Shades and Notes of Autumn and Wine [Georgia]

Travel

October 21, 2018 – The Heart of Tbilisi

The third leg of this trip, after time in Azerbaijan and Armenia, ended in Georgia. We had originally flown through Georgia from Azerbaijan to get to Armenia but returned to actually spend time and explore the former Soviet republic. To no one’s surprise, many assumed I was headed to the U.S. State of Georgia to spend a weekend in Atlanta, however, I was halfway across the globe A bit of fun history, the country of Georgia is rumored to be named after St. George, whereas the American State of Georgia is named after King George II.

We had an early morning flight from Yerevan, Armenia, to Tbilisi, Georgia. We had a pleasant experience at Yerevan’s airport, however, after lifting off on the flight, the door to the cockpit flung open and kept flapping back and forth – not too many people seemed concerned. The 30 minute flight had us in Tbilisi in no time, a taxi took us to our Airbnb near the city center and Liberty Square, and my travel partner Robyn and I spent time researching Tbilisi before setting out. Liberty Square is a roundabout with a fountain and a monument with a gold bust of St. George slaying a dragon.

Liberty Square & Monument

Out we went to explore the city of Tbilisi. We passed by Old Parliament, where there was a demonstration outside with posters depicting the EU and US flags – not sure what was going on? Anyway, we kept going to 9th of April park. Eerily enough, my exact birth date is a nationally-known day of importance and sadness in Tbilisi. On April 9, 1989, an anti-Soviet demonstration was gruesomely dispersed by the Soviet Army, and 21 Georgians lost their lives. The day was seen as fuel of opposition to Soviet power, which led to Georgia’s declaration of independence two years later on April 9, 1991. It’s now a public holiday called The Day of National Unity. The memorial park itself is serene, with several bust statues and greenspace.

After spending some peaceful moments in the park, we came across the Dry Bridge Market, a collection of vendors selling antiques, artwork, knickknacks and old Soviet paraphernalia. Across the city, you’ll see steeples poking out through the skyline, a real indication of Georgia’s 80%+ Orthodox Christian following. Walking alongside the Mtkvari River, we reached Rike Park, a public park that includes elements of a modern city, including modern art and a performing arts center. Just across The Bridge of Peace is a stark contrast, the Old City of Tbilisi. There are local sentiments regarding the modern bridge and park, but I see it as a nice balance between the history and future of the country. On this busy Sunday in the park, we crossed the bridge to a walk back in time.

Hanging on long strings in nearly every local food shop is one of Georgia’s most unique and mysterious icons, churchkhela. The main ingredients are grape mash, nuts and flour, and locals make these by dipping a string of walnuts into thickened grape juice and then drying it in the sun. At the end, they look like sausages on a string, a strange sight for tourists who don’t know what they actually are! Robyn and I tried a bit of one, and were concerned about the need for a dentist, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Near our Airbnb was the Galleria Mall, where we bought some winter clothes for really cheap, which would come in handy in Chicago. I bought a winter coat, three sweaters and a winter hat for under $100 USD! Most items are really cheap in Georgia, even compared to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Also in the mall was a grocery store, where Robyn and I bought a medley of vegetables and some local wine, all for $14. At our Airbnb, we made a lovely dinner of fresh roasted vegetables and toasted to the first night in Tbilisi.

October 22, 2018 – The Height of Autumn

After sleeping in well beyond normal, Robyn and I headed back toward the Bridge of Peace to the cable station, where we would take a cable car ride ($2 lari) to the top of Narikala Fortress. The views from the top of the city were incredible, where you’re able to see both the modern and old parts of the city, the Mtkvari River and beyond. I highly recommend spending time to do this in Tbilisi.

Also at the top of the city is the Mother of Georgia statue – she holds a bowl of wine to welcome but also holds a sword to fend off enemies. On the opposite side of the fortress is the botanical gardens, an incredible view of the October autumn colors that had a variety of conifer, deciduous, flowers, streams and waterfalls. The views and crisp weather reminded me of a beautiful autumn day in the Midwest.

We started to descend down from the mount, and reached the Tbilisi Central Mosque (Juma), a rare mosque in which Shia and Sunni Muslims pray side by side. A beautiful bright blue mosaic facade with intricate patterns was a key reason to visit this site.

Just a few hundred feet away from the mosque was the Orbeliani Baths, a series of communal baths that pulls its waters from natural sulfur springs – smells like rotten eggs but many people swear by its natural healing abilities. We did not attend and instead treated ourselves to a fruity frappe at a nearby ice cream shop.

