Friday, September 23, 2016

Bologna and Tbilisi; Two very fine restaurants

I do realise that I have a very fortunate life, and my ability to wander and experience the world is one that I don’t take for granted.

Bologna
There is, for those who wonder, a downside. My friend Cameron once said that I was “hyper-stimulated”, and thus unable to settle to routines any more, and constantly craving excitement. New colours, unseen mountains, interesting people and simply the need to see what is around the next corner. This is, of course, true, and while not exactly a curse, it does have its negative moments. However, in the quest for new and exciting places and experiences, I have found many wonderful places and people; and restaurants.

I have, in the past three days, been to two of the most wonderful restaurants it has been my privilege to experience. And I say this from many decades of hard trying; I have eaten at fine restaurants on each continent; I have had Michelin meals, eye popping fish and chips, spectacular Icelandic lobster and some of the finest meat that South America can provide. I have also had scorpions, sheep’s eye balls and the pride and joy of some lascivious horse, but those meals fade quickly.

This week’s two prizes are Barbarestan in Tbilisi and Trattoria di via Serra in Bologna.

Now both cities are renowned for food, Bologna possibly more simply due to its location, but for foodies seeking new and exciting tastes, Tbilisi offers some dramatic dining.

Neither are Michelin starred, and neither are expensive; neither are fancy and nor are they conceited. They are both family run, in Bologna by Flavio and Tommaso and in Tbilisi by the massive Kurasbediani family with their ten children. They both offer an exquisite balance between bewitching flavours and a completely unpretentious atmosphere. This self-assurance is the key to their success.
Georgian food is exciting; it is a riot of flavour and colour that both delights and amazes. Barbarestan takes this to a new level by fusing the unexpected together. 

Polyphonic singing at Barbarestan

Barbarestan
Their use of traditional herbs is masterful, and in fact, the entire menu is drawn from a cookbook written in the 19th century by a Georgian duchess (Barbara Jorjadze if you must know) found in the Tbilisi flea market; these are recipes unknown to the contemporary kitchen, and most certainly unfamiliar to the modern palate. Balanced with their substantial offering of Georgian wines, their encyclopaedic knowledge of Georgian customs and music and the polyphonic singing that can accompany some mealtimes, this family has got it right.

And so to Bologna I flew; two years ago I had written that the Trattoria di via Serra was “worth stopping over in Europe simply to eat there”. I wanted to see if this was true.

The menu at Trattoria di via Serra

Flavio was, as usual, at the door, letting diners in only after they had rung a bell. One can dine pretty well only by reservation, and the small location is usually full. Its popularity comes, I think, from its attention to detail and the presentation of local, countryside food. Once again, the dishes are not fancy, but drawn from the inspirations of fresh produce artfully combined. Tommaso is a wizard in the kitchen; his skills are evident with every mouthful. His ability to draw the strength of flavour from such simple combinations of ingredients is an inspiration.

Meatballs are not, in fact, a terribly attractive dining options; however, Tommaso's wizardry in combining the apparently basic ingredients is awe inspiring, and takes this simple dish to dizzy heights. 

Two such different restaurants in two such different cities. Their similarities, however, are at the root of their success and attraction. Both run by families, one small and one large, but the intimacy offered by the close collaboration of the owners is evident in their food. The cuisine is simple, artful, thoughtful and utterly delicious.


This is fine dining, and not “Fine Dining”.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Soviet Legacy in Georgia Tour - 2017

The Soviet Legacy Tour

Sixty-five years of occupation by the Soviet Union has left an indelible impact on Georgia. A fantasy economic system, archaic infrastructure and deeply peculiar and repressive social systems are now being erased, but their legacy lives on.

This unique tour program aims to introduce visitors to some of the more obvious of these legacies; bizarre cable cars, crumbling factories, Soviet-era health resorts and more. It is a fascinating glimpse into the near past, and a reflection of an economic and political system that leaves many scratching their heads. Join us to look back at this fascinating period of 20th century history.


October 8:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to Betsy's Hotel Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 23rd, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

October 9: Following breakfast we will explore the historic part of Tbilisi; we will walk in the old part of the town visiting the bath house area, Narikala castle and Maidan Square. Later we will visit the Tbilisi Metro for a ride towards Soviet part of Georgian capital where we will visit buildings built in late 1960’s and 70 ‘s as massive residential blocks. After lunch we will head to the National Museum of History which includes an exhibition of Soviet Occupation dedicated to the victims of Soviet regime. Dinner will be at the Funicular restaurant built in 1930’s

Souvenirs at the Museum
October 10:  This morning we will drive to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The centerpiece of the town is the Stalin Museum; here you will see the house where he was born, the train carriage he used during the WWII and the massive museum building where a variety of memorabilia are kept. 

