What have Portugal, Peru and Thailand got in common? Well, as far as I’m aware, nothing, except that you know where they are in the world: Europe, South America and South-East Asia. So where’s Georgia? Not the American one, the other one. It’s too far west to be Central Asia, and too far east to be Eastern Europe; when we coined that term we’d no idea that Europe would expand even further south and east as bits dropped off the former Soviet Union. If I had to come up with a description for Georgia, geographically as well as culturally, it would be Middle Eastern Europe.
And what’s beneath the label we feel we always have to slap on things? Imagine a country the size of Ireland and the shape of a duck-billed platypus. The duck bill is the Abkhazia region which, since Georgia broke free of Russia, wants to break free of Georgia.
The platypus’ back bumps against Russia in the Caucasus Mountains, where Georgia’s highest peak, Mt. Kazbek, reaches 5,048 metres (16,562 feet). Its front feet paddle in the Black Sea, while the bulk of its body is a green fertile plain, once the Soviet Union’s shopping basket: apples, olives, avocados, aubergines, grain, wine and other goodies that you knew Russia produced yet never seemed to end up on its restaurant menus.
Its belly rubs against Turkey and Armenia, and if our platypus ever had a stomach upset, Azerbaijan would be the one to suffer. At its south-eastern extremity, this land of snow-topped mountains, abundant plains and bathing beaches manages to encompass desert, too.
This long-distance view seems to show a land that has everything, and as our plane descended into Tbilisi airport, the rising sun even painted the country’s capital a golden honey colour. Surrounded by hills, sliced in two by a slinky river with tree-lined banks, Tbilisi was astonishingly beautiful. “Be prepared for a bit of a bump when we land,” the Captain warned us, “as the runway does have a few potholes in it.” It was time to come down to earth.
If the runway at the international airport has potholes, you can imagine what the roads were like. The handle came off the taxi’s door as I tried to close it, and the boot sprang open as we drove off. Ladas lined the roadsides, their boots open too, as drivers changed their tyres or waited for help, squatting Asian-style and puffing on a cigarette. Plump, pinafored women, swept up the dust and debris with brooms made from twigs.
It was a picture familiar to me from travelling in Russia and other ex-Soviet states, so I knew exactly what to expect from the city’s main tourist hotel: an ex-Intourist block probably renamed the Hotel Tbilisi, lit by 40-watt light bulbs and where the receptionists had 10-watt smiles.
As I entered the vast open atrium of the Hotel Metechi Palace, filled with plants and light, I wondered if the revolving doors had somehow spun me all the way to California. Wow! Glass-sided lifts glided up and down beneath a glass-domed roof. My bathroom even had rosemary and nettle shampoo in it, for goodness sake. Was I in a city that had tanks on its streets only six years ago, or in a Body Shop advert?
Setting out to explore the city streets, I was as stunned by Tbilisi as I had been by the hotel. The River Mtkvari (Kura) runs through the city centre, right by a curve of cliffs on top of which old wooden-balconied buildings stand. Down across the fast-flowing water was a tree-lined riverside boulevard. Above this were the towers of churches, and pastel-painted houses like those in the Baltics or Prague. On one side, a Turkish fortress crowned a green hill, and watching over all these was the Holy Mountain, Mt Mtatsminda, 1,300 feet high. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was love at first sight.
Was it the warmth of the early summer sun and the excitement of a new city to explore, or were Georgian women the most beautiful in the world? Thankfully, I discovered a few days later that it wasn’t merely a male writer succumbing to their charms; in her book Please Don’t Call It Soviet Georgia the Irish author Mary Russell also noted that: “I have never seen so many truly attractive women, in such numbers, as I have seen in Georgia”. The women have olive skin, hair as black as night and passionate brown eyes. The men have a proud and fierce Slavic look at first, until the smiles break through beneath their bushy moustaches: eastern faces in western clothes.
I meandered randomly through the streets towards the Old Town on the far side of the river. Tbilisi’s shops all seemed to be either huts the size of a rabbit hutch or vast, gloomy caverns, though with the same stock in each: coke, wine, cigarettes, sweets. On each counter stood a plate of black sunflower seeds, with a measuring glass in the middle to pour the seeds into a twist of newspaper. Exchange booths showed the currencies you’d need if you wanted to get hold of some Georgian lari: dollars, marks, roubles.
I’d changed some money at the hotel, and after a hour or so of strolling I decided to spend some in what seemed to be a converted railway carriage turned into a pavement café. I ordered a litre of mango juice and a slab of fresh walnut cake, and the plump lady behind the counter smiled as I peered at the banknotes. I’ve seen bigger bus tickets, and the Georgian script passeth all understanding. It bears no relation to any known script, and each word looks like a row of squirming worms. In fact, if you look long enough the letters appear to be still moving. It’s not much better transliterated into English, as their alphabet has seven extra letters, all of them consonants; producing rows of letters you’ve never seen next to each other in your life before.
