Looking for a relatively inexpensive vacation abroad with soaring mountain vistas, local wines, urban gems and cheap local eats? Head to Georgia (the country, not the US state).
Located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, and bordered by the Black Sea, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia has attracted Israelis for years.
Ever since its secession from the Soviet Union in 1991 and its slow trudge toward capitalism after 2008 (following another tussle with Russia in between), backpacking Israelis — including some 120,000 in 2017 — have been trekking Georgia’s mountains and exploring its cities, drawn by the country’s relatively untouched feel.
It’s an easy hop from Israel with about 100 flights a month heading to Georgia. An Air Georgia ticket into the capital, Tbilisi, costs about $200 and takes two hours and 20 minutes.
Hotels and simple guesthouses are generally plentiful, but we opted for a cushier stay at the Rooms Hotels, a Georgia-owned boutique hotel group, where the design vibe is decidedly hip but the warmth and hospitality is all Georgian.
That decision directed our four-day itinerary, which we divided between Tbilisi and the mountain village of Kazbegi. (There are other destinations to consider as well. Batumi, a Black Sea resort city, is a fun stop in the warmer months, and there’s Khaketi, the wine region, where Georgian wines are skin-fermented and stored underground in clay jars called qveri.)
What we learned, however, as we set off with a private driver in a small but comfortable SUV, was that it’s not ideal to take a three-hour drive on the Georgian Military Highway right after a plane ride. This ancient passage veers across the Caucasus all the way into Russia and offers the quickest access from Tbilisi to Kazbegi. Still, it’s little more than a basic two-lane highway that was first engineered in the 19th century and doesn’t feel much altered. It’s pitted with potholes and often sees tractor-trailers vie for room on the road.
It does offer some beautiful scenery, however, as it passes the turquoise waters of the Zhinvali Reservoir, a succession of churning rivers, and the slopes of the Gudauri ski resort. It isn’t unusual, either, to stop the car for a brown cow ambling lazily across the road or a flock of sheep making their way to the greener grass on the other side of the road.
Such are the mixed charms of Georgia, where the scenery is spectacular and the facilities are a blend of pre-Soviet rubble and 2017 comfort.
Kazbegi is a village of a few hundred people, many of whom leave their homes during the long, nine-month winter and relocate to elsewhere in Georgia.
There isn’t much to see in this village of simple farmhouses and one main street scattered with some cafes and a few B&Bs. You’ll get a full tour of the village when you walk to Mount Kazbegi, also called Stepantsminda, where the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church and bell tower stand at an elevation of 2,170 meters overlooking the village.
It’s about a two-and-a-half hour trek up the mountain, or a 15-minute drive that’s rough even in a Hummer. On the way up, you pass through Gergeti, an even smaller village where roosters strut around small yards and residents rest against ramshackle front gates, looking quietly at the tourists who pass through.
Just above Mount Kazbegi is snow-topped Mount Kazbek, the third-highest peak in Georgia, which features a glacier and constitutes the main challenge for many of the climbers who arrive in the region.
But most tourists and locals make the pilgrimage to Mount Kazbegi and the church before taking the long walk down the mountain, along a mostly-unmarked path that travels alongside the Chkeri River rushing by below.
That kind of DIY hiking is pretty typical of Georgian treks, said Giorgi Kopadze, 22, a Boy Scout, Kazbegi guide and trained architect.
“Our trails aren’t perfect, just like the roads,” he said. That’s partially due to the many feet of snow that fall each winter, wrecking the roads, sidewalks and trails. “There’s just too much snow,” said Kopadze.
In fact, Israelis have learned the hard way that a trip to Georgia can be dangerous.
Within the past year or so, two Israeli tourists died in Georgia while hiking and horseback riding, respectively; an Israeli businessmen was murdered in his apartment in Tbilisi; and two Israeli children on vacation were killed in a car crash that also injured their parents and two other siblings.
And while the Georgian government wants to do business with Israel, young Georgians are also reportedly attempting to move to Israel and declare refugee status because of the country’s difficult political situation. Meanwhile, large sums of money earned by Israelis in the fraudulent binary options industry are reportedly wired to banks in Georgia.
For tourists, there is still a sense of discovering a road less traveled, literally, when making one’s way in this post-Soviet land. It’s a practical destination for Israelis seeking an inexpensive getaway, particularly after the souring of relations with Turkey. The spike in Israeli tourism helped prompt the opening of kosher restaurants and hostels in Tbilisi and more traffic in the city’s two synagogues.
