You find these addictive dumplings everywhere in Georgia; we ordered a platter of them to start the meal. They are plumper than your average dumpling, with a twisty hat of dough at the top and a filling of meat, herbs, and fragrant broth. The trick is to nip a hole in the dough and suck out the broth without spritzing yourself, then eat the rest except for the hat—never eat the hat! The variety we ordered was packed around a stick and baked over an open fire.
We washed it all down with bottles of Tarkhuna, a bright green soda made with tarragon. After all that, it felt like a minor miracle when we were able to get up and walk away. Over lunch there, we marveled at the dramatic changes in landscape visible in a country only slightly bigger than West Virginia. Tbilisi was 60 miles to the west, and Kazbegi about miles up from there, and yet we had traversed alpine passes, humid lowlands, and lush rolling hills as we traveled between them.
She turned out to be the British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, who tries to grab a weekend in Lopota with her family whenever she can. Hall Hall was just coming to the end of her two-year tour, but she was pushing to stay on another year.
Georgians have been making wine all over the country for some 7, 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.
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 , 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.
The spirit of Georgia lives here. 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. In , the Muslim insurgent Imam Shamil swept across the mountains from neighboring Dagestan and raided Tsinandali, a reprisal for Russian expansion in the Caucasus. A painting at Tsinandali records the eventual hostage exchange, which took place on a river raft.
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. The Rooms Hotel Tbilisi has managed to strike a nice balance. Chef Gachechiladze now leases it for her restaurant.
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 , Gachechiladze started taking heavy flak from the guardians of classic Georgian cooking. She just happens to like mussels. 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. They are lighter and healthier. Three-quarters of the people in this restaurant are foreigners. Saakashvili and his forward-thinking crew got kicked out in , and the party that took over slammed on the brakes, edging closer to Putin again.
I could feel the loss of momentum on this past trip.
Recent developments have dismayed my worldly Georgian friends. Gachechiladze learned to cook professionally in New York, but she returned to Georgia in , when many people felt that Georgia was finally emerging from the shadows of primitivism and corruption.
The Russian bear loomed close to us, just over the mountains that we could see from where we sat. He was born in a miserable two-room hovel that once stood among scores of similar hovels. We joined a tour as it raced through the rooms, where paintings and posters show Stalin gazing up resolutely, or gazing down benevolently.
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Hidden under the stairs is one last little room, which we came to at the end of the tour. This is the so-called Room of Repression: little more than a few tattered garments that apparently belonged to people deported to the gulag, and a replica cell looking considerably more pleasant than the original probably did.
History tells us that Stalin treated his fellow Georgians particularly cruelly, but he remains the only Georgian the rest of the world has heard of, and that still counts for a lot around here. Her personal opinion? It was pelting rain that day, however, so I met David Lordkipanidze at the nearby Georgian National Museum, where he is general director. Lordkipanidze showed me resin replicas of the five hominid skulls, dating back 1.
Lordkipanidze told me he doubts the humans had a fixed itinerary when they departed, but I have a different theory. Wanna go? There are no flights to Tbilisi International Airport from the United States, but a connection can be made via Istanbul. Visitors can walk the grounds Tuesdays through Sundays from late spring to early autumn. Pick a book, grab a coffee, and sit back at one of the tables lining the courtyard outside.
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