8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus

Nested south of the magnificent Caucasus – Europe’s highest mountain chain – and on the opposite shore of the Black Sea from Bulgaria, Georgia is by all means one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Whether it’s fertile valleys, antique towns, secluded monasteries, coastal jungles, arid semi-desert plains or mind-boggling glaciated mountain peaks, Georgia has it all!

Sure, Georgia may not be a Balkan country, but I instantly felt at home in this Caucasian heaven during my two-week vacation. The warmth of the people, the dynamic landscapes, the secluded monasteries and the wonderful cuisine are but a few features Georgia and Bulgaria have in common. And there was no lack of excellent wine and rakia (or chacha, as they call it beyond the Black Sea) to keep me happy during my holiday!

From the region’s most romantic capital to the highest villages in Europe, kashkaval tourist presents 8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus!

1. Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Tbilisi, the romantic Georgian capital, is an excellent introduction to the culture, history, cuisine and nature of this incredible country and indeed, to the entire region. Tbilisi mixes East with West, tradition with modernity and old-town serenity with the hustle and bustle of a capital metropolis… and it does it all remarkably well!

Tbilisi’s Old Town with is quaint alleys and antique architecture will be your best bet for a leisurely walk or a casual Georgian wine dinner. Further away, the Dry Bridge flea market is a great place to buy antique souvenirs, especially if you’re curious about communist memorabilia.

Above the Old Town, the ancient Narikala Fortress on top of a steep hill will reveal vistas of the winding Mtkvari River and the ultramodern Peace Bridge crossing it – as well as the huge Holy Trinity Cathedral in traditional Caucasian style. If you’d rather spare the short but vertical walk to the fortress, you can always take the chairlift from the other side of the Peace Bridge. You’ll be rewarded with a short but exhilarating ride above the entire city!

2. Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Drive just a few hours north of Tbilisi along the legendary Georgian Military Road and you’ll end up in the heartland of the Central Caucasus, surrounded by peaks more than 4,000 metres high. Above the quaint medieval church of Tsminda Sameba and even further above the mountain town of Stepantsminda you’ll find the 5,047-metre-high Mount Kazbek, the mythical stratovolcano that Prometheus was allegedly chained on.

With its grassy slopes, dramatic glaciers and unmistakable volcanic shape, Mount Kazbek is one of Georgia’s prime hiking destinations. A steep two-hour walk will take you to the Tsminda Sameba Church above the village, which is perhaps the country’s most photographed location.

Add another four hours and you’ll end up at the foot of the massive Gergeti Glacier. And if you’re into some relatively light ice hiking, then you can overnight at the former weather station on the other side of the glacier, a further two hours away. Conditions at the hut are basic to say the least, but at 3,670 metres above sea level, you’ll take anything!

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7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets

7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets

Eastern Orthodox monasteries are among Bulgaria’s most valuable cultural heritage. Some like the fortress-like Rila Monastery are rightfully UNESCO World Heritage Sites, others like the Bachkovo Monastery in the verdant Rhodopes attract crowds with their unique and aesthetically-pleasing Byzantine architecture.

However, many of the most interesting Bulgarian monasteries remain relatively off the beaten track. As a result, they have retained their antique appeal and authentic appearance. Put on your cassock (or not) and head for the holy water, for kashkaval tourist presents 7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets!

1. Nine centuries of stone: Zemen Monastery

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If you somehow end up in the tiny town of Zemen between Pernik and Kyustendil, you’ll be surprised to discover a well-kept piece of medieval Bulgarian history. The fascinating Zemen Monastery (Земенски манастир Zemenski manastir) dates to the 11th century and has preserved a curious cube-shaped church as old as the monastery itself. In the church’s cool stone interior you can see vivid biblical frescoes from the 14th centuries as well as one of the earliest donor’s portraits (of an unnamed Bulgarian aristocrat and his wife Doya).

Curiously, on my visit to the monastery three years ago I also found a not-so-ancient cassette player. Thankfully, it was playing religious hymns rather than tacky Bulgarian pop folk music!

2. Bulgarian Gothic: Lopushna Monastery

Did you know Bulgaria made its own unique contribution to Gothic architecture… albeit some three or four centuries after it went out of fashion in Western Europe? Indeed, a few dozen 19th-century churches in northwestern Bulgaria bear the classic traces of medieval Gothic architecture – including sharp arches, geometric details like rosettes and rich carved stone decoration.

The Lopushna Monastery (Лопушански манастир Lopushanski manastir) near Georgi Damyanovo is perhaps the most majestic examples of this late Bulgarian Gothic style. Established in medieval times, this monastery was reconstructed in its present appearance in the 1850s – and the monastery church stands out with its unique sharp-pointed design and naïve exterior reliefs, including stone (self?) portraits of the moustached architect and his assistant.

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