Georgia is geor-gious

Wine, walnuts and natural wonders await, just a few hours away at the storied intersection of Europe and Asia.

A PANORAMIC view of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A PANORAMIC view of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I have to be honest: When the opportunity recently arose to spend a few days in Georgia, I was less than jazzed.
Sure, people reacted excitedly when I told them of the planned tour (once they realized I meant the country and not the American state of peach fame), waxing poetic about the landscapes, treks and food. Sure, Israelis have been visiting Giyor-gia (Hebrew pronunciation) more and more frequently, but everyone knows Israelis are enthusiastic travelers. I was quite sure I was headed to a glorified two-horse burg, a Soviet-era satellite with crumbling Communist-style apartment complexes that would do native son Joseph Stalin proud, with perhaps a few blades of grass at the edge of the town and “cuisine” that relied heavily on potatoes and borscht.
Well, knock my snobbery/preconceived notions over with a feather, because I was positively dazzled!
Grabbing a direct flight via Sun d’OR, El Al’s charter, offering regular slots in both winter and summer, I certainly couldn’t quibble with the just over two-and-a-hour time in the air (or the in-flight muffin snack!). We had barely settled into our emergency-row seats when we were touching down in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
Allow me to say how impressed I was with the organization and service at the airport. Currency exchange! SIM cards! Ground transportation! Starbucks! All in a one-stop-shop area! This, it turned out, typified my entire experience in the country, as Georgians are rightly known for their tradition of accessible hospitality.
We were then met by our local guide Nodar, trendily clad in corduroys, snazzy vest, newsboy-cum-hipster cap and a wry grin. In able English, he led us past the next-door casino to a waiting van, then set the scene as new sites whooshed by: A country at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Georgia clearly has been influenced by both.
Learning how it is bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan, I was overcome with the sensation of being thrust into a strange, mystical new land (see box, Page 26).
INDEED I was. We arrived at Tbilisi’s IOTA Hotel, named for the 15th letter of the Georgian alphabet (which is written from left to right, and unique in that is used only to write Georgian). I found myself enjoying the boutiquey atmosphere of simple sophistication more than an iota (I’ll be here all night): vertical gardens, compact rooms with every modern amenity, rooftop bar with a sweeping panorama of the city’s twinkling lights, and a full breakfast to almost Israeli proportions – where I was glad to discover matsoni, fermented milk that makes a thick, creamy yogurt.
Centrally located, we set out on foot bright and early the next morning, passing other niftily decorated establishments, some with Mondrian-inspired design. On to the Narikala Fortress (or NairaQala, a Mongol moniker): Originally established in the fourth century and overlooking the Kura River, it offers a breathtaking view from the battlements.
Onward to Metekhi Church, constructed by King Demetre II around 1280. A rare example of a domed Georgian Orthodox Church, it was demolished in the Soviet era, first replaced by a jail, then functioning as a theater. Restored in the late 1980s, taking pride of place above the city is the statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, founder of Tbilisi, astride a horse.
Then on to a must-do: wandering the Old City! Interspersed among the balconies, the winding, narrow streets with their varying architectural styles and the charming art galleries, shops and cafes – many festooned with churchkhela, candle-shaped candy hung from the walls to dry – were many houses of worship, including, of course, churches (Georgia is one of Europe’s most
religious/Christian nations), but also mosques and synagogues, and a few kosher restaurants. We came upon one such shul; alas, it was closed for renovations, though we did get to admire the wall spotlighting portraits of bearded community elders.
Kitschy souvenirs, many featuring a roly-poly mustachioed figure (Stalin?), were on sale everywhere, alongside popular mementos like tea, honey and Caucasian carpets, and everything was so affordable. My trinket of choice? A cheerful crystal rooster doubling as a jewelry box!
We mosied on through Legvtakhevi, one of Tbilisi’s oldest districts, named for its many fig trees. Along the way we sidestepped the many dogs lounging calmly on the streets without a care in the world (shades of Israel’s cats, though the city provides the lucky pooches with some food dispensers and wooden houses). Sadly, I did not have time to visit the Abanotubani district to try out the famously healing sulfur baths with their naturally warm waters, or get a Georgian massage.
Happily, there was a salve: wine! It was touted and sold everywhere, including some “cosher” bottles! What else would one expect from the place known as the “cradle of wine,” with archeologists tracing the world’s first known wine creation back to the people of the South Caucasus in 6,000 BCE. The noble vine plays a prominent role in Georgian life, with families commonly producing their own homegrown vintage; 150 million liters of wine are produced in the country every year, traditionally via kvevri (clay vessels).
