Georgian Royalty and Fine Vintages ~ Early Summer 2014

Chavchavadze's residence in Tsinandali where the still functioning famous winery serves as a major tourist attraction in Kakheti

Chavchavadze’s residence in Tsinandali where the still functioning famous winery serves as a major tourist attraction in Kakheti

A few weeks ago in Washington, DC I met with Marusya Chavchavadze and Lena Kiladze with the American Friends of Georgia. Inc., a well known philanthropic organization providing assistance to families and children of Georgia since 1994. Our meeting was arranged by a mutual American friend who lived in Georgia for a number of years.

I readily agreed to meet Lena and Marusya to learn more about their organization and to share with them my love of Georgia and why I established the American Georgian Travel Group. For some reason the name Chavchavadze seemed familiar to me and after the meeting, it dawned on me that in 2012, I visited the home of Alexander Chavchavadze in Kakheti, Georgia. Marusya is the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Alexander Chavchavadze and lives in Massachusetts.

What a surprise to meet a direct descendent of a Georgian noble family! We Americans are usually fascinated by royalty and nobility and I’m no exception. I couldn’t wait to research Marusya’s lineage and what I discovered was fascinating! To know that I walked on the same grounds as her ancestors was even more exciting.

Regarded as the “father of Georgian romanticism”, Prince Chavchavadze was a decorated Colonel, well educated, wealthy, and a 19th century aristocrat fluent in several Asiatic and European languages. His influence over Georgian literature was beyond measure; his poems especially reminisced about Georgia’s glorious past. Prince Chavchavadze was one of the most influential figures of 19th Century Georgia.

I became aware of Prince Chavchavadze’s influence through my travels in Kakheti, the wine country in eastern Georgia. The Prince built a summer mansion in Tsinandali, Kakheti where foreign guests were frequently entertained and served fine vintages made at his estate winery. He built Georgia’s oldest and largest winery where he combined European and centuries-long Georgian wine-making traditions. The highly regarded dry white Tsinandali is still produced there.

Sipping the fine wines and walking the Chavchavadze estate was an unforgettable experience. Meeting a descendent of the Prince was even more memorable.

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Icons ~ Ancient Masterpieces ~ Spring 2014

Icon photoRecently AGTG was asked to design a customized itinerary for a couple interested in studying icons – and that got me to thinking about what an icon is and what it represents. 

Travelling throughout Georgia, I found myself drawn to the ancient churches for the spiritual experience to study these ancient masterpieces.  Before I describe this experience for you, I want to put in historical perspective how icons in Georgia have come to be so revered and what lengths Georgians have gone through to preserve and protect this highly respected part of their culture.

It begins about 320 AD. Saint Nino -  revered in Georgia – is believed to have travelled to Georgia (Iberia) from her home in Cappadocia (Turkey) bringing Christianity to Georgia.  Nino reached the borders of the ancient Georgian Kingdom of Iberia from the south about 320. There she placed a Christian cross in the small town of Akhalkalaki and started preaching the Christian faith in Urbnis, finally reaching Mtskheta (the capital of Iberia). Nino, having witnessed the conversion of Iberia to Christianity, withdrew to the mountain pass in Bodbe, Kakheti. St Nino died soon after c. 338-340; immediately after her death, King Mirian commenced with the building of monastery in Bodbe, where she is entombed. The monastery of Saint Nino at Bodbe is a must stop when touring ancient churches and monasteries.  It is here that I said a prayer for a special intention to St. Nino and one year later, my prayer was answered.


Now on to the icons…


An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting either on wood or painted on inside church structures as is the case in Georgia.  Icons represent a holy being or object. Color plays an important role as well. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red, divine life. Blue is the color of human life, white is the Uncreated Light of God, only used for resurrection and transfiguration of Christ


One memorable visit to a monastery was in Kakheti province in eastern Georgia, we visited the Alaverdi Monastery. Parts of the monastery date back to the sixth century. As was the case with many of the churches we visited, we saw the remnants of Soviet suppression of religion and desecration of Orthodox churches. The beautifully painted icons of the saints, the Blessed Virgin, and Christ on the walls inside the churches were whitewashed under Soviet orders. Today, painstaking efforts to restore the icons are underway, and many of the ancient churches are designated as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage sites.  The thousands of hours of delicate restoration of these icons throughout Georgia is a labor of love to preserve these ancient and spiritually moving works of art.


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Georgia’s New Government in Transition

Parliament GE

Travel professionals pride ourselves with staying informed on countries where Americans wish to experience.  As the only American and Tbilisi based tour operator that focuses exclusively on Georgia, we want to share with you the current state of Georgia’s government now that presidential elections have taken place. Giorgi Margvelashvili of the Dream Party has replaced Michel Saakashvili as President of Georgia.

By way of background, President Michel Saakashvili was the President of Georgia from 2003 through 2013. He founded the United National Movement during the Rose Revolution in 2003. He won election in 2003 and again in 2008 and served Georgia for ten years. The Constitution of Georgia permits the President to serve two five year terms. Saaksashvili left the President’s residence on November 15, 2013.

