Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Day 15/16
We were due to be heading to Aerbaijan & Georgia @ this time of year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have required us to suspend all tours for the rest of 2020.
On this virtual Tour, you can travel with us as we explore two emerging countries - Azerbaijan & Georgia. On this Tour, we fly into Baku, Azerbaijan and out of Tbilisi, Georgia and bus, hike & funicular our way around these amazing cultures.
Day 15 & 16 Mestia
After a leisurely breakfast beside the River, we wandered out to explore the daily farmer's market and to obtain some more supplies for a few hours in the van.
Kutaisi's indoor produce market is one of the largest, liveliest and most colourful in Georgia, full of cheese, walnuts, spices, herbs, fruit, vegetables, meat, churchkhela (strings of walnuts coated in grape-juice caramel), beans, wine, pickles and so much more.
The market is also often referred to as the "Green Bazaar".
About 20km from Kutaisi is the Kumistavi cave, also known as the Cave of Prometheus. Only discovered in 1984, it is the biggest cave in Georgia and, although only one tenth is open for tourists, it takes about an hour to explore. Inside there are underground lakes and rivers; rather high humidity and a lot of bats, which, ordinarily, do not bother tourists, except in COVID-19 times.
Today, surrounded by a 3km long specifically designed landscape area, Kumistavi cave is one of the most visited sites in Georgia. Visitors may choose between walking tours along the 1600 metre route, the boat ride along the underground river but are always amazed with breathtaking views of stalactites, stalagmites, petrified waterfalls, underground rivers and lakes of the cave.
Just the Bazaar and the Caves would have been enough for today but we have a @ 5 hour drive now to Mestia.
Mestia, the main regional centre of Zemo (Upper) Svaneti, is situated 456 km from Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, and is 1,500 metres above sea level. It is the starting point for most trips to Svaneti (the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus) and now has a range of world-quality hiking trails that are becoming increasingly popular.
From the centre of Mestia it is possible to hike up to the glaciers at the foot of Mount Ushba, or take horses into the pristine alpine meadows. New ski resorts Hatsvali and Tetnuldi attract the attention of winter sports lovers who are looking for the new places and challenges.
Mestia is unusual in itself - it is not so much a location as a string of 10 villages along a main road and forms the centre of Upper Svaneti. Mestia is surrounded by mountains, has a number of medieval-type villages and very distinctive tower-houses. These koshi were designed to house villagers in times of trouble/invasion and are the emblem of the Svaneti region.
About 175 of the koshi, dating back to between the 9th & 13th centuries, survive today.
This area is home to the Svans - from which it gets its name - and they have their own language although Georgian & Russian are the most commons ones now.
It is said that Georgia's identity has been forged in these mountains that run the length of the northern part of the country, bordering Russia and into Azerbaijan. These mountains have never been tamed by any ruler. Certainly, the views of the snow-covered mountains rising about the rich pastures and beautiful valleys are reminiscent of Switzerland.
We will be staying in Mestia for the next few days, basing ourselves here at this central point and to aclimatise to the altitude. We have trips planned to Lahkiri (including a hike back into Mestia) and to Ushguli which is some 2200metres above sea-level and reputably the highest inhabited village in Europe.
Mestia is still developing as a tourist destination - there has been a spate of hotel openings and the local airport is one of the few that you would apparently want to be delayed at. Read an article here.
We will be staying at one of the older guesthouses - Roza Shukvani's Guesthouse - on the outskirts of Mestia which has amazing views along the valley.
Lahkiri Village - this morning we drove about 20 minutes up into the hills to Lahkiri Village only to turn around for a 4-5 hour/10km hike back to Mestia - this is against the usual flow of hiking traffic who are walking the Mestia-Ushguli Route. This route is the most popular hiking route in Georgia at the moment - @ 57km/4 days/altitude range of 1500-2700 metres.
The trail for us, though, starts with a brief climb our of Lakhiri before descending through a valley full of flowers and with amazing views of the Chaliti Glaciers (@2300m) and of the Mestia Valley with all of its watchtowers (koshi). The path is testing but there is still plenty of time to admire the views.
We return to Mestia in time for our afternoon cooking experiences at our guesthouse:
Cheese making - we have the opportunity to watch the making of Georgian cheeses and
Kubdari cooking class.
Svaneti is known for some of the tastiest food in Georgian cuisine, with kubdari being widespread in the country. This beef or pork-and-beef filled meat pie is seasoned with onions and Svaneti salt – a mixture of dry coriander, cumin, red pepper, fennel, salt, and garlic.
Tash-M-Jab or Tashmijabi as it’s often pronounced, is a dish made from boiled potatoes and cheese, resulting in stretchy mashed potatoes. The more it stretches, the better it is.
Other staples of Svan cuisine include fetvraal, Svanetian khachapuri with millet flour added to the cheese filling and kartoplaar, another khachapuri like pie but with potato and cheese filling. Svan cuisine is not as varied and refined as cuisine of Georgians living in the lowlands. It is simple, hearty and filling.
Staple ingredient of Svan cuisine is also Svan salt (svanuri marili), a popular seasoning mix (and also a great souvenir). It is a mixture of sea salt, dried garlic, fenugreek, coriander, chili pepper, dill and several other herbs. It goes nicely with roasted potatoes or chicken meat.
I'm sort of glad that the "cheese class" was just to watch the laborious process of making a cheese called tenili - a huge amount of effort goes into this cheese and, after our hike, I'm not sure we would have had the energy to participate.
After separating the curds from the whey, our cheesemaker, Galina, and her neighbours warmed the curds over a fire until they congealed into a pliable mass. At this point, one of the women began moving the cheese around her hands with a pedaling motion, flipping the thick ribbon in a spinning loop. She pulled and stretched. She spun and spun as the loop got bigger and thinner.
After about seven minutes of stretching and pedaling, she dunked the whole thing in cold water, and it separated into little metre-long strings reminiscent of thick noodles. She hung the strings of cheese across a horizontal wooden beam, where they would rest until the next day, when she would dip them in heavy cream and stuff them into a small clay pot. At this point, the cheese would be ready to eat or to age for up to a year.
One of the things about travelling in Goergia is that you cannot assume that it is like your "usual" travel destination. We have been including breakfast with our accommodation as Georgia is not really an early morning kind of place - most shops, including cafes, coffee shops etc do not open before 10am which often does not suit our travel needs.
In regional and remote areas like Mestia, where tourism is still a new thing, the best meals can often be obtained from the guesthouse or hotel at which you are staying because the restaurant trade does not yet exist. In fact, if travelling independently in these region, be aware that if you book accommodation online, you may end up paying more at the guesthouse as they will include board (breakfast & dinner) with your accommodation charge (that is just how they have always done it!)
Georgia's National Dish, the khachapuri, is one of the best meals you can grab when on the go and is often the "go-to" meal when travelling.
Despite our sampling of the kubdari and the tenili, we were still ready for dinner back at Roza's. This is what we got and we were so ready for it.