Welcome to Tbilisi!
Georgia is one of those places - not quite Europe; not quite Asia - that if you haven’t been before, you are not sure quite what to expect! As the Fam Trip group tucked into breakfast a palpable air of excitement was building. We met our young, funky and very personable guide in the hotel reception and immediately warmed to her. She made it her daily mission to teach us a few words of Georgian, starting with ‘Gamarjoba’, meaning good morning!
We headed off on a sightseeing tour of atmospheric Tbilisi. We wandered through the old districts of the city, which are built like terraces up from the river and are dotted with iconic churches, old houses with beautiful traditional patterned balconies and leafy alfresco cafes (the nightlife scene here is said to be legendary!)
A cable car whisked us up to the Narikala Fortress which dominates the skyline, and from there we could see the giant, space-age architectural structures that controversial former president Saakashvili injected into the city. A massive aluminium statue of Mother Georgia faces enemies to the city with a sword in her hand and in the other, offers a bowl of wine for friends. Wine, we would come to learn quickly, is an omnipresent element of Georgian life!
That evening we got our first taste of Georgian cuisine, which was instantly accompanied by universal ‘ooohs and ahhhs’ of delight. Combining Eastern culture, Silk Road spices and distinct regional specialities (think melted herby cheese bread, sumptuous meat dumplings, walnut stuffed aubergines, spiced meat casseroles, hearty soups, fresh salads…) every dish was unique and utterly delicious and of course washed down with an excellent glass or two of Georgian wine! Eating and drinking are an important part of Georgian culture and we were quickly introduced to the concept of tamada - where each glass of wine has to be accompanied by a meaningful speech given by a nominated toastmaster! It was a tradition we adopted quickly and saw executed all over Georgia!
Prehistoric cave city dwellings and Stalin’s study
The drive out of Tbilisi the next morning gave us a taster of what was to come. Georgia’s scenery is stunning! Perched in the middle of incredible locations are ancient churches and we stopped at Jvari church (6th century) and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (11th century) where it is said that the Jesus’ robe is buried. The third UNESCO sight of the day, Uplistsikhe Cave Town, was staggering. First established between 2000 and 1000 BC, you can see a theatre, jail cells, a marketplace, shelves in an apothecary shop, wine cellars and a bakery. It felt like an unknown, much older version of Pompeii.
The historic town of Gori is infamous as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. A museum showcases a collection of his personal effects, including his death mask, childhood home and a train carriage he used in the second world war because he was too paranoid to fly. The massive elephant in the room however, was the lack of information about his horrific regime which killed millions. A small room addressed the ongoing issue of Russian occupation in Georgia. There is an uncomfortable air about the place, however, it prompted me to find out more about the history and politics of the region and for that reason I thought it was interesting to see.
Later that afternoon we joined two local women who run cooking classes in their home. The setting was beautiful and very atmospheric with a fairy lit terrace and glass orangerie. Although our hosts didn’t speak English, our cooking lesson was hilarious and we enjoyed the fruits of our minimal labours (and their extensive ones) again ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at all the new delicious dishes and wine!
Into the high Caucasus Mountains
The next day we headed along the Georgian Military Highway to the spectacular northern town of Stepantsminda. The mountain scenery was jaw dropping and we found ourselves stopping frequently to take photos, as each twist and turn revealed a ‘movie backdrop’ vista more thrilling than the last. Eventually we needed to swap vehicles as the paved roads gave way to stony tracks. Our hilariously bumpy 4x4 journey emerged at the impossibly beautiful Gergeti Trinity Church. This icon of Georgia is perched against the picturesque backdrop of snow capped Mt. Kazbegi.
The most memorable thing about this trip were the unique opportunities we had to meet local people. For lunch we popped into a lovely lady’s house who showed us how to make khinkali (succulent Georgian dumplings) in her kitchen. Folding the dough is quite tricky and it caused much hilarity for our host as we made vain attempts to copy her work! Fortunately, we eventually got the hang of it and the end result was utterly delicious!
As we checked into our hotel that evening, we discovered an amply stocked wine cellar adjacent to reception! We were of course offered the opportunity to freely taste their home produced vintage. The funny petrol pump style dispensers helped us to amply fill our glasses from the casks and a merry evening was had by all!
Back to Tbilisi
As occasionally happens when travelling, the weather puts paid to best laid plans. The call was taken after breakfast to cancel our planned hike to experience beautiful lakes and off the beaten path mountain villages. We were all slightly disappointed, so our guide took us to visit a new monastery, nearby on the Russian border. We were starting to feel a little 'churched-out' when a monk appeared out of nowhere with a set of keys. He proceeded to give us an impromptu guided tour of the beautiful church, a stunning private library and, unsurprisingly, a wine cellar! When a monk offers you a glass of wine at 9am it seems unholy to refuse. So, with our guide interpreting, we settled down with a glass of wine and asked him questions about his fascinating monastic life.
Returning to Tbilisi, we took advantage of some unexpected free time to discover more of this enchanting capital. Unusual brick domes in the old town conceal beautifully decorated hot baths, and languishing in the warm waters is a blissful experience not to be missed!
Kakheti wine region
Kakheti in the South East of Georgia is a region famous for wine-making. Surrounded by yet more gorgeous mountain scenery, we passed by lush vineyards and turreted castles which looked straight out of a picture book.
In the old town of Sighnaghi, with its tiled roofs and sweeping views of the Great Caucasus mountains, we had the privilege of visiting another family for a sumptuous lunch, served alfresco under their vines. Georgians are very much ‘feeders’ and by now we were used to the plethora of delicious dishes which appeared in front of us, as well as amazing homemade wine and the local firewater, chacha!
The hostess showed us how to make churchkhela (a Georgian sweet) which we saw everywhere on our travels. And then broke into an impromptu rendition of Georgian folk songs on her violin. Sitting in such a beautiful setting, in the sunshine, with the haunting music soaring through her garden, was such a special and moving experience.
As the sun set we dropped in on an enigmatic winemaker who quit his well paid job at KPMG to continue the ancient tradition of Georgian wine-making. Of course we had to sample his wine and more varieties of chacha, before bidding a fond farewell and heading back to Tbilisi for a farewell dinner at a traditional restaurant with our wonderful Visit Georgia hosts.
VisitGeorgia is one of the leading DMCs in the region. They operate a wide range of FITs, group and self-guided tours, using their extensive expertise to showcase both highlights and hidden secrets. They have been successfully working with the UK market for over 20 years and have a great understanding of their clients’ needs as well as the level of customer service expected. They also operate multi-country tours to combine Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Responsible travel is a priority and they have a long history of supporting local charities. In 2001 they established their own Guide Academy and only use in-house guides (not freelancers) who have completed this extensive course.
If you would like more information about VisitGeorgia or a personal introduction to the team, please contact The Adventure Connection team: email@example.com.