Fall for Georgia
Writer Kelly Phillips Badal visits Eastern Europe’s on-the-rise destination and discovers a new luxury travel scene, wildly beautiful landscapes and her keen love of the country’s wine, cheese and bread. Photography by Tanveer Badal
Georgia draws comparisons to France and Italy for its rich history of wine and love of food; Switzerland for its snow-capped Caucasus mountain range; Berlin and Brooklyn for its active, atmospheric capital, Tbilisi. There are 16,000-foot ski peaks, Black Sea beaches, and picturesque medieval villages. And here’s the mind-boggling thing: travel time between each wildly different place is often just a matter of hours.
Faced with a wealth of choices, I center my trip around Tbilsi and the mountain getaway town of Stepantsminda, with a stopover at the ancient capital city Mtskheta and a loop through the storied Kakheti wine region.
Tbilsi’s Old-World-Meets-New-World Charm
Delightfully chic, Rooms Hotel Tbilsi is the launching point for my husband and me. A formerly abandoned publishing house-turned-Design Hotels standout, it’s flush with antique rugs, distressed leather and vintage Soviet movie posters. There we meet our Ker & Downey guide Levan Dvali, a Batumi-born-and-raised Georgian. He leads us through twists and turns to the whimsically-named Sophia Melnikovas Fantastic Duhan, a café-restaurant tucked in the courtyard of Tbilisi’s Literature Museum. Under a leafy awning we try our first taste of khinkali, hefty meat and herb-filled dumplings and khachapuri, a tasty cheesebread sometimes called Georgia’s twist on pizza. These two beloved staples appear, in various iterations, on every menu in the country.
You can’t visit Tbilisi without exploring the old quarter, where the faint gross scent of the Abanotubani district’s ancient domed sulphur bathhouses mixes with a cacophony of shops, cafes and street stands. Here, elegantly dilapidated wooden homes with gingerbread lattice balconies hang from rocky cliffs overhead, and a shady path snakes down to the city’s tranquil and much-photographed little waterfall. Hike high among the winding streets for views of the wide Mtkvari river dividing the city, higher still to stand at the feet of Kartlis Deda, the venerable Mother of Georgia statue presiding over the city’s best panoramic view. From there it’s easy to pick out some of the daring architecture that visually demonstrates the wave of modernity erupting out from this fifth-century city. Don’t miss seeing the bow-shaped Peace Bridge or mushroom-shaped Justice House.
One example of a group epitomizing past-meets-present is the Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet—which wasn’t scheduled to perform during our trip. But a phone call from Tika Svanidze Vancko, Ker & Downey’s in-country insider, secured entry to a private practice-cum-performance helmed by soloist Lika Tsipuria. Even seeing the dancers sans wigs and weaponry is a powerful display of art, as Georgian ballet is no delicate dance. It’s pure athleticism, with stomping, twirling, and tornado-fast spins and dips, punctuated by drums and vocal polyphony. It’s absolutely unforgettable.
We’ve saved a visit to the Queen’s sulphur bathhouse for a late-night treat, soaking the day away in a steamy, ancient brick-arched private spa chamber filled with bubbling water from the city’s natural hot springs. After a leisurely post-soak cup of tea we emerge: rosy, scrubbed and ready for more.
The Magnificent Caucasus Mountain Region
The best way to travel around Georgia is via car and driver, although there are in-country flights to major destinations (and helicopters can whisk you nearly anywhere). The historic Georgian military road points our way to the Caucasus mountain-ringed countryside. We pause at one of the more breathtaking hilltops along the way, the site of the sixth-century Jvari monastery which overlooks the former capital city of Mtskheta. This ancient town is Georgia’s spiritual heart. Levan points out the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli cathedral below, one of many impossibly old and meticulously cared-for churches we’ll see throughout our journey. “Georgia is churches, churches are Georgia,” he declares.
Nestled high in the southern Caucasus mountains, our destination Stepantsminda, née Kazbegi, has recently developed from little more than a trading post with nearby Russia to a premier hiking and skiing destination. One of the major reasons for the shift is the presence of five-year-old Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, which brought upscale amenities to the highlands for the first time. A restored Brutalist building and former Soviet resort—it’s been reimagined with an enormous communal area, expansive terrace, and a subterranean heated pool—all offering stunning alpine views and a glimpse of the town’s peak-perched 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church. It’s tempting to simply kick back (and many vacationing Georgians do just that) but that isolated little church is worth the effort of ascension. We hire a local jeep and driver to reach the top, lurching along an unpaved road that twists through forested ravines to triumphantly reach the crest. Along the way, Levan teaches me the Georgian word gamarjoba, a polite way of saying hello that loosely translates to “I wish you victory.” Atop a 7,119-foot peak, that sentiment seems entirely appropriate.
Kakheti’s Vibrant Viticulture
Travel to Georgia, and you will drink wine—you’ll be pressed and presented with it at every meal, your person toasted and your glass refilled until you protest (but why refuse?). Keep drinking, trying varietals with tongue-twister names like rkatseteli, mtsvane or tsitska, which your palate has likely never encountered. The culture and the country’s 8,000-year viniculture are pleasurably, inexorably linked. “Wine is our life liquid,” Château Svanidze winery owner George Svanidze tells me. “Georgia is the motherland of wine.”
It isn’t yet harvest season when we arrive at the Svanidze family château in the town of Signaghi, a famous corner of the Kakheti wine region, but all the better. We’ve come specifically for a traditional family-style supra, or Georgian feast. Here, I try my hand assisting in the making of khinkali, attempting to master the neat twist that seals each juicy pouch. I watch closely as a local baker pulls long, parenthetical-shaped pieces of bread called shotis puri from the sides of a traditional round, open oven called a tone, emerging wonderfully crispy at the ends. Pork and chicken turn on skewers over an open-air grill, infusing the air. When we sit down, the table nearly groans with pleasure at the addition of khachapuri and vegetables too.
Of course, there’s room for wine. While Georgia has some industrial wineries, the family winery tradition is strong. Most of the country’s 100,000-odd micro-wineries produce wine by an ancient method, filling huge clay urns called qvevri with grapes—skins, seeds, and all—and burying them in the ground to ferment. The Svanidze family wines are crafted this way, in an organic process where taste is paramount.
None of us officially takes on the part of tamada, or toastmaster, a pivotal role at any traditional Georgian feast, so we embrace the act together. For ages we sit, calling out toasts accompanied by dry red Saperavi and a semi-sweet Kindzmarauli, long after we can’t eat another bite. Gaikhare, we repeat over and over, coached by Levan. It’s another distinctly Georgian term, a friendly way of saying thank you that implies, “I wish you happiness.” We can’t say it enough.
Georgian visas aren’t required for U.S. citizens which makes traveling easier. -Nicole Porto, Luxury Travel Expert