We had a few days off for Christmas this year and decided to spend them in Georgia, a tiny country neighboring Turkey to the Northeast. We had been meaning to visit for the longest time and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity.
One interesting thing about Georgia is that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th since the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian. It kind of made it the perfect destination since the city was filled with the anticipation of Christmas, but everything was still open since it wasn’t officially the holiday yet for them.
We knew we’d made the right choice as soon as we marched up to Passport Control AND WERE EACH HANDED FREE BOTTLES OF WINE. No, I am not kidding. What a welcome. We were also struck by all of the beautiful Christmas lights throughout the city.
Tbilisi is a remarkably eclectic city that is constantly juxtaposing the old with the new. Modernity effortlessly mingles with ancient traditions, something that can’t be said for many places. There is an air of seediness as the streets are filled with beggars, casinos, and strip clubs, but there is also an air of welcome and safety. The people are very friendly and happy to help strangers. People look out for each other.
I was totally charmed by this mysterious city and determined to learn more. I signed up for the Free Walking Tour and it did not disappoint! Nothing beats walking around the city for a few hours with a local, learning about history, culture, and all the best places to eat. It is a must for anyone visiting the city.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was going inside an Orthodox church. Instead of the rows of seats and stained glass windows, there is almost no lighting and absolutely no seating. The walls are painted with religious scenes and dimly lit by candlelight.
The country is one of the most religious in the world, with over 90% of the population identifying as believers according to our guide. It’s an interesting statistic when you consider that the country was once part of the Soviet Union, which banned religion entirely. Tbilisi was very fortunate, however, that when the Soviets took power, none of their churches were destroyed, which was not always the case. Instead, they were preserved and put to use as storage buildings until the USSR collapsed in 1991.
I was also stunned by our next stop, the beautiful Peace Bridge, which represents the peaceful connection between the past and the future. It serves a symbol of hope for people that have endured a lot of war.
Once across the bridge, you can take the cable car up to Narikala Fortress, which offers stunning views of the old part of the city.
At the top of the fortress stands Kartlis Deda, The Mother of Georgia, watching over the city. In one hand she holds a glass of wine; in the other, she holds a sword. This is meant as both an invitation to strangers who come in peace and a warning for their enemies.
Fun fact: there are absolutely no guards or safety regulations at the fortress, so you can climb all the way up to the top at your own peril!
One of our final stops on the tour took us back down and through the historic district to a hidden waterfall, which is often frozen in winter!
In addition to a fascinating history and culture, Georgia is also home to some spectacular food and wine. After trying it, I really don’t know why it isn’t a bigger speck on the foodie radar. Everything I ate there was delicious, from spicy herbed potatoes to a variety of savory breads and pastries. My personal favorite was a dish called khinkali, which consisted of big, delicious dumplings with various soupy fillings. They were seriously incredible. I need the recipe ASAP.
Now about the wine. I don’t even know if I can properly describe it. Georgia has a vibrant wine culture that has been around for centuries, as the region is abundant with grapes. Interestingly, the Georgians have their own method for making wine, which is quite different than that of the Europeans. The grapes are put in a giant clay pot, buried underground, and then fermented and filtered.
It’s sweet, smooth, cheap, delicious, and EVERYWHERE. Nearly every Georgian has their own family wine recipe and makes it themselves. Needless to say, we got to sample several varieties and tried to take advantage of the good prices and generous baggage allowance we had (thanks, Turkish Airlines!).
Even as I’m sitting back home writing this, I can’t fully wrap my head around Georgia. It’s so curious, confusing, and alluring all at the same time. As is often the case when I’m traveling these days, I feel the need to go back to get a better feel for the place. I would love to see more of the Caucasus Mountains and the Georgian countryside. Perhaps in warmer weather.
If nothing else, I hope I can give a voice to this overlooked little country. It’s affordable, beautiful, interesting, and there’s plenty of wine to go around. It’s perfect for those who want something a little off the beaten path.
Nothing in the world can replace Christmas at home with family, but when that’s thousands of miles away, Georgia is a pretty good alternative.