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Last week I attended a regional conference for Fulbright research students of central and eastern Europe, located in Prague (given America’s reaction to recent events, it may have been safer to hold it in Tbilisi). The conference topic, “Citizens in Public Spaces” was broad enough to encompass a diverse cross-section of arts and research: photography, urban planning, tourism, sociology, heritage management, public health, musicology, environmental advocacy, law, theater, history, and architecture.

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

Our group of about thirty students was kept busy with lectures on local urban issues, presentations from the conference participants, walking tours, and other activities intended to get us engaged with the city (a critical mass bike ride, visit to a farmer’s market, dinner in a recently-restored historic train station, blindfolded “sound walk,” etc.) While the Prague nonprofit activists went out of their way to tell us how difficult it was to promote civic engagement in the Czech Republic, I was still impressed by how much more active and organized local residents were when compared to my experiences in Tbilisi (my favorite idea was the CorruptTour, a guided tour that takes participants to visit sites of municipal corruption, while discussing their impact on the city). I also noticed substantially more environmental awareness–use of glass bottles instead of plastic, efforts at recycling, the woman at the market who didn’t wrap my chocolate bar and my juice in separate plastic bags and then put them both in another plastic bag, etc.

if you're visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

if you’re visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

The conference came at a good time for me, as we are nearing the end of our grant periods and beginning to reflect on what (if anything) we’ve managed to accomplish over the past several months. It was validating to hear other people facing the same issues I have (most notably the lack of transparency and civil engagement that characterizes post-Soviet space), as well as interesting to hear the creative ways some students found to get things done.  I am still not sure how I feel about federally funding certain arts-related projects, however. Call me a rube, but I’m not really sold on circus-dramatic training, video installations, soundscapes, or anything that uses the word “whimsy” without air quotes. Some projects just came off a bit like Buster working on his cartography/18th century agrarianism/archaeology degree.

Anyway, several students and I decided to stay behind after the conference to experience Prague at a slower pace, an approach I fully recommend given the grueling three-day conference schedule. Below are some recommendations of things to do, see, and eat if you have a few free days in the city:

Things to do:

  • Take a tour of the Tower Museum, halls, and dungeons, all of which have been carefully restored and consolidated since the structure sustained serious damage in the final days of WWII. If you’re into photography, it is definitely worth it for the views of Old Town. If you’re into being infantile, there are plenty to historic interiors in which to pose when the tour guide is not looking.
  • On a nice day, walk around Prague Castle. We took the tram up the (rather steep) hill to the castle complex, which dropped us off at the back entrance by the Royal Gardens–these were not only beautiful, but quiet and free of the throngs of tourists occupying every other historical/cultural site in the city. Entrance is somewhat expensive, so we decided to walk around the castle and cathedral exterior before proceeding back down the hill (lined with shops and cafes overlooking the city, as well as the impressive Lobkowicz fine arts museum).
  • Visit the KGB Museum, which is basically an overenthusiastic Russian local’s personal collection of Soviet military memorabilia (not specific to the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia). While it is somewhat expensive, I thought it was worth it for the scope of the collection along with the owner’s knowledge and enthusiasm.
  • Take a walk around Kampa Island (right off the Charles Bridge on the castle side), populated by uppity swans, contemporary art installations, and locals walking their dogs. It is much more relaxed than the public spaces in Old Town, which tend to become overcrowded in the middle of the day.
  • See the Mucha Museum. Most people are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha through his art nouveau posters for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, when Mucha actually created a staggeringly diverse body of work for decades (before arrest by invading Nazis destroyed his health). The museum basically tells the story of how one great artist was given free rein to design almost everything for his beloved, newly-liberated home country, from municipal buildings to postage stamps.
  • Apparently, stare at the astronomical clock for hours. Seriously. Huge crowds of people stand around this thing, blocking the whole Old Town Square, at all hours of the day and night for a chance to photograph the little statues that come out and twirl around every hour, on the hour. It does, admittedly, have a fascinating history–but come on people.

Tourists_at_the_Astronomical_Clock_in_Prague_2008-08-06

Places to eat:

  • Beas, Tynska 19/Na Porici 1046-24/Vladislavova 24. Great for all of us in the Caucasus without any good Indian cuisine. The branch we went to, not far from the old town square, featured a buffet that goes half off starting at 7pm (as they close at 8.30 and want to get rid of any extra food). It’s also vegetarian, for all you herbivores out there.
  • U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi (The Three Roses), Husova 10. Definitely the best food I ate in Prague, and what I’m guessing is a great selection of house and imported beers. We ordered the bacon Emental burger and the house specialty, beer-roasted pork knuckle (entrees are generally large enough for two people), as well as the gratinated Camembert appetizer, which comes with a side salad so we could feel healthy. Beer is available in small mugs, so you can sample several throughout the meal instead of just sticking to one or two. I couldn’t get enough of anything. Try to go at off-peak hours though, as it is increasingly popular with large groups of tourists and families.

