Once Upon A Time in Georgia

I recently got back from a short and much needed trip to Georgia which I absolutely loved and struggled to come back from. For the past year, I have been seeing ads left, right and center for trips to Georgia from Dubai which were incredibly well priced, and did indeed sound and look very appealing (try typing Georgia into Google Images and you’ll see what I mean). I must admit, I didn’t know much about the country other than news headlines about the country’s historical conflicts with neighboring Russia. So when a friend surprised me on my birthday with a trip to Georgia, I was over the moon. Despite making promises not to overdo the research and planning for the trip which was intended to be a relaxing vacation, I couldn’t help but do my homework. I wanted to study the country in depth to find out which cities were worth visiting , the must-sees, where to eat etc. We finally decided to spend 1 day in Tbilisi and the other 3 in Kazbegi (now officially known as Stepantsminda). So what follows is a brief description of our itineraries in both cities: where we stayed, things we did, and where we ate. I hope this helps readers get a better feel for the city, so they can have a similar fabulous vacation and get the most out of their travel time. 

  • Capital: Tbilisi
  • Language: Georgian
  • Currency: Lari (GEL)
  • Location: Spans more than 1 continent. A frontier country between Asia and Europe
  • Official religion: Orthodox Christian
  • Best time to visit: July - August

Part 1: Tbilisi

After a 3.5 hours Flydubai flight from Dubai, we landed in Tbilisi at around 5AM. With no checked in luggage, we made our way out of the airport swiftly. Upon exiting, there was a line of cabs outside with a nearby board that said 35 Laris to the city center. We made it to our hotel, Rooms Hotel in around 25 minutes. The hotel allows early check in after 5AM, for which guests are charged 50% of the room rate, so we checked in to get a few hours of sleep before starting the day. Luckily, with the 50% early check in rate, breakfast is included, so we made our way downstairs to the Kitchen Room where breakfast is served. The options are mostly international with a few Georgian exceptions, cheeses and khachapuri. I personally enjoyed the egg and cheese omelettes made fresh by the chefs in the open kitchen. In terms of the space, the layout and décor of the Kitchen Room is gorgeous and overlooks a spacious courtyard used for events, as well as a pretty cool bar which we later enjoyed in the evening. 

Now in terms of the hotel itself, the architecture is quite breathtaking. The rooms look like something off of pinterest after typing in ‘rustic home décor’. What the room lacks in an outdoor view, it definitely makes up for in its indoor décor. Also, the ‘lobby’ is not your standard hotel lobby per se. It’s more of a library of endless books which lies adjacent to a common room which guests can relax in.  I would definitely stay here again come next visit!

Next, we made our way to our first activity of the day: a historical walking tour of the city. A friend had suggested doing the Tbilisi Free Walking Tour with Anna which runs for about 3.5 hours. So we signed up on the website, and made our way to the meeting point at 12PM. We were joined by about 20 other visitors and set forth on our trail to learn about the country’s history, its people, traditions, and many interesting tales that have passed on through the hands of time. The tour was quite enlightening and insightful, not just with history, but doses of humor and fun facts all the way. It also involved many steps so comfortable walking shoes are necessary! The trip is an interesting and fun way to get to know the city with a knowledgeable and interesting guide who very much deserves the tips!

Travel Guide to Tbilisi
Travel Guide to Tbilisi

By the time the tour was done, we were quite hungry and couldn’t wait to try the much talked about khinkalis and khachapuris of the country (I won’t leave you hanging, descriptions to follow). So with Anna’s recommendation, we made our way to Rame Rume on 28, Kote Abkhazi Street, which was easy to find, and about a 10 minutes walk from our tour end point. The restaurant is in a hotel and has a nice outdoors seating area with small tables. We first ordered the khinkalis, which are twisted dumplings stuffed with meat and soup. There’s a whole procedure to eating them too, if you want to avoid looking like a complete tourist. Start with sprinkling a little bit of pepper and salt, before grabbing the dumpling by the nipple, turning it upside down, and taking a small bite from the side while slurping as much of the soup as you can go so nothing drips, and then finishing the rest of it off. We next ordered an adjaruli khacapuri which as you can see in the image below, is rowboat shaped bread filled with sulguni cheese and butter, and topped with a very raw egg (there are several variations). This according to the waitress is for 1 person only, but it was more than sufficient for 2 people. The idea is to use a fork to blend the cheese, butter, and egg, starting with the egg. Then you cut pieces of the bread very carefully to dip into the mix! Very much similar to having cheese fondue. This was quite delicious and definitely tastes best when served hot. We tried better versions of these dishes in other places, so definitely do ask around. Must-try though. And do forget about that diet. The cheese and bread will send your carb levels through the roof. 

KHINKALIS

KHINKALIS

ADJARULI KHACAPURI

ADJARULI KHACAPURI

After a short nap to re-energize, we made the lazy decision to go to the nearest restaurant/lounge to the hotel which was called Lolita. The place was actually very packed so we opted to sit in the quieter outdoors area. Overall, had a nice vibe to it and good music so it was the perfect end to the busy day. 

