I said Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
I know that the song “Georgia On My Mind” describes a state in the United States of America. The Georgia I’ll be talking about here is not that US state but the country called Georgia. The Georgia that is still in our minds even though we’ve visited it months ago. How did we end up going to Georgia? Why Georgia? If you read my Planning for Georgia article, you’ll know that a friend of ours spent his Christmas and New Year in the Eurasian country and when he came upon a Valentine’s promo deal of the travel agency he used, he suggested it to The Pink Tarha knowing how fond we are of traveling. Reina and I were on a meeting then and when I read his message, I groaned a little knowing I won’t be able to afford another trip (I just came back from vacation last December). But when he said USD 99 for an entire package excluding airfare, we knew we had to go. And when we checked the flights of Air Arabia, the SR 1,800 fare sealed the deal. It’s by far one of the sweetest deals we signed up for. Thank you Kabayans And Pinoys in Tbilisi Georgia!
We were ready for the balcony of Europe. We want to see the view up there. And oh my gahd, what views they were!
Georgia, a former Soviet republic, is a country lying in the middle of Europe and Asia. It’s bound by the Caucasus mountain range and the Black Sea. Its capital is Tbilisi and it offers a vast array of landscapes and activities. We must be crazy going to Georgia in the dead cold of winter, but we were there to build a snow man, haha. We also wanted to wear winter fashion. I mean, when in Riyadh can we ever wear puffy jackets and knee-high boots? It’s not hard to fall in love with Georgia. With its cobblestone pathways and old monasteries and churches, it’s a dream, almost having a fairy tale vibe. Our trip is for three days and two nights; a weekend getaway that we all know we deserve once in a while. The schedule of Air Arabia is perfect for it. With six of our friends, we flew in the afternoon of February 16, Thursday, from Riyadh to Sharjah.
We had a lay-over of three hours in Sharjah. The Sharjah Airport where Air Arabia is based is a bit lacking of activities. There’s no wi-fi in the terminal and they lack chairs and restaurants. Most of the restaurants in their food court are Indian or Chinese. We settled for McDonald’s burgers, chicken nuggets, and fries. We busied ourselves roaming around their small Duty Free shop and the handful of stores selling souvenirs. My friend Jamila and I went to their pharmacy and looked for Panadol while our Reina and our friend Jou looked for a smoking area. Some of our friends Raquel, Jo, Ghie, and Niña settled in the blue plasticky seats in the waiting area. Boarding time was announced and we breathed a sigh of relief only to be halted at the gate because one of the guys wanted to check all our requirements. Okay, okay. We surrendered all our documents which he piled up on the counter. We eyed our passports and iqamas like hawk because we didn’t want to lose them over his recklessness (he was multi-tasking). When he deemed it too taxing to check everything, he called someone on the phone. That person gave him a go signal to just let us go and that’s the only time we boarded the bus to go to the airplane.
And we were off! Honestly, our flight from Sharjah to Tbilisi is probably the most turbulent flight I’ve ever been in. From the get go, the plane was rocking and we were scared for our lives. But some of us were too sleepy to care, haha. We dozed off as soon as we took our seats only to be waken by the swaying of the plane. Our stomach lurched as the plane did and we were thinking if we were in the middle of a storm. The joke of our former boss came haunting us. He said that since we were flying over Iran air space, we might get hit by a missile or something. Wth, how supportive. Anyway, don’t let those unfounded comments deter you. The plane we were in was just experiencing turbulence. It was really shaky that by the time we touched down in Tbilisi International Airport, all of us were nursing a headache.
After going through immigration, we picked up our luggage and headed to the meet-up point near a sim card kiosk. We found our guide who suggested we exchange our money in one of the currency exchange booths in the airport. After that, he asked us to follow him out of the airport and into the cold dawn of Georgia. We felt the cold seep into our skin and bones and our teeth were chattering. There were another group of ladies that were with us and when we reached the parking lot, we found out all of us wouldn’t fit in the car the driver brought. He called some people and since we were the bigger group, we gave way to the smaller group and the driver told us we’ll wait for another van… out in the cold. While we like the idea of winter, we didn’t want to be stranded even for a while on our first dawn in Georgia! It was sooooo cold!
