05 Sep GEM Fest Georgia: A Festival off the Beaten Track
I’m a huge fan of festivals and I think they’re a great excuse to travel the world and visit new destinations. From Dimensions Festival in Croatia to Falls Festival in Australia, I’ve attended my fare share over the past few years and I love everything about them – the camping, the community spirit, the hedonistic vibe and of course, the music.
But a lot of the major music festivals these days – like Coachella, Glastonbury and Tomorrowland – are becoming more and more mainstream. The more popular they get and the more celebrities show up wearing flower headbands and converse, the less I’m inclined to go. I like the smaller festivals – the ones with character where I can make friends, enjoy the music and not have to worry about lining up for absolutely everything.
This August I was invited to Georgia to experience GEM Fest, an electonic music festival in the beach town of Anaklia on the Black Sea. When I told my friends about the trip, some of them assumed I meant Georgia the state, not the country, while others attempted to have a stab at where it was on the map. Is it in Asia? Is it in South America?
I love visiting countries that people haven’t really heard of and that are less written about in the media, so I jumped at the chance of visiting somewhere like Georgia. Located at the crossroads of Asia and Eastern Europe, the country shares borders with the Black Sea, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Georgia was once known as “the Riviera of the Soviet Union” due to its cuisine, fine wine and seaside resorts, but when the Soviet Union fell, relations with Russia became tense and the two countries ended up going to war. Georgia lost 17% of its territory and the economy was badly affected, but today the country is making the most of things – hence the introduction of awesome music festivals like GEM Fest. I had no idea what to expect of the festival but I knew I was in for a unique experience.
Introducing GEM-Fest Anaklia
GEM Fest is a four day festival that takes place on the beach in Anaklia, a seaside resort on the west coast of Georgia.
I attended GEM Fest on the soft opening ‘press’ night and the official opening night, along with several other bloggers and journalists from around Europe. By this point we had already explored some of Georgia’s attractions and I had quickly established friendships with two girls from Turkey – Derya and Pirlanta – who were my sisters and festival buddies for the duration of our trip.
We stayed at a hotel directly on the beach in Anaklia and to get to the festival we walked across Europe’s longest pedestrian bridge (540 metres), which made me feel like I was crossing into another world or perhaps even another time.
What’s really cool about GEM Fest is the setup. It has some cool sculptures and bamboo structures, 5 stages, plus various bars and food outlets. Since the whole festival is on the beach you can spend your days lounging around in a hammock drinking cocktails or smoking shisha in one of the bars. There are also various activities to keep you occupied, like yoga classes, tight rope walking, skim boarding and zorbing. There’s an outdoor cinema if you need to zone out and swings if you want to unleash your inner child. It’s super chill by day and full-on techno by night.
If you’ve forgotten to bring your festival accessories there are stalls selling things like bum bags (fanny packs to you Americans) and feather hair bands. Lots of the food stalls and shops take credit cards – I only found one or two that were cash only. I have to mention though that the food here is very unoriginal. You don’t have to line up for very long but what you do get is just hot dogs and chips really. There was one restaurant with pizzas and a little bit more variety but they didn’t seem to be able to cope with the number of orders.
A highlight of the festival for me was the Aquapark Stage and Dub FX. Imagine the moment when the beat drops and you’re in a swimming pool filled with hundreds of people – pretty cool right? We spent most of the day here drinking mojitos, sunbathing and splashing around in the foam. (A little tip: try not to take any belongings as you’ll want to go swimming and there are no lockers.)
I also loved one of the small stages called Kimono Stage, which featured a really cool carpet. I kept referring to it as “the carpet stage”. It was definitely the most visually appealing stage and it was more intimate in size, so it had a really good vibe. If I had more time at the festival I definitely would have ended up dancing here during the day. It wasn’t very busy but everyone here was just dancing like no-one was watching.
When it comes to clothes, anything goes. You could just stick to bikinis, T-shirts and shorts, or you could break out your wacky, Burning Man-style accessories.
The sunset here was magical so we spent this time swimming, relaxing and taking photos. As night fell, that’s when the people started to come out of hiding like nocturnal animals. At this point I took my big camera back to the hotel room for fear of losing it after a few drinks!
However I wished I kept it with me because when the main stage was at full capacity, it was a really awesome sight. Imagine a large open-air amphitheatre roaring with the sound of thousands of techno revellers as the first act – Evol Waves – took to the stage. It really reminded me of the kind of gladiatorial amphitheatre you’d find in ancient Rome or Greece, with large stone steps for standing on.