But goblets don’t overflow just for pleasure: Georgians believe that making merry allows one to unlock their spirituality, and no supra, or feast, is complete without it. (Thus, it should have come as no surprise that when I stepped into a Dunkin’ Donuts – shades of New York! – what did I find sitting on a shelf above the crullers but... bottles o’ wine?)
What better way, then, to delve into Caucasus culture than to embark on a drinking/eating adventure? We began in Sirajkhana, a sort-of gastropub with Georgian-Persian fusion food that specialized in vino, with imposing chairs that wouldn’t be out of place on Game of Thrones.
GET IT while it’s hot: Adjarian khachapuri, boat-shaped with cheese, butter and egg yolk in the middle. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)GET IT while it’s hot: Adjarian khachapuri, boat-shaped with cheese, butter and egg yolk in the middle. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Carbs, butter, cheese and carbs again, oh my! Yet chowing down, one still felt healthy. Perhaps this had to do with the obvious love of fresh produce and walnuts, the workhorse of Georgian cooking, sprinkled on everything; and pkhali, a family of salads that might be better described as pâtés made with whatever vegetable is on hand (beets, carrots, spinach). Other popular dishes I happily sampled throughout our trip: eggplant rolls fat with – what else? – creamy, garlicky walnut paste, garnished with pomegranate seeds; barabuli, crispy fried mullet fish paired with cucumber and tomato salad; mushrooms a-plenty, stuffed with sulguni cheese; khinkali, savory dumplings; kemali, the sour plum condiment poured over everything; and of course khachapuri, the traditional cheese-filled bread, with variations based on region – such as the Adjarian boat-shaped version with cheese, butter and egg yolk in the middle, thought to originate from the Lazi people, who were sailors. (Israelis can find it stateside in the helpfully named Hachapuria in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.)
As evening fell on the ancient metropolis, we visited the Old City Wall Restaurant & Wine Bar for authentic cuisine in what I can only lovingly describe as Georgia’s answer to a Viking/Moose lodge. I contentedly sipped my grape libation, Tsinandali – a soft, delicate white with “a fine fruity bouquet” in which Georgian winemakers take special pride – as the eatery’s casually dressed all-male choir harmonized folk songs at a nearby table, wineglasses in hand.
THE NEXT morning, we piled like perfectly stuffed pheasants into our trusty van. Leaving the city, we were almost immediately struck with Autumn! As an American living in Jerusalem who deeply misses experiencing a true Fall, I drank in the riotous display of yellow, orange, umber and even pink leaves, framed with bright green grass and gently flowing rivers, as we climbed up into the mountains.
We stopped at the fairy-tale Anunuri Fortress, which as Nodar helpfully noted, is beautifully situated on the Georgian Military Highway on the shores of the azure-blue Zhinvali reservoir. And who did we see when we first stepped into the parking lot but some haredim from Har Nof!
In any case, constructed in the 1660s by the frighteningly named Zurab Aragveli, a ruthless local prince known for attacking neighboring mountain clans and even blinding his own brother, its two churches and watchtower are improbably squeezed inside mammoth defensive walls with four huge battlements, which served as shelter during various invasions. I definitely got the “ruthless” part when I saw the dungeon-like basement dug into the ground; I do not regret passing up the opportunity to go down the long ladder to see it for myself.
Then it was off to Gergeti Trinity Church, at an elevation of 2,170 meters. We got a ride halfway up the mountain and I couldn’t help but notice that the driver was behind the steering wheel in the British style – this despite the majority of Georgian drivers I’d seen thus far doing the opposite. Somewhat bizarrely, I was told both options are currently acceptable (making Israeli road rules seem relatively sane?).
Thankfully, we made it safely and huffed and puffed the rest of the way up to the 14th-century edifice and adjacent bell tower, where we were rewarded with stunning vistas of the surrounding meadows and forests. Within, candlelight reflected off golden frescoes of saints, some with hands in formations reminiscent of kohanim, including Saint Nino – Equal to the Apostles and the Enlightener of Georgia – with her very Georgian tribute, a grapevine cross.
