisi metro is similar to the metro stations which were bunkers during soviet times; with the escalators taking you down into a deep pit. So avoid looking down if heights make you dizzy.
We got down at the Rustaveli metro station and were greeted by the eloquent statue of the Great Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli. As we walked down the Street (this time the other end of it) we saw lots of vendors selling Georgian books, paintings, wooden souvenirs etc. on the sidewalk. The street was lined with a lots and lots of beer cafes; with the street coming alive as dusk approached and people heading out to have an evening. You cannot but notice a number of bronze statuettes of old Georgian characters for much of the length of the street.
Day 2: To Kazbegi: the Caucasian mountains
We started a little into the day for our drive up to Kazbegi. Our first stop was Jvari Monastery from where we could see a confluence of the two rivers – Mtsketa and Mtkvari. The place is a must visit for the amazing view of the old capital of Georgia. We then drove to the Svetitskhoveli cathedral. The approach to the cathedral is lined with lots of restaurants and local vendors selling souvenirs, ice creams, spices and pickles. We had a traditional Georgian lunch: Georgian bread, Shkmeruli – chicken cooked in milk and garlic, and Spinach Pkhali and absolutely loved it.
Post the visit to the cathedral we drove towards the Kazbegi Mountains which essentially demarcate the border between Georgia and Russia. We reached the Ananuri fortress which overlooks the Zhinvali Reservoir. The fortress was unfortunately closed that day but we took the opportunity to take in the picturesque view of the mountains and the Aragvi River running by it.
We reached Kazbegi at around 10pm and as expected the town was asleep by then. All groceries had closed and we were lucky to find an open restaurant from where we took a pizza and sautéed vegetables to go.
Day 3: The way back
We planned on visiting the Gergeti Trinity Church early in the morning only to learn that the jeeps that drive you up the hill to the Church start plying only at 8 am in the morning. We started for Tbilisi around 9 am and couldn’t but gasp at the breathtaking views of the snow-capped mountains against the green foothills. The glistening snow ,the white clouds floating away with the wind, the green pastures and the abrasions caused by the melting snow leaving brown patches on the mountains made for an excellent drive through the military highway.
We stopped on the way to observe the Soviet-Georgian Friendship Memorial which had traditional Georgian murals painted on the inner walls. A little ahead we stopped to taste the cold natural mineral water running down the rocks into a nice little spring for people to fill their bottles. We drove straight to Tbilisi and stopped at East Point Mall where we picked up some burgers as we were getting late for our flight back to Dubai.
Georgians are a happy bunch -people leaving for work early in the day and spending their time with family and friends during the evening. The women of the land can be seen taking part in most occupations than being confined to domestic chores. The land is blessed with beautiful rivers and mighty mountains that make for a treat to the travellers eye, a sight which I hold dear. My journey to the Caucasian land is incomplete. I left the Caucasian valley with a promise in my heart to come back and pay my respects to the other marvels that the country guards within its boundaries.