IMG_20180826_174436_1-COLLAGE

Clockwise from top left: Museum rooftop selfie, Mount Ushba from the museum rooftop, Svan tower, millet tchvishtari

Mariamoba was on a Tuesday this year, and since my Monday classes took a summer vacation, that gave me a 4-day weekend; actually enough time to go a little further afield. G had never been to Svaneti, and my previous trip was far from enough, so we decided to make a weekend of it. We planned to leave mid-day Saturday, but work intervened, so we didn’t leave until late afternoon. Our plan was to drive to Zugdidi to spend the night there, break up the drive, and spend some time with G’s relatives. The thing that had come loose on the car on our trip to Poka was making noise again, and there was heavy traffic, so it took longer than planned and we didn’t get in to Zugdidi until quite late. We got to hang out with the family a bit in the morning, though. One of the little ones is book-obsessed and loved the board books I had brought her, so we got along swimmingly.

We left Zugdidi around noon and drove into Svaneti. We’d stopped at the Enguri dam and taken photos before, so we skipped that stop, but did pull off for the odd scenic pitstop. It took about three and a half hours to get to Mestia. Just outside Mestia, we picked up a group of hitchhikers, who were a great boon to us. They were all Tbilisi Svan English teachers spending their summer vacation in their ancestral home. They called a friend of theirs who ran a guesthouse and hooked us up with a cheap, clean guesthouse with a private bathroom. They also gave us some restaurant and sightseeing advice, and were just generally very nice and helpful. Unfortunately I didn’t catch any of their names, but one of them works with one of my co-workers (small country), so hopefully I can meet her again and say thank you.

After dropping our stuff off in the room we went for a wander in the town and relaxed a bit in the park at Seti Square, and then went to make sure we made it to the Svaneti museum before they closed. I’m really glad we made it to the museum; it’s small but well-presented and really worth visiting. I found the display of coins left at the churches really interesting in their age and geographic range. After seeing the exhibits, we climbed to the museum roof to see the panoramic view of Mestia and take some photos. We finished the day at Koshki Bar (also recommended by our hitchhikers for kubdari). I was surprised that a place next to the bus station would be so good…it’s usually better to walk further afield. The menu was extensive, and despite all my years in Georgia, I wasn’t familiar with all the dishes. We were discussing what to order in our usual mish-mash of Georgian and English, and the waitress kept right up, speaking to us in both languages.  We wound up ordering the kubdari (the Svanetian version of khachapuri, filled with spiced meat), the house salad (which the waitress made sure we knew was made with beef tongue) and a tchvishtari (Svanetian cheesy cornbread, a favorite of mine) made with millet. Everything was delicious, though I thought the tchvishtari was a little on the salty side. When I went to the restroom, I noticed in the refrigerator a legit-looking chocolate cake, so I splurged and had dessert and did not regret it in the least. It was one of the best cakes I’ve had in Georgia. Walking around Mestia I was struck by how different it was than four years ago. Then there were lots of empty new buildings and not many people around. This time, Mestia was vibrant! Tourists and locals alike were playing in the park, strolling along the streets, and eating in cafes. There were far fewer empty storefronts, but there were still cows walking down the main street and old men in traditional hats minding their own business. Right now, they’ve hit the balance between tradition and development right on the head for me…I desperately hope they manage to hold onto that balance, as the place is only going to keep getting more and more popular.

After sleeping in the next morning, I started the day with my first-ever flat white at Erti Kava which brews my beloved Coffee Lab beans and has a really extensive drink menu including the lovely flower fairy tea from the baths (…must find the name of that brand!). We had a breakfast that was really more of a lunch at Cafe Panorama  where I sampled their version of millet tchvistari (I preferred Koshki’s version, but this was also very good) and G had a massive plate of ojakhuri (pork and potatoes cooked together…this version included some wine, too). We walked down to the riverside and relaxed and listened to the rushing water for a while. Then we walked to the Hatsvali Ski Lift. The idea was to take the ski lift up, and go for a short hike/long walk once we were at the top. However, the ski lift was closed for repairs. Given what happened at Gudauri last winter, this is probably for the best, but it was annoying that the sign said the lift would reopen on August 10, and we were well past that with no information on when it would actually reopen. Our plans were foiled, so we wandered around the town for a while and returned to Seti Square, where G to a little nap to digest his ojakhuri. After another little wander through the other part of the town, we had dinner at Buba, which was recomended by our hostess for kubdari. G was still pretty full, so we didn’t order it, though. We got “Svan fries” (french fries with Svanetian salt), millet khachapuri (which was amazing! I think the millet was mixed in with the cheese rather than the used for the dough, though, so I think it still contained wheat) and chicken soup (which may also have contained millet). All the food was really good.

Tuesday was Mariamoba, which is apparently a particularly big deal in Svaneti, but we had to drive back to Tbilisi. Only Laila was open for breakfast but their breakfast menu was limited and kind of disappointing, so G decided to wait and I grabbed a packaged croissant and a banana from the market and returned to Erti Kava for a latte. They also had a little bit of quiche left (they don’t sell much food, but apparently have some), so I got a piece and was quite satisfied with my breakfast. We set off, and stopped along the road for G to have his last taste of kubdari in Khaishi. Despite the holiday, traffic wasn’t too bad on the highway, so we made it back to Tbilisi in decent time.

