While taking a cab from Tbilisi International Airport recently, I saw that the main road into the Georgian capital was called George W. Bush Avenue. If that wasn’t tribute enough to the former US president, the road signs were adorned with actual pictures of him, albeit now faded.
When Bush visited the former Soviet republic (Stalin’s birthplace) in 2005, its then-president Mikheil Saakashvili revealed that US officials had told him it “was the best reception the American president has ever had”.
This was especially interesting, for me, in my first visit to Georgia: how pro-Western the place is.
In Tbilisi’s pubs and restaurants, many of which could be in Paris or New York City, live bands play Dylan and Oasis classics and stylish shops and boutiques sell Italian and German brands. As I was having a beer at a street café one evening, two black-clad young “Goths,” safety pins securely fastened in noses and ears, strolled self-consciously past. The next day I visited the Museum of Soviet Occupation, a monument to Georgians murdered and imprisoned during seven decades of Soviet rule. Today the country’s major parties are pledged to bring it into the EU and NATO.
It all means visitors from the West are warmly welcomed, mostly in halting English, as I discovered during a week-long stay that included several days in Tbilisi – some of whose buildings and orthodox churches date back to the fifth century – a road trip to the mountain town of Kazbegi just south of the Russian border, and a few days at a German-owned wine chateau in the Caucasus Mountains.
Physically diverse and in places wonderfully beautiful, the nation the size of Ireland is a feast for the senses for sightseers, gourmands and wine buffs. Driving from Tbilisi, we crossed grassy plains shimmering in summer heat, passed steep-sided canyons and glacier-fed rivers, one unfortunately named “Turdo”, marvelled at the cathedral-like peacefulness of beech forests and traversed upland meadows carpeted in flowers and framed by snow-covered peaks.
More MICE visits
Not surprisingly, Georgia is gaining traction as a new and exciting MICE destination, as a big international wine tourism conference, held at the five-star Marriott in Tbilisi in March 2014, attests. Simplified visa procedures and a visa-free regime for around 100 nationalities, including Australians, are aimed at encouraging it. Tbilisi airport is surprisingly well served, offering nonstop flights to 33 cities a week.
Travellers with American and Australian dollars benefit from the exchange rate against the local currency, the lari. On the day I arrived, I had lunch at the big and pleasant “Begeli” restaurant on the city’s outskirts: rich lamb stew; cheese, mushroom and mince-filled khinkali dumplings (sensational); spicy Georgian sausage, delivered on a sizzling plate; tarragon-flavoured mushroom broth; freshly baked crusty bread; tomato and cucumber salad with walnut dressing; and beers all round. The bill for four people: AUD39.
Later in the trip I relished the full gamut of Georgian fare, which is wonderful – and robust. If you’re seeking nouvelle cuisine, forget it. A specialty here is khachapuri (pictured), a pizza-like pie filled with fresh suluguni (pickled) cheese, one version of which is topped with runny egg. The khinkali are fist-sized balls of dough stuffed with cheesy sauce or spicy mince and closed by a pastry nexus at one end. (Eating these knots is apparently a no-no, though we did once or twice.) But my favourite was sacivi, consisting of a whole fried chicken served in a clay dish and smothered with a salty walnut, garlic, cream and mayonnaise sauce. The calorie count probably topped a billion, but it tasted too good to matter.
Of the hotels at which we stayed, the most outstanding meetings site was in the remote mountain town of Kazbegi: a three-storey timber resort set against the 5,000-foot high dormant volcano, Mount Kazbek. The peak is usually shrouded in cloud, but every now and then it shyly revealed its spectacular snowy head.
Georgian investors who built this hotel a couple of years ago might have taken more trouble in developing a snappier name: “Rooms Hotel”. But it’s an excellent property with great service. It has a well-equipped conference room, banquet facilities, wifi, international TV channels, a vast library sprinkled with comfy lounge chairs and a good, reasonably priced a-la-carte menu.
The rooms are elegantly simple with bare wooden floors and plush beds. There’s a huge indoor pool and spa, even a small casino. Business groups can organise hikes or mountain climbs of varying degrees of difficulty, hire quad or trail bikes or organise horse-riding treks into the surrounding wilderness.
Indeed the location is a boon for lovers of the outdoors. When I visited in June, the alpine meadows surrounding the town were dense with grass and flowers; indeed many of the perennials that bloom in the gardens of English country houses apparently have their origins here, taken home by Victorian botanists. In the winter the region provides spectacular skiing for those preferring to avoid the crowded slopes of Western Europe.
From USD80 per night
Standard room prices at “Rooms Hotel” from Monday to Friday start from $80, increasing to $100 at weekends. The town of Kazbegi, also known as Stepantsminda, is a two-hour drive from Tbilisi.
The Siteseer was a paying guest at Rooms Hotel.