Welcome to Georgia!
I loved Georgia the minute I reached the border and 2 custom officials waved me straight through with “Enjoy your visit!” If only they’d handed me a glass of wine it would have been No.1 on my list.
The ride from Sheki, Azerbaijan had been an enjoyable one on good roads, skirting the base of the Caucasus Mountains with great views over the plains below.
I even managed to find a nice piece of gravel track to play on when I diverted north of the M5 in favour of a more direct minor road. I crossed the border into Lagodekhi with no problems whatsoever, and followed the main road south away from the mountains and into Georgia’s wine country and endless vineyards.
Archaeologists have found proof that Georgians have been making wine for around 10,000 years (longer than any other nation), and anyone that’s been making wine for that long has to be OK in my book. I can’t think of anything better than a Sunday ‘Sabre-Toothed Tiger’ Roast washed down with vast quantities of Georgian wine followed by a Mammoth hunt for next week’s dinner.
Although I’m not into religion, I would happily place a Georgian cross around my neck, mainly because theirs is made from grape vines and brings you good luck in choosing the right wine. Having said that, you’d be unlucky to find a terrible wine, because all the Georgian wines I tasted were delicious. And strangely, the more you taste, the more delicious they become; Halleluiah!
Wine is such an integral part of the Georgian lifestyle, they even have a famous hymn called ‘Thou Art a Vineyard’. I agree totally, and if I had to convert, their wine religion would certainly be favourite.
I don’t usually go out of my way to find a guide in new places, but when I arrived in the capital of Tbilisi I thought I needed one for 2 reasons:
- I quite happily sup beer on my own, but Georgia has a huge variety of delicious wines that must be sampled, and drinking wine is a sport for two.
- I’d need someone to guide me back to my guesthouse after all the wine supping in part 1) above.
This is where the wonders of social media come to the fore, and in Tbilisi I was lucky on two counts: I found a great, cheap hostel with fantastic staff, and I also found an amazing guide.
Tbilisi Classic Hotel
Tbilisi Classic Hotel was a good find. It was cheap, clean, well located and flawlessly run by Shiad from Pakistan with the help of young Mr James from India. Both were fantastic people and couldn’t do enough for their guests to make them feel at home and comfortable. James even helped me by filming the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ I’d been nominated for by 3 people – all done in the best possible taste for a great cause, of course.
The hotel was situated a short walk from the city centre, surrounded by fresh fig trees (I love figs!), apple trees, grape vines and an assortment of other fruit and vegetables. It was like living in the ‘fruit n veg’ section at Tescos, and was a great place to spend 4 days relaxing and exploring the sights.
Tbilisi is a beautiful capital city. It was founded on the Mtkvari River in the 5th century when it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Iberia, and it now has a population of roughly 1.5 million (almost a third of Georgia’s entire population).
Fate had matched me up with Mari, a fun, friendly and knowledgeable local to show me around this picturesque, scenic and lively city. Mari wanted someone to practice her English with, and I wanted a guide, so it worked out to be a perfect partnership (except now she speaks with a rooomantic Naarwich accent).
Mari took me just about everywhere, including a trip up in a cable car up to see the city’s symbol – the Kartlis Deda, a 23m high aluminium woman symbolising the Georgian national character: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine.
After a morning walking around the city, it was time for lunch and my first foray into the magical world of Georgian wine, under the watchful eye of my chaperon.
A bit more about Georgian Wine, in case you’re interested
Georgia has an ideal climate for producing fine wines, namely plenty of sun, heat and water. Many of the best Georgian wines are produced in an area called Kakheti in the east, which I had ridden through on my bike.
If you think you’ve tasted most types of wine, but haven’t tried Georgian wine, then you are in for a shock. For thousands of years Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside double-walled clay jugs called Kvevri to undergo fermentation at ground temperature. Sometimes wines are left buried for decades (when people forgot where they buried them?), but also wines can be produced much quicker in a number of months. I liked most of the wines I tried, but my favourite was one Mari introduced me to – a delicious bottle of Kindzmarauli from Teliani Valley.
Although the second largest wine producer in the former Soviet Union (after Moldova), Georgian wine is pretty scarce in the UK, as most of it is exported to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. However, it is well worth seeking out. I found it to be incredibly fruity and tangy (in my expert wine-speak), I assume the result of burying it in the ground and also commonly keeping the grape skins on. Keeping the skins on after the crush also imparts a unique colour into Georgian wines, and often the whites almost appear orange or rose, which went well with the shirt I was wearing.
Back on Tour
Mari was fun to be with, and also liked laughing at my strange accent, so we both got on well and she didn’t have to run away after the first 10 minutes with some excuse (as she said she’d had to do on several previous occasions post-meeting tourists she’d offered to show around).
Mari even took me on a bus ride several miles outside the city to a small 3,000 year old city called Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While we were there, we thought we’d venture back through the years and took a horse and carriage ride through the old city and around the 11th century impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
Then we thought we’d better get some more wine in.
The evening is a great time to take a wonder around old Tbilisi town. The array of colourful lights is mesmerizing, and there is a lively buzz from the crowds of locals and tourists wondering around the bars and restaurants enjoying the good food and good wine. What more could you ask for?
There was even a musical dancing fountain.
Summary, if you need one
Before I came to Georgia I knew very little about it. What I have discovered is a little known treasure, certainly amongst many people in the UK. In summary, if you are into your wine, then put Georgia near the top of your list – immediately. It is a beautiful country full of beautiful people, cheap, cheerful and just waiting to be discovered.