Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. He spent a week in Georgia before heading to Israel.
“We’ll do five toasts — and then, anarchy,” Jamal Biyachuev said, filling the first round of glasses out of an unmarked bottle of amber wine.
The sun was low in the sky, sending warm rays through the prehistoric-looking trees that surrounded us.
“First to health,” Mr. Biyachuev said. “Because without health, there is nothing else.”
Following the cues of those around me, I drained my glass. Mr. Biyachuev lined up the next round, a slightly darker amber wine, while the food spread out before our group — an assortment of vegetables, cheeses and freshly grilled kebabs — remained untouched.
This was a supra, a traditional Georgian feast, and Mr. Biyachuev was our host and tamada, or toastmaster. Born in Batumi, the Black Sea resort in Western Georgia, he had left for St. Petersburg, but returned to the former Soviet Republic seven years ago. It was wine that enticed him, and now, in a ramshackle two-story structure in Mirveti, about 12 miles inland from the sparkle of Batumi, he makes wine out of grapes sourced from across the country.
As predicted, a particularly pleasing brand of chaos set in after the fifth chugged glass of wine. There were more toasts — I lost count after 10. As night fell, our table moved onto the front porch of the wooden house to get out of the rain. I had trouble feeling my face every time I laughed, which was often.
A week later, I found myself in the Negev Desert of Israel, significantly more sober, but just as ecstatic. A campfire blazed in the middle of a flat circle of red earth, somewhere in the 25-mile-long Makhtesh Ramon, a crater-like depression of land carved by a receding sea hundreds of millions of years ago. Under a blanket of stars, music filled the air. A young woman drew minor-key melodies out of a violin, while her sister, mother and father followed along with resonant hums. I played along the best I could, my fingers rolling over the head of a darabouka, an hourglass-shaped drum. (I’m a lifelong percussionist, though the 52 Places trip has made me rusty.)
I came to this spot as a stopover on my drive south, from Tel Aviv to Eilat, the resort town on the 52 Places list. It turned out to be the highlight of my time in the country.
In fact, the best moments on my 13th and 14th stops of a year on the road didn’t happen in the destinations themselves. It was proof that the periphery of a journey can be the most rewarding part of it, and a reminder to improvise, even — or rather, especially — in places where the path is well-beaten. If the joy of serendipity is one of the reasons to travel, then improvisation is how you get there.
A beach town where the mountains beckon
I was sad to leave Tbilisi, Georgia’s cosmopolitan and visually stunning capital, and was disappointed to get off the train in Batumi, where the forecast predicted six straight days of rain. I’ve had mostly remarkable luck with weather on this trip so far and haven’t let a little drizzle (or a blizzard) get in the way, but when you’re at a beach resort, where the main indoor attractions mostly involve slot machines, rain can be ruinous.
Batumi was on the 2019 list as a place about to be discovered by the wider world. A 4-mile boardwalk runs along the Black Sea’s shore, with bike lanes the whole way and an easy-to-use bike share program. Walking into the old part of the city reveals what once was — Western European, Ottoman and Russian architectural styles converge around ample green spaces. There’s the regional take on arguably Georgia’s most famous dish, khachapuri. Digging into the “Adjaruli” variety served here — a hammock of dense bread carrying melted cheese, topped with a fried egg and a chunk of butter — is an exercise in artery-clogging decadence.
Looking up from any point of Batumi, beyond the handful of skyscrapers, you see mountains: Bright green slopes peaked in sprinklings of snow looming over the city. They are a branch of the Lesser Caucasus and they dominate the landscape of the Adjara region, of which Batumi is the capital. Indeed, one of Batumi’s selling points is that you can walk along the shore of the Black Sea and ski the slopes of the Adjara mountains in a single day. As gray skies hung over the city’s skyline — a mixture of old, colorful apartment buildings and shiny new Doha-like skyscrapers — the mountains beckoned.
Through a friend of a friend in Tbilisi, I had been put in touch with Inga Diasamidze of Star Travel Planners, a local travel agency. Agreeing that six days in cloudy Batumi was not the best use of time, we started strategizing for a night in the mountains. But first, “I need to show you Georgian hospitality,” she said.
And that’s how I ended up at Mr. Biyachuev’s outpost, emptying glasses of Georgian wine and, embarrassingly in retrospect, playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin.
The transition from the manicured resort feel of Batumi to the untamed woods around Mirveti, just a half-hour’s drive away, was my introduction to how diverse Georgia’s landscape is. I learned even more when I set off a few days later into the mountains with Temuri Abashidze, my driver and guide, and Tato Avjishvili, his nephew, who was acting as translator.
I didn’t have a clear idea of our destination, just a vague understanding that we were going to try the ski town of Beshumi on the other side of the Goderdzi Pass, making stops along the way. We pulled over at waterfalls, like the towering Makhuntseti, where vendors selling fresh honey crowded the parking lot. In the village of Khulo, where the Muslim-majority population in a largely Eastern Orthodox Christian country is a remnant of Ottoman occupation, I stepped into a Soviet-era cable car that rattled precariously over a wide, emerald-green gorge.
