Great tea in Tbilisi – coffee too. We liked this place!

We had the good fortune to take tea in Tbilisi with the man who is surely Georgia’s No 1 expert on tea. We then found a tea room that proudly serves up his teas in town. And we managed also to find a great coffee shop linked to a book store on Tbilisi’s main avenue.

You can’t really sit down for afternoon tea at Shota Bitadze’s lovely tea house on Galaktioni Street in Tbilisi. It’s more of a retail outlet with lots of teas from China and from Shota’s own plantations in Georgia.

Tea house in Tbilisi

But engage Shota in conversation on the wonders of the tea world and the chances are he’ll invite you to sit down and sample a few of his favourites.

The walls of his tea house tell stories of their own, with photos of early Georgian tea traders (the Chinese brought tea to Georgia in 1847) mixed in with more recent pics from Shota’s own tea journeys (to India, China and beyond).

Inside tea house in Tbilisi

The shop is a tea lovers’ dream, with things to spot and admire on every inch of wall or surface.

And we got to taste a few of the favourites from Shota’s collection, all lovingly presented with great (gong fu) ceremony.

Teas for sale at the tea house in Tbilisi

Shota stayed beyond his normal 6pm closing time to finish showing us his stock and have us sample some of them. We were also joined by his son, George, who looks likely to continue the family tradition and helped pass on to us the Georgian tea story (in excellent English I might add).

Shota Bitadze and son George

Of course, we bought a box. We have a good supply of teas for our journey, but could not pass up the chance to enjoy teas for a few mornings at least, knowing we have met the man who grows them and prepares them.

Tea from Georgia

Next day, we found the lovely Alt Haus Tea Room, which is very close to the big bike sculpture that seems to be now a major stop-off point on Tbilisi tours.

Big bike sculpture visible from Alt Haus Tea Room

There are more than 60 loose leaf teas on the menu here, but we had to try more of the Georgian Tea from Shota. And the black tea is good and strong enough to warrant a dash of milk, making us feel even more at home than Shota had done the previous day.

Tea at Alt Haus tea room in Tbilisi

Tbilisi is really a top spot if you’re into your teas.

Alt Haus Tea Room in Tbilisi

Alt Haus Tea Room in Tbilisi

Alt Haus has a great feel to it, too, with a bit of a bohemian look, bright colours, interesting décor and lots of small sections to sit in. Just beware if you pop to the loo, there: also great décor, but if you struggle to cope with seeing yourself in the mirror, don’t go there, because there is one of those mirrors-both-sides set-ups that mean your reflection goes on ad infinitum…

Mari was in charge on the day of our visit; a very friendly approach and obviously proud of the quality of teas they have on offer here. A top place we’d highly recommend.

We only had time for one coffee in Tbilisi. So that had to be at Caliban Coffee, which is attached to Prosperos Books on Rustaveli Street, the main thoroughfare in Tbilisi’s centre.

Caliban Coffee Shop in Tbilisi

There’s a real expat feel to this place, with big American-style muffins to munch on with your cappuccino and classical music playing gently as background.

Tbilisi

With the British Council upstairs and the Canadian Consulate in the same courtyard, this place clearly has a captive customer base. But if I lived in Tbilisi, I’d also be willing to hike across town for a coffee of this standard.

Coffee at Caliban Coffee Shop in Tbilisi

They roast their own across town; it’s quite a dark roast, but an interesting blend involving Indian and Haitian beans as well as the more familiar Indonesian or Colombian.

And if you like your French Press coffee, they can do that too, so Tbilisi has something to offer coffee lovers as well as the tea community.

Talking of tea, Caliban Coffee also had loose leaf teas, though they said they import them from England. I wasn’t able to find out more, but much as I love some of the tea suppliers back home, I know if I lived in Tbilisi I’d want to drink the local brew day after day.

So our to tips for Tbilisi would be Caliban Coffee shop and the Alt Haus Tea Room, with a must-do visit to Shota Bitadze’s tea house. Right, there’s your next weekend away sorted out then…

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Georgia on our minds – with pics from Batumi and Tbilisi

We crossed into Georgia without too much fuss, although our bus ‘to Batumi’ abandoned us at the border control and we had to hop into a shared taxi into the town itself, following two other passengers also left behind by a hurried bus driver.

