I’ve been wanting to go to Georgia for some time now, and the perfect opportunity presented itself when all of my hotels in Sicily and Malta were closed on my end of March trip to Europe. A cheap, but not quick, trip on Turkish Airlines got me arriving late night and tired into the cold and seemingly dreary city of Tbilisi...
I spent several days in Tbilisi, my first doing a day long (and potentially into the nighttime as well but I tapped out early) almost 9 hour food tour. For those of you who don't know much about Georgia, people are flocking there for the food + wine. The food is unlike anything I've ever tasted and whilst I was indeed a sceptic when I arrived, over a week later I am still dreaming about (and craving) the food...
I visited the old Pravda Printing House (Stalin's secret printing press) and met some hard-core communists. I got my skin scrubbed off at the city's centuries old Sulphur Baths and I stayed at one of the world's most beautiful hotels (CN Traveller agrees!). I went on a free walking tour (I’ll just say, you get what you pay for …) I walked to the churches, the monasteries, the pantheons and to the waterfalls (yes, they have inner-city waterfalls), I ate the food, I ate more food and I indulged at our new favorite hotel. More importantly I met Georgians who were more than happy to tell me about their country, send me the best places to go and tell me all about what makes their country so great (hint: it's the food + the wine).
Georgians say they are the birthplace of wine... Sure, but I've heard that before. So obviously I had to go there to check it out myself. This place is no joke the birthplace of wine, and the eden of wine, and the everything of wine. Wine is so engrained in every inch of this culture you wouldn't believe it (no really, you wouldn't...). Georgia is home to 500 indigenous species of grapes- there are only like 2000 in the world and yep, they've got a 1/4 of them here. During Communism they were told to grow only 2-3 varieties, grow them in mass quantities to feed ‘the people’. That hooch was made and exported to Russia and it was seen as horrible quality by the Georgians; you couldn’t serve it to them in good conscious. Without access to their vineyards Georgians grew their grapes anywhere they could; on their house, on top of their house, they built trellises anywhere they could. They made their own wine- and they still do! Buying wine in the grocery is akin to blasphemy. The first time I ordered a glass of wine (which was in itself blasphemy, 'only a glass'?!?!?) I saw the woman pour it into my glass from a large jerry can behind the counter. People feel sorry for you if you 1). Have to buy wine from the store, 2). Have to drink by yourself and god forbid, 3) Have to eat by yourself.
After a few days in Tbilisi, I ventured out to see the real Georgia. I was particularly entranced by the churches, and the monasteries. Christianity is very old here (they like to say its older than in Armenia and Armenia says the opposite) and really took over in the 4th century AD. The story is very romantic; St Nino (a woman) arrived in Georgia and tried to make a cross out of what she could find; grapevines! and tied together with her hair. The cross of St. Nino and really of Georgia is a normal cross but with the horizontal bars slightly dropping showing the image of the cross St. Nino brought Christianity to Georgia with.
Every village, every hamlet, every few square kilometers has a church, or a monastery, or an old cave city now turned into a monastery. They're everywhere. I didn't think I'd get sick of stopping and seeing them, but I did. Old ones, new ones, ones carved into rocks, ones on top of a mountain, and ones underground; they are everywhere and they're all beautiful. Georgians are very devout; every time you'd pass a church on the side of the road, or a cross, a Georgian would do the sign of the cross. This is a lot of work because as I mentioned churches are EVERYWHERE; one’s arms can get real tired real fast here. These churches are Orthodox most with frescoes old and new covering the walls and lots of candles. I even climbed to the top of a fortress into a tiny tiny church way up high and thought, well, why not just in case.
We went to minerals springs in Borjomi, where for centuries people have been flocking to take in the healing waters; now every hotel worth it’s salt has a medical and spa treatment menu the size of a short story. We went into four different saunas one day; each with different ‘essences’ and we definitely felt amazing afterwards. It almost helped to cure the post-jerry-can wine hangovers in the mornings as well (almost).
I took a whole day to venture south from Borjomi to visit Vardzia; a cave monastery in Southern/Western Georgia near the Turkish border. Built in the 12th century, but the area has been inhabited since the bronze age, this was an important site during Tamar and Rustaveli ‘golden ages’ but was abandoned after the Ottoman occupation (Georgia was invaded constantly and pretty much never won any wars; some like to say its because they were out too late drinking wine…?). It is now a heritage site with monks living on site and taking care of (even selling things in the monastery gift shop!) the monastery. The monastery has some of the most beautiful old frescoes I’ve ever laid eyes on. The Georgian nun/monk even told me in perfect English that her sister lived in Dallas; not sure who got the short-end of the stick. It took me 3 hours to scramble in and out of these cave dwellings and almost had the entire place to myself. What I DID notice was in each and every cave was a vessel for wine carved into the floor. But after visiting Vardzia and a few more hilltop monasteries it was time to head back, get a massage and eat my weight in food.
I could write a love letter JUST to the food; particularly the bread- the bread puts any French loaf to shame, or the cheese; the salguni on every salad, or the Matsoni (traditional yoghurt) or the Elargi (corn meal mixed with cheese, cheese and more cheese) or the Khachapuri with its cheese-stuffed cheese bread deliciousness topped with cheese, butter and egg yolk. But, there’s no way you can understand unless you try it yourself.
I arrived in Georgia a sceptic… waiting to be proved wrong. Whilst it was cold and rainy (and snowy) and a bit dreary during my visit I soaked it all in, as much as I could and particularly the healing waters of Borjomi, I soaked in as much as we could and feel like a better person for it. I also threw my paleo diet into the trash; you have to, the bread is too good; life isn’t worth living if you can’t eat this bread (particularly when its stuffed with cheese with cheese on top). I threw my snobbish ‘wine should come from a bottle’ theories into the trash; in fact I think maybe they are on to something (they have been for 8000+ years). I threw my preconceived post-Soviet depressed country notions into the trash; they are doing just fine thank you very much.
And now I’m home and missing my Georgia; its on my mind these days…