Tell someone you're going to Georgia, and chances are they're thinking of the south-eastern U.S. state with its coastal plains. Well, that's not where I went. I visited the Eastern European country Georgia; a country that waits patiently for the world to take notice of it. And it sits a mere three hours away by a direct flight from Dubai. I round up some reasons you too should put this on your getaway list.
1. Mountains and Monasteries
Georgia is blessed with astounding mountain scenery. The Lesser Caucus mountain ranges span across Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Mount Kazbegi is one of the highest peaks of the ranges. The drive cutting through towering lush green, snow-capped mountains are memorable. There is never a dull moment when you have fields with hues of green and yellow that go as far as your eyes can see, dotted with patches of tiny yellow and red flowers - makes you want to run singing 'the hills are alive with the sound of music...' Nature lovers often take a picnic basket and a tent and camp out on a verdant slope overlooking the valley. How nice to just be able to do that!
2. Culture and History
Did you know Georgia poses evidence of being one of the oldest home to humans? Did you know the Georgian town of Gori is where Stalin (ruler of the erstwhile Soviet Union) was born? Or that the locals don't call their country Georgia but Sakartvelo? That Georgia is one of the world's most homophobic countries; that Tblisi, the country's capital named its one of its main streets after George W. Bush Jr.? Tblisi is a picturesque paradox - ancient structures stand adjacent to space-age like modern buildings (such as the Bridge of Peace), making it one of the prettiest cities I have laid my eyes on. The small town of Signagi, a 19th century Italian style town has little lush nooks off of tree-lined pathways where one can seek solace. Mtskheta, just 20km from Tblisi, one of Georgia's oldest cities and the former Georgian capital, has a cultural landscape of medieval churches. The cave town in Uplistsikhe, one of the oldest human settlements in the country, was abandoned after the Mongols raided it in the 14th century. The ski resort town of Gudauri is where the Soviets built the monument of friendship in the early 80s to mark the bond between Georgia and Soviet Russia. I can go on and on, but I will leave you to discover the country for yourself!
|L-R, row 1: Tblisi, Bridge of Peace, George W Bush Street|
L-R, row 2: Friendship Monument, Gori town, Cave town of Uplistsikhe
L-R, row 3: Mtskheta, Signagi
3. 'Ghvino' and Churchkhela
Make sure your itinerary includes a visit to Khakheti a.k.a. the 'Cradle of Wine', one of Georgia's prominent wine-producing regions. We did a tasting of dry red, dry white, rose and sweet wine varieties, of which the dry red is favored by Georgians. The country's 8,000 year old wine-making culture is even UNESCO heritage listed! Needless to say then that the wine here is of great quality, and the price per bottle won't hurt your pocket. When packing, do account for space in your luggage for a bottle or two. We bought one and got another bottle free with it!
Grapes are not only used to make kveli but also to make churchkhela popularly known as Georgian Snickers. A mix of flour, sugar and fresh grape juice is prepared, into which a long string of freshly harvested nuts is dipped. The string is then laid to dry under the sun for 3 to 4 days and then they're ready to eat. They taste even better after 2 to 3 months once they are allowed to mature in wooden boxes.
4. 'Puri' and 'Kveli'
As a bread-lover, I feel lucky to have tasted 'puri' or Georgia's traditional baton breads. These long, narrow boat shaped breads are baked in traditional clay ovens. We got the chance to visit a 70 year old local home where a local showed us her bread-making ritual. The bread sold for GEL 1 is best eaten fresh and hot. I observed that every item in the kitchen, a wooden stool, the cloth, for instance, seemed like they hadn't been moved in ages, making the kitchen seem like a set for a movie. x
Now, there's no better companion to Georgian bread than Georgian cheese. Georgia makes around 250 'kveli' or cheeses mostly made from sheep or cow's milk; think cheeses of different textures, colors and flavors! Outside this very home we visited, the family was also selling fresh kveli that we ate with our fresh baton bread. Heavenly!
5. Khinkali and Khachapuri
I first learnt about khachapuri (don't pronounce the k) and kinkali when I watched one of my favorite shows Street Food Around the World - Tblisi. The host Ishai Golan digs into fresh khachapuri, pizza crust like bread filled with cheese, mostly the sulguni cheese which is salty and elastic-y. Georgians also stuff their puris with meat, grits and red beans. I also highly recommend you try the red bean khachapuri or Lobiani (see image on bottom right).
Khinkali (see image on bottom left) is like the Georgian sibling to the Chinese dumpling and Nepalese momo. These large steamed dumplings made with mostly ground lamb meat. Beef and pork dumplings are also quite common. Vegetarians can devour khinkali with potato or cheese. The dumplings are served with pepper sprinkled on it and with your fingers you hold the top knot of the dumpling and take your first bite, which will be mostly hot juices from the stuffing.
Both khinkali and khachapuri are such prominent reflectors of Georgian's culture and heritage, their miniature versions find a spot on the fridges in homes of many travelers as souvenirs (see bottom middle image).
Here is an article by Serious Eats on the influences on Georgian cuisine. I found some interesting Georgian recipes in the online version of the book The Georgian Feast.
Everything else you need to know if you're planning a trip:
The best time to visit Georgia is in the summer when you can admire the city in all its colorful and lush glory, but it's also when its packed to the rafters with tourists (mostly from Russia). If you enjoy snow, the winters are a great time to visit the ski town of Georgia when its mountains are carpeted white. For Indians with a UAE resident visa or U.S. visa, you do not need Georgian visa (yay!). Taxis are quite cheap though with some drivers you may need to try haggling. Sightseeing and tour packages are very moderately priced too and some tour companies accept payment in US Dollars apart from their local currency i.e. Lari (GEL). The crime rate is low and Georgia is ranked one of Europe's safest cities, though read this article and be an aware tourist. FlyDubai operates direct flights to Tblisi from Dubai (it's a mere three hour journey). To help you plan your itinerary, this blog on Gotravelyourway.com is a good resource. Safe travels!