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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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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Ready….Set….I don’t think so….GO!

I must confess…it’s been awhile since I have traveled internationally.  Frequent travelers can relate to the almost packed bags standing ready at the call…with a separate set of toiletries and travel clothes that with only a few minor adjustments would suffice for just about anywhere in the world.  Something that I used to do almost every month and never got tired of… has now become a major event.  I feel like this is an entirely new experience.  So much has changed in just a few years.  This upcoming whirlwind tour to the Republic of Georgia has the adrenaline pumping and the questions flying! In order to get ready…maybe a little more background info….

This region of the world has so many legends and tales of antiquity that it’s more like reading a book of ancient explorers.  The countries surrounding Georgia (Eurasia) roll off your tongue like a litany of legends and fairy tales… Azerbaijan,  Armenia, Turkey, Russia….each one evoking visions of storybook characters with exotic sights and scenery.

Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey,  and the ancient Kingdom of Colchis heavily intertwined with the Ancient Greek gods long about the Late Bronze Age (15th to 8th century BC) which saw the development of the significant skill in smelting and casting of metals.  This began long before the skill was mastered in Europe.  This area is seriously OLD!

This is where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia and it is a narrow band of territory just slightly larger than the state of West Virginia.  The entire country has only about 4.6 million people.  Our state of South Carolina has 4.6 million inhabitants all by itself!

So, I am almost set….ah but not quite!  The TO DO list has a few more items to be crossed off and then…it’s out the door!

There is such a thrill of adventure in seeking out “foreign” soil, meeting new people and learning of they storied history and struggles.

Do we EVER get it right?

Gentlemen need not worry…Ladies..this is all too familiar for you.  How many times do you ask yourself…

 “What shall I pack for this trip?”  Probably that little sentence jumps to mind every time you get ready to take a trip, right?  Even the smallest little junket requires some wardrobe thoughts.  Some could be more difficult like combining tropic sports with gala banquets…or a warm weather/cool weather destination…even the static business trip demands wardrobe considerations.

So, when one plans to explore an entirely new part of the world…we first ask people that have been there…”What kind of clothing is appropriate?”  Then our next step is to head to the internet to “Google” the destination and see what folks “look like” in pictures…and of course the next most important step is to find out what the WEATHER is going to be.

Now I have not stopped to count the multitude of weather sites on the internet….but invariably no matter how many sites you visit to check out the weather for the upcoming trip, each site will give a different weather “prediction”.  Possibly it will show a string of “warm days” followed, of course, a string of “chilly days”.  Therefore, it is simply a matter of counting out the days until the trip with this formula of warm and chilly days to figure out what the temps will be when you arrive at the destination.  Right?  Really?  If it were only that simple!

I have bounced between 3 or 4 relatively “reliable” weather sites, have asked the “locals” what to expect…and I am still in a tizzy as to what to pack!  Why is this so difficult?

It would probably be equally effective to just throw darts at a clothing chart. Or blindly grab anything and everything in the closet and toss it in the bag.

Travel is my profession and I still don’t get it right!  Therefore, once again, my suitcase will be stuffed with those “just in case” items that will probably never see the light of day and I will manage just fine with a few choice basics……

….wishing once again that I had not brought all this junk along!

Georgian Milestones…..Did you know?

In this world of “Guinness World Records”  it seems that everyone, everyplace and everything must be a historical milestone.  History measured in firsts, biggest, highest, oldest….etc.  Well, Georgia has it’s fair share of amazing historical “Firsts, highest, oldest and foremosts” to joint the ranks of important “facts” of our world.   Let me name a few –

  • A 1.7-million-year-old skull(really, really old) found during Dmanisi archaeological excavations is the oldest evidence of human habitation in Europe. It proves that there is almost one-million-year gap between Dmanisi and any European early-human site, making Georgia the homeland of the FIRST European.

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  • Legendary Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece – an ancient Greek myth based in Georgia. Numerous gold artifacts have been found in the area and Tim Severin’s recreated voyage of 1984 proved that the story of

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    the Golden Fleece could easily be true, especially considering Georgia’s centuries-old tradition of getting gold particles from

    flowing mountain rivers with the help of the fleece.

  • Grapevines have been cultivated in the fertile valleys of Georgia for about  8000 years. With over 500 varieties of endemic grapes and the world’s first cultivated grapevines, the traditions of viticulture are entwined with the country’s national identity. It is also believed that the word “wine” is of Georgian origin (“gvino” in Georgian).  Gives new meaning to “aged” wines.

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    Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

    UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Georgia boast multiple sites

Ancient Capital of Georgia – Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral – 11th century
Jvari Church – 6th century
The Town of Kutaisi – Gelati Monastery – 12th century
Bagrati Cathedral – 11th century
Upper Svaneti – Medieval Watchtowers
Ancient Christian Country

  • The Caucasus Mountains stretch for about 1200km between the Black and the Caspian seas – a natural boundary between Europe and Asia with summits over 5000m, including Mt. Elbrus (5642m) – the highest in Europe.
  • At 2200m Ushguli is the highest settlement in Europe. The medieval Svanetian watchtowers of Ushguli is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is one of the largest in Europe and the first national park in the Caucasus.

So many notable sites encourages a traveler to spend considerable time just on the historical highlights…yet there is much more to discover in this small country.