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TravelBiz:Georgia on my mind

Indian Magazine writes about Georgia: TravelBiz Monitor is a fortnightly news magazine reporting on and for the Indian travel and tourism industry. This magazine has a holistic focus to streamline news and analysis relevant to this industry in a crisp format. The magazine combines a range of current news stories across each of the industry’s verticals, backed by analysis and perspective.

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The birthplace of wine, a nation with a rich heritage and culture, vibrant nightlife, exquisite cathedrals and monasteries, great mountain skies, and a fascinating landscape, define Georgia in a nutshell. Rashmi Pradhan unfolds the beauty of the mystique destination

Wow! You are going to Georgia, the United States of America! No…I am going to the country, Georgia. This was my conversation with my friends when I broke the news of my yet another international trip. I had heard about Georgia because my cousin is pursuing her medical studies from Tbilisi (capital city). The Indian student community is by far the largest international student traffic to Georgia. I thought it is just a hub for medical students from India, but I was proved wrong by this beautiful, virgin and picturesque country. It is a destination for FITs, honeymooners and MICE travellers. My visit to Georgia was one of the best trips of my life for many reasons. Will unfold that later!
So here I was, part of a Familiarisation (FAM) tour with the 14 leading Indian MICE tour operators during mid-March (that’s the end of winter in Georgia). The trip was organised by Sharjah-based Air Arabia in association with the Georgian National Tourism Administration (which partly funded the tour), Captain Plus (local DMC), and the Embassy of Georgia in New Delhi. The focus of the trip (first Indian FAM tour to Georgia) was to introduce and create awareness among the Indian travel trade about the bi-weekly flights (now four-times-a-week operating on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) started by Air Arabia from its hub Sharjah to Tbilisi last year. The airline has deployed its brand new narrow-body aircraft A320 on Sharjah-Tbilisi route with a seat capacity of 162 passengers. The flight took off from Mumbai at around 5 in the morning and arrived in Sharjah at 6.30 am (local time in Sharjah). Although Air Arabia is an LCC, the seats were quite spacious and comfortable. Our connecting flight to Tbilisi was at 1 pm and we had a good five hours to kill at the airport. But the wait didn’t seem too long as we were given royal treatment at the First Class lounge at the Sharjah International Airport. The well-appointed lounge had comfortable seating area, free Wi-Fi connection, designated smoking area, charging points and a variety of food and beverage items. After three hours and fifteen minutes of boarding the aircraft, we were in Tbilisi.

Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea in the west, Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, and Azerbaijan to the southeast. On arrival to Tbilisi, a pleasant post-winter evening welcomed us. We were housed at the city centre hotel, Holiday Inn, a 25-minute drive (depending on the traffic) from the airport. On our way to the hotel, I witnessed the Georgian architecture that has been influenced by many civilisations. There are several different architectural styles for castles, towers, fortifications and churches. Georgian ecclesiastic art is one of the most fascinating aspects of Georgian Christian architecture, which combines classical dome style with original basilica-style forming, now known as the Georgian cross-dome style. The official language is Georgian, one of the oldest languages in the world and the currency is Lari. In the first half of the fourth century Christianity was adopted as the state religion. Our bus passed by the River Mtkvari (also called Kura River). The 1,515-km-long river starts in northeastern Turkey, flows to Georgia, then to Azerbaijan, where it receives the Aras as a right tributary, and enters the Caspian Sea. Call it a nature’s game plan that most of the tourist destinations in Georgia have Kura River as the backdrop.