During President Saakashvili’s tenure, Georgia – a former Soviet Union country –  experienced a breathtaking transformation, moving away from a centralized and corrupt government and embracing a Western oriented democratically  focused society.  Extensive infrastructure investment was made throughout the country and foreign business investment in Georgia became the new norm.  Improvements in education and encouraging English as a second language rather than Russian gave Georgia a competitive advantage over other former Soviet Union countries.

So where does Georgia go from here under a newly formed government now that the United National Movement party is no longer the majority party? We at the American Georgian Travel Group are keeping a close watch on developments.  The US Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, recently held a webinar reaching out to US entities doing business in Georgia. AGTG participated along with other large and small U.S. businesses.  Here’s what we know:  the “no visa required” for US travelers will remain in place.  Tbilisi remains one of the safest cities in Europe.  The situation with Russian remains stable. There are no security concerns. AGTG will continue to offer tours to Georgia.

You can be assured that when booking a tour with AGTG, you and your clients will have the most up to date information when travelling to Georgia.  We look forward to working with you in 2014, enjoying  a glass of Saperavi and eating kinkhali with your clients!

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Voices of the Svans

Ushguli_Svaneti_Georgia[1]My first visit to Georgia in 2010, included a road trip to the Upper Caucasus Mountains known as the Svaneti region and included a stop in the village of Ushguli.  Ushguli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is referred to as the most elevated settlement  in Europe.  Ushguli sits at the foot of Georgia’s highest peak Shkhara (5068M).

Two memorable experiences in this life changing trip to Georgia was the traditional polyphonic music and the variety of Georgian dishes.

First the food in Svaneti.  Kubdari is the national dish of the Svan people in Georgia. It is oven bread filled with local spices and meat – usually veal   The bread is leavened and allowed to rise and the meat is from the local village.  Have plenty of napkins close by because the tasty juices from kubdari run down your hands.  It’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy this dish with your hands and when no one is looking, I found myself licking my fingers – also acceptable!

As for the music in this part of Georgia, I recently came across this BBC short documentary which captures the essence of the Svaneti region and its singing and dancing traditions.  Even though the documentary is short, you will be touched by the beauty and haunting voices of the Svans.  It is here that Georgian traditional polyphonic singing can be heard and enjoyed in its purest form dating back to the eighth century.

When I find myself longing for Georgia, I sit back and listen to my CD of select songs and immerse myself in this ancient polyphonic singing.  The only thing that’s missing in my virtual experience is the smell of kubdari.  Tasty traditional dishes, ancient polyphonic music and the breathtaking mountains of Svaneti make for life long memories and can only be experienced in Georgia.


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Georgia – Land of the Undaunted Part 2

tbilisi (2)


After centuries of invasions and upheaval, Georgia found itself in the early 20th Century, at the mercy of the Russian Revolution.  With the exception of two short years of  independence, (1918-1920), Georgia was under Communist rule. In February 1921, Georgia was attacked by the Red Army and this began seventy long years of occupation  ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

During this occupation, close to 1 million Georgians (about 25% of the population) were executed at the hands of Joseph Stalin and the Communists. When you visit the National Museum in Tbilisi, take the time to go to third floor and you will find yourself immersed in the history and tragedies of that time.  I liken this experience to visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

Before we fast forward to the modern Georgia of today, you might wonder what life was like after the Soviets left Georgia over 22 years ago.

This is an excerpt from my book Piece of Soul through the Heart and these are the words of Zura Salukvadze whom I interviewed for my book.  This is a description of what life was like for Georgians during the Soviet times.

The country was broke and the living conditions were miserable.  Bread lines were common and lasted until two or three o’clock in the morning.  We had electricity for only a couple hours a day, and I studied by candlelight.  Hot water was not available. The family didn’t have a car, so I walked to most places, and later took public transportation when I went to the university…what money the family had went for basics and for school books, not much else.” 

Years of corrupt government officials was the norm for Georgia after the Soviets withdrew that is, until the Rose Revolution in 2004.  Led by Michel Saakashvili and reformed minded Georgians, the bloodless Rose Revolution brought in a new era of freedom and democratic reforms.  Under President Saakashvili and with the help of the United States and Europe’s largess, Georgia is reforming itself into a European and Western leaning country unlike any other country on the famed “Silk Road.”

Georgia’s charm, beauty and boundless hospitality is here waiting for you.  Georgia changed my life and it will change yours as well!

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Georgia – Land of the Undaunted: Part 1

Tbilisi Night converted

As I was climbing the steps to the 18th Century fortress three years ago on my first visit to Sighnaghi – a town that is walled with the remnants of 18 century fortifications – I pictured Georgians fighting for their country.

Georgians call their country Sakartvelo which literally means “a place for Georgians.”  And it is this place where Georgians suffered and lived through centuries of tyranny – internal and external until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

First the Romans, then the Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Persians invaded Georgia ending with 70 years of Soviet occupation.

