Well, Hello Georgia. Actually goodbye Georgia as we have recently departed from your green and fertile soils! But what a surprise packet you were and a bit of a shame that we only had 11 days to….. explore you. Gee what is this article starting to sound like? I’ll move on.
We had no idea (again) on what to expect when coming to Georgia. I only knew one person that had been there, Mike from work, who had told me it was an awesome country and Georgians loved to get pissed! Mike is a pom, and loves a drink so I didn’t know if was really a Georgian past-time or whether it was a reflection of himself upon the people of Georgia. Just kidding, Mike, if you’re reading this. So that is all we knew about the country.
It is so far from Australia and on the outer edge of Europe that not many people from home would include it on their itinerary. We had already been as far east as Romania in Eastern Europe and right to the Black Sea Coast at that, so the logic part of our brain assumed that “well, if you go further east and across the black sea then it therefore gets poorer and a little more backwards”. Our experience of the Stans definitely followed that logic as you might recall I wrote in an earlier post that it was like “Eastern Europe 30 years ago”. So, with the knowledge that people drank alot, and our thoughts that it was further east than Romania and nestled between Asia, Europe and was once a Soviet State, we made some assumptions. They were mostly wrong of course:
- The writing would be in Cyrillic. Wrong. It’s Georgian and it’s pretty crazy! On the surface it looks more like Burmese than our Latin characters.
- The people would look a little Russian mixed with whatever Georgian people look like. Wrong. Georgian people look, well, Georgian! Their Genes seem um, resistant, to mixing haha hope that doesn’t sound racist. I’ll try and explain. In Kyrgyzstan we were asked “Are there many Kygyz people in Australia?” My answer is I wouldn’t know. They are such a mix I don’t think I could ever guess. But If I ever see a Georgian now I will know straight away “That person is Georgian”. They look fairly unique.
- The capital would be fairly run down but with at least one nice church and maybe a few smaller ones around. Wrong. The capital, Tbilisi is stunning. It felt like we had arrived in a central European country. Really, it’s beautiful, with churches and ancient history abounds. From where we had come from, we had really felt like we were out of Asia and well and truly in Europe. (Had we come from Paris or Prague, may have felt different but that’s perspective for ya). Leaving the Capital felt like we left Central Europe though and was more like the Central Asia we had come from.
- The roads might be dangerous because people will be drunk. At first I thought correct as our bus from the airport was hit by a car within about 15 minutes! Haha, and well the roads are fairly dangerous but not because people are drunk. It is that little bit of Asia mixing in with the country I think.
- It would be green. Well this one we got right! Thanks to Mike telling me a bit about his adventures while working here I knew it would be nice and green and forested. But just how much blew me away. This place has so much virgin state forest left. Its unreal. Not just pine forests but a real mix of all sorts of different trees. Georgia has the largest untouched national park in Europe.
So, after that lengthy introduction I will show you what I mean about Georgia, and why we loved it so much.
Georgian food is absolutely delicious! Heavy yes, but that doesn’t bother me as I love heavy food. Veal is everywhere, and comes in an array of sauces, my favourite being Ajika, which is from the Abkhaz region (where the people are renowned for being long lived – they talk of people living to 150 years old there). This stuff is delicious and when mixed with tomatoes, poured over veal ribs and then cooked in a cast iron bowl in a *pauses to clear drool off the keyboard* wood fired oven – I mean does it get any better???? These were so good that at one stage I had 3 veal ribs in ajika in a row and THEN topped it off at midnight that night with veal stew. “Sheree!! we are going back to Georgia!”
The rest of the food we tried was excellent as well. As Sheree said a lot, “I have not had one bad meal in this country”. It was true. Kanchapuri, Kinkhali, Chakapuli, just to name a few were all delicious and filling. Woodfired trout with sour cream inside. The list is extensive and we really only scratched the surface (Especially once I locked onto the goddamn veal in ajika… arrrrhhhhhhh). See a few pictures below.
Also, in Soviet times, Georgian food was considered the best in all of the Soviet Union due to the fertile soils. This is true. I ate tomatoes like they were apples here because they were so sweet! Fruit and veges were everywhere and the veges in particular were very sweet! Everything seems tree or vine ripened here.
