Georgia – The Good, the Bad, and the Soviet

I have mixed feelings about our time in Georgia. On one hand we had excellent bread, wine, and fizzy water, which sounds very biblical. People were immensely friendly and the crumbling architecture of Tbilisi makes for one of the most interesting urban environments I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, much of the food is greasy and meat-centric, nearly every tourist attraction includes either precipitous heights or taxidermy (maybe a Jaynie-specific gripe), and life maintenance chores necessary for long term travelers (like us) were difficult. Laundry, haircuts, and printing documents turned into full day escapades. (related side bar: Jeff thinks his new Georgian haircut makes him look like a Russian boy-toy. I don’t disagree but he looks cute. Also, don’t Google ‘Russian boy-toy’.)

The Good Stuff

Tbilisi dates back to about 500 AD, but constant invasions destroyed the ancient city and what you see today was built in the early 1800s. Most of the civic architecture is Art Nouveau style – pretty but a bit dull. The residential architecture, however, is fascinating. Winding streets are lined with houses made of a chaotic jumble of styles, looking like Damascus, Istanbul, and Sarajevo had a baby. Many houses are brick (thus the crumbliness) and have cantilevered wooden balconies that are elaborately carved and hanging on by a thread. Built around a central courtyard to house large, multigenerational families, they now house three or four flats. Sadly, years of seismic activity and negligence have left these structures beyond repair. Metal braces stabilize the most impaired structures, but I think these houses are destined to be demolished.

After the architecture, the best thing about Georgia is the bread. I will be dreaming about this stuff for the rest of my life. The most common bread is a nice chewy leaven bread called ‘shotis puri’, or just ‘shoti’. Shoti is baked by slapping the dough on the inside wall of a coal filled tandoor-like oven called a tone. Every street has a baker, and they sell their goods out of basement-level windows for 20-50 cents. Our nightly dinner was a loaf (or two) of shoti and homemade cheese sold by street vendors (sometimes good, sometimes scary).

Georgian wine is another highlight, and the country has an 8,000-year legacy of wine making. Georgian wine differs from ‘European style’ wine in two distinct ways: 1) grape skins are not filtered from the juice, and 2) fermentation happens in buried clay jugs called ‘kvevris’. We did a food and wine tour to the Kakheti region west of Tbilisi, and it was definitely our favorite part of the trip to Georgia. The scenery in Kakheti is absolutely stunning, and seeing the old methods of wine making was interesting. Oh, and we saw some kittens (yay yay yay!!!!), so of course we loved Kakheti.

As part of our wine tour we visited a small family run winery, several delightful rural food vendors, and most excitingly – a wine cellar owned by a pair of Russian oligarchs and housed in a former Soviet missile bunker. This bunker-cum-cellar was huge, and it contained 8km worth of tunnels. The temperature inside the tunnels was 30 degrees cooler than outside, and we were outfitted with very undignified snuggies to keep us comfortable. Of course, the fact that the wine caves are a former Soviet bunker was not mentioned during our tunnel tour. Sure, there are a lot of reasons for 8 km of Cold War-era tunnels in a granite mountain bordering Chechnya….

The Bad Stuff (aka Soviet weirdness)

Sadly, not all of the Soviet holdovers in Georgia are as fun as bunker-wineries. As I mentioned, the food in Georgia is very meat-centric, and in all too many cases very Russian. On our first morning, we decided to go for a cheap brekky at a popular local joint known for chebureki (essentially a hand pie). We ordered meat chebureki and potato dumplings, and the food was literally meat chebureki and potato dumplings. No herbs, no spices, no accouterment. A pinch of chives or green onion would have done wonders, but sadly нет (I’ll save you from Googling; that means ‘no’ in Ruski). This food experience repeated itself several times over, and was frustrating since I know Georgians are capable of growing herbs. Why the bland food??? My theory is that is was for Russian tourists, but it made dining out fairly unpleasant.

More Russian-ness happened at the Tbilisi baths. The city is known for its historic sulfur baths, and I delightedly ran to the baths on Day 1. Sadly, rather than the festive shvitz I anticipated, what I found was very staid and very, very Russian. Despite what the internet will tell you, the baths in Tbilisi are not public bath houses, but private rooms with a bath. The rooms are super big, and furnished with icky pleather couches evocative of a brothel. The whole thing reeks of cigarettes, vodka, and beer. See? Super Russian. I did get a very nice scrub down by a no-nonsense attendant and was offered a massage by a male masseur, which I kindly declined. A bit weird? Yes. But these baths just weren’t up to my excitement standards (which admittedly are high after the electric baths in Japan).

A final Soviet throwback I’ll leave with was our adventure in the Tbilisi metro system. Jeff and I though we’d take the subway to another part of the city for some exploration, a nice easy day. Fun. We bough our tickets, we entered the station, and we were met with the most terrifying subway I have ever encountered. I cannot emphasize this enough – this subway is DEEP!!!! Terrifyingly deep!!!! The Rustaveli Metro station is 200 feet underground, and you reach the platform by a single escalator that is 400 feet long. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is one of the longest escalators in the world (good on you, USSR). And it’s fast. Like, uncomfortably fast. The Soviets built metro systems deep enough to survive nuclear holocaust, but they certainly didn’t think about passenger experience. You feel like you’re descending into a pit mine, and if you don’t physically hold on to both railings you’ll tip over. It was petrifying, and after our 3-minute descent we were frightened and immediately began our ascent.

This photo doesn’t do justice to how scary this metro system is.

So there you have it – the good with the Soviet bad. For the most part, we enjoyed our time in Georgia and it was good to try out a ‘baby-former Soviet state’ before heading to Uzbekistan. Next up – Oʻzbekiston Respublikasi.

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