The Ends of the Earth, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti

Even though it is July, banks of snow still dot the mountainside as we hike along the Alazani River into the bottom of Pirikiti Valley, Tusheti. Across the river, medieval stone towers in two tiny hamlets cling to the steep slopes. It feels as if we at the ends of the earth in the High Caucasus Mountains.

Remains of the winter, Dartlo, Tusheti

Snowbank, Dartlo, Tusheti

Dartlo is the larger of the two villages. Located on the riverbank, its architecture includes the traditional fortresses dating back to the 12th century, slate houses with roofed balconies as well as more “modern” stone structures. Some years ago the World Bank funded a project to restore the village and many of the structures have been reconstructed.

A sign banning women from approaching is prominently displayed at the ruins of a church, surrounded by barbed wire. It is unusual to see this type of sign on a church; normally it is the pagan shrines (Khati) that are thus marked. However, one once stood here, making the ground itself off-limits to women.

Ruins of church, Dartlo, Tushet

“No women allowed.”

Immediately behind the church twelve stones stand in a semi-circle, the remains of an ancient court where 12 elders once met to dispense justice in the community. The plaintiff and the defendant sat on two stones before them. The judges resolved most cases through negotiation and compromise, but periodically, more draconian measures were required. Banishment of the defendant from the community was the worst punishment that could be meted out.

Rock carving on house, Dartlo, Georgia

Mysterious stone petroglyph , Dartlo

Even though archeologists believe that this area of the Caucasus was settled between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, very little research or excavation has taken place here. Some Bronze Age artifacts as well as stones covered with petroglyphs have been found. Many of the slate houses include such stones here and there in the walls. There are a number of common themes among the petroglyphs: a pair of hands protecting a circle, circles within circles, a flaming tail on a star, or a man on a horse.

In Tusheti horses are considered as part of the family as well as being the primary means of transportation. Special songs and toasts are dedicated to famous horses, and wild horse races follow all Tusheti festivals and even funerals.

Towers in Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti

Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti, Georgia

We stay at the Samtsikhe Guest house, owned by Beso Elanidze. It is the largest we find in Tusheti, able to house 40 guests in six stone and wood buildings. The rooms are similar to other guesthouses in the region, twin beds with thick wool quilts and a shared bathroom. This one has electricity and a nice, rustic, open-air café overlooking the rushing stream. Orange lichen covers the rocks around the café. Our guide tells us that the women of the village boil the lichen to dye the wool they use to make traditional handicrafts – woolen hats, socks and mittens.

Long communal tables with rounds of tree trunks for chairs line the café. Massive amounts of food appear – khachapuri, khinkali, stuffed peppers, eggplant in walnut sauce, chicken in walnut sauce, and the ever-present tomato and cucumber salad — accompanied by the customary toasts with wine or chacha, Georgia’s equivalent to firewater. Our travel companions are a group of Czech hikers who stop by to have a warm meal before setting up camp and a group of Russian visitors making their way through Tusheti.

Delicious Georgian food, Dartlo

Dartlo Dinner

A steep, difficult hike away, the even smaller hamlet of Kvavlo sits above Dartlo. A single 12th century watchtower looms above the skyline, its roof shaped like a pyramid. The village is built on the rocky slope of the mountain with stone paths connecting the various houses.

Further along the mountainside, a spectacular pagan Khati, adorned with horses, sits in the village of Dano.

The following morning we set out for the village of Parsma, the farthest point in our journey through Tusheti. Parsma is farther up the Pirikiti Valley at about 7,000 feet above sea level. We drive north on what can only be described as a single lane, dirt trail, so narrow that it is almost impossible to turn the vehicle around. On one side, sheer drop-offs fall to the river below while on the other the mountain looms high with slate outcrops and plenty of evidence of rock and mudslides.

Lichen is used to make dye, Tusheti

Lichen-covered slate, Parsma, Tusheti

Our driver, David skillfully navigates over smaller obstacles and through rushing rivers. Once he asks us to get out as he navigates a particularly nasty mudslide, his car leaning precariously into the ravine.

Eventually a massive landslide stops our progress. Fortunately we are fairly close to Parsma and are able to hike up a very steep slope and over the top of the crest to the village. It provides us with the best photographic opportunities of our trip to Tusheti.

Five towers line the mountainside. Beneath them, traditional slate houses are clustered around a small spring. We picnic in a field of buttercups high on a cliff above the river where flocks of sheep crisscross the remains of a snowfield.

Clearing a landslide_DSC9694(LR&C)This is the only place in Tusheti where we actually see wildlife – a pair of gryphons and some ravens devouring the carcass of a sheep. We hear but are unable to photograph cuckoos that flit among the houses. Even though this area is famed for its biodiversity, it seems what few animals remaining after the Soviet occupation have retreated deep into the wilderness.

