Four Fun (and One Less Fun) Experiences in Georgia
From therapeutic Sulphur baths to feasting on a wide selection of flavoursome foods, Georgia proved to be everything you would expect from a country with such a rich heritage. Read more as we list the four fun (and the one less fun) things to do in Georgia, Europe.
Fun things to do in Georgia, Europe
1. Bathing in the Sulphur Baths in Tbilisi
The putrid smell of sulphur became stronger as we approached Abanotubani. We had been told that visiting the traditional bathhouses is a compulsory activity in Tbilisi and after a full day exploring the city, treating ourselves to a scrub and a massage in what I assumed was a spa sounded like a good plan.
Abanotubani, located at the bank of the Mtkvari river, is a strange-looking area full of little domes beneath which the subterranean baths are located.
We could choose to go to a public bath or rent out a private room. Since we were a group of four looking for a relaxing experience we headed over to the Royal Baths which caters only to private groups. The smaller rooms had been pre-booked and our only option was to take their largest room priced at 120 lari (this is normally rented out to groups of 10 – 15 people). All four of us booked an additional scrub and a massage at 20 lari each (10 lari per treatment). Our private area consisted of four rooms: a dressing/sitting room, the main room with a large bath, massage area and cold showers, a smaller room containing a smaller bath and a tiny room with a loo.
The stench of sulphur was overwhelming at first but became less bothersome after a few minutes, however getting into the main bath took some guts. The water is really really really hot. I couldn’t believe that it had been set at a humanly bearable temperature, but slowly slowly I started inching further and further into it until I was fully immersed… and still alive. The water had a very silky feel to it and my skin felt as smooth as a baby’s whilst the cold showers I was taking every few minutes ensured that I didn’t succumb to heat stroke.
After a while we heard a knock and, to the amusement of us ladies, we found a bare-chested, good-looking guy at the door. We understood that he had come to scrub and massage the men and I was secretly hoping that he would be responsible for my treatments too, but no such luck! The ladies’ masseuse was a strong older woman who did a very good job of throwing buckets of warm water and lathering me up whilst scrubbing away until not a single dead skin cell was left on my body.
- Remember to remove your jewellery before getting into the water, the sulphur will tarnish silver.
- Bring your own water and towels if you would like to avoid paying for them (1 lari for water and 2 lari per towel).
- Don’t plan on doing anything too strenuous after the the baths, eating and sleeping are all you are going to be up to, so the ideal time to experience the baths is early evening.
- If you suffer from low blood pressure like I do, be careful when getting out of the baths and if possible tell someone to watch out for you, since the heat combined with the upward movement may cause your blood pressure to drop resulting in dizziness or fainting.
2. Eating Khinkali and Khachapuri like a local
What better way to experience a country if not through its local cuisine? Eating Khinkali local style was challenging but great fun as we did our best to suck out the broth from the dumplings before it dribbled down our chins. And I discovered that even raw egg yolk (the one food item I usually refuse to eat) tastes ok when smothered in melted cheese. More about Georgian food here. No list of top things to do in Georgia, Europe, could be complete without including a paragraph on food would it!
- Georgian food is very affordable. Khinkali cost anywhere between 0.40 – 0.60 lari /dumpling whilst Khachapuri usually cost between 6-8 lari. Although I usually have no problem eating heavy foods and had even skipped lunch that day, I just couldn’t finish off a portion of Acharuli Khachapuri by myself – and it’s definitely not for the lactose-intolerant! A full meal at a medium budget restaurant including, starters, mains and wine typically cost 20-25 lari/person (sometimes way less) – yes that’s just 10 euro!
- Georgian restaurants typically do not have dessert options on their menus. Nikki recommends carrying some chocolate around if you crave something sweet after dinner.
- If you order a variety of dishes, they will be brought to your table in no particular order, even if they are listed as starters and main courses on the menu. Dining is a group event and sharing is encouraged.
- Georgian portions are huge and you are never advised about the serving size of the dish unless you ask specifically – price is no indication of quantity since a medium priced dish might include a whole chicken stewed with a field of potatoes and vegetables whilst a more expensive dish might be much smaller. Whatever the case, we always ordered far too much food even when we really tried to limit the number of dishes – on the bright side of things, we became responsible for the well-being of half of Georgia’s stray dog population which happily feasted on our leftovers.
- Our favourite medium-budget restaurants were Diaroni restaurant in Zugdidi (there was very loud singing there when we visited on a Friday night so keep that in mind if you decide to visit) and Nikali restaurant in Sighnaghi. Cafe Laila in Mestia was entertaining because we got to watch local dancing and singing but we felt that food was unimpressive and service was very brusque especially since the owner was trying to fit in as many people as possible on crowded tables. The food was much better at the nearby Sunset cafe.
