Georgian Delights

DSCN1948It’s fairly certain that everyone…in some way or another loves food.  I must admit that my palate is not broad or accepting of the more ethnic varieties or the more exotic choices.  I grew up in Texas and my three food groups when nurturing my young taste buds were steak, potatoes and beer(not that I had any beer :-)).  And to add to the mix, my folks were from Louisiana and drank coffee with chicory.  Need I say more?

Besides that, I can’t remember seeing anything GREEN….OK, maybe the fake green Easter basket grass but that was about the extent of anything green even close to my dinner plate.  Dining was fairly simple back “in those days”.

So when I travel to these far off exotic lands my palate winces slightly and puts on a brave front.  If I am “served”…as opposed to “ordering” my food I will timidly take a tiny taste.  If I find that my “buds” accept the flavors and my nose is not repelled…then I can usually enjoy the local cuisine.  I might even venture to ask what it is that I am eating.  If however the taste and smell is somewhat strange and off-color then I don’t dare ask “what is this”?  Nine times out of ten I won’t want to know…and will be sorry that I asked.  This happened rather frequently on a trip to China…suffice to say that I really enjoyed the beer and  rice was my staple.  It was probably the only trip that I did not gain any weight.DSCN2315

Once on a trip to London I saw a billboard advertising a local beverage and the tagline read “I don’t like it, so why should I try it?”  I could relate….

But for most travelers half the fun is enjoying the local foods and beverages along with the fantastic sights and culture.  Food gives depth and texture to the culture, to the people and how they live.  It’s an integral part of exploring far away places.  SO….when I tripped off to the Republic of Georgia I had no clue as to what kinds of foods might be presented.  Georgian dishes are very similar to many Russian dishes.  Westerners will think the food is somewhat salty and heavy with lots of homemade cheese, spices and vegetables. They also use a lot of walnuts in sauces and with their meats.

DSCN1952 DSCN4280Puri (bread) is very popular and is either made at home or bought in the market or at small stands along the highway.  They will cook the bread in stone ovens (furnaces) or wood burning ovens.

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Cheese will almost always accompany the bread and there is one common cheese – Sulguni that can be cured in various ways to provide a hard smoked cheese that can be pretty salty or as a fresh cheese that is soft and more subtle in flavor similar to a mozzarella .   Having the fresh bread with the cheese helps tone down the salt factor.

Their national dish is a “cheese pie” known as Kachapuri and it can be created in a multitude of ways.

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The bread is filled with cheese(think pizza) or sometimes the cheese is enclosed or some even offer a boat shaped bread with a raw egg and melted cheese and you mix them together to basically cook the egg with the hot cheese.

Every meal that I enjoyed (and I enjoyed them all) in Georgia was served family-style.  We would sit down at the table set with plates of freshly baked breads, bowls of fresh tomatoes/cucumbers/onions salad, and a kachapuri of some sort.  Once we got settled into the “starters” the waiters began bringing out one dish after another.

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Some were vegetables such as squash, eggplant, sweet peppers others were various meat dishes such as beef, veal, chicken and pork.  Meats were either stewed or grilled.

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Their most unusual dish is the “khinkali” which is a big dumpling.

There is a special art to eating one…grab the top knob, turn it upside down and bite into the bottom edge of the dumpling and suck out all of the juice(usually really hot) and then you can eat the “innards” which is usually some type of spiced pork or beef.  Any other method will assure a squirt of hot juices into your lap.

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 Needless to say….I did not go hungry in Georgia and my taste buds were delighted with all the variations to very “simple” foods that were hearty and flavorful.

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Georgia’s Golden Treasures

Our final day in Tbilisi unveils some surprising jewels – one in particular was the Sun.  I figure tomorrow will be a beautiful day as I strike out for home.  Doesn’t it always work that way???

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If you can remember back to our arrival day, we saw a few of the city sites and then traveled to the old capital.  Well today is dedicated to all the hidden gems to be found in this capital city of  Tbilisi.  And I apologize….this is gonna sound like a history lesson but there IS so much history about this little country that I just have to share some of it with you.

To begin with – a visit to the National Museum of Georgia – You could spend days in this museum as it contains an impressive collection of artifacts and riches that date back thousands of years. Fortunately most displays are also in English along with the native Georgian even though a bit of the ancient history might be unfamiliar to the western visitor.  It was established in 2004 and is today a very large and inclusive collection of museums and research centers around the country.

In the National Museum the archaeological treasury contains golden artifacts and jewelry discovered in the various excavations around the country.  These are works of early Georgian(Colkhetian) goldsmiths representing jewelry dating from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD.  Colkhetian jewelry such as diadems, temple rings, necklaces, bracelets, etc. date to the 5th-4th centuries BC and were found on territory once part of the “kingdom of Colkheti”, known as Colchis or the “Land of the Golden Fleece” from Greek mythology.