Advertisements

Inspired by my friend Chloe’s monthly food favorites, I’m going to start profiling my favorite new things in Georgia each season. See all my past favorites here. I’ll try to focus on things, people, places, and organizations that are brand new, but it’s possible that I’ll be late to the party on something, or there’s something that’s just new-to-me and so amazing that I’ll still choose to include it. I don’t mean to be solely food-focused, but that seems to happen sometimes…

IMG_20180317_203952-COLLAGE

Clockwise from top left: Cinnamon rolls made with Breaderick; cherry juice; room in Crowne Plaza Borjomi; Panthenol gel; quesadilla from El Maridaje (half-eaten, sorry); quail and rice

S is back: Those who’ve been with this blog since the early days might remember my old travel buddy/roommate/partner in crime “S:. Well, she’s been gone a while working on her PhD, but this summer her research brought her back to Georgia, and we got to hang out! Of course she’s on her way back to the US to finish up her degree right as this post goes live, but it made spring and summer fun to have her around!

El MaridajeTbilisi finally has a Mexican restaurant! The chef is from Sonora, so the cuisine isn’t TexMex or Baja, but as someone with family in Tucson, this hits the spot! My favorite so far is Nachos El Maridaje, but they have expanded the menu since last time I visited.

Cherry juice: Good for my joints, delicious, and one of the few sugar-free options readily available, cherry and cherry-pomegranate juices make me happy.

Upscale Borjomi: This summer I attended a conference in Borjomi, which led to seeing a different side of the town. This side was also great! The conference was held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was a real 5 star hotel. The swimming pool was beautiful, the buffet was good, and my room was fit for a princess. We also had a wine tasting at The Drinking Spot, and it was some of the best wine I’ve had anywhere; varieties I had never heard of served with delicious cheese and honey.

Frozen quail: Lately, the supply of normal chicken to the grocery store around the corner has been disrupted, so while I was searching in vain one day I noticed a package of frozen quail, and I turned my chicken and rice into quail and rice. Delicious, fancy, and possibly even easier than with chicken!

Mama Terra: Unfortunately, Begemot closed (Woland’s remains), but as consolation it was replaced with Mama Terra which is another great place. Mexican, Asian, and Georgian vegetarian options. Everything I’ve had has been delicious, and it’s nice to be able to go out to eat for fun and convenience, without sacrificing healthy tasty food like what I make at home. The drink menu is also awesome–free tap water, lots of fresh juices, smoothies, a tasty masala chai latte, and delicious ginger kombucha.

Lisi Lake walking path: I hadn’t been to Lisi Lake in a while, and boy does it look different now! They’ve made a path around the lake (and also added a lot of “attractions” and cafes to the city side). It’s a 3-kilometer loop, and a very pleasant walk. Clearly it’s popular, as the place is packed with walkers, joggers, and kids on bikes and scooters every day at almost all hours.

Georgian pharmacies: I posted years ago about my first time using my Georgian health insurance, and I remain really pleased with my insurance coverage and my family doctor. This summer I had a series of minor maladies (Tbilisi tummy, ear infection, a series of burns, bumps, and scrapes), and while I did see my doctor a few times to patch me up, it was the pharmacists who really got me through the summer. While there are of course some pharmacists who aren’t particularly interested in helping, on average I’ve gotten great advice and assistance from them–looking up the equivalent of the American thing I have in Georgia, comparing prices, recommending different products, etc. My greatest find this summer was something called Panthenol, recommended by a pharmacist for my tide-battered, scraped, rashy and sunburned legs (Why yes, I was a total mess). I had asked for something to use like Neosporin, which I had left at home, and she said “No, no, you don’t need an antibiotic yet. You just need something to toughen it up. Try this.” I tried it, and that’s exactly what it did–it made the scab form quickly, and the skin heal faster in general (and I don’t see any scars).

Breaderick, my sourdough starter: When I visited my parents at Christmas, Mom told me about her new adventures in sourdough, and I got to try their sourdough pancakes. It seemed like a brilliant idea to start my own, so now I have my own gluten pet named Breaderick. It’s a fun but not too time-consuming hobby, and I make yummy pancakes, flatbread and regular bread somewhat regularly now. I’ve also experimented with banana bread and cinnamon rolls, with fairly good results. (If anyone in Tbilisi needs a piece, just let me know!)

Dishonorable Mention: Lari depreciation…and I had meant to convert my savings to USD right before, and didn’t get around to it. Poor me. (Literally).

If you have any suggestions for something new and great in Georgia, let me know–I’ll try to check it out, and perhaps it will make a future favorites list.

A friend and I had tried to go on a trip to Tusheti a few years ago, but it was too expensive for just two people, so we passed up that opportunity. This summer another friend suggested going and put together a group of four, so it was more financially possible (I also have a better salary now). Tusheti is one of the most gushed-over regions of Georgia, so I was really excited about the trip.