We return to the car down a steep path. As we walk two Tush horsemen ride by, carrying hoes and shovels, on their way to clear the landslide. We find them again further down the mountain, digging away, a task akin to emptying a swimming pool with a teaspoon.

Sheep on the snow, Tusheti

Sheep crossing a snow bank, Tusheti

Now, however, we have to drive back the way we came. David reverses the car back down the path until he can go no further safely. It takes him about 20 maneuvers, with no room for error, before the car faces the right direction.

It is a stark reminder that we are completely at the mercy of nature, at the ends of the earth in Tusheti.


Our travels in Georgia were organized by Wild Georgia (
Beso Elanidze at the Samtsikhe Guest House may be contacted at , Tel. +599-118-993.
For more images of Tusheti, see the Recent Additions gallery at




Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler


Tushetian village of Shenako

Shenako Village

Each village in Tusheti is unique. Some have towers; others have churches; in all of them we find the famous hospitality of the Georgian people who invite us into their homes and to their tables. It is in the village of Shenako, a thousand-year old village high in the Caucasus Mountains that we learn about khinkali, one of Georgia’s national foods.

Georgian Orthodox Church, Shenako

The Church at Shenako

The road from Omalo to Shenako is another jaw-shuddering drive on a dirt track that takes us down one mountainside and up another. The isolation is palpable. We see no other vehicles until just before reaching the village when a very large Soviet-made truck blocks the road. It is mired in the mud up to its axles. Five men try to winch it out, but it is well and truly stuck.

We hike the rest of the way into the village, through fields of yellow buttercups and wild iris, past the Shenako winter village, on the south slope of the mountain. The few inhabitants, who remain here during the winter months, braving the 14 feet of snow, move to these tiny shelters with their cows.

The interior of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Shenako

Frescos inside Shenako Church

The main village is on the northern slope. A large green meadow in the center serves as the soccer pitch as well as the communal ground for festivals. The tiny church of Shenako presides over the village from a small rise. It dates from the 18th century and was recently restored by the Tchvritidze family who funded the restoration themselves. We are told that volunteers assisted them, including a pair of Italian fresco painters who adorned the interior of the church at no charge.

Shrine linked to pagan times in the village of Shenako

Pagan Shrine, Shenako

Behind the church sits a khati, or pre-Christian shrine, adorned with horns and white rocks. (The latter serve as a signal that women are not allowed to approach). Tusheti only embraced Christianity in the 9th century, long after the rest of Georgia, and continues to maintain many pagan traditions.

From our room in the Sheni Sakli Guesthouse, (run by Darejan and Davit Tchvritidze), we gaze out on the church as well as on Mt. Diklo, on the Georgia-Daghestan border, a few miles away.

Our accommodations in Shenako

Shenako Guesthouse

A three-mile hike to the village of Diklo takes us through forests of larch and fir trees as well as extensive meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Horses and cows graze on the hillsides; fierce Caucasian sheep dogs protect the flocks, barking madly to scare us away. We advance cautiously, hiking sticks in hand, to protect ourselves from possible attack. It is no laughing matter since rabies is common, and treatment involves a medevac to Germany for the rabies vaccines.

However, all this beauty notwithstanding, Darejan’s cooking, and a Master Class in the making of khinkali (Georgia’s version of meat dumplings), is the main event here.  As with most things, each region of Georgia has its own variation of how you prepare this national food.

Georgia's version of meat dumplings called khinkali

Folding the khinkali

Working in a wooden lean-to with a dirt floor that serves as the kitchen, delicious multi-course meals are prepared with nothing more than an old-fashioned wood-burning stove and a brazier. (The stove is also where water is heated if you want to take a shower. Water takes about 45 minutes to come to a boil at this altitude. It makes you think twice about wasting it!)

In Georgian the kitchen is called a “Jujula deda.” “Deda” is the word for “Mother” (and, yes, the word for “Father” is “mama”) while “Jujula” is the sound made when calling chickens. Only women are allowed into the kitchen, and it is where they gather to prepare meals, talk, drink, and relax!

Khinkali are cooked on a wood-burning stove

Khinkali boiled over a brazier

The Master Class takes about an hour. Darejan, and her assistant, Tina, have already prepared the dough (a mixture of flour and brine) and rolled it out using a glass bottle. The filling is also ready in a bowl. Although there are many different combinations, the most common filling for khinkali in Tusheti is ground lamb or beef with onions, seasonings and greens including spinach or fenugreek. (Pork is not allowed into the province in any way, shape or form, including as a ham sandwich in your picnic lunch. Our guide tells us that it is a remnant of pagan times).

A glass is used to cut the dough into small circles using a glass and a dollop of the meat is placed in the center. Then, the edges of the dough are pulled into a pleated topknot. It is not as easy as it looks to pleat the dough, making as many folds as possible. Uproarious laughter ensues as I try my hand at making the khinkali!