A few critical dates in Georgian history:

Beginning with the period of antiquity, the kingdoms in western and eastern Georgia (Colchis) gradually fell to the Roman Empire by 66 BC, with western Georgia becoming for a long period an integral part of the empire, and eastern Georgia remaining a Roman client state and ally for nearly 400 years.

In the first half of the 4th century, Christianity was adopted as the state religion of Iberia(present-day Kartli, or Eastern Georgia), following the missionary work of Saint Nino of Cappadocia.

Although Arabs captured the capital city of Tbilisi in AD 645, Kartli-Iberia retained considerable independence under local Arab rulers.

Tbilisi was captured and destroyed by the Persian leader Jalal ad-Din in 1226.

The Georgian Kingdom reached its Golden Age in the 12th to early 13th centuries.

In the 15th century, the Georgian Kingdom totally disintegrated due to internal feuding and the Turkoman invasion.

Beginning in the 16th century, the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire subjugated the eastern and western regions of Georgia, respectively. The Turks and Persians invaded in 1785 and in 1795.

With every invasion and occupation, the heavy yoke of feudalism became a debilitating way of life for Georgians. Could the Georgians survive and hold on to their culture, language and religion – more importantly how could Georgians keep from losing their identity as a people?

Stay tuned for Part 2

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Khinkali – food for the soul


The first time I was served khinkali was at a Georgian friend’s home in Virginia.  I was not allowed in the kitchen until all the preparations were complete and the khinkali was ready to be dropped in a pot of salted boiling water.  As anxious as I was to see how khinkali is made, I took my friend’s advice and sat at the table patiently waiting for the first large platter of steaming khinkali to be served.  The aroma filled the room and I took my fork to poke the meet dumpling and saw my friend’s Tami face and realized I committed a faux pas.  Khinkali is the ultimate finger food.

Khinkali is a meat dumpling filled with pork and beef along with Georgian spices ( I still haven’t been successful in identifying the spices) quickly boiled so the meat juices and spices inside the flour dumpling have nowhere to go but in your mouth and on hands.  As I found out, proper khinkali table manners is to pick up the dumpling by the “knot” on the top and take the first juicy bite.  It’s quite acceptable for the juices to run down your hands.  My friend told me that legend has it that when the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev first ate khinkali and was asked not to eat the “knot” his reply was a along the lines “cut back on the flour we send to the Georgians.”  When my Georgian friends aren’t  looking, I eat the knot.  Khinkali is my comfort food!

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GEORGIA: 8,000 Vintages

Wine tasting in Khaketi

Wine is the symbol of Georgian identity and there is no occasion that’s complete without wine. By far the most picturesque vineyards are in Kakheti in Eastern Georgia. I’ve been to my share of vineyards and wine tastings in Virginia (yes Virginia) and California, but the vineyards in this region of Georgia are unforgettable. One can sip a glass of Saperavi (red grape variety) and be taken in with the color and depth of the wine. Enjoy a glass of crisp dry white wine like Kakhuri Mtsvane with oven baked bread (no crackers please), sulguni cheese and a fresh off the vine cucumber and tomato salad with herbs while taking in the mountain vista and valleys brings out the best.   Before you know it, others will join you and strangers become friends before too long. That’s what Georgian wine does – welcomes you like a long lost friend. Oh and by the way, Georgia’s ancient method of winemaking dates back 8,000 years!

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What is a Georgian Supra?

I remember my first supra in the summer 2010 in a village in eastern Georgia. The occasion was a house blessing and we were invited by our friend Giorgi to participate in a traditional Georgian feast known as the “supra” with the villagers. In my book “Piece of Soul through the Heart” I describe my first supra experience and must say the memory is with me to this day.

Every time I try to explain what a supra is to travel agents and others, I find no words that describe the incredibly tasty food, the bouquet of the wine and the camaraderie that lasts for hours – until I read Karen Shimizu’s article in Saveur Magazine. As a tour operator, I am always on the lookout for well written articles by an American. After talking to Karen, I realized that she loves Georgia as much as I do. Here is the link to Karen’s article – I guarantee you it’s worth a few minutes of your time. Gaumarjos!

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The Republic of Georgia – just the other side of Europe! Part 2

More observations from Paul Groman with Pisa Brothers@Worldview Travel in New York about his recent visit to Georgia on AGTG’s Fam Tour.

Handling the detailed arrangements for my all-inclusive tour was AGTG, the American Georgian Travel Group led by Rick Herrington, CEO and President of this ambitious new venture.  Those us of on this introductory considered this a tour to an exotic destination. Working with a staff of talented and knowledgeable Georgians headquartered in Tbilisi, the country’s dynamic capital, the AGTG team selected exemplary hotels in the big cities and the best available timbered, more-rustic hotels and inns in the countryside; specialty restaurants with an eye toward their charming atmosphere which ranged from cozy cellar boites to extravagant riverside locales, hearty and fulfilling native (best called contemporary (“peasant”) cuisine, samplings of the country’s new emerging red and white wine production and with a bit of luck, plied with “chacha”, their potent national version of grappa!

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