Georgia

Abanotubani of Tbilisi

Or simply known as the sulphur bath. It was a fitting end to our last day in Georgia. And is also last (for the time being, that is) in the series of posts on this gorgeous country.

Legend has it that Tbilisi would not have been the new capital had King Gorgasali not discovered these ‘tbili’ or warm springs! Walking towards the sulphur bath, it is not difficult to lose direction because the strong odour of sulphur (un)beckons you. Situated amidst a seemingly quiet residential area, the baths are distinct to look at with tiled domes that rise just above the ground.Abanotubani - sulphur bath dome

With a persian-like architecture, the baths have been the place for many tbilisians to have their cleansing rituals over the decades. I was informed that in earlier times, Georgian homes weren’t equipped to have a bathroom and with the cold weather, people would pay a weekly visit to the Abanotubani to clean themselves!abanotubani persian bath

Did I mention that the cheapest baths are those that are ‘public? That means, be prepared to strip yourself naked (yes, completely) and join the locals going about their routine with a few shy tourists thrown in. Of course, they are gender-separated and if you’d like to have a hot soak along with massage, a cup of tea and lot of gossip (if you speak georgian, that is) then this is the place to be! There are alternate options as well – private baths for couples or specific groups that want to be on their own and the royal bath that is exclusive, includes cushioned furniture & nicer decor and is of course, pricier.

While I mustered enough courage to try the public bath, save some money and attempt to indulge in local banter, the coy husb coerced me into a private bath. Ah, how boring indeed.Abanotubani- sulphur bath

Thankfully, we had no agenda for the rest of the day. Should you visit, do keep in mind that an hour-long bath mandates that a good meal follows and further on, a nice slumber. We visited the abanotubani mid-morning, so enjoyed a long lunch and then went to a local theatre to book tickets for a popular play ‘Stalingrad’. We weren’t too disappointed that it was sold out. It only meant that we could enjoy a brief tbilisian siesta before bidding the city goodbye and heading to the airport.

Abanotubani and stalingrad

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Emma’s Inn

After a wet rainy morning across the Mtsketa-Mtianeti region, we entered a sleepy little town that goes by the name Kazbegi or more popularly Stepantsminda (Stepan being Stephan, a Georgian monk who constructed a hermitage there). The last one hour of our drive was spectacular as we passed by Gudauri, a popular ski resort and soaked in the white view in front of us.

Gergeti Kazbegi

Our B&B owner at Tbilisi had recommended ‘Emma’s Inn’. This wasn’t much of an inn but in fact, the house of a lady who let out a couple of her rooms during spring and summer. Our room was huge and Kazbegi Stepansmindaspacious; it was probably used by her family earlier so wasn’t revamped for an outside guest but nevertheless, comfortable. The downside was a loo that was outhouse which meant I had to walk a few metres in the middle of an icy cold and rainy night to relieve myself! While Emma, who’s real name sounded complexly Russian, did appear intimidating initially (and having the skin of a wolf wrapped around didn’t help matters), she was a graceful host and made extra effort to prepare vegetarian food. Food that was tasty, but with so much oil, that I’d have taken a lifetime to consume that much in my kitchen. Exaggerations apart, I’d recommend this place for a rustic-n-basic but fun experience.

Stepantsminda is best known for trekking around its mountains, the most complex being Mt. Kazbegi at 5047 metres, one of the largest in the region, part located in Russia (The Georgian Military Road to Russia was just around the corner). The more doable one that we targeted was at an elevation of 2179 m and had the famous Gergeti Trinity church atop. After a rainy night, we were glad that the morning after was sunny, or so we thought, and Emma gave us the green signal to go. I’ll be ever thankful for the warm jacket that she compelled me to take; I may have just returned that late afternoon (if I could have made it, that is) with a severe frostbite.

Gergeti Stepansminda church

So off we set, cutting across the sleepy little village and to the base of the mountain. Clearly, I was not as fit as was required of this trek (more so with a sprained ankle from a fortnight before) and 20 minutes into the trek, we were contemplating cutting across the mud path and accessing the road to the mountain, a longer route but one that would take us to the top in a jiffy. To cut a long story short, we decided to put ourselves to test and continued our trek. An hour and half later, we were nearing the church when all of a sudden there was a snowstorm. In hindsight, it was an incredible experience to be amidst a storm on top of a mountain with no one in sight. However at that moment, excited though I was when it started, I could only wait and pray to ol’ St. Stephan for it to subside which it did, 30 minutes later.cross gergeti church

Descending was much easier and an hour later we treated ourselves to a long-awaited lunch at the biggest building in the village – Hotel Kazbegi – that also offered a gorgeous view of snow-capped mountains. The morning after, we hopped into a marshrutkta, stopped in the middle of some more snow clad mountains thanks to a punctured tyre and eventually returned to Tbilisi.

