On this mouthwatering collaboration with Culinary Backstreets, we'll explore the birthplace of wine: Georgia. Expect a one-of-a-kind experience filled with wine tastings, cooking workshops, harvest activities, and more.
Tucked between the Black and Caspian Seas and in the shadow of Europe’s highest mountains you'll find Georgia—a tiny country with an astounding culinary heritage and a winemaking tradition tracing back eight millennia. We’ll be delving into this appetizing wonderland during rtveli—the grape harvest—Georgia’s most inspiring time of year. And we aren’t only going to witness the harvest—we're going to take part in it, too.
This week-long gastronomic adventure takes place in and around the capital of Tbilisi. We’ll also spend two days in the Alazani Valley, perhaps the most beautiful wine region in the world. Here, we’ll experience the deep reverence for winemaking that defines this land. Along the way, we’ll take in unique performances, visit little-known museums commemorating the country’s Soviet past, and to cap things off, explore Tbilisi’s ancient sulfur bath district, where we’ll allow our extraordinary week to fully soak in.
This trip is limited to a small group of 12 explorers.
- Culinary Workshops & Wine Tastings: Learn to make traditional Georgian dishes, such as khinkali (dumplings) or khachapuri (cheese bread). A wide variety of wines will be on offer, from the rustic and homemade to fine family kvevri wines, as well as large winery vintages.
- Agriculture Trips: Visit local winemakers to see, feel, taste, and learn about the ancient art of making wine in kvevri, huge terra cotta vessels that are buried in the ground. We’ll take part in the process ourselves, possibly tasting and harvesting grapes.
- Market Tours and Home-Cooked Meals: Take a guided visit through Tbilisi’s central farmers market and enjoy several home-cooked village meals. Georgians consider visitors gifts from God and endearingly call them okros stumrebi—“golden guests.” After seven days in Georgia, you’ll understand this first-hand.
- Performances & Demonstrations: Meet local artists and craftspeople, including a kvevri maker. We’ll also experience a private performance by polyphonic singers, who create sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
YOUR GEORGIA CULINARY GUIDE
Paul Rimple, Bureau Chief
Paul is Culinary Backstreets’ Tbilisi Bureau Chief. Paul spent much of the 1990s in Krakow, Poland, before moving in 2002 to Tbilisi, where he works as a freelance journalist and performs with his band, The Natural Born Lovers. A former columnist at The Moscow Times, he's been a regular contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, Deutsche Welle, and Eurasianet.org, and has written for Foreign Policy, BBC.com, and Roads and Kingdoms, among others.
A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. We have a limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill quickly. The trip will cost $3,320—the $500 deposit plus $2,820 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs including accommodations, meals as mentioned in the itinerary, and all the activities listed below.
Please email us at trips@or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.
Arrival & Welcome
- We encourage travelers to ease into this trip and allow some extra time to acclimate, especially as most flights to Tbilisi arrive in the wee hours of the morning. We’ll arrange private pickup from the airport to your hotel, where you’ll have time to rest.
- In the late afternoon, we’ll meet for a welcome walk through the neighborhood, built in the 19th century. Georgia’s capital is neither Europe nor Asia, and is a collision of ancient and modern—the crossroads of the old Silk Road and a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that have defined the city’s distinctive character and inimitable cuisine.
- After peering into a few traditional courtyards, we’ll make our way to Shavi Lomi, a house-turned-restaurant featuring Mary Gubeladze’s twist on traditional Georgian dishes as well as classic favorites. Over dinner, we’ll properly introduce ourselves and get an overview of the exciting—and delicious—week ahead.
Unraveling the Secrets of the Feast
- After a light hotel breakfast (strong emphasis on “light’’), we’ll kick off the morning with a warm loaf of tonis puri, a traditional bread baked in a tandoori-like oven in the cellar of the Tbilisi seminary.
- Then we’re headed to Tbilisi’s central bazaar, the city’s largest and oldest farmers market. It is a raw, chaotic warren of fresh victuals and the convergence point of all things food, serving as the main source of products for many of the city’s restaurants and neighborhood markets.
- We'll sample tonis lobiani, a traditional bean-stuffed bread, fresh Georgian cheese, honey from an east Georgian family of beekeepers, and delicious churchkhelas, strings of nuts dipped in a thick roux of grape juice. Our route also takes us by Miss Iza’s special spice mixes and to the bazaar’s raffish wine section, a collection of no-frills “pop-ups” that serve authentic homemade wines and chacha, Georgia’s legendary take on grappa.
- From there, we’ll hop in taxis over to the Dry Bridge Flea Market to browse its offbeat offerings and give ourselves some space to digest—just in time for our favorite mountain-style khinkali, iconic Georgian dumplings. Afterwards, we’ll walk over to the National Gallery to view the work of Niko Pirosmani, Georgia’s famed primitivist painter.