  • A farmer’s market. Prague has several farmer’s markets all over the city open on different days of the week (not just weekends). I found it a good way to sample a variety of Czech food without overspending or resorting to the Times Square-esque hot dog carts colonizing Wenceslas Square. One tip: the trdelnik (grilled spiral pastries) look way more appetizing than they actually are, so unless you’re really into trying everything new or its nutty-sugary coating wears down your resistance, try something else for dessert.
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It has come to my attention that I am now about halfway through my grant period here in Georgia, so I figured I need to start getting organized in terms of which places I should see before I go. Have I mentioned yet that domestic travel in Georgia is incredible? The variety of sites and climates, as well as affordability (you know, once you get here) are unsurpassed. The following is a bucket list of my personal must-see places to visit in Georgia outside of Tbilisi. There are several other places I am interested in, like Abkhazia (requires a fluent Russian speaker, and a male escort of you are a woman) and Racha (about which I know little aside from this awesome video), but don’t know if I’ll make it out there. But a year long grantee has no reason to miss the following amazing sites:

Gergeti Trinity Cathedral and Mt. Kazbegi

Gergeti Trinity Cathedral and Mt. Kazbegi

Kazbegi

  • When to go: spring, summer, early fall
  • When I went: August 2010
  • How to get there: marshutka (2.5 – 3 hours)
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: Gergeti Trinity Church, Gergeti glacier, Juta Valley, hiking, mountain climbing (Mt. Kazbek)
  • Tips: On the way to Kazbegi you will pass through the small town of Pasanauri, which is famous for having the best khinkali in Georgia (they’re not exaggerating), so if you can, it’s well worth stopping for lunch or dinner on the way. There are many lookout spots where you can take panoramic photos on the way up, but the best one is not far from Jvari Pass (the highest point in the military highway), and features a now-decrepit mosaic monument to “Georgian-Russian Friendship,” commemorating the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk.
Davit Gareja complex

Davit Gareja complex

Davit Gareja

  • When to go: spring, summer, fall
  • When I went: May 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka to Gardabani (1 hour), taxi to monastery site
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: cave monasteries, desert sunset
entrance hall at the Stalin Museum in Gori

entrance hall at the Stalin Museum in Gori

Gori and Uplistsikhe

  • When to go: year round
  • When I went: August 2010, December 2012
  • How to get there: marshutka (1 hour)
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: Stalin Museum and Birthplace, Goris Tsikhe (fortress), hiking to Gori Jvari (old church complex; site of pilgrimages on Giorgoba), Uplistsikhe (ancient abandoned city).
  • Tips: Uplistsikhe is a short distance from Gori, and you can either take a bus there from the main bus station, or take a taxi (about 10-15 lari).
Vardzia cave monastery

Vardzia cave monastery

Vardzia

  • When to go: spring, summer, fall
  • When I went: July 2010
  • How to get there: marshutka or taxi (50-130 lari) from Borjomi or Akhatsikhe
  • Length of visit: day trip (from Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe)
  • Attractions: Vardzia cave monastery (open 9am-5pm), hiking
Mestia in winter

Mestia in winter

Mestia

  • When to go: year round (skiing in winter, hiking in warmer seasons)
  • When I went: July 2010
  • How to get there: overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, marshutka or taxi from Zugdidi to Mestia (5 hours). There are also domestic flights from Tbilisi to Mestia, but they are unreliably scheduled.
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: hiking, skiing, Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography
Dmanisi promontory, with church complex and prehistoric archaeological site

Dmanisi promontory, with church complex and prehistoric archaeological site

Dmanisi

  • When to go: summer, early fall
  • When I went: July-August 2011
  • How to get there: marshutka to Borjomi (1.5 – 2 hours), taxi from Borjomi to Dmanisi
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: hiking, Dmanisi archaeological site and park
Ushguli in early fall

