First Impressions of Georgia: Free Wine & Friendly People

“First time in Georgia?” asked the immigration official after he finished flipping through my passport. “Yes sir, looking forward to it,” I replied. He stamped my passport then handed it back along with a free bottle of wine and a cheery “Welcome to Georgia, enjoy your stay” that was way too energetic for 4am.

Now that’s a great first impression!

This was not some tourism board employee or airport staff. This was the actual immigration officer magically pulling out a bottle of wine from underneath the counter. All that was missing was the “Voilà!” Absolutely unprecedented. Well done, Georgia, well done. Certainly will not be forgetting this anytime soon.

My first impressions of Georgia were tainted by free wine from immigration -- now that's how you say hello!
Five minutes in the country and I already know my first word and have my first bottle of wine woo-hoo!

Gamarjoba Dear Guest,
You’ve only stepped on our land ― the birthplace of wine and you already know our most important word ― “Hello”.
Georgia is a foodie heaven so size bigger pants come in handy. Here’s you’ll meet people who wear their on their sleeve. Hospitality is our second name, so receive this gift as a sneak peek of what’s to come.
Wish you a pleasant stay and see you around!
Regards, Georgia

Initially I thought this might have been a Christmas gift because I had arrived on December 24th until I learned:

Christmas in Georgia is celebrated on January 7th, not December 25th.

Apparently the Georgian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar instead of the modern Gregorian calendar. Probably one of those things that you might like to know before arriving. Oh well, at least now I’ll be a hit at future holidays: “Come closer, children, and let me tell you the story of how Georgia stole Christmas!”

Tbilisi in 1909 versus 2019. By chance I just happened to take a photograph from nearly the same spot. If you compare the two photos you can see many of the same buildings and churches still exist today, more than a century later.

It doesn’t get any more authentic than staying in a 19th century house on top of the Tbilisi Old Town wall.

It was still dark outside when the taxi dropped me off at my place, a historic 19th century house built alongside and atop a section of the Tbilisi Old Town wall. The property has been in the family for several generations but was only renovated into a sprawling 2-bedroom suite a few months prior to my arrival.

Although the interior has been renovated and outfitted with all the modern necessities, the exterior remains unchanged. Every day to reach the main road I literally have to walk down the stairs and through one of the old gates in the wall. It’s like walking through history.

First Taste Of Georgian Food

No first impressions of Georgia article would be complete without sampling some of that amazing Georgian cuisine I keep hearing about. As nice as it is to have a local explain what I am eating, occasionally it is fun to go in completely blind. No knowledge, no expectations, no preconceived notions, just curiosity and an empty belly. Luckily I have no allergies and will eat anything once. (Except shark fin soup, but probably not going to find any of that here.)

I walked around Tbilisi for about ten minutes before stumbling upon a restaurant that smelled so delicious it was impossible to resist. It was here that I first experienced Khinkali, what would quickly become my favorite Georgian food.

My first impressions of Georgia are of lots and lots of delicious foods such as khinkali
13 different delicious varieties mmmmmm

Khinkali are dumplings filled with meat, veggies and/or cheese and then either steamed or fried. They are similar to but much larger than both Nepalese Momos or Chinese Xiao Long Bao. Khinkali usually require a minimum order of five (per flavor, not total) but because of their size five pieces is enough to fill some people up. Unfortunately for solo travelers this means sampling all of the varieties is an intense week-long process.

My first impressions of Georgia are of lots and lots of delicious foods mmmmm
You wouldn’t know it from the appearance but these are lamb khinkali (the steamed version, obviously, that much you should be able to tell)

Eating khinkali properly is an art form. Flip it upside down and with each bite also slurp out a little of the juice inside. Do not let any of the liquid spill out! That is basically a culinary crime in Georgia and a huge no-no. It’s also much more difficult than it initially appears so good luck.

This Country Is Making Me Fat

Georgian food is so delicious that it is hard to stop eating. Very hard. So hard they even made a word for when people cannot stop despite being full. No, it is not “munchies” however It is one of the most awesomely untranslatable word in the world:

Shemomechama (შემომეჭამა) is when you are so full that you cannot eat anymore but you are still eating anyway because the food is so delicious that you cannot stop. Luckily the past tense is less of a mouthful: “Didn’t mean to but I ate the entire thing.”

In Georgian, a lot of verbs can be transformed into a form that indicates the subject performed the action without having the intention to. The most famous one is shemomechama but others include shemomakvda — I accidentally killed him/her — and shemomec’era — I accidentally wrote it (because apparently sometimes that happens).

Exploring Tbilisi Old Town

The cobblestone streets and vintage architecture of the Old Town are one of the first things people think of when it comes to Tbilisi. Located mostly on the west bank of the Kura River, Tbilisi Old Town a jumble of narrow winding streets crammed with classic churches and historic houses with wooden balconies. Like mine! 😉

First impressions of Georgia.... wow!
Tbilisi is an absolutely beautiful city

While the rest of the world was opening Christmas presents, I opted to take one of the Tbilisi Free Walking Tours. Turned out to be one of the best decisions I made while in Tbilisi because it allowed me to make friends with a like-minded local, the tour guide. He ended up being my gateway into the notoriously hard-for-foreigners-to-get-into Tbilisi club scene….but we’ll have to save that story for another day. (Unless you follow me on Twitter, in which case you could have heard about it when it happened.)

Learned a lot of interesting history and trivia facts about Tbilisi during this walking tour, that’s for sure. Such as the reason why Tbilisi has so many new buildings and bridges made of all glass that stand in stark contrast to the historic brick buildings…

Modern Tbilisi

During the 1990’s corruption and crime became rampant throughout all levels of society and by November 2003 people couldn’t take it anymore. The Rose Revolution happened. The president resigned and new elections followed.

Also known as the Avlabari Presidential Palace. The current President of Georgia and her administration moved into the older and smaller Orbeliani Palace instead, citing budget restrictions. As such, this has become known as the “Ceremonial Presidential Palace”

In 2004 work began on the new Presidential Palace and in 2009 it was finally completed. The extensive use of glass windows and gigantic glass dome at the top are meant to represent the transparency of the new administration.

The Bridge Of Peace

When the sleek modern glass design was first announced, many Tbilisi citizens hated it and much controversy ensued. However upon its completion in May 2010, the beauty of the bridge reportedly won many of the locals over. Now glass-dominated buildings can be spotted all over Tbilisi, always meant to symbolize transparency.

The structure of the bridge was built in Italy and transported to Tbilisi in 200 trucks.

Sioni Cathedral. The Bridge of Peace, Rike Concert Hall and the Ceremonial Presidential Palace of Georgia
In front of the Bridge of Peace is Sioni Cathedral. Behind and to the right of it is Rike Concert Hall (the metallic-looking tubes) and behind that the Ceremonial Presidential Palace of Georgia

The shape has led to it being nicknamed the “Always Ultra” bridge for its resemblance to a ladies’ maxi-pad.

The Mother Of Georgia

In the hills above Tbilisi, silently watching over the city is Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia. In her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies. That’s basically all you need to know about Georgian spirit and hospitality.

Prominent Georgian sculptor Elguja Amashukeli designed the 65-foot tall (22m) aluminum statue. It was erected on the top of Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1,500th anniversary.

From that first moment at immigration when I was greeted with a bottle of wine, I knew Georgia was an amazing country. Georgians have an amazing sense of hospitality that instantly makes you feel right at home and Georgian cuisine is quintessential comfort food. Talk about heaven! Cannot wait to discover what else this country has in store for visitors.

Ever been to Georgia? Any recommendations?

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

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