Hotel Kazbegi Stepantsminda

 

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2 capitals, a museum and an inn

After 3 wonderful days in Tbilisi and one around the Kakheti region, we decided to spend a couple of nights amidst the mountains of Gergeti. After a lot of thought, we hired a car (ditching the cheaper but slower marshrutka) so that we could stop en route and check out a couple of local sights.Mtskheta Georgia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day turned out to be wet & rainy but, coming from the desert, didn’t cause us any grief!

jvariStop 1 was Jvari Monastery atop a rocky mountain. This world heritage site has a lot of historical significance but what makes the visit even better is the beautiful view of the town below that goes by the name of Mtskheta.

Which then brought us down to Stop 2, Mtskheta, the erstwhile capital of Georgia. A pretty town completely deserted by the rains which (in my opinion) only accentuated its beauty. With nothing else open, said hello to yet another church, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and wore a skirt to enter (the demands of religions!), listened to a mellifluous chorus of nuns in soprano (me thinks) and rushed back to the car before getting drenched in a downpour.

Stop 3 was another historical ruin, the name of which I have no memory of. However, this was a Bollywoodish-movie setting where I posed and took ample photos before another shower sent us scurrying into the car.

Stop 4 was Gori, the city best (and only) known for being the birthplace of Stalin. We spent a princely sum to enter the Joseph Stalin museum and a stocky long-faced lady showed us around with a wooden cane and gave us a 40 minute lesson on the life history of the communist leader before showing us his fancy little travel tram after which she signed off with a once-in-a-lifetime-smile.

Stalin Gori GeorgiaStop 5 was mandatory. The stomach was growling and though our driver friend recommended a restaurant another hour away, we decided to stop at the next available place. Which turned out to be a small non-descript inn in the middle of nowhere. A group of drunken elderly men were busy with their cha cha and on our arrival, turned their attention to the 2 very distinct looking indians and started singing Raj Kapoor songs (you may recall that he was popular among some of the locals of the erstwhile soviet era). While the food was something I’d avoid mentioning, the company was nothing short of boring. The men not only gave us some country eggs to eat (a post-Easter tradition) but raised a toast to the dead-souls (another tradition) and yet another toast for our well-being!

The last part of our drive was spectacular with the changing scenery and we cha cha-ed our way through to our final destination, Gergeti. More on that soon…

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Stairway to heaven

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One morning, two countries.

Because we visited the David Gareja Monastery.

David Gareja

Little did we realize that the monastery complex, located in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia also shares border with Azerbaijan and has been subject to political and religious dispute (Yeah, tell me something new). Situated on a mountainous slope in Georgia, we could see one of the border cities in the distant horizon with a no-man’s land in between and security bunkers on either side. The drive to David Gareja was long and rickety but totally worth it. The monastery is a structure carved entirely from a rock and set amidst acres and acres of a landscape that is eerily gorgeous. Eerie because, but for the 5 of us, there was not a single person in sight over the 4 hours that we were there and inside the monastery, we just came across just one monk. Who promptly told me that ladies weren’t allowed inside a particular area (which as you guessed, was precisely where we were).

Which then brings me to the 5 of us. While we were at our Tbilisian base, we got talking to an American-Mexican couple and the four of us decided to hire a cab for a day to Kakheti and back. Our driver-cum-guide Giorgio (who spoke nothing but Georgian) was a handsome middle-aged fella who walked all over with us, dined with us, drove us around and didn’t speak a word. In the last leg of the tour, he went to answer nature’s call and came back with a bunch of beautiful wild flowers – just for me – attempting to explain that they were rarely found. It was my turn to be speechless.

Kakheti Sighnaghi

The region of Kakheti is best known for its wines. They even claim that Georgia is now the birthplace for wines (uh oh, I can sense les francaises shaking their heads in dismay). Qveri, or a huge clay jar is where grapes are originally stored underground and aged before they produce delicious organic wine.

That said, we spent a day in Kakheti without a drop of wine.

Kakheti wine

After our morning at David Gareja, we moved into the interior of Kakheti on our way to Signaghi.  We pit-stopped at Bodbe Monastery (Georgians are a religious lot, I tell ya). This is a 4th century monastery and apart from a serene setting is the burial place of the famed St. Nino, revered by most Georgians, who brought Christianity to the region.

Bodbe Monastery Kakheti If there was one regret, it would be to not have spent a night at Sighnaghi. A picture postcard medieval-looking town with cobblestone streets, Italian-styled architecture and huge walls surrounding it that creates an absolutely charming, ‘dont-want-to-leave’ atmosphere. We had a long-winding lunch post which we walked through the town. I had almost narrowed down a nice little shelter to stay for the night but the overpowering love for Tbilisi sent us back.

