Tuesday 1 December 2015

The Greatness of Georgian Grapes

“Welcome to Georgia” was the greeting from the stamp-wielding immigration official – always a good sign. He even tutted at the handiwork of his Uzbek counterpart when he discovered that the entry and exit stamps from there had not been neatly placed next to each other in our passports. Friendly AND organised, yey!

It should’ve been the easiest and quickest border crossing of the trip, except the Azeri truck x-ray revealed something very odd: a bionic cat (?!). Will was so baffled that he asked them to scan it again. But there it was, with individual vertebrae, cat-shaped and nesting impossibly in the space where the ceiling meets the wall. A total mystery!

The persistent heavy rain that had been with us since leaving Baku continued into Georgia, curtailing any plans for a forest camp and instead giving us our first taste of Georgian hospitality at a couple of homestays in Lagodekhi. Our unflappable guide, Zaza, adapted quickly to the change of plan and soon had us pointed in the right direction for dinner options.

Just outside of town is a nature reserve which was to be the next day’s challenge for those prepared to get wet.

A very pretty and very drenched forest

Obligatory doggy companion

Nice umbrella Rob & Jen!
Quasimodo, I mean Julia, negotiating the swollen river edge
Julia, Jo & Ed getting assistance from their guide
Forest mushrooms
One of our generous hosts with the finished mushroom product
Ratty & Rosie drying out
Who needs a calculator?

I’m not sure, but we think Ed may have cut his leg on the walk…

Anyway, a short drive along narrow, hairpin bends and cloud-smothered roads took us to Sighnaghi. Here we were in homestays again, this time with extremely narrow doors! It made me wonder if they have a hidden camera, waiting for someone with a backpack to get pinned in the doorway like a turtle…

Signaghi walls

Our delicious group meal slash wine tasting evening involved some fancy dress, due to it being Halloween. The Origami Army made masks for everyone but they tended to hamper the wine drinking and were soon discarded. Sorry, priorities!

Telavi isn’t far from Sighnaghi so we took our time, meandering the backroads for a bit of history and, you guessed it, more wine. First stop was the monastery at Gremi, which dates back to the 16th century.

Then it was onto Napareuli for very informative introduction to Georgian wine making. We were also given the chance to try chacha, the local firewater. The food presented to us was incredible and was to become the physical representation of the Georgian generosity throughout our stay. That and the vast quantities of wine provided everywhere. A huge percentage of the population make their own wine and are understandably proud of their long wine-making history.

A kvevri

Kvevris are earthenware vessels still used in Georgia today for the making, aging and storing of wine. They are either buried in the ground or set in the floors of wine cellars, and come in a variety of sizes, from 20 litres to 10,000 litres.

Cross section of a working kvevri
Tops of buried kvevris
Making bread
Everyone getting a bit merry!
Julia, Jen, Rob & Peter

Just as we were all starting to look a bit vampiric from lack of sunlight, Georgia pulled her socks up and let us see the stunning vistas at last. Waking up in Telavi, a glance out the windows revealed the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains along the horizon. Eagerly, we piled into Penelope for the short drive to Tbilisi. The road wound its way up into the hills more, towards a clear frosty line in the forest… and then we were in a winter wonderland, bathed in sunshine!

Will & Rob the Elder having a snowball fight
What a mood lifter!

Martha, ready to engage
Georgian script is intricate and looks rather like something Tolkien would come up with

Tbilisi, which hit the international news back in June after deadly floods helped a number of zoo animals to escape, is a funky place with plenty to keep our bunch occupied for the 2 night stay. Zaza led a city tour soon after we arrived so everyone could get their bearings.

Say cheese!
King of the Castle, John

Jen & Rob
Locals getting a bit handsy
Marie getting Central Asia off her boots
A Churchkhela store. It's made from grape must, or juice, nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts or sometimes raisins) and flour. The nuts are threaded on a string, dipped in grape juice and dried in a sausage shape
The KGB bar

There’s some great graffiti/street art around:

Light and music fountain show

Rob the Elder was pleased with his feast of chicken!

Our next destination was Kutaisi, considered by some historians to be the final destination of Jason and the Argonauts. On the way we had two stops scheduled and with bonus unscheduled Ed-related drama, it turned out to be quite a jam-packed day!

We couldn’t drive through Gori without stopping to learn (albeit an unbalanced account) of its most famous son at the Stalin museum. Just as tickets were being bought, it became apparent that Ed wasn’t doing so well. Remember I said we thought he may have scratched his leg in the forest? Despite his best efforts to put a brave face on it, he’d developed a nasty infection which, as the diagnosis later showed, had spread through his whole body. Yikes. So, off to the hospital, with Kat and Zaza in attendance.

A little shaken, we continued our tour, before having lunch and driving up the road to see the ancient rock-hewn town of Uplistsikhe (best pronounced while doing your best Sean Connery impersonation).


A young Stalin, quite handsome for a cobbler's son-turned-dictator
Stalin & Lenin
Stalin's railway carriage
Peter, whose disdain for Stalin outstripped everyone else's!
A decadent mid-drink drive (not for the crew though!)
Puppy intermission!
A good place to build your rock-hewn town

John, Eamonn & Kent

Kent enjoying the sunshine
Kutaisi provided the last homestay of the trip, the host family outdoing themselves with the khachapuri and breakfast spreads. Georgia is not somewhere you come to lose weight. With news from the hospital, it was decided that Ed and Kat would stay behind until Ed was well enough to catch up with the trip in Istanbul.

Most of the rest of the group made the most of the free day by going on a tour of two monasteries and the Prometheus Caves, a seriously impressive section of walkable caverns about 20km out of town.
The fountain, Kutaisi
1,140km from Istanbul
Descending into the caves

Before we knew it, our time in Georgia was drawing to a close. Batumi, on the Black Sea coast, was our final stop and we enjoyed the laid-back, seaside atmosphere. Another free day gave the group time to explore the town with its nifty architecture, to visit the botanical gardens, or even take a bracing swim! Zaza joined us for a final Georgian meal as a group – he’d been spending quite a lot of time either going to or conversing with the hospital, bless him.

Eugene & Rob the Elder brave the Black Sea in November

Martha lining up the perfect shot

Rob playing with his food
Cheers Georgia!

Massive shout-out to Zaza for being cool, calm and collected, as well as extremely informative and kind, and for going above and beyond in making arrangements for Ed and Kat. Thank you!