- Tasting high quality Georgian wine in Kakheti
- Immersing in Georgian boozing culture
- Staying in a typical family home in Tbilisi
- Exploring modern and futuristic Batumi
- Saying goodbye and hoping for a better future
we are in Batumi now, a futuristic city on the Black Sea and close to the Turkish border. Due to the consistently bad weather here in Georgia we had to change our plans quite a few times and ended up cutting our time in Georgia short. Tomorrow we are heading to Eastern Anatolia. But first things first:
Tasting high quality Georgian wine in Kakheti
Last time I wrote, we had just arrived in Tevali, the biggest town of the wine growing region Kakheti. It is a very beautiful region as it is enclosed by two mountain ranges with a fertile, hilly valley in the middle. Outside of Tbilisi, our best shot for accommodation are homestays, where people rent out an extra room or sometimes even a room within their own apartment. In a bigger town like Telavi, however, these are not easy to find, as they do usually not have any signs and our communication abilities with Georgians have been limited at best. We ended up sleeping in this picturesque house, with a large garden full of fruit trees. Here we met two awesome fellow travellers, Joseph and Lotte, from Vorallberg in Austria. We didn´t ask, but they must have been in their late 70s (they have 5 grand children our age), started travelling only when they retired around 20 years ago and spend 2-3 months every year on the road. It was just so nice to see how open-minded they were and I respected them for choosing the rewarding, but often uncomfortable and exhausting travelling lifestyle. We quickly got on and decided to visit the main attraction of Telavi, a winery, together the next day.
As most of you know well, I am a big wine lover and have been to several wine festivals in the past years. I did stumble over some Georgian, but remember not liking it. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to visiting this region a lot and was not disappointed. However, I always try to taste vi sit wineries on my travels, such as the Mendoza region in Argentina or the Concha y Toro winery in Chile. Georgia is famous for three things when it comes to wine: first, it has several hundred autoctone wine varieties that grow only here. Second, it produces wine using the kvevri, a massive terracotta jug where the grapes are left to ferment for 1-3 weeks. This is an ancient procedure and was already used by the Romans. And third, it has been making and especially drinking wine for more than 6000 years.
Among the many options to chose from we were recommended by our host Svetlana to go to Schuchmanns, a German who invested 10 million euros in 2008 (very risky, just when the war in South Ossetia erupted). He now produces 1 million bottles a year and has won several prices for his wines. 70% are produced with the classic procedure, so in steel and oak barrels. And 30% with the traditional kvevri. Schuchmann picks local people and trains them in Europe to then work in Telavi. This also meant that our guide spoke perfect German, which was great because I had a lot of questions for her. We visited the cellar where they showed us how the kvevri works: you put the wine into these massive jugs, then they place a stone lid on top, followed by a sand mixture to ensure that no air enters while it is fermenting. After around two weeks, they take out the wine and filter it 3 times. Red wines are put directly in bottles and white wines are kept in an oak barrel (Schuchmanns interpretation of the traditional method) to give them their distinct gold colour and enhance the taste. At the end, we sat down on the veranda overlooking the valley and with the Caucasus in the background and tasted four of their wines. The following hour made me change my opinion of Georgian wine entirely and I was especially impressed by their dry white wines, which had a beautiful golden color, smelled of apricots and tasted rich and full, especially with the feta style cheese that they served us. To finish I also tried the Chacha, the Georgian Grappa which is produced by distilling the leftovers of the wine production. Fun fact: in the Andean region of Latinamerica they also produce a grappa called Chacha and I had never seen this word anywhere else. It would be very interesting to know how it travelled to Georgia or vice versa. Anyway, we had a great day with our new Austrian friends in Kakheti and I highly recommend trying a Georgian white wine produced with the traditional Kvevri.
Immersing in Georgian boozing culture
Apart of wine, we spent most (actually all) the time feasting on Khinkalis, the delicious Georgian dumplings. Fortunately, they even showed the world cup in Tevali and we were able to watch most of the matches, always with a bunch of Georgians who seemed surprisingly enthusiastic about the games. This brings me to the next topic: drinking in Georgia. Georgians are renowned for being strong drinkers, but what we see here is just ridiculous. It starts with the menu: the wodka selection is usually larger and more diverse than the food. The smallest size you can order is a 50ml shot, although I have seen no one but us ordering it. People here order bottles of half a litre with their food and the average amount we saw was one per person. These bottles are emptied quickly along with several pints of beer. The other day, in Tbilisi, we went to one of the traditional beer houses, which remind me a bit of Bavarian beer houses and are very welcoming and cosy. Anyway, we felt stupid not having tasted any wodka in Georgia. So we picked a random one from the around 50 types they had and ordered a shot (50ml – 40p-70p) for two. I tried it first, and Celia was (hopefully) the only one who saw my face when I nipped my tongue into it. It took us a meal to drink it, while two proper Georgians at the table next to us had 2 bottles of half a litre between them in the same time span. Where we are now, in Batumi, we heard rumours of a chacha fountain, which is put on every day at 5pm and people can go there and fill up whatever they have. I found it hard to believe, so we set out and searched it. It actually exists, it´s a normal fountain and in each of its four corners it has a sort of refill station (like the ones you get for cold water) where every day at 5 chacha comes out…
Staying in a typical family home in Tbilisi
So from Telavi in the wine growing region we originally wanted to head all the way northeast to Svaneti (literally “Home of the Thugs”). However, the weather forecast for Georgia is just miserable. Days of rain was predicted and we already fled the mountains once, as it is not much fun when it pours down all day. It´s a shame really, because I was looking forward to the Caucasus more than to anything else, but we both agree that it is a better decision to head to Eastern Anatolia, where the weather should be better and the mountains and not bad either (Mount Ararat: 5400m).