Tusheti is one of the most remote regions of Georgia, located on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range; the only road is closed from October to May, and sometimes longer. That road is only accessible to 4 wheel drive vehicles, and it takes at least 4 hours to make it to the main village, Omalo.  Very few people stay in Tusheti over the winter (and most of those who stay remain in Omalo, not the other villages) though the government does provide weekly helicopter service for those who do. Pretty much the entire region is a protected area or national park, so the nature there is relatively unspoiled, especially compared to other parts of the country (there are big chunks of woods!). Administratively, Tusheti is part of the Kakheti region. Tushetians are quite well-integrated into the rest of Georgia, but they do have their own culture and history. One of the most obvious demonstrations of this is the prohibition on pork in Tusheti (whereas pork is synonymous with food in much of the rest of Georgia). Instead of pork, lamb is the primary meat source–this is great for me as I love lamb and it isn’t always easy to find in Tbilisi outside the Easter holidays. Accordingly, the people are mostly shepherds and semi-nomadic. The superstition is that if you bring pork into Tusheti, it will rain. I was pretty sure the pate we brought was beef (and it had a picture of a cow on it!) but some Tushetians scolded us for it anyway…

We left early on Monday morning, picked up the others, and made our way to Telavi where we had a khinkali brunch. We proceeded then to Zemo Alvani, where we met the friend-of-a-friend we were staying with. While he was preparing the last things, we went to the local grocery store and stocked up since the boys were afraid they would starve in Tusheti.  We packed up the Delica (300 GEL/car, shared between the number of passengers: “maximum” 6, so 50 GEL/person), stored our car in another friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s house in Kvemo Alvani (the main jumping-off point) and were on the road to Tusheti. This road had me a bit apprehensive; it was featured on the BBC’s Most Dangerous Roads, so that’s hardly an endorsement, is it? To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. The road is very narrow and windy, so it definitely requires a driver who knows how to control the car and pay attention, but the road itself was relatively well-maintained. The other big thing about the road is that many of the mountain streams run straight across it, so the driver and the car need to be able to ford some water. I’ve been on MANY worse roads in Georgia, though. The scenery out the window is certainly beautiful. We did get stuck in a traffic jam mid-way caused by a rockfall that needed to be cleared before cars could continue to pass. There are a number of memorials along the road to those who have died, which does undermine one’s confidence a bit, though I have heard rumors that not all of those are actually due to car accidents…

Our destination that night was the village of Parsma, about an hour and a half drive past Omalo, and the last village generally accessible by vehicle. It was dark when we arrived, and we were told that we needed to just climb that little mountain to get to our place. Before we had been told that the car could bring us to the door, so we hadn’t packed accordingly. I grew up with the Girl Scout advice that you should be able to carry your own supplies one mile, and I try to abide by that. HOWEVER, one kilometer straight up a slippery mountain after dark is not the same as a normal one mile, and somehow the shoulder strap for my duffel bag was nowhere to be found, so that was a struggle. We had been told it was a “normal house”, but we were in a remote region, so I wasn’t really expecting electricity (and I was right), but I was kind of expecting beds (and I was wrong). The sleeping arrangements were tables with padding on them (actually not bad), except they were both shorter and narrower than a regular twin bed, and lacking sheets and pillows. I’m not so high maintenance–I can sleep without a pillow on my back or on my stomach, just not on my side. But since the beds were so short, I was too tall to be able to stretch out to sleep on my back or front. Add to that a sunburn on one hip and an ear infection in the opposite ear making sleeping on either side uncomfortable, even if there were a pillow… We had managed to have too much stuff to haul up the mountain and yet not have the things we needed to sleep properly.

After no sleep and a fair amount of crankiness (not just on my part), the boys decided to let the girls “sleep in” and went off in search of a guest house. They returned heroes when they informed us that we could stay at Guesthouse Baso for two nights (2-person room 60 GEL/night; food available, but we had our own). With hot running water, electricity (thank you, solar technology!), WiFi and real beds with sheets and pillows, this place was paradise! (The hostess also, surprisingly, spoke very good Spanish–better than me, for sure!) The first day we were all tired, so we just hung out with the other guests (some French hikers who are starting a bakery when they return to Paris!) and enjoyed the view and the “fresh air”. Tusheti is famous for fresh air, but in my experience there was always someone smoking their cigarette nearby, so I had more breathing problems there than I usually do in Tbilisi. I did sleep like the dead that night, though.

