You may have noticed that we’ve been posting a lot of “10 Things…” lately. This is partially because we are traveling through countries more quickly now, but also because we got behind and have been making up for it. We’re planning to go back to write more posts about the countries we’ve been to lately, but in the meantime here is “10 Things… Georgia!”
Welcome to Georgia!
1. Musical Georgia
As you can see in the video, the juxtaposition of new and old is on full display in Georgia. The country is moving fast into the future and attracting more international tourists than ever before. However, Georgian traditional values remain strong, and even the younger generation is very proud of their cultural heritage. For those wondering: yes, men do wear those outfits on formal occasions, yes, many men and women can sing and dance like that, and yes, they still make wine and bake bread using some of the traditional methods shown in the video.
Georgians are a very musical people, and they have a rich cultural tradition of song and dance. The most interesting form of Georgian singing is polyphonic singing, where a group of singers, typically men, will combine their voices together to create a harmonious melody. Many times when we were dining at a restaurant, there would be a live band playing traditional music, or a group of diners at another table would spontaneously break into a traditional Georgian song. Music and singing are also ubiquitous at the Georgian supra (feast).
Georgian traditional dance is amazing as you can see from the first video. The style is a combination of ballet, riverdance, and square dancing all mixed together. The men in particular absolutely fly across the dance floor, leaping, twirling, and tip-toeing in their traditional garb. The traditional men’s formal outfit is a dark-colored uniform called a chokha, and it is commonly worn at festivals and weddings, even today. A unique feature of the chokha are the ceremonial bullet casings displayed in a row across the breast, symbolizing that the Georgian man is always ready for battle. We only got to see a live dance performance once, but it was absolutely mesmerizing.
2. Come Ready to Drink Wine and Cha-Cha!
Georgians claim to have invented wine making and — because they have been making wine using the same traditional method for over 8,000 years — it is hard to argue with them. Georgia has over 300 varieties of grapes that are unique to Georgia, but only 38 are widely cultivated for wine making such as Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white). Georgians have been making wine using the traditional qvevri method for thousands of years. A qvevri is a large clay vessel that is buried underground and used for fermentation. Traditionally, the grapes would be stomped on by men in a large wooden trough, and all of the juice, skins, and seeds would be transferred to the qvevri. The qvevri must be stirred every day to promote fermentation, and in as little as six months, highly drinkable wine can be made. Georgian wine is famous in the region for its quality and unique terroir. We found that the qvevri wine had a different taste compared with wine stored in oak barrels.
The relationship between Georgians and their wine is an intimate one, and as many Georgians will tell you, it is in their blood. Many Georgian families make their own homemade wine and will keep it stored in large jugs around the house. Georgians also take their wine drinking seriously. You will rarely see Georgians pour wine from a 750 ml glass bottle. Instead, when it is time to drink wine, Georgians will bring huge plastic jugs full of wine out of the basement and pour the wine into gallon-sized pitchers. Georgians claim that because their wine making process is all-natural, and there are no additives of any kind, you can drink massive quantities of wine without getting too drunk or feeling hungover the next day. Some people we met professed to drinking over a gallon of wine in one sitting!
Related to Georgians love of wine, is another popular alcoholic beverage called cha-cha. Cha-cha is essentially grape vodka. After the winemaking process is complete, the leftover skins and residue are distilled into cha-cha. Cha-cha is traditionally homebrewed, although now some wine labels produce their own brand of cha-cha, and it can reach up to 60% alcohol so it packs a punch. Cha-cha, like wine, is another thing you can’t avoid if you are traveling in Georgia. One of our guesthouse owners sent us on our way with a plastic bottle filled with his homemade cha-cha and one time while Tarick was at a cheese shop in Tbilisi, the shop owner offered him several glasses of cha-cha “on the house” while he was tasting different kinds of Georgian cheese.
3. The Supra and The Tamada
The Georgian supra (feast) is an important part of Georgian culture. A supra can be as small as an intimate group of friends or as large as a wedding feast. Georgians are very social eaters and will take any excuse to turn a small gathering into an impromptu supra. The supra usually takes place at a long banquet table, piled high with delicious Georgian food and many pitchers of wine. There are various rituals associated with the supra, but none more important than the tamada.
The tamada is the designated toastmaster and leader of the supra table. A good tamada must be eloquent, well-versed in history and poetry, and have a good read on the mood of the table. During the meal, the tamada will propose numerous toasts and all guests must maintain silence until he or she is finished. After the tamada is finished with each toast, there is an opportunity for the other guests to chime in with follow up toasts related to the tamada’s original toast. After each round of toasting is finished, the tamada will instruct everyone to drain their glass of wine. Then, everyone will eat while their glasses are refilled and await the next toast. The tamada will control the pace of the toasting and drinking, sprinkling in other entertainment such as singing or dancing, so that the guests stay attentive. The tamada must be able to hold their alcohol well, because they drain their glass of wine after each toast and have to remain intelligible for the entire night.
