Postcard from Annie: An Unexpected Delight – Phoka Nunnery and Village, Georgia

Postcard from Annie: An Unexpected Delight – Phoka Nunnery and Village, Georgia

On a recent business trip to Georgia, MIR Vice President Annie Lucas made a stop at an unassuming village that turned out to be a delightfully authentic travel experience.

Making an unscheduled stop at the Phoka Nunnery in the tiny village of Phoka gave us just the sort of spontaneous experience that travelers like me hope for.

From Tbilisi to the Tiny Village of PhokaAfter our business was concluded in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, we crossed through the dacha communities and summer camps in the highland outskirts of town and headed south, on our way to the striking cave town of Vardzia. We soon found ourselves meandering along a two lane “highway” that, given the near-zero traffic we encountered in either direction, could have been mistaken for a simple country lane near my hometown in rural Washington State.

Charming rolling green hills gave way to alpine scenery, complete with small, blue, fish-stocked lakes and snow-capped mountains. Not far past Tsalka Reservoir and close to Lake Paravani, just off the right side of the road, we encountered the tiny village of Phoka. Phoka is completely unassuming and could easily be missed with the blink of an eye. Not more than a handful of homes make up this village set in the shadow of a tiny monastery by the same name, Phoka.

The surprising and unexpected village of Phoka, Georgia.<br>Photo: Douglas Grimes

The unassuming village of Phoka, Georgia
Photo: Douglas Grimes

A Cooperative CommunityWe were greeted by one of the nuns who live in Phoka, lovingly tending to the church and village. They’ve been here for some 20 years, and have gradually built up expertise in dairy-farming, grain-growing, cheese-making, beekeeping and candle-making. Their days are centered around five hours of prayer and it seems incredible that so many other things get done. Besides caring for acreage and animals, the nuns bake and sell bread, make chocolates and cheese, and run a workshop where they create cloisonné enamel work.

A nun performs her beekeping duties.Photo: Douglas Grimes

A nun performs her beekeeping duties
Photo: Douglas Grimes

Tasteful, and Tasty, GiftsA village walkabout included a tour of the immaculate, active small church, a stop at the garden and a final stop at the tasting room/gift shop. The nuns of Phoka produce grapes, honey, vegetables and herbs that they use in their cooking, whether for themselves, or for the occasional guests they host. (Note to prospective convent guests: This is a very quiet place, suitable for those seeking the peace and serenity that only a monastic village retreat can offer.) But they also make chocolates and cheeses, which are available to taste and luckily, also to purchase.

A few of the beautiful hand made chocolates for sale in the gift shop.Photo: Douglas Grimes

A sampler of the beautiful hand made chocolates for sale in the gift shop
Photo: Douglas Grimes

Top Notch: Chocolates and a Cheese TastingGeorgia is well known for its fine natural wines, tandoor style breads and walnut-encrusted savory dishes. Who knew their locally produced organic cheese and chocolate would also be top notch?

15 kinds of cheese and as many specialty chocolates are on hand in the artfully crafted tiny wooden gift shop. The quality of this shop is similar to what one would expect in a well developed tourist destination, not at all what you might imagine finding in little unassuming Phoka in southern Georgia.

There are volcanic-ash-colored cheeses, cheeses shaped like apples and pyramids, beer-washed cheese and appropriately named cheeses, such as “Monastic Blue.”

One of the many varieties of cheese made in the village.Photo: Douglas Grimes

One of the many varieties of Phoka cheese 
Photo: Douglas Grimes

Georgian Chocolates: A Work of ArtThe tiny round ball and cone-shaped dark chocolates are handmade miniature works of art. There are golden dusted truffles and chocolates sprinkled with saffron, all packaged in wonderfully colored boxes. We could hardly get enough of these treats and, among three of us, exited the store with a grocery bag full of loot – cheese and chocolate as well as other Georgian specialties, including spices pre-blended for cooking fish or meat, handmade cookies and jams flavored with red currant and strawberry with geranium flowers.

A stop at Phoka is one of those completely unexpected and distinctively simple experiences – the kind that are so memorable precisely because they are so real.

Travel to Georgia with MIRA visit to the lovely Phoka Nunnery will be included in the 2016 departure of A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine & Culture. Or, schedule your own private pit stop in Phoka village. MIR has nearly 30 years of unmatched expertise here, hand-crafting tours to Georgia and the South Caucasus since 1986.

(Top photo: A Phoka sister is surrounded by the convent’s delicious handiwork – cheese, honey, wines, flavored oils and jams. Photo credit:  Douglas Grimes)

PUBLISHED: July 23, 2015

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