Let’s get a few things straight right off the bat, this article has nothing to do with the state of Georgia in the south. Georgia the country actually isn’t known as Georgia in Georgia - the locals call it Sakartvelo. Let us introduce you to this place that many Americans know little to nothing about.
This country’s history is as rich as the fleeced gold that is produced here. Crusaders once constructed great medieval fortresses, towers and monasteries all over the land. Today, the mark the crusades left on the culture is unmistakable. Locals tout the history proudly and openly like a badge of honor.
There is great beauty in Georgia, from the high mountains, to the wineries, vineyards, and quaint villages. The country is situated snugly between Russia and Turkey, and was once part of the Soviet Union. In fact, Joseph Stalin was from Georgia, and visitors are sure to notice his likeness in portraits and pictures around the country.
Despite having been under communist rule, religion and the arts are still alive and well in Georgia. In fact, the Orthodox following is growing every year, contrary to most other places in Europe. Are you surprised? The country’s English name origins from St. George, the Roman soldier and first Christian martyr. This is a spiritual place.
Monasteries and Churches
Most of the iconic monasteries and churches in Georgia were constructed between the 10th and 16th centuries, so they all bear similar medieval character. Some look more like fortresses than places of worship, while others are quite simple. Still others are magnificent, highly decorated and made for photographs
Vardzia Monastery in the Erusheli Mountains contains a city of tunnels and verandas built into the side of a cliff face in the 11th century. It was surely a sight to behold back in its day, but an earthquake destroyed nearly a third of the city (while people were living there), exposing the tunnels and stairs that were once interior features. Tsminda Sameba church is like something out of a painting, sitting at an elevation of 7300 feet above sea level and backdropped by the immense and powerful Caucasus Mountains. Davidgareja Monastery is located on the half-desert slopes of Gareja Mountain, and has an insane history of royalty, siege, capture, and recapture. If you are an architecture buff, you will have more to do and see in Georgia than you ever could have hoped for.
Drinks and Cuisine
The cuisine of Georgia is revered as the perfect place to experience a blend of Eastern and Western cooking. Georgia sits along what was once the ancient Silk Road, making it a melting pot of cultures and influences. The Georgian’s basically got cherry pick the best of what the Mongols, Arabs, Greeks, and Turks were eating to create a palate all their own. You'll find a lot of soups and dumplings, flatbreads, beans, and cheeses. One can discern heavy Mediterranean flavors just from looking at a typical Georgian supper.
Wine is the drink of choice around the country. There are a number of vineyards scattered across the country just waiting to be toured and tasted, some as old as 8,000 years, which definitely gives winemakers here some bragging rights.
Ever heard of polyphonics? They’re big in Georgia. The traditional folk music is still practiced widely - so widely, in fact, that there are 15 different regional variations (and Georgia isn’t the biggest Soviet satellite on the block). There’s also “professional music” which is played with traditional instruments like the Abkhazia, or fiddlesticks.
Polyphonic music evolved with the monks of the church. It is so unique and important to the culture of Georgia that during the Soviet era, when music in the USSR was severely restricted and religion was banned outright, the Orthodox church managed to uphold its safekeeping through an underground movement.
Although it’s small, Georgia has some of the most varied geography of any country in Eastern Europe. Near the coast of the Black Sea, you'll find low coastal plains, while in the north and the south, steep mountains pierce the sky. The Greater Caucasus Mountains hold the title of tallest mountains in Eastern Europe. These snowcapped peaks are the stuff of legend - according to which, they are one of the pillars that hold up the world, and where Zeus tied up Prometheus and left him for the eagles.
The Caucasus have become a popular destination for skiers, hikers, climbers and drivers. The hairpin switchback alpine roads hide tiny and ancient, mysterious villages in the crags and valleys just begging to be explored.
Deep in the Caucasus Mountains is an area known as Svaneti. This province (which is the highest inhabited region in Europe) has been occupied by the Svans since the 5th century and was, over the course of history, ruled by the Persians, the Byzantines, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and eventually Georgia proper. The historical significance of this region is wonderfully rich and intriguing.
The Svans are a devoted Orthodox Christian lot, who revere Saint George (the patron saint of Georgia, believe it or not), respect older women, and have retained a lot of old traditions - such as blood revenge… so tread cautiously, and travel respectfully. But the Svans are typically a jovial lot, and known for their distinct local songs and dances. The northern region of Svanetia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of architectural monuments medieval fortified churches and the Svanetian Towers.