If you visit Georgia, you might find yourself pulled into a supra as we did. The guesthouse we were staying at in Sighnaghi happened to be commemorating the 1-year anniversary of the death of the owner’s father and patriarch of the guesthouse, Lado. The whole family was there for the supra, along with the neighbors and other hotel guests. As soon as we arrived, we were invited to join the supra without hesitation. At first we weren’t sure when the supra would be happening as people were just milling around the empty courtyard, but like magic a long table and chairs appeared, piled high with food and wine, and the supra began. Lado’s son-in-law Vaco performed the role of tamada and we began by going around the table with toasts remembering what a great man Lado was, and how he loved tourists and making people feel at home. The afternoon progressed with more toasts dedicated to friendship, family, Georgia, and so on. At one point Vaco and his daughters even played a song for us. By the end of the evening we had drank a considerable amount of homemade wine and eaten near to bursting. We felt very fortunate to be part of this intimate family supra, and we were sad we could not have met Lado himself as he sounded like a great man.
4. Guests are a Gift from God
There is a Georgian saying that, “a guest is a gift from God.” This is a feeling you can’t help but experience from the moment you set foot in Georgia. The people of Georgia pride themselves on being extremely welcoming and hospitable to visitors, tourists, and guests. A common story we heard was that this sentiment came about after spending centuries as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, as well as being sporadically conquered by nearly every empire in the region for the past 2,000 years. Amazingly, Georgian culture has remained strong and withstood dilution by numerous other cultural influences throughout its history. Despite the fact that Georgia today is an overwhelmingly Christian nation, they pride themselves on peaceful coexistence with people of all religions.
We definitely felt the love when we were in Georgia. People routinely went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable, well-fed, and happy. Not only at the various small family-run guesthouses in the countryside, but also at restaurants and shops throughout the country. Often we would be asked by Georgians how we are enjoying their country, and when we responded by effusively praising their food, culture, and hospitality they would be very pleased. People are extremely willing to share what they have with guests. Several times we were given homemade wine or spirits, and even when we showed up to a busy restaurant without a reservation we were offered a seat near the kitchen among the stored herbs, vegetables, and pickles. Another time, at a family-run guesthouse in the countryside, we spent the evening in the cramped kitchen with the family, sharing wine and stories until late.
Georgia is a small country that is relatively unknown to Western tourists, but we don’t have enough positive things to say about Georgian people and their hospitality. We highly recommend that everyone go see for themselves this welcoming and fascinating country.
5. Old Tbilisi’s Falling Down, Falling Down…
Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, and it is practically oozing with history. The historic part of town, Old Tbilisi, is famous for its charming, artistic, and slanted atmosphere. History comes alive as you walk through the meandering, hilly, cobblestone streets between the historic buildings. Unfortunately, wandering through Old Tbilisi you quickly find that the line between historic and structurally unstable can be a fine one.
Tbilisi was founded around the year 500 AD, but most of the buildings in Old Tbilisi were built in the 19th century. In 1785, the city was destroyed by invading Persians who wanted to punish Georgia — who they had exercised influence over for 300 years — for making an alliance with Russia.
Building maintenance was neglected during the communist era, when residents did not feel personal obligation for upkeep of their own residences. Economic instability since the fall of the Soviet Union hasn’t done it any favors. Add in a moderate earthquake (M4.8) in 2002, and perhaps it’s not too surprising how things look now.
The charm of Old Tbilisi attracts travelers to stay and explore there, despite the safety concerns. This brings investment into the area, but many owners do piecemeal renovations to address just one part of a larger building. These renovations do not address the overall structural issues of these buildings. Shoring is visible in a few places around town, but not as common as you would hope when you see how close some brick walls are to falling outward onto the sidewalk. For many years, the government has offered incentives to repair the old buildings, but walking around now you wouldn’t guess it.
6. Sulfur Hot Springs
Georgia is a very geologically active country, and in Tbilisi the hot water is coming right out of the ground! The name Tbilisi literally means “warm place” and was given to the city because of the numerous sulfur hot springs. The district of Abanotubani in Tbilisi is famous for its hot spring baths. Legend has it that the hot springs were discovered when King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Iberia was out hunting with his falcon, and upon catching a pheasant both birds plummeted into a pool of hot water and died. The King took this as an auspicious sign, and founded Tbilisi on the spot where the birds fell. The falcon has since become the symbol of Tbilisi. Today, you can see brick-domed bathhouses lining either side of the Abanotubani Gorge
Of course, being the hot spring lovers that we are, we visited the baths several times. As you approach the bathhouses, the overpowering smell of sulfur fills the air. There are many establishments to choose from, and most have public as well as private baths. You can rent private rooms by the hour, and the rate is quite affordable. We were shocked by the quality of the private rooms. Inside was a huge open space, with marble floors and benches, tile mosaics, and separate hot and cold pools. One of the private rooms we rented could have accommodated 10 people easily. There was also a dressing room, shower room, and bathroom apart from the bathing area. Bathing in the hot springs felt amazing and afterward our legs felt like jelly walking back home. If you feel too drained after the sulfur bath, all of the bathhouses offer tea and snacks on the patio outside.
