By Debbie Rogers: “Welcome to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia!” our driver said as he helped load our luggage into the car for our transfer to our hotel. I was here for a short three-day trip with Ishita with the aim of exploring the city on foot as well as finding out more about what Georgia had to offer on the food and drink front. Ishita would be staying on to meet friends for a longer trip and to explore much more of Georgia.
Georgia is an interesting place to visit. To the north is Russia, to the south, Turkey and Armenia. Head west and you will reach the Black Sea and head southeast towards Azerbaijan. Rich in history, Georgia is full of reminders of years gone past. Influences from the Ottoman Empire, The Mongols, the Russian Empire and Europe can be seen everywhere, which makes the trip interesting in terms of history and heritage, if that’s your thing, as much as for the culinary influences that are very much evident. Tourism today plays a significant part in the Georgian economy, but when we were there it still had a ‘not too touristy’ feel about it.
- Flight Time : 3 Hours
- Time Difference to UAE : 0
- There are daily FlyDubai flights from Dubai and prices start from AED 900/person.
- Special packages on flights and accommodaion is available all the time.
- Tbilisi is a charming town nestled between North and South Caucasus Mountain ranges. 3-4 days is comfortable for enjoying Tbilisi and its surrounding regions while a longer period would let you explore upto the Black Sea.
Out and About in Tbilisi
It’s easy to explore on foot, a quick read of the guidebook a chat to the hotel porters and a map from the Tourist Information office meant that we were out and about exploring the streets of Tbilisi without too much hassle. A central location made this easy, as did a pair of comfortable walking shoes and a degree of flexibility on our side. Do check beforehand about the many religious dates, for example during Orthodox Easter many of the attractions are either closed, or opening at unusual hours. Some of the street markets may also be closed.
The popular check list would be to visit the Saturday Flea Market, Sulfur Baths (although we avoided the later), taking the funicular, climbing up to the Narikala Fortress, a cruise on the Mtkvari river, walking through the narrow, winding back alleys as well as regaling at the distinctive architecture of the buildings along the Rustavelli Avenue. It’s through the bricks that the entire history of the city unfolds – an eclectic mix of styles from different periods.
What to Eat
As much as our trip was to explore, we were able to fit in quite a few culinary treats too. The Georgians have taken advantage of their heritage with influences from the Greeks, Mongols, Turks and Arabs. It’s a food lovers’ paradise. Our first stop was for some heart stopping good khachapuri, which to this day, we still dream about (the salguni cheese makes all the difference). Georgian dishes stand out in their simplicity – for example, a garlic chicken seasoned with a local secret spice that we mopped up with freshly baked bread, or the juicy and steaming hot Khinkali (dumplings in soup) which we later learnt to make in a cooking class and the sweet and indulgent candle shaped candies – Churchkhela (strands of walnuts, almonds and other nuts are threaded together and dipped in concentrated grape juice), which are eaten whilst walking along the streets.
Where to Eat
Samikitno: There are multiple branches of Samikitno and puritans may scoff at this fast-food style restaurant, but they are open at all odd hours and specialise in Georgian cuisine, serving freshly cooked food in no time. With our flight landing at a wee hour in the morning, the Samikitno at the Freedom Square was almost like a life saver. And with our first taste of Khachapuri in there, it will always be treasured in our memory!
Breadhouse: Situated by the Mtkvari river and with a menu that offers a variety of speciality breads and traditional Georgian dishes, Breadhouse is one of the popular places with the tourists. The dining experience here does make for keepsake culinary memories from Georgia. A large bread oven is the highlight inside the restaurant, with a live presentation of the drama of bread making.
Funicular Restaurant: Take the funicular up to the Mtatsminda Plateau and enjoy stunning views of Tbisli below you as you indulge in a set menu of traditional Georgian dishes at the Funicular restaurant, one of the ve restaurants in the Funicular Complex. The later is one of the most important places in Tbilisi, with its significant long history dating back to 1905. Take a seat on the terrace for the best views and walk off the excess carbs at the park afterwards. A note of caution though: It tends to be really windy up there!
Tbilisi at nigh time: Two streets – Jan Shardeni and Rkinis shoot off the Metekhi Bridge into the Ortachala neighbourhood and are lined with a variety of restaurants serving different cuisine. While some of these restaurants are open for sumptuous breakfasts in the mornings, during the nighttime they are transformed into night clubs and lounges. Each restaurant sits next to each other, almost onto each others’ laps and there’s a coziness that tucks every diner in. We had breakfast in Singer, a Jazz Cafe by the evening and a casual restaurant during the day, where all the tables were built with the legs of the Singer sewing machines!
Khinkhali – These are Georgian Dumplings (above) traditionally filled with spiced meat (beef, pork or lamb) along with herbs, onions and garlic. Non meat options are made with cheese, potato or mushroom. These are eaten plain when piping hot by first sucking out the juices and then eating the rest of the dumpling. The meat filling is cooked raw and that generates its own juices which are trapped inside the dumpling. To get the perfect pleats of a Kinkhali by stretching the edges together so that the filling doesn’t pour out may sound very easy but is absolute Rocket Science, as we found in our masterclass at Iago’s Winery in Chardakhi!
Khachapuri – Filled with melted cheese and topped with a runny egg, this flatbread is best eaten hot — tear off the crust and dunk it in the well of cheese and egg. Make sure you have a super- hot oven; a pizza stone helps. Do check out the recipe here.
Where to stay
Tbilisi Marriott Hotel: This is housed in a 100-year- old historical building, near Tbilisi’s city center and other landmarks of the city like Narikala Fortress, Freedom Square and the Parliament of Georgia. A grand atrium-style lobby and crystal chandeliers welcomes the guest and the rooms are furnished elegantly and have an old world charm to them. Room rates start from $200/night depending upon season and type of room. Room rates start from $200/night depending upon season and type of room. 13 Shota Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi. www.marriott.com
Wine in Georgia
Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world and is awash with Qvevri’s (conical clay wine making vessels). The importance of the traditional brewing method is not to be overlooked, in fact UNESCO added the traditional brewing method to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Georgian wine is everywhere and it’s great quality too partly due to the climate and also the traditional brewing methods. You can book tastings at many of the wine cellars in the city, or, as we did, take a tour to a small family run winery – Iago’s Winery in Chardakhi which is a short 45 minute drive from Tbilisi in the Kakheti region where you can meet the family involved in their business, share a wine or two as well as some warming ChaCha (a Georgian spirit made from the grape residue) often brewed at home and exceedingly strong.
Back in Tbilisi, courtesy Taste of Georgia, we meet Eko Glonti (below), founder of Lagvinari, a small organic winery in Georgia at Vinotel, a boutique hotel in old Tbilisi as he tells us all about Georgian wines. Prices depend upon the tour package. www.tastegeorgia.co; Iago’s Winery; www.lagvinari.com; www.vinotel.ge
Our Georgian recipes have been shared with us by Alice Feiring, an American journalist and author who visited Georgia in 2011 and wrote the book ‘For the Love of Wine’. Written during her trip, she writes about not only Georgian wine but also her experiences with Georgian natural and vqvevri winemakers, along with sharing recipes of the Georgian food that she found along the way. In her own words, Alice describes her book as “My journey through the country of Georgia, full of people I adore, the wines, the characters, the drama, the silk worms, the homeopathic remedies, the food, the adventures and a special guest appearance by Stalin’s last remaining winemaker. It’s true!”