What To Know Before You Go: Republic of Georgia
Georgia: Tucked into the South Caucasus region, the little country of Georgia is a gorgeous place boasting fabulous food, music and mountains. Its warm Mediterranean climate, deep black soil, saw-toothed mountains and Black Sea coast combine to make Georgia a Garden of Eden, overflowing with wine and rich in culinary flair – everything you could wish for in a destination.
About Our Georgia Travel Expert: Annie LucasMIR Vice President Annie Lucas’ first trip to Georgia was in the early 1990s in the dead of winter. In spite of some chilly nights spent bundled in all her clothes when the old government-run system experienced electrical shortages – commonplace back then – she was totally taken with the congenial generosity of the people, the joyous feasts, free-flowing wine, and spontaneous songs, as well as the incredible beauty of the country’s soaring mountains and sheltered valleys.
Since then she has been back countless times, observing the gradual emergence of a top-flight tourism industry, the appearance of five star luxury hotels and cozy renovated properties where heating hasn’t been a problem ever since Georgia emerged from the darkness of those post-Soviet times.
Georgia: Where to Go and What to Do
These are people who know how to have a good time, and they want you to have one, too. A proud independent spirit, a long tradition of lavish hospitality and an abundance of Nature’s gifts combine to make the Georgian people fabulous hosts, imaginative chefs, creative artists and open-hearted friends.
- Polyphonic singing
Georgia has one of the oldest and most intriguing polyphonic vocal traditions in Europe. Developing independently of Western European rules of harmony, Georgian vocal music has been passed down by ear for hundreds of years – possibly since the 5th century BC. It seems like everyone here can sing.
One of the country’s traditional songs, sung in the complex polyphony of the mountainous Svaneti region, was launched into space aboard Voyager I in 1977, along with other representative information about the humans from Earth. In 2008, the polyphonic vocal music of Georgia was elected to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of humanity.
- Wine legacy
Arguably the oldest wine producing area in Europe, Georgia today is generating a contemporary wine-making scene that harks back to its 8,000-year-old roots, when organic grapes were aged in huge earthenware vessels, called qvevri, and buried in the earth until they ripened into wonderfully full-bodied wines. This traditional wine-making method has also been added to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Ancient humans
Four 1.7 million-year-old H. erectus skulls, and one even older, were discovered at the archaeological site of Dmanisi, a medieval Georgian town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Road caravans used to pass. They are thought to belong to some of the earliest hominids found outside of Africa, electrifying the paleontological world.
- Georgian alphabet
The flowing Georgian script is one of perhaps only 20 true alphabets in the world. The winding characters of the alphabet resemble the trailing growth of the grapevine, and this motif is found in Georgian architecture throughout the country.
Make sure you take time for:
- Walking in Old Town Tbilisi
Strolling the Old Town is a wonderful way to catch the flavor of the city. Stop for coffee or an aperitif, or buy a piece of gooey, cheesy khachapuri to consume as you walk along. The winding cobbled streets meander around to shops, old churches, schools and cafés, and the balconies of the upstairs apartments hang over your head. A few of the buildings are renovated, but many have not yet been touched – battered but handsome specimens of architectural delight.
- Touring Wine Country
Kakheti is wine country. Throughout the eastern Kakheti region, nearly every rural home has its own garden, grapevines, apple tree and chickens. Around every turn is another little winery tucked into the trees, and you can stop and taste the red and amber wines as you nibble on crusty bread and salty cheese.
On a hill overlooking the Alazani Valley, the Kakhetian town of Signagi boasts narrow cobbled streets overhung with wooden balconies that are richly carved with lacey ornamentation. Panoramic views of the brilliant green valley surround the town, and the steep Greater Caucasus Mountains loom in the distance.
- Wining and dining at Pheasant’s Tears in Signagi
While you’re in Signagi, be sure to take a tour of Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant and Winery, a gem of a place producing robust organic wines and fantastic cuisine. The name of the winery comes from a Georgian legend in which the hero claims that it takes a “wine beyond measure” to make a pheasant cry tears of joy.
Sample Pheasant’s Tears wines, including some ancient varietals, see the vineyards where the grapes are grown, and visit the cellars where the grapes are macerated and aged in huge ceramic vessels. Called qvevri, the clay jugs have been used for winemaking for over 8,000 years in this part of the world.
- Getting into the Caucasus Mountains
You really must try to get up into the Caucasus Mountains – they are such a characteristic part of the country.
You could embark on an exploration along the Georgian Military Highway, the only north-south route through the Greater Caucasus from Russia to Georgia. The spectacular highway runs from Tbilisi through rolling green hills and steep arid mountains dotted with ancient stone defensive towers, then over the Krestovy Pass at almost 8,000 feet. Along the way, herds of sheep may spill across the road and old fortress-like churches watch over the villages.
Alternately, head up to Svaneti, a remote and distinct mountainous region designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkably preserved medieval appearance. Unreachable by car until 1935 when the cart track from the town of Zugdidi was widened to allow car traffic, Svaneti has maintained its own way of life for centuries. Plunging ravines and soaring sharp peaks get more and more dramatic as you drive up to this cultural wellspring, considered “more Georgian” than the rest of the country.
The delightful and unassuming Phoka Convent of St. Nino just off the roadside on the way to Vardzia has a lovely gift shop where they have tastings of the many varieties of cheese they produce themselves. The convent encompasses gardens, an apiary, a vineyard, and pastures where their animals graze. The Phoka nuns make not only cheese, but honey products from their bees, and chocolates.