Since we just had to feast every few hours, on we went to lunch at a local chalet with similarly stunning soaring views. It was as tasty as ever, but I soon had another startling realization: Georgians don’t seem to believe in dessert! Or they don’t care for it very much! Generally, a ton of plates were quickly brought out to kick off the meal followed by a big lull at the end of the main course, where my fellow Israelis and I continued to wait in anticipation of some sort of sweets for the sweet. But each time, coffee and tea were offered and we were brusquely on our way. We never did get that tiramisu we hopefully ordered... well, no country is flawless. (#FirstWorldProblems)
Passing hang-gliders alighting from a nearby peak, we drove on to Gudauri in the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range. Connected to the village of Kobi via a new 7.1-km.-long gondola lift, one can travel between the two winter resorts in just 15 minutes. With 60 km of tracks and artificial snow machines, Gudauri has little dependence on weather, making it a prime place to ski; freeriding and heliskiing are popular as well.
With us now in ski season, Israelis trying to avoid going into minus will be thrilled to know that these Georgian slopes are super affordable. Through the middle of March, a one-day pass at area resorts will set you back NIS 40 to 100 shekel per child/adult; the price differential for a two-day ticket is insignificant. I couldn’t help but compare this to a one-day pass on Mount Hermon, which I was told costs a cool NIS 250 along with a 40-shek entrance fee (practically the price of a flight to Georgia?).
We stayed the night in the Marco Polo Hotel, an old-fashioned, comforting lodge. After a quick dip in the jacuzzi, I joined my colleagues at the in-house bowling alley for some wholesome fun. Lo and behold, at breakfast the next morning I spied a slice of apple strudel, and wasted no time snatching it up. I ate every delicious crumb: Who knew when I would next see dessert? (Spoiler alert: back in Israel!)
ONWARD HO to Borjomi, a resort town in south-central Georgia situated a picturesque gorge on the eastern edge of the Borjomi Kharagauli national park, with its 76,000 hectares of native forest and sub-alpine and alpine meadows. Breathing in the impossibly fresh air, I couldn’t help but feel like an Israeli Heidi sans lederhosen.
I felt like a very lucky girl indeed when we arrived at the Crown Plaza Spa & Wellness Center, one of the most ruggedly luxurious hotels I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at; elegant with just the right touch of nostalgia, I reveled in the alpine/antler theme and took my time sinking into the many cushy couches and armchairs. All of the hotels thus far had the fabulous perk of bathrobes and slippers, but only the Crown Plaza stocked Dead Sea bath products!
A refreshing stroll in the nearby ecologically themed amusement park was in order. Stretching along the Borjomula River, the park contains the source of Borjomi’s famed mineral water, and we had a few sips of the salty bubbling brew at the park’s entrance. Never felt better! Passing rides, cafés and a nargila pit, we took the lovely pastoral path to the end, where the peaceful feeling of being among the trees took me back to treasured memories of childhood vacations in New Hampshire. Our walk ended at the natural sulfur springs; it was far too nippy to take a dip, though we did run into a hardy Israeli who braved them.
Back at the hotel and blissfully enveloped in a robe, I hit the extensive sauna and steam room comple
x to banish any remaining toxins. The next morning, a strenuous private yoga lesson in the decadent Moroccan-style studio, led by an Indian practitioner all in white, capped off all that wellness.
ROLLING INTO the rustic setting of the Wine Artisans Chateau near Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, on that last day, we were handed aprons and told to dust our palms with flour, for making our own khachapuri! Baked in the on-site oven/taboon, it was – unsurprisingly – yummy. It was then on to learn about the delicate, meticulous process of manufacturing natural wines using traditional kvevri and stainless steel vessels, culminating in yet another delectable meal, this time al fresco, prepared from locally sourced ingredients in the outdoor kitchen.
At the chateau, I couldn’t say no to a bracing shot of homeade chacha, the national liquor otherwise known as “vine vodka” or “Georgian grappa.” It was my first – and last! – taste of this 65ish%-alcohol pomace brandy potion, and needless to say it went straight to my head. Some of us also took the opportunity to imbibe from a kantsi, a traditional Georgian drinking horn used in ritual toasting (a very different sort of shofar). Brimming with wine, one was obliged to down the entire thing. Gaumarjos (L’chaim)!
What a send-off! Bidding a fond adieu to Nodar, it was time to catch our Sun d’Or chariot back to Israel, which I did with some sadness. But I am quite sure I will return... perhaps to visit Batumi, the vacation-land on the Black Sea rapidly gaining popularity as ‘Georgia’s Eilat,’ or to inspect Gori’s Stalin museum (he is a fascinating, if terrible, figure).
Settling into my seat for the hop, skip and a jump home, I reflected that calling this country the Italy of Eastern Europe would definitely not be wrong. I had to agree with a fellow trip-goer who kept noting punnily that Georgia is, well, fully and completely geor-gious!
The writer was a guest of the Georgian National Tourism Administration and Sun d’OR/El Al Group.