Basically, there are few trips in my life which I would consider epic, and this one definitely was. My definition of "epic," is when it takes you like two days to travel there, you don’t speak the language, you are completely immersed in the culture, you are traveling around spontaneously, and of course having many many adventures! All of this came true. As if that wasn’t enough, a war broke out between Georgia and neighboring Russia, so the wedding was almost canceled! My official "welcome to Georgia" consisted of tanks and political protests lining the streets so literally no taxi drivers dared to drive us to our hotel in the middle of it all, so I had to drag all of my luggage and photo gear over 2 miles after flying for over 17 hours…The adventure had begun!
George and Dina, the bride and groom, knew my sister through business school. They flew me out to partake and capture their wedding…and by “wedding” I mean a 6 day long adventure that took us on tours of ancient monasteries, wine tasting, into a school for deaf and mute children (which the bride and groom donated all of their monetary gifts from the wedding), into peasant’s homes who spent two days preparing a feast for us all, Turkish baths, party buses all over the country sightseeing with limitless vodka, champagne, and chocolate aboard, going through the snow covered mountains to the border of Russia to climb up to an ancient monastery…by the way did I mention that during all of this the whole country was preparing for Russia to invade them like they did last year and the military and their tanks took over the country only 2 days after I left? Yeah...and OH, I forgot…the wedding itself! By the time we got to the wedding, it was like an afterthought. More stories to come, but here are some photos from our sightseeing and one of the many welcome dinners we had.
P.S.- I forgot to mention the amazing Khachapuri, the warm, thick cheese bread that they serve with every meal. I think a few people OD’d on this during the week (myself included). I couldn’t help it!
It has inspired an entire chat group on Facebook called “I Heart Khachapuri”…and I have to give myself some credit, I have never eaten so much and had so much vodka in my life on zero sleep, but in order to be a true photographer in Georgia, you have to be able to hold your vodka!
Our First Adventure in Tbilisi, Georgia…just 3 hours into the trip!
So, not only did our flight get in at 3am, but by the time we checked in and got to sleep it was 5am and we had a car coming to pick us up at 8am to be driven into the mountains to meet up with the rest of the wedding party. I don’t know what I was thinking, like I was in America and going to get a timeline/itinerary or something. NOPE! We got a driver that spoke zero English and were just thrown into a car with no idea where we were going or for how long. I remember Sarah kept asking me, “What are we doing? Where are we going?” She even joked and pointed to the snow-capped mountains in the far off distance like we were in some Lord of the Rings landscape and was like, “We are probably going up there”…and we were. So after driving three hours to the tops of 9,000 feet mountains, we watched the landscape turn from rolling green hills with vineyards and castles, to stark jagged mountains covered in snow. We finally reached a roadblock and came upon a bus that got stuck in a small avalanche blocking the road….and lo and behold, it was the wedding party themselves stuck in the snow! All of the men had to get out and push the bus, and HERE is where our documentation and adventure begins! My first photos, other than the changing landscape, was of the wedding party pushing their bus!
At this point, I found out where and what our destination really was, the Gergeti Trinity Church. The Gergeti Trinity Church was built in the 14th century and is situated at almost 7,000 feet up the side of a steep mountain. The church is a popular waypoint for trekkers in the area and can be reached by a steep 3-hour climb up the mountain, or around 30 minutes by jeep up a rough mountain trail.
After the avalanche, we had to switch to off-road jeeps to take us to the top of the mountain. Then when the road got so bad that the jeeps could go no further, we had to get out and do the last mile on our hands and knees up a steep hill to reach the top of this hill to reach the monastery.
Out of breath from jetlag, the altitude, and the steep and strenuous hike, I was in awe that not only do monks still live up there, but at how this monastery was even built! I could barely make it up this hill the air was so thin! I definitely had a “How the @$#! did I get here?” moment. After all of that, I finally get to the top of the hill just to find out that no women or photos are allowed in the Monastery! I was like “HELL NO, I did not come all this way to not go inside!” So the groomsmen had to find a cloak and cover me in order to sneak me in! Crazy! I was SO proud of myself though, because I was the only girl out of our entire group that managed to finish the hike and get in.
Afterward, the groom had arranged for a local in the nearby village of Gergeti to prepare a huge feast for us in her home. She and her daughter waited on us and it had to have taken days to prepare this feast!
It was amazing, so authentic and well deserved after our arduous journey. Afterward, we took a party bus back down the mountain and drank Checha (their local moonshine), beer, and had the best time singing and playing music and getting to know everyone else in the wedding party.