Our first dinner in Georgia gave a feel of the country’s gastronomic culture. Georgian cuisine and wine have evolved through the centuries, adapting traditions in each era. We were at ‘In the Shadow of Metekhi’, a museum- restaurant with its ethnographic interior and retro contents. The restaurant’s concept and décor is designed due to the scenography of the play, In the Shadow of Metekhi. The live performance by local artistes gave us a glimpse of fiery Georgian dances and songs. It was a chilly night, which I only realised after coming to the big balcony (of the restaurant) overlooking Mtkvari. We tasted the popular national dish ‘khachapuri’ (cheese-filled bread) and some amazing Georgian wines. Also known as Cradle of Wine, Georgia has one of the oldest wine-making traditions in the world and archaeological finding indicates wine production dating back to 6000 BC. We tasted the popular beverage, Chacha, which is not to be missed. It is fruit homebrew and is made of grape pomace (grape residual left after making wine). The term ‘Chacha’ in Georgia is used to refer to any type of moonshine made of fruits. After a sumptuous dinner we headed back to the hotel and I crashed on my bed to start a fresh and eventful day.

Sighnaghi Tour After a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tbilisi, we were at the country’s smallest town, Sighnaghi in Georgia’s easternmost region of Kakheti. Its environs are known for their landscapes and historical monuments. Sighnaghi has recently undergone a fundamental reconstruction programme and has become an important centre of Georgia’s tourist industry. Our first stop was the Bodbe Monastery of St. Nino, located two km from the town of Sighnaghi. Originally built in the 9th century, it has been significantly remodeled, especially in the 7th century. The monastery now functions as a nunnery and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia, due to its association with St. Nino, the fourth century female evangelist of Georgians, whose relics are enshrined there. The back side of the monastery provided a breathtaking view of the snow-clad mountains. The Sighnaghi town is still enclosed by a long defensive wall built by King Erekle II in the second half of the 18th century. Each of the wall’s 23 towers are named after a nearby village and served as a refuge for the whole community. The town offers splendid views of the Alazani Valley and the Daghestan high Caucasus. The walk through the path connecting one tower to another gives a feel of walking at a China wall.

Kraveli Tunnel
I was fortunate to get an opportunity to experience the 5,000-year-old Georgian wine. Kraveli wine tunnel was dug out of the flank of the Greater Caucasus Mountains near Kvareli in Kakheti. It has a natural temperature of 12-14 degree Celsius throughout the year, ideal for storing and ageing wine. The tunnel was originally built by the military towards the end of the 1950s. However, the rapid development of military technology rendered the tunnel’s defensive potential obsolete, and it lost its meaning. From that moment on, the tunnel was used to store Kakheti’s finest wines. The complex consists of two main tunnels linked by 13 smaller galleries, each 500-mtr-long. The total length of these tunnels is 7.7 km. Wines are stored and aged in large quantities in the tunnels. This is where the Winery Khareba stores around 25,000 bottles of its finest wines. We also had the opportunity of wine tasting at the cellar. Kraveli also houses a restaurant, ‘Saperavi’ situated on top of a 60-mtr-high hill next to the tunnel entrance. Lunch for the day was at the Royal Batoni. Opened in mid 2013, the hotel is located in Kvareli by Ilia’s lakeside, between the mountains of Kvareli and river Duruji. It is an hour and a half drive from Tbilisi. The hotel has a restaurant with an outdoor bar and an Ilia’s lake view terrace; conference hall; lake view hanging outdoor swimming pool; a wine cellar; sauna and a Cigar Room.

Jvari Monastery and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Save the best for the last and that’s exactly what happened on the last day of the tour. It was the most memorable and exciting day of the entire trip. Located 20 kms north of Tbilisi, it was time to explore the oldest city of Georgia, Mtskheta. Our first stop near Mtskheta was Jvari or Jvari Monastery (Holy Cross), a Georgian Orthodox monastery of the sixth century. The weather was quite breezy and cold at the time we reached the monastery that stands on the rocky mountain top at the confluence of two major rivers the Aragvi and the Mtkvari. Overlooking the village of Mtskheta, which was formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia, Jvari is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. According to traditional accounts, on this location in the early 4th century, Saint Nino, a female evangelist is credited with converting King Mirian II of Iberia to Christianity. However, the original church was too small to hold all the visitors and in between 586 and 605 AD, the larger Jvari cathedral was built over the wooden cross. The pedestal of the old cross has been preserved. While taking a walk at the area I realised that every corner around the Jvari offered a different view and angle of the masterpiece.

