Once upon a time Georgia was promoted as the “Soviet Florida,” the land of exotic fruits and seaside resorts, where workers from frigid northern Russia could swim and relax in the sun and eat tangerines. A country of idiosyncratic folklore and quaint customs, it boasted its own Christian Church, its own curving script, and its own language isolate (contrary to rumour, Georgian has nothing to do with Basque). Reputed for food and wine and colourful hospitality, it stood out as a place to escape the ambient greyness. The daredevil Georgian mafia was the subject of many wild rumours (some of them true), and the best restaurant in Moscow was named for a Georgian river, the Aragvi.
Georgia’s reputation for food and wine still holds, so my friend Kathy and I sign up for a culinary tour with an outfit in Boston. It’s supposed to be a group tour, but there are no other takers, so the two of us travel on our own, with a driver and guide. We fly from Paris to Tbilisi in mid-September 2017. The connection in Amsterdam is tight, and our luggage doesn’t make the plane. But Irma, our guide, and Zaza, our driver, are waiting in Tbilisi to drive us to our hotel. Georgians believe that guests are a gift from God. For the next two weeks we are very well looked after.
The Hotel Kisi is located in the heart of Tbilisi Old Town, halfway up the hill to the Botanic Gardens. It’s a boutique hotel that belongs to a famous actress, with quirky décor, loft-style rooms, and a nonchalant atmosphere. The staff seem surprised to find themselves here doing this. The chambermaids loll around in the lobby chatting to the receptionist, the barman follows us round the breakfast buffet recommending this and that. Our room is on the top floor with an amazing view over Tbilisi, a vast terrace, and a leaky shower. Right across the road is a mosque where Shiites and Sunnites worship together. Natia, our tour coordinator, stops by to say hello (a refreshing change from the lady in Boston), and points us down the hill to the Meidan for dinner.
The Meidan was once the site of the main bazaar. It’s a good place to sprawl on sofas and watch the world go by. Cars flow across the Metekhi Bridge, cable cars float above our heads. The air is warm. We drink red Saperavi Merlot and eat our first khachapuri (the addictive cheese-filled bread which is a Georgian staple). The thirteenth-century Metekhi church with its conical-shaped Georgian dome looms on the rocky outcrop across the river. A fourth-century Persian fortress rears on the skyline behind us. We’ve reached the crossroads of East and West, where civilisations meet, and past and future collide.
Our first day begins with a city tour. Tbilisi is gorgeous. It has latticed windows, carved balconies, coloured façades, gorges where houses cling dangerously to the edge of the cliff, sulphur baths with brick domes and Islamic tiles. The sulphur springs gave the town its name (in Georgian tbili means warm). It was a Persian town until King Vakhtang Gorgasali moved his capital here in the fifth century. Later it was captured by Arabs who sailed up the Caspian from the Middle East, and stayed for 500 years. Beria got rid of most of the mosques in the 1930s, and churches dominate the modern skyline. In the Metekhi Church, headscarves are de rigueur, and the atmosphere is fervent. Irma crosses herself, and kisses the saint’s marble shrine. The Georgian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival since the Soviet collapse, and around half the population regularly attends church services.
Rike Park houses some of Tbilisi’s more recent constructions, built between 2004 and 2013 by President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili studied in New York, his English is fluent, his wife is Dutch, and during his tenure he did his best to drag the old Persian city into Europe and the twenty-first century. There’s an Italian-designed glass and steel footbridge across the Mktvari River called the Peace Bridge; two huge fusilli-shaped cylindrical buildings intended to house a concert hall and exhibition space (both currently empty); and a cluster of mushroom-shaped roofs belonging to the House of Public Service, which is where you go to get driving licenses, marriage certificates and the like. The glass walls symbolize openness. Crime and corruption were a way of life in Soviet times, and the mafia conjoined with the Party ran the country. When the Enemy was in Moscow, that was fine, but when Georgia became independent it proved difficult to found a democratic state on old-established habits of bribery, tax evasion, and resistance to authority. Saakashvili was the first to tackle the problem head on.
The cable car that swings across Old Town to the Narikala fortress is another of his innovations. On the hill overlooking the city beside the fortress is an aluminium statue of Mother Georgia, twenty meters tall, with a sword in one hand to destroy Georgia’s enemies, and a wineglass in the other to welcome Georgia’s friends. Further off sprawls a vast glass and steel complex belonging to a former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who resigned in 2013 after one year in office, the better to pull strings from behind the scenes apparently. Ivanishvili is a millionaire businessman with a finger in every pie, and the compound is a cutting-edge structure that reeks of money and looks as though it could launch rockets into outer space.
The cable car takes us back down to Rike Park, and we make our way past a huge concrete piano to the Peace Bridge. Roses carved in the pathways symbolize the Rose Revolution which brought Saakashvili to power. Close up, the Peace Bridge looks like the inverted sole of a very high-end running shoe. It’s time for a break, and Irma knows the perfect café. Our route takes us past the residence of the Georgian Patriarch, and the headquarters of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party. (The party’s name comes from a song by Ivanishvili’s rapper son Bera. The party’s ideology is not entirely clear. Since taking power, it has reversed some of Saakashvili’s more drastic initiatives, but taken few of its own.) Café Gabriadze has a pleasant covered terrace, and wonderful lemonade. Kathy’s is flavoured with tarragon, and mine with mint. Next door is a quaint clock tower built by Mr. Gabriadze himself, with clockwork figures that pop out on the hour.