We took a shared car back to Tbilisi, went to the train station to get the night train on the same day to Batumi, just to find out that it was booked out and we had to search for the next best accommodation close to the train station. After quite a while of searching we reached a recommended homestay: the entrance was dirty, concrete sacks were lying around and a strong smell of urine in the air. As you can imagine, expectations were very low. Small arrows pointed us to the last floor of this big, run down house near the station. Once at the top, however, we were surprised: it was a beautiful, cosy, massive apartment, full of Georgian paraphernalia and its host, 100kg heavy Irina warm, welcoming and funny (and a ridiculous chain smoker). Most of all, it was an interesting melting pot of people: a young Polish family, a hardcore trekker who just came back from Svaneti, a Lithuanian globe trotter and an Israeli 70+ year old who still had a hangover from a party the day before. We watched the football with them, then the first bottle of wodka was opened, then the second, …. It was a great night in which we learned among others that if a shepherd in Poland takes his flock over a road and has more than 0.2 p/m alcohol in his blood, his driving licence can be withdrawn. Best homestay we had so far and highly recommended to anyone going to Tbilisi.
Exploring modern and futuristic Batumi
Missing the night train ended up being a great thing and we were happy to leave Tbilisi on such a good note. Next morning, early wake up, tired and slightly hungover, we headed to the train station and took the “Fast Train” to Batumi. What a highlight. The average speed of this train was 30-35 km/h, true story. With the occasional peak around 45 km/h. I mean, I have used trains this slow in India, but what made it hilarious was the fact that this was the official fast train. We spoke to people who took the normal train: apparently it´s kind of the same, but it waits 20 minutes at every stop…
We reached Batumi after a looong train ride and were quite sceptical, as most people do not like it and described it as a Georgian Las Vegas. We are actually quite enjoying it: yes, there are casinos and pawn shops everywhere. And yes, there is a chacha fountain and the first visible prostitution. Nevertheless, it has a very nice atmosphere and offers lots of things to see and do. Until recently, it was just a run down city with a big port. Now, lots of money from the EU and private investors have turned it into a fairly clean, futuristic city. Skyscrapers are shooting into the sky, the promenade along the sea was redone and lots of sites for tourists created (Boris bikes, beach promenade, public sports grounds, open air art, music fountains, cable car, parks and lakes, etc.). I like how they embraced the opportunity and turned this formerly ugly, unpleasant city into a really welcoming and attractive place.
Tonight is also our very last night in Georgia. As I said, we are sad to leave, but we both agree that it is the only right decision. Tomorrow we will head down to the border and then make the long journey to Kars in Eastern Anatolia. Because we fear that with Ramadan in Turkey food during the day will be scarce, we thought of stocking up big time and just came back from our last supra, or feast. Khinkalis, walnut aubergines, dill mushrooms, beef stew, beer, we had it all. And it was so great!
Saying goodbye and hoping for a better future
Overall, Georgia has impressed us. This country has had a tough past. Two of its regions have been occupied by Russia in a similar fashion to Crimea (Abkhazia and South Ossertia), just with much less global attention. The last war, the so-called “Four Day War” occurred just in 2008 and has left a scar both in people´s lives and the country´s economy. Relations with Russia have not improved and every attempt by Georgia to approach the EU and NATO (which they are very keen to join, for good reasons…) is answered with import restrictions by Russia and export interruptions of gas (preferably in the coldest weeks of the winter). Georgia´s answer to this has been shifting its reliance to other countries (Azerbaijan and Iran for oil and gas for instance), moving closer to the EU and diversifying its economy, with major investments in its wine and tourism industry.
I just hope that Georgia will be able to continue on the current path it has taken and can only recommend it warmly to anyone, whether backpacker or family, as it is easy to travel, offers a ridiculous climatic variety for such a small country, is cheap, still quite unexplored and most of all, has one of the best cuisines I have encountered on my travels (although they might work a bit on their vegetable intake, seriously…).
Next time I will be writing from Turkey, hopefully under a blue sky and marvelling at Mount Ararat.