It soon started to rain quite steadily, so we made our way through some side streets back to the grocery store to grab more vegetables, cheese and wine to enjoy a nice rainy evening inside with music. Throughout the day, I remember telling myself how nice, welcoming and helpful the Georgian people were. It felt wonderful to be in a place where we knew no one but felt all the familiar autumn feels.

October 23, 2018 – Leave the Road, Take the Trails

What was next? Well, Georgia is a decently-sized country, so we wanted to explore the breadth of what it had to offer. Early in the morning we transferred to the airport to pick up our rental car, a silver Toyota Corolla with a few evident scrapes and dings (which I don’t mind because the bar has not been set high!). After switching the GPS from French to English, I took the wheel and exited the airport to the main road. It’s always a crapshoot how driving customs and norms will be when Robyn and I get behind the wheel in a foreign country. I soon found out that passing is so nonchalant, as drivers will turn a two-way highway into a three lane situation. Like most foreign countries, we passed through several roundabouts and were overtaken by many speed demons. We headed east to the far east border of Georgia, alongside the northwesternmost part of Azerbaijan. The roads were nicely maintained, and we passed through the towns of Sartichala, Bakurtsikhe, Anaga, Sakobo and then to our destination, Lagodekhi. We arrived around noon and stopped in the town to get snacks (almonds, chips, water, fruit). The local clerks were really confused to see foreigners.

Robyn and I are not avid hikers, climbers or athletes, however, we do enjoy walking and exploring. This day, we went to the Lagodekhi Nature Reserve to do some nature walking. First, we went to the info center, where the guides were really helpful in choosing a trail. We decided to take the “Black Grouse Waterfall Trail Hike,” which had yellow marks to guide us along the way and assumed to be a 4.5 hour excursion.

The first part of the walk was quite flat, extremely quiet and peaceful except for the crunch of autumn leaves as we passed. The trail changed from dirt to rocks from time to time, testing our ankles and balance. Nearby was the Shromiskhevi River – as we reached an area without any more yellow marks, we contemplated, “Do we keep going on the hill, or are we supposed to ford THAT river?” Well, we found out it was the latter. Parts of the river were dry enough to easily climb over the boulders, however, there as an area of fast-flowing river with only a few peeking stones to make it across. With lots of communication and courage, we both managed to make it to the other side (luckily there was virtually no one at the park to see this!).

From there, the trail became harder and harder. (Revert back to when I said Robyn and I are not avid hikers). As I alluded to, we only saw around 10 people at the nature reserve the entire day. After making it across the river, the demands of the trail were often unrealistic for us: steep hikes, full of timber, branches, vines. There were many moments when the trail only allowed for the width of one foot, with a steep fall in our peripherals. What kept me going was the fact that there was a “prize” at the end – the waterfall. The trails going up steep inclines continued, and often I had to hold on to roots and vines to allow me to overcome a step. Two friendly dogs randomly met us and lifted our spirits. Robyn, who is not a fan of heights, stopped and waited near the peak of the difficulties, and I asked a random hiker passing by how long until the waterfall. She answered, “Only 10-15 more minutes.” In my head, I adjusted that to allow for about 30 minutes given my mental state. I continued, as Robyn waited back with the company of the dogs. The last 10 minutes were the most difficult, but I started to hear the crashing of water, the adrenaline kicked in, and I made it to the waterfall with jubilation. The beautiful fall colors and refreshing mist made it all worth it. There was one guy sitting at the waterfall, so I asked him to take photos of me to document this achievement, and I returned the favor to him.

I quickly made it back to Robyn, and we both were ready to retrace the trail, which was much easier this time. We made it back at 5:12 p.m., which means we did the trail in 3 hours, 57 minutes, faster than the estimated 4.5 hours! Maybe we are eligible to be avid hikers after all?! Honestly, I was really proud of Robyn for doing such a challenging trek, which is not easy for someone uneasy of heights.

Only five minutes away was our Airbnb, one of the most unique Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. It’s situated right near the nature reserve in a rural area. As we approached, chickens and dogs roamed free in the garden, where the host grew fruits and vegetables. The host, Ketevan, made us some tea, and we chatted with her lovely neighbors. The Airbnb had small rooms with rough showers, but after a long hike, it was enough.

