From the suspended balconies of Tbilisi's old quarter and Persian style sulphur baths covered in turquoise mosaics, to the art nouveau buildings falling into disuse side by side with futuristic glass structures, Tbilisi is an inspiring city.
The Georgian capital is located on the banks of the Mtkvari River and is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Archaeologists date the presence of the first settlement of Tbilisi to the 4th millennium BC. Its position on the ancient Silk Road has made it, and still makes it, a multicultural crossroads, which is reflected today in the diversity of its eclectic architecture.
The baths of Abanotubani follow the Persian tradition, the thermal water springs naturally from the ground. Tbilisi takes its name from the old Georgian word "tbili", "hot", a hot and sulphurous spring that winds under the city. Leaving Abanotubani, reaching the upper districts of Solaloki, a walk through the old town reveals old Georgian and Armenian churches, mosques and synagogues and the ruins of a mysterious Zoroastrian temple.
Located in the Caucasus mountains of the Svanetia region, at an altitude of 2200 metres, Ushguli is the highest inhabited village in Europe. Sitting at the foot of Mount Chkhara, Georgia's highest peak, Ushguli is famous for its medieval defensive towers. Each Svane family has one.
Svanetia is that place in deep, mythical Georgia, known for its unique culture, its Talion law, and the unique beauty of its inhabitants, on the roof of Europe. A region, not so long ago, cut off from the rest of the country, especially in winter. Ushguli is for the moment a preserved destination that exudes timelessness. An authenticity revealed by its inhabitants, their way of life, the Svane code, the omnipresent horses, ridden by these young men who ride through the dirt roads, dodging the cattle, to the edge of the cliff, where the rider, to prove his courage, standing on the croup, while galloping on the edge of the precipice, tutters the summits and depths of Vanétie. Ushguli and the Upper Svanetia region are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Today, the development of this region of North-West Georgia is spectacular. The roads to get there are very good and you will not regret the trip. The road from Zugdidi is absolutely amazing. Currently, the main city of the region, Mestia is about to become the Georgian equivalent of a Swiss or French ski resort. Winter sports are developing rapidly, there are still relatively few ski slopes, and the authorities are investing more and more money each year in infrastructure, particularly hotels, so as to attract as many tourists as possible to spend a few days in these fabulous landscapes.
When we think of the origin of wine, we tend to think of France, Italy, Greece or Persia, but Georgia is actually the oldest wine region in the world. In 2017, archaeologists definitively proved that people produced wine here more than 9,000 years ago.
Since then, wine has played an essential role in Georgia's national identity. Everyone here makes their own wine, as long as you have a piece of land to cultivate. According to the old tradition, the harvest product is pressed, the whole bunch, and crushed at the foot. The juice collected, filtered, is put into qveris, these clay jars sealed with a cap made of beeswax (there is also a lot of honey in Georgia, the sheptel is composed almost entirely by the black bee of the Caucasus, rustic and resistant, still preserved from pesticides) then buried, this gives a very unique wine making. This traditionnal method is included in UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage.
There are 560 indigenous grape varieties and Georgian wine is slowly but surely becoming better known. There are many excellent vineyards in Georgia, producing wines of excellent quality, according to our European standards.
A good start to appreciate Georgian wine would be a red wine aged in qveris from the Saperavi grape variety of Mukuzani in the Kakheti wine region (west of Georgia), but also from the Teliani valley, or a white Tsindali, from a blend of Rkatsteli and Mtvani grapes. The Soviet and Georgian dictator, Joseph Stalin, was, like me, a fan of Khvanchkara, a sweet red wine from the Upper Racha region. The comparison ends there....
Georgia is home to some of the most unusual cave cities in Europe. The oldest site is Uplitstsikhe, a former colony that looks like a lunar landscape. Others include Davit Gareja, a vast monastic complex carved into the rock of Mount Gareja, and Vardzia, a spectacular underground city that once housed 2,000 monks.
One of the best ways to get to know the country is through its cuisine. In fact, if you have not tried a "supra" or a Georgian feast, you have not known Georgia. But fortunately, as Georgians love to eat, you will have no problem finding a good restaurant where you can do like everyone else and order the local culinary institution, the cheese bread, the "Khachapuri". A creative dish, because everyone does it in their own way, the most famous of all being (perhaps) the Adjare variety. It is a boat-shaped bread, filled with sticky, melted and sour "sulguni" cheese, a whole egg yolk and a few pieces of butter, all baked in a wood-fired oven. Yes, it's not good for our cholesterol, but it's so good, especially in winter.
