Friday, September 8, 2017

"The Telegraph" (UK): Casinos, craft beer and holy caves – is this Europe's most surprising country?

by  Liz Dodd

08.09.2017. Georgia’s splendid food, breathtaking nature and rich culture have long made it a sought-after destination for adventurous travellers. But the country - which this year opened up to British travellers with new direct flights from Gatwick to the capital Tbilisi (courtesy of Georgian Airways) - has far more to offer than khachapuri and red wine. Thriving amidst its Orthodox Christian cathedrals and farmsteads is a culture of gourmet coffee, clubbing and casinos. Where else could you dance the night away in a Soviet-era sewing factory, then recover on a tropical beach or in a cool mountain cave town? Here are seven surprising reasons you should go to Georgia.

1. You can visit Europe's most zany seaside town

Georgia’s Black Sea coast enjoys a bizarre, subtropical microclimate that feels more like Bali than Belarus. The best place to soak it all in is Batumi, an enticingly zany seaside town where casinos and skyscrapers - one with a Ferris Wheel stuck to the front - pop up in the middle of its lovingly renovated 19th-century boulevards. Just outside town the Botanical Gardens carpet the hillside with palm trees and plants from South America, Mexico and south-east Asia. In summer it can be suffocatingly humid and thunderstorms are frequent, so pack a raincoat alongside your swimwear.

2. It's crazy for coffee

London’s hipster coffee bars have nothing on Georgian coffee shops. The country is crazy for coffee, which served in the traditional style is strong and bitter, like Turkish coffee; but locals are taking to new-wave coffee-making in droves. Coffeetopia, in a glistening Art Deco building in Batumi’s Neptun Square, is staffed by certified baristas who brew using everything from an aeropress to a Japanese syphon. Best of all when the temperature soars is the cold brew, which they make daily and takes 18 hours to prepare.

3. There's plenty to do after dark

Batumi and Tbilisi attract world-renowned DJs to their nightclubs. The Georgian clubbing scene is techno-heavy, and in Tbilisi Bassiani, built in an old swimming pool, hosts local and international techno and house DJs, while beautiful Mtkvarze promotes underground house nights in an opulent venue dotted with chandeliers. Enjoy an aperitif at Fabrika an achingly cool complex of bars and restaurants in downtown Tbilisi.

4. And craft beer galore

Georgia is rightly famous for its incredible natural wines, but in the capital Tbilisi an increasing number of microbreweries are stocking the pumps of a new wave of craft beer bars. Black Dog Bar in the old Sololaki district pours its own lager as well as a rotating selection of local beers. A word of warning: Georgian beer tends to taste quite sour, which takes some getting used to, but is perfect in the hot summer weather. The food at Black Dog is also excellent: Americana with a twist, so expect burritos with Georgian pickles and fries sprinkled with dill.

5. It's heaven for cycling

Outside the big cities cyclists are still something of a novelty in Georgia, although this is changing as increasing number of cycle tourers riding the old Silk Route to Asia use the country as a corridor to Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. But on the roads outside Tbilisi you’re as likely to see road and mountain bikes as you are tourers: head into the mountains for breathtaking views or stick to the smooth highway for an easy ride. Watch out for stray cows: they always have right of way.

6. There are hallowed hollows

The Georgian mountains are dotted with monasteries and settlements carved into the rock – whole networks of homes hewn into the cliffside like something out of the Star Wars saga. A handful of monks still live in the spectacular cave monastery at Vardzia, in southern Georgia, a complex of some 3,000 rooms and corridors. Uplistsikhe, a settlement that was carved into the mountains near Gori in the Early Iron Age, is smaller but an easy day trip from Tbilisi. Close to the border with Azerbaijan, the breathtaking desert complex of David Gareji includes 13 different monasteries.

7. You can drink orange wine

Georgia claims to be the birthplace of modern winemaking, and has an extensive wine culture. Georgian wine is made and fermented in clay amphora called qvevri, and includes a world-famous strain of amber wine aged on its skins. The ultimate Georgian wine experience involves a tamada - usually the head of the family - who gives a long and impenetrable toast that includes everyone from God to the family’s geese, followed by a shot of wine drunk from a hollowed-out rams horn.

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