SOME FUN FACTS ABOUT GEORGIA (from our tour guides – see below for details):
- It’s not called Georgia, Georgians call it Sakartvelo.
- The first Europeans came from Georgia.
- It’s considered to be the cradle of wine-making all over the world.
- No one speaks the Georgian language except for the Georgians!
- It has 12 different climate zones.
- It houses 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites (Narikala fortress, Jvari Monastery, and the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral) .
- It has Europe’s highest permanent settlement – the village of Ushguli is the highest village in Europe.
- And finally, Georgia is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities.
And now about Tbilisi, the city we visited:
TBILISI, GEORGIA has got one of the most varied topographies; its mountains and hills serving as Holy grounds for the ancient medieval churches and the monasteries are as mesmerizing as the deep blue creeks and rivers hypnotizing.It was a great pleasure to see how the people living there are connected to their roots (both cultural and religious) and traditions to date;their affinity towards nature – be it the simplest, purest and the most unadulterated forms of food, or their indigenous yearning to always keep connected to the natural surroundings as a way of life is completely spellbinding. It was indeed very exciting to learn the recipes of some traditional Georgian delicacies! Not to forget, the precious architecture and interiors dating back to 14th Century (a few even to the 4th century!!😱). While I take a trip down memory lane, I hope you all are pleasantly surprised by how charming and understated Georgia is! TBILISI is often known as the ‘City of Lights‘ or the ‘City that Loves you‘…….
Before I start off, a disclaimer right here! It is most definitely not possible to explore the city in less than 5 days – “You think you’ve seen the whole city? You need at least 10 days more”, we were told by an elderly lady at one of the local souvenir stalls. So yes, covering the whole (well, almost! we missed the botanical gardens I’ve heard so much about😞) of Tbilisi in 3 days was extremely tiring especially with a kid – however kudos to ‘Holiday factory‘ on arranging such comprehensive tours (and saving us the hassle of trying to figure out the best places to visit which would’ve wasted our time anyways)! Without a tour package booked in advance, if it’s your first time in Georgia you really won’t know where all to go.
Our excursions started barely two hours after landing (I’m glad we didn’t give in to lazing around!) and we started off with the TBILISI HIGHLIGHTS + WELCOME DINNER tour at sunset time. We first walked through the historic district and the new city accompanied by (the most convivial and hospitable) local guide. It was almost night time by the time we started walking the narrow cobbled streets; certainly the most charmingly archaic experience, while at the same time being introduced to Tbilisi’s history by our guide was the icing on the cake! We learnt how Tbilisi was established as the capital of Georgia: With a population of approximately 1.5 billion people, the city lies on the banks of the Kura River which flows through Turkey, Georgia, and then Azerbaijan (Georgians often refer to them as ‘our rich neighbours’!), subsequently draining into the Caspian Sea. Legend has it that somewhere in the mid-5th Century, King Vakhtang I of Iberia (present day Eastern-Georgia) went hunting in the forests of Tbilisi with his falcon which allegedly caught a pheasant but then both the birds are known to have fallen into a nearby hot spring which caused their death. Soon the king was able to figure out that the birds attained burns due to the sulphur content in the water and thereafter decided to build the city of Tbilisi (derived from ‘Tpili’, meaning ‘warm’ in Georgian) and establish it as the capital of Georgia; he decided that the (topography/terrain) hills, mountains and the sulphur content in the water would serve to be extremely advantageous especially considering that many battles were being fought during that era. Also, Georgia was a part of the Russian empire between 1801-1917 and hence one can see a lot of Russian influence in everything; not only when it comes to heritage and architecture, but also how there is a strong inclination towards being European.
