Photo: Alaverdi monastery situated amid the vineyards of Kakhetia. It possesses a good wine cellar and produces its own wine.
If ever a country left an unforgettable memory to me it was Georgia. My visit to Georgia was short, but offered a plethora of special experiences. For a small country it possesses a wealth of richness of culture, wine, history, beautiful nature, mountains and great people. I visited Tbilisi, the important eastern wine region Kakhetia, Mtskheta and some winery west of Mtskheta. There was no time to see the Caucasus mountains or western Georgia. But I left with sensations of a wonderful and authentic country with spontaneous and hospitable people. I really hope to return soon and discover more!
Very special is the antique history of Georgia. Jewelry, drinking pots, wine jars are all proof of a rich history going back even 8000 years. Anyone who is interested in civilization and wants to follow the traces of cultures with roots going back more than 4000 years should go to Georgia. Everything is different, starting with the language. At one museum I found old jewelry, dating from times of 2000 or more before Christ, long before the start of the Roman or Greek civilizations! In 1968 some wine jars were found in Northern Iran, dating back to 5000 BC – the oldest proof of wine culture at the time. But a recent find at Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili, some 50 kms south of Tbilisi, has shown signs of neolithic culture with some wine culture of at least 500 years older. American researcher Patrick McGovern of Michigan university who analyzes molecules found in antique jars and vessels, uses to say that when we drink wine, we may imagine this is a culture going back some 8000 years.
Photo: antique wine jar called ‘Dergi’, probably these round vessels called Dergi were the ancestors of the famous ‘Kvevri’
HISTORY. During the course of it’s history Georgia was often dominated by surrounding powers. In antiquity the western part was called Colchis, and here are the first signs of the speakers of the Georgian language, the ‘Kartvelians’ in the 9th century BC. At the coast the Greek built some trade towns and Colchis played a role in Greek mythology: it is said that the golden fleece was kept here. The eastern part was called Iberia and the capital became Mtskheta, which later for some time was Georgia’s capital. Georgia was invaded by Romans, Mongols, Persians, Iranians, Arabs, Byzantines, Mongols, Ottomans, and the Russians. And all left some traces which can be viewed in some parts of Georgian culture. At the end of the 19th century western Georgia and eastern Georgia became part of the Russian empire and since 1991 Georgia is independent. Georgia is also one of the oldest Christian countries, part of the Orthodox Christianity.
Photo: Tbilisi, historical centre
One aspect of Georgian culture is very special: at each dinner or meeting there will be a glass of wine and a toast done at least one of the participants. The Georgians have developed great speeching skills and show it every occasion. Wine is not only a drink it also has a spiritual and social meaning and it’s heritage is related to Georgian Orthodox church. Georgians are proud of their culture and this can be felt every day.
There is some contrast between countryside where you can find old rural poverty, reminding of old soviet times, and the dazzling capital Tbilisi, which has become a modern and even chic city along the Mtkvari river with many entertainment venues. a mix of ultra-modern architecture and ancient monasteries and monuments. With driver Rezi and guide Giorgi we drove across the mountains to Kakhetia and along the road you get an impression of the economical situation of a country where average income per capita is some 100 EUR/month.
Photo: Jvari monastery, not far from Mtskheta, west of Tbilisi.
FOOD. ‘Every Georgian dish is a poem‘ said Pushkin. Visiting Georgia is a feast for every visitor because of the special Georgian habits. Each guest is considered a gift of God and they show this in many ways. They open the doors of their houses and receive you as a family member and offer you an abundance of food: and I enjoyed this several times in one week! Their sense of hospitality is beyond everything I experienced in Europe. Their traditional food is original and authentic. Bread and cheese are the most important parts of the dinner but they are very creative in preparing them. Cheese can be boiled in milk, fried on a frying pan, and flavoured with oils and spices. In the various regions of Georgia you can find various versions of these dishes. Khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread, is one of the national dishes, it resembles a bit the pita of some Balkan countries but it is different. Chickirtmais is a traditional Georgian chicken soup. There are many traditional meat dishes like Shish kebab, Satsvi. Pkhali is a key part of Georgian cuisine: a mix of leaves of various vegetables like spinach, beetroot, cabbage, leek etc, with mashed nuts, salt, vinegar, pepper, spices and herbs. Sauces are used everywhere in Georgia as also spices and nuts. And there is such an abundance of vegetables in all preparations, raw, cooked, boiled, etc.
Photo: a Georgian meal is a feast for every visitor
TBILISI is a whirlwind city with fast driving cars, typical big-city traffic but also an authentic city with cobblestone streets, bathhouses with dome-formed roofs (arab influence), ancient churches, old factories in Soviet-style almost turned into ruins. Backpackers, hippies and mondaine, luxury-seeking tourists all can find something here. Restaurants, café’s, eating houses are everywhere in many styles. These contrasts are there which makes the town worth visiting.
MOUNTAINS. Distances in Georgia are quite big – it takes many hours to cross Georgia also because of the mountains, not only the Caucasus, also the southern and western mountains. The mountain valleys are much travelled and are wonderful to visit. Svaneti is an ideal destination for who loves to enjoy the magic of the Caucasus. The mountains also habit bears, wolves and other species, and at some places one should not go alone in the mountains. One village in the northern edge of Kakheti was quite close to the mountains and people took their dogs in the houses at night because sometimes the bears enter the village and kill them.
Photo: Mount Kazbek
MUSIC IN TBILISI. I had a fantastic experience when I met some of Georgia’s great rock musicians. We had a jam session together and they invited me to their great concert that weekend. Many thanks to Misha Chekurishvili and Zura Makhniashvili! You are very talented musicians! I have a great memory of you!!
Apart from rock-music Georgia knows an abundant richness of authentic folklore music which is often vocal and polyphone and very different in various regions of the country.
Photo: Rock concert in Tbilisi with Misha Chekurishvili and Zura Makhniashvili
At one winery visit I met some Russian tourists and learned that they enjoy Georgia very much. For them it represents a very warm and authentical country, they appreciate the great hospitality and they can speak their language because many Georgians speak Russian. But at the visit to Chateau Mukhrani, the cellarmaster told me in all colours how Russian tanks destroyed their vineyards during the war of 2008. At a few kilometers from there Russian tanks are still standing patrolling South Ossetia. But are the Russians not welcome? Of course they are all welcome says one Georgian, just not their tanks. Fortunately for Georgia relations with Russia have improved and the important Russian market is again open for Georgian wines.
All these contrasts make Georgia so exciting. It really is a mix of modern city-life, luxury tourism, backpackers and a countryside where nothing has changed since ages and old monasteries dating since early Middle Age.
Photo: Tarragon lemonade, which is traditional in Georgia and Armenia, based on Tarragon (Estragon)
Photo: the ceiling of a restaurant in Tbilisi. They told me these decorations are Iranian influence.
Photo: traditional bread production in the old centre of Tbilisi.
Photo: with guide Giorgi Dartsimelia traveling through Georgia.
In my next blog more about the wines from Georgia. Follow this blog!
NB more photos and impressions are published at my Facebook page.
Many thanks to the Inga Lekhiashvili of Georgian National Tourism Administration, to Nino Chavchanidze, George Chohovadze and to my guide Giorgi Dartsimelia !