Georgia: Suggestions and Such (Part 2)
So I’ve told you where to go and what to see, how about some more practical information? Transportation, costs, accommodations, food and drink…How to make the most of your time and money once you’re there.
Transportation: For far-flung trips to Kazbegi or Kakheti, or even further, it can be useful to rent a car – without doing so, getting to Davit Gareji would have been a huge pain in the ass, and all these stops after the jump, going to and from Kazbegi, would have been unlikely if not impossible without hiring a taxi at an exorbitant fee:
The bad news is that car rental is EXPENSIVE – nearly $80 a day for a crummy little Hyundai hatchback with GPS, when you really want something like a Jeep or Land Rover – available at vastly higher cost. Car rental companies are not that present, with only three international chains represented alongside a small handful of local outfits. Do your research, compare prices, and best of luck when the roads turn into rocks and muck.
Despite this, car rental is not really necessary except to go long distances or make lots of stops. Over 2/3 of my time there, we didn’t have a car, and we weren’t in want of one either. Tbilisi itself is small enough that the center is imminently walkable, and within Tbilisi and other towns, and for short trips (say maxing out at half an hour from wherever they’re hired), taxis are cheap. It’s hard to pay more than $5 for a cross-Tbilisi taxi, even when getting ripped off as a foreigner (negotiate your price before you get in, use hand signals if need be) – from the old town to the intercity minibus depot should be no more than 5-6 Georgian Lari (GEL)- about $4.
Speaking of which, intercity minbuses, or marshrutkas, are the best way to get from town to town or city to city. They are laughably cheap, if not laughably comfortable. Most leave Tbilisi from Didube depot, and go nearly everywhere. Beware Didube is confusing as hell, so ask somebody there where the marshrutka to where you’re going is. Didube is on the Tbilisi metro line, but you might as well take a taxi since it hardly costs anything.
Accommodation: Tbilisi has a fair number of hotels, ranging from budget to luxury, but the real backbone of accommodation throughout Georgia are guesthouses and homestays, in which you stay in a house owned and lived in by a local family, usually in a distinct part of the house. Even if you’re not invited to someone’s house, a guesthouse is still a great introduction to Georgian hospitality, because for not much money (GEL 40/$25), you’ll get a a place to stay as well as a sumptuous dinner with mountains of delicious homemade food and gallons of homemade wine and an only-slightly smaller breakfast, as well as interaction with the hosts. Some of the houses are quite interesting, too:
In some of the more popular places (like Sighnaghi), calling ahead to book is a good idea, but in less busy places, or ones flooded with guesthouses (Kazbegi), vacancies can be found by showing up. For the guesthouses in Tbilisi, definitely book well in advanced, because they’re fantastic and slots get filled up fast.
Food and drink: I’ve already made much mention of the food and wine – it’s excellent. However, beware the prevalence of cheese! Cheese, bread, AND khachapuri will be served at every meal, as will cucumber-tomato salad. Other dishes to try are badrijani nigvzit, eggplant slices smeared with a delicious walnut paste, pkhali, or vegetables mashed with walnut paste, kharcho, a delicious hearty and well-spiced beef soup, chakapuli, a lamb and green-plumb stew, tabaka, a whole small chicken flattened then grilled or fried, and mchadi, a delicious fried cornbread. Beans are very popular, whether served as lobio, a bean stew not unlike refried beans, or lobiani, like a khachapuri but stuffed with beans instead of cheese. Make sure to order a side of tqemali, or sour plum sauce, eaten with everything but especially grilled meat. Various pickles and greens also make a good accompaniment to a meal. The most popular dessert and travellers’ snack, nicknamed “Georgian Snickers,” is churchkhela, a string of walnuts dipped repeatedly into boiled grape juice concentrate and left to dry.
Moving on to drink, as I mentioned, Georgia is wine’s homeland. Traditionally made wine is rather different from modern, European styles, especially in the white varieties – they’re fermented with skins, seeds, and stalks, and come out rather an amber color and are more earthy and complex than Western-style whites. All proper restaurants or bars will have commercially made wine, usually, at a minimum, saperavi (red), and rkatsiteli (white), plus a couple semi-sweet varieties (kvanchkara or kindzmarauli). Try a semi-sweet at least once, they’re surprisingly nice. It’s worth noting I had no bad wine in Georgia, and had lots of superb wine, none of which at a restaurant set me back more than about $10-15 a bottle, some much less. At simpler eateries, guesthouses, homestays, or if you get invited to someone’s house, you’ll almost certainly get homemade wine, either made by the host or their relatives or friends. The homemade stuff is interesting – light, refreshing, and enough like juice that you can down glass after glass after glass, without realizing how much alcohol you consumed until the next morning. God help you. Copious amounts of booze are offered, but it’s worth mentioning that Georgia has a very elaborate toasting culture that gets taken quite seriously, and in the most formal settings nobody drinks without toasting first. It’ll all be under the guidance of a tamada (toastmaster), but expect to have to be somewhat eloquent at some point. It helps if you have a Georgian explain it to you beforehand.
