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The cool, dim exhibit rooms of the Museum of Georgia are a welcome escape on this hot July afternoon. After several hours of leading our group around the capital city of Tbilisi on foot, our guide, Anna, has let us loose to explore on our own, and I’ve got two exhibitions in my sights.

The first, the Archeological Treasury, is a series of cases filled with stunning millennia-old metalwork, such as bright-gold jewellery from the famed kingdom of Colchis, one of the ancestors of modern Georgia.

The ornate 1950s Stalin Museum / KAT TANCOCK

The other, called the Soviet Occupation, is just as striking. The displays explain how the independent country of Georgia was invaded and brought into the Soviet fold in 1921 following its short-lived existence after the Russian Revolution – and conclude with a jarring map of the current-day disputed regions known internationally (by their Russian names) as Abkhazia and South Ossetia: independent states, according to the Russian party line, occupied territories, from the Georgian point of view.

The latter exhibit is a stark reminder of Georgia’s complex relations with its northern neighbour, 24 years after its independence from the Soviet Union and more than two centuries after its 1801 annexation by the Russian Empire. The former, on the other hand, serves to demonstrate the rich cultural heritage of the Georgian people, which has persevered no matter who has been in charge.

I’m on Day 5 of my Caucasian journey with Canadian tour company G Adventures, and teasing apart complicated history has become par for the course. After four days in Armenia, our small group has crossed the border to get a taste of what Georgia has to offer. What we discover is diverse, spectacular landscapes; an easy-to-navigate country; a unique and delicious cuisine; and friendly locals eager to welcome a fresh crop of travellers from beyond the former communist realm.

Every day, we’re struck by the density and diversity of things to see and do here. One outing, for instance, covers the sixth-century hilltop Jvari (Cross) Monastery and nearby former capital city Mtskheta; the ornate 1950s Stalin Museum in his birthplace of Gori (complete with the train car he rode in to the Yalta conference); and the cave city of Uplistsikhe, hewn out of rock faces starting in at least the sixth century BC, which in its heyday was a trade centre along a major caravan route with about 20,000 inhabitants. As we wander the worn pathways, carved staircases and cozy rooms of the ancient town, we stain our fingers with juicy purple mulberries purchased from a vendor outside the ticket office.

The former capital city Mtskheta, Georgia / KAT TANCOCK

In Kakheti, Georgia’s wine region, we visit the ninth-century Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe, a major pilgrimage site and working nunnery, before stopping at the town of Sighnaghi for lunch at Pheasant’s Tears, a natural winery that ferments and ages its whites, ambers, rosés and reds the traditional Georgian way, in beeswax-lined clay qvevri buried underground. Sated and then revived with a taste of chacha, the local grape-based spirit, we skip back to the 19th century at the former estate and winery of nobleman Alexander Chavchavadze, a godson of Catherine the Great.

On another excursion, we head north into the mountains along the Georgian Military Road, an ancient trade route that is now the only navigable highway into Russia. Cattle and sheep lazily graze on the emerald slopes; valleys slice between steep mountainsides, their tops brushing the clouds; on one hairpin turn, an improbable food shop huddles into the rocky face, a couple of parking spots across the road at the edge of a cliff.

We overnight in the ski town of Gudauri, then climb higher, aiming for the town of Stepantsminda and the Sameba church in its perch in the mountains high above the town. Even in the height of summer, patches of snow cling to the deepest crevices. Near the 2,379-metre Jvari Pass, the road’s highest point, stands a crumbling 1980s monument to Georgian-Russian friendship. Set on a promontory overlooking the deep Aragvi River valley, it’s a popular roadside stop as much for the photo ops and views as for its colourful murals in exuberant Soviet style.

Centuries ago, the city of Uplistsikhe was a major caravan route and home to 20,000 people. / KAT TANCOCK

At Stepantsminda, our group splits into two, some opting to drive to the summit while others choose the 90-minute hike. Many of the Georgians we see are climbing the steep slopes as a sort of pilgrimage; we’re more interested in exercise, stretching out legs gone restless after hours on the bus.

We zigzag past houses and through meadows and forest before the rocky path turns steep and our breath turns fast, and then we’re there at 2,170 metres, watching cattle graze below the 14th-century church and its bell tower, appearing and disappearing behind strips of fast-moving cloud. Even taller mountains surround us, including Mount Kazbek, which at 5,047 metres is the third-highest peak in the country.

I approach a group of young men in colourful outdoor gear, clearly preparing for a hike, and ask them how many more hours further they will be going. You should be asking in days, is the reply, their destination a glacier only reachable in the height of summer.

