The Caucasus

AccommodationDestinationsFoodGeorgiaHealth and SafetyItineraryPlanningThe Caucasus

Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

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The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Pasanauri
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Ezo
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

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DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Wine Education

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I was just along for the ride to Kakheti, the richest and most fertile part of Georgia that lies in the shadow of the magnificent Caucasus range. The wine tour that we did with Colour Tour Georgia (and with Gvantsa and Tazo) was more for TC than me, but the journey into the mountains and into Telavi – Kakheti’s old capital – was just as scenic as the one to Kazbegi.

Wine tasting was limited to 2 large producers: Shumi and Khareba and both companies are impressive in their own ways. Shumi takes advantage of micro-climates in Georgia, producing wine from different regions where terroir helps shape it flavours and taste. Khareba’s sprawling compound , on the other hand, consists of a lovely park, and an 8-km-long underground, converted tunnel beneath the Greater Caucasus that houses wines of all sorts.

Archaeological excavations seem to suggest that Georgia has produced wine from 8000 B.C., long before the empires rose and fell, or so says the tiny Shumi winery museum in Tsinandali. The traditional method of fermenting wine in a Qveri – a large, roundish terracotta clay vessel buried in the ground – is still practised in villages today and for some large wineries, Qveri wines now make up the premium range of their collection. As we learnt, Qveri wines produce deep, dark colours as opposed to the European way of fermentation and in particular, white wines turn out a deep amber colour; red wines turn out nearly black. Both have strange but stronger aromas and are typically very dry – TC is better suited to sorting them out than I can – but generally, the difference is rather stark.

And that’s saying something when all I smell is typically sour socks and the sharp burn of alcohol. Just sipping a Qveri’s bitter dryness just made me cringe.

Georgians are understandably, proud of their wine heritage and their enthusiasm about wine shines through every time they talk about it. There’re never-ending jokes of course, about Georgian men’s ability to imbibe 3-litres of wine each when the occasion calls for it and the correlation to their stomach sizes. No one ever makes a toast with beer – it’s considered inferior to wine – and since every family in villages practically own their own vineyard for their own wine consumption. With a wine culture that’s accessible to the common (and poor) man, it’s unsurprising that people don’t tend to get snobby about wines here.

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DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Food, wine and revolution

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The long road to democracy, a squeaky-clean police force (thanks to a reality show called ‘Police’ to restore its standing in the eyes of the public and a concerted effort to clamp down corruption) and a booming tourist industry that almost everyone is happy to capitalise on pretty much characterises what I saw in Tbilisi – and perhaps to a lesser extent, the whole of Georgia. The Tbilisi of today is a far cry of Tbilisi in 2002, at least according to Paul Rimple, one of the authors and guides for Culinary Backstreets, the food tour company with which TC and I signed up to get a feel of the local area.

A native Californian who’d been a chef, a blues musician and is now a journalist in Tbilisi after spending some time in Poland, Paul made it clear from the start that he wasn’t a tour guide, but rather, someone who knew the city and wanted to share the places he loved with visitors.

That was perfectly fine with us, being in a city where it was hard getting around without knowing Georgian. Our day started on a winter morning in the old town and after shaking hands with Paul, who stopped to tell us about his own experience living through the end of Eduard Shevardnadze era to the Rose Revolution and finally to what Georgia has become today.

We made stops at a tone bakery, a wine/cheese/cha-cha shop just next to the Sioni Cathedral and then hopped into a taxi to elbow our way through the Deserter’s Bazaar (or the Dezertirebi), a chaotic, boisterous place that hawks the freshest fruits, vegetables, spices, oils, nuts, piglets (dead) and well, pretty much everything else, named as such because army deserters sold weapons here in the early part of the 1920s. Today, you’re more likely to be faced with anonymous plastic bottles filled with what could be honey, sunflower oil or any other unnamed liquid rather than guns and toothless old crones (who look alarmingly like the old witches in fairytales) hustling you to buy their cheeses.

This is Paul’s favourite place and he has been called insane for that, but it’s clear he’s on very familiar terms with the shopkeepers there, stopping to greet people while doing his grocery shopping as we followed in his wake, buying the things he bought and then sitting down for handmade Khinkali (dumplings) at Zakhar Zakharich. Other several hole in the wall-type shops we made pit-stops included a Georgian wine/cheese shop whose owner went to the only English-speaking school in Georgia, as his Soviet-sympathetic father had probably expected his son to be an interpreter for the KGB. But said son grew up to make cheese and wine instead, which probably puts him in a better position now than ever, if he does indeed get to retain his license to make blue cheese.

TC and Paul sampled 7 different types of wine at Vino Underground, the most interesting being the amber-coloured ones that were fermented traditionally in the ground in large earthenware vessels called Qveri(s) for about 6 months or more, a process which produces very dry, deep-coloured liquids with unusual aromas. And finally, we headed a few blocks down and around to Ezo, an organic restaurant that’s focused on putting quality food on the table – cooked just the way a Georgian’s mother/aunt/granny does it, supposedly – sourced through sustainable farming methods and fair-trade deals.