On our way, we also got to see one of the city’s key historical sites ‘Narikala Fortress‘ from the 4th Century (We were taken up to the site in a cable car with the breathtaking view of the city at night right beneath us!). Most of it is has been restored in its original form (exposing every stone of the masonry darkened with time) except for a few parts which were destroyed during the 1827 earthquake and were later demolished. On the lower court, a restored version (1996-1997) of the 13th Century Nicholas Church (destroyed in a fire) can be found as well. The fortress is situated on a steep hill between the sulphur baths and the botanical gardens (yes at least we caught a glimpse of them!) Be sure to catch a view of the monumental sculpture of Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia on your way up, standing above central Tbilisi. The most prevalent religion in Georgia is Orthodox Christian and it is not very uncommon to come across the extremely respectable and revered ‘Nuns’ and ‘Priests’ during your exploration tours especially in and around the multitudinous churches dotted around Georgia.
The night culminated with a fab dinner at a traditional local restaurant, Restaurant Gorgasali right opposite the Royal Sulphur Baths, pleasantly surprising us with the lovely Georgian Cuisine and the Georgian folk dance (catch a glimpse of the festivities’ video clip on my instagram!) The food had very little oil and ‘just the right’ amount of salt and spices which was an absolute delight for me! (not much for my husband of course – who immediately started ordering in from a nearby Asian restaurant the very next day!🤭) For me it was just perfect as even back home I prefer eating out at places like ‘Teriyaki’ where food is actually cooked in water instead of oil🤩….a recommendation right there for my UAE friends🍽️. Anyways, so some of the most commonly used vegetables in Georgian food are eggplant, capsicum and spinach, parsnip, carrots, walnut/hazelnut sauces and cheese (for instance Parmesan cheese dressing for savouries). One of the traditional delicacies is known as the ‘Khinkali’, a giant (human palm-sized) dumpling – known to have been brought into Georgia by the mongols in the 13th century. Basically, it’s like a dumpling with a steamed mince beef patty along with some traces of a sauce that seems like beef stew with some additional spices including onion, parsley and dill. There’s even a Georgian way to eat it – you’re supposed to bite into it, drink the stew-y sauce and then you’re at liberty to have the rest of it as you like. Restaurant Gorgasali’s interiors were breathtakingly rustic (see pictures) and in fact every other building in Georgia has interiors and architecture corresponding as closely as possible to the medieval era (primarily employing bricks and stones – as the latter were easily available by the riverbanks). I asked the restaurant management how old the building was as it seemed perfectly quaint and medieval upon which I was told it’s one of the relatively new ones which brought me into further awe in how the look had been so accurately achieved considering it was a modern-day construction.
The same day we were also taken to a specially known antiques/souvenir shop (see pictures below) – even if you don’t end up buying anything here, the interiors themselves are incredibly awe-inspiring! If you’re interested in the regular run-of-the-mill souvenirs then you might find this shop a bit pricey, but if you’re looking for unique and gorgeously handcrafted one of a kind ones, this is the place to shop! For a videoclip check out my instagram.
The second day, we set off to explore the ‘magnificent Kakheti (also known as the ‘Motherland of Wine’) that gives you a real taste of Georgian Village Life! We were first taken to a famous winery with an introduction to wine making and a chance to taste the various different wines in the making. Now, even if you are not a wine enthusiast, the whole experience is very very interesting as for Georgia, making wine is essentially an integral part of their culture, history and lifestyle and is considered to be a ‘Symbol of their Hospitality and Tolerance’; Kakheti in particular is known as ‘The Cradle of the Georgian Art of Wine-Making ‘. Many people have their homes and balconies covered with grapevines which they later pluck off to make home-made wine for selling. For many, Georgia is actually a model country for ‘wine making’ with over 500 varieties! Our next stop (my favourite part!) was a Traditional Georgian Family Home, where we were introduced to the art of Georgian Bread Making – for video click here on my instagram; interestingly enough, there is much more water in proportion as compared to the flour and salt that goes into the making which makes the bread incredibly light on your stomach, and at the same time, fluffy and delicious! The traditional shape of the bread (see pictures) when it came out of the brick-lined oven (Georgian Tone Oven, much like the Asian ‘Tandoor’) was equally pleasing to the eyes:) The kids got introduced to some family pets, including the most adorable little puppies, chickens and rabbits while we took a stroll through the grapevine plantation and the pumpkin patch! Towards the end, we were treated to some freshly baked bread, tomatoes, fresh berries (including the traditional ‘shindi’) and grapes along with delectable home-made Cheese 🤤.