Here are just a few of the amazing golden artifacts on display –

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On a more somber note – a special exhibit in one section of the museum documented the history of  70 brutal years of Soviet occupation and oppression.  Over 25% of the population died at the hands of Soviet occupiers.  It is a very grim reminder of what this nation has endured…and also a testament to their strong character and resiliency.

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From the museum we head out into the streets to explore Tbilisi –

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from the ultra modern Peace Bridge to the ancient buildings of “Old Town”.  The government has invested heavily in the reconstruction of the city – not only the old town but by bringing in modern architecture, expressive sculptures and other forms of art to be displayed around the city.

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As a terminus of the famous Silk Road, Tbilisi has always played a major part in the trading of goods, ideas and cultures. The Silk Road was a trading route that played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe and Arabia.  The silk road initially connected China with India and Persia.

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Of course China’s exquisite silk goods were the lucrative item but trade extended to many other goods as well as various technologies, religions and philosophies…and unfortunately the bubonic plague. Georgia again in this 21st century is poised and in an advantageous position to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe.

As we navigate the busy and crowded streets we arrive at our lunch destination.  It is a stark contrast to all of our previous dining venues.  Here we are in the heart of the bustling and thriving “new town” and sitting down to lunch in an ultra modern, sleek restaurant featuring not only fabulous Georgian dishes but also a fair assortment of Italian dishes.  Once again, quantity overwhelms us.  But everything is absolutely delicious!

It is a relatively “quick”  lunch as we have an important appointment to keep with the US Ambassador this afternoon. DSCN2464 It is very obvious that the US would like to build and strengthen ties with this well-positioned(strategic) young democracy.  Entry to the Embassy was similar to going through airport security…well, OK a little bit more stringent.  Fortifications were evident with thick bullet-proof glass, massive stone walls, fences and barricades…you get the picture.  We were given a visitor’s pass in exchange for our passport; then escorted into the building and upstairs to the Ambassador’s conference room.

viait with the US Ambassador Ambassador Richard Norland was most gracious and engaging.  It was not all show but definite substance as we exchanged views and strategies for advancing tourism to Georgia. The exchange lasted almost an hour and everyone came away with a sense of accomplishment.

With time so crunched we have only a couple  of hours to repack and get ready for our evening of farewell celebrations.  Shopping time has been nil and the only “treasures” we’ve been able to snag are t-shirts from the embassy and a few Georgian/Russian chocolate bars.  What’s wrong with this picture?? I am sure there are untold trinkets and treasures…but unfortunately that will have to wait for the next time.

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Tonight we celebrate all that is Georgian…from its delectable foods and wines to its enchanting folk music and dancing.  Our hosts have truly outdone themselves this evening.  Our banquet displays a plethora of delectable dishes and the wine flows freely.  Georgian dancers and musicians entertain us throughout the evening.  It is a grand party celebrating  newly minted friendships and a promise of sharing this wonderful land and their enchanting people with everyone back home.

Stay tuned for more…..


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Batumi on the Black Sea

 Batumi/Gonio Fortress/Batumi Botanical Gardens

It’s a quick run down to the Georgian/Turkish border.

And…is it a bad omen that the road sign says “Good Luck” (in English no less!) as you are leaving the country?  It does give pause for thought.

The drive through the Batumi neighborhoods on the way down was a bit unsettling as it is very depressing to see the

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grim and gray concrete tenement style housing.  The crazy thing is watching brand new obviously more upscale condos, hotels and apartment housing going in right next to the soviet housing.  It begs the question..”who will buy in that neighborhood?”  And do the city fathers plan on leaving the concrete tenements there after completing the new skyscrapers??? One has to wonder…..

 

The short ride to the Turkish border is another bit of a time-warp.  Many transport trucks are stationed all along the highway, parked in vacant lots, stacked up at the border.  It is obviously a very busy entry and exit portal.  And apparently many Turks travel across the border into Batumi for the casinos.

After a few quick photos we backtrack to the ancient “Gonio Fortress” DSCN5702 which was built by the Romans in 90 BC and is Georgia’s oldest fortress.  The fortress was, for a while, being actively excavated but funds ran out and excavations were halted.  However there is a small museum at the site and a short walk-through produced some interesting facts.  One very significant belief is that the apostle Matthew is buried at the fortress.   However, to date, no additional excavations have been allowed to possibly verify this thought.

We return to Batumi for lunch overlooking the Black Sea and then a short visit to the Botanical Gardens is in order.  These gardens are unique throughout the former Soviet Union as they were designed and created by botanist Andrey Krasnov(1862-1914) who traveled the world studying  multitude of flora.  He decided after careful consideration that this part of the Black Sea coast would be an ideal place for a botanical garden.

