TBILISI (Reuters) - A history spanning centuries and civilizations, churches perched atop green mountains and inexpensive food and wine are just a few of the draws of the small Caucasian country of Georgia.
Nestled between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia has emerged from years of conflict to become the go-to travel destination in the Caucasus.
This land served as a battleground under the rule of Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Soviets until it declared independence in 1991. That was followed by years of civil war and economic hardship until the Rose Revolution of 2003, when peaceful protests ousted then-president Eduard Shevardnadze.
The country was rocked by a brief invasion by Russia in 2008 over disputed territory, and tensions still simmer.
Today Georgia draws tourists from neighboring countries, its Black Sea coast especially popular with visitors from Armenia and Azerbaijan and its mountain resorts frequented by tourists from former Soviet republics and Europe.
The nation of 4.5 million people has maintained its own identity, set apart by the autonomous Georgian Orthodox Church, as well as a distinct language.
Recognizable by its curly script, Georgian is neither Turkic, Slavic nor Indo-European, though Persian and Turkish speakers will recognize a good number of words.
The capital Tbilisi, where almost a quarter of Georgians reside, is a 20-minute drive from the airport along the George W. Bush Highway, named after the former U.S. president to thank him for his political and financial support.
Once in the city, it is best to travel by foot, though public transportation and cheap taxis are readily available.
The cobblestone streets, terra cotta roofs and rundown balconies of Tbilisi’s Old Town possess melancholic charm, while the poplar-lined central Rustaveli Avenue remind one of Parisian boulevards. From Rustaveli, visitors can walk to parliament, the Georgian National Museum and the National Gallery.
Tbilisi, which was almost entirely destroyed by the Persian sacking of 1795, is named for its hot springs which can be enjoyed today in modern bathhouses.
The Narikala fortress, east of the Mtkvari River, dates to the fourth century, when it was a Persian fort, and has some of the best views of the Old Town. A walk to the 20-meter aluminum statue of the Mother of Georgia also provides superb city views.
Georgian cuisine is not for the weight watcher, so diners are well-advised to make use of ample walking and hiking opportunities. Must-eats are the doughy “acharuli khachapuri,” topped with cheese, butter and egg, and “khinkhali,” dumplings filled with meat, mushrooms or potatoes.
The best stews are at Shavi Lomi, which translates as Black Lion, and Tabla. At the Black Lion, known for its fusion cuisine, try the thin-bread “lavashi” cheese rolls and anything with eggplant.
Tabla offers a traditional cucumber and tomato salad with a main course of “chakapuli,” or lamb tarragon stew, as well as entertainment of traditional Georgian music and dance.
Diners can wash down their meals with sweet Georgian wine. Kakheti, the center of Georgia’s wine-producing industry, is just a couple of hours drive away and well worth a day trip.
Tbilisi’s night life has something for everyone. The more high-end bars and clubs are on Galaktioni Street off Freedom Square. Rowdier types head to Rkinis Rigi Street, and hipsters can stop in the Moulin Electrique in the Old Town.
Orthodox Christian monks still live and pray at the sixth century David Gareja monastery near the Azeri border, also ideal for a day trip.
From the monastery, hikers can trek for 1-1/2 hours through the remote arid mountainscape dotted with mulberry trees and snakes to see nearly 1,000-year-old frescoes depicting St. David’s life etched into the walls of mountain caves.
A drive through spectacular mountain terrain on the Russian-built Georgian Military Highway brings travelers to Ananuri, a 17th century fortress next to the Zhinvali Reservoir, along which campers in tents take advantage of the clean air.
After three hours of pastoral scenes, the road reaches Kazbegi, also known as Stepantsminda, about 15 km (nine miles) from the Russian border in northeastern Georgia. The hilltop Tsminda Sameba, or Holy Trinity Church, from the 14th century is accessible by car, horse or a 1-1/2-hour hike from town.
Kazbegi is best seen during summer months, though daring heli-skiers hit the town in winter. Tourism has boosted the economy of the region, which suffered from high unemployment.
There are ample affordable guest houses, but the boutique Rooms Hotel is worth the splurge. The lush mountain highland, called Racha, surrounds the hotel’s wooden walls, sourced from trees in Sierra Leone. Rooms Hotel also has a casino.
Travellers saving money can also hike to a functional monastery. The small church was built 10 years ago and houses people for free if they are willing to work on the land.
Editing by Ayla Jean Yackley and Tom Heneghan