Georgia: The Ultimate European Back Door

Where are all the tourists?
12/08/2011 08:29 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

While most Americans refer to Central Europe (including the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Croatia) as "Eastern Europe," the countries deeper into the former Soviet Union are the real Eastern Europe. And lately, I've heard lots of rumbling that destinations like Ukraine, Armenia, and Russia are offering very rewarding travel experiences.

Ashley Sytsma, my publicist, is in Georgia on a mission to learn about its nascent wine industry for her husband's wine business. I invited her to guest-host my blog for a week.
So, let's all go to Georgia -- the one over by Russia. Take it away, Ashley!

A while back, my husband asked me if I wanted to go with him to Tbilisi, Georgia, to buy wine for his company, People's Wine Market. Despite not knowing a thing about the country, I said, "Why not?"

Knowing what I do now, my only regret is that I didn't visit Georgia sooner.

After a jolly nine-hour layover of beer-drinking in Munich, we flew east for four hours, landing bleary-eyed (and slightly hung over) at 3 a.m. in a bitterly cold and silently sleeping Tbilisi. Driving to our hotel, we quietly murmured in awe, "Where the heck are we? This is wild..."

Rick likes to discover Back Doors -- special places where we travelers have our mental and spiritual furniture rearranged, and where we learn that other parts of the world consider different truths self-evident and God-given. During that ride from the airport, I knew we were about to explore the ultimate European Back Door.

Colossal Soviet-built concrete apartment towers lined the George W. Bush highway (named after the first US president to visit independent Georgia). Orthodox cathedrals were illuminated with pink, blue and yellow lights. Ornately carved wooden balconies (which the city is famous for) sagged on their building's crumbling foundations. On one of Tbilisi's many hills sat a television tower that looked like something from The Jetsons and glittered nonstop like the Eiffel Tower. On another hill stood a piercingly white 70-foot statue: Mother Georgia forlornly watching over her sleeping city, a bowl of wine in one hand for her guests, and a sword in the other for her enemies.

By noon, we were hiking up yet another hill to Tbilisi's ancient Narikala Fortress, which is known for its spectacular city views. Ascending the hill is like climbing up through time, as the fortress' outer wall is a layered patchwork of different stones and building styles. In many ways, this fortress tells the history of the entire nation. Georgia sits at the center of a very profitable crossroads. Its strategic location and lush natural resources has (to the war-weary Georgians' dismay) made it a target for countless invasions. The Romans, Persians, Ottomans, Arabs, Russians, and even Mongols have all played parts in Georgia's tumultuous history. With each invasion, the fortress was bombed. With each new victor, the walls were rebuilt on top of the destruction -- the oldest layer being from the fourth century A.D., the newest being the fortress' crown jewel: a small Orthodox church that opened only a few years ago.

As we caught our breath at the top, we gazed out over the magnificently beautiful city, marveling at the fact that our only company up here was a sleeping dog, the resident monk's beehive, and an elderly Georgian man doing his daily exercises. As we listened to the cold wind whistle through the ancient rocks and trees, we giggled at our good fortune at having this place to ourselves.

Where are all the tourists?