The second act – German duo Cosmic Gate – had me hypnotised. By this point I was dancing like crazy and rushed down the steps of the amphitheatre to get close to the stage. Sadly we had a 4am bus that was taking us back to the airport in Batumi, so I missed the headline act, Paul Van Dyke. We decided to wind down by relaxing on some hammocks, before walking the long pedestrian bridge back to Earth.
Where to Stay
We stayed in a hotel during this festival – The Golden Fleece – but there is camping available. The hotel has a swimming pool and it’s extremely close to the festival just across the bridge, but don’t expect too much from it – the rooms are outdated and the Wi-Fi was very patchy. If I was to go back I’d definitely camp so I could be right in the festival atmosphere. ‘GEM City’ can hold 10,000 people, so this is where it’s at.
How to Get There
You can fly into one of three major airports in Georgia – Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi. I flew from London to Batumi on Turkish Airlines, which has a stop in Istanbul. With no direct flights it’s a bit of a pain to get to Georgia, but once you’re there it’s totally worth it to get off the beaten track. Plus you don’t need a visa like you do with Russia.
Since I was on a press trip I was driven around with other journalists, but if you want to get to the festival, there are basically three options: car, ‘party bus’ or train. The ‘party’ bus seems like the easiest option for most ordinary travellers, and these depart at set days/times from Tbilisi, Batumi and Kutaisi.
Things to Do in Georgia
Prior to the festival we stayed at The Hilton in Batumi – a resort town south of Anaklia overlooking the Black Sea. I found Georgia to have a very beautiful green landscape with vineyards, mountains, waterfalls and canyons. Since Georgia lost a large portion of its land the country is trying to make the most of what it has left, so many of the coastal towns like Batumi and Anaklia are growing with investment.
Try the local cuisine
Throughout our trip we had the opportunity to try a lot of the local cuisine. At every restaurant we visited, the table would be laid out with lots of traditional dishes and I always finished lunch feeling so full I could barely walk.
Cheese is prepared in many different ways here and a popular dish is Khachapuri (cheesy bread to you and me). I’m a cheese lover and even I couldn’t handle the amount of cheese they gave me! Corn bread is also common, as well as roasted aubergine rolls called Badrijan Nigzit.
Drinks-wise they like to serve a special fizzy soft drink called Tahrun that’s flourescent green in colour – some people thought it tasted like mouthwash but I loved it. Georgians also love their wine, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to try a good glass of vino while you’re there. Meanwhile Cha Cha is the Georgian equivalent of vodka and will knock your socks off.
Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine and the people definitely love their vino, so you should definitely try to visit a winery. A highlight for me was definitely the Adjarian wine house, where we dined outdoors at a long table and tasted some of the wines they produce. The wine house was built on the ruins of an 18th century historical winery and the scenery here is simply breathtaking. You can take a tour of the vineyards, witness the process of winemaking and even buy some as a souvenir to take home.
Make a toast
One thing I discovered is that Georgians are all about hospitality and toasts. When they make a toast, it’s not just a quick ‘cheers’ then you’re done. They go round the table making numerous toasts to different things and they drink out of a horn that you can’t put down, so you have to chug it all in one. The day before the festival we drove up a very windy mountain road to get to Ucha Chikovani in Kutaissi, a family estate and guest house that has been passed down through the generations. The owner Ucha is an absolute legend and he absolutely loved making toasts. We had an incredible meal and the views from the roof up here were stunning. Yes I did get incredibly car sick driving up those treacherous roads, but the experience was worth it.
Visit Batumi Botanical Garden
The Batumi Botanical Garden is a 108 hectare garden perched on a cape above the Black Sea shore. This is definitely worth visiting for the plant life, the views and the serenity. Doesn’t my friend Pirlanta look right at home here in this photo?
Hit the Beach
Beaches in Georgia seem to be quite shingly and pebbly – a little bit like Croatia – so bring a mat or expect to pay for a sun lounger. We had some time to soak up the sun on the beach in Batumi, as well as Sarpi Beach, which sits near the border of Georgia and Turkey. The beaches seemed to be full to the brim with Georgian holidaymakers and I found the water to be warm and clear.
Martivili Canyon is one of Georgia’s most beautiful nature spots. People visit it to enjoy the scenery, its waterfalls and take a boat trip on the river. Our boat trip only lasted only about 5-10 minutes and we didn’t paddle very far, but it was still a relaxing experience and great for photos.
All in all I had a wicked time at GEM Fest. Aside from a few DJs from London and the journalists on our trip, I doubt there were many people from the UK there. English wasn’t a language we heard much and this was truly off the beaten track for me, which made a refreshing change. It’s probably best to get in there quick though before things change and people get wind of it!
Have I inspired you to go next year? To purchase a ticket for GEM Fest 2017, visit the Festicket website and book online.