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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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❤ 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.

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Cute decor, right?

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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.

The accepted way to spend a summer vacation in Georgia is to head to the Black Sea coast. Some people prefer Kobuleti, others Batumi. Usually I stay in Gonio, as it’s a bit cheaper than Batumi but very close by, and the water is cleaner and more pleasant for swimming. This year, I stayed in Gonio again, in the same guesthouse that I have for the past few years, but had a very different trip. This time, we did the MOUNTAINS. The weather wasn’t very good at the beach, and I’ve seen the Botanical Garden and the Boulevard a few times (not that they’re not still fun), but I was looking for something new. This time we had a reliable car, so we went exploring. One day, we set off on the back road to Akhaltsikhe. The road goes along a very wide and scenic river, so there are lots of beautiful views. The name of a village caught our eye: Bzubzu (that sounds funny in Georgian, too), so we turned and drove up that road. It was a surprisingly good road, and we followed it for a while taking in the scenery and fresh air before coming back down the mountain and returning to the main road.

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BZUBZU (and awkwardly placed cow)

As we drove on, we noticed multiple rafting companies operating and a number of wine cellars open to tourists. There seemed to be lots of tour groups visiting, as well. There was a medieval bridge, an early Soviet aqueduct and a few waterfalls, all with people gathered around taking photos. (I’m also guilty…the photo of me posing with Akhali Cola in my summer favorites was taken atop the Soviet aqueduct)

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Funny sign at Mtirala National Park HQ

Our next adventure was to Mtirala (literally “weeping”) National Park, the rainiest place in Georgia. True to its name, it was indeed raining off and on as we drove to the park headquarters. Unlike the road into the mountain villages, this road was shockingly bad. I’m really not sure how the little Prius made it. If we’d had more time, hiking in wouldn’t have been a bad idea. We did the short hike to the waterfall, and the trail was very well-marked and -maintained. Some of our party, however, complained that we had had to walk so far just to see some water. Hiking’s not for everyone, I guess. On the return leg, it started raining in earnest, so we skipped stopping to see the lake. We returned to the visitor center to have a picnic, but they were charging a fee for tables, so they suggested we go next door to the restaurant next door where we could use a table for free (Capitalism: you’re doing it wrong). Then we hit the road back and crept across all the potholes back to Chakvi.

Our final excursion into the mountains came on Eid, or Kurban Bayramoba as it’s called in Georgian. The owner of the guesthouse where we were staying is an Adjaran Muslim, and he invited us to celebrate with him and his friends on the mountaintop near the village. Of course we said yes! This time the trusty little Prius nearly didn’t make it (it overheated a few times–despite the high altitude chill–so we had to stop multiple times on the way up to let it cool down). The host’s estimation of how long it took to get to the village was a vast underestimate. Then, we weren’t actually visiting the village, but the mountaintop nearby. It took a REALLY long time to get up there. The village was a little place named Tsablana, and they tell me the mountain is called Ghomis Mta, though I can’t confirm that on any maps. Ghomis Mta translates literally to “Grits Mountain” and there’s a great story for why it’s called that. Two neighboring villages disputed which village owned the mountain, so they agreed to a contest to settle the matter. Whichever village could bring hot food to the top of the mountain faster, and without the food getting cold would get ownership of the mountain. Those silly people in the other village prepared the Adjaran specialty of borano which is very delicious, but apparently doesn’t hold its heat very well. The wily Tsablanans, however, made the Megrelian staple ghomi (grits). Even wilier, they put a fire-warmed stone underneath the food so that it would stay hot longer. Tsablana’s trick worked, and they gained claim over the mountain. So this is where we gathered with our host and his friends to celebrate Eid with a feast. They grilled fish and chicken over a fire, and we had fresh fruits and veggies and some cold khinkali. And lots of wine and chacha (level of observance of Islam: pork, no; alcohol, yes). I was delighted that the mountaintop was covered in juicy sweet wild blueberries (they’re hard to buy here!). I’m told the view is stunning on a clear day and you can see the few kilometers into Turkey, but we only saw mist:

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Misty view from Ghomis Mta

I can’t believe it took me this long to get into Mountainous Adjara, and there’s still so much left to explore!

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…

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Clockwise from top left: Wearing a dress from DeFacto and modelling Siakhle Cola; a pistachio ice cream cone; Krik Brewing Company, probably the best microbrewery, and Georgian olive oil

Georgian Olive OilGeorgian olive oil (produced near Sighnaghi, if I’m not mistaken) hit the shelves at the beginning of this summer, and it was the perfect accompaniment to all the fresh tomatoes! It’s the highest quality olive oil I’ve found on shelves here, but the price is mid-market. Good enough to dip tonis puri into, with no other seasonings.

