My best friend Chloe came to visit a few weeks ago, so she’s written a guest-post here about her first trip to Georgia.  You can follow her food blog at musingsondinner.wordpress.com.  Any comments or additions from me will be in italics.  Other than that, I’ve just made some minor changes such as fixing her Georgian spelling😉 I hope you enjoy her post; I really enjoyed her visit!–Em

Chloe and Em enjoy the beautiful weather on the Peace Bridge in Tbilisi

First impressions

Based on my one trip to Georgia, I’m going to assume that spring is the perfect time to go. It was warm, sunny and clear, with spurts of rain in the evening that served to clear the air and dust from the roads (and there’s a lot of dust. A lot of construction work, and a lot of dust).

I’ve never been to a country that’s been part of the Soviet sphere of influence before, not even Germany, so I came, handily without (m)any preconceptions. Physically, Georgia has elements which would be familiar to those who’ve visited Bangkok or other Asian cities: crazy driving, diesel engines pouring black smoke, slightly chaotic public transport systems (I’m thinking marshrutkas!) that somehow seem to hang together and take people where they need to be. I suppose this is the part that most drives home that Georgia is still developing. Unlike Asian cities (and indeed London), though, Tbilisi doesn’t feel packed or over-crowded, with only a million people living there. In fact the greatest impression I had of Georgia was of the space: the empty, purple-dotted mountains (purple from the blossoming plum trees), the wide, almost empty roads.

Mostly, though, Georgia felt European, though different (as Em said, quoting someone in her host family, “It’s the Caucasus!”, neither European, Asian nor Russian but something that somehow combines all of them yet is very separate). It’s very mountainous, and as I usually visit the Low Countries when I’m in Europe, the landscape made it difficult for me to pin down where Georgia is, exactly, in terms of history. Driving down from the airport you come down on George W. Bush Road, complete with a large poster of the man himself – definitely not a very (Western) European sentiment!

Places to go

Tbilisi turns a good base from which to explore surrounding areas, though my trip didn’t end up being long enough to slot in Batumi (from what I hear it’s a glorious seaside-type place) or Gori (interesting from a historical perspective as Stalin’s hometown). Em took me to Mtskheta, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia, and therefore both very old and very important in Georgia’s history. Admittedly the trip to Mtskheta was made a lot smoother because Em’s Georgian teacher Irma very kindly drove us there and back! I was taken to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which is the burial site for Christ’s mantle according to Georgian Orthodox hagiography. A service was taking place as we visited and the polyphonic singing was beautiful (note: women should bring a scarf with them to cover their hair when visiting religious sites. The rule doesn’t seem to be enforced equally stringently across all places but it helps to be prepared!). The Cathedral is an interesting place: it has some frescoes painted on the walls but most have been lost, painted over in anticipation of a visit by Tsar Nicholas I (he never visited, in the end). We also went to the lovely 6th (or so) century Jvari monastery, picking our way up the stairs and dodging the many bridal couples who, understandably, go there to have their wedding photos taken, the men often wearing traditional dress, and the women in long sweeping white dresses. The view from Jvari is spectacular and feels both unspoilt and slightly precarious due to the lack of safety rails!

Our “tour group” at the Jvari Monastery

Things to do (Tbilisi)

If you’re interested in history or in heritage/the museum industry, an interesting exhibition to take a look at is the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, which is part of the Georgian National Museum on Rustaveli Avenue. It’s not particularly large, but sheds light on (the official narrative of) part of the Georgian experience of the revolutions of 1917 and of being part of the Soviet Union. The exhibit is fascinating partly because it is telling a story of occupation and victimisation: the story presented is very much a part of Georgia’s current aim to be free of the Soviet associations of its past. For example, all the Georgian victims of the Second World War were presented as victims of the Soviet occupation, and at the end of the exhibition was a map showing where ‘the occupation continues’ – i.e. Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If you’re feeling fit and not carrying too much (very important!), take the trek up the (very very) steep incline towards the Narikala fortress, which was established in the 4th century. It’s difficult going up but the feeling of achievement you get when you’re even halfway up there is pretty intense. Not to be attempted by those with rickety knees. And – like most places in Georgia – it’s imposingly lovely and has a great view.

One of the most amazing things we did was go to the sulphur baths, which was spectacularly relaxing. You can hire a private room at the baths, so it’s fun to do if you’re in a group. I’d never done Turkish-style baths before, but it’s an intense experience (as you can imagine), going from boiling water to icy-cold to a sauna and back again. The water is dense and oily-feeling with minerals. They are actually used as baths, so bring your shampoo and soap.