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Thus he began the collection of trees and plants from all over the world. It consumes 111 hectares(275 acres) and supports nine specific floral growth regions – Caucasian humid subtropics, East Asia, New Zealand, South America, the Himalayas, Mexico, Australia, and the Mediterranean. You can travel the hillsides of the gardens and follow the various zones from subtropical to alpine flora.    It is springtime and there are multitudes of blooming plants and trees all around seeming to be flourish quite well here on this “Green Cape”.

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Unfortunately it is time to go…we have another long drive today back to Tbilisi and we will be on the road well into the late evening.

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From Mountains Sublime to the Ridiculous (well, sort of)

DSCN5231 Mestia / Batumi  

We arrived into Mestia before dark and were treated to blue skies and a rising “almost” full moon.  Such a nice change of atmosphere as opposed to “wearing” the rain.  The air is crisp and fresh and clear. Night is coming on and the temperature is dropping.  It’s a most spectacular setting with this ancient village nestled deep in a valley below the towering Caucasus Mountains.

This sight would rival any mountain village in Europe or the States.  Take a look at the header on my blog page and you will see a panorama of these mountains. Keep in mind that Russia (Chechnya and  Dagestan) are just over the mountains.  Might want to Google Earth to get your bearings.  This part of our glorious planet is still fairly untouched by the civilized hand, rugged and wild.

DSCN5205It’s an early morning(amidst errant snowflakes) and we’re headed into the village to check out one of the unique defensive towers…called “Svan Towers”.  Meeting up with one of the locals whose family has lived in these towers for generations, the lady is happy to give us a tour of the old(primitive) living quarters and a chance to climb up into the tower.

These towers are synonymous with this region of the country known as “Svanetia”. During the Middle Ages these towers were used for protection as well as communication.  They could signal their neighbors in the valley with fires lit atop the towers. As soon as the next one saw the signal then they would light their fires and the signal would be passed from tower to tower thereby warning/alerting the entire community of impending danger.  Each of these towers is exactly the same style and construction, same dimensions and height.  They each had 4-5 “floors” made of wood and windows at the top for viewing the surrounding valley.

The living quarters could hold upwards of 25 family members in a split-level accommodation of

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cows on the bottom, people on top.

Now I know the Swiss built their houses with a “barn” underneath and somehow that seemed to make sense…but this arrangement seems a bit too personal..no such thing as “personal space” back then.  Those were rough times and any bit of warmth surely helped.

Survival was far more important than having a

DSCN2120stylish interior.  When you consider the hardships these people endured it certainly explains how simple their existence was.

So now for a climb up into the tower.  We are lucky as most towers are not “climbable” since the wooden floors have long since rotted away, but our host has maintained the floors in her tower so we venture forth.

Access is by a very steep set of stairs to a small platform at the door…mind your head OUCH! or you are likely to come away with a nasty knot on top!

Once thru the opening it’s another steep ladder/staircase up to the next level.  There’s not much space in here and you immediately are faced with yet another ladder…too much for me.  I’m DSCN2141sharp…I get the idea with just two levels.

Once I’m down and out…. we’re off for a long day’s ride to the Black Sea resort town of Batumi.  It’s about 267km(166 miles) and about 5.5 hrs away.  The roads are definitely not super highways so 166 miles is a little “longer” than what we are used to back  home.

The trade-off is a lot of interesting sights and scenery along the way including dodging those cows and pigs again.  Along the way a quick stop for lunch at a tiny roadside “cafe”… with tables all set and ready for us….the staples DSCN2185
appear…tomatoes and cucumbers, khachapuri cheese pie and local beer. The cafe overlooked the northern end of the Enguri Reservoir. Everything is delicious and what’s better it was a “small” meal and quick to help us on our way.  I must confess….all this going and going and going had my batteries on low and a recharge was needed…so, I slept for a few miles. Hey, sometimes you just “gotta” do that.

As we made our way down to the coast the topography of the land started to morph into the typical coastal lowlands…more waterways and streams heading to the sea.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate therefore you’ll find no luminous reports of sunny shores and waves crashing on the shoreline.

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It was a grey afternoon and that translated to a fairly monotone landscape.  So, when we saw the skyline of Batumi looming on the horizon it was a bit surreal.

Government entities  and private investors are hard at work trying to transform a glum “soviet-style” cement city into possibly….

“Las Vegas Casinos? or maybe

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Disney World?     Or…?  Well, I’m not quite sure…suffice to say its an amalgamation of many imaginations.

Too much of a good thing!

