Georgia, Lebanon, Slovakia and Prague are incredible places to travel to. This page has some trip records organized as follows:
Georgia is a natural crossroads nation that connects Russia, the Stans, Iran and Turkey along the Silk Road. We may think of it first as a former Soviet Republic, not least as it contributed heavily to the leadership of the USSR, but it existed as an independent kingdom until taken over by Tsarist Russia in the 18th century. Georgia had a brief period of independence starting in 1917 before being occupied by Communist Russia in 1921. It’s a brilliant country to visit, with a diverse geography from its Black Sea Coastline to the Caucasus mountains in the north, and a desert border to the south and east.
Every journey starts with a single step, and the route was SFO-LAX-MUC-TBS. In this case I changed planes at LAX and recommend the Star Alliance lounge, which has an open air section. The weather was overcast but I’m a sucker for the scent of Jet-A and sea breezes.
Some orientation…downtown Tbilisi, looking north along the river from the Narikala Citadel. The old town is pretty much where the hill rolls out, and further north is the Soviet-era city center that starts at Rustaveli (renowned Medieval-era poet) Avenue, which is the main avenue going north. Tbilisi is a combination of traditional Georgian styles, Islamic influence, Russian and more modern development post-independence. If you have a couple of days, you can have a pretty full itinerary between the old town, the usual museum/early medieval church/fort combo, pretty great restaurants and a very interesting wine culture. I visited in April when the weather was cool and pleasant.
Looking east towards the new cathedral in the background and the Metekhi Church (c 1280s) in the foreground.
Obligatory castle battlements shot with a view of the jammed together old town.
Hamams in the Maidan neighborhood, dating from the 1700s and still very much open. Pushkin visited. The city has many hot springs.
Traditional Georgian houses, Sunni mosque (~1895) and hills beyond.
Lots of balconied wooden houses – it’s going to get hot in the summer.
More Russian-era housing in need of some upgrade.
Neighborhood upgrade program. Much of old town Tbilisi is being progressively renovated by the city to revitalize the older central areas.
Evening demonstration outside the Parliament Building, political center of Georgia.
Nice Tsarist-era opera house with eastern touches.
Delicious mineral water with lots of fortifying chewiness. I liked Borjomi, which was reportedly Stalin’s favorite non-alcoholic beverage, but wouldn’t kick the Nabeghlavi out of bed either. I declined the desk flag souvenir but now regret doing so.
First trip out of Tbilisi was north to Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains. Passed through Ananauri on the way, chapel by the lake. The main buildings are from the mid-17th century although the watchtower is from the 12th.
The main road north through the Caucasus to Russia is the two-lane excellently named Caucasian Military Highway that continues to Vladikavkaz in Russia. Here is a GAZ truck passing by for atmosphere. Basically anyone going north to south goes over this road, that started as a horse trail at the dawn of time and has improved into a pretty rough in places blacktop.
The Caucasus takes form as you travel up in altitude.
And the sovbloc cars keep on going.
Finally you hit snow conditions – in April.
Plenty of barrier-free hairpin turns and happy cattle to support concentration.
And then down towards Kazbegi (or Stepantsminda) and the huge truck line waiting to clear the Russian border.
I hiked up to the Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) in Kazbegi, which was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Gergeti hike is a good day trip, although it can be done in half a day if you’re reasonably fit. To get to the church, you cross over the Tergi River and work up through Gergeti village.
Traditional dwellings in Kazbegi.
Soviet era war memorial in Kazbegi.
You can cut up to the Gergeti church through the switchback vehicle tracks until you find open hillside. It’s rather steep, although running shoes worked ok.
The Gergeti church dates from the 14th and 15th centuries and is even more impressive when the surrounding mountains are in the background.
The town of Kazbegi looking east from the church.
I then had to get back down the highway in the afternoon, which was as interesting as the ride up, with more whiteout and trucks.
I soon found that the periodic Soviet-era road tunnels lacked for lighting but not atmosphere.
And down into the misty wooded foothills.