Other culinary institution the "Khinkhali", is a large ravioli filled with a spicy meat filling that releases its juice once crunched. You must therefore suck the broth before eating, be careful it is very hot! Then there are delicious walnut or hazelnut salads, bean stews cooked with flavoured coriander and "mt'svadi", a skewer of tender marinated meat cooked on a wood fire (often vines wood). All this of course, accompanied by an excellent Georgian wine.
The culinary diversity is actually fantastic. Georgia is a country whose climate (it would be better to say the 22 different micro-climates) and fertile soil, allow the cultivation of a very wide variety of fruits and vegetables that combined with lean meats produces a rich, joyful and healthy cuisine.
The remote areas of Khevsureti and Tusheti in the northeast mountains are home to spectacular medieval villages with small communities that preserve their ancient pagan traditions. The roads to get there are a pure adrenaline rush. Currently a major opening up plan is underway, many hiking trails have just been traced, ultra-modern hotels are progressively emerging from the ground, roads are being reshaped....
The ruined fortress of Mutso (currently under renovation) and the Shatili settlement in Khevsureti look like some of the fantastic landscapes described by J. R. R. R. Tolkien. Located on a mountainside, they are so close to Chechnya that you can see the border guards walking on the ridge. The Tusheti is made up of a group of village communities, living among the old towers and churches, and the landscapes of the "alpine meadows" covered with wild flowers and trees with golden reflections are breathtaking.
The Tusheti is still wild and you can discover it thanks to its many hiking trails. But don't go into the forest alone without knowing! At least the first time, take a guide who will explain this specific nature to you. Caucasian bears and wolves still have their homes there! The inhabitants of Tusheti, rough mountain people, are renowned here for their generous hospitality. Some French people live there and make delicious mountain cheeses that can be found on the markets of Tbilisi.
To learn more about the life of Old Jo, visit Stalin's hometown, Gori, and the very strange Joseph Stalin Museum. Stalin is known as a bloody dictator responsible for millions of deaths, but in his hometown, there is a certain sense of pride about the "homeboy who has done much good to humanity".
There is no reference to his large purges beyond a small back room that is not on the tour, but there are pictures of Stalin everywhere. Stalin in the mountains hunting bears, Stalin walking on the beaches of Batoumi, Stalin kissing little schoolchildren, etc, etc.... There are also various statues, his death mask, carpets and frescoes representing the dear leader, his personal railway car and - the main attraction - his childhood home and his room preserved in perfect condition.
The museum has been criticized for being a "falsification of history" and it is another example of "Soviet propaganda". The museum is worth a visit as it captures the essence of the character, seductive and dangerous, including his own self-glorification, which makes you a little uncomfortable when you know who you are dealing with. For history lovers, if you wish to dig into a particular aspect of Stalin's life, I recommend reading S. Montefiore's "young Stalin" on the childhood and youth of the "great man", born poor, preparing to enter the orders when he finds his vocation in revolutionary action. At once intellectual, gangster and terrorist, the young Stalin had everything he needed to forge an extraordinary destiny. Rocambolesque...
Georgia adopted Christianity in 324 AD and the country is full of spectacular churches and cathedrals in incredible places. Whether it is the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta or Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, or the spectacular site of Kazbegi Church, Georgian churches never fail to paint a beautiful picture.
Some Georgians may seem serious at first, but most of them are kind and welcoming. For Georgians, a guest is a sacred person and they will often go out of their reserve to display their generosity and hospitality, which often takes the form of a well-watered banquet where glasses clash as they say "Gaumarjos!" or literally "Victory is yours! . Another very interesting tradition at supras (banquets) is the tamada, or toastmaster, a person who introduces each toast. Georgians like to say that the tamada is the dictator of the table, but it would be more appropriate to compare it to a table leader. The Tamada must traditionally be eloquent, intelligent, quick-witted, with a good sense of humour since because many of the guests will try to compete with him. At the Georgian table, a tamada is considered to be the one that helps to bridge the gap between past, present and future, between ancestors and descendants and other guests at the table. A toast can only be proposed by a Tamada. Some toasts take a ritual form; for example for those who are no longer there, all men must stand up and drink their glasses of wine in silence. In many cases, however, guests compete to say something more original and emotional than the previous speaker, and the whole process develops into a kind of large public speaking competition. And we drink after each toast, and there are many of them... It is a tradition that must absolutely be lived once.