IMG_20180808_134422

View from Guesthouse Baso

The next day was cooler and cloudier, so we mostly just hung out at the guest house. In the afternoon the boys decided to try their hands at fishing…I think we can say that no unknown talents were discovered, but it was nice to sit next to the river and be outside. We returned to the guest house to hang out, but the (new) other guests, European hikers, asked us to be quiet starting at 7, so we couldn’t do much. (What do you think of that? I’m an early-to-bed early-to-rise person myself, and I understand that they had to wake up early to leave and complete their hike in daylight hours, but given the fact that “quiet hours” in Georgia are more like midnight to 10 AM, it seemed like a big ask…even small children tend to stay up until 11 here, so 7 is really early). I climbed into bed and read my book, and the boys went off to drink with the friend-of-a-friend. And then the rain started. Oh, boy, it was a serious downpour, complete with thunder and everything. It was one of the scarier rain storms I’ve been in, and of course I started worrying about the guys who were who knows where, drinking, and unfamiliar with the terrain. And then the beeping started. Remember how this day was kind of cloudy? That meant that the solar power system hadn’t gotten enough sun to make it through the night, and it was beeping to let us know we were running out of power. We didn’t particularly want to turn out the porch light so the guys could find their way home, but the beeping was also REALLY annoying, and European hiker guy poked his head out to ask me to make it stop (I don’t work here!). We turned the system, and all the electricity, off to make the beeping stop, and eventually the guys found their way back, but between all that and the thunder and pounding rain, it wasn’t a great night’s sleep.

The next day was the village festival, but because of that Baso was out of rooms. They very nicely helped us arrange a room for the next two nights at another guesthouse in another village called Mirgvela. In the morning, we hung out at the parking lot of the village to find a driver who was planning on not drinking at the festival…that was actually easier than I thought it would be. We walked up the mountain to the village to attend the festival. The boys “had to” go to the shrine to be beaten with wooden swords, but the girls weren’t allowed to approach the shrine, so we went to the friend-of-a-friend’s house to hang out. His mother asked us why we hadn’t stayed in the nice room with proper beds! Had we known of the nice room with proper beds, I’m pretty sure we would have! The supra was also gender-divided, but this time that was kind of an advantage…no one was forcing the women’s table to eat or drink, but there was lots of delicious food and drink available. We finally got to eat some lamb, and the pickles were some of the tastiest I’ve had. At the supra, the men with wooden swords became the supra police. I was afraid that they might be forcing people to eat and drink, but actually they were stopping people from saying things that would cause fights, so they seemed to actually be a pretty good addition to the supra! Then the rain started again, which made the outdoor supra and festival significantly less fun (and kind of chilly). We went back to the porch of the house to watch the horse-race, which our friend-of-a-friend’s horse won! Since G had left his suitcase there since the first day (not wanting to schlep it up and down mountain again), we left in a break in the rainstorm to get down the mountain and meet our driver. Our driver’s cousins had asked him to drive them to Dartlo, so he said he’d be back in an hour. Then it started really pouring and didn’t let up. We hung out in one of the little cafes, drinking ქონდრის ჩაი (kondris chai, savory tea). Our driver was quite prompt, especially given the weather conditions (only 10 minutes late!), and we bumped our way over mushy roads to Mirgvela.

Mirgvela greeted us with a view of misty mountains beyond mountains and comfortable rooms and beds (but shared bathrooms) (2-person room 50 GEL/night; food 25 GEL/person/day). The staff there were very sweet and friendly, and spoke a little English and were eager to try to communicate. It kept raining the whole next day, so we didn’t do much other than eat, drink kondris chai, read, and hang out. The food at Mirgvela was really good! They made some mchadi that tasted halfway between normal mchadi and American corn bread and was served with real butter and honey–amazing! The food price included wine and chacha, and we always had loads of leftovers from the portions they served us. However, it was really really cold the whole time we were there, and the cloudiness and the fact that everyone was stuck inside meant the limited electricity was used up pretty fast. Unfortunately, G and L got sick one day, but I think it was because of the raw melon, so it’s not the guest house’s fault. The day we had planned to leave, we learned that the road had washed out, and they weren’t sure when it would re-open…and G and L weren’t feeling well, so we waited (and mostly slept).

IMG_20180810_105406

View from Mirgvela

The next day (the extra day) we were pleasantly surprised with the news that the road had opened, and our driver was probably on his way, since his neighbors said his car was gone and his phone was out of the coverage area, so we packed and waited.  Eventually the driver’s phone came back into the coverage area, and he said he was on his way! We were heading home! The road back was much bumpier after days of rain, but still only one spot was scary (the road was totally flooded, but apparently it wasn’t too deep if you knew where to drive on the road that you couldn’t see…).

All in all, I can say that Tusheti is pretty and I got a lot of reading done (finished Now I Rise and The Paris Spy, made progress in Let Our Fame be Great and War and Peace), but I don’t know if it was worth the long and expensive drive, particularly since the weather turned out to be bad. Prices are higher there than in other parts of the country because of the difficulty of getting products and the short growing season. We had more adventure and quite a bit less action than I had hoped. If you have plenty of time and money (if you get stuck, you have to pay the guesthouse for those extra days of course) and have already seen other parts of Georgia then maybe it’s worth a trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first-time visit to Georgia. There are lots of beautiful places in Georgia, many of which have significantly less hassle.

Since the semester is mostly over I currently have a little more free time. The heat in Tbilisi has been intense (and record-breaking!), so I was ready to get out of town. I had long-ago read an article about the Convent at Phoka, and I had tried their chocolate from an Old Town souvenir shop. Someone mentioned Paravani Lake in a conversation (the convent is on its shores), and an idea formed in my mind. It was an especially perfect plan, because one day isn’t enough time to go to the seaside, but I did want to be by the water. I woke up Sunday morning and said “Let’s go on an adventure!”. Famous last words.