Once all the khinkali have been assembled, they are dropped into a large kettle of boiling water on the brazier (they can also be steamed) and served immediately, perhaps with a sprinkle of pepper.

Hiking to Mt. Dikhlo

Dikhlo, near Shenako, on the Georgia-Daghestan border

There is an art to eating khinkali. You grasp the topknot in one hand, turn it upside down and take a small bite, sucking out the broth before continuing to eat the rest. The idea is not to let a single drop of the liquid escape and make a mess of your shirt in the process. Once you have eaten around it, you discard the topknot on the plate. This serves as an indication of how many you have consumed.  Eating the khinkali with a knife and fork It is considered the height of rudeness.

We eat khinkali at almost every meal. Meat is the most common filling but mushrooms, cheese and walnuts are also possibilities. At breakfast we are served khinkali filled with mashed potatoes and butter. Picnic lunches often include the leftovers.

The ubiquitous Khinkali is one of Georgia’s most popular foods, as evidenced by the large number of khinkali “parlors” in the cities and its presence on almost every table. However, learning how to make them in such a unique place as Shenako makes this a very special experience.


Our trip was organized by Wild Georgia (
If you want to give it a try at home, Georgian Journal has a good recipe. (
Photos of Georgia can be found at in Recent Additions.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

Exploring Omalo, Georgia

Entering the village of Omalo, Tusheti

The village of Omalo

Our six plus-hour odyssey driving up one of the World’s Most Dangerous Roads in the Republic of Georgia brings us to the village of Omalo, located in the middle of Tusheti National Park at about 7,000 feet above sea level. It is a tiny hamlet with about 50 inhabitants set in an emerald green meadow. Clusters of stone and wood houses cover the hillside at the base of a rocky crag in the shadow of the remaining five towers of Keselo.

The entire population of Tusheti numbers about 2,500 with about 50 or so inhabitants in each of the villages during the summer months. Only 1-2 families remain in Omalo during the winter when up to 14 feet of snow cuts off the entire province from the rest of Georgia.

The towers of Omalo rise on a crag above the valley

The towers of Omalo, Tusheti

Even though this is the administrative “capital” of Tusheti, there are no stores, no hotels or restaurants and only dirt roads. It is also one of the most magical locations we have found in all our travels.

The Tush are a semi-nomadic people, albeit many with college educations and all with cell phones. The majority, together with their sheep and cows, travel between their summer villages and pastures high in the Caucasus Mountains and their winter lowland homes in Kakheti, in the villages of Zemo and Kverno Alvani.

There is a lovely legend about how the Tush acquired their land in Kakheti. In the 17th century, the Tush (who were fierce and independent fighters) provided Kakhetian prince Bidzina Choloqashvili with military support to defeat the then Persian invaders. The prince promised them a reward, and the Tush leader, Zezva Gaprindauli, asked for land where his people could spend the winter months. Prince Bidzina said that he would give them as much land as Zezva could cover with his horse in one day. Setting out from his mountain hamlet, Gaprindauli galloped his horse down the mountain into the lowlands until it dropped dead, near the town of Kverno Alvani. The prince honored his promise, making this area of Kakheti the winter home of most Tushetians. Today there is a monument to Gaprindauli’s horse just outside town to commemorate its valiant efforts to cover as much distance as possible.

The stone and wooden Shina guesthouse, Omalo

Shina Guest House, Omalo

We pass through Omalo twice during our time in Tusheti. During our first visit, we are accommodated in a guesthouse at the entrance of town, The Shina. It is a stone and wood two-story building with gingerbread lattice woodwork along the edges of the balconies, typical of the lowlands.

The room is basic but very clean, containing twin beds covered with thick woolen quilts. The greatest luxury is an ensuite bathroom (the only one we will have during our entire stay) with a toilet, sink and shower. Like all the guesthouses in Omalo and the rest of Tusheti, electricity and hot water are provided by solar energy – assuming it hasn’t rained all day. That means that the only time you might find some hot water is in the evening. The power is turned off at 10 pm, when it is assumed everyone is in bed.

Omalo, Tusheti, Sargiri Guesthouse

Big screen window, Sargiri Guesthouse, Omalo

Meals are served in an attached lounge with an enormous fireplace. In true Georgian tradition, they are plentiful and delicious. For dinner we feast on stuffed peppers, beef stew with roast potatoes, tomato and cucumber salad, cheese, bread, accompanied by rounds of toasts – to Skartvelo, Omalo, our deceased relatives, our parents, children – the list goes on and on. Fortunately, as a visitor you can get away with sipping your wine and are not required to down a glass with each toast!

Several days later we pass through Omalo again and end up spending the night because a landslide has cut us off from our intended destination. This time we stay with a family at the Sargiri Guesthouse, immediately beneath the towers that are all that remain of the fortress of Keselo. The family lives on the lower floor. On the upper floor are five rooms, each with twin beds covered with woolen quilts. The bathroom and shower are down the hall next to the living room. Here the hot water is provided by a wood burning stove in the shower, making the room toasty warm. Unfortunately the warmth doesn’t reach the bedrooms; that night we wear layers of clothing, including our down jackets and socks to stay warm!

