hen I made a decision to head to Georgia all I knew about the tiny nation was that it’s a land of mountains and remote monasteries, ancient wine and cheesy breads. That alone was more than enough to pique my interest and over the course of the past year of living in Tbilisi, I’ve enjoyed picking up tidbits and facts about Georgia (the country not the state in case that intro didn’t make it clear).
Sharing borders with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia and situated at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Georgia is abundant in culture and heritage. Now an independent republic, the Republic of Georgia has been invaded multiple times, annexed by the Russian Empire, and absorbed by the Soviet Union. If you’re a history-hungry type of traveller, you’re going to love it. While Georgia has its unique cultural identity, the country draws influence from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
If you’re thinking about travelling to the Caucasian country yourself, scroll down for some facts about Georgia that may surprise you. But first, a conundrum.
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Is Georgia in Asia or Europe?
After over one year of living in Georgia, I’m still in the dark about exactly where in the world I am. Is Georgia in Europe or Asia?
Georgia is located in the Caucasus region along with Armenia and Azerbaijan. If you open your atlas then you can see that this mountainous realm is officially part of the Asian continent. However, politically and culturally Georgia is often to referred to as being part of Europe and there are whisperings of the country joining the European Union.
In Tbilisi, the wide boulevards and patisseries of Vake, the prestigious Rustaveli Avenue, and the grassy urban squares dotted around the whole city allude to European capitals of Paris and Rome. Turn down a backstreet in one of the historic neighbourhoods and it’s a different story. You’ll find close knit homes with communal courtyards that nod towards the Asian mentality of staying close to family. As with the architecture the Georgian language has ties to Persian, Arabic, and Turkish influences.
Culinary culture always gleams insight into a nation’s identity and Georgia is all about loading the table with mountains of bread and sharing dishes. Try and take a bite of your companion’s steak or a spoonful of pasta in Europe and you’ll get a swat. But on the other hand, the wine culture is rampant here (as is drinking in general) and this does steer Georgian dining etiquette back towards a more Western mindset.
I’ve asked a few Georgian friends and acquaintances whether they consider themselves Asian or European. Some will pause a moment before saying that they feel like they are firmly in the middle of the two continents and are a fusion of both. Others will reply Asia with a look of bewilderment that I would even need to ask. Others say that that the youth has more of a Western vibe but the older generations carry a more Asian mindset.
Nobody I’ve spoken to has expressed a strong sense of belonging with either continent (not that I’ve spoken to masses of Georgians, this is purely based on snatched conversations here and there).
As far as facts about Georgia go, this one is up for debate.
Quick facts about Georgia
– If you get chatting to a Georgian male, there’s a high chance his name is Giorgi, in honour of St George, the patron saint. Among females, Natia is particularly common although I’ve also met a vast number of women called Tinatin, Tamar and Nino. Georgian names are beautiful.
– Georgia has both a President and a Prime Minister. The former is solely the head of state and does not have the right to initiate laws, whilst the PM is the head of the government.
– Weightlifting and wrestling are two of the most popular sports in Georgia.
– Earthquakes are not uncommon in Georgia. Although they rarely cause any damage, you will often come across cracks in buildings and uneven flooring caused by previous quivers. The crooked staircase of Linville Cafe in Old Town is one of the most interesting scars from a past shake.
– One of the most appealing facts about Georgia for travellers: Georgia has a reputation for being one of the safest countries to visit. Crime isn’t non-existent here but it is rarer in comparison with other small nations and even petty theft on the Metro is unusual.
Surprisingfacts about Georgia
Georgia is the birthplace of wine
Over 8,000 years ago, around 6,000 BC, ancient Georgians realised that if they stashed their grapes underground during winter, come springtime they’d have something punchier than fruit juice to look forward to.
This historic winemaking method which is still used in present day Georgia utilises large clay vessels called qvevri (kvevri). They look like the traditional Greek amphorae without the handles. Winemakers load crushed grape must into these egg-shaped jars before burying them beneath the soil (that’s when the lack of handles comes in handy). Naturally occurring yeasts and subterranean temperatures aid the fermentation process which can take as little as one month for a small container of grape must.