The first thing to say about Georgia is that it has the wackiest script around for a language. You may get by with spoken Russian, but cyrillic is useless when you’re confronted with words like these – and this is just on water and beer bottles…

Georgian script

Our first meal in Batumi on the Black Sea coast in Georgia was a late lunch of one of those cold soups I normally associate with Polish or Russian cuisine Delicious anyway.

Cold soup in Batumi, Georgia

Batumi was our last port of call on the Black Sea so that called for a final paddle. The beach reminded me of Brighton, though, so a bit hard on the feet for walking.

Batumi beach or Brighton beach?

Other than the beach, Batumi’s main selling point seemed to be its casinos, which were on every street corner, and we gather Donald Trump has invested heavily here. We were glad to get out and head to Tbilisi.

And even more excited to see destinations on the highway as we approached Tbilisi.

Tehran mileage sign

Tbilisi saw the first beef stew style food we’d seen since goulash behind in Budapest.

Georgian stew

Once again, we were struck by bits of history that passed us by. Who ever hears about the 1956 revolt in Tbilisi? Was it an inspiration for Hungarians later that year or should the put down have been a warning?

Tbilisi 1956

Then one of the exhibitions in the town’s main museum says a lot about Georgia’s approach to Russian rule (interesting also to note that the old Stalin museum – he was from here of course – has now been converted into shops!)

Tbilisi Museum poster

You can tell from some of the street art that Tbilisi has a bit of a quirky bohemian temperament.

Busker in the wall, Tbilisi

And this enormous bike seems now to be a main stop-off point on the city bus tour.

Big bike sculpture in Tbilisi

Some of the architecture round the capital is fabulous

Tbilisi architecture

Though a lot of it is very ramshackle now. Makes you wonder how it was in its heyday.

The ramshackle side of beautiful Tbilisi

And finally a couple of classic Tbilisi views – from the bridge into the old town.

Bridge to old town Tbilisi

And the lovely lions which guard the bridge.

Tbilisi lions

Yes, we loved Tbilisi. But wait for the next blog to hear how fantastic the tea and coffee scene is…

Tea with teens in Trabzon then a trip to Turkey’s tea HQ

Our last days in Turkey took us to Trabzon, a lively university town that actually felt more western than anywhere we’d been since Istanbul. We also got to Rize, just up the coast from Trabzon where Turkey’s state-owned tea company has its base, and saw our first tea plantations on this trip.

Google searches for tea in Trabzon can lead to confusion, because one of the top tips is a place called the Stress Café. But this changed name some time ago and is now Ehl-i Keyf (though the words Stress Café still figure on the collage of pics on the café frontage).

Ehl-i Keyf Cafe in Trabzon

This café is in a fantastic old building, with an exotic entrance, a night club downstairs and a wonderful covered terrace upstairs, which is where most of the kids hang out.

Inside Ehl-i Keyf Cafe in Trabzon

And I use the term ‘kids’ intentionally. I have honestly never taken tea with so many youngsters who can barely be a quarter of my age, but the great thing is that nobody batted an eyelid at the old fogies who walked in for a cuppa and a spot of lunch.

Potatoes and cheese for lunch at Ehl-i Keyf cafe

What struck me was that this was a great place for teenagers of 14-15 years just to chill, smoking those harmless water hookahs, sipping tea; many there in small groups of mates; some on innocent-looking dates.

I can’t think of any equivalent customer base anywhere in the UK, where most kids of that age either hang around bus stations or spend their time eating fries in McDonalds.

Big cup of tea in Ehl-i Keyf Cafe in Trabzon

The tea was OK, though I’d advise against a ‘big cup’, which means basically you get  the sort of plain white cup you’d see in any caff back home, rather than the more exotic Turkish (small) glass.

We had an excellent lunch, but admired the (western-looking) cakes in the stand on the way out.

Cake in Trabzon

So, if you go to Ehl-i Keyf for tea in Trabzon, just be aware of who else will be there, but enjoy it anyway.

For coffee in Trabzon, we ended up at one of the two Edward’s Coffee branches in town.

Edward's Coffee in Trabzon

It’s a lovely place, almost mimicking the set of Friends’ coffee shop – Central Perk – with a very American feel, confirming the western vibe to Trabzon.