Georgian beer (ludi) ranges from quite decent to better-avoid-it, depending on the brand. At the top of the heap is the Natakhtari brewery, whose flagship product is a good helles-style lager. They also produce a more premium product called Kasris, which is a bit maltier and richer. You’ll recognize Natakhtari by its yellow branding – yellow awnings, cafe umbrellas and tables, and yellow labels on the brown bottles (which range from 500ml to 2.5L). Adjoining Natakhtari is Zedazeni, a more hoppy pilsner-y beer. I prefer the former, but it’s still good. Then there’s Kazbegi, which is just pretty crappy. Best avoided. There are other beers out there too, but stick to Natakhtari or Zedazeni and you’ll be happy. Out somewhere, a pint will cost ~$2, at a shop, a bit less, with the gigantic plastic 2.5L bottles going for about $4.
There’s also chacha, or Georgian grappa, weighing in close to 60% ABV, $4-5 or so per shot on a menu. It can be okay, or it can be total bathtub hooch. The aged stuff is actually somewhat enjoyable as a sipper, but that’s less common. Beware, chacha can be fun, but it can also ruin your next day.
Regarding places to eat out, pretty much everywhere serving Georgian food is good, with some places spectacular. As mentioned, Puris Sakhli in Tbilisi (whose name translates as “bread house”), do FANTASTIC grilled quails, as well as excellent bread straight out of the oven, as well as doing other things quite well. For a really fantastic experience, tell a taxi to take you to the restaurant Tsiskvili, which is in a rather-out-of-the-way location in the outskirts of Tbilisi. It’s an enormous, well-appointed, yet rustic place centered around a courtyard, where service, food, and entertainment are at their apex. Service was the most professional of any place I ate, the food supremely delicious, and the live music traditional, pleasant, and restrained. It’s worth noting here that many restaurants have live music, most of which is just guys with a keyboard belting out tunes at rock-concert volumes. At Tsiskvili, they have traditional instrumentalists, along with singers skilled in the classic art of Georgian polyphonic singing. Not too loud either – very nice. Cheap eateries will you fill you up from anywhere between about $4-10 a head, which can include wine or beer. More formal places run anywhere from about $15-30 a head, with the high end providing really superb stuff.
For the best ice cream in Tbilisi, good on a hot summer day or night, check out Luca Polare, a small gelato shop and espresso bar on Leselidze Street in the old town. It’s open past 2 am, too. A scoop or two will run you a couple bucks or so.
Language: Georgian, one of the most distinctive and isolate languages in the world, spoken by about 4 million people and entirely unrelated to anything else except for a few minority languages within Georgia and Turkey. It has its own alphabet too, also unrelated to anything else. So what’s the non-Georgian speaker to do? At a minimum, it’s worth learning the alphabet – try studying as much of it as you can on the flight over, and within a few days on the ground you should get the hang of it. It’s pretty useful, since although road signs are bilingual in English, many shop, etc signs are not, and some restaurants have menus only in Georgian. As for speaking Georgian, try to learn as many words as possible – basic greetings and etiquette words, asking basic questions, numbers, and other basic vocabulary. It’s hard, but it’ll definitely make life easier.
Within Tbilisi, especially in the old town or along Rustaveli Avenue, most younger people will speak English. A few people outside Tbilisi will too, especially in areas dependent on tourism, such as at vineyards for wine tours, or in the restaurant in Kazbegi, or around Sighnaghi. Otherwise, best of luck! It’s worth noting almost everyone has some knowledge of Russian, with many completely fluent. Despite the current enmity with Russia, if they don’t speak English, Georgians will slip into Russian at the first sign of your Georgian not being up to snuff, whether you speak Russian or not. Needless to say, if you know Russian, it can be very helpful.
Guidebooks: Yes, I’ll admit it – I found the Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan guide extremely useful. It’s good to get some concise background info, and every recommendation they made was great, between restaurants, accommodation, and other suggestions/advice. All the guesthouses and hotels I stayed in and almost all the restaurants I ate in received high marks from LP. It’s also helpful for its list of wineries to tour, complete with phone numbers. Lots more useful, detailed information is in the book than I could even begin to post here. The newest edition was actually published immediately prior to my trip, unavailable in print when I went, so I bought the PDF version and had it on my iPhone, along with the older print edition. By now it’s out in book form. I’d actually recommend getting the book plus downloading just the Georgia chapter as a PDF (it’s only $5) to have on your phone or tablet, because if you’re out wandering around on the street or on a trail, it’s nice not to have to worry about carrying a book.
But the WBH guide to Georgia has given you a good head start.