Paravani Lake is located in the Southern part of Georgia in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Southern Georgia (Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions especially) is interesting for its ethnic diversity; there are great numbers of ethnic Armenians and Azeris, villages of Russian spiritual Christians, the odd historically German village, and a few others. There are two roads from Tbilisi to Tsalka, from where there is only one road to the village of Phoka, via Kojori and Manglisi or via Tetritskaro on the Marneuli road. We went via Tetritskaro, as the road is supposed to be in better condition. I had been on part of this road a few times before, including on my first trip to Georgia in 2010. What was amazing about this drive was that nothing looked different. Every time I travel westward on the main road to Gori and beyond, there’s something new and more developed: new marshrutka stops, freshly painted signs on shops, better roads…the road towards Marneuli was just the same as 8 years ago. This is the poorest area of Georgia, and you could see it. Once you leave the dry, brown plains, just after Tetritskaro, things turn green and you enter what is one of the most beautiful areas of Georgia I have seen. Green, with lots of streams and ponds, plentiful wildflowers in the meadows and evergreen forests atop small craggy peaks and rolling hills. It was a beautiful drive. There’s an organization, Elkana, which is working to develop rural tourism in this area, and now I get it. The Georgian government just released a video promoting tourism in the region, with many beautiful shots but ignoring the region’s ethnic diversity, which ruffled a few feathers.

Just before Tsalka, we decided to go explore a few of the villages, more or less at random, and see what there was to see. We turned down the road to the village of Kokhta (I was told this means tower, but I can’t find confirmation of that…) and drove on to the next village, Chrdilisubani (shadow neighborhood). There was no tower, but there was some shade. If anyone knows anything about these villages, please let me know! We spoke to someone in Chrdilisubani to clear up whether or not the road connected back to the highway (answer: it goes back to the highway, but it isn’t really a road. GoogleMaps Lie #1). He was clearly a native Georgian speaker. When we retraced our route back through Kokhta, I noticed that the church had a three-barred Russian cross on it rather than the Georgian cross of grapevines or the Armenian cross I would expect to see in an Armenian village. This piqued my interest since this region is known to be very diverse. Do the Russian spiritual Christians use the Russian Orthodox cross? Did we stumble across some Dukhobors? Maybe Georgians or Armenians just preferred that cross in this village? I couldn’t find an answer in a few quick Google searches, though I can say I’m pretty sure the village is not Azeri.

We continued on to Phoka, through the segment of bad roads in the village of Sameba (the rest of the road from Tbilisi to Phoka was fine).  The beautiful scenery continued, especially as we drove along the shore of Lake Paravani, and the further we were from Tbilisi, the cooler the temperatures got. It was down to 61* (F) on the car thermostat by the time we were in Phoka. There was also a little bit of rain, but nothing major.  We found the convent shop by following the convenient signs. This is a very entrepreneurial convent, who have studied cheesemaking in France and take advantage of their location and solitude to make high-quality gourmet products. We splurged on cheese and chocolate and fancy jam.  The plan was to go to a little marketi, buy some bread and maybe tomatoes, and have a little picnic and return to Tbilisi. End of Day.

IMG_20180708_162037-COLLAGE

Treats from Phoka (that white chocolate with rose petals was so good!)

HAHAHAHAHA

G had the idea to make a loop, rather than going  back to Tbilisi the way we had come. Ninotsminda is the next major town down the road from Phoka, and he knew of a road from Tabatskuri Lake down to Ninotsminda, and had driven from Bakuriani to Tabatskuri Lake before and said the road was good enough. Our new plan was Phoka–>Ninotsminda–>Tbatskuri Lake–>Bakuriani–>Borjomi–>highway back to Tbilisi. It would be beautiful and nice and great.

HAHAHAHAHA

We went to Ninotsminda and bought some bread, and picked up a few (very lovely) Polish hitchhikers outside town. Their goal was to go to Vardzia the next day, so they wanted to find a bed in a place where it would be easy to get a tour to Vardzia. We suggested Borjomi, because it’s a nice town, there are organized tours there, and we could drive them all the way. Perfect! We consulted GoogleMaps which didn’t show a road straight to Tabatskuri, but said that the road to Bakuriani that went near there was a highway, the M20, and off we went. Now, I didn’t expect this highway to be a highway like the divided highway between Tbilisi and Gori, but since it was the same color on the map as all the roads we had been on earlier that day, I expected it to be, you know, passable. It was in yellow, and village roads are generally shown in white. Village roads are dicey, sure. But this was a yellow road; it would be fine.

HAHAHAHAHA

Clearly it was not fine. (GoogleMaps Lie #2) There was a bit of asphalt, and then good gravel, and then….After a short way of bumping and scary crashy-grindy noises and no indication of a better road ahead, we thought to reevaluate the plan. The black storm clouds behind us clinched the deal, and we turned around back to Akhalkalaki. Here we had two choices: go back the way we had come (leaving our hitchhikers further from their destination than they had started) or continue the loop on the road to Akhaltsikhe. We knew the road we had been on was fine, and we knew the road from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi was fine…but what about the road between Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki? GoogleMaps said it was yellow. And as we had learned, yellow can mean pretty much anything. We saw that Aspindza was along that route, and I remembered that that was the road to Vardzia, and that THAT road was OK, so it was only a little bit of mystery. We went for it.

