The newly independent nation of Georgia is hard to describe in terms of one particular region. Some consider it part of the Middle East, others Europe, and still others Asia. The reason for this may be because it is so closely related, both geographically and culturally, with all of these places. Once it broke from the former USSR, Georgia suffered some civil unrest, but as the situation stablizes, Georgia is becoming a major player in world affairs.
Unfortunally much of the political affairs with which it is associated today have to do with the conflict in nearby Chechnya. But the government is working hard to bring tourists and the like to Georgia, to show the world the virtues of this crossroads where so many cultures meet.
Food is a highlight of Georgian culture, and one of the biggest draws for tourists. Georgians ascribe the same importance to their food as they do to family, friends, and God. Mealtime is full of long-honored rituals, with each meal led by an elected head of the table called a tamada (for very large parties, the tamada may in turn select assistants called tolumbashis). The tamada is always a humorous and philosophical individual who is known for his abaility to improvise speeches for long periods of time. He offers toasts throughout the duration of every meal, including toasts to friends, country, family, guests, and more. It’s customary to toast with wine or some other drink (not beer, as that’s seen as a slight insult) before new courses are brought out, and to wait for a toast before eating each new course or starting a new drink. As a guest, if you need to excuse yourself from a table, it’s tradition to stand and offer a toast to your hosts before leaving, but it’s worth noting that the tamada must give permission before anyone other than himself offers a toast. (This is not meant as a constraint, but does provide a certain order and discipline to the meal.) Georgian mealtimes also often include singing, dance contests, and revelry. And then there’s the food…
Georgian cuisine involves many common ingredients, but due to variations in recipes and combinations of its “obligatory” ingredients–such as walnut, regional herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate, barberries, and more–each dish takes on a unique taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular. Georgian food typically involves an abundance of different kinds of meat, fish, and vegetables, various types of cheese, pickles, and seasonings. And the meals themselves are huge: four, five, or more courses; and it’s considered impolite to not accept food when offered.
If you do plan on traveling to Georgia, it’s best to aviod the northern region. This is still a dangerous area, where land mines and kidnappings are common. The unrest that surrounds Georgia’s neighbors has spilled into Georgia at times, so most border areas require extra attention to safety.
Traveling in Georgia
There are domestic flights between Tbilisi and other major cities, such as Kutaisi, Butami, and Senaki. Many roads are in poor condition and can be dangerous. There have also been reports of tourists being car-jacked, so it may be better to hire a car with a driver. There is some rail service, but due to conflict in neighboring countries, it can be very frustrating to use. Busses run regularly and may be the best way to get around Georgia. There is a subway in Tbilisi, but thefts have been known to happen there, so taking a taxi may be a safer alternative for traveling in this city.
There are many places to eat Tbilisi; the city is truly a gourmand’s dream. Most food is served fast and in abundance and is not very expensive. What you see on the table is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And if you have a Georgian order for you, be prepared for at least five courses piled one on top of one another, but save room because, just when you think the meal is done, there’s always another course on the way, which is usually tastier than the last. Nonsmoking sections are unheard of in Georgia, so don’t ask.
Citizens of Poland, Bulgaria, and the other CIS countries can enter Georgia without a visa. Everyone else must have a visa to enter. It’s best to obtain this before leaving home at the Georgian embassy in your country. A visa purchased in the U.S. will cost US$40 for a two-week stay; that increases to US$80 if purchased upon arrival at Tbilisi Airport. Visa information is available at http://www.mfa.gov.ge/consular.html.
There is a severe shortage of basic medical supplies in Georgia. It’s recommended that you bring your own syringes (with a note from your doctor) if necessary. Also, doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services.
The local currency is the Lari (GEL); 1 Lari is approximately equal to US$0.50.
Weather in Georgia
Georgia is generally accessible to tourists year-round, and there’s always something to do. However, if you’d rather travel in the warmth, then June to September is the best time to go. Travel in the summer is also less cumbersome, as you will not be restricted by snow in the mountains and outside of the cities. Also, October is ideal for it’s cool weather, and happens to when Georgian wineries are most active.
Population: 5.2 million
Government: Presidential Republic
Square Miles: 27,200 sq mi (69,700 sq km)
Official Language: Georgian (71%), Russian (9%), Armenian (7%), Azerbaijani (6%)
People: Georgian (70%), Armenian (8%), Russian (6%), Azeri (6%)
Religion: Georgian Orthodox (60%), Russian Orthodox (10%), Muslim (11%), Armenian Apostolic (8%)
Major products/industries: Heavy industry (steel, aircraft, machine tools, locomotives, cranes, motors, trucks), textiles, shoes, wood products, wine