Today Georgian winemakers continue to produce red, white, rose, sparkling as well as amber wine using their traditional methods. Georgia wears its identity as the Cradle of Wine with pride to such a degree that every new arrival receives a complimentary bottle of Saperavi (the nation’s treasured red) on arrival at the airport.
The best place to connect with Georgia’s wine heritage is the Kakheti region, via the cities of Sighnaghi and Telavi. Although pretty much any guesthouse you stay at in the country comes with the promise of free-flowing wine or chacha (a byproduct of wine that is coined Georgian brandy and guarantees a three day hangover). Usually, it’s homemade, so you’re obliged to accept a glass (or 20) and join in with the toasts.
It’s true what they say about Georgian hospitality
All that talk of freebie wine leads snugly into the legend of Georgian hospitality. Of all the facts about Georgia you hear, there is no myth here; I will honestly say that Georgian hospitality is some of the most genuine I’ve ever experienced. In this deeply religious country, guests are considered a gift from God and are treated as such.
When my boyfriend and I arrived at our first Airbnb in Samgori our host went out of her way to prepare us for our time in Georgia. She whisked us away to buy Metromoney cards to use on public transport as well as the all-essential SIM cards. She even took us for an orientation around the local market and explained some of the more mysterious Georgian foods, such as the churchkhela (a sweet snack made from dipping a string of nuts in grape must that looks like a sausage once dried).
Once the pandemic was declared she even suggested that we live in her house rent-free (something that naturally we had to turn down although she did still insist on a substantial discount).
Further afield, we have been treated with true warmth and generosity by taxi drivers, restaurant staff, kindly ladies in grocery shops and guesthouse owners. If you take a taxi to Didube Bus Terminal in Tbilisi, your driver will make sure you’re dropped right outside the door of the marshrutka you need. It’s also not uncommon to receive a gift of fruit from a taxi driver and nor is it rare not to be offered a few free litres of wine, chacha or other treats at guesthouses or by strangers in the street, particularly around Georgian holidays.
All Georgians are Formula 1 pros
Before I arrived in Georgia, I read some accounts of Georgian driving style being a little on the hairy side. I remember thinking it couldn’t be much worse than some of the driving I’ve experienced in Southeast Asia (one minibus driver was so reckless that the Malaysian police pulled him over). But, as my debut ride from Tbilisi International to Samgori demonstrated, they actually can.
I’ve since clutched my seat as drivers have overtaken at breakneck speeds and chased down motorists who have caused some kind of personal offence. I’ve learned to recognise a twinkle in the eyes of the drivers as they see me scramble for a (usually, non-existent) seatbelt. Finding a seatbelt in a taxi here is like finding a pot of gold. I’ve learned to avert my eyes as drivers text behind the wheel and just hope for the best.
When marshrutka drivers breeze past lorries on blind bends in the mountains, I close my eyes and hope to see what’s around the corner. As a devout Orthodox nation, most drivers perform the Holy Trinity whenever they pass a church regardless of the speed they’re travelling at, how many vehicles they’re overtaking at the given moment, and whether or not there is a cigarette in the other hand.
Georgian roads are wider and, generally, less congested than neighbouring Asian countries. And when they have a stretch of open tarmac they know how to make the most of it. If they spot a queue of traffic ahead of them (or migrating sheep), they have no qualms with taking to the verge.
This all being said, I’ve rarely felt unsafe in a car driven by a Georgian. Sure, they might drive with a little more passion than elsewhere, but they do know what they’re doing. And going by how they overtake, they don’t fear the element of surprise. My one scrap of advice is that if you are planning a holiday in Georgia I would only advise hiring a car if you’ve driven in comparable Asian countries.
