Just returned from a few days travelling in Georgia (that's the Republic of Georgia, not the US state), and I liked it!
We (my family and I) arrived in the capital city Tbilisi early evening and was immediately whisked by taxi to the Rooms Hotel Tbilisi. First impressions of the city were promising, especially while driving through the historic downtown area from Freedom Square down Rustaveli Avenue. This area contains many grand, historic European style buildings. Most of these buildings are well maintained and beautifully lit, which made an even better first impression while driving through the streets during a perfect blue hour. I was excited about the prospect of getting shooting out into the streets as soon as possible.
As our time was limited, the next day was mostly spent around the Tbilisi Old Town area, which included a short cable car ride up to the Narikala Fortress and a walk back down the hill. The Old Towns are generally the most interesting areas to start with in most old cities I've visited, but from a photography perspective, I was personally disappointed with the Old Town of Tbilisi. In the case of Tbilisi, the old town consist of mostly old, poorly maintained residential buildings and private houses, many of which have fallen into complete disrepair and are either condemned or unoccupied. There are a few galleries scattered throughout, but being Easter Weekend, all were closed on that particular day. Even if they were open, I doubt that they would've contributed significantly to enhancing the otherwise rather depressing, crumbling old town. Though there are some quaint, decorative wooden balconies and other details to see (if that's your thing), I'd rather recommend spending your time more productively on a short visit to Tbilisi by visiting the more popular, well maintained attractions.
The better areas for street life activity and photogenic surroundings for street photography purposes appears to be along Rustaveli Avenue and surrounding streets, from around the Rustaveli Metro Station up to (and around) Freedom Square. As the Liberty Square Metro Station is close to Freedom Square, a one-way stroll down the entire length of Rustaveli Avenue can easily be returned via the metro either way. Interestingly, both of these stations sport incredibly long (and fast), single run escalators of around 120 meters, which at first use, is rather vertigo-inducing if you're not used to it. However, the Metro is a cheap and efficient way to get around, costing a mere $0.20 / per trip. It's an old metro, but well maintained and safe.
Having touched the surface of Tbilisi, we rented a SUV and headed off to the Caucasus Mountains in the rural north of Georgia, and more specifically a town called Stepantsminda in the Kazbegi region close to the border with Russia. The 150km drive along the Georgian Military Highway is fairly easy, passing through a number of villages along the way, but beware that large sections of the road is narrow and in rough, potholed condition. Due to the Easter period, we didn't encounter too many large trucks, but we've been warned that they can greatly affect your travelling time in the curvy mountain pass roads.
The road to Kazbegi takes one to an elevation of 2395m, where it was still covered in thick snow at the time of our visit in April. Near this high point is the interesting, semi-circular Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument. Despite it being a really ugly, typical "Soviet" style monument (I am an architect after all) built in 1983, it is well worth a stop to see the interesting. colorful tiled decoration and spectacular views on offer over the Devil's Valley. Closer towards Kazbegi, one also passes through a series of narrow, pitch dark, pot-holed, wet tunnels. This can be a hairy experience with traffic coming from the front, let alone a massive freight-liner truck which barely fits into these tunnels in all directions. From what we've experienced upon our return, it appears that the police control traffic flow at certain busy times to ensure intermittent one-way flow through the tunnels, but outside these times, you're on your own.
Our short stay in Stepantsminda (at the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi) took us to a number of old, historic Russian Orthodox churches, the most significant (and well-known) being the 14th century Gergeti Trinity Church. Accessible by foot (for the fit and adventurous) or 4x4 vehicle (thank god for rentals) via an extremely treacherous, badly maintained, wet dirt track starting at the nearby village of Gergeti, this impressive church lies at an elevation of 2170m and is well worth the effort despite experiencing a sudden, extremely cold snap when arriving there.
Most of the villages around Kazbegi pretty much seem to represent (what I perceive to be) the way life was under Soviet rule. Poverty is evident through the poor state of buildings and houses (rather, shacks in many cases), though there is a marked improvement as one gets closer to Tbilisi. It literally feels like the Kazbegi region is at least 30 years behind, supported by the large number of old Russian cars still roaming the roads. Most amazing is not the fact that these cars are still working (albeit some are driving along like crabs), but that they still seem to go anywhere - even where one would think twice about taking a modern SUV!
Our time in rural Georgia was pretty much perfect, and despite not having planned our moves in detail, managed to experience and see enough of the Kazbegi and the Caucasus mountains over a period of two days. As for Tbilisi, I regret not having prepared better in advance to include a number of art / photography galleries into a focused itinerary, but my unfortunate choice of Easter weekend timing for my trip did not help much to reveal the impressive creative, artistic side of Tbilisi that I strongly suspect can be found there in bucket loads. Perhaps I will be better prepared for another possible short trip to Tbilisi in the future.
For those who have followed some of my previous blog postings (and the technically minded) I exclusively used my Leica Q for all the images used in this posting. Having said that, I did miss my X100s ...