During the week between my last lecture and final exam, I went to Georgia and Armenia. I flew from Cluj to Istanbul to Tbilisi with an overnight layover on the return trip. I rented a studio near the city center, which proved more convenient than comfortable, but c’est le vie. This wasn’t one of my cheaper trips, simply because this region is so much less accessible, and the transportation there comes at a premium. (My roundtrip was almost $400, which is rather pricey given my other great deals with Turkish Airlines.) Oddly, Georgia and Armenia are in Asia, yet many sites count them as “European,” I guess because the people look more European than Asian and because both countries are Christian.
I arrived with no game plan and few expectations other than to explore as much as possible, as cheaply as possible. I ended up with two day trips: one into Armenia and the other to the center of Georgia. Both trips were provided by Envoy Tours. I usually don’t enjoy traveling with groups, be they big or small, but these two turned out great, all due to good guides and an eclectic and friendly blend of international travelers, who seemed to enjoy each other as much as the scenery.
Our trip to Armenia was primarily to visit the UNESCO monasteries in the northern mountains. I was joined by South African rugby coaches, who were in Tbilisi for the U20 (Under 20) Games. We bonded instantly and ended up spending parts of two subsequent days together. The long defunct monasteries were magnificent as was the scenery, but I found myself focusing as much on the poverty, pollution, and potholes. The highlight of the 10-hour day was having a (too) late lunch with a family in a tiny hillside village. The father grilled pork for us on his outdoor barbeque, while the mother stuffed us with salads, cheeses, and pickles.
Later in the week, I joined a larger group on a trip to the center of Georgia with stops in Mtskheta, the first country’s first capital and home to its most sacred church, and then to Gori, the hometown of Stalin which still houses his museum. We had another tasty late lunch, this time at the home of our van driver, who insisted that we make toasts of homemade wine throughout the meal. (And we did, happily.) At our table were gathered 15 people representing 10 different countries, so we had plenty to share and celebrate. Most remarkable in our group was one young woman, who, though only 28 years old, now was visiting her 70th country. After lunch, we visited the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe, where I re-twisted my damaged knee. Egads.
Other than those two days, my time was spent in Tbilisi itself. What a wonderful city! So much history and amazing architecture and really delicious (and spicey!) food and wine. And low prices…yet, so few tourists, which really puzzled me. In some ways, I’m glad it hasn’t been “discovered” by Americans, lest it turn into another Prague, but it deserves more attention, and I heartily recommend it.