While planning for this opportunity to have a dream summer vacation, we wanted to include stops that were both life-lister sorts of places and regions that had intrigued us thanks to stories we heard from our well-travelled friends in Bangalore and other places. Armenia was a certainty, thanks to Melissa’s friend Madlene, so we looked for places that drew us and were convenient from Yerevan. We have friends who claim Georgia as their favorite place and hope to retire in Tbilisi, and several of our wine loving friends in Bangalore had insisted that Georgian wines are the best in the world. So Georgia it is.
Our time in Georgia was split into three different phases: first exploring Tbilisi, second trekking in Tusheti National Park, and finally relaxing in the heart of Kakheti wine country.
During our three days in Tbilisi, we went at a pace that was consistent with our desire to prioritize relaxation on this trip, so decided to focus our exploration on Old Tbilisi. This area is popular with tourists, and deservedly so. There is something charming on every corner, whether a beautiful building, a playful fountain, or a talented musician. We explored the 4th century Narikala Fort (although most of what is visible dates to 16th century fortifications) and the nearby botanical gardens; walked many times through whimsical Rike park and over the Peace Bridge; rode the giant ferris wheel high on the hill at Mtatsminda, an amusement park built around a Soviet television tower, accessible only by funicular; wandered the lanes of old town and saw the ancient thermal baths; visited a couple museums; and ate fabulous food.
From Tbilisi we were picked up and driven over the unpaved Abano Pass, which we now know is one of the most dangerous roads in the world (yikes! Maybe because of the landsldes? “Alcohol” was the answer of one of our new friends), arriving in Shenako, a Tusheti village. On the way, our driver stopped to introduce us to our guide, which was the first we learned of having a guide at all, and explained that our luggage would be carried on horseback. Irakli was a giant with a sweet smile and warm handshake, but no English at all. With our lack of Georgian, communication was pretty limited for the next few days.
Our planned trek was 79 kilometers over six days, most days involving climbs up and over mountains. When planning this trek, Melissa had the idea that planning a serious physical challenge in our summer vacation would leave us with no choice but to prioritize fitness during our final months in Bangalore. It turns out that there was a
choice after all, and our other Bangalorean desires won out. Between the altitude and lack of preparation, we were working hard in our first couple days. We are proud, though, that we could do it, maintaining a reasonable pace even on our second day of eight hours of hiking over two significant mountain ridges, the difficulty confirmed by most people’s response when they heard the path we took: “You went THAT way?” Ultimately, our conditioning wasn’t the problem. Melissa’s feet were. Finishing day two with six painful blisters, we bandaged them up and continued on to day three, a 14 kilometer hike on a timber road with a slow, steady incline. We arrived in a remote village, now with eight blisters. Running low on band-aids, and conscious of the very ambitious treks over the next two days, we were forced to reconsider the plan. Rather than going on, the next day we walked back to our previous guest house in the charming village of Dartlo to regroup, still hoping to reroute and trek the next day to a nearer village that would keep us on track for our finish in Omalo. Ultimately, the next morning we accepted a ride from a kind French filmmaker and photographer who took us to Telavi two days early, when it became clear that Melissa could not put shoes of any kind back on her feet without crying. We were sad not to complete our loop, but still proud of trekking 53 kilometers in four days, and delighted by the gorgeous, remote nature that we saw during that time.
Telavi is in the heart of one of Georgia’s famed wine regions. Happily, the guest house where we planned to stay was able to take us a couple days early so we had time to relax in a beautiful place while Melissa’s feet healed. We babied her feet surprisingly successfully. She stayed off of them almost completely on our first day in Telavi, thanks in part to our fabulous hosts‘ delicious breakfast and dinner, removing the need to go out for meals, then the second day we spent being driven between wineries, tasting wine, and touring ancient churches and monasteries (with Tom obsessively checking on Melissa’s feet). On the last day, with Melissa’s blisters completely manageable, we took a leisurely walk around the charming town of Telavi, checking out the market, old town, the 900 year old Giant Plane Tree, and the last king’s castle.
Georgian Food and Wine
One of the reasons we wanted to visit Georgia was for the food and wine that we’ve heard celebrated by many different people. We were not disappointed.
- Khachapuri is a kind of stuffed cheese bread that varies from region to region, all of them delicious. Adjarian khachapuri is a boat-shaped yeasted bread filled with a cheese mixture, then topped with a soft egg yolk that is stirred into the cheese while eating (Melissa preferred hers eggless). Throughout Tusheti, Imeretian khachapuri looks kind of like a big round quesadilla stuffed with a mild sheep’s cheese and fried in lots of oil, and in Telavi it is similar to Imeretian khachapuri but is somehow less greasy and more cakey.
- Walnut sauce is served with all kinds of vegetables and makes everything wildly delicious.
- Salads of all kinds are served at every meal: carrot salad, cole slaw, egg salad, potato salad, and a basic tomato and cucumber salad.
- Khinkali is a stuffed dumpling, mostly stuffed with meat (one fellow traveler described with ecstasy sucking the juices out of a mutton khinkali he had recently enjoyed) but we were able to find vegetarian versions almost everywhere we went. We have a theory, that one could write a pretty interesting book about flatbreads around the world, because flatbread seems to be found in every culture we have been exposed to. It is becoming increasingly clear that dumplings would make a pretty interesting book, too. Georgia’s version are large, plump, you eat them with your fingers, and they are delicious. As as added bonus, we were treated to a khinkali forming lesson in Shenako by our wonderful host Daro.
- Lobio is a bean stew that can be cooked until nearly the consistency of refried beans, and is served with corn bread and pickled cucumbers, carrots, and herbs. Yum.
- Churchkhela is described as a healthy candy made up of walnuts and thickened grape juice from the wine making process. The first two we tried were amazingly delicious, but we were warned to be careful about what we buy, that some producers use artificial coloring and lower quality ingredients. We thought we chose well, but the one we bought for travel food didn’t live up to the first two we tried.
There’s a lot going on with meat as well, but we ate very happily without it.
The wine is made differently here in qvevri which are large clay vessels lined with beeswax, generally underground with just the top of the vessel accessible. Our first tasting was a little alarming, when we didn’t particularly like any of the four wines we tried. We weren’t ready to give up, though, and visited a different place the next day where we enjoyed them all, and found one we really liked, called Mukuzani. It was a little telling when we learned that Mukuzani is made with the same grape, saperavi, as the more overwhelming wines, but aged for some time (different for each wine maker) in oak barrels, what they called the European method. Our favorite stop on our wine tour outside of Telavi was Shumi winery, partially because they make some very good wines, but it was also simply a beautiful and relaxing place to be. Georgia is famous for its amber wine (which we call orange wine in the US). Our favorite amber wine was made by our host at our guest house in Telavi. It was lovely.
Georgia has an amazing amount to offer. We now understand why our friends want to retire there one day. It is lovely and bustling and has every bit of culture one would want. With that, we were off to Bulgaria, richer for having experienced this beautiful place.