The travel group on tour in the Kakheti region

Travel blog: UPF Lund in Georgia

Days 1 & 2: Exploring the wine region of Kakheti

Between the 1st and 8th of April, the UPF Travel Committee travelled to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi as one of the committee’s two annual trips. We wanted to learn more about the country’s Soviet history and current political landscape, such as the path toward EU membership, the shrinking space of civil society, and different obstacles to eradicating sexism and homophobia in Georgian society. Of course, we were also eager to explore the culinary paradise of Georgia and immerse ourselves in Tbilisi’s vivid food and culture scene.

Our first day in Georgia, the 1st of April, was a long but surprisingly smooth travel day. After flying from Copenhagen to Kutaisi, we had a four-hour bus ride to Tbilisi, during which we were mesmerised by the beautiful Caucasus mountains and lush green hills surrounding us. We were happy to see that spring had already arrived, with cherry blossoms covering the gardens we passed in the countryside.

Traditional Qvevri winemaking

The next day, we woke up early and headed to the tour office for a day trip to the wine region of Kakheti. First, the tour bus took us to a bakery where we were offered freshly baked bread, cow and goat cheese, and Georgian wine. Our next stop was the fascinating Bodbe St. Nino Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery built in the 9th century and inhabited by about 30 nuns. After a quick coffee break, the tour continued to the old city of Sighnaghi, where we visited the 4 km long city wall constructed in the 18th century and historically used as a lookout point towards Russia. Many Georgians use Sighnaghi—also known as the City of Love—as a destination to escape the heat and bustling city life during the summer months.

Georgian ‘khinkali’ soup dumplings

Our first lunch in Georgia was a traditional feast called ‘supra’ – grilled pork, the famous cheesy khachapuri bread, delicious plum sauce, and wine. After lunch, we delved into Georgian winemaking and got to see the traditional way of fermenting wine using ‘qvevri’ clay jars. Georgia is recognised as the first country in the world known to have made wine, and this method of wine-making is on the UNESCO list for Intangible Cultural Heritage Elements. We visited two wineries in the Kakheti region and were offered different red wines and typical Georgian amber wines. Back in Tbilisi, we ended our day by enjoying the famous soup dumplings known as ‘khinkali’ for dinner, a solid favourite among Georgian foods.

Day 3 & 4: First meetings in Tbilisi

The third day was packed full of meetings. First up was the Georgian Institute of Politics where we were presented with an overview of Georgia’s attitudes towards Russia, the current situation in the occupied breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Georgia’s path towards EU membership. We learned that despite resistance to political relations with Russia, an economic partnership between Georgia and Russia was still viewed as important. Our next meeting was with the Women’s Fund, a Georgian NGO focused on the rights and empowerment of women, girls, and transgender people, especially in the rural areas of the country. The Women’s Fund introduced us to different challenges facing female eco-migrants in Georgia, such as the difficulty for women affected by landslides to reintegrate economically into society after displacement.

Meeting with the Swedish Embassy and Sida

Next up, we met with the Swedish Embassy and Sida. There, we discussed current projects for Swedish development cooperation in Georgia. Among other things, Sida is working to raise environmental awareness, improve water quality and governance, and reduce corruption and institutional fragmentation. Although Georgia has an active and dynamic civil society, widespread polarization and a lack of trust in authorities present significant challenges to national development and democracy. We also got some more insight into how the recent budgetary changes in Swedish development aid have affected Sida’s ability to operate in Georgia. Our last meeting of the day was with Transparency International, a global movement focused on eradicating corruption. We were informed about the problems of high-level political corruption in Georgia as well as recent attempts in the country to limit the space for civil society. The meeting began just hours after the leading party Georgian Dream had presented a controversial legislation restricting the space for Georgian civil society. The legislation would force independent organisations and media receiving more than 20% of their funding from foreign agencies to register as ‘foreign agents’, similar to laws already passed in Russia. After the meetings, we ended our day by exploring the antique markets of Tbilisi and enjoying some dinner at the cultural centre Fabrika – a vibrant place filled with young people, nice bars and restaurants.