Sargiri Guesthouse, Omalo, family museum

Small Tusheti Museum, Sargiri Guesthouse

In a corner of the living room, a small museum houses Tushetian artifacts, which the family discovered when building their house. These include musical instruments, pots, saddles and traditional clothing.

In the kitchen, a giant open-air window faces the mountains and the valleys below. It is like a natural large screen TV where you can sit and watch the world of Omalo go by.

To work up an appetite we hike up to the towers above the guesthouse to watch the sun set over the valley. There is something quite magical about ancient stone towers silhouetted against the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains. You can almost imagine a fairy-tale Rapunzel standing in the upper story window waiting for her prince to appear.

These towers, however, served a very serious purpose. They provided refuge for the local Tushetian villagers from invaders, raiders and others with nefarious intentions.

There are towers all across Tusheti. Some are watchtowers, designed to give the alarm down the line, using smoke or fire, in the event of invasion or danger. Others, like the ones clinging to a steep crag above Omalo and the Gometsari Valley, are “residential” towers where the villagers would take refuge when danger loomed.

Originally, there were 13 of them, constructed during the Mongol invasion of Georgia in 1230 and used until the 18th century. Built of slate without use of mortar, they are 3-6 stories high with a low entrance door on the first floor that would force any intruder to stoop over to enter, thereby putting him at a disadvantage. The ground floor, typically, housed the livestock. During the winter, the animals provided a source of heat for the family living above.

One of the five towers of Omalo, Tusheti

The towers of Omalo

The middle floors were living quarters for the multi-generational family. Our guide explained that everyone slept on one long bed on the second floor – parents, grandparents, children, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters Only newly-weds were given a modicum of privacy.

The top floor was built to be an attack position, with windows designed so that arrows could be fired down onto possible intruders.

Wooden and slate house, Omalo

Slate roofed house, Omalo

As more lowland style houses were built, the towers fell into a state of disrepair until 2003 when work began to rebuild them. Henk and Eliane Hooft, a Dutch couple living in Tbilisi, originally sponsored the reconstruction before creating the Keselo Foundation, designed to help in the restoration of Tusheti’s treasures, using traditional building techniques. We saw evidence of the outstanding work that has been done so far in many of the mountains villages we came across in our travels. Thanks to them visitors will be able to marvel at these medieval treasures for years to come.


Our travel was organized by Wild Georgia (
If you are an independent traveler, information about the Shina Guesthouse in Omalo can be found at
The Sargiri Guesthouse in Omalo can be contacted at +599-775543.
There is a dedicated Facebook page for booking guesthouses in Tusheti
For more images of Tusheti, go to




Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

Foods of Georgia – Khachapuri

Khachapuri, Georgia's National food

Adjarian Khachapuri

Georgians LOVE their Khachapuri! You find it in fancy restaurants, fast food places or holes-in-the wall. It is served in large cities and in the smallest hamlets across the country. People eat it at almost every meal – as a starter, a main course, even as a dessert with sweet sauce. In short, it is the National Food of Georgia. Khachapuri is so important in Georgian culture that its price is used as a benchmark to measure the rate of inflation in the country (known as the Khachapuri Index).

The most common type of Khachapuri

Imeretian Khachapuri

What is Khachapuri? In Georgian the word is a blend of the words for “curds” and “Bread.” In its simplest form, it is a cheese-filled yeast bread, similar to a pizza. However, each region of the country has its own traditions and ways of making Khachapuri.

The most common type comes from Imereti, a region in the center of the country. It is a circular pie with a cheese filling between two circles of dough. Ossetian Khachapuri combines cheese with mashed potatoes between two layers of dough. Chakhragina Khachapuri adds leaves from the beet plant (or sometimes spinach) to the mixture.

Khachapuri with cheese and mashed potatoes in the filling

Ossetian Khachapuri

Abkhazian Khachapuri, called Achma, has multiple layers and looks like a sauce-less lasagna.

But perhaps the most flamboyant of the Khachapuri is Adjarian, from the Black Sea area. We watch one of our hosts prepare some for our lunch. Her dough, which includes milk and olive oil amongst its ingredients, has already risen and sits on the side of the table next to a bowl of sulguni cheese curds mixed with eggs and milk to make a thick filling. (Sulguni cheese comes from the Shmegrelo region of Georgia. It can be made from cow, goat or buffalo milk and has a slightly sour, salty flavor).

Our host breaks off a piece of the dough and, using a glass bottle, rolls it out into an oval; she spreads the cheese mixture over the top to within an inch of the sides. Then, deftly grasping the dough, she folds the long sides, turning the edges to contain the filling. Taking the ends of the folded dough, she twists them together to form the ends of the boat.

