by Allison Furlong
Some aren’t big on first impressions, believing it takes a long time to truly get to know a country. But when I left the immigration line of the Tbilisi airport with a complementary bottle of red wine from the Georgian government, I somehow knew I was home.
Tbilisi, the bustling capital of just over a million, has an arty European charm with a gritty Soviet twist. Although possessing a complex history, you can’t help but sense a slight quirkiness as you walk along its cobblestone streets. Maybe it’s the funicular making its way through the centre of town, local men playing backgammon under shaded trees or the cheap “34” beer rivaling Vancouver microbrews yet costing a buck. Whatever the reason, you can’t help but get a sense that you’re visiting this charming city at the right time, pre-mass tour busses and drunken backpackers.
Georgians are quite a hearty bunch. Having survived centuries of invasions by neighboring countries, they’ve still managed to preserve their unique culture, heritage, language and cuisine – a feat the locals are very proud of, and rightly so. This is even reflected in their local language with hello – miesalmebi – literally meaning “victory to you”.
And many victories they have won, with the wine category being no exception. Georgia is renowned for its unique 8,000 year old wine-making method. Using clay pots called kvevris that are buried in the ground, this technique makes for a pleasurably distinct taste. Numisi Wine Cellar in the Gurjaani region is a lovely choice, with the building itself a monument and museum to wine-making. Be sure to dine on site, sampling the local varities of red and white wine as well as cha-cha, Georgian vodka, if so desired. The bill for 4 people came to 40 lari (or about 20 Canadian dollars)
Georgian food is distinctly unique and often prepared and eaten in very specific ways (evidently, with a love for all things carbohydrates). Traditional bread called tonis puri is stuck on the side of a cylindrical oven and baked, served incredibly hot with tart local cheeses.
Khachapuri, arguably the national dish of Georgia, consists of a large bread bowl containing cheese topped with a raw egg and butter. You rip it apart at the sides and use it to stir the egg and mix the butter. Khinkali is a Georgian dumpling usually filled with meat. It’s very taboo to eat the dumpling tops but they’re great for holding the dumpling while you suck the juice out, being careful not to spill the juices inside (also taboo). For dessert try churchkhela, a traditional sausage-shaped candy that’s really just nuts covered in fruit juice.
If you’re lucky, you’ll share a large meal with a Georgian. If you’re even luckier, you’ll experience a supra. A supra is meal that’s led by a toastmaster called a tamada, a sort of guru of Georgian toasts. This person must be eloquent, observant and able to ingest liters upon liters of Georgian wine without appearing intoxicated. During the meal, the tamada will propose a toast and then speak about the selected topic. Some popular themes include toasts to God, Georgia, love, family and so on. Be prepared to sometimes finish your entire glass at once. In my case, to love.
And love was indeed on my mind, having just paid a visit to Sighnaghi – city of love – a quaint town of 2,000 about 100 kilometres southeast of Tbilisi. With its breathtaking views and quaint, medieval charm, it certainly shouldn’t be missed.
The Sighnaghi Museum is a great little find in the centre of town, showcasing many original works of Niko Pirosmani, a famous Georgian painter. Pirosmani was born in the Georgian village of Mirzaani. In April 1918 he died malnutrition and liver failure due to alcoholism with his paintings never garnering fame until his death.
But no trip to Georgia would be truly complete without a visit to a bathhouse.
Abanotubani – the bath district of Tbilisi – is filled with dome-shaped roofs and elaborately tiled bathhouses. Legend has it that in the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali found his falcon in Tbilisi’s sulfuric waters. He was so impressed he ordered the capital to be moved, which he named Tbilisi, based on the Georgian word “tbili,” which means “warm.”
For a country with a violent history, its colourful and indeed “warm” people, are anything but.