According to the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the country has reopened its borders to some European countries but is not currently admitting arrivals from the U.S.
The Tamada, a sculpture of a toastmaster modeled on an ancient statuette found in western Georgia. The oldest evidence of winemaking has been found in the country. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
The bronze statue set on a cobblestone street in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia, depicts a seated, slightly reclined man holding a drinking horn in a toasting gesture. Affectionately known as the Tamada, or toastmaster, the figure was modeled after an ancient statuette uncovered in western Georgia and represents the country's centuries-old custom of drinking wine and making toasts.
Even today, Georgian feasts typically have a designated toastmaster, whose job it is not only to make toasts during the meal but to generally set a festive mood and to encourage others to make toasts. The tamada tradition embodies much of what draws visitors to Georgia today: outstanding wine, delicious and unique food, friendly people and a surprisingly rich history.
On a recent trip to the country, I was able to sample their wines, indulge in numerous feasts and visit several distinct areas of the country, from quaint hilltop towns to towering, snow-covered mountains. The weeklong trip was sponsored by the Georgian National Tourism Association and Ukraine Airlines.
Our tour of Georgia started in the capital of Tbilisi, a lively city with a deep history and a thriving nightlife and food scene. What first struck me about the city was the striking contrast between old and new -- from the Narikala Fortress, a walled fourth-century citadel perched on a hill above the city, to the pedestrian Bridge of Peace, a modern steel-and-glass pedestrian thoroughfare spanning the Kura River. The city's old town features natural hot-spring baths, and it is full of restaurants and bars, many of which have outdoor seating and are packed with locals and visitors alike on warm nights.
The old town is a great spot for tasting local wines, which the Georgian people have been making for centuries — in 2017, 8,000-year-old pottery remains were found, the oldest evidence of wine production. The country has more than 500 varieties of indigenous grapes, and it is especially known for its natural winemaking, in which no additives or processing aids are used.
The skyline of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
During my visit, we set out to explore the Kakheti wine region, stopping first at the Khareba winery, where the wine is stored in deep tunnels that were used as bomb shelters during the Cold War. Before heading in for our tasting, we got to try our hand at making a few local food specialties: churchkhela, a string of walnut halves that have been dipped in grape juice thickened with flour; khinkali, beef and pork soup dumplings; and shotis puri, traditional bread baked in a circular clay oven. The punctuation mark to our introduction to Georgian cuisine was a shot of chacha, a potent, clear brandy that's often served as a digestif and packs quite the punch.
After the winery, we made our way to our lodging for the evening, the Radisson Collection Hotel, Tsinandali Estate Georgia. The 141-room hotel is a great base for exploring the Kakheti region and features a heated rooftop infinity pool with spectacular views of the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains. The hotel is also home to three restaurants, a wine bar, a cozy library bar and a basement dining area for private parties that is revealed by opening a hidden wall panel. Guests also have access to the adjacent 45-acre park that features the 18th-century Tsinandali Palace Museum, the former home of a Georgian prince.
The pool at the Radisson Collection Hotel, Tsinandali Estate Georgia, a good base from which to explore the winemaking region of Kakheti. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
After a morning stroll through the park and a visit to the palace, we headed to the incredibly picturesque town of Sighnaghi. Known as the city of wine and love, Sighnaghi sits high on a hilltop and features great views of the valley below and the Caucasus Mountains in the distance. A popular destination for Georgians and visitors alike, there are numerous vendors selling crafts on the town's cobblestone streets, several excellent dining options and even the chance to zipline over the town. During our visit, we headed to the Pheasant's Tears restaurant, which serves wine from its own vineyard and offers up delicious and unique twists on traditional Georgian dishes.
After an overnight in Tbilisi, we headed out of the city again, making our way north into the heart of the mountains. En route, we made stops at several historical sites, including the Unesco World Heritage Site-designated city of Mtskheta -- one of the oldest cities in the country -- and Ananuri, a castle complex dating back to the 13th century. We eventually made our way up steep and winding roads over the mountains and past the Gudauri ski resort to the sleepy valley town of Stepantsminda, from where visitors can take a 4.5-mile ride on a cable car back to the ski resort.
Tourism in Georgia is on the rise, from welcoming about 2 million international visitors in 2010 to more than 8.5 million in 2018. After spending a week there, you get the sense that with its wine and gastronomic culture, fascinating history and natural attractions, more and more people will be adding Georgia to their bucket list.
According to Nino Turashvili, senior specialist of international tourism promotion with the tourism administration, besides all of its attractions, its people are what really sets Georgia apart. "Every Georgian tries to treat foreigners as their own personal guest, which creates this unique experience that you cannot really plan, it just happens -- the people just open the doors of their homes and welcome you."
And while visitors may not be able to plan on everything, they definitely can count on having some amazing feasts where the wine flows and, of course, the toasts abound.
For more information visit https://georgia.travel.