Batumi: Georgia on the Black Sea

The White Restaurant in Batumi, Georgia, built to resemble the U.S. White House, but turned upside down. Continuing the pull-your-leg theme, the interior dining space also has an upside down look.

The White Restaurant in Batumi, Georgia, built to resemble the U.S. White House, but turned upside down. Continuing the pull-your-leg theme, the interior dining space also has an upside down look.

BATUMI, Georgia — I was amused, during a trip to Georgia in the fall of 2012, to learn I would be staying in a Soviet-era hotel, the Intourist Palace, in Batumi on the Black Sea.

The hotel retained its old name although Georgia, a former Soviet republic, has been independent for more than 20 years and the current owner is not Russian. A local guide suggested the old name may have been kept because the Intourist Palace had been a popular hotel with a well-known brand. [Read more…]

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Kakheti, Ancient Wine Region

Performers demonstrate traditional Georgian dancing in a program for travel agents in Brooklyn, N.Y., in advance of a travel agent familiarization trip for agents.

Performers demonstrate traditional Georgian dancing in a program for travel agents in Brooklyn, N.Y., in advance of a travel agent familiarization trip for agents.

VARDISUBANI, Georgia — When I came through Immigration at Georgia’s Tbilisi Airport, the agent who stamped my passport handed me a gift. It was a small bottle of red wine.

Immigration agents were gifting all arriving foreign-passport holders in this way.

Why wine? Georgia claims to be the place where winemaking was born around 8,000 years ago — although some scholars credit other locations in the vicinity.

Maybe the true origins of winemaking can never be proved, but it is certain Georgians are still making wine using millennia-old methods, and they are making a tourism business out of it, too, particularly in Kakheti, the country’s top winemaking region to the east of Tbilisi. [Read more…]

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Gori: Stalin Reimagined

Some of the abandoned cave dwellings at Uplistsikhe, one of Georgia’s three ancient rock cities.

GORI, Georgia — This is the kind of small city in the back of beyond that North American travelers wouldn’t generally hear about but for the fact that Joseph Jughashvili, aka Joseph Stalin, was born here.

Gori is 42 miles northwest of Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, a former Soviet republic located in the Caucasian Mountains just south of Russia.

The roughly 900-year-old city boasts a number of sites of some touristic interest — a citadel, churches, outdoor works of art, a museum to the Great Patriotic War (World War II), a market — but my group dropped in specifically because of Stalin.

Three relevant points of interest — a museum, the birthplace and a railcar — are clustered together, which made a focused visit easier.

The Stalin Museum, perversely, looked like a Tuscan villa, but it wasn’t that heartwarming inside.

The facility set out to tell Stalin’s life story — with serious omissions, such as the number of people whose deaths he was responsible for — and his face was all over the place, in photos, paintings, sculptures, even a death mask and an image

Joseph Stalin’s likeness appears throughout the Stalin Museum, even woven as for a carpet as seen here.

The exterior of the Stalin Museum, which resembles Tuscan architectural styles, in Gori.

woven in the manner of a carpet.

The museum, first created to honor revolutionaries, was recast as

the Stalin Museum four years after the dictator’s 1953 death. The adulatory treatment of Stalin is offensive to many tourists because of Stalin’s murderous policies.

Things are not so simple for older Georgians, especially those from Gori. One trip host explained that many Georgians admire Stalin for “keeping prices down” and blame others for Stalin’s purges and other repressions.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but Stalin’s statue wasn’t removed from downtown Gori until 2010, 19 years later.

Office space once used by Joseph Stalin, inside the building that later became the Stalin Museum.

In addition, the museum only recently added two small rooms with displays related to the Stalin-era repressions. This was in response to visitor complaints, our on-site guide said.

However, our group of travel writers and travel agents missed one of the museum’s more fascinating displays, a banner in four languages that says, in part, ““This museum is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and fabrication of history. … The objective of this museum [was] to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.”

The banner says the museum, still a Soviet-era creation, will be converted into the Museum of Stalinism.

The banner would have been a useful counterpoint to the Soviet-era exhibits except that staffers — reflecting their loyalty to Stalin — generally place it in a dark corner where most visitors won’t see it. I learned of it later.

A meeting space inside the railcar Joseph Stalin used for traveling in style around the Soviet Union.

A few steps from the museum, we walked through the railcar that Stalin used to travel around the country. Four people slept on that car when traveling, and there was a small meeting space on board, as well.

Our last stop here was the simple brick-and-wood house where Stalin was born in 1879. It

The house where Joseph Stalin was born.

has a small porch, from which we entered one room with rustic furnishings.

We were told the house is in its original location, which means the villa-like museum was intentionally constructed next to it, in the center of town. The house is now protected with an open-sided shelter.

Our local guide, a twenty-something woman, seemed to evaporate as soon as we had reached our final point, and I had no idea what she thought about the subject of her tours. She seemed to recite her material by rote, like a robot. I suppose if she despised Stalin, it wouldn’t be a good idea to say as much in Gori.

Gori’s neighborhood

The city is just south of South Ossetia, one of two Georgian breakaway regions that have fought for independence with support from Russia. (The other region is Abkhazia on the Black Sea.)