Finally the restaurant where we were taken for lunch was scenically situated in the middle of the forest. Again there were lots of and lots of grape plantations with rustic wooden labels to typify them and we were free to take a stroll through the forest hills paths being able to pluck grapes and wild strawberries on the way😍.The lunch menu again offered extremely healthy options (which were equally delicious by the way!) . One thing that set it apart from the previous night’s dinner menu was that it contained soup with vegetables and a bit of rice – a bit like Thai rice soup in pure stock but without the tangy/sour taste and lots of steamed vegetables inside. There was rice separately on the side too but it was soaked in stock as well – kind of like risotto but without any creamy sauces and too many spices.
Learning how to make the traditional delight ‘Churchkhela’ was definitely the highlight of the day; basically you take either hazelnuts or walnuts (shelled, halved and dipped in water to soften them), thread them onto a string, then dip that into a concoction called tatara (grape juice is placed in a cauldron, cooked slowly, allowed to cool and then a bit of flour is added while again heating and stirring the mixture to achieve the right consistency); the resultant candy-shaped delicacy is then left to dry for about 4 to 5 days after which is ready to be consumed and can be stored for up to a year! Each of us got to make our own (yes! even the little kids:) ) and even though we ended up having it merely within a few hours of preparation after lunch, it was delectable!!! The best part was how it was completely guilt-free, considering no sugar had been added besides the fruit sucrose of course! Kakheti is the most renowned region for Churchkhelas. The best time to try this would be autumn at the time of harvest of the primary ingredients: Grapes and Nuts.
We also visited the BodBe monastry of St.Nino before lunch. We were not allowed to take pictures inside but the interiors were mesmerizing! First built in the 9th Century, it was remodelled somewhere in the 17th century and has been restored ever since. So the entire aura around the monastery perfectly aids one to travel far back in time. If you look at the architecture (see pictures below) traces of Russian influences are quite eminent. Inside the monastery you can also visit St.Nino’s shrine who, around the 4th Century, is known to have travelled on foot all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey to spread orthodox Christianity in Georgia. Some few kilometers from the monastery, you can also witness the breathtaking architecture of a church/chapel, which is still under construction though. Also there is a nunnery on the site, that we were obviously not allowed to go into and the nuns and sisters are the ones taking care of the gardens, the springs and plantations.
One detail most definitely not to be missed; the monastery is located some 2km from the town of Sighnaghi – ‘The City of Love’. We were extremely lucky to get a chance to stroll down the cobbled streets of the small, cozy and quaint town. Sighnaghi is quite popular for couples who wish to elope or otherwise do not want any elaborate and fancy ceremonies and hence the name, ‘City of love’!
The next day we visited Ananuri and Kazbegi (also known as the ‘soul’ of Georgia – taking in sights of the peaks of the magnificent Mount Kazbek some 5,070 metres above sea level). On our way we had lunch at the most popular ski resort of Georgia, Gudauri….so yes, if you enjoy skiing and other winter sports of the like, then be sure to visit Georgia during winter months. The mystical Ananuri fortress housing a small church inside, remained in use until the 19th century, standing on a hilltop overlooking the Jinvali lake and velvety green mountains. We also had the unearthly experience of witnessing the conjunction of the Black and White Aragavi rivers, which stand apart keeping their own colours even at the point of merging!!!😮 The 14th Century Gergeti Trinity church (standing at an elevation of roughly 2170 metres below mount Kazbegi) was our final destination as we went up the rough trail of the Kazbegi mountain in an off-roader. It is known that in times of battle and danger, precious relics from Mtskheta (Saint Nino’s cross was one of them) were brought to this church for safeguarding and protection. Interestingly we saw a lot of trekkers and hikers setting up their tents here as sunset had almost approached. The entire experience was eerily mystic, almost to the extent of being bewitching!
