Travel with kids to the Republic of Georgia: The good, the bad and the ugly.

February 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Georgia has all the makings of a major tourist country. Until 1990, it was actually the most popular tourist area in the Soviet Union, but with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia went into terrible decline, caused by civil war, corruption, an external war and of course, the loss of its major market – the Russians, in almost every sphere.

The great thing about Georgia today is the fact that it is pristine – the mountains are fabulous, and just waiting for adventure travelers to arrive. The historical sites are exceptional – and are so untouristed that you can’t find any English guides or even a Coke! The cities – well, apart from Tbilisi they need to be reconstructed, or are undergoing reconstruction, so they’ll be a mess for a while. Tbilisi on the other hand is a gem – a wonderful, quirky historic core, small enough to easily walk around, and backed by good restaurants and the only international quality hotels in the country. It’s an interesting place – how many cities have a major highway named after President George W Bush, regarded as a hero in Georgia?

We did struggle with the language – a lot. Georgian has its own alphabet and so even reading things is impossible. We managed to get around, but the fact is, English, French, Spanish – all the western European languages are very poorly represented in Georgia, apart from Tbilisi. It seemed that Russian really was the only language that anyone could really communicate in apart from Georgian. The people were friendly – some extremely so, others merely courteous. Some however seemed to be suspicious of us. That could be because families traveling independently without a guide are extremely rare, or perhaps they thought we looked Russian, and Russians are not in the average Georgian’s good books, following the war with Russia in 2008, and various embargoes Russia has placed on Georgia, such as on wine and sparkling water.

In addition, we thought that we would be able to manage traveling on the public transport just fine – and the train we went on was good, but we struggled with the marshrutkas (shared taxis) and quickly resorted to hiring a car with a driver.

Communications was good – we bought a local SIM card for our cellphone, and we were amazed by how cheap the calls were. On the other hand, we found the TV stations to be sorely lacking. Tbilisi has an excellent English bookshop in Prospero’s Books. It was also a great place to surf the net.

The food wasn’t as good as we had hoped – it was fine, unusual at times, and sometimes very tasty, and nobody got sick, but it was nothing like in Turkey, where nearly everything, from the simplest eatery up, is a virtual feast.

My advice to other families and travelers is – if you would like to see a country before mass tourism arrives – go! There are very “undiscovered” countries like this anymore, and certainly not in Europe. On the other hand unless you are very intrepid, organise a guide. There are plenty of travel agencies in Georgia, and to arrange a guide with a car and driver is straightforward and not terribly expensive. Feel free to contact me for further details.

As for the kids – they thoroughly enjoyed themselves, though they had to do without their favorite TV shows and had to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is trained in the good manners that they are used to in Canada.  Their favorite meals were the ones that we prepared ourselves in our rental apartment in Tbilisi and not being able to drink the wine, they couldn’t appreciate that excellent contribution that Georgia has made to the food and drink experience.  The kids have traveled a lot, but this was the first time that they felt that language was a limiting factor.

You will see signs of dereliction and decay , mainly in the smaller cities and towns but there is no abject poverty, although one does see some beggars (mainly women) in Tbilisi. They actually never bothered us – probably they realised that we wouldn’t undertand what they were saying. While we didn’t meet that many Georgians, the ones we did meet were not very happy – emigration is clearly something on a lot of young people’s minds, and with little industry or jobs, it is not surprising that some want to leave. There certainly is an elite -we played with them at the water parks – but they are clearly a very small minority. The Georgians that we met were bitter toward Russia – and more so, they seemed worried that one day Russia may just decide to send its army over the border and reoccupy the country. It’s happened before, and in this part of the world, history does seem to repeat itself from time to time.

We felt safe – always. Whether at night in the city, or walking around a small town or village, we never felt endangered and we were never worried about our personal safety. The roads, apart from those in the mountains, were in surprisingly good shape and with so much rebuilding going on, in places such as Batumi and Mestia, there is no doubt that within a year or two these towns and cities will be extremely pleasant.

If I went back, I think it would be for a summer camping trip, with a guide and with horses or jeeps into the mountains of Georgia – though amenities are few and far between, the incredible feeling of being almost alone, without hundreds or thousands of fellow travelers, is something very rare and special today.

PS: These days I plan great family trips to multiple destinations. Click here for more info.