There’s an old legend, of questionable origin, that goes like this. God was doling out land to all the countries, and the Georgians missed roll-call because they were busy at Supra – a traditional Georgian feast. When they explained to God, that they had in fact, been drinking wine in His honour, He bestowed on them his own vineyard.
And thus, was born Georgia – a tiny country that boasts of an 8000-year-old relationship with wine making. Even the icon of the capital city, a 20 m statue of Mother Georgia, holds in her hands a sword to ward off enemies and a bowl of wine to welcome friends.
It is difficult not to be friends with Georgia– a country so cheerful, welcoming and hospitable (except their whimsical visa regulations) that we tore up our standard OCD-fueled itinerary and let Georgia tell us where to go, what to do, what to eat and whom to meet. (I even changed outfits twice based on the feedback of a lovely woman next door in Tbilisi.)
Georgia wears its soviet history like a cape – you see it fluttering in the wind, casting an occasional shadow on everyday life, but underneath it, its own identity has bloomed and grown. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Tbilisi, where neighborhoods old and new, blend into one another, its Persian and Soviet history mixing, swirling in a giant Khveri, creating an intoxicating culture you can’t get enough of.
Tbilisi – The most underrated capital city in Europe
Our first host George, picked us up at the airport. He owns a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city, that has a library stocked with books donated by guests from across the world, and a fridge stocked with the most delectable home-made wine. George abandoned his car on the charming cobblestoned alley outside his house, stuck a post-it with his number scribbled on the windshield, and spent the afternoon chatting with us about Tbilisi, and what we should see.
That evening, he dropped us off at what looked like a dimly lit garage door, painted with a pleasing scene – a large table, creaking under the weight of food, and a small group of people gathered around it in anticipation.
It turned out to be a quirky local restaurant. On the recommendation of a chatty group of women seated at the table next to us, we got our first taste of Khachapuri – a pie with melting layers of bread and cheese ( I suspect this is why there’s no Dominoes in Georgia – who’d want pizza when you have Khachapuri), Dolma, Shkmeruli – Chicken stewed in Garlic and cheese sauce, and Ajapsandali ( Hello mother, I can hear you say as you read the Wikipedia entry on this dish , “If I call it baigan bharata you won’t touch it, now if its Ajapsandali you’ll eat it, like it and put it in your blog!?”).
For a little post-dinner drink, walk to Fabrika. Once a soviet sewing factory, Fabrika is now an enormous open, vibrant, graffiti splattered space, lined with some very eclectic stores and bars. Grab a drink and make yourself comfortable on the wooden crates in the atrium, as an interesting crowd of students and late-night office workers ebbs and flows.
The best way to explore Tiflis is by walk. Start by the Freedom Square, turn off Google maps and walk till you stumble upon the ruins of the city walls by the Mtkvari river. Pop in and out the numerous art galleries and hang around at the Crooked Clock Tower to catch a street performance or a puppet show. As you amble about, you’ll likely come across the artsy Peace Bridge, with its candy-like LEDs. Its rather unfortunate shape has led to the imaginative locals dubbing it “Always Ultra”.
Our second host, Davitt, drew for us a walking map of Tbilisi’s famous entrance-ways. This is apparently a thing to do – barge into ancient, crumbling residential buildings, to admire beautifully carved foyers and stunning stairways. This is reminiscent of what a Karan Johar movie would look like, if set in the B&W 60s in Russia. If you’ve spent many a summer running around dilapidated buildings in India, this may not seem like much of an attraction, but you must participate, to experience a very different flavour of the same dish, and the warmth of the residents of these buildings, who welcome your intrusion.
Gallery 27 – Tbilisi Georgia. Quirky little store, with the most curious little grey cat
Warmth – Is also how Tbilisi gets its name. The city was built on natural thermal springs, that contain Sulphur. There are a number of ornate bathhouses in Abanotubani, some are centuries old. If you aren’t squeamish about the smell, a sulphur bath is the best way to soothe aching muscles after they’ve been subjected to climbing Narikala Fortress or walking on Tbilisi’s unforgiving terrain. When Google maps says a distance of 100 m will take you 9 minutes to cover, it’s not a glitch. It’s factoring time to set up hiking gear to climb the average 75 degree sloped road.
