Six months ago, I received some exciting news: Georgian Airlines were running direct flights to Tbilisi from Gatwick. So exciting.
Georgia had been nearing the top of my list of places to go for the last few years. Having been to Russia and the Baltic States, I wanted to explore more of Eastern Europe. More specifically, the undiscovered parts of Eastern Europe.
East of the Ukraine, well and truly in the heart of Eurasia lies Georgia. Not a particularly popular place to visit amongst the Brits. The other deciding factor? Well, they’ve had some good Eurovision entrants (2015 was a highlight for me), so really, what other excuse did I need?
In October 2017, I finally got to visit my beloved Tbilisi. We flew overnight, leaving us with three full days in Georgia. From there, we flew overnight to Baku, the capital of the Azerbaijan (because why not?!), and spent a day and a half there, before heading back to London (wah).
The epic journey of travelling down to Gatwick consisted of a bus, a tram and two trains. Our flight only had 28 people on it, which was pretty hilarious, but also very handy as it meant we could spread out on the seats and get some rest. And my unicorn eye mask got some much-needed airtime.
We landed in Tbilisi on Tuesday morning at 6.30am. Sadly, my new cream case was no longer cream (there were a lot of marks on it… still, I had to debut it at some point).
Our first few hours in Tbilisi were not the best, if I’m being honest. We’d arranged airport pick up with our hotel, but of course, they weren’t there. Instead, we got a taxi. Then, when we gave the driver the name of our hotel (All Seasons Hotel on Freedom Square), he looked very confused. Strange, considering Freedom Square is essentially the centre of Tbilisi.
Driving round Freedom Square, down backstreets and asking other hotels, we couldn’t find where we were supposed to be staying. We called the hotel, who refused to give us directions, and barked at us that we had to check in later.
Tired, we wandered round the streets, waiting for the cafes to open so we could get a drink. Once we were filled with caffeine, we went back up to Freedom Square to find the mystery that was our hotel.
Tracing the same backstreets, we had no luck, and sought refuge in The Marriott, who called our hotel again and arranged for someone to meet us.
At least the hotel was legit, it was just on a backstreet behind a backstreet, in a residential apartment block with no signs. Seriously, who was going to find that?!
Anyways, finding our hotel was one thing, but communicating that we wanted to leave our bags there was another, and forget about arranging a time to check in! The fact that we were all tired made it so much worse.
Once we’d sorted out the bag situation, we ventured up Rustaveli Avenue, in a dazed-like state. It wasn’t like I was actually taking much in, I was just so tired.
We had to be back at Freedom Square for 12pm, as we’d booked onto a free walking tour. Meeting outside the Burberry store, the tour lasted three hours as we navigated our way around Tbilisi Old Town, visiting several churches. We crossed over the Bridge of Peace, and looked up towards the futuristic glass house where the only penguins in Georgia reside (fun fact for you). We then climbed up the steep hill to the Narikala Fortress, before winding our way down to the spas. A lot of ground was covered.
After all that walking, there was no better way to reward ourselves than with some Khachapuri. I’d first come across this carb-ridden goodness in Vilnius, when I snaffled on Khachapuri the morning after my absinthe and moonshine fuelled night. In fact, you can check out the bars I visited here.
But I digress. There are several types of Khachapuri, but the one I had was topped with plenty of cheese, a generous slab of butter and a fried egg. Delicious.
As we were all delirious from lack of sleep, we headed back to the apartment so we could nap. I felt ever so slightly more human when we went out for dinner, but only slightly so.
We headed into the Old Town for dinner, and ended up on Kote Afkhaze, which looked like it had a lot of cute little restaurants. We settled on Stelzenhaus which, perhaps surprisingly given its name, served many traditional Georgian dishes.
I had Soko Ketsze for starters, which was mushrooms in melted cheese, followed by a chicken Lula Kebab, marinated in pomegranates. The food was nice, as was the rather strong Cosmopolitan I ordered.
It was a good way to end the first day in Georgia… or so I thought. When I got back to the apartment and stepped into the shower to wash my hair, I realised there was a bit of an issue. No water. Turns out it’s totally normal for Tbilisi to not have running water for hours at a time. Great.
Visiting Stalin’s Home Town
Luckily for my hair, the water was back on when I woke up at the horrible hour of 7am (or 4am, if we’re talking UK time). Changing into my black trousers and Cheap Monday vest, I resembled a human being for the first time in 24 hours.
The one thing I wanted to do most in Georgia, was to visit Stalin’s hometown of Gori. I’m way interested in Stalin, and some people probably think it’s weird, but I don’t even care. Everyone’s a geek about something. I basically studied him for my A Levels, and read a couple of books on him. Then, when I was in Lithuania, I visited Grutas Park and got to selfie with him lots of times. So the natural progression was to visit Gori – after all, it was on my bucket list.
Rather than dealing with the hassle of navigating our way around public transport, we booked our trip through a tour agency.
We left Tbilisi at 9am, and drove up into the Caucasus mountains to the Jvari Monastery. It was very windy and my hair was going crazy, but it was worth it for the views. We saw where the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers met, and to be honest, I was sort of considering swimming it to Russia.
