During one of those brainless moments of endless facebook feed scrolling we all have nowadays, I came across an interesting article. The title was suggestive: “Guinness World Records – Oldest wine was made in Georgia”. As a fan of curiosities that add absolutely nothing to my life, but in turn take property of some memory storage space in my brain, I kept on reading.
“Chemical evidence of wine, dating back to 6000–5800 BC (the early Neolithic period), was obtained from residues of ancient pottery excavated in the archeological sites of Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, about 50 km south of Tbilisi in Georgia.”
During my time there, it became pretty clear that drinking was an important part of Georgian culture. I just didn’t know it was also the Birthplace of wine.
My trip to Georgia might have been one the most random ones I have done in my life. Just like the fun facts I like to commit to memory. A friend from there suggested I should go and experience his country. And so I did.
I had cheap flights to Tbilisi from Prague, and that was how I came to know Georgian Airlines and the incredible country they provide access to. I was the only non-Georgian in the plane. The other three passengers were a family from Kutaisi. Turns out that a boarding that lasts five minutes, lots of free room for cabine luggage and a dead silence throughout the entire flight are some of the perks of choosing non-touristy destinations to go on holidays.
You can see the hospitality of Georgians as soon as you step on Tbilisi’s airport , where big blue letters let you know from the beginning that, no matter your imperfections or your sins, Tbilisi is “the city that loves you”.
Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, is a city of contrasts. Unpaved roads and old buildings with wooden balconies falling apart stand together with modern tall buildings with electronic billboards on their facades. A place lost in the boundaries of past and future.
It took me ages to find my hostel, as it was hidden in a dark alley of a dirt road. When I finally got there my boots were more dirty than when I go hiking. The hostel was warm and cozy and quite an experience in itself. The owner, a friendly old man that would sit by the window all day with a glass of wine that was never empty, seemed very enthusiastic about finally meeting someone from Portugal (“the land of wine and fado” as he described it). I didn’t even have time to carry the bag into my room and I was already sitting at the kitchen table, sharing life stories with him over a glass of Georgian wine. A couple of hours later, I was officially part of the multicultural family that was staying at the hostel. There was a French girl that had stopped there on her way to Vietnam to reunite with the love of her life, an American guy on a world-trip that would last for a couple of years, a Russian girl all “peace and love” that sometimes invaded the hostel’s living room to host a yoga class or a tea-tasting event, and a French old man that spent the days (and nights!) coughing and sneezing with a cold.
The French girl, that was already familiar with the city, took me for a night walk and a drink at her favourite bar, Warszawa. The city was lovely by night, as each wooden balcony was illuminated in a different colour. And it wasn’t less pretty during the day, as I would soon find out.
The Bridge of Peace, a steel and glass pedestrian bridge over the Kura River, is one of my favourite bridges in the world. I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting to find something THAT beautiful in such a remote place. After crossing it to the other side of the old historical part of the city, I took a long walk by the river in the company of a stray dog that chose me as his friend for the day. There is a large number of street dogs running around in Tbilisi, but they all have a tag on their ear stating they have had their rabies shot. To me, this was a positive detail, but if you are afraid of dogs you might have to change your holiday plans. Dogs are something you simply can’t avoid in Tbilisi, unless you hide in your accommodation and miss all the wonderful things this city has to offer. My advice? Be brave and make a new canine friend to guide you through the streets he knows so well.
Another enchanting fact about Tbilisi: it is a dream city for bookworms like myself, since it is full of bookshops and cafes where you can read a book in peace. I spent an entire afternoon at The Book Corner, a glass cube-shaped cafe by the river, close to the Dry Bridge, from where I could see people picking free books from wooden stalls extending along the riverbank.
Food is amazing in Georgia, I lost track of how many times I ordered vegetables or meat (mostly chicken) cooked in barbecue style. Even the various soups they serve are delicious. And cheap! My advice: don’t go to Tbilisi if you are on a diet.
My Georgian friend took me out for dinner in a sweet attempt to show me some traditional food, not being aware that by that time I had already tried most of Georgian’s gastronomic offer. But he managed to show me something new and delicious, Khinkali (the Georgian version of Chinese dumplings), at a cozy restaurant with live traditional music. During the entire evening, I bombed him with questions about his country, to which he patiently answered, giving me loads of information about the history and way of living in Georgia. He told me about their drinking culture, and how wine was closely associated with food, since supra (a gathering with food and drink) was a core part of Georgian culture. A supra can be formal or informal, happy or sad. Or it may just be a group of Georgian friends celebrating the fact that they are alive that day. Every supra has a toastmaster, called the tamada, that is usually the person responsible for an opening speech that ends with emptying all the wine glasses around the table, and for the other toasts that follow, until they were drunk enough to fall asleep on the table (and this description is not so exaggerated as you might be thinking right now…). After dinner, we celebrated my visit with a shot of Chacha, the traditional distilled spirit made with the mash left over from wine production.
Hoping to burn some of the calories I was definitely eating in excess, I went up the Sololaki hill to meet Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia, and to appreciate the view of Tbilisi from the same angle as this twenty-metre aluminium woman. Kartlis Deda holds a bowl of wine in her left hand to greet those who come as friends, and a sword in her right hand for those who come as enemies.
Religion is also an important part of a Georgian’s life. Several orthodox churches are scattered throughout the city, being the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi the biggest and most impressive one. Visits to churches were interdict during the mass, and so I waited patiently to enter most of them, which gave me the feeling that the locals spent way too much time of their lives in church.
The Leaning Tower of Tbilisi is one of the city’s most unusual buildings. With a bizarre structure that seems to be at risk of falling at any moment, this tower bears an old-fashioned golden clock and it could easily be part of the nonsense fantasy world that Alice finds herself in, in Lewis Carrol’s novel.
The name Tbilisi (meaning “warm location”) was given to the city because of the area’s numerous sulphuric hot springs. Abanotubani, an ancient district at the foot of Narikala fort, is an important historic part of the city. It is where, according to the legend, King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting and shot a pheasant, and then sent his falcon to find the prey. The falcon flew away, and after a while, the king lost sight of him. In search of the birds, Vakhtang Gorgasali with his hunters ended up finding out that both the falcon and the pheasant got into hot waters. Amazed with this find Vakhtang decided to found here the new capital of Georgia (that was previously Mtskheta).
Before leaving, I made sure I didn’t miss one of the famous Saturday morning flea markets and I ended up spending the whole morning there.
Exceeding all my expectations, Tbilisi enchanted me in many ways. I cannot wait to go back and discover more of its cafes, taste more of its delicious food and, maybe and if I am lucky, be invited for a supra.
Wishing everyone safe travels,