From here I headed southeast, and spent the night at the Schuchmann winery hotel near Telavi. Highly recommended – Telavi sits in the Alavani River valley, a major wine growing region. Georgian wine is worth a look, and Saperavi, a dry red, is obtainable overseas, along with a range of whites. The following day, I ended up in the southeast at the walled silk road trading city of Sighnaghi, which sits on a high ridge overlooking the valley. Sighnagi was mostly built in the late 18th century, and was recently spruced up by the government so looks quite neat.
Sighnagi was an extensive fort area that commands the valley below to this day. It is huge and left as-is, in pretty good condition considering.
Heading into southern Georgia, rolling countryside not far from the Azerbaijani border.
I made my way to the cave monasteries of Davit Gareja, close to the Azerbaijani border and rising out of rock formations. The original habitations, founded in the 6th century, were rock caves that then grew into a walled and towered monastery.
Driving in Georgia involves a lot of unintentional tracks.
Obligatory airport photo; departures area pre-check in. It’s about 5am, flights leave early to hit the connecting hubs. Nice well-run airport operated by TAV, the Turkish airport company.
Some travel tips.
Tbilisi airport is easy to use and a cab into town is quick and reasonable.
I stayed just north of the old town and walked around for the most part. Whole sections are under redevelopment so don’t be surprised to find a lot of construction. Restaurants are excellent and I’d recommend (addresses are findable):
Barbarestan – good traditional Georgian food and more than the usual khachapuri (bread with a cheese center).
Schuchmann – cellar restaurant, worth going to check out the different wines. Georgian grapes are mostly unique to the country.
Samikitno – cafe-type Georgian.
Driving. Car hire is reasonable in Georgia and the roads are well signposted. The standard of driving and road manners was good. There are major freeways on the main routes that are good, but many of the secondary roads can be slow going given the terrain. Be aware that Georgia relies more on dirt tracks between significant communities than you may be used to in the west, so if you’re going between smaller towns the roads are usually fine but check the grade, just in case.
Lebanon has an incredible concentration of landscape, history, multiculture, food, and yes indeed, wine. I hired a car and drove between Beirut and some great places. The roads were good (mostly) and fellow drivers mostly just fine. The neighboring Syrian civil was has since worsened the border security and refugee situation. I arrived in Beirut and spent a few days in the west of the City.
A lot of effort has gone into renovating many of the city areas. Beirut attracts a lot of vacationers and residents from the Arab world (who don’t have to mess with visas to Europe for a start) and is a growing business hub. The American University takes a lot of students from the region and the Arab-English slang that you overhear is excellent.
The scars of the Civil War remain however.
And then I started driving around, to:
Byblos! Haunt of the 50s and 60s jet-set, including Marlon Brando, Brigette Bardot and for some reason the CO of the 82nd Airborne Division, until the civil war. Pepe Abed’s Fishing Club is a good restaurant by the harbor, which rightly plays on its extensive photo-lined walls of past media frenzy. Nice medieval harbor, marina, etc. Quieter now.
Byblos is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities, with 7,000 years of existence. The archaeological site is worth seeing, centered with a more recent 12th century crusader castle, that lifted much of it’s stones from earlier era masonry. If it’s 1180 and you have castles to build, does that make ransacking a 2nd century ruin less bad?
Then inland east to the beautiful Kadisha Valley and Bsharri (hometown of the poet Kahlil Gibran). The Lebanese highlands are quite dramatic and require careful driving.
Beautiful Bsharri, where Kahlil Gibran’s childhood home is nicely preserved and worth a visit.
The Kadisha Valley is the spiritual home of the Maronite religion and has a series of monasteries and chapels cut into the valley rock. Maronites fled into the very deep and then inaccessible valley around the 7th century and stayed on. Many of the monasteries are still active.
After Bsharri I crested east over the central mountain range and into the Bekaa Valley. More open desert terrain that you associate with the Middle East.
And on to Baalbek, roads permitting.
Baalbek, or Heliopolis, is awesome in every regard. The entrance is very mighty.
But doesn’t prepare you for this.
In general, very large as befits a major Roman religious and commercial center.
Then south to Aanjar, an Umayyid city from the 8th century. The Umayyad Caliphate was centered in Damascus and at its height ruled Spain, the Maghreb, Arabia and into Persia. This city controlled the approaches to Damascus and the way to Beirut and is organized on a grid that is very clear even today.