3. Driving to Ushguli
Making our list of top four fun things to do in Georgia, Europe, was an adventurous drive to Ushguli. We had previously been warned against driving our own vehicle from Mestia to the “inaccessible” remote villages of Ushguli in the Svaneti region, but hiring a local driver (recommended in most guidebooks) just seemed like a waste of money considering our rugged 4×4 rental and Nikki’s eagerness to ascertain his offroading skills. Driving ourselves turned out to be a successful gamble as, although challenging, the drive is not impossible even if we had to cross some difficult terrain, particularly a waterfall running off a muddy, narrow ledge.
The drive itself was very bumpy but the scenery along the way and the fairytale villages of Ushguli (often described as the highest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe) made the uncomfortable ride worthwhile. Colourful houses set among the imposing Svan towers lie on the banks of a river fed by a mountain glacier. The four villages which make up Ushguli are covered in snow for six months of the year and there is very little evidence of the modern world mostly due to their remote locations deep inside the mountain range. If you’re looking for authenticity and character, you will find it in Ushguli.
- Do not attempt the drive from Mestia to Ushguli unless you are an experienced driver and you are comfortable driving on a slippery, muddy mountain ledge used by cows and goats. A 4×4 is necessary. Ushguli is only 47km away from Mestia but the drive takes 2-3 hours each way. Driving the route after dark or in heavy rain is not recommended.
- There’s absolutely no tourism infrastructure in Ushguli; if you plan on spending the night, your best bet is asking one of the locals to take you in (we have been told that there are one or two guesthouses in the area but did not spot any). It is probably possible to camp in the area as well although bear in mind that it will be cold.
- Be sure to leave Mestia with a full tank as there are no refuelling stations on the way to Ushguli.
- It is possible to trek from Mestia to Ushguli in 3-4 days. The Mestia Tourism Information Centre can provide advice and information regarding the route.
4. Wine tasting in Tsindandali
Georgia is the cradle of wine and the fertile Kakheti region is home to its largest vineyards and most important wine routes in the country, so visiting one of the many wineries on our drive across the region was inevitable. We chose to stop at the Chavchavadze estate, the historical home of Alexander Chavchavadze, a Georgian noble poet whose former estate is now a museum and winery with a perfectly manicured garden. Our ticket which included an estate visit and wine tasting (five wines) cost 25 lari.
We were first invited to take a walk in the grounds and then given a tour of some of the rooms of the mansion. An exhibition of modern art was being held in some of the rooms, contrasting heavily with the old aristocratic furnishings. Finally, we were led to a cellar where we got to taste five different wines, which was really what we were there for. Although we thought that the wines were pretty good, they were not explained to us in any depth, as the bartender just looked incredibly bored. This part of the tour can easily be improved especially given the passion that most Georgians feel towards their beloved wine. All in all although this was not the highlight of our trip, it provided a very relaxing, almost luxurious break from the rougher, more adventurous side of Georgia.
- Kakheti is home to several wineries most of which are easy to locate if you are driving. Georgia has a low alcohol tolerance limit for drivers so do take this into consideration if driving around the region.
- Many of the wineries can be visited on a day trip from Tbilisi.
- A bottle of wine is a great souvenir to take home and with about 500 grape species, you will surely find a variety to suit every palate.
- Most guesthouse owners will greet you with a platter of fruit and a large jug of homemade wine – take it easy if you intend to go on any activities after you check in, the homemade stuff is stronger than you might think!
5. And now for the bad experience – our vehicle kept breaking down!
Let’s face it, no matter how much time you spend planning a trip, certain situations are uncontrollable. Like having your rented vehicle break down in a remote mountain village.
Following a cooling system failure and several phone calls to the rental agency, we managed to get the only mechanic in the village to repair it for us (hurray). Early next morning after enthusiastically loading up the car in preparation for our drive to the next destination, it just would not start!… The starter motor had subsequently broken down and replacement parts were (presumably) only available from the nearest town which was four hours away. Also it was Sunday. Our only option at that point was to continue our trip using public transport and inform the rental agency (which so far had been totally unhelpful) that we needed the vehicle fixed or replaced within the next couple of days, and delivered to a particular location of our choice. Although it was indeed fixed within two days, we wasted a lot of time waiting when we could have been travelling around, hence having to alter our original plan. This was definitely not amongst the most fun things to do in Georgia, Europe!
A special mention goes to the owners at Guesthouse Svan-Ski in Mestia who were fantastic! They did their best to assist us in any way possible, even offering to keep the broken car parked within their premises until the agency could collect it. They also kept the friendliest pit-bull terrier ever, called Goofy, who just loved to play “catch” with Nikki when allowed out! He did look menacing at first, but Nikki claims he encountered hedgehogs which were more aggressive!
- Be sure to discuss your driving plan with the car rental agency and ask about roadside repairs and assistance before collecting the vehicle.
- Remember Murphy’s law and make alternate plans when schedules are tight.
- Don’t plan tight schedules.
- Ask the locals for help, most will be eager to help you out in times of difficulty.
- Bonus tip – pitbull terriers are not always as aggressive as their reputations suggests!