A trip to an exotic land
After a long dreary period of staying put, the world is open and travel is calling our name once again! But alas, there is one obstacle that is throwing a wrench in everyone’s plans: unprecedented visa delays. A UK visa that once took two weeks to process can now take months, forcing many Indian passport holders to cancel and rebook trips. This has compelled people to explore different travel destinations, and that is how a group of 12 ladies from Chennai (yours truly included) ended up in Tbilisi, Georgia! A destination that evoked a response of “Huh? Where?” from everyone.
Georgia is a small country that shares a border with many interesting neighbours: Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on one side, and Russia on the other. It was the second nation in the world after Armenia to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and has spent most of its history fighting invaders from Genghis Khan to Shah Abbas and more, which our tour guide claims is the reason for the low population today. The once chaotic country has been on an upturn since the early 2000s, and their increased emphasis on attracting tourists made it an ideal choice for our travel-hungry gang.
We flew on Fly Dubai and arrived in the late afternoon of November 14th. With temperatures ranging from 2 to 15 degrees Celsius, we came equipped with thermals, boots, and winter jackets usually kept for Kodai in December. Normally it rains during November, but a stroke of luck gave us crisp, sunny days to enjoy our sightseeing. Cold weather with sunny skies is the best combination you could hope for on a holiday; the cold keeps you alert and vibrant even as you consume a steady stream of wine and cocktails, and the sunshine keeps you smiling and makes for great photographs. If this sounds like your kind of vacation, keep reading for a breakdown of what to see in this exotic land.
On our first day we took a short cable car ride to reach the start of the Narikala Tourist route, a 1500 metre trail down the hill which takes you past the Mother of Georgia statue and the Narikala fortress, into the Old Town. The Mother of Georgia holds a sword in one hand and a wine goblet in the other, representing the following message: “Come as my enemy and I greet you with the sword; come as my friend, and I greet you with wine.” A perfect motto for a country whose history is dominated by battle, but whose future is bright with oenotourism!
We enjoyed the beautiful views along the trail, especially of the Botanical Gardens, and popped into a church where every interior inch was covered with fresco paintings. While churches are ubiquitous in this Christian country, there are also plenty of mosques and synagogues, a result of the various occupying forces over the centuries. Once in the Old Town you can pick up fresh juice, fruit cups, or even wine flavored ice cream to refresh yourself. This is also the best place for souvenir shops, where the most popular item was a ceramic pomegranate. These come in various sets and sizes and look more mouthwatering than the real thing!
The next day we took a three hour bus ride to the mountainous region of Kazbegi, part of the Caucasus range. A few pit stops broke up the monotony of the ride, like visiting a family run restaurant for hot khachapuri, the Georgian staple of cheese bread, and stopping at a local honey producer to sample and purchase the varieties. We finally reached the Panorama which is a high point that offers sweeping views of the beautiful snow peaked mountains, and held our breath as we watched other tourist groups go dangerously close to the edge for a photo. Our tour guide warned us with some tragic anecdotes so that we did not attempt any such feats! On that note, if you do choose to do quad biking here, choose a place that is far away from any precipices.
As for places to shop and visit back in the city, you can check out Meidan Bazaar, an underground market with spices and souvenirs, and the Dry Bridge flea market for vintage ceramics and curiosities. A more contemporary destination is Fabrika. Once a sewing factory during the Soviet era, this building now contains a hostel, co working space, and several funky shops–perfect for people watching if you want to see where the hipsters hang out.
Wining & Dining
One disadvantage of being an Indian traveller is that our palates are so used to Indian flavour profiles. The spicy, tangy, layered tastes that our spices and cooking methods produce are very hard to find elsewhere, and are usually sorely missed. I found it very amusing to watch my travel mates, some fancy ladies who have dined at the world’s best restaurants, beg the waiter for “Spicy sauce, chilli paste, anything!” to give a kick to their food. Imagine the look on our faces when one waitress presented us a bottle of Tabasco with the warning, “This is really spicy!” Jokes aside, they do in fact have a regional spice paste which we all took a liking to, called Adjika.
We were expecting the cuisine to be dominated by carbohydrates and cheese, the two elements of the aforementioned khachapuri, but to my surprise there was a strong Mediterranean influence as well. Our best meal was in the city at Cafe Littera, one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. We enjoyed a sampler of veggie dips with flatbread, stuffed grape leaves, and cheesy croquettes. The vegetarians made do with this, as the main course was mostly non vegetarian, with the pork belly proving to be the tastiest.
We noticed that in most restaurants, chicken and lamb are served as stews with lots of gravy, but without rice. Instead, we soaked up the gravy with rustic cornbread, another staple. We washed it all down with Georgian semi-sweet white wine, and concluded the meal on a high note with outstanding desserts like mille feuille layered with the most decadent mascarpone custard. While the Indian palate misses spice, my American taste buds lust after such dairy delights!
On our last full day we drove one hour to visit Vineria Kakheti, a family owned winery. We kicked off the wine tour with a shot of chacha, sometimes described as “wine alcohol”, to cleanse our palates for the tasting. After learning about the winemaking process and picking up some bottles to take home, we sat down in the verdant garden for an al fresco meal. The only problem with this is that the food gets cold quickly on the plate, but anything tastes good with enough wine accompanying it!
Sometimes a meal is more about the ambience than the food, and this was the case for our lunch on the day trip to Kazbegi. I would strongly recommend making a lunch reservation at Rooms hotel here for a cosy meal in the chilly, windy mountains. The interiors are warm and welcoming with ski lodge decor, comfy sofas and bookshelves, and the adjacent outdoor patio has stunning views that are difficult to capture on camera. While the food needed a good deal of Adjika paste to liven it up, the desserts were the best we had on the holiday, and we ate them on the patio to soak up the surroundings.
Overall, our group had a wonderful getaway to Tbilisi. The locals are not necessarily warm, but were very polite considering we were a big group who couldn’t help clogging up paths and walkways! Many Georgians exclaimed “Georgia and India are friends!” and all the street musicians are well versed in at least one Raj Kapoor song. This is clearly a country that is ready to be a tourist destination and pulling out all the stops to get there. If you visit, you will come away with a sense of having enjoyed both the city and nature.
The streets are as clean as can be, the city is pedestrian friendly, but I recommend hiring a tour guide as not everyone speaks English. Having a U.S. or Schengen visa is enough to get you entry for up to 90 days. Finally, the hotel rates and food prices are very reasonable, making this an easy holiday to plan on a budget. So don’t be afraid to think past London and Paris, dear readers, as there is a whole world of unique destinations just waiting to welcome you!