HOTELS: Lopota Lake Resort & Spa – A lakeside resort in the Kakheti region, known as the Napa Valley of Georgia.
Rooms: This old Soviet printing plant in the capital has been turned into a high-design hotel where le tout Tbilisi goes to hang out. The property’s second location in Kazbegi offers breathtaking views of one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus Mountains.
RESTAURANTS: Cafe Littera – The beautiful garden setting is as enticing as chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s light-handed takes on Georgia’s classic comfort food. You can also learn to whip up your own khachapuri at Gachechiladze’s cooking school and cafe, Culinarium.
O, Moda, Moda: This mash-up of cafe, art gallery, and vintage clothing store feels like a little bit of Brooklyn in Tbilisi.
The microclimate that surrounded us there in the Kakheti region is one of Georgia’s kindliest, which explains why the wide plain stretching out from the hills is lined with row upon row of grapevines. Georgians have been making wine all over the country for some 7,000 years, but Kakheti is deemed the best place for it. Many households still make their own wine the old-fashioned way, fermenting the juice with its seeds and skins, then filtering it and burying it to age in large clay amphorae called kvevri. Traditional Georgian wine often has a fresh, raisiny flavor, and the natives knock it back by the pitcher.
The man who transformed Georgia from a nation of casual tipplers into a formidable wine exporter, Alexander Chavchavadze, introduced modern European wine-making methods to the country in the early 19th century. But that wasn’t the half of it: he translated Voltaire and Victor Hugo into Georgian; he brought Georgia its first grand piano and its first billiard table; he fought Napoleon as a Russian officer, and later championed Georgian nationalism against Russia. In short, Chavchavadze spun the whole country around so that it faced west instead of east.
This patriotic polymath is regarded today as a kind of Georgian Thomas Jefferson, and Tsinandali, his estate built in 1818, is his Monticello. The two-story structure mixes Italianate stonework with a wooden, Ottoman-style loggia in an elegant multicultural mash-up. The garden, much celebrated in its day, reminded contemporaries of Richmond or Kew in England, but with a wilder soul. Dum as pere called it, simply, the Garden of Eden. The spirit of Georgia lives here.
Paintings along the walls inside chronicle the great man’s life and melodramatic death. We see Chavchavadze in his horse-drawn carriage just as his scarf is caught in the spokes—ironically, he had brought the horse-drawn carriage to Georgia, too. Moments later, he was pitched headfirst onto the pavement, dying a few days afterward.
What happened to Chavchavadze’s home in the aftermath of his death echoes strikingly today. In 1854, the Muslim insurgent Imam Shamil swept across the mountains from neighboring Dagestan and raided Tsinandali, a reprisal for Russian expansion in the Caucasus. Shamil’s men burned parts of Tsinandali and took Chavchavadze’s daughter-in-law Anna hostage, along with 23 others. Shamil held his prisoners for nine months while Alexander’s son David scraped and borrowed the money to ransom his wife (it bankrupted him).
A painting at Tsinandali records the eventual hostage exchange, which took place on a river raft. Georgia’s past is never far away— its people refuse to let it go. In Tbilisi, which lies under the ancient gaze of the ruined Narikala fortress, this past is particularly present. I love the city for its smoky evocation of bygone centuries and cultures. Tbilisi is poor and run-down in many places, but its magnetic pull is somehow stronger for all that. Indeed, Georgia’s ongoing culture wars have left Tbilisi with a handful of sleek Modernist monuments that, while forward-looking, can appear jarring in a city so comfortable in its old skin (the locals wickedly dubbed a recent wavy-roofed footbridge the “Always Ultra” for its resemblance to a maxi pad).
The Rooms Hotel Tbilisi has managed to strike a nice balance. Like its Kazbegi cousin, it has taken a hulking Soviet shell—it used to be a printing plant for the newspaper Pravda—and made it funky inside. In the lobby hangs a large self-portrait by the flamboyant Georgian painter Eteri Chkadua—in this one she’s riding backward on a zebra. The hotel’s courtyard attracts Tbilisi’s smart set, who come to drink mojitos and nibble very good fish tacos.
You’ll find the same kind of cosmopolitan crowd in the spacious garden behind Tbilisi’s Writers’ House, a handsome Art Nouveau mansion built in 1903 by the man who brought brandy to Georgia (after his death, Georgia’s Writers’ Union took it over). Chef Gachechiladze now leases it for her restaurant. It’s one of the loveliest spots in town, surrounded by high walls hung with black-and-white photographs and lined with clusters of pretty people on wooden benches set around low tables. We dined there on a balmy August night under a full moon that shone through the branches of a towering pine tree.
As soon as she opened, in May 201S, Gachechiladze started taking heavy flak from the guardians of classic Georgian cooking. She puts mussels instead of meat in her chakapuli, a stew made with sour plums, tarragon, and white wine. She just happens to like mussels. In Minghrelia, Georgian cooking’s heartland, they eat a heavy porridge called elarji made of corn-meal and cheese. Gachechiladze lightens it and fries it up in croquettes. It all tasted mighty good to me, but tweaking traditional recipes is not something Georgians applaud.