Georgia: Tbilisi to Kazbegi

With a grand flourish David, our driver, pulled a battered plastic bottle, which had seen better days, from the boot of the car and presented it to me with a grin full of pride and enthusiasm. The one litre bottle which had formerly held Georgia’s answer to Sprite now contained an amber coloured 15 year old cognac. This had been lovingly laid down to mature, encased in an oak barrel, in a highly specialised subterranean production lab (basement under the garage) in order to be hidden from the disapproving gaze of David’s wife. This moment was notable principally due to its perfect reflection of Georgian hospitality, charisma and ceaseless generosity.

It wasn’t always so in this now thriving and vibrant country. Georgia was at the heart of the USSR, in fact several hundred thousand Georgians fought in the Red Army in the second world war, after all Stalin himself was a Georgian. Conflict had dogged Georgia’s history thanks to its geographical location as a look-out tower East across the silk road and West, deeper into the gnarly cogs of the Soviet Union. At the end of that communist period Georgia suffered from a different set of issues, those principally revolving around corruption and a sense of political integrity that had more holes than Swiss cheese. But, Georgia’s fortune started to change under the leadership of, arguably, the country’s most beloved leader – President Mikheil Saakashvili. The president took the country by the scruff of its neck and simply shook it until the corruption and bribery fell out like thirty pieces of silver.

Now, Georgia is a radiant star in a world bristling with exciting tourism destinations which offer more than a lifeless continental breakfast, a dog-eared beach towel and a week-long deluge. The corner stone of this offering are the ‘Rooms’ hotels. The first Rooms hotel was opened in Kazbegi in North Eastern Georgia. The, now iconic, hotel is set amongst the utterly breath taking peaks of the Caucuses mountain range, about a three hour drive up towards the Russian border and away from throbbing vivacity of the capital city of Tbilisi. The drive is a near spiritual experience as it takes you past some of the country’s most revered pilgrimage hot spots, including the transcendent Jvari monastery, and on up into the clouds. Should you arrive after dusk then the moment you pull back the bedroom curtains is, what I rather morbidly term, a ‘death bed memory’, the view is ineffably beautiful. Take a moment to peer a little further up towards the peaks and you will see the Gergeti Trinity church at around 2,200 metres altitude. Its celestial solace is reminiscent of the inhabitants of the church as it has been a functioning monastery since its construction in the 14th century. Dragging yourself away from the roaring fires of the hotel’s lounge or suave casino is a challenge, welcoming chestnut leather armchairs and a knock-out cocktail bar make it near impossible. However, if you are able to summit this metaphorical Everest, then a short car journey (or a walk for those gluttons for punishment) will take you right up to the vertiginously blessed church itself.

Rooms Kazbegi has earned its fame. Not only just for its extraordinary, remote setting but also for the quality of its offering. Guests eye each other up with the same mirthful grin of disbelief, because it’s like they are all experiencing something magical together. The hotel’s spa deserves its own mention, particularly because the pool runs parallel with vast window providing a panoramic view out over those mist shrouded mountains.

Back in the capital the atmosphere is rather different. Gone is the still, Caucuses air, saturated with tranquillity. In its stead is the calamitous roar of mopeds down Aleksandr Pushkin Street and the hoarse bursts of folk songs from rattling accordions round the edge of Liberty Square. Tbilisi is uniquely multifaceted, which is a tremendous force for good. At the furthest extremes there is the gorgeous ancient quarter, where bright pastel paint peels from ornate wood carved window gables which, stylistically speaking, look like the love child of Venice and Istanbul. When the pendulum swings to the other extreme, Tbilisi takes on another identity all together with a visceral electro music scene which puts Bergheim to shame. The city is home to an extremely vibrant music scene and attracts globally renown DJs, all of whom come flocking to play in this city of a thousand faces.

Food is of course a huge part of Georgian culture, as is the wine. In fact, one of the country’s proudest boasts is the fact that the earliest discovered origins of wine may be found on Georgian soil – or perhaps rather ‘in’ Georgia’s soil. The traditional 8,000 year old maturation method was to leave the wine in vast terracotta amphorae, slumbering deep underground, until the empty Georgian glasses could wait no longer. It certainly became evident to me very early on that an empty Georgian glass… is an unhappy Georgian glass. It is for this reason that the tradition of the Tamadan remains so popular around the dinner tables or wine counters of Tbilisi. In this tradition a ‘toast-master’ is elected, and he or she toasts as frequently and as vociferously as desired throughout the meal. Moreover, this ‘Tamadan’ may nominate another to shoulder this sacred duty at any given time, thereby recruiting one’s companions in the pleasant struggle to uphold this bacchant duty with sufficient zeal.

