You’ve got an itch. It’s down in the middle corner of your back, in that ever so perfectly annoying placement just out of your reach. We all know this feeling, which means we have a shared understanding of the desire to make it go away. We also know how good it feels to scratch it away, sending the same simple pleasure of a sneeze that momentarily teases you until it arrives and fills you with chills.
Georgia had been my travel itch for years.
I can’t tell you the precise origin of my curiosity, but like a legend it grew over time. I spent 30 days wandering Georgia with wide eyes and it responded by carving it’s name indelibly on this rootless tree. Now I’m here to toss the sawdust it left in it’s wake until you itch and have to scratch it. And you’ll thank me, because we all know it feels oh so good to scratch an itch.
Here are 7 reasons you'll be itching to visit Georgia.
Greetings – Gaumarjoba! It’s how Georgian’s begin every interaction, but it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t take long for foreigners to figure out that hospitality is one of the core virtues in Georgian society. If you don’t notice it on you own, don’t worry, almost every Georgian will flat out tell you how important it is for them to kindle the flame of friendship to foreigners on behalf of their country. Basically, you needn’t worry about a thing before arriving in Georgia, the people will take care of you. Food, shelter and friendship come with ease and in abundance. In no time at all, you will find yourself sitting in a Georgian home around a table of unfamiliar faces that feel like family. Georgian wine or Georgian grape vodka called Chacha will be poured and glasses will be raised to a chorus of “Gaumarjos!” which is a variation of the greeting Gaumarjoba and how Georgian’s say cheers. Just like that, you will have come full circle.
Eating – Eating is essential to maintain life. Everyone knows that. But, not every culture makes the ending to that sentence circular. Which is to say, eating is essential to maintain life, so that we can continue to live and keep eating delicious food. And don’t get it twisted, delicious food is not a privilege of pomp. You don’t need to be an economic powerhouse to create delectable dishes from the ingredients you’ve got. The most enjoyable meal I had in Georgia was a feast fit for a king, yet the only regally related object was a queen-sized bed, which served as seating for a quarter of the table. If this makeshift dining room were a garage it would barely fit two mid-sized sedans in it. Yet, 12 Georgians and 1 honorary Georgian (yours truly) sat on a bed, couch, chairs and overturned pails to pack around this pint sized, proud Georgian table and make what is essential to maintain life the essence of it. The proud matriarch of this feast was a Georgian grandma. With the table full, we began to eat a Georgian specialty called Mtsvadi, which is marinated pork roasted directly above hot ash until this crispy, mouth-watering offering is ready to eat, flanked by piping hot potatoes, onions and warm bread. Every ten minutes the door would swing open and our hunchbacked host would bring another dish to the table, with most of the customary Georgian dishes (see: link) arriving by the end of the evening. In this humblest of homes, we ate grapes grown onsite with a genuine sense of grandeur. Because Georgians know that you don’t have to be a king to eat like one.
Orthodoxy – Orthodox Christianity is omnipresent in Georgia. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a corner of the country without an Orthodox Church or monastery near it and hardheaded to ignore it. Two of the twelve apostles of Jesus, Andrew and Simon preached the teachings of Christ in Georgia during the 1st century. It houses some of the oldest, most magnificent monasteries in the world. Opinions on the ongoing importance of orthodoxy in modern Georgian society are mixed, however their influence is undeniable. The origin of the aforementioned importance of hospitality in Georgian culture was explained to me quite often as a manifestation of their religious beliefs. A young group of Georgians explained to me that, “We are a Christian country, which means we want to be like Jesus. Which means everyone is welcome and it is important to take care of them like Jesus would.” I’ll stop short of making this an orthodox infomercial, but in these days of increased religious tension, the positive implications and effect of religiosity on the Georgian people is an attitude that would be a positive export to the great, big world that surrounds this small, often unnoticed and overlooked orthodox country.