Ushguli in early fall

Ushguli

  • When to go: late spring, summer, early fall
  • When I went: July 2010
  • How to get there: overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, marshutka or taxi from Zugdidi to Mestia (5 hours), marshutka or taxi to Ushguli (3 hours). There are also domestic flights from Tbilisi to Mestia, but they are unreliably scheduled.
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: horseback riding, hiking, mountain climbing, historic tower museum
  • Tips: While Mestia is now accessible in the winter, the mountain passes to Ushguli are usually impassable between November and March, so it is usually a good idea to visit in summer.
autumn colors in Shatili

autumn colors in Shatili

Shatili

  • When to go: summer, early fall
  • When I went: October 2012
  • How to get there: marshutka (5 hours)
  • Length of visit: 2 days
  • Attractions: Old Shatili, Mutso (clifftop fortress), Houses of the Dead, hiking.
panorama of Mtskheta

panorama of Mtskheta

Mtskheta

  • When to go: year round
  • When I went: June 2010, August 2011, November 2012, January 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka, group taxi (30-45 mins)
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Jvari Monastery
  • Tips: don’t eat in Mtskheta–the restaurants are not as good as the many roadside places between Mtskheta and Tbilisi
Bakuriani after a snowstorm

Bakuriani after a snowstorm

Bakuriani

  • When to go: winter
  • When I went: January 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka (2.5 – 4 hours)
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: skiing, snowboarding, snowtubing, ice skating, horseback riding, snowmobile rental.
view of Batumi from a hilltop church

view of Batumi from a hilltop church

Batumi

  • When to go: late spring, summer, early fall
  • How to get there: marshutka (7 hours), train (overnight–book ahead), domestic flight (Georgian Airways, twice a week)
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: beach bumming, shopping, clubbing
Riverside houses in Kutaisi

Riverside houses in Kutaisi

Kutaisi

  • When to go: spring, summer, fall
  • When I went: December 2012
  • How to get there: marshutka, group taxi (2-3 hours)
  • Length of visit: day trip or 2 days
  • Attractions: Sataplia Preserve (national park with preserved dinosaur footprints, underground caves, and beautiful views), Gelati Monastery (some of the most beautiful frescoes in Georgia), Bagrati Cathedral (controversially restored UNESCO world heritage site), new Parliament building.
  • Tips: the things to see around Kutaisi aren’t very close to one another, so it may be helpful to pay for a private driver once you arrive if you want to make it to several sites in a short period of time.
Chairlift in Gudauri

Chairlift in Gudauri

Gudauri

  • When to go: winter
  • When I went: January 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka (1.5 – 2 hours)
  • Length of visit: day trip or 2-3 days
  • Attractions: skiing
  • Tips: unlike Bakuriani, Gudauri doesn’t have much to do for non-skiers or boarders, but the slopes are very open and well-groomed for beginners. If you need ski instruction, Hostel Ski-Niki has a good package deal, with meals and professional instruction included in the cost of the hostel. On the way to Gudauri you will pass through the small town of Pasanauri, which is famous for having the best khinkali in Georgia (they’re not exaggerating), so if you can, it’s well worth stopping for lunch or dinner on the way.

Other runners-up:

Grape harvest (autumn) in Kakheti; summer hiking in Abastumani; dacha-chilling, river-swimming, and khinkali-gorging in Pasanauri.

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Gudauri Good Aura

georgia_map1

Today I joined a group of expats who go up to Gudauri, the Caucasus’ premier ski resort, every other Saturday throughout the season. You can get there by renting a private marshutka if you have a large enough group, or take a regular public marshutka from Didube station. Either way, the trip up the old military highway takes about 1.5 to 2 hours.

After the dormant post-Soviet period in the ’90s, Gudauri received significant investment towards the creation of a year-round mountain resort–controversially, a fair amount of funding and support came out of the Tbilisi City Hall budget “savings.” Based on what I saw, however, the investments have been successful in attracting plenty of domestic as well as international tourists (the place is crawling with новый русский 20-somethings, as well as dedicated skiers from across central and western Europe).

Gudauri

 

The slopes at Gudauri are very open and well-groomed, and there are a lot more trails of varying difficulties (there are currently seven lifts, mostly chairlifts and towlines along with a new gondola line) than at Bakuriani. Basically, it’s great skiing for a fraction of what you would pay in the US or EU (30 lari for all-day ski rental and another 30 for an all day lift pass–so, under $50). I am a total beginner, and recommend the first slope (essentially an extended bunny hill), and the fourth slope–which, although steeper and narrower in parts, is more open, straight, and free of tantrumming children than is the first.

While close enough for a day trip, Gudauri is worth spending the weekend or a few days. As far as lodgings go there is the “Austrian House” (at the top of the second chairlift, off to the right), which has an amazing panoramic view, in addition to a good restaurant/bar that even serves mulled wine. It’s hostel-style, but if you have a  group of 6 or 8, you could rent out a whole room for about $30 a head. A friend of mine also recommended Hostel Ski-Niki for beginners, as both lessons and meals are included in the cost.

 

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