First impressions of Georgia | Food tasting and sulphur baths

Georgia has been on our bucket list for a few years now so we’re pretty excited to finally explore the country. We delayed our trip here so that the snow could melt and we’d be able to hike but as we landed in Kutaisi the weather wasn’t quite what we expected. Not only was it pissing with rain but it was due to continue raining for the next 10 days. Oh dear.

The airport was nice and small and our bags were the first ones to rumble down the conveyer belt so we headed outside to look for the airport bus. It was so well organised, we booked it online for just €1.60 per person to take us to the city centre but they also offer great prices to other cities. Craig booked an appalling first hostel for us, it was just €10 for a twin room and it reminded me of our days backpacking around Asia…15 years ago. The sheet was too small for the bed so the bottom and top of the mattress was visible and my goodness it looked like someone had died on it. We helped ourselves to a couple extra sheets to keep us away from the putrid filth.

It was now around 8pm and we were starving so we headed out to look for some food. We discovered a busy little place selling kinkali which is a Georgian staple, a sort of dumpling. We ordered 5 kinkali each, I chose potato and Craig got meat, plus we ordered a nice tomato dipping sauce with lots of coriander thrown in, a plate of chips and two pints of beer and it all came to about €7. The kinkali are sort of little parcels with the dough all squeezed together in a knot at the top and that’s what you hold onto as you eat them. Locals like to bite a little hole in the kinkali and slurp out the soupy broth before eating it.

The next day was pouring with rain once again. We needed to do some travel planning anyway so we headed to a quaint cafe nearby. It was like an old theatre inside with plenty of character. The staff were quite the opposite and I couldn’t believe how grumpy the waiter was. Come to think of it our hostel owner wasn’t exactly a happy chap either which makes us a little concerned for how friendly the people will be in Georgia considering it’s said to be a very hospitable country.

After our lazy brunch we headed back out in our ponchos to the local market. It had beautiful displays of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. The main difference between a Georgian market and others we’ve visited around the world is that many stalls were selling Churchkhela which is walnut pieces dips into a thickened grape juice. They have a string through the middle and are hung up to dry in the sun. Once their cured they’re dangled above every stall, looking a little like chorizo to be honest. We were given tasters as we walked around and it was quite tasty, a good hiking snack and not as sweet as we expected. The fruit and nut stalls also sold fruit leather which was sort of like fruit rolls that kids get in pack lunches but these were natural and sold in big circle sheets the size of placemats. We were given a taster of the pomegranate one and it was really tasty so after strolling around we decided to buy some from a lady who had a price tag as we thought it might be an honest price. The funniest thing is they touch everything, it would be bad pre-covid but here we are, asking about the flavours of her fruit leather as she smears her hand across every single sheet. It’s just normal here so we didn’t let it faze us. She didn’t speak a word of English so we just got a green one which we think was kiwi. She also didn’t have any change so she basically forced us into buying a second one. Oh well, they’ll be a good snack we thought. When we got back to our hostel we sat down to eat some and it was disgusting. It’s like it focused too much on the ‘leather’ part and not the ‘fruit’. It was unbelievably tough and the flavour was foul. I can’t even describe it but if I didn’t know it was edible I’d think I was eating a toiletry product. We thought about giving it to a stray dog but I don’t think they’d even appreciate it so we had to throw both away dammit.

We tried some more Georgian food for dinner which consisted of Pkhali a walnut, garlic and herb sort of pate. We opted for the beetroot version which was shaped almost like a beef patty and to be honest it wasn’t a nice pink colour like beetroot, it was more dull and brown and looked more like raw meat for a dog. Luckily it tasted much better than it looked. We also got a big salad and a vegetable stew with cornbread. After our travel planning today we made the decision to make our way to Armenia where the weather is much better and we can wait for the rain to stop in Georgia. So the following morning we made our way to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It was much bigger than Kutaisi so we got a subway south to the old town where we had a room booked. A very grumpy looking man came to the door, he was just buttoning up his top in front of us so his overhanging belly was the first thing we saw. The room he took us to wasn’t what we booked so I showed him photos and he reluctantly fetched his son who spoke English. He said our room had a water problem so we had to take this one. I was a bit annoyed but there wasn’t much we could do so we put our bags down and the man said “MONEY, ME!” Firstly I really hate guesthouses asking for money upfront, you don’t pay for a meal upfront so why should I pay for my room before I’ve even slept in it. Anyway, I know some places ask for upfront payment but there’s a nice way to do it and he was horrible. Not a good start at all and another blow to Georgian hospitality, what’s going on?!

