It’s been quite a hectic few months with the end of another school year, a visit from family, my own visit state-side and now, sitting here in the Istanbul heat, I find myself wishing I were on another holiday…somewhere a bit cooler in temperature and with really amazing FOOD. That place would be Georgia…no, not Atlanta, but the Republic of Georgia. I traveled there this past spring with my friend and her two teenage daughters. I have to say the trip made a lasting impression…kinda fell in love with Tbilisi… might be my new favorite getaway…
I’ve been interested in Georgia for a while, especially after several friends visited and came back praising it. So, here lies one of the many beauties of living in Istanbul: PROXIMITY—Tbilisi is only 2 and half hours by plane. I was lucky enough that my friend could speak one of the languages spoken in Georgia–a huge help, as there was truthfully quite a language barrier. We had worried that the teenagers would get bored or that there wouldn’t be enough to sight see… and we were (thankfully) completely wrong. As many positive things that I had heard about Georgia, I still was shocked by how completely and utterly charming it was. I definitely feel that there’s enough to explore for at least 5 days or more, but we also took a few side trips to Georgia’s ‘wine country’ for vineyard exploring, and we made the journey up Kazbegi Mountain. The trip honestly could not have felt more out of a fairytale and the country is beautiful, the people are heart-warmingly friendly, and the food is AMAZING: Dumplings for breakfast? Yes, thank you. I’ll be staying.
The first part of the trip was spent solely exploring Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. We walked around the old town and got completely lost in the small back streets. Locals told us that in Georgian, they call Tbilisi the ‘balcony of Europe’ and it’s not hard to see why. There are Romeo and Juliet-style balconies in every teeny tiny alleyway with wisteria and bougainvillea trailing down in clumps, wildly poking out of windows and cracks in the walls. It’s all very ‘storybook’…although as charming and pretty as everything is, it’s still an old city and one trying to rebuild itself—not only architecturally, but also economically. Georgia only became independent from Russia in 1991 and in a lot of ways is still trying to pick itself up. It certainly does have a lot to offer in terms of tourism, with many museums, hundreds of stunning hill-top Orthodox churches, and pretty little cafes serving their own Georgian wine and lining every sidewalk. For me, the highlights were wandering the streets, heading up to Mtatsminda Park and Pantheon, catching a show at the Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theatre, and stopping for wine or the stronger ‘cha cha‘ all……day…….long.
My favorite cafe was hidden a bit off the beaten path. Purpur Cafe is in the old town but
back and around a few layers of streets, inside a building that appears at first to be abandoned, but is actually home to this precious cafe on the 2nd floor. It’s a bit pricey-er than most of the other restaurants in town. I honestly wouldn’t suggest it for dinner, but rather something light (cake/coffee)—or if you are like me, treat yourself to a half liter of wine and just enjoy the beautiful setting. I feel it’s pretty fair to say that people go to Purpur for the ambiance. The decor looks like you just walked into an antique store. Every light fixture is different, as are all the tables and chairs, and the china is all adorably mismatched. It’s that kind of ‘absolutely perfect’ that happens when everything isn’t perfect. Each time I was there, the only sounds heared were from Billie Holiday blasting overhead, drowning out any other city noises…a kind of magical transport back through time.
Those 1st few days in Tbilisi, breakfast was usually a large coffee from the Dunkin Donuts on Rustaveli Avenue (Yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth) and then some kind of meat or cheese filled ‘kacapuri‘ from the Good Mood bakery nearby. We would walk and explore all day then go for a long dinner. We decided to check out a place known for dumplings called Zakhar Zakharich. We went once, and this became our favorite place with a tradition of nearly every dinner eaten here. This is not a place for ambiance and is actually dark and a bit noisy. It’s not a fussy place for anyone concerned with presentation, but rather a place to come and just full on EAT—eat more specifically things like ‘kacapuri’ and ‘khinkali‘. ‘Kacapuri’ is a pizza-like dish made of bread and cheese, sometimes with an egg or meat as well. The bread is flaky almost like a southern biscuit and the cheese is melted so that it’s sort of soufle- esque as it all squishes together.
