Arriving on a midnight plane to Georgia for a hiking trip to the Caucasus, Kutaisi’s King David the Builder airport was… closed.
The lights were out and nobody seemed to be at home. But after a few minutes sitting on the tarmac, lights flickered on and somebody came to the door with a big bunch of keys.
It was just the start we wanted as my seventeen-year-old son and I were looking to get off-piste without being too hardcore.
I worried about getting into Kutaisi at 2am, but our driver – booked by Julian – was there waiting for us, along with dozens of feral dogs – not booked by Julian.
We could see that things in Georgia worked, even if they didn’t always look like they would. Our driver didn’t speak much English – but between our 5 words of Georgian, 10 words of Russian, and his 20 words of English, we got by. He crossed himself every time we passed one of the dozens of churches on our way into town and we didn’t know whether to be reassured by his piety, or worried that Georgian driving meant he would need all the help he could get.
We thought of Kutaisi as just a convenient place to lay our heads for a few hours before the five-hour drive up to the Caucasus mountains – the highest in Europe.
The following morning, we quickly changed some dollars for Georgian Lari – which you can’t easily buy in London. By now it was clear that you could get by in Georgia speaking English – especially when talking to younger people – and most important signs are also in English.
We also passed a street dog. I don’t know which language he spoke, but he didn’t look left or right as he trotted across three lanes of traffic. Lucky, I thought, as it reached the other side.
Lari in hand, we headed up to Mestia in the mountains. It is the highest inhabited region in Europe, along the country’s northern border with Russia. We were perplexed as we headed south, then west, along a flat plain that runs down to the Black Sea.
Two hours later we arced around to the north and started the climb to Mestia along a picturesque gorge, with local honey for sale on the road-side. Not for the faint-hearted, we were glad we hadn’t hired a self-drive car. If the journey had been any longer we’d have been crossing ourselves.
Mestia itself felt like a frontier boom town – with new construction all over town in between the ancient stone buildings. The streets were shared with free-range pigs, cows, and feral dogs (of course).
When we arrived at the hotel in the centre of town it was boarded up, with broken windows. Signs in incomprehensible Georgian writing. Some quick detective work from our driver cracked the problem – we were at the wrong hotel, so he tracked down the real thing, at a better site on the edge of town, with fine views.
Mestia clearly has some history. Everywhere you look you see the five-storey thousand-year-old Svan fortified towers, where families retreated to avoid the 100-year-old feud with the neighbours. On our final (rainy) day we visited what the hand-written sign in English called an ‘old Svan house’– and paid about 50p to see a full recreation of the basement where everybody lived – extended family sleeping over the animal stalls. Of course there was a modern-day dog, squatting.
A lot of people come to the Svaneti region for multi-day hikes to and from Mestia. We were mere part-timers, just planning day-long hikes. But even these could be demanding. Setting off from the centre of town, even in July, we could walk up to the snow line (where dogs immediately appeared if we sat down for a lunch of hard-boiled eggs [hotel breakfast] and bread [30p from a clay-oven bakery]).
We took in some of the most fabulous wild-flower meadows I’ve ever seen. And it isn’t all crazy wannabe SAS type hiking. Spectacular scenery can be reached within an hour. Paths were obviously once clearly way-marked, but the signs appear to have been cut down (a conspiracy by local guides, we assumed).
Mestia in the evenings felt like a lively apres-ski resort. In fact, in winter, it is a ski resort with a full range of runs. One of our walks was up to a ski station, where we could ski lift down as a treat.
We found ourselves trying to get into the very popular Café Laila in the main square – it was absolutely rammed, but an Australian couple who worked in Munich offered us half their table. There was a good range of Georgian specialities, accompanied by live folk music. It cost £25 for more dinner than we could eat, even after a 20 mile hike, and included some fine Georgian red wine and churchkela ‘Georgian Snickers’ a local speciality. We ate there every night after that, even though we knew the words to all the folk songs by the fourth day. If you arrive early enough you can get a table on the terrace and watch the feral dogs chew the fat or argue about who owns the turf.
In the evenings, the Swan towers are lit up and look fabulously beautiful, especially on clear evenings with fine views of 4,000 metre peaks on the horizon. We never tracked down which tower was playing Amy Winehouse every night at full volume, but ‘Valerie’ is now the song we’ll always associate with Georgia.
On one rainy day, we found ourselves exploring the town, which is a string of villages that run together along the valley, with a beautiful tiny ancient church and a small modern museum of regional life. We went looking for a bike hire shop – and found one – in a bar.
The bikes were out of action, but the bar also tripled as a cinema so we took in a recent prize-winning Georgian movie made by the owner’s sister about… a family feud. Set in modern-day Georgia though, so clearly some things never change.
On our return journey through Kutaisi we realised it is worth a visit in its own right. A small town with a big history: capital of Colchis where Jason and the Argonauts came looking for the Golden Fleece; a thousand year old-cathedral; a red bridge built in the same factory as the Eiffel Tower; a pretty pedestrianised white bridge with glass panels to walk over; and a picturesque old town with the restaurants which sadly we didn’t find until we were taking our after dinner constitutional.
Happily, Lucky our street-wise dog was still in his place, diving care-free through the traffic.
We’re now looking forward to Abbotts Travel booking our next adventure.
Nick and Metcalfe (and Xavier)