After a while, a van came chugging along the path into the parking space and out came Ghenies and Geraldine, the Filipino tour managers of the travel agency. We piled inside with our luggage at the back. We squeezed in so every one of us can fit and off we went to our hotel for the entire duration of our stay in Georgia, the London Palace Hotel in Ketevan Dedofali Avenue, a 30-minute drive away from the airport.
Checking in was a breeze. The hotel doesn’t have an elevator though so we had to ask for help in bringing our luggage to the third floor! Haha. (Only 5-star hotels have elevators in Georgia.) We divided ourselves into pairs and we settled in our rooms to get a few hours of sleep before we start our day and tour. I roomed with Jamila in a double room which was a bit small. We had to maneuver ourselves into the little space left for our luggage and walking to and fro the bathroom. We like that we have cabinets to hang our clothes and a dresser to get ready in in the morning. Our bed is huge and covered with a comforter. The room is kept warm by a heater; the thick wooly winter socks I brought were useless because our room was devoid of cold. We even had a high-tech shower stall complete with buttons for hot/cold water, different kinds of sprays, and a massager. Yup. We slept like babies.
In the morning, we had a call time of 9:00 AM in the lobby of the hotel. Our stay came with free breakfast and we ate at around 8:30 AM. Our first ever Georgia food is a couple of long boiled chicken sausages that is bland but already the best dish in our breakfast fare. Haha. At 9:00 AM, we were herded by our guide for the day, Meri, to our coaster. With her is another guide, Ila. They were both Georgians and were really jolly. After leaving the hotel, we went to other hotels to pick up other tourists – all Filipinos. Our group of eight grew to a group of 16. We introduced ourselves to each other and we were giddy with excitement, like students going on a field trip.
The Mtskheta Excursion
Our first stop was the city of Mtskheta located 20 kilometers north of Tbilisi. Going there was a breeze; the roads of Tbilisi and surrounding cities are smooth and wide. The scenes outside our coaster windows were breathtaking and picture-perfect! Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities in Georgia and considered to be the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia. Mtskheta is the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church and was granted the status of a “holy city” by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia. The Historical Monuments of Mtskheta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We went up the Jvari Monastery located on a rocky mountaintop. The views from up there were breathtaking! The confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi can be seen from the grounds of the monastery and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Two rivers with water of different colors, one light green the other turquoise, meet in the middle, and around it are views of the sun-kissed houses and churches and snow-capped mountains. The Jvari Monastery stands tall overlooking the town that is the former capital of the Kingdom of Iberia.
The Jvari Monastery is said to be the site of a remnant of a wooden cross erected by Saint Nino, a female evangelist, on the site of a pagan temple. Pilgrims from all over Caucasus came to this temple after news of the cross that can perform miracles reached them. The monastery is a four-apsed church with four niches domed tetraconch and its design and architecture is widely-regarded as the inspiration upon which other churches are designed. While touring the church, we also had glimpses of the Georgian Orthodox religion. As many of you know, we Pink Tarha ladies are both Roman Catholic. Our religion is under Christianity, the same way that the Orthodox church is.
We have similarities but also differ in a few things. We will not go about the details of our faith (because that will take much of this online space) but we focused more on the churches and how they do their mass, since we are inside churches most of the time in our tour. For example, the Orthodox church doesn’t have chairs or pews. Meri explained that they stand during their 2-3 hour mass. Wow! For us Catholics, we sit, stand, and kneel during our 1-hour mass. It’s fascinating to learn about other religions; the differences are up for discussion but the similarities are heartwarming.
While on our way to our next destination, Meri asked us to sing! She said she knows Filipinos love to sing! Haha! So we busted a tune (or out of tune, haha) and sang our national anthem. Yes, Lupang Hinirang, folks! Haha! We couldn’t settle for a tagalog song so what better song choice than Lupang Hinirang? Hahaha! Meri clapped anyways and she asked her co-tour guide to sing a Georgian song too. Ila’s voice is clear and rich and whatever song he sang, that was good! Haha! We arrived a few meters away from the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral after a few minutes. To reach it, we had to walk through cobblestoned streets. I imagined walking through the village of Belle (of Beauty and The Beast) in this scene.
