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Georgia: Land of Cheese, Bread, and Monasteries

By April 25, 2017 No Comments

A few years ago my cousins took a trip to Georgia, and did not return with raving reviews of the country. My cousin complained of terrible food, bad weather, and unfriendly people. After having spent nine days exploring the country I can safely say that, the weather being the only exception, this was not the case. Below is our nine-day itinerary, though we could have spent longer exploring this beautiful region had we had more time.

Day 1:
We arrived in Tbilisi airport absolutely exhausted and blissfully excited for our trip. Upon meeting the driver our Airbnb had arranged for us (and which we were charged a whopping 35 Lari, or $14 for, a sum we would later learn was double as high as it should have been) we drove to the heart of Tbilisi, unsure of what to expect.
As we arrived at our Airbnb our host told us we would actually be staying with her friend, which seemed odd to us, but we stayed with her perfectly nice friend who spoke absolutely no English. Though our Airbnb experience was not quite as successful as we had expected, we were staying in the center of the old part of town, and found it a short walk to the ample Georgian restaurants that line the streets of this area.

That evening we had our first delicious experience of Georgian food, which if I describe in too much detail I might just drool over. We had an ordinary but tasty mushroom soup, and then Khatchapuri and Kinkali. Khatchapuri, a traditional bread that comes in many varieties and differs from region to region, deserves an entire post of its own. The type we had was shaped like a boat and had cheese, egg, and butter in the middle that our waitress taught us how to mix together before breaking off pieces of the edges and dipping them into this mouth-watering mixture. We also tried our first kinkali, a dumpling filled with meat (or cheese, potatoes, or mushrooms for us vegetarians). The entire meal cost us only 4.5 dollars each!

Day 2:
The next morning, we got up bright and early to go on the Tbilisi Free Walking Tour at noon which left from the main square. I highly recommend the tour; ours was led by an energetic Ukrainian woman who had fallen in love with Tbilisi and decided to move there. On the tour we saw the main church, another smaller church where we were able to see the decorative interior, and multiple other churches along the way. The city is filled with these beautiful old Georgian churches, the oldest dating back to the 6th century.
We also saw (and smelt!) the area of the city that had historically, and still, is home to sulfur baths. We then took a small cable car to the top of a mountain overlooking the city where we were able to see the Mother Georgia statue (appropriately holding a glass of wine) and the Narikala Fortress, first built in the 4th century. We got to climb around the ancient, crumbling walls, though we did have to run to catch up with our group which almost left without us!

For dinner (or late lunch, you pick) that evening we went to a place called Rumerame, which our tour guide had recommended to us earlier that day. We tried even more Georgian food, which I thoroughly enjoyed! One dish was a cold ball of mushed spinach and walnuts, which though it doesn’t sound quite so appealing, I can assure you is tastier than it sounds.
We also had mushrooms with sulguni cheese, a special Georgian cheese originally from the Samegrelo region. That day was also the day I fell in love with Churchella, or Georgian candy. It’s a stick of nuts (walnuts perhaps) wrapped in a layer of dried grape juice. They call it the “Georgian Snickers”, though I’m sure (I hope, seeing as I ate so much of it) that it is much healthier than that.

Later that evening we attempted to get to the other peak overlooking the city which we had not explored that morning, where our tour guide claimed was the best donut shop in the country, or rather in the world. However, we had a difficult time finding the funicular to get to this fabled mountain-peak donut shop, and settled for a taxi (which only cost us 5 lari, or $2). The driver dropped us off at what seemed to be a rather sketchy amusement park, and there was not a donut shop in sight. After walking through the deserted theme park we finally found it. It is directly next to the funicular station, and on the other side of the station is a fancy three story restaurant which we definitely could not afford (nope, not even in Georgia). The donuts were as fantastic as described, with warm cream filling in the middle. Coupled with a glass of famous Georgian flavored lemonade (which comes in flavors such as pear, tarragon, cream, and chocolate), and a view of the city lights below us, it was a perfect evening.

Note: We took the funicular down, which costs 2 lari per person, but you also must pay 2 lari for a card that you can load at the station.

Day 3:
It was finally time to get out of Tbilisi, and so we woke up early (I’m serious this time) to take the metro to Didube station to find a Marshutka (public minibus) to take us to Kazbegi. The metro was very easy, and stops are written and announced in both Georgian and English. Rides are only half a lari, though you do need to pay 2 lari (I believe) for a metro card.