After the museum continue trip towards Chiatura, an industrial town in west Georgia. Important due to heavy manganese production, Chiatura has been heavily industrialized. The fascinating cable car system has not been touched since 1954. Brave ones in the group will be able to enjoy a ride in one of the metal cable cars.  We will continue towards Kutaisi and stay overnight at the restored soviet naval officers’ spa at Tskaltubo.


The Cable Cars of Chiatura
Tskaltubo
October 11: After breakfast we will tour the Tskaltubo resort. Founded in 1925 the town was one of the very first resorts built in the Soviet era. Numerous hotels and sanatoriums were built during first half of the 20th century, and they became one of the most popular elements of Soviet Health Tourism among all levels of Soviet society. Some of the buildings have been abandoned after 1990’s but they still have amazing charm. We will visit couple of these former sanatoriums before returning to Tskaltubo for our overnight stop.

October 12: In the morning we will head towards South Georgia; after short drive and couple of stops, we will arrive in Borjomi, another famous resort. Borjomi is a charming town that sits on the green slopes of Lesser Caucasus, with 65 % of its territory covered by forest. The main attraction of the town is its thermal waters. Ancestors of present Georgians knew the positive qualities of these springs and used it for medicinal purposes. The waters became popular for Russian Empire in late 19th century, and the government began building palaces, parks, public gardens and hotels to accommodate incoming tourists and patients. Renowned figures such as Anton Chekhov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky as well as members of the royal Russian family were among the common visitors of the springs. We will be able to taste these waters and enjoy a stroll in the garden. We will stay overnight here at the Borjomi Palace Hotel.

 Borjomi; the park and some old children's "attractions"!

Iago and Marina
October 13:  This morning we will drive back towards Tbilisi. Along the road visit Uplistsikhea spectacular ancient cave town dating from the first half of the 1st millennium BC. The famous “Fortress of God” is first mentioned in the chronicles of the 1st century A.D. Carved into the rocky plateau you will find huge echoing halls, long meandering corridor-streets, chambers for pagan worship, water supply system, secret tunnel, market and the remains of Georgia’s oldest theatre, complete with auditorium, stage and orchestra pit. Later drive to village Chardakhi where you will meet the local vintner Iago Bitarishvili. We will visit the cellar, taste his rare Chinuri wines and enjoy a delicious lunch cooked by the family.  After short drive we are back in Tbilisi. 


October 14: We will spend whole day in Tbilisi today, and visit the Car Museum, with a small but fascinating collection of old Soviet cars. Lunch will be at a local restaurant and later we will visit the flea market, where many old and fascinating items of the Soviet period are sold by a myriad of street vendors. In the evening we will enjoy a farewell dinner at a the Azarpesha restaurant, and enjoy Georgia’s unique polyphonic singing.


October 15: Departure from Tbilisi.

The Price: US$ 2,145 per person (Single supplement: US$ 495)

The price includes:

The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of sixteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at: tamara@travellivingroots.com



The Georgian Classic Tour: Food, Wine and Culture - 2017

The Classic Georgia: Food Wine and Culture

We are only on Day Three of our annual Georgian Classic tour, but so much fun is being had that we have confirmed our dates for 2017. The itinerary will be the same as this year, and additionally, a departure immediately after The Classic of our Soviet Legacy tour. This second departure will offer an in depth look at some of the extraordinary industrial, social and cultural legacies of the eighty-year occupation by the Soviets. Our tours will be limited to eighteen people, nine couples; early booking is essential.

This will be the fifth time that we have offered this program, and we look forward to introducing you to the fascinating and surprising country of Georgia this September. Recognised by National Geographic as one of the tours that one must take in a lifetime, we are pretty proud of the itinerary.

Our groups are small and our aim is to take you away from the major tourist destinations to meet and experience the unique culture of this wonderful country located in the heart of The Caucasus. 


September 25:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to our accommodation confirmed for three nights at the Betsy's Hotel Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 10th, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

Vino Underground
September 26:  There will be an optional walking tour at 10.00 am for those who are up and ready that will explore the quirky center of Old Tbilisi; we will see the city from each side of the River and have an introduction to the remarkable stories of the early days of this strategically important town. Lunch will be at 1.00 pm, and later in the afternoon we shall wander over to the iconic wine bar, Vino Underground for our first introduction to the glories of Georgian wine.