Rarely Visited – Rarely visited by westerners is one way I would describe Georgia. Before arriving in Georgia, I held the impression that I would be one of a handful of tourists in this country because most Americans don’t know a Georgia exists without Atlanta. This evaluation was quickly exposed as ethnocentrism. Just because most westerners are unaware of the existence of Georgia doesn’t mean that other parts of the world haven’t taken notice. This only adds to the intrigue of Georgia for western adventurers. If you were to randomly drop in on a hostel anywhere in the world odds are that you’d find some combination of Irish, Aussies, Brits and Americans sharing travel stories over drinks. Yet, I didn’t meet a single person from one of those countries during my 30-day stint in Georgia. However, it has a relatively strong infrastructure for tourism, with the majority of tourists hailing from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, China, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania and the surrounding countries of Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As any well-seasoned traveler knows, one of the joys of travel isn’t merely experiencing the culture, but meeting those other wayward souls seeking adventure as well. The unique touristic situation in Georgia will provide you with the same exploratory environment, yet with a cast of characters from different countries than one might be accustomed. It will only be a matter of time until the secret is out and Georgia is littered with western tourists, so hop a plane and experience the country the way it currently is while it is still rarely visited.
Grapes – Grapes are important in Georgia and one could say that it’s always been that way. Wine production can be traced all the way back to 6,000 BC. Where to? You guessed it, Georgia. However there are a couple of factors beyond the claim to fame of being first in fabrication that make Georgian wine particularly interesting to the sommelier inside of us all. The first is a unique format for production, which consists of filling clay jars called Kveris with grape juice and burying them in the ground until they ferment into one of the worlds favorite drinks. So unique is this winemaking process that UNESCO has it listed on it’s world cultural heritage list. The overwhelming majority of grape varieties are little known to the rest of the world. There are about 400 varietals available, however around 10% are actually used for commercial wine production. That doesn’t mean the rest aren’t used for wine, by the way. Most Georgians have at least one person in their family that grows their own grapes and produces wine with them. Keeping with the theme of using everything at your disposal, after the juice is pressed from the grapes for wine, the stem and skin are saved in barrels to later produce Chacha. What is Chacha you ask? It’s the grape vodka that Georgians will be forcing on you in large quantities should you choose to visit their country. And it’s amazing. I’d be remiss to end this entry on grapes in Georgia without blowing your mind. They actually taste like grape flavored candy. Turns out grape candy actually does taste like grapes. It's our shitty grapes that misrepresent the flavor. Who knew?
Improvisational Architecture – Improvisational architecture abounds in Georgia. As most international flights will arrive in the capital of Tbilisi, it shouldn’t take long for you to notice. I was told that Tbilisi has been rebuilt around 40 times due to natural disasters or foreign invasions and I’d be lying if I said you couldn’t tell. They seem to have left everything that survived and carried on as they saw fit, which makes it feel like a city filled with oddly fitting architecture. I’m talking ancient meets Soviet, meets modern and anything else you could imagine in-between. It’s an architectural clash, but this clash gives the city a distinct and unquestionable charm. Walking the winding roads filled with balconies above and venders of every kind imaginable below will fill you with an intoxicating sense of romanticism. It feels like a time apart, as if you’ve been transported to the Paris of the 1920’s described in Faulkner’s Moveable Feast. As you visit the cities and villages beyond the capital of Tbilisi, you will see different types of architecture yet notice one similarity. Georgians never hesitate to improvise. They take the materials that they have before them and build what they can. It may not always look perfect, but they make it work. Which lends itself to a beauty that a confident embrace of imperfection can bring. I’m pretty sure that Georgians have been making furniture, and anything else you can imagine, from pallets far before it became cool to do so, which makes this country filled with improvisational architecture an unintentional hipsters paradise.
Air Up There – On my second to last day in the country, I took an unusually long daytrip (6 hour) into the mountains of Georgia just to get one last couple gasps of the air up there. Georgia is a country overflowing with natural beauty, but it’s fairly clear who the star of the show is. Georgia is home to the Caucasus Mountains, which is the highest mountain range in Europe (yes, higher than the Alps.) The two regions that any visitor to Georgia must see are the mountainous regions surrounding Kazbegi and Mestia. They are both mind-numbingly beautiful. It’s sights like these that reveal the bastardization of our superlative selection process. The true majesty of these moments fails to register significance with those who haven’t seen them when described with words after we’ve just described last Wednesday’s pasta primavera as magnificent. Yet, when you’re staring at them all you want to do is take pictures to Instagram and hashtag every synonym for breathtaking that you can imagine. I had to quiet the descriptive chaos in my mind by calling a superlative ceasefire, because it can be imperative to experience to breathe it in rather than box it in. I put down my camera. I stopped writing. I closed my eyes to inhale that cold, crisp air and raised my arms towards the sky with a cathartic exhalation. It’s moments like these that you really feel at peace with the world. But, don’t take my word for it, head to Georgia and breathe the air up there.