While a visit to the Stalin Museum in the dictator’s hometown, Gori, is a one-of-a-kind educational experience, it might be too far away from Tbilisi if you are short on time. If time is an issue for you, you can still gain a clear understanding of the Soviet period in Georgia at the permanent exhibit, “Museum of Soviet Occupation,” at the Georgian National Museum in central Tbilisi.
Georgia: The Inside Scoop
To Everything There is a Season: When to Go
It’s possible to visit year-round, but the best weather is April-mid June and September-October. It’s quite hot in lowlands in mid July and early August, and snowy and cold in the mountains in the winter.
Oh, Snap: Best Photo Opps
Take a day trip up the Georgian Military Highway and start snapping. Also, be sure to capture some photos of the Alazani Valley below the hilltown of Signagi: The view from the balcony of the Kabadoni Hotel is the best.
Shop Savvy: Local Treasures
Check out the textiles at La Maison Blue Craft Studio, a small studio established in 1994 by five artists, where you can watch them do batik dyeing. Don’t miss getting yourself and your friends at home some organic Georgian wine, especially from Pheasant’s Tears Winery. You can find all kinds of natural wines at the Vino Underground in Tbilisi.
Very important: Stock up on sturdy bubble wrap or flight safety bags for all the wine you’re going to want to bring home to family and friends!
Also, women should bring along a head scarf in their purse or daypack. You’ll feel like you fit right in when stepping inside the Orthodox churches.
Oops: Travel Bloopers
Thinking you’re expected to eat everything you’re served – and attempting to! Georgian hospitality decrees that the table must still have lots of food on it when every guest is stuffed. It’s a sign of abundance. A host would be terribly ashamed if her guests ate up everything she gave them; it would mean they were still hungry.
There’s no need to fear arrivals or departures from Tbilisi International Airport (Shota Rustaveli Airport) – it’s new, clean and the only place I’ve ever been where the customs/border patrol agents greet you in true local style: On one memorable occasion, the passport control official said, “Welcome to Georgia,” and handed me a small bottle of the special Saperavi Georgian wine – believe it or not! No visas are required for U.S. citizens, Europeans and many other nations.
Georgia: Where to Eat and Sleep
Hotel Heaven: Tbilisi
- Classic and upscale: The beautiful five star Marriott Tbilisi Hotel is located in the heart of Tbilisi on Rustaveli Avenue, within walking distance of the Parliament, museums, the Opera House and the Rustaveli Theater.
- The relatively new Rooms Hotel is definitely also worth a stay.
- More moderate but excellent: Located right in the city center within walking distance of galleries, gardens, museums and other popular attractions, the four star Marriott Courtyard Hotel offers spacious and comfortable accommodations.
- Boutique hotels are up and coming in Tbilisi as well. Boutique 12 and Vinotel are among my favorites.
Hotel Heaven: Outside the Capital
- Vardzia Resort Hotel: Built on a hillside across from the cave town of Vardzia, the Vardzia Resort is beautifully landscaped, with rock terraces, waterfalls and flowering plants. The timbered restaurant serves regional cuisine, and an outdoor swimming pool with a sweeping view is available for guests.
- Kabadoni Hotel in Signagi: The four star boutique Kabadoni Hotel opened in 2012 and features a restaurant and bar serving Georgian and European cuisine and creative wine selections, a pool, health club, sauna and spa services. Choose a room with a balcony overlooking the Alazani Valley – fantastic! The restaurant has indoor/outdoor seating with spectacular views of the valley, as does their meeting room.
- Black Lion: The trendy Black Lion in Tbilisi is a handsome cellar restaurant found under an alleyway painting of a royal-looking black lion. The food is remarkably eclectic Georgian cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh, local, wild and organic.
- Azerpesha: Tbilisi’s Azerpesha is a chic wine restaurant with a classy interior decorated with old photos and the huge clay wine vessels called qvevri.
- Culinarium: Part cooking school, part restaurant, and part wine-pairing experience, Tbilisi’s Culinarium features innovative Georgian fusion cuisine and an extensive list of natural wines.
- Pheasant’s Tears: This Signagi restaurant serves superb local and organic cuisine. The chef presides over a seasonal menu of savory and surprising dishes, accompanied by the perfect organic Georgian wines.
You can find the warm cheesy bread called khachapuri on nearly every street corner in Tbilisi, and on most dining tables. It’s round like a pizza, but it doesn’t have tomato sauce – only cheese. Lots of cheese. The cheese is folded into the dough, as well as melted on top. It’s a perfect appetizer or a quick meal when you’re too busy to stop for long.
Drink Like a Local
At Tbilisi’s Vino Underground wine bar you can taste and compare the wonderful Georgian wines. The dining menu here has lately expanded as well, so you can experiment with wine pairings and enjoy your wine with a meal, as it is meant to be enjoyed.
Travel to Georgia with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of unmatched destination expertise and travel planning experience, hand-crafting tours to Georgia and the South Caucasus since 1986. Fall in love with this part of the world on MIR’s small group tours to Georgia:
- A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine & Culture
- Treasures of the South Caucasus
- NEW for 2018! Village Traditions of the South Caucasus
You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on one of MIR’s private independent trips or on a private journey of Georgia, customized to your desired dates and style.
Top photo: Pheasant’s Tears Winery co-founder and winegrower John Wurdeman with Annie Lucas and Douglas Grimes (MIR President and Founder)
PUBLISHED: November 11, 2015