After that, we visited the ancient capital of Mtskheta. The highlight for me was not the monastery, but the sweet little cat that I got to stroke on the way back to the bus.
If I’m being honest, I saw a few too many monasteries and churches for my liking that day. Like most people, I can appreciate one or two, but if I’m being taken to five or six, then they all blend into one.
Finally, our tour of the country’s many churches and monasteries came to an end, as we arrived at the one place I’d wanted to visit for ages… GORI!
I was expecting this bleak, grey village, with nothing but Stalin statues (oh heyyyyy, Stalin). But I was impressed, because actually, Gori looked pretty nice!
We headed with purpose to the Stalin Museum, which was situated in a really nice building. Entry only cost 15 GEL (about £5), and I spotted my first Stalin to pose with: the statue at the top of the stairs.
An English-speaking guide led us round, but with so much stuff to see, it seemed that we were being rushed along. We didn’t have a chance to stop and take many pictures. However, at the same time, you needed a guide, as there wasn’t any written information displayed in the museum. One particularly creepy part of the museum was seeing his death mask.
Outside the museum, we climbed up into the bulletproof train carriage Stalin travelled in. It’s so cool to think that potentially, I stood in the same spot Stalin had stood all those years ago.
My favourite part was seeing the house he was born in, and lived for four years, it’s been preserved and stands in front of the Stalin Museum.
I really enjoyed visiting Gori, and thought the park by the museum was pretty too. We grabbed lunch in Gori (more Khachapuri for me!), although it would have been nice to have spent some time walking round. However, we had to be back on the bus, so we could go to Uplistsikhe.
Uplistsikhe is an ancient cave city, thought to be habited around 6 BC. Basically, a long time ago. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be, but I wasn’t expecting to be scaling rocks during my time in Georgia. Plus that wind was strong… if it had been any stronger, it would have blown me over the top and I’d have met a very unfortunate death. Not the best way to go. Still, I had a nice milkshake when I got to the bottom.
We arrived back in Tbilisi at 5.30pm, which was earlier than we thought. To celebrate, we walked back up Rustaveli Avenue to a shop I’d heard about earlier on that week, Chaos Concept Store. Having heard about famous Georgian designers like George Keburia, I wanted to pick up some clothes that I couldn’t find in the UK. Unfortunately, most of the stuff at Chaos seemed to be stocked in Urban Outfitters too (nothing against UO, I love it, but I wanted something more unique), so I left empty handed. Bad for me, good for my bank balance.
That evening, we wrapped up warm and crossed over the Bridge of Peace once again, to the cable car station. Travelling up the hill, we walked up to Mother Georgia and saw Tbilisi by night. It was so pretty – everywhere looks more beautiful when it’s lit up at night.
We had dinner in the Old Town where we sampled another Georgian classic, Khinkali. It was sort of a Georgian twist on the Polish Pierogi, and pretty tasty. Another good day in Georgia.
We had a full day left in Tbilisi until we needed to be at the airport. It was so sunny, so I actually got to wear a skirt. We caught the funicular railway up to Mtatsminda Park, a sort of theme park in the hills.
It was pretty quiet, but I think that’s because most of the kids were at school. We avoided the roller coaster (I mean, I’m sure it’s safe, but still!). We did however, decide to go on the Ferris Wheel, although it was giving me serious Chernobyl vibes.
I suppose in the grand scheme of things, the roller coaster may have been safer. There was a lot of squeaking going on, and it sounded like the screws could give way at any point, but the views were cool, and I’m still alive so…
Lunch was spent at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, where I indulged in a chai latte and huge slice of chocolate cake. Not Georgian, but still delicious.
We basically retraced the steps we took on the walking tour on the first day, so we could truly see all that Tbilisi had to offer. It was strange because you’d walk round the backstreets, and the buildings would be totally dilapidated and propped up with wooden beams. If they had the money, the buildings would be beautiful.
We spent some more time by the spas, then stopped off for some Trdelnik (because nothing says Georgia like Czech cuisine!), and then had a drink (mmm… liquid chocolate).
We collected our cases before dinner, because considering the communication we’d had when we first arrived at the hotel, we didn’t want the receptionist leaving and not being able to get our cases back. Dragging cases over narrow cobblestone streets is NOT easy, by the way. We headed back to Kote Afkhaze and chose a restaurant, before getting a taxi to the airport, ready for our flight to Baku.
Tbilisi… You Surprised Me
Georgia surprised me. I’d heard lots of bloggers say how nice it was, and I expected to like it, but I liked it even more than I thought I would. Having been to the likes of Belgrade, which wasn’t geared towards foreign tourists at all, and was difficult getting round, I thought Tbilisi would be the same.
This really wasn’t the case. Even though we heard no other English people, there were signs in English, and tours taking place, so you could easily see what the country had to offer.
Despite being so east in Euroasia, you still felt like you were in Eastern Europe, and I was so glad I went. I think next time, I’d like to go to Batumi and see the coast… and I’ll probably drop in and say hey to Stalin again on the way.