In September this year in a bid to escape the summer heat we spent 5 amazing days in Georgia. It was definitely not what I had expected although everyone we have met who has been there raved about it. Despite that, in some ways it was exactly the way I pictured it although it is a country that defies being neatly pigeonholed and I suspect that we have barely scratched the surface of this fabulous part of the world.
We landed in its capital Tbilisi just before 5 am. It was windy and cool after the searing summer temperatures of Saudi. After picking up local SIM cards and our 4wd Pajero we headed for the city. After a short nap – the days start late here – we decided to get out and explore as the forecast was for later in the day. We walked across the bridge and into the Old Town and found coffee and our first taste of khachapuri a type of bread shaped like gondola and filled with cheese and egg or in our case wild mushrooms. We sat on a balcony in the sun staring out over a busy square where we watched people going about their day. Taxi drivers and tour guides touting, women will bags of market produce walking the steep hills. I loved sitting in amongst the buzz of it. Not much goes on outside in Saudi and certainly not many women wander around the streets, and there is no colour beyond black and white either so this time spent people watching is always something I enjoy when I am out of the Kingdom. We also found ourselves surreptitiously watching the other diners of whom a surprising number had either beer or wine on their tables…it was 9.30am.
Fortified with carbs we meandered around the old town taking in buildings in danger of falling at any moment, little balconies, potholed streets, beautiful churches and small gardens. Grape vines with bunches of near ready white or red grapes, fig trees, kitchen gardens or just a few pots full of herbs were growing in profusion in this old part of town. It was a little like Russia meeting Beirut. Art, graffiti, flowers, cats and churches but with a reservation in the people. No easy smiles for strangers even in a touristic part of town.
Above Tbilisi stands Mother Georgia. She holds a large bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. To me she is so symbolic of this country. If you are a friend you are welcomed with wine and if you are a foe, of which there have been many over its 8000-year history, you will be met with a sword. They are fierce, proud, bossy and argumentative. You need to be all of those things to hang onto your culture so strongly when you live in a land that marks the crossroad between North and South and East and West.
As the day warmed up we meandered through the city streets to reach the Dry Bridge Markets. This is a daily market where people come to sell all sorts of things, laying them carefully out on blankets, under old trees in a city park ready to sell to the locals and tourists alike. You can find a vast array of novel and just plain strange items. Soviet era gadgetry such as helmets and gas masks, buttons, badges, guns and swords and bullets casings lie in amongst cutlery, crockery, chandeliers, art work, old pots, clothing and bric-a-brac. Samovars stand on the bonnets of cars, Nepali jewellery on low tables vying for attention in amongst some home-made felt that is disturbingly mid 70’s kitsch. Men drink beer, wine and cha cha (a local firewater made from the remains of the wine production), which they decant into squat glasses from recycled coke bottles. They eat and laugh together whilst playing backgammon and the real business of trade looks to be forgotten in the camaraderie of it all. A homeless woman wanders at will through the market yelling at random people and they take it all in their stride.
We picked up a few treasures although not enough to satisfy me! I think Rick was glad of our policy of hand luggage only on this trip or we would have spent the next 4 days lugging around 10 kilos of soviet silver plated cutlery, at the very least. I did spend a while trying to figure out how to get some stunning old (and very large) pots back home.
Hungry for some interesting food I walked across town to the totally gorgeous, funky, new Rooms Hotel to have lunch. I had been wanting to eat in the garden however it was simply too hot so I sat in the cool dining room whilst I waited for Rick who was having a massage (Always his first priority anywhere we go! In Georgia where most massages are from burly men in the old sulphur baths he was lucky to find a spa more to his taste!). The restaurant was modern and filled with timber, white tablecloths and waiters with perfect English. It was just so cool. Like a mix of Danish mid-century and Montana ranch meeting in a way that is also totally Georgian.
Funky shops, cafes and art house restaurants with nightly jazz sit between the usual tourist traps.
The food and wine are seriously good. Beyond the usual good. Georgia has the best growing environment with an abundance of heat in summer, rain, snow melt, rivers and streams for irrigation and the Caucasus mountains providing good pasture for animals. Their food and wine traditions stretch back to 8000 years with the earliest evidence of winemaking coming from Georgia and Armenia.
We found a fabulous place that had just opened called the Wine Buffet. We sat on a tiny balcony for 2 and were educated and entertained by the totally lovely staff. We drank wine and ate smoked cheese, wine marinated cheese, string cheese and crumbly tart cheese – all locally produced. We hadn’t been here for 24 hours and I was in love (yet again).
The sky darkened and dusk fell as the lights of the fort above the city came on. Every church was lit up. The moon shone down on us. The evening was warm. Perfect really.
Next episode I will tell you about our trip to the mountains and visiting the wineries and driving with the locals up a goat track. Stay tuned!