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Wednesday, 13 March 2013 12:31

Here’s to Georgia: a Taste of History - and Fine Wine in the Republic of Georgia

Written by  Margery Weinstein

History buffs who love fine  wine and gourmet cuisine can be tough to match with ideal destinations - because many of them have already visited the cities in Europe and elsewhere known for such things. The good news is there’s a place most of your toughest clients still have not visited - The Republic of Georgia. An independent country since 1991, Georgia is poised to claim a spot on the travel maps of history-loving foodies. 

 

Rich History, Rich Foods

Travel time from the United States to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is about 12 hours from New York City, so it is likely that travelers will arrive after sundown. Fortunately, the city offers sophisticated options for weary travelers in search of a relaxed meal before bed. JAX FAX enjoyed a memorable first Georgian meal at
Hotel Kopala, which boasts a restaurant with impressive views, even at night, of Tbilisi.

 Traditional Georgian meals are served family-style with small plates that continue to arrive at the table long after diners assumed they had seen the last of them. Walnut sauces atop all varieties of meats and an array of cheeses adorn the table. No Georgian table is complete without a cheese plate featuring heavily flavored smoked cheeses and goat cheeses alongside lighter tasting cow cheese. These ancillary cheeses are crowned by the ultimate Georgian cheese dish - Khachapuri (proncounced “hodgy-pouray”). Served at every Georgian lunch and dinner, khachapuri contains soft, fluffy bread straight from the oven with rich melted, buttery cheese tucked inside. Mushrooms with melted cheese are another cheese-related staple of the Georgian table. Along with heavy elements like walnuts and cheese, the traditional table also includes lighter touches such as pomegranate seeds, which are included in many recipes and straight-from-the-garden cucumber and tomato salads. And no meal is complete without Georgian wine. With such a vast selection of rich foods, Georgians typically serve white, rather than red, wine with meals (but more on that later). 

Worship, Ancient to Present

Visitors to Georgia often will notice the country’s flag flying alongside another flag - that of the Georgian Orthodox church, which has played an important role in the country since ancient times. 

To get a sense of the continuing importance of the church in Georgian life, begin your tour with the newest, and one of the more impressive, churches, Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, commonly known as Sameba. Completed in 2004 following an architectural design competition, the church is the largest in the Caucasus region and features a beautiful rose garden. It is easy to spend up to an hour there, strolling the church’s large raised terrace with views of the mountain-framed city of Tbilisi in the background. It is also a good place to stop for rest with large steps and benches readily available for tourists in need of a break. 

From the 21st century, the visitor can then drop back in time all the way to the 13th century with a trip to Metekhi Church of Assumption which rests on a hill overlooking the city along with a fort, which dates back to the 6th century. A sense of the city’s history comes through with King Vakhtang Gorgasali, who built the church and fort, commemorated on horseback in a statue on the site. 

From Metekhi Church, JAX FAX enjoyed a stroll down Chardin Street which features a multitude of cafes and outside dining areas and small shops scattered here and there. It is a good spot to stop for lunch and a break after an immersive experience like a tour of an ancient church. 

Feeling newly refreshed, the tourist can then make their way to Jvari Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Jvari” means “holy cross,” and takes its name from a wooden cross that used to stand on the site. Parts of the church date back to 605. Leaving Jvari Monastery, another worthwhile historic stop is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, another UNESCO World Heritage Site where it is said, a local Jew, Sidonia, was buried with Christ’s robe in her hands. In the fifth century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali built a large basilica on the site and in the 11th century, Catholicos Melchisedec built a cross-domed church and a porch in place of the old damaged basilica. This is the largest preserved church in Georgia with part of the facade masonry dating back to the 15th century. The building has been used for centuries for the coronation and burial of Georgian monarchs. 

