Friday, July 18, 2008

Gastronomic Georgia

From my first bite of Khachapuri in a Georgian restaurant within weeks of moving to Moscow, I knew Georgia was a place I had to visit. From there on, the tales of this Caucasian paradise only grew, of snowy mountains, remote monasteries, fascinating Tbilisi, the cultural mélange, and of course the extraordinarily delicious Georgian food.

Even after such a buildup, we were still blown away by this fascinating little country. Especially after the barren wasteland of Eastern Azerbaijan, the lush greenery and rivers carved deep impressions, and we marveled at the cultural crossroads of ancient Tbilisi, settled since ancient times, but conquered and counter-invaded by the Persians, Georgians, Mongols, and Russians no less than 6-7 times since the 4th century.

As a result, this fascinating city, nestled in a picturesque valley retains touches of all these cultures in a delightfully eclectic mix on the banks of the Mktvari river. Mosques are down the road from synagogues, churches are nestled in Persian ruins, and the amazing cuisine takes elements from all of these cultures and more combined with the local fresh ingredients to generate sublime feasts!

Despite an impenetrable language and script, James & I took Tbilisi by storm, hiking up to old Persian forts, fearing statues of giant Soviet women with swords, dodging insane drivers, and consuming more Khachapuri than previously considered possible.

Admittedly, our first experiences with both Georgian accommodation (“hot as @&$#!”), and Georgian wine (“tangy, with a hint of formaldehyde”), weren’t promising, but once those were sorted (actually, the wine can be pretty good), our primary frustration involved finding a single viable method to escape Yerevan, other than smuggling ourselves over the Ukranian border inside a live goat.

One morning, we hired one of these insane drivers to take us to the north of Georgia, deep in the Caucasus mountains on the Chechen border, so we could climb a mountain and admire an ancient monastery in the shadow of a 5,000m volcano. As we emulated Grand Theft Auto, weaving around errant cows, children, and gaps in the road at 140km/hr, our speed and tenuous grip on life wasn’t the only thing making us gasp. The Caucasus mountains provided a breathtaking backdrop to our adventure, as we passed ancient forts, churches perched on cliffs, travertine waterfalls, icy blue lakes, plunging valleys and snowy peaks.

Upon arrival in the middle of nowhere, we hiked enthusiastically (well, some more than others) to the summit, and were rewarded with panoramic views from the mountain summit, surrounded by snow-covered peaks. Pilgrims had hiked, driven or come on horseback to this most sacred of Georgian Christian sites. From there we could also see views of the highest church in the world.

More Georgian food, beautifully located bars, and an intriguing vodka-redbull hookah later, and we hijacked a passing taxi to take us 300km to Yerevan...

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

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