Georgia's national food, Khachapuri

Chakhragina Khachapuri

Sitting in the corner of the wooden lean-to that serves as a kitchen, is a black wood-fired stove. Our host puts the khachapuri into the oven and bakes it until the cheese has melted and the bottom of the crust is charred and smoky. Then, quickly removing it, she breaks a raw egg yolk into the cheese, together with a dollop of butter, and places it back in the oven for a few minutes.

Proudly placing it on the table in front of us, she explains how to eat it. “Pull off a piece of the bread,” she says “and dip it into the cheese and egg.” And we do! On a cold, rainy afternoon in the Caucasus Mountains, it is a perfect way to warm up.

When I ask our host for her recipe, she tells me, through our guide, that she mixes a handful of this and a pinch of that together and bakes it. Somehow, I think something was lost in translation!

Certainly in the New York City area you can find Khachapuri at many of the restaurants in Brighton Beach. If you are interested in making it at home, the New York Times Cooking Section includes an easy recipe for Adjarian Khachapuri by Marian Burros.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

The Road to Tusheti, Georgia

Hairpin bends of the Abano Pass, Tusheti, Georgia

Driving down from the Abano Pass, Tusheti

Tusheti is one of Georgia’s most remote provinces, hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains on Georgia’s remote northeast border with Daghestan and Chechnya. It is a place of wild, natural beauty where a few villages cling to the heights, where medieval castles, defensive towers and pagan shrines abound.

Even in June the winter snows remain along the Tusheti Road

Snow-banks along the Tusheti Road

The inhabitants are a hardy people who continue to live as their ancestors have done for thousands of years, albeit with the addition of a few modern conveniences like solar panels and cell phones. They spend the summer months with their flocks in the high mountains, before driving them down to the lowlands for the winter, in a tradition known as Transhumance.

The region is only accessible for about four months of the year (June to September) over a dirt track that is ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, and it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

The Tusheti Road with its sheer drops into the valley below

A shear edge on the Tusheti Road

Our adventure to Tusheti starts in Tbilisi (the capital of the Republic of Georgia) with a drive through the wine-rich valley of Kakheti (more later). In the small town of Valiscuri, we meet our driver, David, and transfer our luggage from our guide, Georgi’s car, to a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. The dangers of driving this road are such that only local Tush drivers can take you there safely.

As we start out, a small sign reads “Omalo, 72 km.” “That’s only about 44 miles,” I say, “Can’t take that long!” Famous last words!

Waterfalls and cascades rush across the Tusheti Road, Georgia

A cascade on the Tusheti Road

Two hours later, after wending our way up the mountain through a multitude of narrow hairpin bends and switchbacks (we stopped counting at 100), with waterfalls cascading down the steep slate cliffs on the left side of the road and the sheer drops of thousands of feet into the valley below on the right, we arrive at the Abano Pass (9,350 feet), built in 1978 by the Soviets. There are still high banks of snow along the road, evidence of the almost 14 feet that falls here over the winter.

It is now raining and hailing heavily; within a matter of minutes the dirt track is transformed into a muddy morass with large potholes waiting to swallow up the unwary driver.

From here the road descends into the valley through more hairpin bends. Only now the rain has turned the road into a running stream. Next to it, the glacial blue river has become  a muddy, roiling torrent, breaking through its banks, tossing giant tree trunks and other debris around like twigs.

From time to time we see other four-Wheel Drive vehicles but generally there are few other cars until suddenly there is a traffic jam – five cars stopped on the road in the pouring rain. The problem? The bulldozer, which is supposed to maintain the road, has tipped into a sinkhole. There is nothing to do but wait until a digger can be summoned to haul it out.

Landslide on the Tusheti road

Bulldozer clearing a landslide, Tusheti

Our driver, David, is on the phone to the digger driver, telling him that the problem is at “Biblioteca.” It seems a bit out of context until our guide explains that every one of the hairpin bends and curves has a name, used as a reference point by the drivers – their own mental map!

Eventually the digger arrives, rescues the bulldozer, and we continue to the end of the valley and up the next mountain. At times David gets out of the car to check the road before driving over it. As the rain continues to pelt down, there is a real risk of landslides. For the same reason, notwithstanding the incredible photo opportunities, he only will stop to let us take photographs if he is sure there are no risks involved.

Mountain road in Tusheti, Georgia

The road to Tusheti

As the back wheels skid in the mud and veer towards the abyss (there are no guard rails anywhere), we send rocks flying over the edge of the cliff. But we have the utmost confidence in David, a quiet, taciturn man of little words, who navigates the hazards with aplomb. He tells us that sometimes he drives this route two or even three times in a day. For him it is all in a day’s work. For us it is a massive adrenaline rush!