Luckily, this part of the road was fine. Potholes, of course, but normal potholes. (This is ALSO a beautiful drive along a small river with mountains on either side). However, the poor little Prius had had a long day, and between Aspindza and Akhaltsikhe a rattling emerged. G climbed out and looked and saw “something” hanging, but couldn’t reach it. We arrived in Akhaltsikhe a little after 8 (on Sunday evening) and saw a lot of closed garages. We found a tire shop and carwash that was open. They let us use the bathroom, and the backpackers bought some coffee in the unfortunately named cafe “Coffee. Oil”. They couldn’t help us with the car, but they told us where the open mechanic’s shop was. Once we found the mechanic, the car got lifted up and we got the good news that it was only the protector that was dangling, so they put it back in place, and after just 10 lari we were good to go. Onwards!

The backpackers had cleverly gone online to book a guesthouse in Borjomi, so we dropped our new friends off and said goodbye (of course the guesthouse wasn’t where GoogleMaps said it was. Lie #3). Now we had been on the road for 10 hours, were hungry (never got that picnic!), and not as relaxed as we had hoped. Clearly we needed a khachapuri break in the village of Akhaldaba outside Borjomi, where they make amazing wood-oven khachapuri. It finally started raining seriously, so we waited it out while we ate. Refreshed and with the rain abating, we had an uneventful (but late) drive back to Tbilisi.

poka map

Long story short: visit this area of Georgia; it’s stunning; do not trust GoogleMaps there.

 

6598284

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (image from GoodReads)

Theroux, Paul. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar. First Mariner Books ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009. Print.

In this book, the author, Paul Theroux, travels across Eurasia mostly on land, primarily by train. He more or less retraces his journey 30 years earlier, which was recounted in his book “The Great Railway Bazaar”. The most pertinent difference between these two journeys, for my purposes, is that on his second journey, he was not able to get a visa to Iran, and so he rerouted through Georgia. This book stands out as the least glowing travel memoir of Georgia I’ve read, which is not to say it’s negative, though. It’s certainly an interesting tale and a snapshot of Georgia at a very particular time. Theroux crosses the land border from Turkey to Georgia at Sarpi on a dreary, muddy spring day not long after the Rose Revolution. This was before Saakashvili shined things up, and before the tourists came. He visits charity houses, watches the mediocre ballet in the faded Opera House, and sees subsistence farmers all along the rail line across the country. It’s a good reminder that the Rose Revolution was not very long ago, and that Saakashvili’s reforms still took time. The Opera House only recently reopened after years of renovations, and some of the people he met and spoke to are still relevant cultural figures, but the Georgia he describes is very different than the experience visitors will have in Tbilisi or Batumi these days, though the Georgia Theroux descrives is still prevalent in the regions and prone to be forgotten by Tbilisi elites and foreign tourists alike.

One quotation from one of Theroux’s conversations made me think, in particular, about this blog. They say, “You live in a place and you become blind to it” (p. 454). I think that has been happening to me, now that I’ve been in Georgia for more than six years (!?!?!). Things just seem normal now, and I don’t have the observations that I used to. That said, if anyone has any requests for posts…

One interesting part of Theroux’s journey was that he made a point of meeting with writers on his travels, including one of my favorites: Elif Shafak. Her book “The Bastard of Istanbul” remains one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking contemporary novels I have read.  It’s clear that Theroux holds her in similar esteem (and also that she’s really really pretty). She is great. Reading “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” has greatly expanded my to-read list, as so many of the books whose authors he meets sound great, and I am curious to read about his previous journey when he and the world were very different.

I had a glorious and rare free day the day before Easter vacation this year, so I decided to get out of town, get some fresh air, and try to avoid the Easter traffic at the same time. Luckily, it was nearly perfect weather, so there were plenty of options. I convinced G to join me for a day trip to Surami, a town I had passed through hundreds of times, but had never visited. If the name rings a vague bell, it might be because of the film by Sergei Parajanov “The Legend of Suram Fortress”. I’ve never seen the film, but I did see the ballet Gorda (a must-see at the Tbilisi Opera!) which tells the same folktale, and so my sights were set on that fortress.

IMG_20180405_145051

The tree-lined lane from the road up to Surami Fortress

Turns out, the fortress is pretty easy to access; it’s just a short not-too-steep walk up a lane from the main road. We timed our visit just right, as the fruit trees lining the little lane were blooming, making it a lovely sight. We shared the fortress with a cow and, briefly, one other group of visitors. There were lots of places that would be an Instagrammer’s heaven, but posing for photos isn’t my thing. We still got some nice shots, though.

Ready to explore some more, we stopped at the town mineral water fountain, which was quite beautiful but not very delicious. I guess the water is supposed to be good for your health, or something, because it wasn’t particularly refreshing. We went on to try to visit the museum dedicated to Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrainka, but it was closed, seemingly in early celebration of Easter.