No visitor may leave this remarkable and fun-loving country without trying its most beloved traditional dishes. ‘Khachapuri’ is a personal favourite. This shamelessly glutinous calorie-bonanza comes in several different shapes depending on the exact region in which it is lovingly handmade. The best known is an oval with the two ends pinched to so that it resembles an eye (potentially the disapproving eye of your joylessly puritanical PT). The dish is simple, with a fluffy bready base holding a warm, gooey, melted cheese topped with raw egg. Tradition denotes that this egg is vigorously stirred into the melted cheese and each diner can then just reach in, gouge away other competing hands, and tear off great chunks of this soul food. Perhaps the best known Georgian dish of all is ‘Khinkali’, a traditional shepherd’s food where a mixture of pork and beef would be wrapped inside dumplings allowing the meat to keep for longer. The lowly shepherd would then simply heat the dumplings in a bubbling pot and consume on-the-go. As the dumplings dance in the boiling water, they produce a sumptuous hot broth trapped inside the soft shell. Khinkali are at their finest when consumed alongside generous quantities of ‘Cha Cha’, which is essentially ice cold Georgian grappa. In some villages on the way to Kazbegi it is even whispered that should this piping hot dumpling broth fall from the Khinkali and splash upon your plate then the Soviets will return to fair Georgia.

These iconic classics may be sampled throughout the country, but at the Museum of Recipes (22 Pavle Ingorokva St) in central Tbilisi you can lean to make them yourself. The memory of my own lesson was somewhat obscured by a Cha Cha scented mist, but this was simply my own way of paying homage to Georgian grapes.

The Rooms hotel in Tbilisi at 14 Merab Kostava street casts quite the shadow in terms of its influence. It is a vivacious social, business and even political hub. Flanked on one side by Stamba, the new majestic five star hotel built inside a titanic former Soviet printing press, and by hipster little Lolita café on the other. Even its location screams ‘local institution’. It is fair to say that the Rooms group have had a tremendous part to play in the tourism boom of an entire country. In essence, Rooms put Georgia on the map.

Rooms Tbilisi combines a trendy, leafy Brooklyn loft with traditional, domestic design. Its al fresco terrace murmurs with gentle chit chat over the rim of a cappuccino by day, and buzzes with bright eyed gossip across espresso martinis by night. The hotel restaurant leads off a bright corridor with floor to ceiling panelled windows allowing natural light to stream in over the ochre tiled floors which emit a warm, welcoming glow. Breakfasts at Rooms are a sumptuous feast and staff are aglow with genuine enthusiasm. The rooms… at Rooms… are spacious and built for comfort. Superior rooms comes with a free standing tub under a hipster open bulb wrought iron chandelier. The sea of crisp white bed linen beneath leather bedheads is irresistible after a ‘hard’ day getting lost in this glorious city.

Whilst Rooms does not have the high flying amenities of its sister Stamba round the corner, like a roof top pool or an in-house chocolaterie, what it does have is its legacy. Whilst Rooms Kazbegi may have planted the flag, it is Rooms Tbilisi which feels as if it now leads the charge. This is, put simply, the place to stay.

From the avant-garde fashion week, to the techo raves of Bastiani and from its politically broken past to its dazzling future Georgia covers all the bases. It is staggeringly rare to visit a place which is so tremendously diverse. However, certain features are consistently prevalent throughout the country. These are the beauty of its history and heritage, its undeniably contagious dynamism and its prevailing optimism. I asked our driver during his cigarette break in the foothills of the Caucuses who he would most like to be in the world, if he could ‘freak Friday’ life swap. He looked me dead in the eye, shrugged, uttered a short burst of contemplative Georgian and gesticulated out towards the skyline. This was translated by our tour guide as ‘I would trade with no one, I live here’.

Trips can arranged through Travel The Unknown