Seven hours after leaving Valiscuri, we come to a beautiful alpine meadow filled with yellow buttercups, wild irises and other wildflowers. Above it, through the clearing mist, five watchtowers cluster on a crag – the medieval towers of Omalo, in the heart of the Tusheti Protected Area at 6,600 feet. From here we will start our exploration of Tusheti, one of the least-known areas of Georgia and the world.

Towers of Omalo beneath the Great Caucasus Mountains

Medieval towers of Omalo


Eka Tchvritidze at Wild Georgia organized out travels to Georgia (

For a taste of what it means to drive on this road, see the BBC 2012 series on the World’s Most Dangerous Roads, narrated by Jessica Hynes and Hugh Bonneville (of  Downton Abbey fame

See for more images of Georgia.



Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

Exploring The Republic of Georgia

9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know 

The flag of Georgia adopted in 2003

Flag of Georgia

Mention that you are traveling to Georgia and most people in North America will automatically assume you are talking about the Peach State. In fact, the Georgia I am referring to is the Republic of Georgia, bounded on the north and northeast by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, to the southeast by Azerbaijan and to the West by the Black Sea. It is about twice the side of Belgium.

Tusheti National Park, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

The Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

Georgia is a land of cities, green meadows, high mountains, tropics, deserts, rivers and seas. A turbulent history, religion, wars, invasions, cultural diversity, as well as vines and food, have shaped its multicultural, tolerant society into a magical, unique world.

Although it is still largely unknown to travelers from North America, Georgia is quickly becoming a popular destination for Europeans and others from the Mediterranean region.

Before we embark on a series of blogs about different aspects of our travels, we thought we would share some of the things we learned about the country that we didn’t know before we left.

  1. What’s in a Name?

Georgians refer to their country as “Sakartvelo,” and call themselves “Kartvelebi.” Some say the name refers to the land settled by Kartlos, one of Noah’s descendants, considered as the father of all Georgians.

Russians know it as “Gruzia,” the Azeri call it “Gurjistan” and the Armenians as “Vrastan.”  The origins of the Anglicized name “Georgia” have never been definitively determined, but the role of invaders certainly had something to do with it. Some say that when the Persians conquered the Kingdom of Georgia, they called it the “Land Where Wolves Roam,” (“Gurg” is the Farsi word for wolf). Another theory opines that the name came from the Greek “geo” (earth) because when the Greeks arrived in the country, they saw the Georgians working their land.

Some point to the Crusaders who swept through here on their way to the Holy Land and transformed Gurjistan into Georgia, after St. George with whom many of them were familiar. Legend even has it that some of these Crusaders remained hidden in Georgia for centuries.

Irrespective of what name the Georgians use for themselves, St George is one of the most popular saints in Georgia, a fact you can’t help but notice when you see the enormous golden statue of George slaying a dragon in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi.

The most recent Georgian flag (known as the Five Cross Flag) also pays homage to St. George – a large red cross in the middle of a white background with smaller red crosses in each quadrant. Originally a banner of the Kingdom of Georgia in medieval times, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili readopted it as a symbol of the 2003 Rose Revolution. 

2The Language

Georgian is like no other language. It belongs to an ancient linguistic group, its 33-letter alphabet possibly based on the Aramaic spoken at the time of Christ. Most words consist of a jumble of consonants nestling together, interspersed with a vowel or two. Inspired by the vineyards, Georgian writing is a calligraphy of swirls and flourishes where one letter can easily be mistaken for another. Despite my best efforts I only learned to say “hello,” “thank you” and “cheers”! (See our earlier blog for more details)

  1. The Origins of the People
Freedom Square, Georgia

Golden Statue of St. George and the dragon, Tbilisi

            Recent archeological discoveries (2002) reveal that the earliest hominids outside Africa lived in Georgia. Homo erectus georgicus dates back 1.7 million years with an even older skull discovered at the archeological site of Dmanisi, a medieval Georgian town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Route caravans used to pass. Once all the excavations and scientific analysis are completed, this finding could significantly affect the current view that a single early species of man came out of Africa.

  1. Religion and religious tolerance are an important part of society

            Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century CE, thanks to the efforts of a young Roman woman, St. Nino, daughter of Zabulon, a general of the Roman Emperor Maximian’s army. (Nino is the correct feminine spelling of her name in Georgia).

Following a dream, St. Nino traveled to Georgia carrying a cross that she made of vine branches secured using her own hair. Following St. Nino’s conversion of Queen Nana (by curing her from a serious disease), King Mirian accepted Christianity for Georgia. Soon afterwards the entire population of Mtskheta (the ancient capital of Georgia) was baptized in the waters of the Aragvi River.

While religious adherence continues to decline in many countries, in Georgia it is booming. Over 80% of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many attribute the ability of the Georgian people to maintain their identity and culture through many conquests and upheavals, to their attachment to their religion.

