Living in Kosovo has opened my eyes to the many regions of the Eurasian continent I’d never thought to explore before. As a noted wine enthusiast, more than a few people have suggested that I check out the country where the grape-based delight was invented 8,000 years ago.
If a rich wine culture weren’t enough, the Republic of Georgia also boasts breathtaking scenery, which local legend holds that God reserved for himself. Convinced, a friend and I recently visited the former Soviet country over Orthodox Easter weekend — giving us the added advantage of being able to experience one of the country’s most important holidays as the locals do.
We arrived in Tbilisi on the first day around 5am, which turned out to be an ideal time to drive our rental car into the center of town without hitting the rather erratic traffic we would come to expect in Georgia. After dropping our luggage at Old Meidan – a comfortable and reasonably-priced hotel with a great central location – we wandered off to explore the sleepy city.
While joining a few beer-drinking locals for breakfast at a 24 hour diner, we quickly realized that Tbilisi is more a night owl than an early bird. As it was the Wednesday before Easter, we were able to find a few devoted worshippers taking in the service at Sioni Cathedral, which was re-built – as much of the city was – during the rule of King David the Builder in the 12th century. However, as we strolled through the old cobblestoned streets and strikingly modern Rike Park, we were largely alone until the city awoke around 11am.
We then walked around the Dry Bridge Flea Market, largely ignored by the hawkers who were setting up their booths with a wide variety of antiques from axes to estate jewelry to pottery. While some, like one man who gave us an extensive lesson on antique China, seemed to be expert antique dealers, most looked to be selling precious family heirlooms for a little extra money. I don’t have a keen eye for this kind of thing, but I have no doubt that for those in the know, there are great finds among the blankets and tables of the loosely-defined market.
In the afternoon, we decided to take the cable car (not to be confused with the city’s funicular) up to the ancient fortress of Narikala. The cable car is great for taking panoramic photos of the city, but there is not much to explore of the fortress itself. We peered off the back at the expansive National Botanical Garden, took some photos of the Lady of Tbilisi and the view, and made our way back down the hill by way of the newly rebuilt St. Nicholas Church.
Back at the river’s edge, we strolled over to Abanotubani for one of the trip’s highlights: VIP treatment at one of the city’s famed sulphur baths. There are a number of establishments right next to each other to choose from, but we opted for No. 5 – the city’s oldest bathhouse, which offers a private bath with sauna (80 GEL/$36 for one hour), as well as scrubbing and massage for 10 GEL ($4.50) each.
Feeling refreshed, we changed and headed back into the old city – much livelier now – for dinner. We met up with a resident expat friend at the tastefully-designed and incredibly charming g. Vino, which serves traditional Georgian food and boasts an impressive variety of local organic wines. With our first khachapuri and Georgian wine tasting behind us, we were ready to take on wine country the next day.
Kakheti Wine Region
So yes, while I enjoy the full richness of experiencing different cultures, it’s no secret that wine is a big draw for me. Despite being one of the world’s oldest wine producers, Georgia is only recently gaining prominence on the international wine scene thanks, in part, to growing interest from international investors. There are two aspects of Georgia’s wine industry that set it apart from any other country: 1) it boasts over 500 native grape varietals and 2) the traditional Georgian method of fermenting and aging wine in kvevris (massive clay vessels buried in the ground) is protected by UNESCO.
We made the winding two hour drive from Tbilisi to Telavi, where we began our tour of the wine region. Chateau Mere just outside of Telavi is probably better known for its hotel than its wine, but it was a great place for us to get our feet wet. They offered three house wines to taste – red, “European white”, and “Kakhetian white” – and a hefty pour of each. I learned that the whites were both made from the Kisi grape, just fermented and aged differently. Fermentation in the kvevri gave the wine a much darker color and smoother taste than the traditional European barrel fermentation process.
From there, we moved on to one of the region’s more commercial wineries – Schuchmann-Vinotera – hidden in the tiny town of Kisiskhevi. Here, we got to see the kvevris and how they are sealed. We also got a very refined tasting of five wines – the best of which was a 2009 Saperavi that I decided to buy and bring home. Our last stop of the day was probably the most authentic: Wine House Gurjaani. Here, we were treated to a tour of centuries-old wine manufacturing equipment and heaping portions of not only wine, but chacha and brandy as well.
Finally, we wound our way up to scenic Signagi, which would be our resting point for the evening. We checked into the lovely (if a bit overpriced) Hotel Brigitte and made our way over to Pheasant’s Tears, the crown jewel of our wine-tasting experience. Unfortunately, the winery’s vineyard had been booked out for tours that day, but after much persistence, they offered us a table in the restaurant. We even got a free concert, which was arranged for the large tour group in the next room! The food was the best we had in Georgia and the wine among my favorites as well.
