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Georgia on my mind: How Russian trendsetters fell in love with Tbilisi and why soon you will too

Georgia on my mind: How Russian trendsetters fell in love with Tbilisi and why soon you will too

Georgia was popular in Soviet times as a holiday destination for bohemian types, and today, despite a war as recently as 2008, the mountainous Caucasian republic is once again top of any hip young Russian's bucket list. Sasha Raspopina explains the country's enduring appeal

7 April 2016

Forget Barcelona and Lisbon — the hottest destination among young Russians is Tbilisi, which, along with other Georgian cities like Batumi, Kutaisi, and Gori, has become the hippest destination in the new east. Those who follow Russian trendsetters on Instagram or Facebook might have noticed this wave of popularity: famous bloggers, journalists, stylists, and models vacation in Georgia, posting envy-inducing #foodporn pictures and mind-blowing #nofilter landscapes. The comment sections fill up with envy and tips about wine tastings and the best places for hikes and horseback riding. Praise for khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) and kindzmarauli (semi-sweet red wine) is approaching the western internet’s meme-driven obsession with bacon and Nutella. Everyone seems to be falling hopelessly in love with the mountainous ex-Soviet republic.

Amidst the flurry of anti-Georgian propaganda in the Russian state-controlled media that followed the 2008 conflict between the countries (often referred to as the Five Day War), a feeling prevailed that liking Georgia was an edgy, anti-establishment thing to do. Journalists working for opposition media campaigned against the deportation of Georgian citizens by adding Georgian-sounding endings to their surnames in their bylines. Meanwhile Georgian wine and its famous mineral water, Borjomi, were banned from import for some time and direct flights from Moscow to Tbilisi were cancelled. But now it’s almost as if you can’t escape mentions of Georgia. The state-owned travel channel Moya Planeta (My Planet) posts listicles of Georgia travel “hacks”, quipping that the main obstacle for tourists is overeating thanks to the amazing national cuisine.

For a month in 2015 every tourist arriving in Georgia by plane got a bottle of Georgian saperavi wine, red and rich in taste, at passport control as part of a promotion by the country’s Ministry of Economy, prompting a torrent of social media posts on the Russian internet admiring the country’s hospitality and wine traditions. If the amount of digital affection is anything to judge by, Russians have a whole lot of love — and an endless supply of heart emojis — for Georgia.

Miroslava Duma’s platform Buro247 regularly publishes overviews of Georgian fashion, furniture designers and young talents, lists of unusual travel destinations within the country and reviews of designer hotels, like the Instagram-worthy Rooms Hotel in the mount Kazbek region. Independent fashion brands like Sputnik 1985 use magnificent mountains or wooden balconies in Tbilisi old town as a chic and authentic backdrop for their fashion shoots. Social media is buzzing with touching and sincere stories about meeting locals: Ivan Kolpakov, a Meduza journalist, wrote about an old lady insisting on paying his bus fare because he was a “guest in the country”, prompting an avalanche of comments like “Georgians are wonderful” and “Georgians are literally the best people”.

Tourist interest in the country has been building up over the last few years, and now the travel trend is starting to leave the hipster realm and enter the mainstream. Finding an organised guided tour is easier than ever, and there are plenty of trips to suit different tastes — from gourmet tours to spa getaways at hot springs. Where there aren’t many travel agencies, taxi drivers will offer you tours to the tourist attractions in and out of the city; depending on your interests they can organise a wine tasting or a mountain hike — for Georgian taxi drivers everything is just a phone call away. Ironically, this is not the first time Georgia has been a trendy vacation spot for Russians — in Soviet times it was very popular too, especially among creative types and hippies. Gagri and Batumi have always had the reputation of being more sophisticated and artistic resorts than, say, Sochi or Anapa with their overpriced markets and crowded beaches. In fact, retreating to the mountains has been a hip thing to do ever since Russian 19th century writers found escape and inspiration in the Caucasus. If Robert Burns’ heart was in the highlands, Lermontov’s and Pushkin’s were in the Caucasus, along with so many other Russian souls.

No wonder the Instagram tag #Tbilissimo, a portmanteau of the city’s name and the Italian word bellissimo, is so popular. And comparisons with Italy are not unfounded: Georgia has a great climate (warm summers and mild winters); a whole lot of history and sights for the culture junkie and Black sea resorts for the beach lovers; a universally acclaimed national cuisine complemented by one of the oldest wine-making traditions in the world. A thriving art scene and a booming bar culture in Tbilisi will be sure to satisfy any sudden cravings for bohemian activities.

A less obvious and a more recent reason for admiring Georgia is political: many say that a post-Soviet country that has not only managed to escape the grim post-Soviet fate of being an obedient satellite of Russian foreign policies but also leaped straight into the relative corruption- and bureaucracy-free reality is an inspiring example. It’s the country many people wish Russia was more similar to: Russians coming from Georgian vacations compose elaborate Facebook posts about the country’s polite policemen, friendly people and impressive infrastructure. After flooding hit Tbilisi in June 2015, Russian celebrities put out a video expressing support for the country while Facebook filled with expressions of condolences, and Russian bloggers wrote posts about admiring the ways many Georgian politicians handled the flood by working 24hrs and not fleeing the flooded areas — as happened more than once when the south of Russia suffered from floods.

Might the “Soviet Italy” soon seduce the European traveller too? The most commonly cited difficulties are getting to Georgia, since there aren’t that many direct flights, and the language barrier, since Georgians are more likely to speak Russian instead of English. Both aren’t big issues: flights from Istanbul to Tbilisi are frequent and cheap (from £40 for a return flight if you’re booking in advance), and only take two hours, and the friendly and welcoming nature of Georgian people will overcome any language barrier with ease. The benefits, however, are aplenty. The country has not yet become a commercial tourist spot, and while it might not have the tourist infrastructure that European tourists might expect, it has preserved its authenticity, which is obviously a bigger treasure.

But you’ll have to hurry. The New York Times has published a whole cheatsheet to Tbilisi and The Washington Post swears that Georgian food is the next big thing for the culinary trends. Of course Georgia will not put Tenerife or Magaluf out of business – but then, it’s not here to do that. Instead, it will capture your soul with the highest mountains, the greenest fields, and so much history you will spend your dinners captured in deep poetic thought. Fortunately, the food and wine will bring you back down to earth. Don’t forget to send a postcard.

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