The travel group at a meeting with UNICEF in Tbilisi

Our Thursday started with a meeting with Kvinna till Kvinna, an NGO whose work centres around women’s rights, sexual and reproductive health, and peacebuilding. We then met with two UN agencies, UNICEF and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). With UNICEF we talked about their work to promote the rights of children with disabilities, as well as the issue of ‘brain drain’ resulting from many young Georgians moving abroad. The meeting with UNFPA interestingly complemented what we had learned from the Women’s Fund regarding gender inequality. The work of UNFPA also targets young men and fathers by challenging harmful stereotypes and masculinity norms, instead encouraging men to be active caregivers and allies in the struggle for gender equality. At our next meeting with the Diplomatic Training and Research Institute, we were invited to a panel discussion about Georgia’s foreign affairs priorities, with a focus on the country’s path toward EU membership. The meeting introduced us to the 3+3 format—a platform for regional cooperation and peacebuilding between Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Türkiye—which in reality is more of a 2+3 format due to Georgia’s unwillingness to cooperate with Russia.

For the final meeting on Thursday, we met with the Equality Movement, a local LGBTQ+ organisation focused on eradicating sexism and political homophobia—institutionalised discrimination against LGBTQ+ people—as well as providing support to the queer community of Georgia. Among other things, we discussed the public reception of the queer, Swedish-Georgian movie ‘And then we danced’ after its premiere in Tbilisi. After the meeting, we enjoyed another Georgian supra filled with delicious food and wine, including the vegetable spread ‘pkhali’ and our favourite cucumber salad with a walnut dressing. Before heading back to our hostel in Tbilisi, we took a stroll around the old town and found a great lookout point where we could see the whole city from above.

Day 5 & 6: Final days in Tbilisi

Our last day of meetings started with a visit to UNHCR, where we had a very rewarding conversation about their work to ensure the safety and dignity of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people in Georgia and the occupied breakaway regions. We continued with two separate meetings with Georgian students, the first through UNICEF and the second in collaboration with USAID and Ilia State University. Meeting the students and learning about their goals and aspirations was a great experience and a good way to get introduced to the student life in Tbilisi. The final meeting of our trip was with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a green think tank targeting issues such as the protection of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights as well as climate change adaptation. We were pleasantly surprised by this meeting and by the very diverse actions covered by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. We learned that Georgia—due to its high exposure to flood and landslide risk—is working to develop a better disaster risk management strategy, but that significant challenges persist in risk governance and distribution of responsibility for environmental protection.

On Friday evening, some of us went for a rather spontaneous taxi ride up a mountain to visit an old amusement park on a hill with a great view over Tbilisi. Our lovely Uber driver George was an impeccable guide who gave us a solid introductory lesson to the Georgian language. After this small adventure, we all had dinner together in Tbilisi and proceeded once again to the cultural centre Fabrika, where we met up with the Georgian students that we got to know earlier during the day.

Saturday was our last day in Tbilisi and our first full day of exploring the city. We had brunch at a local café and then split up to do some sightseeing. Some of us returned to the antique market and the old town for gift shopping and visited the famous Bridge of Peace—a piece of modern architecture illustrating the mix of old and new in Tbilisi. Others delved into Georgia’s Soviet history at the national museum and relaxed at the sulphur baths of Tbilisi. The city’s bathhouses were traditionally used not only for their health benefits but also to offer a space for Georgians to socialise and even conduct business together. We ended the day by admiring the landscapes from the train back to Kutaisi.

Day 7 & 8: Hiking and sightseeing in Kutaisi

On Sunday, following a nice breakfast and well-needed coffee at our hostel in Kutaisi, we headed out for a tour of the countryside outside of Kutaisi. After some misunderstandings and bargaining with our tour guide, we ended up visiting the beautiful Martvili canyon and waterfall, where a few of us even went for a quick swim. The tour bus then took us to a massive cave where we got to inspect the impressive stalagmites and stalactites—mineral formations used as archives of past climates and environments. After a nice and relaxing boat trip along a river, we headed back for some final sightseeing in the city.

Back in Kutaisi, we checked out the candle-like ‘churchkhela’ candy at the Green Bazaar and went for a ride on the old Soviet-style cable car to get a better view of the city. Kutaisi is one of the oldest still inhabited cities in the world, which you can tell by the beautiful historical architecture in the city. We ended the day with another traditional Georgian dinner, and lastly by petting a few of the many stray dogs of Kutaisi.

Our last few hours in Georgia were spent not so glamorously trying to get a bit of sleep at the airport before the plane departed for Copenhagen early in the morning. A great bonding experience to end our eventful week! Georgia has a rich history, beautiful culture, and amazing food. I am convinced that we are all eager to return at some point.

By Agnes Blomqvist (UPF Lund Travel Committee)

All photographs courtesy of the author and the UPF Lund Travel Committee.

June 17, 2024

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