- From there it’s on to Vino Underground, the city’s first wine bar. Prep your palate for a guided tasting of Georgia’s indigenous red, white, and amber wines, made naturally following an 8,000-year-old tradition. The finale of our day’s journey will be a feast at a family-owned restaurant that offers home-style meals prepared with the freshest, most natural ingredients available.
- If you have any energy left after dinner, feel free to wander the streets of the Sololaki neighborhood, where you’ll find no shortage of bars and cafes. Or, if your eyelids are drooping, head back to the hotel for a hearty night’s sleep.
Into the Caucasus and Ancient History
- This morning, we'll set out along the Georgian Military Highway, a 125-mile ribbon that cuts through the Caucasus Mountains, connecting Tbilisi with Vladikavkaz, Russia. Although built by the Russians in the 18th century, the route was first mentioned in the annals of the Greek geographer Strabo and later by the Roman writer Plynius in the 1st century.
- Ascending into the Caucasus, we arrive at the Zhinvali Reservoir and Ananuri fortress, a stunning, late-medieval complex that goes back to the 16th century.
- Twelve miles north is the hamlet of Pasanauri, a once-popular destination during the Soviet era. Here we’ll enjoy some delicious local fare, including mkhvlovani, a spinach and cheese pie.
- Back down toward Tbilisi, at the junction of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers, sits Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In the 4th century, this site was chosen by St. Nino for the first Orthodox Christian church in Georgia, and today, the town is still dominated by that same church, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It is believed to be the burial site of Christ’s mantle, and is one of the most sacred places in the country.
- As we continue to make our way back, we’ll stop in the neighboring village of Avchala, where we’ll be welcomed into a private home for a hands-on cooking demonstration.
- Our festive day will be topped off with a traditional Georgian supra, a home-cooked feast hosted by a tamada (toastmaster). In introducing each toast, the tamada aims to bring together past, present, and future, recognizing our ancestors and descendants as well as those seated at the table itself. Afterward, we’ll return to our hotel in Tbilisi for the night.
- Spread beneath the majestic Caucasus Mountains like an enormous grape basket is the Alazani Valley. Located in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia, this could very well be the most breathtaking wine region in the world. September and October are the time of rtveli—the harvest—and families along the valley are busy making wine much like their ancestors would have done for the past 8,000 years.
- This morning, we’ll depart Tbilisi by private coach for Kakheti, Georgia’s chief winemaking region. The day will include a visit to the regional capital of Telavi for lunch and to the home of a master maker of kvevri. We’ll be walked through the ancient process of making the ceramic vessels that Georgians still use to store and ferment wine.
- We’ll end the day with a wine tour and tasting at the home of a local natural winemaker.
- Tonight, we’ll stay in the Alazani Valley in a comfortable boutique hotel, dreaming of grapes.
Harvest Day in the Alazani Valley
- Today is the day—weather and ripeness permitting—we don work clothes and head out to take part in the harvest.
- After breakfast, we’re planning to help the local winemaker Irakli Bluishvili clip grapes in his Alazani Valley vineyard. These grapes will later be brought back to his 100-year-old family home to be crushed and added to the kvevri in the wine cellar. If, however, vineyard labor doesn’t appeal, feel free to curl up with a book and relax in a hammock on the veranda, or wander around the village with your camera.
- After a light lunch and while dinner is being prepared, we’ll slip into the woods to visit the 8th-century Father David church. Nearby, we can also see the ruins of an ancient wine cellar.
- Back at the house, we’ll see a demonstration on how chacha—Georgian moonshine—is made before feasting on traditional Kakheti fare: barbecued pork, tomato and eggplant salads, sheep cheese, and fresh bread—all washed down by unlimited toasts of organic wine.
- After dinner, we’ll drive back to Tbilisi. We’ll wake you up when we pull into our hotel.
Propaganda and Puppets
- This morning, skip the regular breakfast: it’s time for the iconic Acharuli khachapuri, a baked barge of dough packing a cargo of gooey cheese topped with a mostly raw egg yolk and a slowly melting Snickers-sized gob of butter. Did that hook your attention?
- Breakfast is just a metro ride away, giving us a glimpse into Tbilisi’s Soviet-built underground rail system. Afterwards, fully loaded with carbs, we’ll make our way to the virtually unknown Georgian Firefighters Museum, a tribute to those who have worked one of the most dangerous jobs in the world for over a hundred years.
- Afterwards, we’ll check out Joseph Stalin’s Underground Printing House, where the future leader of the USSR—born Ioseb Dzhugashvili in 1878 in the Georgian town of Gori—generated Bolshevik propaganda.
- Our day will also include a stroll through an outdoor ethnographic museum. Set within its folk architecture and craftwork exhibits, we’ll have a sumptuous feast of regional dishes from the high mountain region of Racha.
- In the afternoon, we’ll catch a show at the legendary Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theater. Gabriadze, a Georgian playwright, director, painter, and sculptor, collaborated with other directors to make some of Georgia’s most iconic films. His puppet theater productions have been praised at festivals across the world.
- This evening, take some free time to wander the city and explore dinner on your own.