We stopped for lunch in another village, where two of Temuri’s friends prepared ostri, a delicious beef stew served in shallow clay skillets. But first, there were toasts. The men poured shot after shot of chacha, a powerful brandy made from grape residue leftover in wine production, and started the toasts: to Georgia-United States relations, to new friends, to mothers. Thankfully, Temuri, who would spend the rest of the day behind the wheel, stopped after one and a half shots, but I stumbled back into the van, once again a casualty of Georgian hospitality.
The higher up we went, winding our way through the mountains, the worse the weather and the roads became. At one point, we drove a river. And I don’t mean we forded it. I mean we drove it — lengthwise. When we arrived at where our guesthouse was supposed to be, we found the road leading to it impassable because of unexpectedly heavy snowfall.
So, we kept moving, down the other side of the mountain and into the region of Samtskhe–Javakheti. We settled on the idyllic town of Akhalitske, home to Rabati Castle, a sprawling 18th-century fortress complex that includes both an Ottoman mosque and an Orthodox church. We checked into a local, unmarked guesthouse. Temuri brought out a bag of roast chicken he had surreptitiously picked up on the way and a plastic bottle of his own homemade chacha. We ate. There were more toasts. With Tato as interlocutor, something that became more and more difficult as successive shots of chacha were downed, Temuri and I found ourselves in a debate over foreign policy. The conversation, though heated, included more laughter and back-slapping than raised voices.
“The only way you find truth,” Temuri said, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth, “is through argument.”
Finding pockets of silence in the noise
Traveling to Eilat, a popular Red Sea resort on Israel’s southern tip, during Passover, I knew I’d see crowds. But, wow. On my first night there, it took me more than an hour to find a restaurant with space for one. Crowds of families spread across the city’s beaches, constantly in motion, but never decreasing in size. From the moment I stepped out of my rental car and into town, a largely soulless collection of storefronts and shopping malls — another draw of Eilat is tax-free shopping — I had a headache. The only peace I found was 60 feet underwater, scuba diving in the vibrant reefs that sit just off shore.
Eilat is a seaside escape for Israelis and a new, beautifully designed regional airport makes it a more accessible international destination, one of the reasons it made the 2019 list. Flights in are still limited, though, so I had to fly into Tel Aviv and drive to Eilat from there.
Perhaps the crowds would not have been so disorienting and all the craziness would have been easier to swallow had I arrived from somewhere different. But after stopping in Makhtesh Ramon, that expanse of sand and rock where I had made music under the stars, it felt like I had traversed planets, not 93 miles of asphalt.
Like my trip to the Adjara mountains, going to the Makhtesh was an act of improvisation. I decided to break up the drive from Tel Aviv with a day of hiking, followed by camping, with Keshet Educational Journeys, an outdoors tour operator with a mission to spark dialogue about Jewish identity, history and culture. I was taken into the sand and rock by Yitzhak Sokoloff, executive director of Keshet, his wife Ruti, and their two daughters Avigail and Einat.
Places in Eilat I Loved
There are probably more dive shops in Eilat than falafel stands, but I had a great experience booking two dives with Ahla. Some of the best dive sites are right off the shore (including one to a now-closed underwater restaurant where you can peek through the windows while marveling at how quickly the exterior has been overtaken by sea life), meaning no long boat trips.
The best meal I had in Eilat was at Whale on the city’s North Beach, where the focus is on seasonal ingredients, fresh seafood and beautiful presentation.
Makhtesh Ramon, the biggest land formation of its kind in the world, elicits gasps — and not just because hiking Mount Ardon, a flat-top mountain in the northeastern reaches of the national park, is arduous and, at times, scary. Steep inclines lead to views of the box canyon, carved out arteries signaling where rivers once flowed and spires of limestone telling stories of a more violent geological past. This is where, at one point, astronauts trained for Mars.
As we walked, I talked to Ytizhak about the conflict that has gripped this region for generations. We followed different hypotheticals to their inconclusive end points. Like many before me, I left Israel with more questions than I arrived with.
Yitzhak and his family are Orthodox Jews, so at different points throughout the day, they dispersed into the surrounding wilds to pray, one climbing a rocky hill, another finding shade under one of the few trees.
That night, after a dinner that took inspiration from traditional Bedouin cuisine, I improvised melody and rhythm with the Sokoloff family to the steady crackle of the campfire. At one point, Avigail replaced her violin with a thin wooden recorder.
I tapped out a syncopated rhythm on the darabouka, while Avigail whistled looping melodies. After a few minutes, without eye contact or any external cue, we stopped on the same note.
“That’s a good sign,” Avigail said, smiling.
The next morning, Yitzhak told me that he and Ruti had recently lost a son, Yuval, in a motorcycle accident and that he had been a prodigy on the recorder.
“Yuval and Avigail grew up playing together,” he said. “The two of them would sit for hours and play in these kinds of situations. We haven’t been able to listen to recorder for a while. The fact that she took it out last night meant a lot.”
I thought back to a few minutes earlier, when we had been admiring the visible layers of minerals that ran up the side of the rock face that surrounded our campsite. We marveled at how, cleanly delineated by color and touch, the earth had left a timeline of its existence over eons.
“It reminds me of something we say in one of our prayers,” Yitzkah said. “‘God renews the act of Creation every day.’