I also discovered Kefir in Georgia. Kefir to me is like a super milk. It is a dairy product, but is traditionally made from putting cows, sheep or goats milk into a bag with a bunch of Kefir grains and is then fermented into the finished product. These bags were placed in peoples door ways, so, when they had comers and goers they would knock the bag and help the fermentation process along! It is full of good bacteria, with more strains than natural and Greek yoghurt, but the clincher for me is that it contains enzymes that actually break down Lactose in our guts! So it is easier digested and means we may actually get nutrients out of it that we might not otherwise with plain milk. I didn’t stop downing the stuff and got a bottle each morning. My guts are now functioning the best they ever had, which i amazing after what I went through and I reckon a lot has to do with this stuff.
Again, Delicious. I won’t go into details on the wine cos I am no conniseur and can’t even spell it. But my two favourite red and whites now are Georgian.
My favourite red is called Kindzmarauli. My second favourite red is called Saperavi. From Wikipedia:
- Kindzmarauli is a high quality naturally semi-sweet wine of dark-red color. It is made from the Saperavi grape variety cultivated on the slopes of the Caucasian mountains in the Kvareli district of Kakheti. It has a strong characteristic bouquet and aroma, a gentle harmonious and velvety taste. The wonderful taste and curative properties have won Kindzmarauli general recognition. The wine contains 10.5-12.0% alcohol, 3-5% sugar and has 5.0-7.0% titrated acidity. It has been manufactured since 1942. For its supreme qualities Kindzmarauli was 3 gold, 4 silver & 1 bronze medal at international wine competitions.
- Saperavi is a red wine made from the Saperavi grape variety grown in some areas of Kakheti. It is an extractive wine with a characteristic bouquet, a harmonious taste and pleasant astringency. Its strength is 10.5-12.5% and titrated acidity 5-7%. At the international wine competitions this wine received one gold and one silver medal. It has been produced since 1886.
My favourite white is called Pirosmani. From Wikipedia:
- Pirosmani is a semi-sweet white wine made from a 40% Tsolikauri, 60% Tsitska blend. It has won 3 gold medals and one silver medal at international competitions.
We assumed, like most former soviet states, that vodka would be the national drink. We had no idea the array of unique and delicious wines that were on offer here. Georgian wine making goes back to 4000BC!!!!! Yes that is the right amount of zeros. Like with the food, we weren’t expecting such a strong native Georgian presence in drinks. This is most likely due to the fact that we had come from countries where, prior to the soviet occupation, the people were typically nomadic and so things like wine making and food recipes were not so strong as in Georgia. Ah naivety, it’s good sometimes because you can be so surprised when you realise you’re wrong.
Nature is to Georgia what hair is to my chest – It’s covered in it. The Stan’s in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (the latter in certain parts of the country anyway) has plenty of nature, but not in the same way as Georgia. Georgia is full of untouched virgin forests. Really really lush. Particularly as you follow the lower caucuses down to the Black Sea where the climate is sub-tropical. There are so many different species of plant and tree, and because they exist in massive forests, the bird life is unreal! Felt like I was in deep south west WA mixed with jungles of Thailand (the presence of Eucalypts also confused my ecological brain). As in Kyrgyzstan, you can hike to your hearts content with multi day hikes possible in numerous locales.
We got our taste of nature in a place called Borjomi, that was made famous by a rich Soviet leader who discovered sulphuric hot springs in a gorge here, and so the place was sought after by the soviet elite as a favourite holiday destination.
Today it is still popular and the spring water from here is thought to be good for your health. I got the runs here again so I can’t attest to the theory but hey, it could be good for you? Borjomi was such a beautiful place to stay and we were often in the company of an old guy who ran a guesthouse who was always in the communal kitchen. This wouldn’t really be a big deal if we could converse. His English was as good as my Georgian which made for some really funny miscommunications and funny little things. Like when he worked out the word for pay and repeated “Pay…. Please pay? Please pay? Ha ha ha” and we all laughed awkwardly. Good times.
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It has a coastline.
The Black Sea at Batumi is cool. Plus it is a few km from the Turkish border so there is some influence there. Batumi is little wacky though. It is called the “Las Vegas on the Black Sea”. It kind of is but way smaller. It has weird brand new shiny buildings, yet 500m away on the edge of Old Town, it crumples into a town that makes you feel like you are in Central Asia again. This place was a little quiet as peak season hits with a vengeance in Mid June, July and August and we reckon the place would crank at these times. Regardless, we ate well here, had a weird sort of night out getting extremely drunk on Turkish Rhaki, and spent next to nothing on our accomodation ($8 a night each).
