For four months I have been on the road without family or friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some good times and some great experiences, but it does get lonely after a while. That’s why it was so great when Jennifer landed in Georgia to visit me. Of course, she was a day late after a little run-in with the Russian authorities, but you can ask her about that.
We decided to begin our vacation with a road trip through Georgian wine country. As you should know from my previous blog, Georgia takes credit as the inventor of wine after some 8,000-year-old wine containers were recently found there. In addition there are over 500 grape varietals grown here … who knew that there could be so many different kinds of grapes. As such, we figured they might know a thing or two about the tasty beverage. So, we rented a car, hopped in, and went on our merry way.
Our first stop was Sighnaghi. It was a charming little village up in the hills of the countryside, surrounded by a medieval wall and ramparts. We went for lunch at a local winery where we learned a little bit more about Georgian wine. Their traditional method of making wine is to crush the grapes, and then put everything – juice, skin, and seeds – into teardrop-shaped clay pots which are buried in the ground. There, the wine ferments and ages without being disturbed. After a few months, it is ready to go. Lucky for us a bottle only cost $2!! So we could try out a few different kinds…
The European method (used by California, and most other places), on the other hand, strains the skins and seeds out immediately after crushing the grapes. Then they ferment the wine and frequently transfer it into another container, such as an oak barrel, for aging. The result is that the Georgian wine has more tannins from the skins, and it tastes distinctly different. Jennifer acquired a taste for it, but in my opinion, it’s just not as tasty as European style wine. It seemed a bit bitter, and less complex to me. But then, not all wines can compete with my favorite two buck Chuck.
The next day we drove to Telavi, and stayed a great little AirBnb whose owner made wine in his garage. He gave us a free bottle of home brew both nights we stayed there. For that price, I enjoyed it. Also for a few bucks he prepared the most amazing breakfast for us. Everything we could have wanted, fresh and local. It was a great way to start the day.
He also told us the route to take our next day to visit some sights and a winery. We first stopped at a medieval castle (16th century, I think) and had a look around. In those days, even the king had pretty basic lodgings. Cold stone walls made up a few small rooms up steep steps designed mainly for repelling attackers. Better than the thatch huts of the peasants, I guess, but not much.
Next, we made it to a monastery that was at least as old as the castle. The sign at the parking lot said the shuttle would only drive up the giant hill once a minimum of 10 people had boarded. Of course, we were the only ones there. So, we hiked up the very steep road to the top of the hill. We had to have climbed a few thousand feet, but the view at the top was worth it. There are still monks who live here which is pretty cool and we saw a couple in their traditional garb and beards walking around. We saw the old church as well as where the monks made their own wine. They had at least a dozen of the large wine pots (at least 10 gallons apiece) in the ground, so I guess they were able to keep warm after prayers. Or better yet, before.
Finally, we made it to the winery he recommended. It was an old Soviet army base built into the base of a mountain to be safe from nuclear attack. The two kilometers of tunnels into the mountain were all lined with bottles of wine aging for the winery. A very cool sight. We paid for some tastings and headed on back.
Once we got back to Tbilisi, we of course had to see the sights there as well before heading to Turkey. I took Jen on my favorite walk through the city which hits all the major sights. We walked along the pedestrian boardwalk lined with European-style café’s, across the flea market bridge covered in a bewildering array of odds and ends for sale, and into the old town. And I mean old, like 1500 years old. We saw the sulfur baths, the old ramparts, and took a walk through their botanical garden. For dinner we went to a famous local restaurant where the dishes were based on some mysterious old book of traditional recipes that was found on a beach long ago. Pretty interesting place.
The next day, we were off for Turkey. We stayed in the Sarayburnu district of Istanbul, which means that technically we were in Europe. The Bosphorus river splits Istanbul, and it marks the division between Europe and Asia. You can take ferries across the river to visit different parts of the city. We were right near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, two amazing structures with histories spanning over a millennium.
Not to be outdone by Georgia, Turkey’s history is just as old. Founded around 660 BC under the name Byzantion, it became Constantinople in 330 AD and served as an imperial capital for close to 16 centuries during the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Istanbul’s strategic position on the historic Silk Road and the only sea route between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea has produced a cosmopolitan population, not to mention the 12 million visitors that arrive annually.
The Blue Mosque was built in 1616 and is famous for its hand-painted blue tiles inside and six minarets outside. It really was quite beautiful. The only downside was the overpowering smell of feet inside as everyone had to remove their shoes to enter.
Across from the mosque was the Hagia Sophia. It was built in 537 AD as a Christian Orthodox church and remained so for close to a thousand years. However, the Ottoman empire invaded in 1453 and converted the church into a mosque, which it remained for another 500 years. In 1931 it was converted into a museum. Quite a history!
Those two were free, but to save money we opted for the four-day museum pass and visited the Topkapi Palace first. In the 15th century, it served as the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans. As you may have heard, it’s good to be the Sultan. We saw the hundreds of rooms of the palace, including an entire wing devoted to the royal harem.
Right next door was the Istanbul Archeological Museum, with its statues of deities from ancient antiquity until the fall of Rome, sarcophagi, coins, tablets, and other artifacts from throughout the ages.
One of our favorite parts of the city was the Grand Bazaar. Built in 1461, it is still one of the largest covered markets in the world with a covered area of over 54,000 square meters. It actually covers 61 streets and over 4000 shops. It truly was incredible to see shop after shop of gold, spices, candy, clothes, chandeliers, and anything else you can imagine. It was endlessly fascinating, and we spent ages just wandering around lost. It was a bit like Costco on a Sunday where they hand out samples so Jen and I eagerly tried the different Turkish Delights on offer and snuck out before the haggling to buy began.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and Jennifer flew home to San Diego from Istanbul. I flew out 12 hours later back to Georgia to wrap up my Kiva work there before heading back to Tajikistan. Unfortunately, it rained my entire last day in Turkey, so I stayed at the hotel and read my book in the enclosed rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara. Amazing coincidence, the exciting climax of my book started with a fight in the Grand Bazaar and ended with a chase scene on boat down the Bosphorus and into the Sea of Marmara. What are the chances? The rest of the book had no mention of Turkey. Crazy.
All for now, but I do have a Kiva blog too and you can check out my latest post here:
Thanks for reading.