Craft beer: The craft beer revolution made it to Georgia!   Krik Brewing Company makes some really delicious beers (and I don’t even really like beer). One was orange-y and one was chocolate-y and tasting them was quite fun. Black Dog Bar and Burgio are also both in on the game,and recommended for a casual night out.

Pistachio Ice Cream: I’ve been begging for pistachio ice cream (one of my favorites) every since I visited Turkey and saw all the options there. (I have a strong memory of eating pistachio ice cream in front of the Hagia Sophia on my trip to Istanbul, even). Angelato and Luca Polare ice cream shops stock it sometimes, and you can pick up some Tolia at the grocery store.

Rafting: We had a work team-building event at the Georgian Rafting Federation’s base near Borjomi, and  it was AMAZING. There are also supposed to be options along the road to Kazbegi and in mountainous Ajara. The experience outside Borjomi was fantastic–highly recommended! (I’m not sure if it was a miscommunication or not, but our fee didn’t include transportation back to the base where we had left all our stuff. It was a bit of a long walk, and some of our co-workers were sopping wet, so we wound up “making memories” with some slightly sketchy hitchhiking).

Siakhle Cola: I’m not sure if this is new or regional (the label said “Made in Zestaponi”),  but I bought it from a nice old man along the side of the road through mountainous Ajara, and it’s the best non-Coca Cola cola I’ve ever had. Pleasantly cinnamon-y and all-around refreshing.

DeFacto clothing company and other Turkish clothing brands: Usually I import my clothes from the US, but I have gotten some great bargains on decent-quality stuff at De Facto lately. In fact(o), I loved the dress I bought so much, I went back and bought it in all the other colors they had in stock in my size. I did, however, find that I wore drastically different sizes in dresses and t-shirts, so it’s worth taking a few minutes to try things on.

Dishonorable mention: Forest fires, yikes!

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.

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Wildflowers and mountains, very Bakuriani

I FINALLY made it to Bakuriani! It’s odd that I’d never been there before, as it’s just up the mountain from Borjomi, one of my favorite weekend getaways. I went there a different way than I usually travel, though; I was teaching at a summer camp held there. It was, to be honest, a pretty sweet gig (despite some incredibly rude kids): as a teacher I wasn’t responsible for the kids outside my class hours, so I got to have plenty of free time to read novels, go on walks, and catch up on Jane the Virgin. Bakuriani is primarily famous as a ski resort, but they’ve done quite well in marketing themselves as a summer destination, too. The place was full of summer camps and families relaxing outside the heat of Tbilisi. Though room rates are cut in half for summer, it looked like the hotel was making a fairly good profit selling the campers Coca-Cola and ice cream. It was on average about 10*C cooler in Bakuriani than back in Tbilisi, making the weather just lovely. We were lucky to have sunshine for the majority of our time there, and somehow I didn’t spot any mosquitoes!

Since camp was keeping the hotels quite full, I actually spent time in three different hotels: Hotel Ritza, Hotel Ana-Maria, and Hotel Edemi.  None of them were perfect, but all of them were quite good–especially for the summer season prices. I was definitely comfortable. They all seem to be managed by the same people, but Ana-Maria was the most recently renovated.

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View of Aghmashenebeli Street from below, where Hotels Ritza (the big yellow one left of center), Ana-Maria, and Edemi are located.

Since I was at summer camp, I didn’t try any of the restaurants in town, eating with the camp at Ritza. The strawberry-apple jam and (home made?) pelmeni were excellent (though pelmeni for breakfast was hard on my stomach). Other meals were less impressive, but nothing was disgusting or anything. Likewise, I can’t comment on transportation to Bakuriani, as I traveled on the camp bus, though I hear the train up from Borjomi is wonderful.

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Thunderstorms rolling in over the mountains at dusk

Everyone working in the little shops in town was incredibly friendly and helpful (not always the norm), and I really liked walking around, poking in various places, and exploring. The town layout was pretty simple, so I never worried about getting lost. One nice little walk was to a suspended footbridge behind the “Bakuriani Resorts” hotel (I think that’s near the “Otsdakhutianebi” ski slope. Visiting the Didveli ski slope and taking the cable car up was also fun, but be warned–5 GEL only gets you halfway up; you’ll need to spend another 5 GEL for the next cable car further to the top (I didn’t…this time). There’s quite a lot to do in Bakuriani (I didn’t have time to do it all): it has one of the few cinemas outside of Tbilisi, there’s an amusement park and a botanical garden, and you can rent horses, bicycles or ATVs to go for a ride. The scenery is beautiful, and in early July, at least, all the meadows were full of wildflowers. Bakuriani is definitely a nice place to escape the summer heat and relax–I hope to go back sometime soon, maybe I’ll even try skiing.

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