DSCN1536Wow…this was quite a day and at the moment it is quite a blur.  Just how many churches and wineries can you do in one day?  Well if you leave out lunch and start both the church visit and winery in the first stop…that really helps with the total coverage.  But I must not slight the visits as they were all quite interesting and each a little unique.

We headed east from Tbilisi into the wine region..oh did I mention that the rainy weather was still with us?  The wine region is also known as the Kakheti region and we wanted to try some of the best. Our first stop was the Alaverdi Monastery and here we had to dress in a skirt and use a scarf for the visit. The monastery has a simple church but the monks wine is one of the best in the region.  It is a small winery producing only about 3000 bottles. They took one of their wines to an international wine show and returned with a gold medal.  It’s a bit odd have a wine tasting conducted by a Georgian Orthodox monk…and I in my lovely scarf and wrap around skirt…hopefully there are no photos to make it to the internet…not a pretty sight, but hey, after a few tastes of wine, who cares!

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ODSCN1578ur next stop was at the Gremi castle with it’s lovely little church and museum. But the most interesting stop of the day was at the Khareba winery housed in a huge tunnel dug into the side of the mountain.  If you didn’t know any better you could have been in Sonoma….maybe a little chilly…but definitely first class.  More good wines to enjoy and it was tough to keep track of all the different kinds of grapes and ways of making the wines.  In each place we tasted between 3 and 4 wines.  Usually it was two whites and two reds. Each was unique in its own right.

We are fast approaching dinnertime…so we double back to our hotel which is a wine chateau…Château Mere.  There’s a party going on….an anniversary party and they were having so much fun that we couldn’t help but join in with the celebration.  They were kind enough to share their lovely cake and then outside for fireworks!  All in all it was a great day.

The art of ancient wine making in Georgia is quite interesting and I will share that with you in a later post.

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Georgia’s Capitals…old and new

It’s our first full day of touring and we are off to the ancient capital city of  Mtskheta. Enroute we drive to the top of a hill overlooking the ancient sacred capital and climb up to the church of Jvari perched on a cliff.DSCN1461

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Below us is the old capital town at the confluence of two rivers.. The old town has undergone a tremendous transformation due to the government’s initiative for upgrading various tourist regions for visitors.

They have done an admirable job and these areas are quite interesting.  There are new shops, restaurants, craftsmen demonstrating traditional ways of baking bread. After our visit to the sacred cathedral Sveti-Tskhoveli, the first Christian church to be built in Georgia. It’s reputed to be the place of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in 337CE.

DSCN1512After lunch in one of the new restaurants near to the cathedral we return to Tbilisi to visit the main cathedral Sioni. This exquisite church contains the famed sacred cross of St. Nino.  It also serves as the seat of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  It was quite a hike up the steps but the view was well worth the exertion. Plus it’s important to work up an appetite for these monsterous meals!!

After a bit of a rest…right!….we head out to the Black Lion Restaurant located in a rustic cellar in the city.  Many of the old houses had these cellars in the olden days when there was no refrigeration to keep their foods cool and to keep them from spoiling. Dinner was delightful and not quite as heavy as lunch.  Of the various dishes the main entrée was a delicious Georgian trout.

After dinner it was back to the hotel to repack for our first foray into the fabled GEORGIAN WINE COUNTRY.

What day is it really….

There is no substitute for a few hours of horizontal snoozing. Although I must admit the delayed reaction factor is quite pronounced. I’m trying to rev up the body and it is slow to respond. The hotel provides an outstanding selection of local dishes as well as a mixture of Euro/Western favorites.  From the looks of this buffet we will not go hungry.

It’s still a bit drippy and downright chilly so already the cold weather clothes are feeling pretty good.
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We’re off to drive around the new town to get our bearings and then we’ll stop for a walk-through the Open Air Museum of Ethnography where about 70 different buildings and homes from around Georgia have been reconstructed.  Some of the houses have been reconstructed to present a living example of the local culture of each region. The local guide gave us a complete description and demonstration of how life would have been in the house. The young woman had a beautiful smile and a great command of the english language.  It was most entertaining and enlightening.

The Georgian people are very proud of their heritage and many skills…but my astute senses have picked upon the fact that one of their premier accomplishments is the production of wine.   Even the outdoor museum displays the tools of ancient wine making.  Not just at the wine makers house…but at several other houses displayed on the hillside.   Hummmm…this bears further investigation.

The concept of time is lost on my body and mind at the moment…but the guide has kindly suggested that we should stop for some lunch.  Ok, here’s where confusion steps in…if we left for the tour around 2pm…and you figure we have been exploring the city for a couple of hours…what time is it really?  I have never been one to turn down an invitation to dine so we head to the restaurant for lunch.