The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Cathedral of the Living Pillar) is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the second largest church in Georgia after the Holy Trinity Cathedral (which we visited in our third day). This church is known to be the burial sire of Christ’s mantle, the robe worn by Jesus shortly before his crucifixion. According to the Eastern traditions, a Georgian Jew named Elias bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Elias’ sister Sidonia touched the robe and died from the emotions engendered by the sacred object. Sidonia was buried with the robe and the place where she was buried is preserved in the cathedral. Later from this grave, an enormous cedar tree grew. The cedar was chopped down to build the church and from it were the seven columns used for the church’s foundation. The seventh column is said to be with miraculous properties and it rose into the air. St. Nino prayed and the column returned to earth.
Before entering the church, we were required to wear a skirt. Again, the church is devoid of chairs inside. The walls are decorated with many Christian Orthodox icons and there were rectangular concrete raised from the floor. On them were various symbols and Georgian text. Ila kindly informed us that they were tombs! Apparently, Svetitskhoveli was not only the site of the kings’ coronations but also served as their burial place. Ten kings are known to be buried in the ground but only six were found, among them were the tombs of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, King Erekle II and his son George XII (known as the last king of Georgia), David Vi, George VIII, and Luarsab I. There are guides inside the church itself who offer their services in telling visitors the history of the place. It’s quite fascinating for history buffs. We didn’t know we were already in the presence of royalties!
We walked on the side of the river to reach a plaza where souvenir stalls were. Meri suggested we buy our souvenirs here because the prices are cheaper compared to other places. I didn’t want to spend my money on souvenirs on Day 1 so I just left my friends to purchase what they want to buy while I discovered a small pathway and entered. I found a bakery with various breads and rolls. They all look so inviting but I was thirsty so I tried a cup of their freshly-squeezed orange juice which reminded me of our Turkey trip. Georgians are also fond of oranges and pomegranates! We tread further and discovered more souvenir shops.
Finally, after walking for quite a while, we were brought to a restaurant for our first proper meal in Georgia! Yehey! I must admit that I wasn’t really expecting much of their food after our guides told us they usually eat bread, barbecue, and kebabs. That’s it? I was hoping to goodness they have really good food because we were famished! Meri suggested we order lobio (mashed beans), mchadi, khachapuri, khinkali, pork barbecue, and sausage kebab. We ordered all, in several sets! While waiting, our friends ordered beer and wine, which Georgia is known for (yes, if you want to get drunk, this is your country to go to, haha). We also sipped on Georgian lemonade, which is really not a lemonade. Yup, it’s not. Georgian lemonade is made of water, sugar, carbonation and natural flavoring. It’s like soda without the flavor of cola. Popular flavors of this drink includes tarragon, pear, vanilla, and citrus. I tried the pear and vanilla and they’re nothing like “lemonade”; they’re like cream soda. Sweet and fuzzy!
Their megruli khachapuri is such a revelation. You think it’s so simple with it looking like the boring cousin of pizza? Well, that’s not the case! I’ll eat this any time than a slice of pizza! The bread was fluffy and soft and once you start eating, you will not stop even though the cheese and butter on top was a bit cloying when consumed in huge amounts! The only thing that prevented us from devouring this is the promise of more food coming our way.
The sausage wrapped in a tortilla-like bread was amazing! They were tender and juicy and oh-so goooood!
The khinkali (soup dumplings) amused me because it’s this huge dumpling filled with meat and hot broth inside. It was like xiao long bao, only bigger and the dough used was thicker and denser. At first we were at a loss on how to eat this properly. Meri taught us to use our hands and so we did! It was hard at first because the dumpling was hot! The technique then is to take a small bite on the wrapper and sip the broth slowly and gently until you can take a bigger bite with the dough and meat inside.This is delicious! This is the national food in Georgia and yes, it takes the whole dumpling scene into another level! We love khinkali!
Now, the pork barbecue in Georgia is what we call “lechon kawali” in the Philippines. Haha. Their barbecue is pieces of pork with meat and fat fried to perfection. There is no barbecue sauce whatsoever. It was pure meat indulgence. It was oily and tender (and heart-clogging)! It was too salty for some of us but we guess that’s when the beer and booze come in to wash down all that saltiness and oiliness. We were wishing for rice so bad while eating this. Because lunch was not part of our package, we paid for the meals ourselves and we were surprised at how cheap the food is! We only paid around 20 Georgian Lari (GEL), equivalent to around SR 30 only! We toasted to what is our first epic meal in Georgia.