Back at Rooms Kazbegi, renovated from a former Soviet alpine-style lodge, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Switzerland when reclining on a deck couch, cozy in a fleece blanket and drinking a local wine with the sounds of cows lowing down below, or having a sumptuous breakfast at one of the long outdoor wooden tables.
It’s relatively inexpensive to stay in Kazegi, even at the Rooms hotel, which costs $115 a night for a lodge-style room with wide, wooden plank floors (even in the bathroom), a king-sized bed and balconies facing the stupendous Mount Kazbegi. In comparison, local B&Bs can cost $25 or $50 a night.
May through November is the high season in Georgia, said assistant manager Rusudan Varshalomidze at Rooms Kazbegi. Still, skiers do flock to the region in the winter, some opting for heliski tours in which they helicopter over to the nearby Dandouri slopes for off-piste adventures and back to Rooms for apres-ski in the hotel’s heated indoor pool or massages.
Along with British, Japanese and occasional American tourists, it’s slightly confounding to find so many Russians visiting Georgia, given the countries’ complicated histories.
“Russians always loved Georgia, and people who travel are more open-minded,” said Varshalomidze. “We accept them, because it’s the way it’s always been.”
Georgians born and raised during Soviet rule are “lazy,” we were told by another Giorgi, who drove us from Kazbegi back to the capital. “It’s young Georgians who are trying to make something of themselves now that we’re post Soviet rule.”
The average monthly salary in Georgia is $410.
In Tbilisi, we found that the Rooms Hotel (where rates begin at around $214 a room) is located in a renovated former publishing house, in the rundown but architecturally interesting Vera neighborhood, which is chock full of historic houses and a slowly growing café scene.
Georgia, of course, has its own cuisine. One of the country’s national dishes is the Georgian salad, which is assembled with quarters of ripe tomatoes, sliced onion, cucumber and green pepper, scattered with walnuts, and sprinkled with pepper and olive oil.
There’s also plenty of shotis puri, a kind of flatbread, along with khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread). It’s also important to try khinkali, Georgian dumplings that are plump pouches of dough filled with minced meat, chopped onion and spices. The proper way to eat these is to bite into them and sip out the innards.
If you want more Georgian delicacies, head out to explore the city. There’s the Old Town just by Freedom Square, full of tourist traps as well as the main synagogue, the Chabad house (make sure to reserve ahead for Shabbat meals featuring local eats) and two (yes, two!) kosher restaurants, of which Kosher Restaurant David, located next to the Tbilisi Great Synagogue, is the better bet.
The other side of town offers more of real Tbilisi, particularly when you veer off of Rustaveli Boulevard, which is lined with the major museums and historic structures like the opera house and Biltmore Hotel, and head to the side streets.
Cross Dry Bridge to a flea market near Dedaena Park to see what the locals are selling, which ranges from antiques and tarnished military medals to stupendous record collections, handmade rugs and plumbing fixtures.
A few blocks over is Fabrika, a sewing factory-turned-hostel. It’s a great option for tourists, with spotlessly clean rooms and bunk beds with thick mattresses for single and group travelers. The real bargain, however, are the apartment suites, lovely four-person accommodations with a sleeping loft with two twin beds, a small kitchenette and a spacious balcony at $100 a night.
What’s special about Fabrika is its outdoor commercial space, which includes a cafe, ramen shop and several artists’ studios where you can find swings made out of pressed wood and contemporary textiles alongside album collections and local books. Parties in the public areas can be noisy at night – the downstairs lobby features a restaurant and plenty of cushy couches and hammocks – but it’s got a great communal feel.
Both Rooms Tbilisi and Fabrika have guides to show visitors the other sides of Tbilisi, or make your own way to Narikala Fortress overlooking the city, go up Mount Mtatsminda to the funicular, or walk the twisting streets through Old Town to the ramparts of the medieval fort (finding some interesting art galleries, textile shops and wine stores along the way).
That kind of walk offers a true view of the city, which is vibrant and busy, as Georgians are out on the streets at all hours. Stop in at one of the local wine shops for a sip of a local vintage or some chacha, a fruit-based brandy that bears a strong resemblance to grappa.
If you’re a teetotaler, try Georgian soda, which is very similar to Israel’s gazoz, bubbly water mixed with with flavored syrup. The main difference is that Georgian seltzer is really mineral water, with a strong, salty flavor that’s evident even when it’s mixed with lemon, grape, cherry or chocolate syrup.
That shot of chacha will ease the uneven drive back to the airport, hopefully helping you to ignore the bumpy takeoff and focus instead on what you loved about Georgia, and the land it’s trying to become.