With the travel industry ever on the lookout for 'the new Prague’, it’s surprising that Georgia’s capital city of Tblisi hasn’t yet joined the hit list
My first impressions of Georgia were unusually positive: the border guards who stopped the train from Baku had time on their hands and preferred to use it to chat rather than search bags and fill out interminable forms. By the time we'd completed the formalities, I had a list of recommendations of what to eat, where to eat it and which wines to take home.
Such is traditional hospitality in these parts - food and drink top the list. National legend says that's how they ended up in their picturesque, precarious mountain kingdom - too busy feasting, they arrived late when God was dividing up the countries, only to take away a slice of the land he'd planned to keep for himself.
By the time I'd reached Tblisi and got checked in to a riverside hotel, breakfast was veering into lunch. Recommendation one: the khachapuri, a cheesy bread known as the pizza of the Caucasus. Restaurants do all sorts of flashy versions of this, but most Georgians eat it on the hoof, served piping hot from a café or kiosk. And they do mean piping hot: bite in carefully to avoid a volcanic eruption of salty, tangy cheese from a flaky pastry shell! The lurid green Tarkhun, a tarragon-flavoured fizzy drink, or the pear-scented Dyushess, known as Georgian lemonade, both make an appropriate remedy for burned tongues.
Fortified, it's time to explore the old town, a timeless warren of now-pedestrianised streets just off the lower end of Rustaveli Avenue, the main drag. Pavement cafes, bars, souvenir shops and - best of all - colourful contemporary art galleries dot the 'lines' of the old commercial district. The unnamed music shop and coffee bar near the entrance off Rustaveli was a great success: two charming, multilingual young ladies were happy to talk me through the full gamut of Georgian music, from traditional folk to ethno-trance fusion, selling me bundles of discs in the process. A written language crammed with clusters of cough-inducing consonants is transformed into a lyrical mass of closely-harmonised textures when Georgians sing, which fortunately they do at almost any opportunity.
They also pointed me in the direction of nearby Mtskheta, a 30-minute bus ride away and home of Georgia's finest churches - and crucially gave me a note of the Georgian spelling მთსხკთა to help at the bus stop. It may still be easier to negotiate a taxi, but the ancient capital, set at the foot of a great valley, is worth the effort. The tranquil Samtavro monastery, resting place of King Miriam, is very much an active place of worship; its flashier neighbour Svetitskhoveli is the museum piece. Fanatical Georgians dub the latter 'the most beautiful church in the world' and explain how the prayers of St Nino nurtured it from an oak tree. Inside it's a forest of solid round pillars, with orthodox icons frowning from the walls; outside the master builder who may have given Nino some practical help is honoured with a disembodied arm carved on the wall - this builder wasn't encouraged to repeat his greatest achievement.
Back in Tblisi itself there are more churches to explore as well as an appetite-building stroll up to the ramparts of the Narikala fortress and the 'Mother Georgia' monument - a big brassy lassie on a Soviet scale, offering a cup of tea to guests but wielding a sword for the benefit of her enemies. Stay on her good side by heading back into town and sampling some more of that hospitality.
Top local dishes include the fiery kharcho soup, the thick, beany lobyo, somewhere between soup and casserole, and my personal favourite, satsivi. This cold chicken dish comes in a creamy garlic and walnut sauce - highly piquant. Being close to Turkey, the influence of the kebab is still strong, but forget that late-night grease ball out of a van. Shashlik and its cousins are closer to the perfect barbecue than taxi-rank botulism-in-a-bap.
All of this should, of course, be washed down with local wine. You'll notice vines trailed across the side streets of Tblisi and Mtsketa, but the major wine region is the Kahetian Valley. Whites, with their straw-like tang, are an acquired taste for western palettes, but the semi-sweet reds go down perilously smoothly.
At the top end of Rustavelli a series of expat bars offer rock cover bands and pool tables, but dining out is the great Georgian pleasure: touristy spots lay on live music as the evening wears on, the haunts of the locals tend to make their own entertainment as the carafes empty. And there's always enough left for one more hearty toast - Gaudjamos!
Getting there and around
Georgia is roughly a four-hour flight from London, with BMI offering direct services. Negotiations with a budget carrier seem to have stalled recently. Getting around Tblisi is fairly straightforward thanks to the cheap and efficient Metro (signs in English and Georgian). Most hotels will help you organise transport out of town to Mtskheta, Stalin's birthplace in Gori or the impressive mountains towards the Russian border, though it is cheaper to join the scrum at the minibus station next to Didube Metro.
Where to stay
The Kopala Hotel on Chekhov Street is reasonably priced and has river views towards Narikala from every room. The best views, however, come from its restaurant terrace: at lower levels the leafy cliffside gets in the way. The plush option is the centrally-located Tblisi Marriott on Rustavelli Avenue.
Where to eat
Aside from dining at the Kopala, try the Dzveli Sakhli (3 Marjeva Sanapiro) or the Puris Sakhli, or follow your nose around town until you find a likely looking spot.
Need to know
EU citizens do not need visas to visit Georgia, though anyone planning a combined journey to neighbouring Armenia or Azerbaijan will need the right papers to enter those countries. The Georgian embassy website has up-to-date information on visa requirements.