Easter and Christmas are celebrated later
One of the facts about Georgia you will know from the number of churches, monasteries and nunneries in the country is that the nation follows the Orthodox religion and that the vast majority of the country is deeply religious. Whilst the Orthodox Christians do observe both Easter and Christmas they are practised in a very different way. Both holidays take place around two weeks later than other Christian religions and Easter is by far the most important of the two.
The most devout Orthodox Georgians will fast for the 40 days leading up to Easter. Rather than simply giving up one or two treats, they go full vegan and cut out all meat, dairy and other animal-based products. Once Good Friday arrives, Georgians break their fast by dining on hard-boiled eggs that are dyed red and paska (a delicious sweet bread). When I celebrated my first Easter in Georgia during the pandemic, our landlady’s grandparents (who lived in the flat above ours in the true Georgian style) kindly brought us some to enjoy along with other traditional Georgian Easter foods.
On Easter Monday, Georgians pile into their car and head to the family plot at their local ceremony. Georgian ceremonies are like miniature villages and each plot is designed with ample seating and picnic tables where the whole family can gather to dine with their deceased loved ones. These picnics are in full swing over the Orthodox Easter weekend where many toasts are raised in memory of those passed ones and parties will last until the early hours. It reminds me of Día de los Muertos in Mexico.
Orthodox Christmas takes place in the first few weeks of January. This is a quiet affair where families meet for a large feast and gifts are not typically presented. In place of the fir tree, Georgians erect chichilaki which are trees formed by shaved walnut or hazelnut branches that vary in height. They are burned on the evening of the Georgian Orthodox Epiphany to symbolise the passing of any woe from the previous year.
‘New’ New Year’s Eve is huge
One of the more surprising facts about Georgia is the vigour with which the country welcomes New Year’s Eve. Twice! European Christmas slips past the end of December with little notice as only the foreigners living in Georgia celebrate it and Orthodox Christmas has religious importance but still seems fairly under the radar.
But wait, there are two New Year’s Eves in Georgia. Georgians celebrate the Orthodox ‘Old’ New Year on 14 January after Orthodox Christmas but they also celebrate ‘New’ New Year’s Eve on 31 December along with most of the rest of the world.
‘New’ New Year’s Eve is an entire kettle of fish to Christmas and ‘Old’ New Year. Our pandemic curfew was lifted for the evening of 31 December last year and the city erupted into frivolity and pyrotechnics that lasted deep into the night. By comparison, ‘Old’ New Year didn’t garner much cause for celebration apart from the usual fireworks that erupt over Tbilisi on a nightly basis (another fact about Georgia: the place is mad about fireworks).
1 January sees the majority of businesses remain closed (we had the bright idea to order a New Year’s Day takeaway but every restaurant on the delivery app was unavailable). However, 2 January is an auspicious day known as Bedoba which sees Georgians take to the street and spread goodwill in the belief that the day sets the tone for the year to come.
Love cheese? Love carbs? You’ll love Georgia
A brief Google of Georgia will tip you off about the nation’s mastery at bread making. Adjarian khachapuri, a doughy boat-shaped slab of bread slathered with tonnes of cheese and butter and topped with a runny egg, is the national dish. You eat this with your hands by tearing off the crust and dipping it in the gooey cocktail of salt, fat and cholesterol, praying not to get an instant heart attack as you chew.
Khachapuri literally refers to any type of traditional Georgian bread that is baked with cheese. Adjarian refers to the region of Adjara, where this particular khachapuri was conceived. There are over 50 types of khachapuri in total to sink your teeth into that are baked with different cheese and identifiable by their shapes. Georgia produces 250 varieties of cheese but the most common ones used to make khachapuri are Sulgini and Imeretian which both originate from West Georgia in the regions of Samegrelo and Imereti respectively.
Georgia is a culinary wonderland of fatty cheeses and yeasty pastries. You only need to walk 500 metres and you’ll find a bakery with its siren’s call of pastry goodness. You can buy breads and pastries stuffed with beans, meats and potatoes as well as cheeses.
