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13 April 2014

Georgia on My Mind: A Tour of Georgia's Capital, Tbilisi (Part 1)


I have to be honest with you. Almost a year ago, when I first encountered the word Georgia, my first thought was the U.S. state then when I Googled it, I remembered that yes, there is a country named Georgia. I'm not really proud of my lack of knowledge but ask me now and I can tell you proudly where and how Georgia is. And I can also tell you how this country and its people touched my heart.  It's also the place where I learned what real hospitality means, to be treated well and to feel connected to life, food and wine.


Let me recount to you what I experienced in Georgia in two posts. Having so many information, stories and pictures to share, I thought I should divide my Georgian experience to 2 posts dedicated to the capital, Tbilisi and to the wine region, Kakheti. 



I stayed there for exactly 9 days with the International Wine Tourism Conference and the media trips before and after the conference. We stayed in the capital before and during the wine conference then we moved to Kakheti, an important wine producing region of the country. The whole trip was sponsored primarily by the Georgian National Tourism Administration and Georgian National Wine Agency.


I arrived in Tbilisi very early in the morning, while it was still dark, so my first glimpse of the city from the airport to Tbilisi Marriott Hotel was the quietest time of the place. Arriving in new places at an odd hour gives me the the possibility to absorb every single detail of the city without distractions. It's a very different perspective in seeing a new place, devoid of cars and people, with the monuments lighted up, especially the Narikala Fortress standing so majestic on the hilltop, overlooking the city and the Kura (Mtkvari) River. I knew that by daylight, this will be totally  different with more vibrancy and life. And I couldn't wait to see Georgia when it wakes up.


 
I had a full day all to myself when I got there so I had a walk along Rustaveli Avenue towards Freedom Square where the bronze & gold St. George Statue is up on a tall column that commemorates the freedom and independence of Georgia. I passed by the Parliament Building, the Georgian National Museum, some shops and I also went through the underground pedestrian crossings. I have a certain distrust on underground tunnels especially when I am alone so it took me time to go down the steps and what I saw actually put a smile on my face. Tbilisi's underground crossings actually function as a mini commercial space with little shops selling shoes, souvenirs, bread and other stuff you might need. 









Tbilisi has an eclectic mixture of architectural influences from different periods. As you walk along the 5th-century Old Town, you can see buildings from the Byzantine, Neoclassical, Middle Eastern and currently, modern glass and metal buildings are springing up. I saw some buildings  that need sprucing up when I veered away from the center but what I really thought about is how beautiful they should have been before and I believe that the city can slowly put them back to their former glory in time.





If you happen to notice a lot of doorways and windows in my pictures (also in the past), it's because I love them. Tbilisi has a lot of beautiful old doors and entryways.


A part of my discovery in traveling to diverse countries is the food market scene. If there are monuments to see, there are also the local food markets to explore. This is where you understand how people really go through their daily life, what they like to cook at home and what they eat on normal days. I was really happy to go to a market a few kilometers from the hotel along with the other members of the media group with the help of our local tour guide. A couple of taxis, a hundred pictures and bags of intense-smelling garlic salt and other food souvenirs later, we walked back to the hotel a happy garlic-smelling troop. Thank God my husband was not with me. 


In the market, there was an abundance of pickled vegetables, even whole heads of garlic. My favorite were the caper flowers that were also served to us in some restaurants.


Churchkhelas are traditional Georgian sausage-shaped sweets. They are threaded nuts, usually walnuts, dipped in thickened grape juice then dried up.


Fresh bread baking in a Georgian tandoor oven.



Caravanserai. In the Old Town, along Sion Street, there is an important building that bears witness to Georgia's trade history. The Caravanserai of Tbilisi was built in the 17th-century by King Rostom which was then given to the Bishop of Tbilisi as a present. Then in 1912, it has undergone an intense refurbishing. A caravanserai is a square or rectangular building where trading among traveling merchants takes place in the old times. It has identical chambers that are used to house merchants, their animals, their merchandise and servants. At the lower ground, there are shops selling beautiful local artisan products. 