I gulped down my gorgeous juice at a shady table and tried to master the Georgian for thank you: madlobt. That’s not too difficult, but good morning is dila mshwidobisa. Welcome is mobrzandit. I settled for a madlobt as I went, leaving the tiny half-lari coin on the counter as a tip. The lady gave it back to me, thinking I’d simply forgotten it. I’d just time to walk back to the hotel to meet the rest of our small group for lunch; about to discover that a slab of walnut cake the size of a bag of sugar is not the best thing to eat if you’re about to go for a Georgian meal.
At the hotel, a fellow traveller was trying to change some money, only to be told at reception that the exchange desk is open 24 hours a day, except at the moment. Our Georgian tour leaders told us that we were going to have lunch at the Mshrali Khidi, or Dry Bridge Restaurant, called after the bridge nearby that spans the road in this city of river bridges.
My dated Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit to the USSR had assured me that the food in Georgia was good, but if that fact has changed since independence in 1991 then it has only changed for the better; Georgian food is superb, as a glance down the menu shows: aubergine with nuts, sturgeon with walnuts, fish with plum sauce, roasted field mushrooms.
Within minutes it seemed that every dish on the menu was on the table. There were patés, cheeses, half a loaf each, plates of greens and dips. When it comes to cooking, Georgia obviously has closer links with its southern neighbour Turkey than its northern neighbour Russia, with a nod towards the Indians further south in the use of coriander and cumin, onions and garlic.
We failed to clear the table, but soon learned that this is the norm in Georgia. Spreads are lavish and not even Georgians manage to eat everything that’s put in front of them. We were just complimenting our hosts on how good the food was, when the next course arrived: plates piled high with slices of khachapuri. This is a kind of cheese pizza folded over on itself like a pancake, and is the most delicious bread I’ve ever eaten. It seems to appear at every meal, so we stuffed our faces with that for a while.
At first it was the table that was groaning with food, then it was our turn, “No more, no more”. But we could already hear the next dish arriving – sizzling bowls of pork shashlik, the Georgian kebab, served today with pomegranates, onions, parsley and potatoes. “Tell the kitchen to stop,” we insisted, “Or we’re going to burst.”
Next day we left Tbilisi for the former Georgian capital of Mtskheta, where our tour leader told us how abundantly things grow in Georgia, “I was here last autumn and trees right in the centre of town were bending under the weight of the fruit on them: avocados, olives, sharon fruit”.
Where Tbilisi is a city straddling one river, Mtskheta is a small town at the confluence of two: the Kura and the Aragvi. It was the country’s capital from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, and looks like it hasn’t quite reached the 20th century. Where were the high-rise Soviet flats? The town centre here has streets lined with rustic wooden buildings, and pigs poke around in the gardens.
Visitors come to Mtskheta not just for its charm, but also for its churches. The Djvari Cathedral has stood on a hill looking down on the town since the 6th century, and its simple yet powerful cross-shape is said to be the archetype for all Georgian church design.
From the outside, the churches look a little like Greek Byzantine ones, though inside the contrast is stark. Walls tend to be bare, perhaps with a few fading frescoes, and the domes' dead centres are so high they almost disappear, reminding you that the next stop is heaven.
The Sveti-tskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta stands right where the two rivers meet. It was Sunday morning when we visited and the church was packed. The building dates from the 11th century and is dedicated to St Nino, who brought Christianity from Jerusalem to Georgia in the 4th century.
The Cathedral’s name means Column of Life, as it’s said that during the building of the first church on the site, one of the columns hovered in the air before St Nino brought it back down again. What’s hovering in the air today is the sound of chanting. The Georgians seem to be able to harmonise as well as they can cook, and beside the pulpit a singing lesson was going on, a young altar boy was being trained by a black-robed priest and an elderly white-bearded man, who looked like Santa Claus but for his shabby brown suit.
More chanting was going on in the town’s other main church, the Samtavro Convent, an 11th-century building said to be on the site of the country’s first ever church, built at the time of St Nino. A small chapel in the convent grounds marks the spot where St Nino lived in a wooden hut while the church was being built.
We entered quietly as a baptism service was taking place. To one side of the altar a small group of nuns were singing in impeccable harmony a slow Hallelujah... Hallelujah... Their voices blended with such purity, that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The sound was so gentle yet it seemed to fill the building, swirling up into the dome from where Christ’s face looked down. The black-bearded priest in his white robes looked fearsome, and not surprisingly the children being baptised, all about one to two years old, were fractious, some crying, some squirming away from him.
My own irreligious eyes moistened a little at this seemingly everyday scene, as the parents looked on proudly, the nuns sang like angels and the congregation were free to get together to practice their faith in a country whose culture and religion was suppressed for so long. I looked at the wriggling children and hoped that their future will be as golden as my first glimpse of the sun coming up over Georgia.
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