Issue 4, 2012. August-September

   

GET AWAY! WHERE TO GO ON THE WEEKEND

Whether you are short on money or short on time, Georgia has plenty to see and do on the weekend, from adventure tourism to wine tasting and nearly everything in between. Investor.ge spoke with three tour agencies about day trips and weekend getaways from the capital.

Ernest Petrostyan

Georgians often boast about how much their small country has to offer - from skiing down towering glacier heights to swimming in the Black Sea.

When time is short, however, it seems easier to just cart the family to Tbilisi's Turtle Lake (Kus Tba) than to venture out on the road.

But there are plenty of things to do and see within a short drive of the capital, noted Tourists Tour's Eka Kasradze.

"Weekend tours are very convenient in Georgia, as there are many interesting places within a two-hour's drive," Kasradze, a manager at the tour agency, said, noting that camping, hiking, rafting, and wine tasting tours top the list.


History on Your Doorstep

When a country is as ancient as Georgia, there are plenty of historic wonders. From the stone remains of Uplistsikhe, one of the Georgians' first capitals, to the cave monastery of Davit Gareji in the eastern Georgian desert; living monuments to the country's vivid - and often violent - past are easy to find.

Betania: Georgia's Lost Monastery

Just 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) from Tbilisi, Betania is a perfect day trip to escape from the capital. The monastery, officially called Betania Monastery of the Naivety of the Mother of God, was built in the 12-13th century and is known for its wall paintings.

While its religious history is significant, it is Betania's location that made it famous. Located just 40 minutes from the capital, the church and monastery are so hidden from the road and surrounding area that it was forgotten for decades, only to be rediscovered by a royal hunting party in the 19th century.

Sighnagi: The Great Wall of Georgia

While not as long as the Great Wall of China, the wall of 23 towers in Sighnagi is much closer at 115 kilometers - roughly a two hour drive from Tbilisi, into the country's eastern wine country, Kakheti.

Some portions of the wall can be walked; other portions of it can be driven. There are also wineries for wine tasting tours located in and around the town.

Other easy day trips include wine tasting tours through Kakheti, including the historic Tsinandali, the former home of Alexander Chavchavadze - now a museum - and his unique wine cellars, where he once hosted the likes of Alexandre Dumas.

However, according to Kasradze, mixed tours - two or three day trips that combine the historic, the cultural, and the great outdoors - are more popular with tourists. "Foreign guests initially take wine tours, and afterwards they continue with eco-camping and hiking tours," she said, noting that Kakheti easily accommodates both.

Nino Nebieridze, head of international relations at AST Travel, noted that in a weekend, people can enjoy wine tours in Sighnagi, as well as hiking trips in the lush wilderness of Tusheti and Ladodekhi.

The mountain village of Kazbegi (now known as Stepantsminda) is also popular.


Off Road Adventures in the Backyard

At Ladodekhi National Park in Kakheti, groups can take short or long hikes through the protected wilderness. Trails in the park wind though amazing forests and mountains, leading to the 40 meter high Gurgeniani waterfall. The tourist route - roughly a 7 - 8 kilometer hike - continues up to Black Cliff Lake nestled in the mountains at 2,900 meters above sea level near the Georgian-Dagestan border.

The Lagodekhi National Park also provides nature lovers with a plethora of wild animals to watch and photograph, including wild brown bear, wolves, lynx, chamois, roe deer, red deer, East Caucasian goats and wild boar. For birdwatchers, there are local populations of lammergeyer, golden eagle, peregrine falcon and the Caucasian Snowcock.

Trips to Kazbegi, taking hikers through Dariali Gorge, also make a popular weekend trip. Usually, tourists hike up to Saint Trinity Church located at the foot of Kazbek Mount, looking over the village of Stepantsminda (Kazbegi). However, trails continue even higher, leading to the Kazbek summit (5,033m) - one of the highest summits in the Caucasus.

Ilia State University established an Alpine Club for the popularization of Alpinism in Georgia. They also prepare internationally qualified guides. Ilia Berulava, a professional guide from the Alpine Club, says that alpine tourism has become more popular in recent years. "More foreign and local visitors want to ascend the Kazbek summit, as hikers beyond a healthy lifestyle see a kind of self-confidence in it," he said.

"The tour usually lasts three days; it really depends on the physical shape of our visitors. The Kazbek summit, unlike other summits in the Caucasus, is very convenient to climb for beginners," Berulava noted. Descending the mountains can be even more exiting for extreme sport lovers, with rafting tours on Mtiuleti and Pshavi Aragvi mountain river. "Rafting provides a good opportunity to release adrenalin; it is very exciting and, at the same time, it is relatively safe, as the river stream is not that fast," noted 24 year old Ani Robakidze.

For more information about these trips and others, visit: www.georgia.travel.