7. Strained Relationship with Russia
The modern history of Georgia is interwoven with Russia’s, though today the two countries would be better described as entangled. Georgia was annexed by Russia in 1801, and aside from a brief period of independence following the Russian Revolution, it was not independent again until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. From 1921 until 1991, Georgia was the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Soviet Union’s most infamous leader, Stalin, was actually Georgian — there is even a popular museum dedicated to him in Gori.
Since Georgia became independent in 1991, Russia has made a habit of pushing Georgia’s buttons, with flare-ups in tensions conveniently timed with attempts by Georgia to join NATO and the European Union, as if to send the message “Don’t you dare”. Russia meddles via two territories that are recognized by most of the world as part of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These two territories have both expressed the desire to be independent states, and there were violent wars fought over both of them in the 90’s. You may also recognize the names of these places from a news cycle in 2008, during which a five day war was fought between Russia and Georgia over them. That war ended with Russia formally recognizing them as independent states for the first time, though ironically this recognition of independence involved Russia taking control over those areas themselves. Currently, Russia administers, financially supports, and defends both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They even provide passports and administer the borders. Abkhazia is known for its Black Sea riviera (and the deepest cave in the world), and most of its economy comes from Russians visiting as tourists. In recent years, Russia has started to “creep” the border further into Georgia’s territory.
The Georgians we met did not hide their anger towards Russia for occupying South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They feel as though Russia does not respect their sovereignty and bullies them in order to spoil their chances of joining the EU and NATO.
If you were to visit Georgia without knowing anything beforehand, you would actually be pretty surprised to find out that Georgia is not in the EU or NATO, because they have EU flags up all over the place!
Knowing all this, you’d probably expect that you’d be hard pressed to find Russians in Georgia, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite a flight ban instituted by Putin this year, the majority of tourists in Georgia are from Russia. There is still friendliness between Georgians and Russian tourists, and recognition that regular people are not the same as their government, which is especially true for Putin’s Russia (and Trump’s America). That said, Georgia is making a concerted effort to attract tourists from Europe in order to make themselves less sensitive to the whims of the Russian government.
8. King (Queen) Tamar the Great
Georgia’s most popular king was actually a queen named Tamar. She was so well loved by her people that they gave her the title of King Tamar, supposedly as a great honor. King Tamar was the first woman to rule Georgia as the sole head of state, and she reigned during the most prosperous period in Georgian history, known as the Georgian Golden Age (1184 to 1213 AD). During this time, the Kingdom of Georgia reached its greatest extent, encompassing much of present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan, and had vassal states in areas of present-day Turkey and Russia. Under King Tamar’s leadership, Georgia became an economic center in the region and Georgian culture and art flourished. Today she is romanticized as a heroic female figure and a symbol of Georgian prosperity.
9. The Caucasus Mountains
Georgia is blessed with a beautifully diverse landscape: beaches on the Black Sea to the west, idyllic river valleys full of vineyards in the east, a small desert near the border with Azerbaijan, and the jewel in the crown of Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus Mountains run along the northern border with Russia and the tallest peak is Mt. Elbrus 5,642 m (18,510 ft).
Another famous peak in the Caucasus Mountains is Mt. Kazbek 5,054 m (16,581 ft), which towers above the town of Kazbegi (now called Stepantsminda), in northern Georgia. Stepantsminda is a popular tourist site and we visited for 3 days during our travels in Georgia. The most popular activity is to hike to the Gergeti Trinity Church, which has breathtaking views of the town and Mt. Kazbek. We were lucky that in the days leading up to our trip to Kazbegi, it dumped snow on the mountains, but by the time we arrived we had clear blue skies and sunshine the whole time, making for some excellent photo opportunities. The fresh snow did make for an adventurous hike up the mountain, though.
10. Saint Nino’s Cross
Saint Nino is the patron saint of Georgia who converted the country to Christianity in 326 AD. The story goes that she was visited by the Virgin Mary in a dream, who told her to go out and spread the word of God to Iberia (present day eastern Georgia). Mary told her to make a cross from grape vines and tie it together with her hair. Due to the crooked shape of the grape vines, the cross has a slightly skewed shape and the horizontal limbs are pointed downwards at an angle. This distinctively-shaped grapevine cross became the symbol of Saint Nino and can be seen everywhere in Georgia today.
Saint Nino is Georgia’s most beloved religious figure, and we found her image quite charming as well. She is always depicted with a serene and impassive expression, and the grapevine cross is too perfect for a nation that loves wine as much as Georgia. Nino is also the most popular girls name in Georgia. After her death in 332 AD, St. Nino was buried at Bodbe Monastery, which we visited during our trip to Khaketi.
Wait… What About Khachapuri!?
Don’t worry my friends, we did not forget about the wonders of Georgian Cuisine, or the most famous of cheesy breads: khachapuri. All of that will be coming soon in a separate blog post!