Bodbe Nunnery, Burial place of St. Nino

Bodbe Nunnery, Signaghi, Georgia

However, Georgia is probably the most religiously tolerant country in the world. In Old Tbilisi a Georgian Orthodox Church sits next to a Greek Orthodox Church, a Catholic church, a Jewish synagogue and a mosque, the latter probably is the only place in the world where members of both the Sunni and the Shiite sects pray in the same place.

  1. The highest mountain range in Europe

If you thought the Alps were the highest mountains in Europe, you would be mistaken. The Caucasus Mountains, marking the border between Georgia and Russia are the highest. Georgia claims the second highest mountain in the chain (Mt. Shkara), which at 17,040 feet beats Mont Blanc by 1,312 feet. The highest mountain in the Caucasus, Mt Elbrus (18,510 feet), is on the Russian side of the mountain range.

  1. The importance of Legends and the pagan tradition

            In Greek mythology, the Caucasus Mountains are one of the pillars holding up the world. These mountains were where Zeus is said to have tied up Prometheus, as punishment for giving fire to humanity. Prometheus was condemned to having his liver eaten by eagles during the day, only to have it regenerated over night.

Supplicants tie strips of cloth to a tree and make a wish, Georgia

A wishing tree, Georgia

Other ancient legends speak of Jason and his Argonauts seeking the Golden Fleece in Colkhis (Colchis), a part of western Georgia where Medea lived with her father, the king. In fact, the Georgians “panned” for gold by submerging a sheepskin into the flowing river water where nuggets would become entrapped in the hair; hence, the Golden Fleece.

Many of the churches stand on sites that once were pagan temples. In addition, throughout our treks in the Caucasus Mountains, we came across small pagan shrines adorned with animal skulls and horns. Women are not allowed within 800 feet of the shrines, many surrounded by barbed wire. No matter how many people we asked, no one could enlighten us about why women are barred from approaching.

Elsewhere “Wishing Trees” around the country become impromptu places where offerings of bits of cloth and plastic are left together with wishes and prayers, a throwback to pagan times.

  1. Natural wine made in Qvevri, Okro Winery

    Buried qvevris, Okro Winery, Signaghi

    Le vin c’est tout! (Wine is everything)

            Georgia is considered the cradle of winemaking. As recently as 2014, archeological excavations found the remains of grape skins and pits going back to 8,000 BCE. These discoveries certainly lend weight to the evidence that ancient people from this part of the world used wild grapes and vines for religious and spiritual purposes long before other parts of the world. Georgia is the only country  that has preserved the ancient methods of making, fermenting and storing wine in qvevris (clay amphora-like containers) through the centuries.

Over the years, many conquerors including the Persians and Soviets tried to destroy the Georgian vines. The Persian king, Shah Abbas, had the vines ripped from the ground while the Soviets under Stalin (himself a native-born Georgian) tried to limit the production of grapes and vines to only a small variety, all in the name of progress.

Fortunately for us, they failed. Today there are over 500 endemic species of vines in Georgia, many of which are being used to make excellent wine across the country but specifically in the province of Kakheti (more about this later).

The wine is an intrinsic part of every Georgian meal, which is an intricately choreographed dance of eating, toasting and drinking.

Georgia's cheese bread known as khachapuri


  1. Georgian Feasts

            Georgian hospitality is the stuff of legends, and the backbone of Georgian social culture is the “Supra” or feast. The word means “Tablecloth” and comes from the Persian “Sofre” or eating surface.

At every feast one person is appointed as the “Tamada” or toastmaster who leads the toasts and manages the pace of the meal. These toasts can last anywhere from a quick “Gaumarjos” or “cheers” to several minutes in length.

There are specific rules to be followed. The first toast is always to Sakartvelo, then to God, followed by family, friendship, the world, etc. When the tamada has finished his toast, each of the guests responds. In this way, many serious topics are broached and discussed, almost like a debating society made mellow by glasses of wine. Of course, the larger the number of guests, the longer the dinner. Be sure to think about how you will respond when your host makes toasts!

In between the toasts, guests are plied with mountains of food, starting with several types of salads, multiple main courses and a myriad of sweets. One constant that will appear at almost every meal is Khachapuri or cheese bread.

According to tradition, a supra continues until every inch of the table is covered with food. It continues to come until the plates are stacked on top of each other down the table. The wine? It just keeps coming! A point of etiquette to remember is that you only drink your wine after a toast has been made.

  1. Qvevris used to make wine the traditional way

    Old Qvevris, Kakheti, Georgia

    Georgia has one of the oldest and most intriguing polyphonic vocal traditions of Europe

Georgian polyphonic singing has existed possibly since the 5th or even the 8th centuries BCE. The Assyrian King, Sargon, and the Greek historian, Xenophon, make reference to the songs that Georgians would sing whilst celebrating, working and fighting.

Contrary to their neighbors who only have a single melodic line with accompaniment, in Georgia two independent melodic parts are sung together, creating a magical sound that echoes across the hilltops and valleys.