The Georgian National  Museum is along Rustaveli Avenue, just a short walk from Tbilisi Marriott Hotel. There, we got to know the country more with the ancient artifacts from thousands of years of history to their more recent collections from the Soviet Occupation. One of my favorite objects in the exhibits is the colorful 18-century silk Chinese robe with the 5-clawed dragon. 









Fancy cafès and restaurants line up in Tabidze St. It's the road to the right if your back is towards The Courtyard Tbilisi Marriott Hotel (there are 2 Marriott hotels in the city). And as you reach the end of that road and cross it, you will reach Vino Underground, the first wine bar where I had my first qvevri wine tasting. It is owned by seven small wineries producing natural wines from different Georgian regions. We were given nine different kinds of wines produced mostly in qvevris and European style in stainless steel. Fresh whites, reds and ambers (orange wines) came out with tongue-twisting names (It takes days getting used to them!) like Tsitska, Tsolikouri, Goruli Mtsvane, Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Aladasturi, Tavkveri and Kakhuri Mtsvane. My first favorite was the Tsolikouri 2013 of Jora Gabidzashvili.


Tea Melanashvili, first female wine producer of Georgia with her Mtsvane 2012, another one of my favorites.


Qvevri wine-making method is unique to Georgia, having a history of 8,000 years and it is also believed to be the origin and birth of wine making. Qvevris are egg-shaped earthenware vessels varying in size from a few liters to few thousand liters that are buried under the ground where the wines are made, aged and stored. The grapes are pressed and the juice is poured inside the qvevris along with the pips, skin and stalks. They are then sealed and left to ferment for about 6 months until 2 years naturally. This wine making method was recently added by UNESCO to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List


Kala Cafè. On the day that everyone arrived in Tbilisi (I arrived a day before), we hooked up together for lunch and went to Kala Cafè. It's a casual restaurant serving traditional food. Having no knowledge of the cuisine, we all got excited ordering different plates that amounted to an overwhelming amount. Who can't resist platters of pickled vegetables, matsoni (yogurt) with mint, odjakhuri (roasted pork and potatoes with hot garlic sauce), chakapuli (a winning meat dish cooked with tarragon, plums and white wine), lobio (stewed beans), caviar, khachapuri (pizza-like bread filled with hot gooey cheese) and more? Georgian food, we learned, uses herbs a lot, especially coriander (cilantro).
 


At Azarpesha Restaurant, owned by Luarsab Togonidze, my immersion with Georgian culture widened. I learned about the festive Supra, a Georgian feast celebrating food, wine and life with polyphonic songs, endless toasts to families, friends, love and life that is lead by a Tamada, the toastmaster. The night lasted long with platters of traditional food served throughout the night alternating with toasts in an azarpesha (wine drinking vessel with a long handle, resembling a big ladle). The dessert was a delicious whole squash baked to tenderness with liquor and stuffed with nuts and raisins. And of course, meals in Georgia don't usually conclude without a shot of chacha, a clear pomace brandy that's sometimes referred to as Georgian vodka or grappa. 








Hotel Restaurant Kopala. When I think of Kopala, a magnificent image comes to my mind. It has one of the best positions in the city, facing the hill where the Narikala Fortress is, with the Bridge of Peace over Kura (Mtkvari) River lighted in green & white and the whole city lighted up. I can't help staring at such magnificence. I love night panoramas of cities and Tbilisi's beauty stands out in the lighted night backdrop. From the restaurant's big glass windows and terrace, you can see this view while eating. 




I missed two dinners in a couple of restaurants with our media group. In The Shadow of Metekhi and Tabla. I heard remarkable stories of my colleagues unleashing their dance moves in Restaurant In The Shadow of Metekhi after the chacha and folk dancers "influenced" them to show off what they have. Restaurant Tabla was quieter because it was the last dinner and half of our group already left Georgia. Dinner had been great in both restaurants. (Note: Both photos provided by Sally Prosser of My Custard Pie.)