After a delicious meal, we went back on the road to visit Tbilisi’s version of the Stonehenge… the Chronicles of Georgia. And WOW!!! We were mesmerized. From below the stairs, it looks like ordinary stacks of pillars and monuments but once we climbed the stairs and landed on the same floor as where the pillars were, oh my gahd they’re tall and huge and towering! The Chronicle of Georgia are monuments describing the most famous persons and events in the history of the country. There are also depictions of stories from the bible. Some of them show Jesus’ washing the feet of the apostles, carrying the cross, fishing in the sea, and other familiar stories from the holy bible. There’s a scroll laid out in front with Georgian scripts. The floors are filled with snow and some of them have transformed into slippery ice that’s why we had to go around the monuments instead of walking through the middle.
There’s a very wonderful view of the city below. On the other side is the Mtkvari river running through a town filled with apartment buildings and on the other side is the Tbilisi Sea, which we thought that it’s really a part of a bigger sea but is actually a reservoir. There’s a church at the back but it was closed. We had a grand time taking pictures in this spot and we loved every minute of it. And because the sun was setting by this time, it provided a nice glow to the monuments. Truly magnificent!
Our last activity for the day is a walk at the park near the Tbilisi Sea. Like what I mentioned earlier, it’s not really the “sea”. It’s an artificial lake that serves as a reservoir. It opened in 1953 and has a length of 8.75 kilometers. Around it is a recreation park. The wind was really strong that afternoon and our faces were freezing! Because it was windy, the water is creating little waves and splashing droplets of water at the view deck. If you need “emo” photos, this is the place to take them. The water, the breeze, the benches, the trees… c’mon, this is where you take those gorgeous, indie pictures! At least that’s what we did, haha!
We liked our itineraries in Georgia because they finish early, around 5 in the afternoon. We have enough time to rest and go out again at night to experience the Georgian night out. After our tour, we went back to our hotel and rested for a bit. We were surprised that there was no water in the hotel! Like whutttt?!? The concierge told us that it wasn’t in their hotel only but it involved the whole of the district. Water might come back during the night. Operative word: might. In Riyadh, people would have panicked already and called the water truck to ration water to buildings but in Tbilisi, it’s like a recurrent thing that people just shrug it off. No backup plans. The water will eventually return. Okay. We decided to head out again after an hour.
For dinner, we asked the concierge for suggestions. She recommended we go to the Meidan Square where the famous I Love Tbilisi sign is, beside a popular restaurant named Machakhela. Meidan Square is located in the heart of the Tbilisi Old Town with vantage views of the Metekehi church. Our concierge helped us hail a taxi and directed the driver to Meidan Square. She also haggled for our fare. The taxis in Georgia are not like the taxis in Riyadh. They don’t look alike at all. They’re regular cars turned to taxis, so you can see old and new cars plying the streets. Fares in Tbilisi are cheap but if they know you’re a tourist, they tend to hike it up a bit so it’s better if you ask your hotel concierge what’s the going rate for going and coming back from a certain place.
When we arrived in Meidan Square, we tried dining in Machakhela but it was fully-packed. While deciding where to eat, a Georgian lady introduced herself and recommended their restaurant at the back of Machakhela. We decided to try Cafe Accent and it turned out to be this cozy cafe that serves Georgian and international food. There’s something for everyone. We ordered their version of khinkali. The dumplings are smaller and immersed in broth with cheese and sour cream in a clay jar. Looking at the dish, we were sure the combination didn’t make any sense but when we tasted it, ahhhh every thing made sense! Haha! It was delicious and comforting. Another dish with chicken and cream was mentioned and highly-recommended by Meri when we were on the road. It just so happened that it was available in this restaurant and so I ordered it. Turns out it’s fried chicken in an oily, creamy base. It was a bit bland but I was pretty sure we can find a better version in other restaurants in the city.
Our friends ordered pizza and pork chops and they were okay. We also left a remembrance in their memento board. If ever you find this place, look for this and know that The Pink Tarha and our friends was here:
After a filling dinner, we walked around Meidan Square.
After that, we hailed a cab back to the comfort of our hotel beds. And water! Water was back when we got to our room. Thank you heavens! It’s a truly sweet country with lots of people who are warm and welcoming and places to love. Their days are clear and bright and their nights are very cold and nostalgic. Ahhh what a first day, Georgia! Are you ready for Day 2?