No trip to the Bekaa Valley is complete without visits to excellent vineyards, some of which are around Chtoura. There are plenty of reviews and recommendations to be found online, although the Shiraz seems to come out very well. I visited Chateau Kefraya, Clos St Thomas, Domaine des Tourelles (who have a store in Beirut as well). I stayed in Zahle which is a good base for the Bekaa area and close to many of the wineries as well.
From the Bekaa it’s a short way to the Chouf Mountains, where you have a lot of quiet hillside towns. I stopped in Jezzine which was a nice place to spend an evening.
Then I headed south towards Beaufort. This is a Crusader fortress placed in a very obvious defensive position around 1140. It was under restoration at the time, hence the crane. The Israelis occupied it in the 1982 war (there is an Israel movie of the same name) and you can see the Israeli emplacements next to the earlier efforts.
You know when you go south that you’re in the Shia area of the Lebanon, where Bashir Assad and the gentlemen with the Kalashnikov are just ok. One reason the Lebanon resonates with me is that if the Shia, Maronite and Sunni and everyone else could make this place work, wouldn’t that be a fine thing?
I also made it further south to Sidon and Tyre. These are go-to’s for some incredible Roman artifacts , including the rather intact “Ben Hur” format racetrack that I may get to posting.
Tips: Bradt Guide is my go-to usually and doesn’t disappoint here. It’s very comprehensive and generally steered me well.
Beirut neighorhoods & hotel. I stayed at the Mayflower, located in the Hamra area, which opened in 1957. Simple hotel, nice bar where you can observe celebrity photos from the 1960s while drinking lager. Kim Philby (British spy) was (allegedly) a regular there before defecting to the Soviet Union in 1963. The Hamra has plenty of restaurants, bars and is a nice walking area. It’s close to the American University which has a great archaeological museum.
Food wise it’s almost impossible to go wrong across the value range and is pretty surviveable for vegans as well.
Getting Around. The hire car worked out very well, I used a local firm (Advanced Car Rental) who delivered and picked up at the hotel, and forgave me the plastic hub cap that flew off and which I presented to them in a bag having recovered it from the roadside. I did a separate side trip down to Sidon and Tyre by bus which was quick and efficient.
Slovakia is a corner of Europe which is pristine and intact with preserved medieval/renaissance towns and wild mountain areas. It has incredible countryside which through not being flat (bad tank country) has avoided much of the damage from the world wars. With Bratislava as a base in the west, you can easily travel across the country in a day. Bardejov is a worthy target in the east, a beautifully preserved renaissance era town.
Slovakia as with many eastern European countries has plenty of Soviet-era memorials commemorating their liberation from German occupation. Memories of the ensuing Soviet occupation will need to recede for these to hold their proper memorial in the defeat of fascism.
A feature of rural Slovakia are the wooden churches – not large buildings but a unique layout.
Slovakia also shares the Tatra mountain range with Poland. We were there for a quick visit so jammed in a day hike. A good way to get going is to go to Stary Smokovec, where there are plenty of trailheads and a helpful visitor center which can give you a trail map.
Heading west, we passed Spis Castle, catching the October frosts. Another castle sitting at the side of a major pass waiting for the Mongols to return.
We stopped off in Levoca, another well-preserved Renaissance era town with plenty of fortifications and a pretty major downtown. We didn’t stay overnight but there looked to be plenty of options.
Over the border to the Czech Republic and finished up in inevitable Prague, lovely city.
Packed with visitors off-season but outside of the Charles Bridge and Old Town Square it’s a pretty normal city full of Czechs.
Czech has a strong heritage of country music from the Soviet era. If that resonates with you, I’d start with an excellent set of Johnny Cash covers with good featuring of the undeservedly neglected Greenhorns, available on the Supraphon label:
Who can refuse the Orange Blossom Special when well adapted:
As well as country music, Czech literary heroes Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek get the periodic nod.
Now for some of the classic sites, starting with the Hradcany area up the hill to the west of the river…
The other point of pride in Czech history is the use of the open window for political opponents, characterized as the First Defenestration of Prague (1419) and the Second Defenestration of Prague (1618). No messing.
More scenery. Prague is very scenic.
1989 Memorial, kept lit.