Looking into the valley and town of Stepantsminda from Sameba Church / KAT TANCOCK

At the church, crowds of parishioners swarm the doors or simply relax in the yard, enjoying the view; black-robed priests chat unhurriedly while the recently arrived purchase bundles of long yellow candles to be lit once they enter. It turns out we have shown up on a special day for this church, the overflowing attendance an example of the growing role religion is playing in the lives of many Georgians.

In Tbilisi on our group’s last night, I take advantage of some downtime before dinner to wander the city streets once more, making my way past sights first seen on our walking tour: the sulphur-rich mineral baths, the grapevine-adorned houses (an essential feature in this wine-focused country), the mosque where, unusually, both Shia and Sunni Muslims pray. I climb the steep stairs to the Nariqala Fortress, originally constructed about 1,600 years ago as a Persian fortress, built up a few centuries later by Arab emirs, and later occupied by Turks, Russians and Georgians, depending on the political climate of the time.

Nowadays, the fortress’s inhabitants are mostly tourists looking for a good view, and I seize a spot along the walls to snap photos of the old town, the modern, Italian-designed glass-covered arch of the pedestrian Peace Bridge and silver tubes of Rike Park’s Music Theatre and Exhibition Hall, contrasting with the more old-fashioned red-tiled roofs of the houses below me.

Not far away, the 20-metre-tall Mother Georgia statue looks out over the city, a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, simultaneously welcoming guests and fending off enemies. And I hope, for the sake of the Georgians, the cup of wine becomes the best used of the two.

Flea market in Tbilisi, Georgia / KAT TANCOCK

On the 10-day Best of Georgia & Armenia tour with G Adventures, join a small group of travellers and experienced local guides on a journey from Yerevan, Armenia, to Tbilisi, Georgia, via a selection of both countries’ top sights. Price includes accommodation, local transportation, breakfast, some lunches and dinners, and entry into most sites visited. From $1,749,

Georgian churches are conservative and, for the most part, require men to wear long pants and shirts with sleeves, while women must wear longer skirts and cover head and shoulders. Many churches supply wrap skirts to cover shorts and, on women, pants, but it’s best to come prepared with appropriate clothing.

What to do

Extend your stay to explore more of Georgia’s diverse regions, from beach towns on the Black Sea to high mountain villages.

Once a playground for the Russian imperial family, then a coveted vacation spot for the Soviet elite, the resort town of Borjomi is famous for its mineral-rich waters, which in their bottled form are the country’s leading export. In the midst of renewing its tourist infrastructure (a new Crown Plaza hotel is set to open this fall), the area is worth a visit for its spa facilities, its stunning natural setting and its 20th-century heritage. Borjomi remains a desirable brand name among many former Soviet republics, and you’re likely to run into tourists from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia, all using Russian as their lingua franca.

The high-mountain region of Svaneti is a world unto its own, even down to the unwritten, endangered Svan language, related to but quite different from standard Georgian. The towns and landscape are dotted with tall, square stone towers built in the ninth through 12th centuries as family fortifications; thousand-year-old churches are painted with frescoes and adorned with icons in the naive regional style. The Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography is a must-visit. Try to stay long enough to spend time on local trails, whether on foot, on bicycle or on horseback.

Where to eat

In Tbilisi, two energetic chefs, both trained in New York, are reinterpreting Georgian cuisine for the modern palate.

Meriko Gubeladze serves up fresh takes on traditional dishes at her cozy, comfortable Shavi Lomi (23 Amaghleba St.). Her newer, vegetarian Kafe Leila (18 Erekle II St.) mixes Georgian dishes with those inspired by the Middle East.

Top, Soviet-era kitsch abounds in the flea markets of Tbilisi. Khachapuri is a traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread. The filling contains cheese, eggs and other ingredients / KAT TANCOCK

Tekuna Gachechiladze’s new venture, Cafe Littera (13 Machabeli St.), offers what might best be described as Georgian fusion served under the trees of the back courtyard of the hundred-year-old Writers’ House, once home to the local Soviet writers’ union. Her other restaurant, Culinarium (1 Lermontov St.), was under renovations during my visit and scheduled to reopen this fall.

What to read

Darra Goldstein’s award-winning The Georgian Feast explores the country’s food culture in appetizing detail, before presenting a collection of recipes for traditional dishes such as rich cheese bread khachapuri and lobio tkemali, or kidney beans with plum sauce. It’s an informative introduction to the foods and related traditions encountered while travelling.

The writer travelled with assistance from G Adventures and the Georgian National Tourism Administration. They did not review or approve this article.

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