In a 2008 war, Russian troops entered Gori, burning forests en route, then exploding apartment houses in town, our trip host said. The troops later withdrew to South Ossetia, but remain there.

A Georgian refugee camp, seen outside of Gori.

Damage from the 2008 conflagration was not obvious to us, but as we drove to Gori, we passed a huge refugee camp, comprising row upon row of small white houses with red roofs. The CIA says the country has 265,000 refugees as a result of warring with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s and in 2008.

On exiting Gori, we headed to a nearby abandoned cave city, with numerous caves dug at several levels into a rocky hillside.

Although the site is much older, the majority of the caves were cut

A wine label featuring Joseph Stalin’s visage, seen in a wine store near the Stalin Museum in Gori.

out during the Greek and Roman eras, when the city flourished.

Here, we had a considerably more enthusiastic on-site narrator. She said Uplistsikhe, one of the country’s three rock cities, was occupied until the 18th century. It was a site of agriculture and winemaking, as well as a stopping point on the Silk Road. It was “strong” in ninth to 11th centuries, she said.

Mongol raids in the 13th and 14th centuries largely destroyed the city, and east-west trade collapsed with discovery of sea

The hilltop Uplistsikhe Church, overlooking some of the cave dwellings that typify this abandoned rock city in Georgia.

routes between Europe and Asia.

A religious icon, seen inside the Uplistsikhe Church in the rock city of the same name.

A church was first cut out of the rocks, but a newer church, which we also visited, is a brick hilltop affair that dates from the 10th century.

We walked up and down the rough-hewn rock paths to see this place. The sun was bright, which made it quite hot during our late-September visit.

There were great views over a river, green countryside and on to the mountains, which seem ubiquitous in Georgia.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Svaneti: Land of tall towers, tall mountains


The Lamaria Church, located above the village of Ushguli, with Mount Shkhara in the background. Like most houses in town, it has a defensive stone tower, too.

MESTIA, Georgia — The Caucasus Mountains have long lived in my imagination as one of the world’s most exotic and intriguing places.

So, it is no wonder I took up an opportunity to accompany a small group of travel agents and journalists into those

Some of the defense towers seen in the ski resort town of Mestia, in the Caucasus Mountains.

mountains, in the country of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.

It was a sunny September day when we began our sometimes-bumpy drive from the town of Zugdidi into the mountains, viewing deep ravines, trees with early fall colors and snowcapped peaks.

Our destination, Mestia, is a ski resort and starting point for trekking tours, at more than 4,500 feet above sea level. It is the chief community in a mountain province known as Upper Svaneti, home to legendary stone towers, approximately 600 of them, built for defensive purposes. [Read more…]

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Kutaisi: The Fabled Medea’s Hometown

Decorative elements on a new fountain seen on Agmashenebeli Square in Kutaisi, Georgia. Designers created oversized replicas of golden figures found in sites associated with the ancient Colchis kingdom.

KUTAISI, Georgia — Until last fall, I had never heard of Kutaisi, a city of about a quarter of a million people more than 100 miles west of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (the country).

Street scene in Kutaisi, Georgia.

It turned out to be a pleasant place with some surprisingly charming center city attractions, and it is home to a church and monastery that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I visited Kutaisi in September 2012 as part of a weeklong tour for

Houses overlooking the Rioni River in Kutaisi, Georgia.

travel agents and travel journalists. We arrived after dark, which dictated the kind of sightseeing we could do before eating a fairly quick dinner.

However, nighttime was a good time to see a new fountain in the middle of town — on Agmashenebeli Square in front of the city’s theater — because it puts on quite a light show. [Read more…]

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Mtskheta: Polishing a Historic Jewel

Overview of Mtskheta, a museum town outside of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The town sits at the confluence of two rivers. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and its walls are clearly visible at the heart of town.

MTSKHETA, Georgia — This town of only 9,000 was the capital of the kingdom of Iberia from the third century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. Now considered a museum town, Mtskheta is only 12 miles north of Tbilisi, the capital of modern Georgia in the southern Caucasus Mountains.

The town is particularly important locally because a Mtskheta-based king and queen were the first Georgians to adopt Christianity. That was in the fourth century.

Its historic religious structures also are sufficiently appreciated internationally to appear on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [Read more…]

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Tbilisi: The Capital With Many Lives

The undulating glass-and-steel pedestrian Bridge of Peace, which crosses the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, opened in 2010.

TBILISI, Georgia — When I came through Immigration at Tbilisi this past fall, the agent stamped my passport then handed me a small bottle of wine.

Officials gave wine to all arriving air passengers who carried foreign passports. The gifts bespeak Georgia’s eagerness to welcome tourists and, in particular, to promote wine tourism.

I was entering Georgia (the country, not the state), which is one of three former Soviet republics in the southern Caucasus Mountains, which puts them just south of Russia. The other two are Armenia and Azerbaijan. All gained independence in the early 1990s.

There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Georgia. For the press trip I had joined, travel was via Kiev, which got us into Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in the late afternoon. [Read more…]

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