In 2001 UNESCO proclaimed Georgian Polyphonic singing a masterpiece of the “Intangible Heritage of Mankind.” In 1977 NASA included a recording of “Chakrulo,” a patriotic song about Kakheti, on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn and the stars.

Georgia is a fascinating, intriguing, magical country. There is so much to see, learn and photograph that even our two-week expedition only scratched the surface of what exists. Any excuse to return!


There are a limited number of airline companies that fly into Tbilisi. Among the more popular are Lufthansa (, KLM (, Turkish Airlines ( and Georgian Airlines (

We booked our adventure travel in Georgia through Wild Georgia (

For more images of Georgia visit







Alice Feiring’s “For the Love of Wine”

Cover of Alice Feiring's Book

Alice Feiring’s “For the Love of Wine”

Georgia is one of Europe’s most under-rated countries. In the heart of the Caucasus Mountains, wedged between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, an ancient land with a rich history and culture. Because of its coveted position on the ancient Silk Road crossing the formidable Caucasus Mountains, much of that history has been violent, including invasions, attacks and occupation. Despite this destruction and continual turmoil that saw the capital, Tbilisi, razed to the ground multiple times, the Georgian people have rebuilt their land and their cities, maintaining their culture, language and love of life and wine in the face of extreme adversity.

Alice Feiring has captured this triumph superbly in her latest book, For The Love of Wine. An award-winning writer, Alice is an ardent champion of natural winemaking, who chronicles her voyage of discovery through this magical land. “It was like emerging from the magic wardrobe into a world filled with mythical characters making delicious wine,” she writes.

The wine is made using an ancient process that has existed in Georgia for over 8,000 years. Indeed, evidence points to Georgia as being the cradle of wine (or “ghvino” as it is called here). That the process has survived at all is miraculous, given the lengths to which the Shahs of Persia and the Soviets, among others, went to destroy the vines. The fact that several hundred species exist today in Georgia (most of them unknown to the rest of the world) is a testament to the tenacity of the people….and the vines.

I first came across For the Love of Wine while researching our trip to Georgia. I read it cover to cover in one sitting and then read it again slowly, savoring every word, every description, every image, as Alice led me on an odyssey through the country. She is so passionate and eloquent that I could almost imagine myself walking alongside her.

An array of bottles of Georgian ntural wine

Bottles of Georgian Wine

In the process she describes how wine is made using “natural” or “organic” techniques. In the fall the grapes are stomped in a long wooden trough; the grape juice, together with skins and pips are poured into Qvevri (enormous terra cotta clay pots, the relative of Roman and Greek Amphorae) to ferment. When fermentation is complete, the grape sediment is removed. The wine is then left to age in the Qvevri, buried in the ground, anywhere from 1-8 years. No pesticides are used on the vines, and there are no yeasts, preservatives or chemicals added, just the grapes going through a natural process and turning out a unique and delicious product.

As she meanders through the vineyards where kisi, mtsvane, rkatsiteli and other grapes grow, Alice Feiring introduces us to many of the local inhabitants – the farmers, winemakers, Qvevri-makers, chefs, who are embracing their roots and their traditions, in spite of the efforts of outsiders who arrive with their chemicals, pesticides and so-called “modern” technology to change the traditional ways.

The characters come to life as she describes them – Bishop Davit, the Metropolitan of Alaverdi Monastery who “has made traditional and natural wine a mission of the church;” Zaliko, maker of qvevri in Imereti; Lamara Bezhashvili, “a fierce Kakhetian woman who embodies the spirit of natural qvevri wine, John Wurdeman, vigneron of The Pheasant’s Tears Winery, and so many more.”

Alice celebrates their traditions and their way of life, including their love of feasts (the supra) with wine at its core, presided over by a toastmaster (the tamada). Food after all is a necessary part of wine drinking. And Georgian food is delicious! To tantalize your taste buds, tucked away through the book you will find recipes for such delicacies as Beets with Cherry Sauce or Rose Petal Jam, interspersed in the narrative.

Throughout, Alice Feiring is a passionate and outspoken defender of Georgian natural winemaking, which many believe has healing properties. After all, Georgia is one of the countries where the number of people living into their 100s far exceeds the norm elsewhere.

Alice’s enthusiasm and passion is contagious. By the time we had finished the book for a second time, we couldn’t wait to travel. In fact, we were so excited by what we had read, we ran out to several New York City wine shops to look for bottles of natural Georgian wine.

Imagine the glee when we ran into Alice, together with four of Georgia’s top winemakers – Nikki Antadze, Ramaz Nikoladze, John Okrasvhivili and John Wurdeman — at a Georgian winetasting at Chambers Street Wines. Needless to say, many bottles were purchased and drunk! “Butchki!” as they say in Georgian before clinking glasses!

For the Love of Wine is Alice Feiring’s latest book; her other works include Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and The Battle for Wine and Love; or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization. If you love wine, run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore to get copies! (

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