The birthplace of wine, the crossroads between east and west, a superior hidden gem – Georgia attracts a myriad of lofty claims. And after exploring only a fraction of the former Soviet republic, in its capital Tbilisi, I decide it undeniably deserves them all, and probably more.
Struggling to etch its rightful place on travel wish lists, Georgia is an achingly exciting place to explore. It is completely unlike anywhere else. Limp parallels with the crumbling balconies of Paris or the heart of cosmopolitan St Petersburg will not prepare you for your first visit to the city.
It is wacky – wacky in the way that it feels like no other European or former Soviet city. It has the cobbled streets and café culture. The buzz of wine bars and history-soaked crevices. But there is something special about the omnipresent defiance of being “Georgian” and what it means to a country that has vehemently shunned the shackles of countless invasions. There is an overwhelming sense of dignity and direction, of a country that is marching forward, aware of the scars and pain of its past but determined, and proud of the untold treasures it has to offer. It is unpushy pride. But it is excitable, with arms wide open – a quality completely in line with the nation’s culture. The hospitality is liberal and lavish. Guests are welcomed to Georgia with table tops heaped high with dishes. Plates are piled onto each other, lopsided and wobbling, steaming baskets of clay-oven baked bread scattered about the bottles of Georgian wine, and mealtimes are endless Tetris balancing acts and stomach expanding endurance tests.
But meals are more than just about fuel, they are pieces of theatre orchestrated by a talented tamada or “toastmaster”. It is this gregarious generosity and hosting skill that will sell Tbilisi and Georgia to the world. That and the tastebud-tingling, deeply delicious and entirely satisfying cuisine. Food and feasting, or the “supra”, is woven into every part of Georgian life. American Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck said that if there were one word to describe the country “it would definitely be hospitality”, and Russian writer Alexander Pushkin said that each Georgian dish was “a poem”. You can see the stanzas playing out on every corner of Tbilisi. Street sellers litter the old town, guarding stalls decorated with dripping, twisting, brightly coloured churchkhela or “candy candles”, snacks of nuts threaded on to string and dipped in thickened grape juice. Kiosks are laden with piles of fruit, nuts and spices whose aromas mingle with the intoxicating smell of freshly baking bread as it escapes from hidden grates and hatches.
And while you’re meandering through the twisting streets, quaint alleyways, and courtyards covered in ancient vines, you’ll notice how they absorb an intoxicating blend of Moorish architecture as it merges with classical European. An ideal way to see the city from a different viewpoint is by taking one of the 30-minute boat tours down the Mtkvari River. Speaking of boats, you can’t leave the Caucasus’ most popular destination without trying khachapuri, the bread canoes filled with heart-stopping amounts of cheese, finished with chunks of butter and topped with a raw egg. You swirl the filling quickly from the inside out and desperately tear off bits of the bread, dip them in the centre and eat them before they cool, or worse, you lose the filling. It may sound simple, but the rich, fresh ingredients make khachapuri very more-ish.
It’s not all cheese and bread. There’s a strong vein of freshness and sweetness running through Georgian cuisine, with pickled cucumber sides, fresh tomato salads and kharcho, a hearty amber chicken or beef soup that sings with garlic, khmeli suneli (a Georgian five-spice blend), coriander and walnuts. Kebabs are popular but vegetarians eat very well in Georgia thanks to meat being historically reserved for special occasions only. Vegetable patés, or pkhali, are a mainstay of most feasts, as well as walnut-stuffed aubergines and lobiani – flatbreads packed with the perfect harmony of beans, spices and herbs.
But what will steal your heart and cure your hangover is the special Georgian dumplings, khinkali: twisted knobs of dough stuffed with meat and spices, the most popular national dish. There is a knack to eating them which prevents you losing the best part – the stewing juices which you capture before chewing the herby, meaty centre. The juice is a sworn hangover cure for nights spent quaffing the unique and under-appreciated Georgian wine.Tbilisi is also an architectural feast to which the Mongols, Ottomans and Iranians are among those who have contributed their style and design influences. Wander the cobbled streets, get lost in the maze of Old Tbilisi, and take in Metekhi Plateau and the cathedral.
Treat yourself to a Tbilisi tradition and head to Abanotubani – the bath district. Historically important, the area is on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River at the foot of the impressive 4th century Narikala fortress. The hot sulphuric waters, long associated with magical healing qualities, are a regular part of life for locals. Now more commonly linked to eased muscles and relaxation, the experience is as unique as Tbilisi. The area is dominated by the domed roofs of the baths bubbling above pavement level, clambered on by children and snapped by tourists. The entrance to one of the seven or so remaining bath houses, Orbeliani, mirrors the intricate and dazzlingly beautiful Moorish tradition. Inside is just as elaborate, adding an element of grandeur to the less stately experience of being boiled naked in a sulphur bath and scrubbed raw by an expertly efficient bath attendant. And to finish you are “kissed” all over by what feels like a giant, cloud-soft pillow filled with perfumed soap suds.
The only way to round off the experience is with khash, or tripe soup, which may sound unappealing, but trying the dish at super cool Culinarium Khasheria, a 100 or so metres from the bath’s entrance, is a treat. Celebrated chef Tekuna Gachechiladze uses heaps of ajika, a red pepper-garlic paste and Japanese kombu to spice the soup. If tripe isn’t to your taste, the restaurant has a menu full of fresh light bites and salads. If you want to explore the capital in style, the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace is the place to stay. Recently opened after a $50 million refurbishment, the purpose-built hotel is a lesson in chic cosmopolitan grace. Ideally located in Avlabari within walking distance of the city centre and 15 minutes’ drive from the airport, it has beautiful views across the city. As well as a sublime wellness offering with a cavernous, muted indoor “wet area” and outdoor pool with bar, the hotel also has Ati Restaurant, which takes Georgian classics and gives them a modern twist without compromising on authentic flavour. It really is the perfect place to sit back with a pre-dinner drink on the top floor balcony and watch the sun set over a city raring to show the world what it is made of.
Fights from Gatwick leave every Wednesday and Saturday and start from £285 return.Stay at the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace, 20 Telavi Street, Tbilisi, 0103 Georgia, from £130 per night room only.www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/tbssi-sheraton-grand-tbilisi-metechi-palace00995322772020