Once we arrived in Didube we ran into two Polish travelers who agreed to split a car with us, and we each paid 15 Lari ($6). Along the way we stopped at the Ananuri castle complex, the oldest parts of which date back to the 13th century. We also stopped at a beautiful viewpoint in Gudauri, the Russian-Georgian friendship monument, where you can see panoramic views of the surrounding snowy mountains.

Once we arrived in Kazbegi we hiked up to the famous Gergeti monastery, which only took us about an hour and a half. The hike was very steep in parts, but also offered beautiful views of the mountains and the town below. The highlight for me was that two dogs followed us the entire hike! I fondly named one Van Gogh, as he was missing an ear.

Once we arrived at the Gergeti Trinity church, built in the 14th century, we explored the complex and took quite a long photoshoot. The view of the church with the snowy mountains in the background was absolutely stunning, and I believe a must see sight when visiting Georgia.

Cold and tired, we hired a jeep for the ride down, which we paid 10 lari (or $4) for in total. It was an incredibly bumpy ride, and I fell asleep straight away. Once we returned to our driver we journeyed back to Tbilisi.

Day 4:
Feeling pretty confident with public transport, we took the metro to Didube and found a taxi to nearby Mtzkheta for 5 Lari each ($2). It’s about a half an hour ride to the town, which the Georgian Orthodox church has deemed a “holy city”. The town itself is beautiful, and quite a change from the bustling Tbilisi. We strolled throughout the town and along the Aragvi river on which the town sits. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, one of the town’s main landmarks and built in the middle ages, was filled with people as it was Sunday. I found it so interesting to watch how people worship here, kissing the doors, floors, and anything in between.

Once we had walked through the town enough (it only took us maximum an hour to see the place) we tried to get to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace. We found this quite challenging, as apparently there are no Marshutkas that go regularly from Mtzkheta. We ended up having to take a taxi back to Tbilisi (for 25 lari), but we did get to stop at Jvari Monastery along the way. Jvari was built in the 6th century, and sits atop a hill overlooking the town of Mtzkheta and the river below. The view was absolutely stunning, though the pictures didn’t come out quite as well because of the wind!

We immediately found a Marshutka to Gori once we returned to Didube station for 5 lari each (and were glad we had not taken our taxi driver’s offer to drive us there for 80 lari!). Gori is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, and now houses a museum erected as a tribute to him after his death. The museum has not changed in the slightest over the years, and felt to me as if it was almost a shrine to Stalin. In fact, one room of the museum is simply a statue of his head in the middle with lights all around pointing at it. The place is filled with artifacts with Stalin depicted on them; plates, mugs, paintings, carpets, etc., all celebrating Stalin as a hero, almost godlike in character. Seeing this was incredibly eerie, but I feel also important in understanding the Soviet mindset. The museum is also home to his original (modest) home, and the train car in which he traveled.

After this visit I asked around wherever we traveled in the country what Georgians thought of Stalin, and the answers I got were all very similar: young people viewed him similarly as I, an American, might, while older people revered him. While Gori may not be the prettiest place we visited, the Stalin Museum is well worth a visit. Where else can you get a Stalin T-shirt, shot-glass, and tote bag?

That evening we again ate mushrooms (so many mushrooms in this country!) and the most amazing kinkali I have ever had, filled with juicy cottage cheese. It may not sound fantastic, but you must try them yourself. Note: when eating kinkali it is polite to leave the top of the dumpling on your plate after finishing (which we only later learned).

Day 5:
You may ask, does a trip to Georgia have to be quite so packed?! And the answer is no, after four action packed days we spent a day in and around Tbilisi getting to know the character of the city a little better (we also had a Passover Seder to get to that evening).

I visited the Old Bridge Market, which, though most guides to Tbilisi will recommend a visit, I found disappointing. It was a rather small market with some interesting artwork, antiques, and soviet memorabilia, but certainly not a must do if you only have a short while in Tbilisi. I also went to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which is quite a walk away from the center of the city (though I’m sure a bit closer if you don’t get as lost). The cathedral was built very recently, and only finished in 2004. It is the third tallest Eastern Orthodox church in the world, and is very impressive. It’s majestic golden domes tower over the city and can be seen from almost anywhere in Tbilisi, so naturally it is worth a visit. It doesn’t take long to see the complex, and the inside is not nearly as exciting as the view from outside.

