Somewhere deep in the Caucasus mountains, I sip a glass of fine Georgian wine, watching the clouds playfully swirl around the snow-clad Mount Kazbeg and my gregarious Georgian hosts lovingly tending to their vegetable garden below. I’ve spent my days indulging in the country’s sumptuous gastronomy, drinking mineral water right off the spring, lounging in my remote mountain home as though nothing else in the world matters. The mist descends on our postcard village of Stepantsminda, a woman in a traditional black dress carries fresh lavash bread from the neighbourhood bakery, the valley echoes with the laughter of men, children and horses. This isn’t the Hobbiton trail in New Zealand, but the closest you can get to life in the Shire (Lord of the Rings style) – where people live beautifully, eat well and be merry.
Two weeks ago, I landed in Tbilisi, Georgia’s photogenic capital city, with a friend, a one month visa and no fixed plans. The rugged mountains, chilled out locals, Soviet-era homes, underground wine taverns, artsy cafes and quirky cultural vibe instantly cast a spell on me.
I remember strolling along the cobblestoned by-lanes of Old Tbilisi on our first evening, admiring the decrepit Ottoman and Soviet-styled architecture, watching farmers sell fresh produce from their garage, marveling at opulent ancient churches, catching a glimpse of locals peeping from their ornamental balconies, and having our first tryst with the complex Georgian language. We settled at an outdoor cafe for a meal of badrijani nigvzit (eggplants with walnut paste), pxali (vegetable pate) and Georgian wine – a burst of deliciously fresh flavors that might be ruining my palate for life! The symbolic statue of the “Mother of Georgia” – holding a wine glass in one hand to greet friends and a sword in the other to ward off enemies – towered above us from the Sololaki Hill as we ate.
At first, it was difficult to tell the locals apart in Tbilisi. There were hints of Russian and Slavic tones now and then, but to our unaccustomed ears, it sounded much the same. Then we realized that outside of the two popular streets of Old Tbilisi, almost everyone we met was a local. Initially reserved, I’ve discovered Georgians are helpful, full of warmth and humor. One of our cabbies began singing “ichak dana, beechak dana” when he heard we were Indian. In the Raj Kapoor days, Georgia was part of the Soviet Union and the older generation grew up watching and weeping with black-and-white Bollywood! His good-humored and eccentric ways convinced us to drive with him to Kazbegi, on the Georgian countryside, at a meagre amount – and we realized just how blissfully inexpensive this country is; Western European quality at almost Indian prices.
The road to Kazbegi led us into the stupendous beauty of the Caucasus mountains, and if I didn’t know better, I could think I was in a Lord of the Rings movie. We stopped along the way to meet women knitting traditional thick white Kazbegi hats and fill mineral water from springs in the mountains. We crossed road signs going towards Yerevan (in Armenia) and Tehran (in Iran). Over lunch, Akaki, our cabbie, toasted every sip of wine to our ancestors, health and good fortune.
Over a surreal week, we hiked amidst mist-laden valleys and snow-capped mountains, to an isolated church in the backdrop of Mount Kazbeg, cycled to Georgia’s (undisputed) border with Russia, indulged in mouthwatering Georgian dishes cooked with the freshest vegetables, got invited by an Orthodox monk to his monastery in the mountains, and even landed up in a little family-run resto where the hosts sang and danced to “Tum hi ho” from Aashiqui 2 on hearing we’re Indian!
Now my friend, who is interning in Tbilisi, has rented a loft by the river and I’m totally making it my base this month too. The supermarket in our neighborhood is incredible – selling everything fresh from herbs like basil and oregano, to homemade cookies and chocolates, to raw pasta, to vegetables that smell and taste like they’ve just been plucked from the fields. I’ve never taken a cab ride in the city that cost more than 5 lari (150 rupees), and that includes cars like Mercedes Benz! Last night, we found ourselves at an open air Georgian folk and wine concert on the outskirts of the city.
I think I may have finally found my Shire.
[Update 2018] Georgia E-visa is now available for Indian passport holders, but unfortunately several Indian citizens have been deported from Tbilisi airport, despite fulfilling the official Georgia visa requirements. Read about the Georgia E-visa hassle and how to make sure you don’t risk being deported back.
What were (are) your impressions of Georgia, the country?
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