We couldn’t leave Surami without purchasing some of the town’s famous nazuki (ნაზუქი sweet bread). It’s quite the sight the first time you drive through Surami on the highway, and all along the highway are huts selling bread, often with ambitious salespeople flapping around their wares. Nazuki is rarely sold outside of Surami and neighboring Khashuri (they say that they have special matsoni (yogurt) there that makes the bread especially good). I really enjoy nazuki (but don’t tell too many Georgians that I like to spread cream cheese or mascarpone on top!), so it was an important part of the expedition.

IMG_20180405_180048

Nazuki huts along the highway

We had a surprisingly good dinner at a place in Khashuri, and then made our way back to Tbilisi to spend the holiday weekend in the unusually quiet city.

Inspired by my friend Chloe’s monthly food favorites, I’m going to start profiling my favorite new things in Georgia each season. See all my past favorites here. I’ll try to focus on things, people, places, and organizations that are brand new, but it’s possible that I’ll be late to the party on something, or there’s something that’s just new-to-me and so amazing that I’ll still choose to include it. I don’t mean to be solely food-focused, but that seems to happen sometimes…

IMG_20170908_122750-COLLAGE

Top: Falafel and hummus from Different Taste. Row 2 L to R: Nutella khachapuri from Sakhachapure No1, Cubano from Begemot, bread from Kakhelebi. Row 3: Chreli Abano, latte and Oreo cheesecake from Coffee LAB, Herbia spinach

Begemot/Woland’s  A cute little bookshop with tasty food and its sister speakeasy, which serves up delicious cocktails in a calm environment. Amazing bar snacks and free tap water!

Chreli Abano Renovations: If you’ve been to Tbilisi and visited Abanotubani, you’ve probably seen that gorgeous blue building that was blocked off and closed. Maybe you thought it as a mosque (lots of people do–the mosque is one street up the hill, FYI). This is Chreli Abano, or the Blue Bath or the Pushkin Bath. And it’s open again, and it is a wonderful simple luxury. They’ve done a great job with the renovations, and the place looks beautiful and feels clean. The staff speak English, and they have a menu of extras available–if you forgot your slippers or shampoo they’ll help you out, and they also brew some delicious herbal teas to help you feel warm and healthy during your bath.

CoffeeLab: Great coffee, and fresh affordable food in a lovely building nestled in a park. Their coffee is confirmed to have turned non-coffee drinkers into coffee snobs!

Different Taste Falafel: I first noticed this cheap little hole in the wall lunch place a few months ago, and thought I would stop by sometime when I was in the neighborhood and didn’t pack my lunch. Recently I walked past and spotted a little hand-written sign that read “New Falafel and Hummus from Israel”. The first time I stopped in I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I overheard the staff discussing a trip to Israel I became optimistic. The hummus and falafel were delicious, and a steal. A good-sized portion of hummus and falafel with a side of bread and a cup of tea is only 7.50 GEL. Unfortunately, they don’t have pita bread, but the garlicky toast that comes with the hummus and falafel is pretty good. It’s the only thing I’ve tried here, but their Facebook reviews suggest that the baked goods are tasty, too.

Herbia Spinach: I never knew I liked spinach so much until I learned how hard it was to find spinach regularly in Georgia. Herbia has changed that with greenhouse-grown packaged spinach regularly available at your local grocery store. Always fresh and clean and delicious, I have been happily eating spinach nearly once a week now. (Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for spinach and chickpeas is a favorite!)

Kakhelebi bread: This restaurant gets frequent reviews as one of the best places to try farm-fresh innovative Georgian food. Those reviews are well-deserved. What I don’t understand is why it took so long for anyone to tell me they also have a bakery! Multiple kinds of delicious, freshly baked artisan breads are available. Don’t get me wrong; I love Georgian tonis puri, but it usually isn’t a good shape for slicing for toast or sandwiches. Kakhelebi’s bread solves this problem! It’s also a good distance from my house for a morning walk. Beware, they close unusually early for a Tbilisi restaurant.

Nutella Khachapuri at Sakhachapure N1 : I can’t believe it took someone so long to invent this! It’s the perfect comfort dessert; an adjaruli bread boat made of puff pastry, filled with a load of nutella and topped with some fruit. The perfect indulgent dessert!

 

If you have any suggestions for something new and great in Georgia, let me know–I’ll try to check it out, and perhaps it will make a future favorites list.

These aren’t the fanciest, most impressive places in Tbilisi, and they aren’t necessarily the most diverse, but these are the places I keep going back to due to convenience, tastiness and/or tradition. I can’t say I’m enough of a regular that the staff recognize me (well, not at most places), but these are the places where I’ve tried enough things that I don’t have to look at the menu to know what I want and I keep going back for more of it. They may not be the most iconic Tbilisi places or have typical Georgian food, but they’ve definitely got my stamp of approval!