Part 2: Kazbegi

Next was our trip to Kazbegi which is around 3 hours away from Tbilisi, depending on traffic, via the Georgian Military Highway. A friend had recommended contacting a private tour guide, named George, to take us to the neighboring city. We contacted George who responded immediately with his availability and rates which were USD 120 each way. The Rooms Hotel had offered a similar rate but did not include any touristic stops along the way, so we decided to go ahead with George, not knowing what we were in for. He picked us up promptly from the hotel at 12PM and we spent the next 5.5 hours on the way to Kazbegi having a fantastic time. He was a careful driver, something to be concerned about in Georgia, as many drivers don’t believe in lanes, and a very knowledgeable tour guide who spoke of the country’s history as if he had lived through all its years.

He is also very much a peoples person and communication with George was a breeze, as he speaks English very well. We stopped at a few breathtaking sights along the way, and spent just the right amount of time in them. He also snapped a few awesome photos of us during our trip climbing heights I don’t think I would have reached. Our trip with George definitely made our trip all the more memorable. He didn’t leave a stone unturned or a story untold, and I would definitely recommend a trip with him. Hands down. You can reach him on: dailytoursingeorgia@yahoo.com. Also, a few others' opinions of him: http://goo.gl/u2T5jU

Travel Guide to Tbilisi
Travel Guide to Tbilisi

Once we reached the hotel in the afternoon, we checked into our room. We had specifically requested a mountain front view room when booking, as recommended by a friend. I can’t begin to describe how gorgeous the view was. I personally wanted to camp outside on the small balcony, rather than sleep inside. I didn’t if that’s what you’re wondering. I did make it a point though to sit outside on the cozy chairs for a few minutes every morning. The 2 things that did surprise me though were 1) No A/C and 2) No clothes cupboards. I didn’t mind either as the weather was absolutely perfect, and I had packed light, but definitely something to keep in mind.

We quickly made our way downstairs to the lobby, which like the Tbilisi branch, was not the standard lobby. They had several spaces all surrounded by book cupboards, tables, lounge chairs, a fireplace, and telescope. I felt like I was walking into the Gryffindor Common Room. The area was decorated in different shades of brown, with chandeliers casting warm glows all over. People were relaxing on armchairs and couches, playing chess, monopoly and other board games. Others were enjoying cocktails by the long bar.

Travel Guide to Kazbegi
Travel Guide to Kazbegi

Travel Guide to Kazbegi

Just when we thought this couldn’t get any better, we stepped outside to the patio which was by far my favorite part of this holiday. The patio looks out into the rest of the town which is home to around 4000 people. There are several rows of houses and farms which you’ll see go all the way up to the base of of a 2170 meters mountain. At the top, we spotted what we were looking for, the isolated 14th century Gergeti Trinity Church, surrounded only by mother nature, and the perfect backdrop, Mount Kazbek. Pictures do indeed speak louder than words so I’ll give you a few minutes to gape at it. George had mentioned that there are 2 ways to get to the top, either by hiking up there which takes around 3 hours, or by hiring a driver to take us to the top which costs around 60 laris. If you opt for the drive, George has a few friends in the area that make the trip often, so he can help put you in touch.

Unfortunately, we opted not to head to the top this trip, something which will probably haunt me for the weeks to come. But, I’ve made a solemn promise to myself to come back, not just for the views which are very much worth the airfare, but to actually do the hike.

Travel Guide to Kazbegi

A few last words on our stay. The room rate includes a daily breakfast which you can have indoors or outside on the patio. Selection was alright, but we still preferred to order eggs. There wasn’t an open kitchen like the one in Tbilisi, so we weren’t sure if it was included in the room rate, but it was! We just had to order directly from the waiters. We had all our lunches and dinners in the hotel. Reason being, there weren’t many reviewed options out in the city so rather than risk a bad meal out, we ate in. Luckily, the menu had a wide variety of options, mostly international, and overall, quite delicious. The service was a little slow, even on not so busy days, so I’d definitely check-in to make sure your orders haven’t been forgotten. Finally, the hotel also has other forms of entertainment. There’s a nice indoors pool to swim in, sunbeds outside to sit at, and a casino. So in the unlikely event that you get tired of looking outside, there are a few alternatives. The hotel also offers free wifi in all areas.

We made the trip back to Tbilisi again with George who picked us up at 9:30AM. The drive directly to Tbilisi airport was around 3 hours. We got there a little early and browsed the duty free area for last-minute souvenirs. Over-priced in my opinion. Would make it a point to buy them from Tbilisi next time, if any. Finally, had our last khachapuri in the airport, at the only sit-in restaurant called Efes, which was quite delicious. Definitely, the perfect end to this relaxing break.

Georgia, until the next time.

Nada