‘Khinkali‘ are the dumplings. These are not dainty little dumplings. These are ginormous, half-the-size-of-your-face dumplings that you actually have to eat by picking up their nubby stems and then biting and quickly sucking out the soup broth inside. It’s juicy and savory and spicy and chewy and a complete total mess…but in the best kind of messy way. The most common filling is meat spiced with garlic and lots of cilantro. We would usually order lots of different things and just share it all- filling the table with various kacapuris and khinkalis and beet salads and roasted pork chops or sausages and roasted vegetables.
A surprising food star turned out to actually be an eggplant dish. Hands down, the khinkali was initially my favorite Georgian food…but by the time the trip was ending, after day in and day out of dumplings, I actually came to love this eggplant dish even better. Yup, eggplant won over dumplings…even I’m shocked! I can’t remember the Georgian name, but it was the only eggplant usually on the menu and it was very thinly sliced roasted eggplant filled with a walnut pesto made of walnuts, garlic, and cilantro and topped with pomegranate seeds. It’s salty and savory but sweet and light and fresh…but filling. Sometimes we would have to order three plates…it was that beloved.
After Tbilisi we hired a private car to drive us to Sighnagi, a town in the Kakheti region
of Georgia. Although debatable, Georgians claim that wine was actually first produced in Georgia dating back to around 4000 BC and that the methods they use today are true to the first style of wine production. All I know is that it’s completely different from anything I’ve ever seen. The wine is produced by placing the grapes inside a giant clay pot, and then burying this pot underground and letting it undergo the whole fermentation process inside this pot. This controls the temperature to get the perfect fermentation. We spent a day being driven all over to various different wineries that showed us the process. We also got to see the ‘cha cha’ process and taste that as well. ‘Cha cha’ is what’s made from the grape leftovers after the wine… and it’s pretty strong stuff. After a few glasses of ‘cha cha‘ everything tasted pretty good to me, but my two favorite wines were definitely the Saperevi(a dark nearly black colored grape), and the Kindzmarauli, (a naturally sweet cherry-like wine). The wine is rich and velvety, but also very easy to drink…as we experienced when our B&B hostess in Sighnagi kept bringing us up her homemade semi-sweet wine every morning for breakfast.
Looking back, I think those were my truly favorite meals in Georgia: the 2 breakfasts at Temuka B&B in Sighnagi. Each morning, the owner filled our table with homemade ‘kacapuri’ and ‘khinkali’, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, olives, coffee, fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, homemade ‘paczki‘- a kind of doughnut…and to wash it down with…WINE! Everything was delicious, but more than the taste, I think the fact that this woman opened her home to us and took such pride in sharing her traditions with us was truly the most special part. Sometimes she would sit and speak to my friend, who would translate back everything to me and her daughters. Then later in the evening, after we had gone touring and come back, she would always offer us some of the dinner she had made for her and her husband. One night she made us borscht, a dish I normally think of as Russian, but seems to have roots in many cultures. Hers was bright red and filled with carrots and beets, and tasted of warmth and love and health.
We left Sighnagi and headed back to Tbilisi where we explored more, ate more ‘kacapuri‘ and even more ‘khinkali‘ and took a day trip to the Caucasus Mountains to see St. Gergheti Church. Everything was wonderful, my friend even laughingly joked that for her and her children this was simultaneously ‘the most relaxing and most adventurous trip’ they had ever had. On our last night, we had an early dinner at Zakhar Zakharich, eating all our old favorites (yes, lots of the eggplant) while drinking Kakhetian wine. After dinner, we went to a show at the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre for the show ‘Marshal De Fantie’s Diamond’. I’ve never seen a marionette puppet show before. I had no idea what to expect…and it was one of the most profound artistic experiences I’ve ever had. I was crying at the end (and it wasn’t sad… it was a comedy) for how beautiful that the messages were. It was thought-provoking for adults and dream-like for kids of all ages. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Georgia as the show referenced Georgian culture, joking about traditions and food…the absolute best way to hold the memory of this place with me in my heart.