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Georgia - Eating and sleeping
Georgian cuisine is far closer to that of Turkey and Iran than that of Russia, with plenty of garlic, walnuts, cumin and coriander. Meat is central, but a Georgian meal is served with many dishes, including vegetable ones, on the table at once and everyone helping themselves to whatever they want.
It’s best to pace yourself, as it’s likely to be a long evening with plenty of wine.
Mtsvadi or mutton grilled on a vinewood fire is very popular for outdoor feasts, although pork can also be used. Basturma (ie: pastrami, as used in New York delis) is air-dried pressed mutton. Finally, khinkhali are pasta envelopes of dough (shaped like little money bags) stuffed with minced meat (or cheese). Fish is also popular, notably sturgeon and trout, such as kefalia, small fried trout from the mountains of Adjara.
Vegetable dishes include several with aubergine, for instance fried with walnuts, stuffed with hazelnut paste, or as ajapsandali, stewed with tomato and peppers. Bean dishes include lobio (kidney beans stewed with coriander), karabakh loby (green beans in sour cream and tomato sauce) and mtsvane lobio niguzit (a bean salad in a walnut dressing).
Desserts such as halva and baklava show influence from the south; walnuts are also used in many ways, such as in cakes, crushed and wrapped in a flour and honey paste, and best of all as nigozis muraba, picked green, marinated in slaked lime and water, and boiled in the shell with sugar, until you can easily bite through the shell. Also quintessentially Georgian is churchkhela, made by threading walnuts or hazelnuts, almonds and raisins on a string, covering them in flour, dipping them repeatedly in simmering grape juice and hanging out to dry; made at the grape harvest each year, they look like brown candles.
Fruits and dessert are integral parts of Georgian cuisine. Pictured: a grocery in Tbilisi © Milosz_M, Shutterstock
Wine is absolutely central to the Georgian lifestyle and to their self-image, and everyone (especially men) drinks large quantities and will want you to do the same. In theory Georgians drink red wines in winter, and whites in summer, but in practice it’s hard to tell the difference, as even ‘red’ (literally ‘black’ or shavi) wines may in fact be straw-coloured. Most families make their own, storing it in kvevri, large sealed clay vessels set into the floor of a room known as the marani. In every ancient site you visit, such as Vardzia or Uplistsikhe, there’ll be a marani or three.
Vodka is drunk in Georgia, but far less than in Russia and the other Slav countries; the national spirit is chacha, a firewater made at home, as a rule from grain, although in Svaneti, where grain doesn’t grow, they use bread instead!
Finding somewhere to sleep can be a problem in some towns. Many of the older Soviet-period hotels have been used to accommodate Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, and although many of these have since moved on, there are others who have settled in for the duration as they pay just a peppercorn rent. However, even some of these hotels usually have a few rooms available for travellers, while many have been totally emptied of refugees to allow renovation. Thankfully, there are now many new, better hotels, especially in Tbilisi. Many of those on the Black Sea, in resorts such as Kobuleti, are well up to European standards, while those in remoter areas such as Svaneti and Tusheti are more basic, although this is compensated for by the ambience.
There are plenty of guesthouses in Tbilisi, but these evolved as upmarket abodes for businesspeople and official visitors. Some really are luxurious, and some might appear amazingly pricey for a country in which the standard of living is still low. Until recently there were few affordable alternatives in Tbilisi, but in recent years a handful of hostels and mid-range hotels have emerged to fill the gap. In hotels a single room often in fact has a double bed, and you may just be able to pay a bit more for a second breakfast; but a double room often has twin single beds.
Details of local guesthouses can usually be obtained from tourist information centres but these are few and far between. Otherwise the Agroturism Association (Davit Agmashenebelis 150A, 380012 Tbilisi; firstname.lastname@example.org) has a list of 400 families offering homestays, mostly around Borjomi, along the Georgian Military Highway and in Khevsureti – they’ll probably only speak Georgian and Russian, but the welcome will be warm. If in doubt, you can simply ask a taxi driver if he knows anyone who has a room free; in villages you’ll never be allowed to go without a bed. Georgian hospitality is renowned, and you’ll usually find liberal amounts of alcohol included in the cost of a homestay, as well as food. Although hotel beds can be absurdly soft, in homes they’re usually firm enough, and washing facilities, which are clean enough in hotels, tend to be even more so in homes. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) plans to provide training for guesthouse owners in Borjomi, Poti and Tusheti, as part of a broad strategy for sustainable use of resources; other NGOs such as Horizonti have similar projects. Value-added tax of 20% is added by more expensive hotels; the smaller ones either don’t pay or include it in the quoted rates.