Inside Edward's Coffee shop in Trabzon

The coffee was a decent brew, not of the quality we found in Istanbul, but the first western-style cappuccino we’d had for four or five days, so welcome all round.

And a nice touch were the cakes. We chose a German banana and chocolate cake, baked apparently by a German lady who now lives in Trabzon after meeting and marrying a Turk in Germany. Nice that those international links can lead to such a good addition to the coffee shop menu.

Edwards for cake and coffee in Trabzon

From Trabzon, we moved an hour up the coast to Rize, the home of Caykur, the Turkish state-owned tea company.

The founder of Caykur tea company in Rize

We’d read online about a tea museum at the Tea Research Institute in Rize, but nobody we asked seemed too sure about where this might be.

In the end, one local reckoned it had to be linked to the Botanical Tea Garden up above town, and sure enough there it was.

Tea Institute in Rize

Tea Institute, tea plantations and tea gardens. It’s a wonderful spot, with great views down over town and onto the tea plantations. But, on a sunny Monday morning, we were the only visitors, just a few of the Institute workers having a cuppa in this massive 100-seater tea garden at the same time as us.

Botanical tea garden in Rize

Tea garden in Rize

It’s such a shame the museum is not open (whether it was just that day or it’s gone for good we’re not sure). A man appeared from the institute as we were about to leave, offering to open up the shop if we wanted to buy some tea (we did).

Caykur shop in Rize

But we felt the whole thing could have been so much better marketed. You’d think all the tour groups who go through the area, visiting mountains and monasteries, could be encouraged to take a trip up to Rize’s tea HQ – after all tea is so much a central part of Turkey’s culture.

And it’s hard to believe how little knowledge there seemed to be among locals of just what the Tea Institute does or even where it is.

And by the way, Turkish tea may not be the best quality in the world according to the tea experts, but that cuppa we had at the Botanical Tea Garden in Rize was the best we had in Turkey (and only about 25p a cup, too!)

So, tea lovers, if you’re anywhere near north eastern Turkey, do not miss out on a visit to Rize. The tea plantations look lovely, too…

Tea plantations in Rize

Tea plantations near Rize

Trabzon and Rize on the Turkish Black Sea coast

Trabzon was a lively, studenty place which actually felt more western than Amasya had. Not many pics from our time in Trabzon, but there was the half day trip up to Sumela Monastery, deep in the mountains outside town. We hooked up with another British couple – Jeremy and Jane, about whom more when we post a piece on people we met on the road .

Stunning area.

The beautiful hills above Trabzon in Turkey

Incredible where monks decided to build things

Sumela Monastery near Trabzon

And once there, the beauty they created around them. Our hosts apologised for the damage to the icons…

Wall paintings at Sumela Monastery

Frescoes at Sumela Monastery in Turkey

The buskers were pretty cool up there too. Shame our musician friends weren’t along for the journey, as passers-by were asked to give the instruments a go.

Buskers at Sumela Monastery

And then up to Rize, Turkey’s tea HQ, so we’ll be covering that in the next blog post.

Tea plantations in Rize, Turkey

And we couldn’t leave Turkey without a picture of Ataturk. At least, we assume this is him. No name on the statue, in the same way statues of Robbie Burns are unnamed in Ayrshire because everyone just KNOWS it’s him…

Ataturk

Coffee and tea in Amasya, but where were the apples?

The useful thing about trying to find good coffee and tea everywhere we go is that you don’t need a degree in every language to get what you need. The word ‘coffee’ is recognised globally, and ‘tea’ or ‘chai’ will get you the desired cuppa in every country I’ve been to so far.

That’s a good thing if you’re visiting Amasya, where nobody seemed to speak a word of English. And even the word ‘café’ led us astray, as we went in wanting some lunch, but the waiters seemed to be offering only coffee…

As always, there was tea on tap all over town, starting in our hotel, which served up a string of cuppas from early morning, bringing us more whenever we appeared on the bench for a few minutes downtime.

Tea making in our Amasya hotel

Language apart, we loved Amasya. And actually the language barrier made the place feel even more exotic, though it meant any tips for good tea or coffee in Amasya had to come from google searches.