If you want to experience Georgian bread without a heart attack you can buy shotis puri. This is the traditional canoe-shaped Georgian bread that is baked in a deep circular clay oven called a tone. Every neighbourhood in every Georgian city features several tone bakeries where you can buy a freshly baked dough boat. Tear up at home and dip into soups and stews or eat it with boiled eggs, cured meats, cheese and salad, it’s delicious.
Georgian language is one of a kind
One of the most interesting facts about Georgia is that the language is one of the most unique in the world. The Georgian language has its own alphabet that linguists are not entirely sure about the origin of. This script has evolved through three different interpretations with the Mkhedruli alphabet being the one spoken in contemporary Georgia.
If you want to compare the sound of the Georgian language to another, the closest comparables are Arabic, Turkish and Persian. In fact, the Georgian language has lifted some words directly from these three languages. It’s a beautifully rich language with a warm, velvety tone when spoken and I can listen to Georgians chattering over their coffee for hours in place of music.
In terms of how widely English is spoken in Georgia, this is fairly mixed. Older generations from the Soviet Union would typically learn Georgian and Russian. Since the collapse of the empire, schools switched to teaching English, so among the Georgian youth, most speak good English. Outside of the major cities, you will find that fewer people speak English so you’ll often need to rely on hand gestures to communicate.
Georgia is the birthplace of Stalin
Whilst this is not something you’d think a country would want to boast about, Georgia actually does. Well, only a little. Although I’d definitely say they’re far prouder of their wine heritage. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was in fact born Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili, in the city of Gori which is literally built around the birthplace of Stalin.
You can see the very house that wee Ioseb spent his first few years in. In order to protect the homestead, the Georgians erected a giant, Neoclassical temple around it. When you visit the Stalin Museum in Gori (located on Stalin Avenue, you can’t miss it), your tour permits entry to the house as well as Stalin’s bulletproof train carriage.
You won’t hear too much talk of Stalin outside of Gori (apart from Tskaltubo where you can bathe in the same thermal bathhouse that the dictator used to scrub up). Although it’s interesting to note how opinions of “Uncle Joe” and the Soviet Union differ from person to person.
As a side note, when you explore Tbilisi, pay attention to the buildings as many still bear the hammer and sickle motif above the main entrance. If you cross Marjanishvili Bridge you’ll see that red crosses have been painted over the motifs that adorn the route.
Tbilisi wasn’t always the capital of Georgia
The original capital city is a mere 20-minute drive from Tbilisi. Mtskheta was the Georgian capital between the 3rd century BC and 5th century AD and is one of the oldest known cities in Georgia. Nowadays the compact little town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a great day trip from Tbilisi that you can actually enjoy as a half day.
You can spend the way sipping wine in the cafes around the main square, craning your neck at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and taking a quick taxi ride up to the 4th-century Jvari Monastery. From the hill, you can see the mountains that cradle both Mtskheta and Tbilisi as well as the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers. The two rivers are distinctly different colours and are the star attraction of the valley.
Regular marshrutkas depart from Tbilisi’s Dibude Bus Terminal and cost 1 GEL each way. A taxi works out around 20 GEL-ish each way.
Georgians are late risers
Coming from London and having spent the past few years in Southeast Asia and New Zealand, I’m used to seeing daily life spring to action the second the first shard of light appears. Frazzled bankers plough down the street with a Pret coffee in one hand and multiple phones in the other at 7.30am in London, harvesters (more literally) plough their land from 6 am and in Southeast Asia, well, do Asian cities ever actually take a break for sleep?
But, even in Tbilisi, the commercial and economic capital, you struggle to buy a coffee before 11am. Even essential amenities do not typically open until after 9am, so if you need to see a doctor or vet first thing, just hope that it isn’t urgent.
Other than a startling lack of breakfast culture for a country where food is so prominent, the final fact about Georgia that I’ll leave here is that it’s one of the most exciting and fascinating countries that you can visit. Asian or European, it’s a one of a kind.
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