Begemot
The place:
A comfy, cozy place full of books and great light fare
What I order: Cubano, homemade potato chips, iced tea or a latte

Coffee LAB
The place: I suppose it’s more Nina who’s a regular here, but I’ve tagged along often enough to know the place, too. Great coffee and a nice affordable and fresh menu. The view into the treetops of the park from the top floor is lovely and peaceful.
What I order: chicken wrap (or mushroom sandwich), oreo cheesecake (which is served in more pudding form, but amazing anyway), tall espresso with milk

Culinarium: Khasheria
The place: An after-banya tradition with the girls! Modern, delicious takes on hearty traditional Georgian dishes.
What I order: 
hot salad, chicken, beef cheeks, whole wheat bread, dips, house wine

Dunkin’ Donuts
The place:
A very popular American transplant, Georgian Dunkin’ Donuts also makes some really good Georgian pastries! It seems to be the only place left in town for a bagel (I always find the donuts themselves a bit underwhelming., though) Also a good place to pop in and use the toilet when you’re running around town.
What I order: New York bagel, lobiani, pumpkin spice latte

Entree
The place:
When I first came to Tbilisi, this local chain was one of the few places with WiFi, and I spent a LOT of time here. Not the case anymore, but still a good place to pop in for breakfast or a snack on the run.
What I order: Oranais, chocolate and almond croissant (on the rare occasion they have it) latte

Literaturuli Cafe
The place: Another favorite from way back when, and another bookstore cafe. There are at least two locations in Tbilisi still open.
What I order: lobiani

Pelmeni 1
The place:
A hole-in-the-wall of a place in a parking lot across the street from Isani metro station. The food is fantastic and cheap, but unfortunately the smokers have overtaken the formerly-non-smoking section.
What I order: uralskij pelmeni, hand-cut french fries

Ronny’s Pizza
The place:
Georgia’s best American pizza place, which has recently added a few locations. They also deliver.
What I order: Wild West (barbecue chicken and roasted garlic) pizza, root beer

Sakhachapure #1
The place:
A local chain that my friend from Batumi proclaimed the best adjaruli outside of Adjara, with many convenient locations. Also, props to them for making a dessert khachapuri–it took too long!
What I order: adjaruli khachapuri, “house dessert” (basically Nutella khachapuri), Laghidze water

Seoul
The place:
Delicious Korean food conveniently located around the corner from one of my work locations. I’ve never been to Korea, but I assume the food is pretty good as the place is usually full of Koreans.
What I order: bibimbap (comes with soup and kimchi), tea

Tashir Pizza
The place:
An Armenian chain that has recently expanded to Tbilisi (mostly in shopping malls). Though “pizza” is in the name, I’ve always ordered from the sushi menu, and I haven’t been disappointed (remember, though, that I’m a Midwesterner, so my sushi experience may differ from yours).
What I order: sushi with smoked salmon and avocado

Remember Rosemary? Unfortunately, they had to close, but like I reassured you the chef (my good friend, btw…there’s your disclaimer) had a new project up his sleeve…Begemot! This place is even more up my alley than Rosemary was, as it combines delicious food with BOOKS. It’s not a full restaurant, but it’s an ideal place to grab a light lunch or a snack. The menu features tea and coffee, pastries, salads, sandwiches and soups, some American style, some with a Georgian twist like sulguni or adjika. Laptops, and of course reading, are welcome. I’ve never made it early enough in the day for my caffeine-sensitive self to sample the coffees, but a friend who lives in the neighborhood has already made it her morning coffee stop. I’m a gigantic fan of the Cubanos. Oh my gosh, go to Begemot and get a Cubano.

IMG_20170908_122750

❤ Cubano (also a salad…should have gone for the chips and peach iced green tea)

Everything I’ve tried has been good, but seriously, just get the Cubano (or the roast beef. I think the meat is the same). It’s even served with homemade potato chips. The used book selection is surprisingly good, with reasonable prices ranging from 5-15 GEL. They’ve also got a BookSwapping shelf where you can take or leave books for free. The Tbilisi English BookSwap meets there (first Wednesday of the month, 7:30, join us), and they have also added on their own multi-lingual international BookSwap meeting. The decor is adorable and cozy, and they play nice chill music. The Master and Margarita theme is done subtly, but you’ll notice it in the posters. Highly recommended. In fact, I’ve got a bit of free time between engagements this afternoon, so I’ll probably be there.

IMG_20170908_122723

Cute decor, right?

IMG_0687

The beach chairs on Gonio beach in previous summers

Seriously, Gonio beach chair people? You don’t get the whole beach! You can see from the photo of a previous summer, there were quite a few beach chairs for rent on the beach in previous summers, but in summer 2017 the problem really exploded. There wasn’t any beach left WITHOUT beach chairs on it, and the beach chair attendants wouldn’t allow you to move one. The prices aren’t too bad, at 6 GEL/hour, but if I have brought my own chair or mat from home, I don’t really need a beach chair, and I still have a right to use some part of the public beach. There are way more beach chairs for rent than there is demand. The attendant finally relented and let us use a little patch of beach, since we argued that since there were 20 chairs in a row unoccupied, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to his bottom line.  Come on now, folks. I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s a public beach. You can’t take the whole thing. Capitalism: you’re doing it wrong.

%d bloggers like this: