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Georgia: Hidden Jewel in the Caucasus Mountains

 Georgia is a country of intense beauty and rich and ancient history. Wait a second- Georgia, a country? Yes, not to be confused with the southeastern US state, Georgia is a country in the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east and between Russia to the north and Iran and Turkey to the south. Owing to its unique geographic position, the Caucasus has been the intersection for many cultures throughout human history, with some scholars believing it to be the cradle from which the people of Persia, of northern India and of Europe arose (thus- Caucasians).
 
Georgia: Caucasus
Georgia was also one of the first countries in the world to institutionalize Christianity as a state religion, preceding Rome by more than 40 years, as a result, in Georgia, you can find some of the world’s oldest churches. The country is believed to be named for its patron saint, St. George, whose cross adorns the Georgian flag. That being said, Georgia is actually an exonym- a name used by foreigners. Georgians call their country Sakartvelo, and themselves- Kartvelians, after the ancient name of the kingdom- Kartli.
Georgia: Caucasus
Take all of this history, pair it with great local cuisine and a beautiful countryside, and you’ve got a perfect travel destination. So, what are some must-see sites in Georgia?
Tbilisi
Georgia: Tbilisi
The capital city of Georgia is the perfect entry point to Georgia, with its beautifully-painted houses and the cliff-side Narikala Castle overlooking the town. Inside the city, you can find Anchiskhati Basilica, one of the oldest surviving churches in the world, dating back to the beginning of the 6th century. In the midst of all of this ancient beauty is the hyper-modern Bridge of Peace over the Kura River. 
Perhaps one of the biggest attractions in Tbilisi is not what you can see (and there is a lot to see), but what you can taste. Georgian cuisine is rich and unique and definitely a must-have for any person who enjoys fine dining (more on Georgian food later).
Mtskheta
Georgia: Mtskheta
A mere 12 miles north of Tbilisi is Mtskheta (yes, Georgians don’t really like vowels all that much), one of the oldest cities in Georgia and is also considered to be the holiest. As such, Mtskheta is the very heart of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Its two most striking historical structures, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and Jvari Monastery are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was constructed in the 11th century at the site of a more ancient church that was destroyed by invaders. Within are beautiful frescoes and an ornate canopy which is said to contain the robe of Christ, as well as the body of St. Sidonia, an important figure in Georgian Christianity.
Atop a mountain overlooking Mtskheta and the Cathedral on the other bank of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers is Jvari Monastery, a 6th-century structure that was built to commemorate a miraculous wooden cross that was placed in the site by Saint Nino, a woman who is accredited with Christianizing Georgia.
On the outskirts of town are excavations of the royal Acropolis of Mtskheta, where the ancient kings and queens of Iberia (as Georgia was known in those days) lived and were buried.
Akhaltsikhe
Georgia: Rabati CastleSource: John Wagner
The biggest city in the southern Samtskhe–Javakheti region is unique for various reasons. For one, the majority population in this region is actually of Armenian background. But the thing that stands out the most in Akhaltsikhe is Rabati Castle, a beautiful fortification that tells a story of this town’s history.
In the late 16th century, Akhaltsikhe was conquered by the Ottomans, who refurbished the fortress and built a mosque inside. The city remained under Turkish rule until 1828, when the Russian Empire drove out the Ottomans. The golden dome and gilded ornamented windows whisper of that time of Muslim Ottoman rule.
Batumi
Georgia: Batumi
Nicknamed “Las Vegas of the Black Sea” the resort town is famous for its casinos and tourist attractions, including a Ferris wheel, a botanical garden, and the seaside Alphabetic Tower, a 426-foot high neon-lighted spiral adorned with the letters of the Georgian alphabet.
Gergeti Trinity Church
Georgia: Gergeti
If you’re not afraid of some hiking, then this church is a definite must-see. Built in the 14th century atop the Caucasus mountain range separating Georgia and Russia to the north, it is one of the most scenic places in all of Georgia. The isolated church can be reached via a winding path around the mountain, and it lies at the feet of one of the tallest peaks in the Caucasus. Absolutely breathtaking.
Things to Taste in Georgia
KhachapuriGeorgia: KhachapuriSource: Marco Verch
A staple of Georgian cuisine, khachapuri is a type of leavened bread filled with savory cheese and eggs. Most khachapuri types are closed, with the filling inside, but Adjarian khachapuri is shaped like a kayak with the hot cheese and egg in the middle. The “hull” of the boat-shaped khachapuri is torn off and dipped into the cheese and egg.
Georgian Wine
Georgia is one of the countries with the oldest winemaking traditions, spanning around 8,000 years. The most ubiquitous element of this ancient tradition are the kvevris, large earthenware jars that are coated from the inside with beeswax and where wine is stored to ferment and age. The grape juice is placed in the kvevri along with the seeds, skins, and stalks. The kvevri is then stoppered and buried in the ground. Once the process is done, the wine is bottled. The pomace, all of the physical residue of the grapes is then distilled into brandy. Since this method is used for both types of grapes, Georgian wine distilled from white grapes actually has an amber tinge.
Badrijani
The ultimate Georgian finger food, badrijani are rolls made of slices of fried eggplant and filled with a paste of garlic, walnuts and a seasoning of cayenne, fenugreek, and coriander. Walnuts are a very popular ingredient in Georgian cooking, as are the pomegranate seeds that badrijani is often garnished with.
Khinkali
Georgia: khinkaliSource: MIKHEIL
Georgian dumplings are similar to Shanghai soup dumplings but are cooked rather than steamed. They are typically filled with minced lamb, beef or pork and some seasoning. Khinkali is filled with uncooked meat so that in the process of cooking, the dumpling becomes filled with delicious broth. The dumplings are eaten by holding them by the knot (khinkali are eaten using the hands) and taking a careful bite followed by sucking the juices out of the dumpling. The knot itself is tough and isn’t eaten.
Kharcho
Georgia: kharchoSource: A.Savin
This thick and hearty soup is great for a cold winter. A typical kharcho is made from beef, rice, puréed cherry plum, and chopped walnuts, as well as a spice mix containing fenugreek, coriander, dill, bay leaves and calendula.
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