Through Paul’s stories, it was easier through learn about the radical facelift that Tbilisi had undergone, some pieces of Georgia’s history finally falling into place after he filled in the gaps for us, but others remained frustratingly out of reach. Replete with wine and fantastic Georgian food, we walked dazedly back to Sioni Cathedral through backstreets that we would never have ventured on our own, never quite getting over the fact that Georgia – and its inhabitants – still remain quite a mystery apart from what the history books say.

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The bride who hides her face

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“Hello, my friend!” Tazo our driver greeted us with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him at first sight. As we found out throughout the day, he knows a smattering of English, ending every sentence with ‘my friend’. His driving skills are unparalleled, so much so that we had a headache by the end of the day trip into the Caucasus mountains.

The road out of Tbilisi is scenic, but absolute shite in many places. There are many times though, when the landscape alone makes it worth it and this is possibly one of those times.

The Georgian military highway is the only route out of Tbilisi into Russia and Azerbaijan, and follows the route of traders and invaders throughout the centuries through the high Caucasus. Touted as one of the most scenic – but dangerous drives – in the world, it’s easy to see why: harsh winters have reduced parts of the road to nothing more than potholes and the narrow width along hairpin turns would faze any driver.

But it’s also unbelievably gorgeous as it winds through isolated villages paralleling the Zhinvali Reservoir, the Ananuri Fortress, and the Gudauri ski resort near the highest point of the road called the Jvari pass before descending into Kazbegi, where most tourist journeys end, in the small village of Stepantsminda.

From then on, it’s a matter of playing Russian roulette (with not quite the same stakes) with the weather, to see if Gergeti Trinity church is accessible from Stepantsminda. Winter and heavy snowfall rule that option out almost immediately, despite the sunny skies, impassable even for 4WD vehicles which are normally used for that 6km trek uphill. TC and I had hoped to hike up, but that was pretty much a negative.

Kvintsa, our guide with Colour Tour Georgia, says Kazbegi is likened to a bride who shyly hides her face from visitors as it’s often shrouded in fog and clouds. Our disappointment and desperation must have been obvious, because the guide suggested that we could visit a neighbouring church on the other side of the mountain but we chose not to in the end, opting to see Gergeti church from the terrace of the very posh Kazbegi Rooms hotel.

Then it was back through the same road to Tbilisi – but with a stopover at a supermarket in Gudauri for lunch. Gvantsa and Tazo were brutally accommodating, eschewing their own proper meals that made us feel quite bad about it.

TC, however, slept most of his way through the journey, prompting concerned stares from everyone.

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In the heart of the Caucasus

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The locals call their land Saqartvelo, whereas everyone else calls it ‘Georgia’, a place (and many men thereafter) named after its patron Saint. For the longest time, it has been a country shrouded in shadowy myths (for me at least), lumped in with the rest of the Soviet states and forgotten about, until the Travel Companion (TC) bought a bottle of Georgian wine years ago.

My research into the place started in earnest then. I looked into their ancient language – a part of me imagines this is how Proto-Indo European might have sounded like -, the wine, the gorgeous churches, the mountains, the fabled hospitality of the people…and I was sold.

A few days into this trip, well, let’s just say that reality is a little more sobering. Avlabari, the site of old Tbilisi where the hotel is, is oddly chaotic and I’ve never gotten so many wary, distrustful stares from people and that’s not because I have unshaven armpits.

Georgia has always been the pawn of a larger power or another, tussled among those who warred over its ancient, fertile soil. War, or at least some kind of conflict has plagued its borders every few years, the latest being the looming spectre of a revived Russia seeking to inch past its borders. Consequently, there’s always a long story made of facts (and some entertaining fiction about saints and sinners) that every guide will enthusiastically tell of their colourful history, though getting their personal opinions of their conquering powers and the recent political situation is equivalent to pulling teeth.

Tbilisi is on its own, a huge contradiction but a proud survivor of its turbulent past: a beautiful mixture of architecture (best seen in the carvings on the balconies in the old quarter), a blend of old and modern, centuries-old Orthodox churches, bordered at times by grim, industrial-looking Soviet architecture on both sides of the Mtkvari River.

The guide that we had in the free walking tour of Tbilisi exemplified this quirk in his anachronistic dressing that belonged better in Dickensian or Victorian England. He took us around the old city, explained about the family network of Georgians as seen in the sharing of balconies/terraces, walked us through the sulphur baths, the Siony church, Freedom square and gave us a taste of Churchkhela (Georgian traditional candy made of nuts dipped in a sweet wine roux and left to dry out).

But there is as always, much more to the country than just its capital. I couldn’t wait to find out.

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