Sighnaghi

Sighnaghi. They call it love-city for a reason.

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Celebrating Georgian cuisine

I have concluded that one common thread runs across citizens of every country on this planet. They all claim that their cuisine is the best!

And Georgia is no exception to that.

As a vegetarian, I wasn’t expecting much. Though I must admit that the food (along with everything else Georgian) won me over. Stereotypes at work again. Like I assumed a Germany that served only sausages and potatoes, I imagined a Georgia with Russian styled meat soups and vodka. But I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. For a start, Georgians are proud of their chacha – the vodka-equivalent which they proudly gulp at one go. We tried it once and even the husb’s face changed into a zillion expressions in a matter of 3 seconds. So you can imagine how potent that was!

But this is a post about food and unsurprisingly I have liquefied it. Let’s get back on track.

Georgian Easter breakfast

Georgian cuisine, the way I see it, is a wonderful mélange of food from Europe and Asia with Russian influence. The best way to introduce it is through a Khachapuri. The analogy to this is our very own paratha or naan. So this is a bread, the shape and type of which varies depending on the region it is from. The distinct and the must-definitely-try is the Adjarian or Adjaruli Khachapuri. To me, it looks like a ‘yellow eye’ but is more famously known as a love-boat because of its shape; this bread oozes loads and loads of gorgeousness (read calories) with the amount of butter used as well as a raw egg in the centre! If you ever get around to finishing one, you will realise why I emphasised so much about the importance of walking in this country.

Khachapuri

Oh, by the way, I did turn a meat-eater for one meal. The story goes thus: I was told that vegetarian Khinkalis were available (analogy: dumpling/momo). So I happily ordered for some mushroom khinkalis and attempted eating it the georgian way which is to suck out the broth and only after, bite into the whole thing. A couple of days later, over a meal with a Georgian cabbie, I was informed (mockingly, of course) that that there is nothing such as a vegetarian khinkali and the mushrooms were likely to have been cooked in meat broth. Why, thank you very much. End of story.

One very essential and delectable ingredient in georgian cuisine is walnuts. Satsivi or walnut sauce (I find no analogy to this!) is essentially a paste and when smeared on fried slices of eggplant and consumed, can give you a momentary glimpse of heaven.

The other important ingredient is Lobio or Red kidney beans. Cooking this in two popular ways can produce a Lobiani (analogy: rajma paratha) and clay pot-cooked Lobio (rajma dal!). On a day that both of us had an enormous rice craving (georgian food is predominantly bread-based) we found a place that served it and mixed it with steaming hot lobio. Yum!

Lobio - Georgia food

And then there is Tkemali or plum sauce – I loved the tartness and managed to bring back a small bottle of it!

Of course, there is a lot more of Georgian food since i covered only a minuscule vegetarian portion of it. I only know that the Chakhokhbili that the husb had, chicken-and-boiled egg-in-tomato gravy, looked delicious and apparently tasted great too.

Noteworthy among the desserts is Churchkhela – what I thought looked a bit bizarre and assumed to be some type of kebab. It was well toward the end of our trip that I (fortunately) asked a shopkeeper who told me that they were nuts, mainly walnuts, threaded onto a string and dipped into thickened flour and grape juice and finally dried to give a sausage-like appearance (analogy: halwa?). I bought two made of white and red grapes and while I dint fancy the former, loved the latter!

Churchkhela

For more on the cuisine, visit this site I came across.

Recommendation (in Tbilisi):

  • Machakhela (one of the few places that’s open 24/7 and a great place to pass time)
  • Cafe Kala (I thought the place was pricey but nice ambience and has a few more veggie options than the rest)
  • Carrefour – to buy local sauces, yoghurts and chocolates!
  • Not sure about other areas but Kote Abkhazi street had tons of shops selling churchkhela

 

Related posts:

In love with Tbilisi

The where and why of Georgia

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In love with Tbilisi

DSC_5049I did my own little research on Georgia and even before visiting it, decided that I was in love with Tbilisi. Which was weird in a way because, let’s face it, we’re not talking about Paris or Rome here.

The aim was to stay in the city for a couple of days and then move around. We ended up spending 4 of 7 days in Tbilisi! Skadaveli was partly to blame for that. A quirky and exceptionally clean B&B and the only accommodation booked for 2 nights after we landed. We liked it so much that we changed our itinerary based on recommendations from Irakli, the chatty owner. On an unrelated note, I was taken by Georgian names. Like the Gargashvili’s, Tugushi’s and Mukhrani’s. Found them a tad bohemian, like the city!