Note: With its towering Caucasus Mountains formulating the border between Europe and Asia, Georgia has always been an important contact zone and trade route (including part of the acclaimed Silk Road), combining the best of the East and the West. On your way and back from Kazbegi, be sure not to miss out on all the trade trucks and vans (on their way to and from Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan) that pass you by – we spotted one with an Armenian vehicle number plate! ✌️
The last tour before returning back home, was The Ancient Capital Mtskheta….a most-likely favourite for my kindred souls, interior and architecture enthusiasts! Being one of the oldest towns as well as the cultural and religious center of Georgia, Mtskheta most definitely has a charm that stands out on its own. You can actually sense the modesty, hospitality and homeliness in the surrounding air! It was an absolute delight walking down the cobbled streets of the quaint-old town; alongside viewing the spine tingling age-old building structures and relics – most of which were hotels and personal houses, we were told. The entire experience was made even more whimsical and poetic upon getting an insight into the ‘local living’ whereby bunches and bunches of grapevines had been planted on the balconies, later used to make home-made wine for selling.
We visited the 4th century Jvari monastry (a masterpiece of the early medieval period) on our way to Mtskheta, with unusual and varied relief sculptures embellishing its facades (you can spot lots and lots of stones brought in from the riverbanks to lay down the structure of the walls). It is often said, that it was at this location that St.Nino (known to have converted King Mirian III to orthodox christianity) constructed a large wooden cross where there stood a large pagan temple instead. It ended up attracting many pilgrims who used to cry while praying there, and thereafter a nearby natural lake was named the lake of tears. Interestingly this structure dating back to as far back as the 4th century, stands today, completely untouched/unadulterated!
The pinnacle of the entire trip however was Svetitskhoveli (Sveti means ‘pillar’ and Tskhoveli ‘Life-giving’ in Georgian), the main cathedral of Mtskheta. The most hair-raising part of it all is that this is where the robe and the cross of Jesus Christ has been kept! As much as I would like to share with you, I do not have words to describe how your mind transcends much beyond the boundaries of this physical realm upon the very sight and that ethereal feeling enveloping your soul. Of course we were not allowed to click pictures, but you could only imagine how aesthetic and unearthly the aura would be inside that cathedral. Legend has it that the cross and robe were brought here to Georgia all the way from Jerusalem by the soldiers and a Sister by the name of St.Sidonia hugged the robe so tight that in that state of trance engendered by the holy object, she passed away. But it doesn’t end here, she had to be buried along with it because it turned out to be impossible to remove it from her grasp! Later on , a prodigious cedar tree grew in the vicinity of her grave. It was then that St.Nino ordered the tree to be chopped off and got seven columns made out of the Cedar Tree to be laid as foundations for a small church. And then it gets even more interesting……one of the columns is known to have mystically risen into the air and returned back after St.Nino prayed the whole night; and hence the name of the cathedral – Svetitskhoveli: ‘life-giving pillar’. In the 11th century king George II ordered construction of this cathedral (the largest at that time, now second largest after the Holy Trinity Cathedral Sameba constructed later in Tbilisi – the current capital) and an architect by the name of Arsukidze was called upon. Later on it is known that the king ordered the architect’s right arm to be cut off so that no other similar structure was built again…much like the Indian legend Taj Mahal’s story perhaps (Later on, one of the walls was adorned with an inscription of an eagle to commemorate the architect and his marvel). Somewhere around the 18th/19th Century, the King at that time ordered the construction of the huge fortress-like wall around the cathedral (see pictures below). Another point of great historical significance – all the Georgian kings are known to have been buried inside this cathedral. There is also a small stone church (13th/14th Century) constructed inside the cathedral, which is considered to symbolically represent the Holy Chapel Sepulchre in Jerusalem; and hence the cathedral is often considered second in command to it in being the most sacred Christian place in the world and also a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site alongside other Mtskheta Monuments.
And finally, my take on some exquisite souvenirs from Georgia!