The next attraction, the city of Mtskheta (UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the second largest church building in Georgia, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It has been the burial site of Georgian kings and is built on the site where it is said that the shirt of Jesus was buried. In 326 AD, when Georgia announced Christianity as its official religion, the first Christian King Mirian was advised by St. Nino to build a church here, over the grave where Christ’s shirt was buried. A Lebanese cedar tree growing on the grave was cut down and used to make the seven pillars of the church. However, the seventh and biggest pillar had magical properties which meant it hung in the air unsupported, until St. Nino prayed it to return to earth. This pillar was said to have illuminated light and radiated a lovely fragrance and even a magical liquid which could cure many diseases. The pillar was called ‘Sveti Tskhoveli – a life-giving pillar’, which later became the name given to the cathedral.

Further up was the next and the most exciting part of the trip. We were on the way to Gudauri, a young and rapid developing winter sports resort located at Kazbegi region of Georgia. Located 120 km from Tbilisi, at the height of 2,196 m (about 7,200 feet) near the Cross Pass, Gudauri has 50 km of marked and prepared routes suitable for pro-riders and beginners to ski. The ski resort also has the facility of cable railway, which may be closed in rare occasions of very low visibility or high wind. It is equipped with standby power generator for blackout protection.

The skiing season in Georgia is between December and April. In May, skiing is possible on the five highest lift (levels) or even on the second lift in snow. However, Heli Ski that is available throughout the season is a unique challenge for everyone. On our way to Gudauri it started snowing. This was my first encounter with the snow. The temperature suddenly dropped to 2-3 degree Celcius. We stopped at a ski resort at Gudauri and started throwing huge snow balls at each other. It was freezing cold but the entire experience was for a lifetime. While climbing the ski area (although we didn’t ski but passed by some skiers), I slipped and had only snow to help me lift myself. I promised myself to return and ski on these mountains.

Passing through the snow-clad mountains on both the sides of the road we headed to Kazbegi, a small town in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region of north-eastern Georgia. We were lucky to get a view of Gergeti Glacier in Kazbegi. As the roads were blocked we missed the chance to visit the Gergeti Trinity Church. The church is situated on the right bank of the river Chkheri at an elevation of 2170 mtr under Mount Kazbegi. Carrying the beautiful memories of the day in my heart we headed back to the hotel at Tbilisi.

On the last day I decided to take the city tour myself. It needs to be mentioned here that Georgia is a safe destination and can be explored (at least the city side) alone. I took a taxi from the hotel to the freedom square, which was 10-15 minutes drive. The metros, taxi or city buses are the best way to commute within the city. From there passing the Rustaveli Avenue I went to the Bridge of Peace, a bowshaped pedestrian bridge over the Kura River. Opened in 2010 the bridge stretches 150 mtr over the Kura River, was ordered by the City Hall of Tbilisi to create a contemporary design feature connecting old Tbilisi with the new district. The bridge provides a unique view of Metekhi Church, Narikala Fortress and statue of city’s founder Vakhtang Gorgasali on one side, and Baratashvili Bridge and Presidential Office on the other. I stopped by a restaurant to experience another Georgian dish, khinkali (minced, spiced meat in a dumpling, served in enormous quantities). It was yummy and comes with fillings of mushroom and cheese. The city never sleeps and has a vibrant nightlife with casinos, bars and shisha (hookah) restaurant. That night finally I got a chance to meet my cousin and we went out to the Chardon Square, and had a relaxing time smoking shisha (the apple flavour).

Before we set to take off for India we had a taste of India at the Indian restaurant, Maharajah. The restaurant is run by Ali and his wife Natia Bibiluri for the past ten years. It is the oldest Indian restaurant in Georgia. Set at the backdrop of Indian ambience the restaurant with 50 covers serves authentic vegetarian and non-vegetarian Indian cuisines.

As all good things come to an end, so did my trip. This sojourn in Georgia was beyond my expectations and I took home some beautiful memories that will be cherished forever