The Dry Bridge flea market is especially known for soviet memorabilia, among all kinds of antiques. We love local markets, and were very excited about this one (I wanted a KGB badge!) but when I got there, I was heart-broken. Most stalls, like ones everywhere across Tbilisi, are run by elderly men and women. Some selling handmade woollen shawls, paintings and shoes, but most others selling second-hand used items. When I saw a particularly old woman carefully arranging for sale a packet of safety pins, a set of 4 tiny plastic hair clips I gave up.
Dry Bridge market – Tblisi Georgia
Kazbegi – Exploring Stepantsminda
The Caucasus mountains form a neat fringe, between Europe and Asia. Tucked in at its foothills, is Kazbegi – an idyllic postcard town, with a local population of just over 3000 people.
George drove us to Kazbegi, and we had some interesting conversation on the way on Georgia’s economy and how many families lived off the pension of elders because of dwindling lucrative jobs. He himself held two full times jobs as a professor of political science, a volunteering job. He proceeded to offer his sympathies, much to our surprise, how was it for us, he asked, to have given up democracy?
At lunch enroute, we were introduced to Khinkali – an obese dumpling stuffed with meat in a delectable broth. Our host watched in horror as we massacred the first plate, unable to bear the pain, took over to demonstrate the proper way to eat one. You hold it by the stem, take a nibble off the flat top and quickly slurp the broth before it spills out onto your hands. Then, in no more than 3 bites, you finish the rest . We also briefly met Chacha – the wicked cousin of wine. Made from the dying remains of crushed wine grapes, this drink is unbelievably potent. Its supposed to be consumed at break-neck speed – apparently to prevent the Devil, the creator of this drink, from counting how many you’ve had.
On the way to Kazbegi, there are some must-sees. The former capital town of Mtskheta, Jvari Monastery, Ananuri Castle and finally the Gergeti Church
Georgia in Autumn is particularly beautiful. The roads, lined with walnut trees ripe for picking, are decked with foliage of every hue – pale honey to blazing brick red. We stayed in Rooms Kazbegi . Once an austere soviet dormitory, this chic structure curls around the edge of the town, cordoning off for its visitors a fantastic view of the forests and the Caucasus, capped with residual snow.
Kakheti – Georgia’s wine country
Georgia grows almost 500 different varieties of grapes. If you think that’s astonishing, then wait till you hear how many they had before their friendly neighbors, err… visited.
We booked ourselves into Schuchmann Wine Chateau a gorgeous vineyard that makes and bottles its own brand of wines. We sampled the Vinoterra dry red made from the indigenous Saperavi grapes and Vinoterra dry white made from Rkatsiteli. The aftertaste, particularly of the white, was unique and is now Raj’s benchmark.
Many locals make their own wine. Almost everyone we spoke to on the subject, had a proud history of winemaking spanning generations. On our last day in Georgia, we visited Pieter’s (a sweet old man who drove us to Kakheti) wine cellar in his house. He makes about a hundred bottles a year, just for family.
“We love wine. It’s good for the heart, it’s good for everyone! At home whenever we have a big feast, we budget 3 liters per person. Even for the women” at this point, he threw me a pitying look as I struggled with my second glass of wine.
These feasts or Supras are taken quite seriously (after all it is how Georgians won their land). Supra is practically conducted by a toastmaster or Tamada. It is the Tamada’s responsibility to ensure a steady flow of alcohol and conversation throughout the meal. The most important duty he has, however is the toasting. Interspersed through the 4-hour meal, toasts must be solemn, witty and befitting the occasion and serve as a reminder to be thankful, for the country, for peace, for health and happiness.
Toasting a serious business and a sought after skill. There is even a recommended sequence of toasts, that are considered the polite norm
At the risk of committing blasphemy, I propose one of my own –
“To Georgia , to her indomitable spirit(s),
To the music in her mountains,
The smile in her heart
Let’s do the cha-cha, I’m running out of lyrics”