Rugged, moss-caked stone towers built a millennium ago rise against a backdrop of mist-shrouded forests. A snow-capped peak, Mount Shkara, looms over all, the towers and the forest and this rough-hewn little town of ancient stone buildings, so far off the beaten path that the last 24 miles of the journey here takes three hours by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The rest of Georgia — the Eastern European country, not the state — likewise is so far off the beaten tourist path that something unexpected and fascinating seems to lie around every corner. Is it the place where wine was invented? So the locals say, citing archaeological evidence dating back 8,000 years. Most definitely it was the birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who left his countrymen with the dilemma of commemorating a native son who also was a tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions.
And Georgia offers visitors an authentic, unprettified blend of southern and eastern Europe, central Asia and the Middle East, exemplified by distinctive cuisine, good local wine made by a unique process, and the centuries-old mineral baths of the capital, Tbilisi.
A stop on the Silk Road linking East and West in the days of antiquity, Georgia has been invaded or ruled by the Persians, Ottomans, Turks, Mongols and most recently the Russians. Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century over mineral-rich natural hot springs that later became famous as bathhouses and were praised by notable clients such as Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and French writer Alexandre Dumas.
Bordered by the Black Sea, Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains, this small country of 4 million people is more popular with Russian and European tourists than with North Americans, who must make a flight connection in Europe to reach Georgia. It was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, which means amazing churches to explore, and Orthodox Christianity now is the state religion, practiced by 85 percent of the population.
Wine truly is a religious experience: Christianity was brought here in A.D. 337 by a 12-year-old nun carrying a cross made from branches of grape vines. Nearly every family home in the countryside — and even some in the cities — has a small vineyard for producing wine for family use. Forget about barrels: Georgian wine is produced in clay pots known as a qvevri (pronounced kwe-ver-ee) and buried underground.
Fermented along with the grape skins, the unfiltered organic wines have a high tannin content and a complexity that makes even the white wines stand up to richer foods.
The Kakheti region in eastern Georgia is the country's biggest wine-producing area. It also is home to the Alaverdi Monastery, founded in the 6th century and producing wine since the 11th century. Its wine labels and web address since1011.com proudly proclaim that it has been producing wine since 1011.
Another not-to-miss stop for wine lovers is 20 miles from Tbilisi: Iago's Wines, a family-owned vineyard of about 5 acres. Winemaker Iago Bitarishvili will show you around and explain the production process. Then you sit down to an elaborate Georgian feast, known as a supra, and taste the wine. He needs about two days' notice for a reservation (email firstname.lastname@example.org). The cost is about $18, depending on food selections. The family prepares everything from local sources, including freshly baked bread, fire-grilled pork kabobs and the heavenly Georgian cheese pies known as khachapuri.
About 200 miles northwest of Tbilisi is Svaneti, a magical region abutting the Caucasus Mountains and so remote that it is mostly immune to outside influences. It's been named a UNESCO world heritage site for its landscape and medieval architecture.
Mestia, the largest city in Svaneti, is the jumping-off spot for visiting remote villages and also a great base for skiing and other mountain pursuits. I traveled 24 miles via four-wheel-drive vehicles on our trip back in time to tiny Ushguli, first on a bit of asphalt and then on a rutted course studded with stone, more like a hiking path than a road.
We spent much of a day walking in Ushguli and enjoying local food. There are some overhead wires and a few satellite dishes, but the feeling of stepping back in time is overwhelming. The medieval stone buildings are connected by dirt paths pocked with dung from free-roaming cows, horses and pigs.
Notable spots back toward more urban Georgia are the baths of Tbilisi and the Josef Stalin Museum.
Tbilisi, whose location supposedly was decided in the 5th century when Georgian King Gorgasali came across its mineral-rich heated waters, now has a collection of baths, capped with curved brick tops. They have become a symbol of the old town and a popular gathering place for tourists as well as locals. Some of the baths have been around since the 12th or 13th century. The one I visited on our trip, Bath Bakhmaro, had walls dating to the 16th century.
Three female traveling companions and I decided to take the plunge, so to speak. We booked an hour in a deluxe room that had a cold as well as hot bath and scheduled scrubs. After much discussion, and a look at the facilities, most of us decided to follow local tradition and bathe in the nude with the rented linen wraps covering us in or out of the tubs as we saw fit.
After we eased into the hot bath, two female workers arrived for the body scrubs. To our surprise, they stripped off their clothes and walked into the bath area topless, wearing just bikini bottoms.
It became clear why they were topless when our scrubs began — two at a time — on marble beds adjacent to the bath. First, the marble slab was warmed with hot water. Once we were face down, more hot water was tossed over our backs and legs. This is no precision operation; buckets of water were drawn from the large bath, water was everywhere. Then, with a rough sudsy loofa, they scrubbed us front and back, leaving every inch feeling smooth and pristine. Finally we were seated at the side of the marble bed, and hot water was poured over our heads. Then a bucket from the cold bath, then hot, then cold. And it was done.
Each of us paid 30 lari for the experience, about $18. A Georgian speaker arranged the reservation — a good thing, as little English is spoken — but with a little bit of back and forth, you could get things worked out without a translator. (Our male friends had a similar experience with scrubbing done by a topless male attendant wearing a bathing suit. Nothing shocking there.)
About 50 miles west of the capital is Gori, Stalin's birthplace and home to the Stalin museum, one of the strangest such repositories you will ever visit. It's a time capsule from the Soviet era: Imposing gray stone exterior, massive marble staircase, dim hallways and funky bathrooms. Our guide, Olga Topkishvili, was straight out of Soviet central casting with her stern expression, dark suit and imperious pointer.
"Many mistakes were made," she said at one point before leading our group into a darkened exhibit room where one of Stalin's death masks is perched on a pedestal. In a small side room off to the side is an exhibit with some prison cells and clothing of Gori residents who were killed during the Soviet occupation. But the museum is primarily a memorial to Stalin.
In the gift shop you can buy plastic Stalin snow globes for 15 Georgian lari (about $8.50), lighters that look like grenades, black-and-white photos, coffee mugs and matches with Stalin's likeness on the box. Outside is the home where Stalin lived with his shoemaker father and mother, and the private railroad car he used for travel.
It's kitsch and history and reminder of unimaginable horrors, all rolled into one. You may leave shaking your head, but it's definitely worth a visit.
If you go
North Americans can fly into a number of European cities — Warsaw, Istanbul, Rome, Munich — and instead of wasting long layovers, spend several days in those capitals before flying on to Tbilisi. Depending on airline and passenger class, the extra fee could be minimal.
Tbilisi has all classes of hotels and guest houses. I stayed at the Holiday Inn (1,26 May Square, hi-tbilisi.com) and found it a cut above the U.S. brand. It's a comfortable, modern hotel in a good location with substantial breakfast included. Rates for weeknights in spring 2015 are about $180.
In Mestia, consider the Hotel Tetnuldi, a friendly lodge-style resort with amazing mountain views, a bar with fireplace and a kitchen that serves traditional mountain food. Year-round rates are about $110 for a double room with breakfast and dinner.
Pheasant's Tears winery, run by an American who has become immersed in all things Georgian, has restaurants in Tbilisi and Sighnaghi that offer up traditional Georgian feasts accompanied by wine, of course, and often by Georgian folk singers or dancers. (pheasantstears.com)
The Great Canadian Travel Co. (greatcanadiantravel.com), our tour operator, offers an eight-day, seven-night September food, wine and culture tour starting at $2,980 per person, airfare not included.