For our first trip out of Africa we went to visit Tim and Martina in Georgia. We had already failed to visit Tim in the Solomon Islands and also failed to catch up with Martina in Ethiopia as she was leaving when we were arriving in Kenya, so with the two of them finally in one country, it was time to head over. It’s not far from Kenya so we decided on a week with a public holiday in Georgia so Tim also had some time off.
No visas were required for either of us (you get one for free on arrival for 30 days) and Tim and Martina sent us professional itinerary options we could chose from. One skype call to discuss options and some horrible overnight hours spent in the Maharaba lounge in Dubai (don’t ever spent your money on this lounge!) and then we landed at Tbilisi airport. It all looked spanking new, police zoomed around on Segways, luggage came out quickly and after 10 minutes (including customs) we were already heading to the exit.
Tim and Martina were there to pick us up, later we learned that this is one of the perks of having diplomatic plates: you can leave your car at the airport pick up and drop off zones! And within half an hour we are being introduced to our new love: Georgian food!
Oh my goodness. If you have never heard of Georgian food, if you have never tasted Georgian food you haven’t lived! If you are a foodie, I suggest you book your flight to Tbilisi immediately as there don’t seem to be many options yet outside Georgia to indulge. Make sure you try it at least once, I am sure you’ll fall in love with it too!
From the moment we arrived to the time we left we enjoyed Georgian cuisine for lunch, dinner and sometimes even for breakfast! We couldn’t get enough of it and certainly the first few times we over-indulged, ending up in a bit of a food stupor and making mental notes to go on a diet as soon as we are back in Kenya…
Anyway, we didn’t just go to Georgia to eat. Straight after our gastronomic introduction to Georgia we headed out to the Lower Caucasus. To Borjomi, where the famous fizzy mineral water is bottled. Tim had arranged a home-stay with Giorgi (the most common male name in Georgia, Nino being the most popular female name) before we would head out into Borjom-Kharagauli National Park the next day.
We picked up snowshoes and great maps from the helpful Gaga in the National Park’s office and drove the car to the head of the trail. In Georgia you can leave your car with belongings safely anywhere, how nice! Soon we were on our way, snowshoes strapped to the packs, heading into the beautiful pine forest. We had a bit of rain and then hail and snow on the way up, donned our snowshoes when the snow became deep and spent a beautiful day hiking to our destination for the night: the ranger’s hut.
After a quick clean up we settled in for the night, had a fantastic home cooked meal from Martina and played cards enjoying the warming fire whilst it gently snowed outside.
The next morning we continued our hike, checked out another hut before descending via the next valley. A quick call to Gaga who arranged a taxi to pick us up and before we knew it we were back at the car and heading to our home-stay again.
This time we ate out and Jon was introduced to kinkali, the Georgian version of the dumpling. Tim and Jon managed a very respectable 10 kinkalis each, but I am not sure I’d recommend ordering that many…as usual the other food was delicious too, and whilst we were trying not to end up in a food stupor again, Tim introduced us to another Georgian tradition: the toast master or Tamada in Georgian. He makes sure conversation AND wine keeps flowing during a dinner and many traditional toasts are made throughout the night.
I might not have mentioned the Georgian wines yet… but they are as good as the food and with about 400 grape varieties growing in Georgia, most of those you would have never heard off, any wine lover is in for a treat! Although not yet very known / popular in the western world, it has been exported all over the Russian empire for years. They do beers quite well too, but wine is definitely the favourite drink here. Or maybe it comes a close second after the local spirit called chacha… Any Georgian family makes this stuff, and the one we tasted was pretty damn good, as well as pretty damn lethal if you are toasting with it all night!
We also explored the ancient cave city Vardzia, occupied by monks for 850 years, a historic fort at Akhaltsikhe and tasted the handmade cheeses and chocolate at the remote Pokha nunnery. Unfortunately the Paravani Pass was still closed with about 2m of snow covering the road so we had to make a u-turn and head back the way we had come, adding a few hours to the home journey.
The rest of the week we explored the old town of Tbilisi and the hill behind it, ate more Georgian food, went to the arts and crafts market in Tbilisi, drank some more Georgian wine, had a bath and scrub in the natural hot springs in Tbilisi, ate some more Georgian goodies, visited the Stalin museum at his birthplace in Gori, tried some Georgian chacha, took a guided tour of the cathedral in the old capital Mtsketa (reputedly containing remnants of the actual Cross), ate some more Georgian delicacies, were blown away (literally) at the old cave temples and city of Uplistsikhe, tasted the Georgian ambers (wines), went skiing in Gudauri on a perfectly clear and mostly sunny day and simply enjoyed time spent with friends, of course accompanied by more food and more wine…
After only 3 hours of sleep on the last night, Tim drove us to the airport (at 2.30AM – bonus stars on Trip Advisor for this absurd hour!) and we quickly went through check-in and customs. A few hours later we arrived at Dubai airport where we were yet again picked up, this time by Roger, a good uni mate from Jon who now lives in Dubai with Joanne and their 2 boys. Whilst there were no diplomatic plates, the Porsche 4WD did compensate. In the short time we were there we managed to see Josh win some running races at his school’s sports day, checked out the world’s biggest cricket bat, had a tour of the estate where they live, enjoyed a cuppa with his parents who were visiting too, met Ollie and his hamster, tested the scooters and indulged in an amazing lunch at the local Ernie Els golf course. Our stopover was short, but very sweet and before we knew it we were back at the airport (dropped off again, we’re getting used to these luxuries!), sitting in the lounge, relishing all the memories of a fantastic week of R&R.