The next morning, we walked around the small mountain town and then drove over to the Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe. The monastery, which now functions as a nunnery, is an important pilgrimage site for Georgians, because it is believed to have been built on the spot where St. Nino was buried. The saint holds an important place in Georgian history because she brought Christianity to the country in the 4th century, making it one of the first to adopt the new religion. With our visit landing on Good Friday, the nuns were hard at work throughout the monastic complex, preparing for the weekend’s Easter celebrations.
Stepantsminda and the Caucasus Mountains
From Kakheti we made the snaking six hour drive up to Georgia’s mountainous north and the picturesque town of Stepantsminda at the foot of Mount Kazbegi. Though it was a bit cold, foggy, and drizzling as we pulled into town that evening, our hotel proved to be a welcome oasis. Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is reason enough to make the drive up to Stepantsminda. With unbeatable mountain views, great spa facilities, mouthwatering food and wine, and incredible service, we were in heaven. In fact, we loved this hotel so much, we stayed an extra night!
After making the decision over breakfast that we couldn’t possibly leave these mountain views that day, we faced another real dilemma: what to do with this sunny Saturday? Stepantsminda is a dream for outdoor lovers – with incredible treks and hikes in the summer and reputedly heli-skiing on offer in the winter months. We mulled over our decision with a glass of wine on the veranda and settled on riding horses up to Gergeti Trinity Church.
Perched (rather precariously) at 2170 meters on a hill beneath Mount Kazbegi, the church is either a day’s hike for the average tourist or the beginning of extensive mountain exploration for serious trekkers. We passed both as we wound our way through the village and up the mountainside on our horses. Compared to the other Orthodox churches we’d seen, Trinity’s interior was understated, but the view from its front doors took my breath away.
Easter Sunday: Gori, Khashuri, and Borjomi
Feeling refreshed but sad to leave our mountain oasis, we packed up the next morning and made the journey back down towards sea level. Oddly enough, our first stop on this Easter Sunday was to the hometown of one Joseph Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili). Admittedly, I don’t know much about Stalin, so I was surprised to learn that he was Georgian.
The town of Gori pays excellent tribute to the former Soviet leader, who gets his own museum and park at the center of town. The museum was closed that day, but we did get to see his childhood home, which has been moved and re-built at the center of the park. We also marveled at the medieval Gori Fortress and striking Warriors Memorial comprised of eight Crusades-era soldiers at the foot of the fortress.
From Gori, we made it to Khashuri for one of the trip’s biggest highlights: Easter dinner (supra) with a local family. A friend of mine had done her Peace Corps service in this small central Georgian town and was kind enough to connect us with a good friend there. We were welcomed with open arms and immediately shown a chair and handed a glass of family wine. We sat for a few hours chatting about life in Georgia as course ofter course of delicious food was served: fresh cut vegetables, spinach pkhali, achma, minced meat, cured fish, and (we learned) – the crown jewel of any Georgian Easter supra – paska (pictured below).
After dinner, our host took us to the nearby cemetery to explain Georgia’s most important Easter tradition: visiting the graves of family members who have passed. Rows of fenced-in plots emerged before us, with many even offering their own table and benches where family members can sit with a bottle of wine or chacha and reminisce. Our host explained that it is good luck to roll the boiled eggs dyed red for Easter towards the headstone of your loved ones. We saw a few young boys with bags going from grave to grave collecting the eggs — seemingly to bring home to share with their families.
With just an hour of sunlight remaining, we thanked our new friend and made the 30 minute drive to the town of Bojromi, where we would rest for the night.
Known for its expansive national park and mineral water, Bojromi was an incredibly peaceful little town. We stayed with Marina at her guesthouse, and while her English was limited, her hospitality was as gracious as we had come to expect in Georgia. The next morning, we walked briefly around the park before setting off for our last day.
With Monday being as important a holiday to Georgians as Sunday, we weren’t sure what to expect when we pulled into the “Holy City” of Mtskheta. We were greeted with bright blue skies and bustling shops open to welcome the scores of other tourists with the same idea. While there is much religious tourism to be done in Mtskheta – including the 6th century Jvari Monastery – we focused our brief time on the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
The cathedral, along with all of the town’s religious sites, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is built on the spot where it is believed that Jesus’ mantle, or robe, was brought and buried in the 1st century. The 11th century cathedral is brimming with religious history and local legend — a must-see for any visitor to Georgia.
Appropriately, our visit to Georgia ended in a restaurant called The Chamber of Wine, which was fairly understaffed given the holiday, but we were happy to wait for one last taste of some of our favorite Georgian treats. We had a few more Georgian soup dumplings (khinkali), which we washed down with our now-expert selection of choice Saperavis before we began the final leg of our journey back to Tbilisi Airport.
მშვიდობით Georgia, and thanks for the good times!