Don’t call it Russian
2021 marks 100 years since the Red Army invaded Georgia and brought it under the Soviet Union as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, Georgia regained its independence as a proud nation of the Caucasus region.
While the country is still at the center of conflict even today, and clashes continue with Russian military forces occupying 20% of the country in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in the northern and western parts of the country, tourists should not let this deter them from visiting. These regions are so contained within themselves and away from popularized road trip routes, must-visit areas, and national parks, most visitors don’t realize they exist.
So, while it is common for outsiders to assume Georgia is a part of Russia, that certainly isn’t the case. Georgians are not Russian. And Georgia is not Russia. The country and its peoples are an indigenous Caucasian ethnic group native to the South Caucasus who speak their own language, write in their own script, and have their own traditions around food, music, and more.
An alphabet as unique as its people
Georgian language, or kartuli ena (ქართული ენა), a member of the Kartvelian language family, isn’t only one of the oldest languages in the world still spoken, it’s one of the oldest alphabets still in use as well. The oldest iteration of the alphabet (Asomtavruli) is thought to date back to the 5th century BC, while the newest (Mkhedruli) dates to the 11th century.
A queen fit to be a king
Queen Tamar was no ordinary queen. In fact, she wasn’t a queen at all. She was Georgia’s only female king. As the first woman to govern Georgia, Tamar the Great, as she was known, ruled Georgia from 1184 to 1213, leading to the pinnacle of the Georgian Golden Age.
As the granddaughter of David Aghmashenebeli, or ‘David the Builder’ in English, she’s still depicted and revered as one of the greatest and most diplomatic rulers in Georgian history. Even the great Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli couldn’t help but portray her in his epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.
While Tamar the Great proved herself as one of the greatest rulers in the world during her reign, and more worthy than most of the title of king, Georgian language has no grammatical genders. Thus, unlike the word king in English, it does not imply a male ruler.
8,000 years of wine
Georgia is often called the birthplace of wine. Ask any local, and they’ll proudly tell you that Georgians have been making wine for more than 8,000 years. Using techniques that involve a clay qvevri, an egg-shaped clay vessel buried in the ground, Georgian wine is quickly becoming some of the most sought-after wine in the world.
With more than 500 indigenous grape varietals—roughly one-sixth of the world's total grape varieties—from chinuri, rkatsiteli, and kisi white varietals to the extremely popular saperavi, jani, and chkhaveri red varietals, Georgia’s diversity when it comes to wine is undeniable.
The Kakheti region and the famous town of Sighnaghi, are especially known for wine and home to some of the best vineyards and tasting rooms in the country.
The mountains are alive with the sound of polyphonic singing
Polyphonic singing, a centuries-old way of storytelling using a capella polyphony, is one of Georgia’s most unique intangible traditions, and the hills, mountains, villages, dinner tables—and even the kitchens—are alive with it. Especially in the tiny town of Udabno, which Casletila Ensemble, one of the country’s most recognized groups, calls home.
When this world-famous polyphonic singing ensemble isn’t sharing their gift on Georgia’s Got Talent or touring the world, they can be found performing in the kitchen at the Oasis Club, where they’ve gained a cult-like reputation as the singing chefs.
The many khachapuris
Adjarian, Imeretian, Penovani, Mtskhetian, Megrelian, the list goes on to include 53 types of khachapuri, which translates to cheese bread—and is every bit as heavenly to eat as it sounds.
When you consider the number of fillings, including various types of cheese and meat, the number increases to 83 iterations. Each region specializes in its own, with Adjarian khachapuri being the most famous for its boat shape and raw egg yolk topping and Meskhetian being a Tbilisian favorite for its flakier crust and lighter texture.
Where shemomechama is normal, and things will always be done zeg
While there is no direct translation for “shemomechama,” the loose translation is, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.” When you consider how good the food is in Georgia, you quickly understand why it’s such a common saying.
And since you’ve already eaten more than you intended, chances are you drank more than you intended, as well. Which is okay too, because things can always be done “zeg,” or “the day after tomorrow” when your hangover will have finally worn off (hopefully).
