Guria: Georgia’s Wild West
Guria is situated in western Georgia along the Black Sea coast and bordered by Adjara, Samegrelo, Imereti, and Samtskhe-Javakheti. It is divided into plains, coastline, and mountain ranges, so, like Adjara, it features mountain peaks that meet the sea with temperate and subtropical zones that give Guria unique characteristics. It holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Georgians, who will often refer to it as their “wild-west”. This is partly due to Gurians being excellent horse riders who went on to star in the Wild West Shows of Buffalo Bill, but primarily due to the reputation Gurians have throughout Georgia. In fact, whenever you meet someone in Georgia who is sensitive or of a certain temperament, people will often say that person is Gurian. Gurians are famous for their temperament and sense of humor.
Guria is the smallest region in Georgia, as well as the least visited. Gurians definitely march to the beat of their own drum; they have their own style of polyphony, a unique dialect, their own traditions, folklore, wine, and food. Visiting Guria is like being a world apart within Georgia.
Guria is characterised by a humid subtropical climate along the coasts and plains, with hot summers and mild winters, while inland and in the mountains, there are hot summers and cold, snowy winters, which make Guria a lovely place for hiking and outdoor activities in general. In one day, you can travel from snowy mountains to a magnetic sandy beach within a few hours. It’s a region with natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and hospitable people. One of the best places to visit to get a sense of the geographical diversity in Guria is the view from Shemokmedi Monastery, which is 7 kilometers from Ozurgeti, the capital city of Guria. The monastery is a simple Georgian church with magnificent views. The main church was built in the 12th century and contains beautiful frescoes that the monks are fighting against time to preserve.
A Name of Beauty
Driving through Guria, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the purity of the air and the natural beauty. In late spring, the air is heavy with the perfume of acacia which grows wild and abundant throughout the hills and valleys. According to local legend, the origin of the name Guria is attributed to its natural beauty. King Shedat wanted to build a heavenly place, a garden of Eden, only for himself because he believed he was a living God. He ordered his servants to travel the world to bring him all the “gurias’’ or beauty. They gathered all the world’s beauty and had to pass through the Caucasus on their way back to him. They found out the king had died and decided to stay in the area with all the world’s beauty they had collected. A more logical explanation is that at one point, Guria was in the center of the kingdom of Colchis, and the Mengrelian word for heart is guri.
Guria’s Ride or Die
Guria’s acrobatic horse riders were famous throughout the Russian empire. In 1891, recruiter Thomas Oliver came to Georgia to find riders for the Buffalo Bill Wild West show in England. He was told that the best place to find these riders would be Guria, and so he recruited riders for shows in London and Europe. The show became so popular that, by 1893, it moved on to the United States for a show at the Chicago World Fair. These Gurian riders travelled throughout the United States, performing Wild West shows for over 30 years. They were billed at Cossack riders due to Georgia being a part of the Russian empire and Cossacks’ reputation in the national paradigm. They wore the national chocka, did a routine of tricks on horseback, and it is believed that the reason American cowboy outfits are so outlandish to this day is due in part to the Gurian participation in these shows. Once a year, Gurians show off their horsemanship at the Bakhmaro Horse Festival.
It’s a Magnetic Place
The Black Sea coast of Adjara and the glitz and glamour of Batumi receive their fair share of attention, but it would be a shame to skip over Guria’s less-visited sandy beaches. Guria boasts several coastal towns and resorts with attractions ranging from amusement parks to spa facilities. Ureki and Shekvetili are famous for their iron-rich magnetic black sands, which are beneficial for joint and cardiovascular health. While there are spa facilities in both towns, to benefit from the magnetic sands, just go to any beach, and bury your whole body in the sand for half an hour. Ureki beach is only one hour from Batumi.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Bakhmaro is a mountain resort town known for its curative fresh air. It’s a picturesque town famous for its cozy wooden A-frame houses that are surrounded by forest. It’s a popular place to visit for people who want to escape fast-paced city life and enjoy fresh mountain air, hiking, horseback riding, and a simple nature-focused holiday. Hiking to the peak of Gadrekili mountain to enjoy awe-inspiring views is one of the most recommended activities. It is famous in the region for its beautiful sunsets and views above the clouds. Spending time in Bakhmaro takes visitors back to simpler times. Shepherds travel up the mountains in summer with their herds and sell their delicious products to eat that are not found anywhere else. In the winter, Bakhmaro is a perfect winter wonderland.
Kolkheti National Park is a national park located in the historical region of the Kingdom of Colchis. It is situated in three regions, including Guria. The wetlands within the park are of particular international importance and are located on the coastal plain on the Black Sea between the Tikori and Supsa rivers and the Paliastomi Lake Reservoir. Over 200 hundred species of migratory birds pass through here in the spring and autumn, including storks, pelicans and various raptors. It is also the home of the Kolkhuri pheasant. It is truly a magnificent place for anyone passionate about birds.
Though most people traveling to Georgia in search of delicious beverages are seeking out wine, Guria is a diverse region that offers unique wines and a tea tradition that dates back to the 19th century. Guria’s alpine peaks, fertile river valleys, and subtropical areas make it ideal for tea production. After the fall of the USSR, the tea industry collapsed, most of the machinery was sold abroad, tea plantations were abandoned, and farmers could not afford the chemicals they thought they needed to survive. The post-Soviet economy was turbulent. In the 1990s, families supported themselves with subsistence farming. Since the 2010s, there has been renewed interest in this history, and Guria is the heart of Georgia’s tea revival, with organic and self-sustaining tea plantations being restored along with guest houses and welcome centres for visitors to learn about tea production in Guria and sample various kinds of tea.
Football Not for the Faint of Heart
As with most holidays in Guria, Easter is quite different here than in the rest of Georgia. Between the towns of Lanchkhuti and Shukhuti, a game known as Lelo burti is played. It has been compared to rugby, but it bears little resemblance to that rule-abiding sport. Lelo is a game of its own with very few rules, in which rival teams must take a sand and sawdust-filled ball to one of the streams that border the two towns. There is no marked field, punches can and are thrown, and blood is spilled until a player claims victory. The ball is then taken to the grave of a player who died the year before.
Food and Wine
As with every region in Georgia, Guria has its own distinctive wine and cuisine. Gurian khachapuri is crescent moon-shaped and filled with local cheese and boiled eggs. Instead of walnuts in sauces or in churchkhela, you will find hazelnut. As with most Western regions in Georgia, Gurians use aromatic herbs and spices in abundance, and there is always seasonal fruit on the table. Gurian wine is quite unique, not just in Georgia, but around the world. Due to the subtropical weather, it is pretty common for Gurian vignerons to train their vines up tall poles or even trees to provide airflow and prevent fungal growth. Gurian maranis (cellars) are often outside, with the qvevri buried under a grove of trees rather than in an indoor or underground cellar.
By Sarah May Grunwald