What to eat

I’ve eaten Georgian food once before, at a restaurant in London, so I was sufficiently excited to be trying it in Georgia itself. Khachapuri, which is the food everyone seems to talk about in relation to Georgian food, is probably the least exciting part of the cuisine for me – cheesy bread is fairly common across cultures – but if you want to try it, there are plenty of street vendors selling both that and lobiani, which is a bean-stuffed bread. Lobiani is heartier and less greasy; very good.

Meal from Salobie. Tasty! (photo: Chloe)

While in Mtskheta we went to a well-known place in Georgia, Salobie, which is apparently Saakashvili and Shevardnadze’s favourite restaurant, and is well-known for its lobio (bean stew), which is served with mtchadi, Georgian cornbread. The stew was very salty, but the mtchadi was extremely plain – unseasoned and very pure tasting. The idea was that you crumbled the mtchadi into the lobio, and the saltiness evened out. It worked and was delicious. Unlike a lot of bean dishes lobio doesn’t feel particularly dry or solid – it’s quite light and fresh-tasting, though filling.

I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic wine drinker: a lot of wine tastes quite heavy and sour to me, and I abhor a tannic taste (which is why French wines don’t really work for me!). Georgian wine is something else: lighter and sweeter than other wines (even the drier Georgian wines are on the sweeter side of the wine spectrum in general). So even if you’re not usually into wines – or if you don’t like reds as they’re too tannic – it’s certainly worth trying the Georgian wine.

If you’re tired of Georgian food, you can head to Sighnaghi and have some authentically Georgian Mexican food (you read that right) at Pancho Villa, a restaurant run out of a tiny house by a man who, having lived in the US before returning home to Georgia, realised he missed burritos. The food was tasty, hearty and everything – down to the tortilla chips in the nachos – was hand made. Mexican food as it would have been done 50 years ago, I guess!

Things (and places) to buy

A great place to buy wine was Vinoteka, near the Dry Bridge (in Old Town on Leselidze Street), which is convenient, as it was another excuse to walk through that market area with its Soviet accessories, traditional felt-work and sprawling art pieces. One place we’d looked at to buy wine had wanted us to pay for any tastings we did, but the staff at this place were generous and knowledgeable. They had run out of one wine for tasting, but that wasn’t a surprise as it was almost closing time! If you’re looking to buy wine I’d recommend you go in the middle of the day. I came back with several bottles, some as gifts.

I bought some salobie – the little pots out of which lobio is served – at Dry Bridge, as well as some Georgian ceramics to distribute to friends. Prospero’s Books (near the Canadian consulate) is a good place to pick up books about Georgia, though they are quite expensive. I got some little booklets on Georgian food there (in English), which are good as souvenirs and presents as well. Traditional felt-work – scarves or more contemporary hair accessories and stuffed animals – is also cute to bring back.

How to get there

Escalator in the Tbilisi Metro (photo: Chloe)

The Tbilisi metro is a Soviet holdover and looks it: it’s extraordinarily deep, as this photo attempts to capture. As I said I’ve never been to any post-Soviet country before so while I’d read about the Russian metro, the actual scale of the Tbilisi underground was a surprise – and I live in London so I’m pretty familiar with underground transport. It’s a deep, cool, musty labyrinth, but the best thing about it, to those of us unable to read the ornate set of squiggles that is the Georgian script, is that they signpost stops in English, using the Roman alphabet. Admittedly I mostly followed Em around but I think I could have found my way. Just bear in mind, if you’re using it, that the overhead announcements aren’t always in sync with the actual station you’re pulling through.

Taxis in Tbilisi were cheaper than in most other metropolitan cities – ideal for getting to and from the airport, or in a group – but it pays to bargain. According to Em you shouldn’t pay more than 6 lari to get around Tbilisi. Georgian driving is pretty crazy, just bear that in mind.

It would be remiss not to mention marshrutkas, those communal bus-like ‘route taxis’ which have no set stops but follow a set route, but actually, I have no idea how I would have used them had I not been with a Georgian-speaker/reader. They can be used for intra-city (in Tbilisi at least) and inter-city travel, with the destination signposted on the front as they speed past you in the street. While I would say the experience of dodging traffic in a marshrutka is an essential Georgia experience and not one to be missed, I also highly recommend grabbing hold of a Georgian-speaker (I guess Russian-speaker would also work) to help you on your way (or, in other words, get Em to be your guide and translator). Thanks! -Em

Tbilisi public transportation (photo: Chloe)