A land of adventure, in every sense of the word
From Mount Ushba in the popular Svaneti region, one of the deadliest peaks to summit in the Caucasus Mountains, to the Road to Tusheti, often considered one of the most dangerous roads in the world thanks to landslides and steep drop-offs, Georgia is an actual land of adventure.
Even if you’re looking for something not so death-defying, there are plenty of ways to discover Georgia. Paragliding in Gudauri with the Greater Caucasus Mountains as your backdrop, trekking through the wild natural beauty of Mestia and Ushguli using the 8th century and later towers as your trail markers, and backcountry ski touring in the country’s best powder conditions in the cat ski-only accessible town of Bakhmaro are just a few more ways to get your blood pumping. If you dream it, it can happen here.
Look out for Rally Adventure Georgia, a cross-country off-road rally, and RacingThePlanet Ultramarathon, which are taking place this year. You can even cheer on travel show host, vlogger, and ultrarunner in training Eva zu Beck, who has already begun training for this summer’s race in the Javakheti region.
An eye for design
Tbilisi Design Days, a newly envisioned annual conference around all things design focusing on architecture, art installations, workshops, and educational programs, is just one way the city’s top architects and gallerists are celebrating and promoting design in the city. Tbilisi Design Days is on hiatus until 2022, but stop into Window Project gallery in Tbilisi anytime and meet Design Days co-founder Tamuna Gvaberidze.
There’s also the established Tbilisi Architecture Biennial, which started in Soviet times and was revived in 2018. The Biennial will be back in autumn 2022.
Luckily, the architecturally curious crowd doesn’t need to wait for these events to get their own taste of Tbilisi’s obsession with design. Buildings such as Stamba Hotel, a Soviet publishing house-turned-upscale hotel that also introduces the country to sustainable vertical farming, and Fabrika, a sewing factory reimagined as a hostel and local-favorite hangout, will satiate the senses.
Treehouse cabins and floating chalets
Georgia’s adventure doesn’t end with white knuckle roads and adrenaline-filled sports. Duende Hotel, the eco-conscious boutique hotel that started the country’s fascination with tiny living, sits just on the outskirts of Lagodekhi National Park where their fairy tale-worthy tiny cabins immerse you in the lush subtropical-like nature reserve that’s home to 150 species of birds, 53 mammals, 12 reptiles, 5 amphibians, and 4 species of fish.
And newcomers such as Shaori Chalet, a floating one-room chalet located on Shaori Reservoir in Racha, a region that hasn’t quite made the radar of tourists yet (but surely will soon), these properties are helping guests stay as close to nature as possible. A trend that will undoubtedly continue given that more than a third of the country is covered by forests and brush.
Dance, dance revolution
It’s been used as a means for peacefully protesting against raids that occurred inside the city’s most prominent nightclubs and as a way to spearhead LGBTQ equality through storytelling as director Levan Akin did in And Then We Danced. Dance is becoming the medium of choice for liberal youth in Georgia to tell their stories and to make calls for change as explosive as dance itself.
Georgian day of the dead
Each February, the locals of Svaneti, one of Georgia’s most remote and untouched mountain regions, come together to celebrate Lamproba, a sort of Georgian day of the dead.
The celebration starts at sunset when fires are lit at the snow-covered graves of family members, tables are spread with food and wine, and toasts of chacha (Georgian brandy) begin flowing, accompanied by teary-eyed toasts to loved ones who have passed on. The entire community comes out to celebrate despite the freezing temperatures—which you barely notice once the wine and tears take over.
A literary odyssey
For a look at life in Georgia, check out Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life (for Brilka) which tells the generational story of a family through the red century in a way that offers history, heartbreak, and hope for what the future of the country may hold.
The Soviet Diet Cookbook, a blog-turned-book, offers another look into the country's role in the Soviet Union's past. This time through a “Julia and Julia” approach, but with a lot more bebiebi (grandmothers) involved.
For a more modern take on the country and what’s been going on politically (an eye-opening and sometimes heartbreaking thing to follow), the book In the Mountains of Poetry is a worthy read. Especially for anyone who is planning to spend an extended period in the country.
The literary journey doesn’t stop there. Tbilisi was named UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2021. This means you can expect to hear from more Georgian authors, and more stories around this endlessly fascinating country, in the future.