After my short visit I headed back to the Jewish museum of Tbilisi, which is a small, one floor exhibit, but also interesting if you are interested in the Jewish history of the area (I had no idea so many Jews had once lived in the area, and that their history dated back almost two thousand years). It’s right in the middle of town and only takes about twenty minutes to see and read all the material, so a very easy place to visit if it interests you.

Day 6:
Though it was our sixth day in Georgia, we had just come from Armenia after spending five days there, so at this point we were a bit more familiar with the ins and outs of traveling in the Caucuses. We had gotten up early to take a Marshutka to the town of Akhaltsikhe, which had taken us around 6 hours. Once we got there and put our stuff down at 3D Hotel (the exterior seemed a bit sketchy but the rooms were actually very nice and well-priced- we spent only $10.50 a night each), we caught a taxi from the bus station to Sapara monastery (which cost us a total of 20 lari, or $8).

The drive up to Sapara was on a beautiful road which wound through cliffs and mountain passes, the 15-minute drive was breath-taking, and our very kind taxi driver let us stop many times to take pictures (and even took many pictures of us!). The 9th century monastery itself is picturesque as well, nestled into the mountainside. We had fun exploring the complex, and climbing up the little bell tower.

There are not many places to eat (it seemed to us, at least) in the town of Akhaltsikhe, and even less so on the eve of Easter. Luckily for us we ran into a very friendly group of American volunteers based in the town who took us to their favorite restaurant where we tried even more delicious Georgian food. We tried Chvistari, which is a cornbread with cheese filling (and is addictively good), lobio (a bean soup), and eggplant with walnut paste (which I loved even though I actually don’t even like eggplant!).

Day 7:
Having met two Swiss girls the night before, we met them in the morning and split a taxi to Vardzia (which cost us each 15 lari). Vardzia, which is about an hour and a half drive from Akhaltzikhe, is a 12th century cave city and monastery and well worth a visit. We had a wonderful time exploring the cave living areas, the remaining church, and all the passages and tunnels that connect the caves to each other. We could have spent many more hours climbing through the caves, but we had to return to Akhaltskihe to catch a Marshutka to nearby Borjomi.

Borjomi is about 40 minutes away, and is famous for its natural spring water which supposedly also has healing powers. The park which contains these springs is very pretty, and has some nice hikes and walks (entrance fee is 2 lari a person). The area around the park, now mostly comprised of hotels, is absolutely beautiful, though perhaps not original. We filled up our water battle with the fabled spring water before returning to Akhaltsikhe, though we didn’t end up drinking it as it was warm and smelled a little funny.

Day 8:
It was our last day in Akhaltsikhe, and so naturally we had to visit the monument the town is famous for: Rabati castle. The castle was originally built in the 9th century, though it has been heavily reconstructed (rumor has it that BP donated the money for this after building a pipeline through the city). The castle has many beautiful and unique structures: a golden domed mosque, multiple ornately decorated fountains, and striking stone walls. The complex also contains an informative museum which details the history of the area, going back to ancient times until the 19th/20th centuries.

For lunch that day we went to a place near the castle called Dubli, where we ate our last (and perhaps best) Georgian meal: traditional bread, eggplant and walnuts, cheese cornbread, and bean soup. After a hearty meal we caught a Marshutka to Tbilisi, which cost 10 lari each and took about 3 hours.

That evening we stayed at Patio Hostel, which was perfectly adequate and very reasonably priced (35 lari a night for a double private room), and ate at Tuk Tuk, a Thai restaurant nearby. Though Georgian food is absolutely delicious, I couldn’t pass up a chance to eat Thai food (almost as cheap as in Thailand) before heading back to Israel. To finish off a wonderful stay in Tbilisi, we walked along the river and watched the city light up for the night.

Day 9:
We only had a couple hours, but we made sure to visit our favorite mountain-top donut shop one last time, and have one last Georgian cream lemonade. We took a taxi to the airport (for 16 laris) and just like that our trip was done. We left impressed with the beautiful country, and even more so with the fantastic food.