7. The Georgian Beer Trap
We knew nothing about Georgia, but we had much to learn. From the people, to the cities to the food, we would be surprised. First impressions were of incredible scenery and a stoic cold faced people. However, the moment you waved or initiated a smile, these stern faces would crack into wide grins and genuine greeting. Often an unassuming local would come over, beam at you and flick their neck, indicating they wanted to share drinks with you. This practice, we coined the ‘Georgian Beer Trap.’
We were all invited to sit around a tablecloth on the grass as the Mayor broke the round Georgian bread and put his homemade cheese in the central spot. It looked delicious. He poured us a glass of home made wine each and we considered how fortunate we were. Sat within the sheltered walls of an old ruined fortress, a clear rushing river runs nearby and green luscious fields line the valley floor. Huge snowcapped mountains tower overhead dwarfing everything below. Little did we know, we were entering the ‘beer trap.’
We had been cycling thought Georgia as a tribe of 3 couples, clocking up a gargantuous 30kms a day. That evening we had turned a corner and happened across the perfect campspot; flat, grassy and sheltered from the wind. Although it was still early, this spot was too good to miss. We would have a fire, cook some food, maybe have a wash in the river. As we set up camp we were approached by a guy who told us he was the Mayor, excitedly flicked his neck and returned to our camp an hour later armed with big plastic beer bottles filled with wine, home produced salumi cheese and fresh bread. He became very animated talking about something known as ‘cha-cha.’ As we were to discover, here in Georgia, cha cha is not a dance. It is a clear potent alcohol, usually home-brewed, and very very strong.
The wine is poured, and the Mayor makes a toast, providing our first lesson into Georgian etiquette: The ancient ritual of the Tamada (toastmaster). This isn’t your ordinary “Cheers!” or “Here’s to it!”, in Georgia it is a dedicated speech usually made by the oldest and wisest member of the group. Such speeches are not brief and by the end we were entirely unsure what we were actually toasting, but we clinked cups and finally managed to take a sip of that coveted Georgian wine.
“NO! NO!’’ the Major exclaimed and demonstrated that we must empty the glass in one go. We were in Georgia, reportedly the birthplace of wine and we were not allowed to savour the taste, no sipping, no enjoying the aroma. No, down in one. Well, you can’t argue with the Mayor. Predictably, after a couple more toasts we were rather drunk and somewhat on board with the Georgian take on drinking. More toasts, delicious cheese, dancing, the potent cha cha, more dancing, a little groping, and consequent hiding ensued. At this point we shuued the Mayor from our campsite and all collapsed into an exhausted sleep.
In the morning we carried very sore heads and set to work burying the pats of vomit dotting our campsite. We had danced the dance of the chacha and we had learnt our lesson. From this and subsequent beer traps, we discovered that the Georgians love to drink, and they love to get their visitors drunk. As a result, we started to be very careful where we set up camp for the evening, the more hidden the better! Prevention was preferable than attempting to politely extract yourself from Georgian hospitality.
Unfortunately for the cyclist, this love of beer, wine and cha cha resulted in there being many drunk drivers on the road. As a consequence we encounted a number of young inebriated men who thought that playing ‘chicken’ with a cyclist was a hilarious and worthy endeavour. Having a car coming straight towards you, as if aiming to run you over, and then steering away at the last possible moment is not a happy position for the nerves. For the cyclist it merely reeks of stupidity and is, quite frankly, terrifying.
In order to recover from both the ordeal of the beer traps and of being ‘chicken’ we found solace in the many bakeries. Georgian bakeries are identified by a square window in a wall or building, the giveaway is all the people milling around (or loitering) carrying piles of steaming rounds of a flatish bread. All you had to do was lift your nose to the air, and sniff your way to deliciousness. It isn’t only bread, you can also buy lobiani, bread stuffed with beans, cheese stuffed pasties seasoned with coriander (and perhaps a sprinkle of stodge) or khachapuri, a cheese stuffed bread. To the hungover cycle tourist, this is the perfect food.
It’s not just the bakeries where food is delicious, it’s endemic all over Georgia. The variety of dishes seems never ending and we failed spectacularly at trying them all. Two particularly delicious dishes we sampled (sorry devoured) were a coriander infused goulash and the infamous khinkali, a Georgian dumpling stuffed with spiced meat and it’s own special technique for consuming (lesson 2 in Georgian etiquette!). Mostly, we just sat in a darkened bar (somebody’s living room?) with a hunk of bread, a chunk of cheese and a glass of cold beer. Perfect.
Georgia isn’t just about the food, the hospitality, the landscape, the winding wonderful roads, the wine and the breathtaking camping spots. The ancient city of Batumi and the capital Tbilisi are definitely worth a visit. Having just travelled though recession ravaged Europe, it was refreshing to see a country creating something new whilst at the same time preserving architecture which chronicles the country’s rich history. This expression, effort and stamp of identity after life in the Soviet Union is inspiring. Glance upwards in Batumi, and you may see a golden ferris wheel attached to a sky scraper, take a stroll on the beach to find a rotating sculpture of love, swim in the Black Sea, maybe stumble across a pair of Giants shoes… In Tbilisi you can ride a funicular to a theme park, bathe in hot springs, climb up to a 4th Century fortress while being logged onto the city wide free wi-fi, then wander along the bridge of Peace and pop into a tiny delicious smelling bakery on the way.
Research before visiting the country painted a picture of great chauvinism and conservatism. In my experience, the naive eyes of a tourist, I didn’t see this overtly – the women drank beer too. OK, so a smatter of drunken groping occurred but no worse than a night out in Nottingham. I might have been lucky, but not once strolling through the streets of Batumi and Tbilisi did I feel vulnerable or afraid. In a stark contrast to Turkey, where being female and blonde was a ticket for everybody to stare, in Georgia I felt liberated.
For me, Georgia was the perfect cycle touring destination (once you learnt how to handle the Georgian Beer Trap!) Every night we were spoilt for choice of where to camp. Every corner revealed more devastatingly idyllic spots; flat, grassy riverside locations with mountains towering all around. It was so easy and so perfect that there was no desire for a bed or a shower. The roads felt remote and villagers greeted you with joy (as long as you smiled first). The coriander infused food was cheap and delicious, the bakeries divine and the cities oozed a sense of optimism. It’s a place with so much more to discover, places to see, wine to drink, cuisine to try. I’m definitely going back. AM