Birds eye view of Tbilisi

Birds eye view of Tbilisi

If I had to describe Tbilisi in one word, it would be ‘eclectic‘. Because:Tbilisi art

  • we’d be walking on an unpretentious street, chaotic with traffic & vendors selling their wares when suddenly we’d stumble upon quirky avant-garde structures.
  • the locals seemed to have these broad hard appearance but on attempting to make a conversation, they were so wonderfully warm & helpful despite that neither of us spoke the others’ language.
  • there were churches in every nook and corner and invariably people would stop by to pray or walk as they kept their rosaries moving.  However, as the sun set, Tbilisi nightlife was at its best.
  • Tbilisi is interesting in a way that cities in Europe and Asia are not. In a way that I cannot explain (or rather am not explaining well.) Sit outside one of the cafes (I’d recommend ‘Machakhela’) for a couple of hours, dive into a Khachapuri and sip on a Natakhtari, watch the locals, and you’ll know why.

Tbilisi is not a very big city. Best way to see it : WALK WALK WALK

The popular Marshrutka

Marshrutka. This one appears bigger than it actually is!

Here are some of the things we did.

The Bridge of Peace

Peace Bridge

  • Took a marshrutka from the airport. These are mini-buses that are a popular mode of transport among locals and super cheap compared to cabs. Was small and stuffy with closed windows due to a drizzle however was entertained to a Yo-Yo-Honey-Singh song (goodness me, really) from a mobile phone of a Georgian youngster sitting in front of us. He clearly wanted to welcome us. And how!
  • Climbed up the ancient Narikala Fortress and had a lovely view of the city.
  • Strolled past the Peace bridge multiple times wondered what was the idea behind building it. It is LED lit at night and pretty, nevertheless.
  • Trudged uphill to Sameba Cathedral, a definite must-see simply because of its sheer grandeur and size.
  • Used the funicular to go up to Mtatsminda Park (you can even walk but by the end we had gotten lazy). There’s even a huge ferris wheel on top but unfortunately it wasn’t functional being a weekday. We waited until sunset to see the Sameba Cathedral glow. And a surprising cant-miss sight is the TV tower which could give Burj Khalifa a run for its money. (Ok, i’m kidding but it is glitteringly eye-catching)
  • Spent the last morning relaxing at the Sulphur bath.

Simply put, Tbilisi is beautiful. A city that does best to preserve its orthodox christian traditions yet embracing modernity in its own unorthodox fashion.

Take my word(s). Experience this gorgeous city.

Sameba Cathedral - perched a level above the city and spectacular at night

Sameba Cathedral – perched a level above the city and spectacular by night

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The where and why of Georgia

No no, not the north-american state. Georgia, the country.

And if you didn’t pay extra attention to your geography class on Soviet rule or Georgia’s independence in 1991, here’s where it is.

I chanced upon a travel blog of Georgia a couple of years back, looked up all possible flight options and instantly wanted to visit it. I’ve been told that if you really really want something, the outer forces conspire to help you achieve it. Yeah, it actually worked!Georgia Kazbegi

So why Georgia?

  • Visa-on-arrival for Indians in the UAE. There are just a handful of ’em countries that allow us so easily, so make the most of it! Add to this, a cheap direct flight from Dubai and being in the same time zone means no jet-lag, only a tbilisian hangover on return.
  • Cold country. From 38 deg to 8 deg in just 4 hours!
  • Relatively untouched by tourists, especially from Asia (in fact, I was told there were a handful of indian students studying medicine at the local university!) So get ready to Gah-mahr-jobah!
  • Half as cheap as western Europe. A tad cheaper than that.
  • Snow-clad mountains. Vineyards. Churches. Caves. Beaches. And eggplants with walnut paste. What more do you want?!Georgia food

In Brief

7 days of Georgia. 2 of us. And that helped in un-planning and going without a fixed schedule. It also helped that most places were available, April being off-season. We booked accommodation for only 2 nights and off we went. They said 7 days were enough to see all of Georgia. They were wrong. By the end of the week, we had not covered even half the country.

Georgia photoAnd so, our itinerary eventually turned out like this, touching three prominent regions of Georgia:

  • MtskhetaMtiaeti which has the gorgeous gorgeous (yes that was repeated) capital of Tbilisi, the erstwhile capital Mtskheta and the mountainous Kazbegi
  • Kakheti with Sighnaghi as its signature city now positioned as the ‘Love City‘!
  • Shida Kartli that has Gori, a city famous for being the birthplace of Stalin

Georgia castleOverall, the weather was wonderful (and my idea of wonderful is a gloomy chilly 10 deg C), the locals were friendly (though at first instance, they appear to be cold), and the food and drink just adequate to keep us happy. I liked all the little towns and villages but was besotted with Tbilisi, the capital.

A lot more georgian love coming soon!

Georgia Tbilisi

 

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Georgia – First cut

Las Vegas is passé. Tbilisi is the Now.

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The first in a series of upcoming posts on Georgia. You have been warned.

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