When people think of the great culinary traditions of Europe, images of Tuscan wines and swirls of pasta, or gorgeous cheese boards and Champagne will pop into their heads. Most don’t think of tables groaning beneath fresh vegetable dips and smoked cheeses, pork soup dumplings, and naturally fermented wines. That’s because Georgia (the country, not the state) is a hidden gem in the travel world, but hidden gems are meant to be unearthed.
Nestled between Turkey and Russia, Georgia is one of three countries making up the Caucasus region, defined by the mountain range the region is named after. The Caucasus Mountains give the country a beautiful variety of landscapes and climates – from the subtropical shores of the Black Sea to the Alpine peak of Mount Kazbegi to the rolling hillsides of Kakheti. From this varying landscape grows the crops that lend themselves to the amazing cuisine, but also to unique wine varietals. Georgians are very proud of their history as winemakers; they, along with Armenia, are the two oldest winemaking cultures in the world.
During the Soviet period, much of the wine-making process was standardized to produce quantity over quality, but the last decade has seen a resurgence in traditional winemaking and some truly outstanding bottles! Georgians are fiercely proud of the wine they produce, and while quite different in profile to many Western European wines, the terroirs in Georgia lend to beautiful flavors you will surely hunt for long after returning home.
While Georgian wine and cuisine offer more than enough enticement to visit, the culture and history will certainly keep you captivated between meals.
The capital city of Tbilisi is the entry point for most visitors. The Old Town, with cobblestone streets lined with cafes, is the perfect place to spend an afternoon, while the newer parts of town hold world-class museums and shopping. Tbilisi draws talent from across the country and has created a thriving local artisan culture. For those who enjoy a more sedate day, one of the traditional bathhouses can offer a mix of tradition and relaxation.
Beyond the capital is Stalin’s hometown, Gori. The museum dedicated to the Soviet leader provides an interesting look at how Stalin was viewed during his lifetime.
Further west is the spa town of Borjomi, a great place to base yourself for visits to remote sights, like Rabati Castle and Vardzia. The cave city of Vardzia is carved into a cliffside. After an earthquake sheared part of the cliff face away, it exposed the honeycomb structures offering a unique view of the expansive settlement. You can climb into the former city and even visit the church, kept active by monks.
To the north, there is the imposing Mount Kazbegi. Based here you can enjoy visits to two of the country’s gorgeous national parks, forested areas traversing craggy hillsides and dotted with waterfalls.
Perhaps the most enticing region of Georgia is Kakheti, the premier wine region of the area and home to some of the most charming towns. Sighnaghi is a favorite, cobblestone streets overhung by wooden balconies meander through the town overlooking the surrounding hills. A visit here isn’t complete without enjoying a meal at Pheasant’s Tears, including a taste of the wines produced on their nearby vineyards.
A week wouldn’t be enough to visit all the wineries in the area, each offering a collection of reds, whites, and the unique amber wines produced here. During the wine harvesting season, it is possible to see the traditional wine-making process in action. Qveri, clay amphora, is buried in the earth, bubbling with the mashed grapes. Seeds and skins stay in the fermenting batches, naturally filtering the wine as they sink to the bottom.
Perhaps my favorite way to spend an evening is a table laid heavy with food, perfectly paired traditional qveri wines, and the music of ancient polyphonic voices raised together to sound out the songs of their past. Every Georgian feast is led by a toastmaster, tasked with keeping the conversation moving, in being able to enfold even the most hidden wallflower into the event. When another makes a toast besting the toastmaster, he must rise to the occasion to bring even more joy, to make the smiles more radiant, to bring the prickling of tears from a perfect moment shared among strangers who are now friends. Year after year, when returning to the region, it is always this experience that perfectly encapsulates what Georgia is. Here’s to hoping that you will have the opportunity to raise a glass of wine, as a toast is shared, over a Georgian feast.
After living in Europe for four years, Jody was on the hunt for a job that would marry her passion for travel with her knowledge of European destinations. Luckily, she found Exeter International in Tampa, Florida, and started her journey planning luxury trips and discovering new destinations, like Georgia and Turkey, to fall in love with.