Fortunately we had a good suggestion for best coffee in Amasya. Gamasuk – in Amasya’s main shopping street – is one of those olde worlde coffee shops in Turkey which were probably once reserved only for men.

Gamasuk for coffee in Amasya

But we sat upstairs next to two women having a coffee on their own, as well as the old regulars who’d probably been coming here since their youth.

Coffee at Gamasuk in Amasya

The coffee was excellent, and as always with Turkish coffee, beautifully presented on a silver platter, with a glass of water (to cleanse the palate) and some sweets and lokum to offset any bitterness from the coffee.

Inside Gamasuk coffee shop in Amasya

A lovely place, with beautiful décor. My only problem came when I tried to ask the opening hours – partly for our breakfast the next day and partly for my review when it goes online. There was just no way of getting the concept across, even when the owner took me downstairs and into the clothes shop next door where he knew someone who spoke a word or two of English. But ‘opening times’ were clearly not words they taught him in his English classes (basic lesson early on when I was doing TEFL all those years ago)…

For tea in Amasya, we struggled a bit at first.

We decided to go up to the Apple Palace Hotel, which sits way up on the mountain above town, with spectacular views from their café terrace.

Apple Palace Hotel in amasya

With apples being in season and on sale from roadside stalls all around the outksirts of Amasya, we assumed a hotel like the Apple Palace, especially with its name, would be full of apples in all sorts of states: pureed, in pies, cakes, sweets, tea even.

But no, nothing. Not an apple in sight. And when I asked the waiter if they had any apples, he didn’t seem to know what the word ‘apple’ meant. Which seemed kind of odd, given the name of the hotel.

Tea at the Apple Palace Hotel in Amasya

The tea was nice enough, but it did not match the views (or the swimming pool). It was worth going up, just to see how Turkey’s Brat Pack must have lived back in the 1950s, but this was not good enough to review for Fancy a Cuppa’s website.

Pool and view at Apple Palace Hotel in Amasya

And when we climbed up to Amasya’s ancient tombs in the rocks later in the day, we thought we’d stop for tea at the cafeteria near the tombs. But they didn’t even do tea, offering us only coffee or lemonade – surely unheard of not to have tea in Turkey!

So this place also didn’t make the grade for our tea review in town.

And then I remembered my google search and we found the wonderful Municipal Tea Garden.

Municipal Tea Garden in Amasya

This place is enormous. There must be seating under the trees and by the river for 200 people on a busy afternoon.

Municipal Tea Garden in Amasya

We stayed for a bite to eat and a glass of tea, and were very happy with not only the quality on offer but also the atmosphere and the feel of the place.

It’s clearly where Amasya’s youth hang out, and one table of girls spent time taking pictures of Granddad (me…) having  a pizza and tea by the river, such was the novelty value of our visit.

View from Municipal Tea Garden riverside seats

We were also joined by a flurry of bats, who were busily moving to and fro over the river, with occasional bursts past the table we were having our dinner at, making for great entertainment all round.

Throw in the call for prayer as the sun set and this place was utterly magical. So our top tip for tea in Amasya has to be the Municipal Tea Garden, and it will surely be just as delightful under the trees or right by the riverside.

Amasya – the pics

We chose to stop in Amasya partly because it was mid distance between Safranbolu and Trabzon, our easterly base for leaving Turkey. I vaguely recalled it having some history to it from my research pre-trip, but it wasn’t until we woke in the morning and saw the view from our hotel that we could see just how much history…

Amasya views

That was the view from the hotel front, looking up at the 2,500 year old tombs.

Amasya river views

And this was the river view from our room on the other side of the hotel.

Pontic tombs in Amasya

We walked up to the tombs (from the Pontic era no less – no, I’d never heard of it either till this week) to get a closer look.

Pontic tomb in Amasya

Though the Amasya idea of health and safety made us hesitate about going all the way up. And there wasn’t much stopping us from falling over the sheer drop…

Health & safety in Amasya

Anita decided to take precautionary measures to get down

The careful way down

In more recent times – mediaeval – Turkey’s Sultans apparently sent their kids to Amasya to finish their education, so the riverbank is lined with rather wonderful sculptures of various Sultans’ heads.

Sultans in Amasya

We heard that apples are Amasya’s big speciality, and as the bus got nearer to town from Safranbolu, we saw thousands of apples on sale from roadside stalls. But in town, we searched in vain for any cafés or restaurants doing a seasonal apple special. Nothing!

