Posted by: Gideon | February 7, 2011

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

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.

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Responses

  1. Hello, we are planing to spend three to four months in Georgia with three small children and would love any advice you can share! I am getting some good info just from reading your posts but would love any specifics. Thanks in advance!

    • Hi
      I think the blog is a good place to start – why don’t you send me specific questions and I’ll see if I can answer them.
      all the best!

  2. I spent two weeks on Georgia in 1999 and again in 2001, doing grant work for the National Archives there. I loved reading your blog as I hope to one day bring my own three children to this amazing country. I was sad to read that you missed out on the absolutely amazing food that Georgia has to offer. I don’t think I have been anywhere else with such spectacular flavors, including Turkey, but I spent a fair amount of time with Georgians in their homes and dachas. For me it was amazing to see the transformation that took place in Tbilisi over the years when I was there. The history of that country is just incredible. Great reading!

    • Yes, I agree it was a pity about the food. The restaurants we came across were obviously catering to tourists and were pretty poor, and we didn’t have much opportunity to eat with Georgians themselves. It clearly would have made a huge difference if we had met more Georgians, eaten in their homes etc. The couple of meals that we did eat in homestays were excellent and there was enough food to feed an army.

  3. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blogs. A friend and I have been talking about going to Georgia for around 14 years and we’ve finally booked to go, next March. I’d had some concerns about safety but feel reassured now. I’m planning to take my daughter who will be 4 by then. What are the museums in Tbilisi like for children? Are there any decent swimming pools? How did you book your apartment?
    Thanks

    • Hi Hannah
      Thanks for the comments.
      I’d have to say that the museums we visited in Tbilisi held very limited appeal for my kids. The National Museum was closed (apparently it’s been that way for years – maybe its open by now?). The Museum of Art was excellent in so many ways but again, has limited appeal for kids. My kids didn’t like the Ethnographical Museum and we didn’t manage to get to the Dolls Museum, which may be the one that suits your child best.
      As for swimming pools, we swam at the Vere Pool – an ancient public pool near downtown. It did the job on a hot day, but it was straight out of the 1960’s or possibly earlier. There is a modern indoor pool at Vake but it may be open to members only – you’d have to check. Some 5* hotels will have pools. There is also the newish waterpark out in the suburbs that we went to – an adventure getting there, but the kids loved it.
      As for our apartment, we used a local Tbilisi agent. I’ll email you the details. There are now quite a few online sites offering apartments in Tbilisi – I have no idea how good they are.

  4. I am planning to go to Georgia this summer with 2 small kids – would love to get the contact info for the agent you used for the apartment .. also, do you have any contact info for booking a tour like you suggested?

    One more question – Would you recommend bringing a stroller? jogging stroller or just a small city street thing? we would do tblisi, Batsumi, beach, and possibly mountains.

    • Hi Michelle

      Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately I understand that the same apartment isn’t being rented out anymore. As for tours and accommodation, this is something I do, so I will contact you directly.
      As for strollers – my answer is yes, absolutely. I always suggest a lightweight easily foldable stroller. Perhaps you can’t always use it, but when you can its very useful. I also suggest a backpack that you can carry a child in – I used mine till my youngest was 4 years old! Very useful when you can’t use a stroller.
      all the best
      Gideon


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