We headed straight out to explore the city which was really beautiful. There were cobbled lanes winding up hills with the most beautiful houses that had grand balconies with pastel wooden detailing. The old town was also home to the sulphur baths so there were dozens of brick domes visible. Each of those domes is the roof of a hamman and we were excited to try one out. But first we had more exploring to do. We walked up the steep hills and tried wine infused ice cream which helped us cool down…we definitely found the good weather!

We went to a popular cheap restaurant for dinner and the service was appalling. Craig ordered a side dish of rice and when it came it was laughably small so he ordered another one straight away. It took over 25 minutes for it to arrive and the staff all but vanished. When we finally asked someone where it was they said it was being cooked. What?! They’re cooking rice to order? But not only that, their cooking literally a tablespoon of rice each time. When we wanted to pay we waited over ten minutes for our change so we got up and waited at the desk. It was terrible service and worst of all they included a service charge on the bill!

We ended the day with a stroll to the Holy Trinity Cathedral which was perfectly timed as the low sun gave the building a golden glow. I find churches a little boring and usually prefer the intricate details and mosaics of a mosque but hey, this church was absolutely massive so it was hard to not be impressed by it. We went for a look inside where there was a strict dress code, it wasn’t just cover arms and legs but women had to specifically wear a skirt and cover our head. I didn’t come very prepared so I wore my big waterproof poncho with my hood up and one of the churches skirts also wrapped around me. I looked a mess but I ticked the box to be allowed in and was utterly disappointed by the inside. It didn’t have any paintings and was just a plain stone building.

We barely slept a wink because the wall between our room and the neighbours seemed to be made of cardboard. They came back at 2am from a night out and were talking so loudly so the next day we spoke to our grumpy host and asked if they had another room available. They said once the tourists check out they will move us into another room…and guess what, the room was the bloody one we’d originally booked. It didn’t have an issue with the water at all, they’d just double booked it and it meant we didn’t get any sleep in that other shitty room.

Anyway, no time to dwell so we headed out to the sulphur baths. You can either rent a private room for €15-50 or you can go to the public bath for around €2 per person, so that’s what we did. It’s sex separated and weirdly the men have a hot pool while the women just have showers. I wasn’t too fazed as I get too hot and uncomfortable and I was more there to get a body scrub and massage for an additional €6.50. So I headed into the changing room and you can either go totally naked or wear a bikini or knickers it’s up to you. I paid up for my scrub and was told to shower for 10 minutes. Ten minutes turned into 20 and I was starting to get quite bored. There was a women ahead of me who was being scrubbed and massaged on a tile sort of bed in the shower room and I thought I was next. Turns out there was an 80 year old lady next, and unlike the previous customer who wore knickers the old lady was starkers. She could barely walk so the masseuse had to help her over and she also couldn’t lay down so she just sat her naked nether-region on the tiled bed and I was trying to calculate the position and remember where to avoid putting my arm when it was my turn. The tiled bed was hosed down afterwards but that’s as clean as it gets, shudder. Anyway, it looked much cleaner than the hamman in Morocco where there were babies inside buckets of water, casually snacking on oranges. Hammans aren’t supposed to be fancy though, they’re designed for people who don’t have running water in their house so they can come here and have a good clean and scrub. In Morocco it was more of a social event with lots of gossiping ladies and mums washing their children hair but here it was just get clean and go home.

So I had a full body scrub to begin with and then a massage which was more like frantic hand movements across my back. But she did shove my head into her boobs at one point and used her forearms to rub along my shoulders at which point my knots began clicking as she eased them out. The funnest part was when she got a muslin sack filled with a few soap bars and she blew it up and as she squeezed the air out it created the most magical fluffy cloud of bubbles that she spread across my back. She rubbed the bubbles all over my body before hosing me down like a dog that’s just rolled in fox shit. Overall it was a good experience and I’d definitely do it again.

In the afternoon we headed to a flea market which had lots of interesting old bits, many from the Soviet era. Dinner was much more pleasant as we got our first smile from a waitress, hooray. She did short change us but to be honest we were so happy to get a smile we let her have it as an extra tip. Now it’s time for us to make our way to Armenia and we’re really hoping when we return we see the better side of Georgian hospitality, we’re putting this experience down to it being city-folk.

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