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We spent a day on the Beach in Gonia, overlooking green blue water and peering out to Turkey jutting into the ocean in the distance. Another cool observation for me was that having visited Turkey before in the west, I had no idea there would be a lush sub-tropical part of turkey up here in the north east! The things you don’t know.
It is full of mountains and even has Europe’s second highest peak – Shkara at 5,193m. The highest is nearby with mount Dykh-Tau (5,205m) which is also located in the Caucuses. Nearly everywhere you drive here you have a stunning backdrop of hills and mountains.
Georgian people are incredibly friendly too. They are extremely religious and literally believe that guests are “Gifts of God” which is also the meaning of my name so really, I am a double whammy for them to be inviting towards me. We were told that Georgians are the second most religious people after Thais’. I don’t know where this chick got that statistic from, and I’m not sure if Burmese have been surveyed yet, but to me Georgians seemed even more devout. I have never been in a country where, people young and old, stop in front of each church and crosses their chest 3 times. Even the taxi drivers would do it, and given the amount of Churches, you’re kind of like “Please open your eyes and hold the wheel with both hands” – but hey – they’ve got God on their side!
Georgian history goes way back. Back to Ancient Greek times, and before that, human inhabitation dates back to c 1.8 million years ago!! This is the earliest known human evidence outside of Africa. Neolithic agricultural history dates back to around 6000BC. Yes these are some fancy numbers and all, but Georgia is a place, much like many places in Europe, where you can feel the history everywhere you go. Castles, cave towns, it’s got it all.
Vardzia Caves were particularly amazing. Queen Tamar moved her people to this mountain to escape invading Mongols. They literally built their town down into a mountain. There are dozens of cave rooms and many tunnels linking them. There is even a church (of course) that is huge and still in use today! The sheer scale of this place blew us away, if you click on the pictures you should see how big it is judging by the size of the people.
Beautiful capital city.
As I wrote earlier, Tbilisi is stunning. There are churches everywhere you look, old walls, streets that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris, and a good nightlife to boot! With only 1.5 million inhabitants, the nightlife goes on, every night, into the wee hours of the morning. Tbilisi, given it’s location between Europe and Asia, has been conquered many many times by invaders from the greater Central Asian region including Persians, Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Russians, the list goes on. On other occasions, the city has completely been burnt to the ground several times too. So the current buildings in the city mostly go back about 300 years, even though it was founded in the 5th century. If you want to read about a city that has just been smashed by invaders, read about the city’s history here: It’s pretty crazy:
I think one thing that struck me though about Tbilisi and it’s people, is that there are so many different religions all living in harmony with one another. Jews, Armenians, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Muslims, even Coptic Orthodox Christians, which are largely persecuted in their homelands, all live and pray in the one city. Even Sunni and Shia Muslims pray together in the same mosques here! Imagine if the world could live like this. People say “Religion causes so much war and bloodshed”. It doesn’t have to. Georgians are doing it why can’t everyone else?
We also happened to be there during their Independence day which was a great day and night!
And the sweetener that really makes all this a backpackers dream? Price.
We literally ate and drank like a king and queen, moved across the entire country, had a big couple of nights out and guess what, our budget stayed smack on under $50 a day. You just can’t compete with that anywhere in Europe. Trust me. You can stay under $50 a day sure, but you aren’t getting the same quality wines, food, and accomodation as you can get in Georgia for the same price. Nor are you eating at the fancy restaurants whenever and wherever you like! Or you are getting nice accomodation but you are living off tuna and crackers (Which my brother sure wouldn’t mind anyway). I’ve been to many of the less developed countries in Europe now, and I can’t match the dollar amount vs value and quality that you get in Georgia.
Georgia is a little gem. They call it “The Balcony of Europe” and for good reason. So much of the wider country is like an eclectic mix of Asia and Europe, but come into Batumi Old Town or Tbilisi and you could be anywhere in Europe. It is also extremely safe, with Tbilisi considered one of the safest cities in Europe. That’s saying something! The people are deeply religious, wouldn’t hurt a fly, the food is amazing and the country is full of breathtaking scenery at every turn. I really recommend coming here if you are flexible with your itinerary and you’re into the same shit as I am.