 

Day Two: Toasting Georgia

Tbilisi is where most travelers to Georgia will start their trip, and a visit to a few historic churches and monasteries is a good way to get an immersive sense of the country’s history. But for a sense of the country’s current culture, a second day in Kakheti, Georgia’s wine-producing region, is in order. About a two-hour drive from Tbilisi, the typical route to Kakheti (pronounced “ka-hety” with a silent “k” in the middle) allows for interesting breaks from driving. JAX FAX spent nearly an hour at a roadside bakery (a rustic one-room house) observing traditional Georgian bread-making in which dough is stuck to the sides of a wood-burning stove built like a cavernous pit into the floor of the house.

In the same roadside area, a woman could be observed making and selling churchkhela (pronounced “chorch-hella”), a sweet Georgian treat made from hardened grape juice (looks like vats of caramel) and walnuts. What looks like thick string is dipped into the vats of the mixture until candies resembling long dripping candles emerge to be hung to dry. If travelers are lucky, like JAX FAX was, one of these roadside sellers will allow them to try the churchkehla making process themselves. 

As tourists drive through Kakheti,  they will notice not just large wineries, but many houses with small vineyards of grapes hanging over front doors. Not all of these home businesses welcome visitors, but many do. JAX FAX stopped at a small, family-run winery, Gia Aliashvili, for a tasting. Visitors are offered the full scope of wines, from white dry to white semi-sweet and red dry and red semi-sweet. Visitors from the US and Western Europe will probably find even the white dry wines not terribly dry and red semi-sweet wines reminiscent of dessert wines as Georgian wines overall are on the sweet side. 

From a small winery like Gia Aliashvili, visitors can then get a sense of a large, more industrial wine-making operation at Khareba Winery which boasts that it features 7.7 kilometers (about 4 miles) of tunnels in which the wine it produces is stored. A guide takes visitors through some of these tunnels explaining the traditional Georgian winemaking process and showing tools of the trade like the large oak barrels traditionally used to age the wine. 

To a cap the tour off, visitors find long wooden tables in one of the tunnels with bottles, glasses and hors d’oeuvres like small salty squares of cheese and squares of fruit. Like Gia Aliashvili, Khareba Winery is generous about letting tourists sample the full range of wines they produce, and has a store on site. Those who don’t want to partake in the chilly tour of the tunnels and wine-tasting, can go for a walk on the extensive, picturesque winery grounds which resemble a park. 

The day can end the way it began at the last winery of the day, a small, family-run business. JAX FAX ended its tour of Georgian wine country at Kakhetis Ezo. Seated around intimate tables in a rustic setting, a group can offer numerous end-of-the-day toasts to one another, and to Georgia.

 

Getting There

JAX FAX traveled non-stop on Aerosvit, Ukrainian Airlines, from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Boryspil International Airport in Kiev, Ukraine. JAX FAX then transferred to a non-stop flight to Tbilisi, Georgia.  

 

Accommodations

Tbilisi: Comfortable, fresh accommodations on par with a four-star hotel in the US can be found at the Holiday Inn Tbilisi. (www.holidayinn.com/hotels/us/en/tbilisi/tbsms/hotel
detail
)

Kakheti (Georgian wine country): Hotel Chateau Mere, a quaint hotel in the heart of Georgia’s wine country where staff informs guests not which part of the hotel their room is in, but in which “castle.” Take note: The “castles” are lovely but have steep, winding staircases. There are no elevators.  www.mere.ge

 

Tips for Travelers

The best time to visit Georgia is mid-to-late September or October, when the weather has cooled off and the grapes of the wine region and other crops of this fertile country are ready for harvest. Dress in layers with the daytime during JAX FAX’s visit reaching as high as 80 degrees in Tbilisi and Kakheti, the Georgian wine region, and dropping to what felt like around 60 degrees at night.  

Since travelers may have a layover in Kiev, it is worthwhile to plan several hours either on the way to Georgia or on the way home for a tour of the city. Kiev is a clean, beautiful city with an impressive World War II monument, gorgeous churches and historic sites and fantastic shopping. There also are great dining options,
to boot.

Contact Vera Pearson Sagareishvili at Panorama Travel (www.panora
matravel.com; 800-204-7130, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )
for tours. Visit the Georgian National Tourism Agency at www.gnta.ge 

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