Mtskheta
September 27:  The morning will be free to rest and adjust to the time zone, or explore the surrounding areas on your own. In the afternoon we will head out to Tbilisi to explore the Old Capital of Mtskheta and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. This cathedral, founded in 1010, is one of the most sacred places in the country and is a fine introduction to the importance of the Georgian Orthodox church in the Georgian soul.

September 28:  Today we will leave the capital behind and head west. First to the unremarkable town of Gori, made famous only because of its native son, Stalin. We shall visit the extraordinary, and rather chilling museum to his life before continuing over the Likhi mountains to Kutaisi and finally to Tskutalbo, our overnight stop. This resort was built in the 1970s as a resort exclusively for high-ranking Soviet Naval offices, and is makes a delightful and unique place to stay.

September 29:  Today we climb the mountains. After a coffee stop in Zugdidi, we will drive up the Svaneti Valley to Mestia. This region is special, even by Georgian standards! The communities that populate this valley are distinct and historically fiercely independent. We will see some dramatic scenery, gorgeous mountains and villages that have been here since the dawn of time. Finally, we will reach Mestia, the regional capital and now a center for hiking, skiing and a variety of other mountain-based activities.

September 30:  Ushguli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it is extremely remote and life here is redolent of the middle ages. It has a collection of dramatic medieval towers, and lying as it does at 2,300m, it is the highest populated community in Europe. We will have time to explore the village in some detail, and if the weather is clear, have a dramatic view of Georgia’s highest mountain, Shkhara which towers some 5,100m over the landscape.
Ushguli - High in the Great Caucasus

October 01:  Today we head back down the mountain to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, and an important provincial capital. It is blessed with a two UNESCO sites, and we will visit one, the Gelati Monastery, built in the early 1100s by King David. It is not only an architectural masterpiece, but also an important center of learning for centuries, and one of the first schools in the region.

October 02:  Today is a “Driving Day”; we shall start the morning in the local market before driving east. We will stop for lunch at Iago’s Winery, a charming family wine producer in the Kartli region. Iago’s wine is remarkable, and his was the first winery in the country to receive a bio-certificate for his vineyard and production. Skirting Tbilisi, we will enjoy the three-hour drive toward the Azeri border, and our next stop, this time for three nights, at Sighnaghi,

October 03:  There are many opportunities for sightseeing in this quirky town; we will spend time in the morning exploring the town itself before driving a few kilometers away to visit the 9th century monastery of Bodbe. It now functions as a nunnery, and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia.

Following a short rest, we will have our dinner, a traditional Georgian Supra, at PheasantsTears. This restaurant and winery is one of the most vibrant in the country, and an exciting place to meet some of the finest Georgian wine, cuisine and be introduced to the unique polyphonic music.

October 04:  We will spend today exploring the region of Kakheti; we will see the main town of Telavi, and later visit the unusual and quite remarkable winery of Alaverdi. Here, wine has been made by the monks continuously since the year 1011, and they have got it right! We will enjoy a tasting here before returning to our hotel in Sighnaghi for our final evening in the Georgian countryside. Dinner will be at a local restaurant.

October 05:  We will drive back to Tbilisi today and have time in the afternoon for some independent sightseeing before our farewell dinner at Azarpesha, a unique cultural restaurant in the center of Tbilisi’s Old City.

October 06:  Your departure from Georgia. Once again your flight may have an early departure time, but your room will be available to rest in prior to your airport transfer. Please note that for those joining our Soviet Legacy tour, this will begin on September 23, giving you a day to relax and enjoy Tbilisi on your own. 


The Price:           US$ 2.970 per person (single supplement: $650)

This includes:             
  • Airport transfers
  • 4 nights in Tbilisi at Betsy's Hotel
  • 3 nights in Sighnaghi at the Hotel Kabadoni
  • 1 night in Tskaltubo
  • 2 nights in Mestia and the Hotel Tetnuldi
  • 1 night at the Hotel Begrati in Kutaisi
  • Daily breakfast, lunch and 10 dinners
  • Five wine tastings and two folkloric performances
  • All entrance fees and excursions as detailed on the itinerary
  • Transportation by coach throughout, with 4WD vehicles for the day excursion to Ushguli
  • Fully escorted by MaxGlobetrotter with a local guide from Living Roots

The price excludes the following:  
  • Items not specifically mentioned in the itinerary
  • Items of a personal nature


The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of eighteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at: tamara@travellivingroots.com


The Alaverdi Monastery