We kept on thinking…."God, I am not even halfway through day one and it already feels like I have been here forever." I knew I was in for an epic trip.
George and Dina’s Magical Wedding in Tbilisi, Georgia
Wow, so after days of partying every night, documenting every second, and really building bonds with everyone….we finally reached the wedding day. It was perfect.
The whole design of George and Dina’s wedding had Georgian themes in it. The invitations were made in the form of the 6th-century church Anchishati Basilica where the wedding was held. Her wedding gown and accessories were made in the traditional tones and the wedding dinners (rehearsal, main day and after the wedding) were held in the Georgian restaurants in the Old Part of Tbilisi.
True to the couple who had been dating four years and traveled to over 40 countries together, their wedding was very international. They had guests fly in from 16 countries around the world, so the wedding was a mix of different cultures, first of all Georgian and Russian, of course.
They got married in a 3rd Century chapel next to their hotel. They just had to walk over and not one decoration or flower was necessary. Everyone just came in, stood around the priest and couple and held candles and the entire ceremony was sung in Ancient Georgian by candlelight. It felt like I was back in time 2000 years. It was surreal.
The bride is Russian, so only the groom himself understood the ceremony…which apparently the priest told his wife to “fear her husband��� during the sermon!
From there, we experienced what I like to call “speed formals.” We drove like Mach 10 to the top of the hill overlooking the city, shot like 20 photos, then the driver was like “Go, go , go!” and we flew through traffic, horns blaring literally to the top of another hill, with yet ANOTHER church, go out, shot like 30 photos and then they were like, “We’re done!” And that was it.
The Georgians like to focus on partying, NOT photos. They never even did any family formal portraits. They didn’t want to!
George was trying to do pleasant surprises for Dina, so he invited some performers of Russian music with big dancing Matreshka dolls, but he didn’t know that Dina had a surprise for him as well.
Before the wedding, she took some lessons of traditional Georgian dance and along with her bridesmaids performed a beautiful dance in Georgian costumes!
The rest of the evening was tons of traditional dancing, performances, drinking, TONS of toasting, and partying until 8am. They just don't stop! It puts American weddings that end by 10pm to shame…seriously.
One of my favorite traditions that the Georgians do is pass around a Goat horn full of Checha, (which is their moonshine that tastes like pure rubbing alcohol) during the toasts.
If anyone interrupts a toast or does something uncouth, they have to drink out of the horn…which you can only imagine after hours of toasts what happens…everyone is pretty wasted and the “Toastmaster," or MC, himself passed out drunk at the wedding he was hosting!
But my favorite photo of all is of Sarah and I just DONE at 8 in the morning. Someone picked up our camera and shot us for a change!
Overall, it was the most fun wedding I have ever experienced!
The Day-After Wedding Recovery Party Bus Tour in Tbilisi, Georgia
Sometimes, the only thing that makes you feel better when you have a nasty hangover after partying until 8am, is to just do it ALL OVER AGAIN! And that is pretty much what we did. The bride and groom, George and Dina, now referred to as “Georgina,” organized a huge party bus tour to go wine tasting.
The bus was stocked with champagne, vodka, chocolate, checha….It didn’t take long for everyone who was barely alive and hungover, to perk up with some more alcohol in their systems and the bus went from a quiet tour bus to a crazy loud, karaoke, drinking party bus! We had to stop in random towns to use their outhouses and buy MORE alcohol and it was just a wild time!
We stopped and had an amazing feast with even more cheese bread and wine and I knew I would be missing the food the most when I left. It is a carnivore's dream to eat Georgian food. It is all meat kabobs and grilled meats and thick chunks of cheese and warm bread and lots of fruits and greens and olives, and just so good!
We partied on the bus, went straight to the clubs, went back to the hotel and continued partying there on into the next day and the Groom stayed alive only by drinking endless Red Bulls! They left for Tokyo for their honeymoon the next day and we FINALLY had a day to chill and rest before getting on our 4am flight back home.
Although I needed a full detox after coming home, I learned so much about the Georgians by being on this trip. Despite the war and rising tensions between Russia, Love conquered all. The wedding still went on, we still celebrated life and drank and ate good food, and we didn’t let that dampen our spirits. The groom George was so patriotic and wanted to show us the best of his motherland despite the craziness going on and it made me realize just how hearty, tough, and kind the Georgians are.
Georgia truly is a fairytale country full of castles, vineyards, churches and snowcapped mountains that touch the sky and I’m sure that no matter what happens with Russia trying to invade Georgia in the future, that they will never be able to take away the spirit of the people who live there.