Airbnb at Lagodekhi

October 24, 2018 – To Western Georgia

Roosters and dogs. Not the ideal alarm clock for me, but it was effective. The springy beds popped us right up for a fresh breakfast made by the host, including an omelet, fruits, vegetables and tea. We packed up our things in the Corolla, and I took the wheel again back the same route, which was easier this time with a bit of familiarity. Georgian roads have cameras everywhere, so I was always conscious of speeding, even though everyone else was clearly raging the roads. Similar to our hike, we retraced the trail back through Tbilisi and headed west this time through the towns of Norio, Mtskheta, Samtavisi, Agarebi, Zestafoni, then to our destination, Kutaisi. The highways were nearly perfect, so smooth, and we were able to drive a higher speed on them. Robyn and I swapped spots near Gori, which was in-between Samtavisi and Agarebi.

There’s something about being behind the wheel on an open highway with incredible views. Robyn and I didn’t have cars in our home country, so this was a rare occurrence for us to experience the feeling. From time to time, we’d see vendors alongside the road, who strangely all coordinated by category. We’d see a bunch of bread vendors, then a few miles later we would see ceramic vendors, and then basket vendors, and so forth.

Upon arriving in Kutaisi, it was noticeably smaller than Tbilsi, which only a fraction of the population (150k). It had started to rain, and we were looking for our Airbnb, which took some time to find. We finally found it, parked and then brought our things inside. Well, I know I just wrote that the Airbnb in Lagodekhi was the most unique one yet, but this one in Kutaisi may take the cake. It was a spacious Airbnb with several connected rooms (great), however, it may be one of the creepiest places I’ve been. In each room there were old hospital beds that had been converted into cribs with creepy old dolls. The lighting and wallpaper were dim enough to make it seem like the set of an 80’s horror film. The doors creaked when you moved them, but they also slightly creaked with the movement of air.

Eager to get out, Robyn and I researched places to eat in the town and found a lovely restaurant, Sapere. It made dim lighting well more romantic than our Airbnb and specialized in local Georgian wine. We tried the Imereti wine; Imereti is a region in western Georgia. For the meal, I enthusiastically tried a local cornbread called “mchadi” with cheese – perfect for my gluten free diet. Also in my selection were pumpkin soup and potatoes tossed in dill, one of the most delicious meals I’ve had.

Everything was a bit dim from then on. We walked back to the Airbnb in the dark of the poorly-lit city. Trying to open the gate in the dark with the key trembling in my hand would have made for a great rising action segment of a film. No interesting part to this movie, however, but we made it inside and locked and closed all the doors and curtains. It’s funny how darkness itself can cause the mind to stress, even though we were in one of the safest countries in the world.

October 25, 2018 – A Bazaar, Gloomy Day

Well, we survived night 1. Daylight was welcomed, and we started to get ready, but unfortunately the water heater was not working, so we waited a while until the repair man came. We set out to see the town of Kutaisi under an overcast, rainy sky. The city center had lots of renovation projects, but the Rioni River was a beautiful sight to see in autumn. The biggest energy of the town is the Green Bazaar, where vendors of all types sell local goods, foods and products. We stopped by Tea House Foe-Foe for a morning meal and tea before exploring the small Kutaisi Park and Fountain. The Opera House was also nearby, but we did not go in. We went back to the Green Bazaar to check out some more shops, and we were near the end of our tour when we heard commotion in a small side street that the vendors used. To our shock, we saw a man on the ground not moving and people surrounded him. It was hard for us to tell what was going on because women were shrieking in desperation and men yelled in Georgian. In the surroundings were fruit carts along the cobblestone street with vegetables all over the ground – it looked like medieval times. People put cardboard underneath the man to support his body until the ambulance came. Watching reenactments from the locals, we derived that the man slipped on the wet street and hit the back of his head on the stone. What a scene.

Inspired by our cablecar trip in Tbilisi, we decided to take the 1960’s cablecar to the top of the hill in Kutaisi, Besik Gabashvili Park. After arriving, you enter Besik Park, a park full of amusement rides that had no visitors that day. It again had an eerie feeling – dark, wet, run down rides with no people in sight. From there, we walked about 15 minutes through local neighborhoods to Bagrati Cathedral, an 11th-century cathedral at the top of Ukimerioni Hill. The view from there was incredible, overlooking the town and beyond.

Nearby, we stopped at a bar/restaurant and had some afternoon wine. They were out of most things, and we kept the pour going until they ran out! You could see the young servers going to find a new pitcher of wine from somewhere to keep business going. Rain started to come down heavily, so we spent more hours there until the rain dropped off (and so did we!). We traced our steps back to the cable car park to take a ride back, but there were no workers and it was closed, so we had to find an alternative route, to walk down to the city.

