It seems that Georgia is known for its liquids – water and wine to be more specific. Georgians are very proud of the fact that their country is the birth place of wine, and with good reason, because this stuff is good! Archaeologists have traced wine in this region back 7000 years by searching for traces of compounds found in wine on ancient clay pottery. Georgia was once home to 530 varieties of grapes, the majority of which are still cultivated today. And the method of making the wine hasn’t changed much over the centuries either. Wine is still made in huge ceramic jugs and stored underground until it has matured. It has a unique, light, fruity taste, and if you don’t come with any preconceived notions, or expecting an old world taste, its really very enjoyable to drink.
Interestingly, after iron and steel, mineral water is Georgia’s top export. Borjomi is by far the most the most well known brand and is another pride of Georgia. The mineral springs in Borjomi were first discovered by the Russian military in the 1820’s and were made hugely popular under Soviet rule, becoming a drink of the Soviet elite. People here believe that this slightly salty, fizzy beverage has medicinal benefits and can be used to help treat everything from digestive disorders to diabetes. In fact, its so popular that apparently you need to look out for counterfeits!
Being very interested in both wine and water (I mean what’s life without wine and water?!) we decided we needed to explore both in more detail and visit the cradle of wine and the source of these magical mineral waters.
We had read that in Georgia, a guest is considered to be a gift of God. So we decided that in order to experience some true Georgian hospitality we would need to stay in the home of a Georgian. Our adventure began in the wine region of Kakheti, in a small town called Sighnaghi, where we stayed at Maria’s Guesthouse.
True to what we had read, we were welcomed with a huge plate of fruit and a liter of homemade wine. As I got us settled and set up, Sami sat on the balcony over looking the Kakheti region enjoying the wine and the sight of Nu playing with Maria’s Granddaughters; two very cute 5-year old twins, who also happen to both be named Maria (along with their mother). They were instantly taken with Nu and wanted to carry him everywhere. Actually what they really wanted to do was hold him on their laps and force him to watch Bollywood movies, which seemed to be what they liked to do best.
When I came back the wine was gone. A little worried that we weren’t supposed to actually drink the full liter, I asked Sami if it was him that drank it. His response was classic – he didn’t want to be rude.
That night we sat out on the balcony and watched the most amazing thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed…while drinking another liter of wine. It goes without saying that the next morning was a little rough and I think Maria may have gotten the wrong impression from Sami finishing her homemade wine because she presented us with her homemade liquor for breakfast! Besides the liquor, we had an amazing spread of food including cheese, fruit, jams, breads, eggs and dumplings.
After being thoroughly stuffed we went to the Bodbe Monastery. It is an incredibly beautiful and tranquil place. Seriously, it’s so quiet that monks kept creeping up behind us with no warning. I didn’t have a head scarf so I wore a pillow case instead. After touring the grounds, we descended down the mountain to the holy spring.
After lunch, and Nu being roughed up by an old Georgian grandmother, who was also the cook, we took a drive along Kakheti’s wine route. There were lots of signs for vineyards but we never actually managed to find one. The signs kept leading us down blocked roads or one-way streets travelling the other direction. None the less, the drive was very pleasant and we did get to see a couple of cute towns including Tsinandali and Telavi.
The next day we made our way to Lagodekhi, which is a tiny town about 3 km from the border with Azerbaijan. While Lagodekhi is also known for its wine production, we were more interested to see the national park here, which is one of Georgia’s largest protected areas. We had originally wanted to visit a beautiful lake in the park called Black Rock but after finding out that its a three-day hike to get their, we opted for the much easier Black Grouse trail, which leads to a beautiful waterfall.
The best part about our stay in Lagodekhi was our guesthouse. The family there were extremely welcoming and kind, and especially sweet with Nu. They have a beautiful home with a very cottagey feel and a gorgeous garden with hammocks strung between huge fruit trees and a small swimming pool. Nu loved taking a dip in the freezing cold water and chasing after the family’s new puppy who was only 4 weeks old.
On the way home from Lagodekhi, we stopped by a town called Mtskheta, which is just outside of Tbilisi. Its extremely picturesque, which possibly explains why there were no less than 20 brides wandering the town, either pre or post-wedding at the cathedral. The highlight of this stop was Sami finally trying on the traditional Georgian dress for me. I really wanted Nu in a matching one but unfortunately this didn’t come in his size.
Wrapping up our wine tour, the next day we moved onto our water tour with a trip to Borjomi. It’s a very nice town with an interesting history. After the mineral waters were discovered by Russian Military, the area caught the attention of Russian royalty. Drawn by the curative waters and beautiful natural setting, the Romanovs built their summer home in Likani, a small town next to Borjomi. It soon became a favourite summer spot among Russian aristocrats and became known as the ‘Pearl of the Caucasus’. We visited the Borjomi Cental Park, where we had a sip of the water straight from the source. I didn’t manage to get all mine down because it was warm, salty, smelled like eggs and not so fizzy – definitely not at all like the bottled version. Other people seemed to be loving it though, literally slugging it back and filling three liter jugs.
On the way home, we stopped by Gori, the birthplace of Loseb Basariuns Dze Jughashvili also known as Joseph Stalin. We visited the Stalin park, which has a museum, the house he was born in, and his personal train car. Unlike what we expected, there were very few portraits of Stalin around the city, except for a massive one on the face of a supermarket. There used to be a huge statue of Stalin by the town hall but it was removed by the authorities during the night in 2010. Unlike the rest of Georgia, it is clear that this place still revers its hometown boy, which seems to make managing his legacy slightly tricky for the Georgian government.
After spending one night back in Tbilisi we decided that we should have one more excursion while we still had our rental car. While drinking a Georgian Kazbegi beer and looking at the snow capped mountains on the label, we decided it might be fun to explore the Kazbegi region. The next morning, we headed out to Stepantsminda, which lies near the Russian border. Within 30 minutes, we began ascending into the mountains and the views just became more and more spectacular. We even saw a full rainbow over the Zhinvali Reservoir – a sight that was so beautiful it honestly looked fake. We stopped in a town called Ananuri because there is a beautiful church there, but also because in Arabic ‘Ananuri’ means ‘I am Nuri’. We also stopped near the town of Gudauri to see the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, which has a huge tile mural depicting scenes from Georgian and Russian history. When we finally reached Stepantsminda, we sat down for lunch at the base of the mountains and soaked in the amazing view.