Apple Palace in Amasya

We decided to go up to the top hotel on the other hill, called the Apple Palace. But even there, the only apple we saw was a plastic decoration on the entrance wall. And the waiters there had mystified looks when we asked if they had any apple dishes on the menu.

What the Apple Palace does have is a fabulous outdoor pool in a setting fit for a Bond movie or, more likely, some local gangster party in the 1950s. It’s peaceful and beautiful now, but we wondered if the Brat Pack had been anywhere near once upon a time.

Outdoor pool at the Apple Palace in Amasya

Our first Turkish coffee, then putting saffron in your tea in Safranbolu

It takes less than five seconds in Safranbolu to realise why this place was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In fact the old town was so wonderful to walk around that we didn’t even make it to the new town, even to look for coffee or tea.

Hammam in Safranbolu

Our first stop off in Asian Turkey (unless you count the bit of Istanbul just over the Bosphorus) and we decided it was time to try our first Turkish coffee.

Coffee shop in Safranbolu

There surely can’t be many better places for an initiation into Turkish coffee than Arasya Boncuk Kahvesi, a coffee shop in old Safranbolu that claims to have been around since 1661, though that might have been the building rather than the coffee shop, as lots seems to have gone up in this town round that time.

They take great pride in their coffee here, and seemed to appreciate someone actually ordering a cup rather than being in some tour group being shown the place but not stopping to partake.

Turkish coffee in Safranbolu

They brew the coffee over hot coals in front of you. It’s done in one of those copper containers with a long handle and the coffee kind of merges with the water as it comes to the boil.

They then pour the coffee into lovely little coffee cups and present it on a silver platter, along with glass of water and a glass of grape juice.

Coffee in Safranbolu

This is where the initiation came in. The manager very kindly came over and told us what order to drink: 1-2-3; water, coffee, grape juice.

Mrs Cuppa chose to do it in one gulp each; I chose the one sip at a time, making it about six cycles of the 1-2-3. Who know which is correct; we both enjoyed the experience.

Turkish coffee and grape juice

And top tip for Turkish coffee is to let it settle a while before drinking, and definitely not to knock it all back, because then you get all the gloopy black mush that everyone associates with Turkish coffee.

Arasya Boncuk coffee shop in Safranbolu

A delightful start to our day in Safranbolu. And a fantastic setting, either out in the courtyard, with a vine as ceiling and tables to look out at passers-by, or inside in the elegant room (where I gather they have live music most nights).

What I liked about Safranbolu is that they really make the most of their key local product. You find saffron in everything, from soup to soap via Turkish Delight or lokum.

And the local speciality drink is of course Saffron Tea. The saffron turns the tea a slightly yellow or green colour, and there are bits of saffron floating around in it – it’s a lovely alternative to the normal black tea in Turkey.

Saffron Tea in Safranbolu

It is delicious and there were lots of venues round Safranbolu serving up Safran Cay. We don’t have any particular spot to recommend, but we had a couple of glasses of the stuff through the afternoon.

What we did finally find was a place serving up Turkish Delight with the tea. They tried to force their home-made baklava on us as well, and normally we’d have leapt at the chance, having struggled to find that combination in Istanbul, but even for us there can be a limit to the sweet stuff we can consume.

Saffron Tea with Turkish Delight

And we had already had saffron tea with baklava earlier in the morning!

Saffron Tea with baklava

And the saffron Turkish Delight was one pleasure we ate an awful lot of, walking away from town with a massive box full, of which we are only half way through some 3-4 days later.

Just two more observations on coffee and tea in Safranbolu:

  • If you’re desperate for a European or American-style cappuccino, they do a decent cuppa at the old caravanserai, which has now been restored into the Cinci Han hotel. And it’s a fabulous place to sit and have a coffee, imagining yourself sitting with the silk and spice traders hundreds of years ago.

Coffee in a caravanserai in Cinci Han in Safranbolu

  • It’s also amazing how widespread Nescafé is round here as the ‘western’ alternative to Turkish coffee. I can’t imagine this menu appearing on any café wall in the UK these days, even if they did Nespresso!

Drinks menu in Safranbolu