For dinner, we ate at Papavero, where I had some more mchadi and a pork chop. Nightfall began to set in and we walked back home in light rain. About three blocks until our Airbnb, the heavens opened and buckets of rain fell on the town. We started to awkwardly run through the drainless streets, and because it was so dim, it was hard to see the potholes in the road before submerging our feet in them. This time, my hand shook again when trying to open the gate with the key, rushing to get inside as quickly as possible. We sighed heavily as we got inside, completely soaked to the core.

But, the power was out. Yes, the power was out in our creepy Airbnb while we were completely soaked. I stripped down to my underwear (also wet) and sat with Robyn hoping that the lights (not even sure I would designate them as “lights”) would return. We called the Airbnb owner, and she said the rest of the city had power. Well, not us. We waited a while until people came to check the situation. And in my horror movie fantasy, the knock on the door in complete darkness was perfect for the movie set. Our phones were nearly empty of battery, and luckily the power came on just in time for bed.

October 26, 2018 – Free-Spirited in the Final Day

I’m still here writing this, so the horror movie wasn’t successful. We were excited to leave the creepy place, so we got ready and jumped in the rental car as soon as possible. Several of our clothes were still soaked, so we laid them out in the rental car as if it was a clothes line. The ride back east to Tbilisi was refreshing, town by town passing, each alongside the valley of a river. We stopped in Zestafoni (interesting name that sounds more Italian than Georgian) to grab a coffee alongside the road. The drive back to Tbilisi was easy, but once we got into the capital, that all changed.

We unfortunately arrived on a Friday at rush hour. People were always merging lanes, honking and throwing their arms out the window to signal displeasure or self-direct traffic. I could feel the stress from Robyn as we tried to navigate the traffic together to get back to the airport. We got back to the airport to return the car, which was no problem. Remember those speed cameras all over the place? Well, we were caught one time, which was a 50 lari fine ($19 USD) – not bad, so we’ll take the ticket as a souvenir and memory.

Our final Airbnb host picked us up at the airport and took us to the place near the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi, the other side of the city compared to where we stayed at initially. We walked back to the Old City for some souvenirs and got some wild blackberry and saperavi jam. For dinner, we ate at g.Vino, a lovely wine bar near the Bridge of Peace. I of course had the mchadi again and fkhali, a mashup of beetroot, nuts and other leafy vegetables – very delicious! For the main course, I had veal in curry walnut sauce with polenta. To no surprise, we maxed out on another bottle of affordable Georgian wine.

Inspired by our drinking, Robyn wanted to get some wine to take back to the U.S., so we stopped at a wine shop and sampled a few that the drunk owner suggested. He asked where we were from, and he raved about Chicago. After Robyn purchased her wine, the owner said something about hooking us up with some “chacha,” so the clerk got out a few shot glasses and filled them with a clear spirit. Apparently “chacha” is a 70-proof pomace brandy made during the winemaking process. I could smell the alcohol from afar and both of us were hesitant to partake, but we said, “Oh well, it’s our last night in Georgia, let’s do it.” It burned like vodka on the way down, like breathing fire. The owner then said, “Oh wait, you’re not finished. We always take two shots.”

Needless to say, we felt quite warm when leaving that place. Robyn turned to me, “What the hell just happened?!” Laughing in unison during the walk back to the Airbnb, we enjoyed our final moments in autumn Georgia.

October 27, 2018 – Nachvamdis!

We left really early for the airport the next morning. Because it was sunny, I realized I left my nice sunglasses in the rental car we had returned yesterday. I hurried to the rental car place and called the guy (who was not working) to see if he could call to see if my sunglasses were still in the car. In true Georgian fashion, he drove from the city to the airport to help me find them at the rental car cleaning facility. It was so nice of him to do this – all to help me get a pair of sunglasses. (True Georgian spirit!) Robyn and I waited a while and jumped on the Turkish Airlines flight back through to Chicago.

Georgia, what an incredible breadth of nature and history and a bright future ahead. I was so impressed with the hospitality of the locals and how I was able to experience autumn in a familiar, but certainly different way. Georgian food – surprisingly fitting for my diet and palette, and Georgian affordability, also fitting for my palette! Georgia has gone through many turbulent times in its history and still faces separatist movements within its borders, and I will never forget that my birth date means much more to the Georgian people in its move for independence. Overall, an incredible region was the Caucasus, and I recommend being curious enough to explore its gifts.

Full of wine and full of happiness.

-Michael

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