In The Shadow of Metekhi. Photo by Sally Posser
Tabla. Photo by Sally Prosser
Bagrationi 1882. Established in 1937, it was the first company that started producing sparkling wines in Georgia and it currently leads the sparkling wine market in the country. Their vineyards with Tsistka, Chinuri and Mtsvane are located in the Imereti and Kartli regions of Georgia. For the wine tasting, we tried their Finest Brut, Rosè Brut and Rosè. 




Sarajishvili Distillery. Established in 1884 by David Sarajishvili, the company produced its first brandy using the classic method in 1887. The company went through its glory days between 1889 to 1912, receiving old medals in different international shows and in 1913, it received the status of being The Official Supplier to the Emperor's Court. Ownership has passed hands but the company maintains the original methods used by its founder. For the tasting, we had a 7-year old V.S. and a 10-year old V.S.O.P.



Chateau Mukhrani. Located in the town of Mukhrani, just outside Tbilisi. The estate's wine making history began in the 19th century when one of the royal family members returned from France with the chateau wine making concept. In 2003, the company was revived by an international company along with Georgian partners to re-establish the chateau's wine production using modern and traditional methods. Its 100-hectare vineyard, sitting right next to the chateau has a range of Saperavi, Shavkapito, Tavkveri, Cabernet, Goruli Mtsvane, Rkatsiteli, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. A wide range of Chateau Mukhrani's wines have received awards worldwide, including the Tavkveri Dry Rosè 2012 that I liked.





Mtskheta. Just a few kilometers north of Tbilisi is Mtskheta, one of the oldest towns of Georgia, with the oldest remains of the town dating back from 1,000 B.C. It was once the capital of Iberia, the early Georgian Kingdom in 3rd century B.C. to 5th century A.D. Due to its historical importance and numerous ancient monuments, the historical monuments of the town were declared as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.


Jvari Monastery is a Georgian Orthodox Monastery from the 6th century. It stands beautifully on the mountaintop overlooking the town of Mtskheta. It's the first thing you will see when you reach the area. According to traditional stories, before the monastery stood on its place, an important female evangelist erected a wooden cross on the mountaintop in the 4th century. The cross made miracles happen and pilgrims from all over the Caucasus arrived. In the cross' place, a small church was erected and was called the Small Church of Jvari. Between 590 and 605, the present church called the Great Church of Jvari was erected. Looking down from the church's position, the view was extraordinary! 


Being used to the churches in Italy, Jvari was something new to me, especially when all the females were required to cover the heads upon entry to the church. Always take a light scarf in your bag to cover your head everytime you enter any church in Georgia as a sign of respect. The monk inside gave his consent to some pictures (without exaggerating) but got angry when someone pointed a camera towards him. All the other churches we have been to were strict about not taking any pictures inside.  


Restaurant Gujari.  In the town of Mtskheta, we dined at this pleasant and modern Georgian restaurant. It has different levels and we stayed on the second floor. The long table that was set for our group had a certain elegance and coziness. We were served the traditional way with little plates of many kinds of dishes. At the entrance of the restaurant, there is a see-through glass on the floor where you can see the lower ground. There are tables and qvevris in the whole lower ground.





That wraps up my Tbilisi post. I hope you enjoyed it and as always, pardon the number of pictures. I click too much, I know, but pictures relive the memories I had of the people I met, the food I ate and the beautiful sights I saw while traveling. Have a wonderful week!



Here are some links that can be useful in learning about Georgia and qvevri wines:

The Real Wine Fair
IWINETC  
Vines and Designs
Georgian National Wine Agency 
Georgian National Tourism Administration
Georgian Wine Association
Georgian Recipes 
Wine Trail Traveler
Living Roots