Shida Kartli: The Heart of Georgia
- After breakfast at the hotel, we’ll zip about an hour west of Tbilisi to the Shida Kartli region, considered the heart of Georgia. Upon arriving, we’ll get to wander the cave city of Uplistsikhe, one of the oldest settlements in the country. For hundreds of years, this territory was a battleground between Georgia and Arab, Persian, Ottoman and, quite recently, Russian aggressors.
- Historically, Kartli was the region that produced wine for the Georgian kings, and it remains an important winemaking area today. While in Shida Kartli, we’ll visit Ateni, a village renowned for the wine it makes from local indigenous grapes, and have lunch and a private wine tasting at a village wine bar, a rustic Georgian-style taverna with home-cooked food.
- On our way back to Tbilisi, we’ll stop in the village of Garikula, located in the Tedzami River Valley. We’ll poke our heads into 17th-century wine cellars and then see what’s happening at the Art Villa, a contemporary art center and international artist residency that hosts a festival during September and October.
- We’ll finish the day off with a demonstration of khinkali making, where everyone will get a chance to pleat dumplings, followed by a village feast washed down with liters of local Chinuri wine.
Sulfur Baths & Farewell Dinner
- Our final day, we’ll set out for Abanotubani, Tbilisi’s ancient sulfur bath district. Legend has it that Abanotubani was founded on this site when, in the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali found his hunting falcon bathing in the natural hot springs. Whether or not the story’s true, people have been enjoying the curative powers of these mineral waters for nearly two millennia.
- A testament to Tbilisi’s multi-ethnic makeup, the neighborhood is home to the 120-year-old Jumah Mosque, renowned for being a place of worship for both Shia and Sunni Muslims. Nearby are the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple.
- We’ll start with a visit to Sabir’s chaikhana, a no-frills, no-name tea house that is the last of its kind in the changing neighborhood. We’ll then visit Gulo’s bath house, where we’ll allow the past week’s experiences to soak into our bones. Built in the Persian tradition, these baths are heated by waters that come straight out of the earth at between 75 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who’d like can also request a Persian-style massage and scrub.
- A long soak deserves a fine meal to follow, especially on our last night together. Our final dinner will be at the famed local chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s bath district restaurant, Culinarium-Khasheria. Named after a tripe soup that doubles as a hangover remedy, the menu is Gachechiladze's ode to traditional Georgian fare, a thoroughly original blend of new takes on old recipes. After dinner, we’ll climb up to an unforgettable lookout for a farewell drink.
- Our trip officially ends this evening after dinner, as many departing flights leave late at night or very early in the morning. However, we’ll offer the option of additional nights at our Tbilisi hotel if needed.
- Until the next adventure!
YOUR ATLAS OBSCURA EXPEDITION TO GEORGIA INCLUDES
- All lodging in modern, well-equipped boutique hotels throughout the trip. (Single supplement for a private room is available for $475. Otherwise we’ll work to place singles of the same gender together.)
- All meals and wine throughout the trip, with the exception of dinner on Day 6.
- Transportation during the trip, including in a private coach. Travel within the city will often be by foot.
- Four experienced, English-speaking guides—three local, one foreign—accompanying you during different sections of the trip.
- Admission to all proposed activities, sites, workshops, and events.
- A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans, excited to explore all that rtveli has to offer!
NOTE ON FLIGHTS
For flights in and out of Tbilisi International Airport (TBS), we suggest you arrive anytime before 3 p.m. on September 23 and depart anytime after 11 p.m. on September 30. Note that most inbound and outbound flights at TBS are scheduled for very early in the morning. We’ll provide the option of booking extra nights at our Tbilisi hotel before and/or after the tour, and are more than happy to provide suggestions for things to do and see in the city on your own.
NOTE ON ITINERARY
Itineraries are subject to change—and the weather! If any activity or attraction that is advertised is missed or not available, then we will always replace it with another activity or location of significant interest and value.
NOTE ON PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Travelers should be reasonably fit and feel comfortable walking 3 to 5 miles each day and remaining on their feet for long periods of time. For our time visiting vineyards in Alazani Valley, be prepared to get your hands—and perhaps even feet—dirty as we take part in harvest activities.
NOTE ON DIETARY RESTRICTIONS
We encourage an adventurous palate! However, if you’d like to avoid meat, the Georgian diet is vegetarian-friendly, so we can almost always supplement a non-meat dish. Avoiding gluten, on the other hand, will be challenging. If you’d like to join but are gluten-intolerant, you'll need to bring and/or buy a steady stash of snacks to supplement your meals.
You will be charged a non-refundable $500 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $2,820 will be due by June 25, 2019. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $475 will be included in the final payment.
TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
- Transportation and flights to and from Tbilisi, Georgia.
- Travel insurance (recommended).
- Food and drink outside of Atlas Obscura offerings, including one dinner and any snacks during the day, as well as any personal expenses.
- If applicable, applying for a Georgian visa (not required for U.S. or E.U. citizens).