The last stop of the day is an exhibition of Colchis Gold at the Museum of Georgia. The kingdom of Colchis in western Georgia was where Jason travelled in search of the Golden Fleece. A chic lady in a white dress called Marina gives us a slightly condescending tour. The gold is impressive. Back at the Kisi, we are reunited with our luggage, which was expedited through Munich overnight. Kathy sets up a meeting with a friend of a friend called Bela, who teaches Georgian literature at the university, and turns out to have been Deputy Minister of Education in Saakashvili’s government. A bit taken aback by this revelation, we sit up straight and try to ask intelligent questions, but Bela is presumably used to the talk shows, and her answers are uncontroversial.
Off to dinner. The Tsiskvili offers Georgian music, Georgian dancing, and Georgian dishes in a vast restaurant complex beside the river, with a kitsch fake waterfall lit by garish blue light. Irma is enchanted to see the traditional blue and white tablecloths she remembers from her youth. It’s a slightly strained evening. We don’t know Irma and Zaza very well yet. The music twangs in a melancholy way. The chicken with blackberries, garlic and coriander is memorable. The dancing is hard to see, and harder to interpret. Our table is on a first floor balcony, the dancers are on the floor below, and we have to crane over a high balustrade to see them. The men perform flashy leaps and preen like peacocks, the women smile submissively and look at the floor. Saakashvili tried to bring Georgia closer to Europe, but it seems doubtful that the country would have adapted well to permissive Western mores. Patriarchal family traditions still hold sway, and houses where several generations live together are the norm. Bela tells us about an American exchange student who had been looking forward to a year of fun with hot Georgian chicks, but who only managed twice to get a girl to kiss him. Georgians are socially and sexually conservative, women are expected to be married by their mid-twenties, and unmarried couples living together are unheard of. Both Zaza (29) and Irma (40) are single. We can’t really ask why. It’s hard to be a Georgian man, says Zaza. It’s hard to be married to a Georgian man, retorts Irma.
Mskheta, a hour’s drive from Tbilisi, is where St Nino converted the Georgian King Mirian to Christianity in the fourth century. (Nino, just so you know, is a woman’s name.) The town is twinned with Leuville-sur-Orge, the town near Paris where the exiled Menshevik government of independent Georgia washed up after the Bolsheviks threw them out in 1921. (The last surviving member of that government, an aged gentleman called Mr. Tsintsadze, used to visit my boss at Radio Liberty in the 1970s.) The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, founded in 1010, houses the tombs of several Georgian kings and, it is reported, Christ’s Crucifixion robe. Outside the church is a St. Nino Cross. Traditionally made of vine branches, its arms point downwards. On the hill above the town is the most sacred place in Georgia, the Jvari Church, where King Mirian erected a wooden cross (Jvari means cross).
A few miles further on, we hit the Georgian Military Highway. Originally built by the Russians in the nineteenth century, it’s the quickest way north through the mountains to Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation. (It’s also the quickest way south from Russia down to Tbilisi.) The Caucasus forms the frontier between Russia and Georgia. The peaks are higher than the Alps, and only three roads cross the mountains. We pass rundown houses with gardens full of vines, and shacks selling tomatoes and strawberries and bottled water. Road signs are pointedly written in Georgian and English only (but if the big neighbour to the north gets riled, that won’t deter the tanks). The landscape is dry: it hasn’t rained for two months. Off to the right is the Zhinvali Reservoir, which is a striking shade of green. When it was built, it drowned three villages and two churches. When the water level is low, you can see the cupola of one of the churches.
We stop at Ananauri on the edge of the reservoir to visit the fortress of the Dukes of Aragvi. In the Church of the Assumption, I light a candle for my husband, who died of cancer eight years ago. Not something I usually do, but it feels right. Back on the highway, Zaza skilfully weaves his huge white Mitsubishi between the trucks heading north from Turkey. Dusty Springfield sings Son of a Preacher Man on the car’s sound system. We stop for lunch at a roadhouse with the Aragvi River bubbling past. Lunch consists of khinkali, a dumpling containing meat or mushrooms. You hold the twist of pastry on top and bite delicately into the dumpling to avoid spilling the contents down your chest. It’s an art. Soon after lunch, we cross the Aragvi and the road climbs into the mountains. A series of hairpin bends leads us to Gudauri, a popular ski resort, which offers a range of Alpine-style chalets with names like Hotel Carpe Diem, Hotel Ozone, and Hotel Edelweiss. The sun pours down. An eagle hangs in the air above the slopes, sheep graze on the hillside, a paraglider sails past. A cross marks the Jvari Pass at 2,400 metres.
The Rooms Hotel has a prime location on the hillside opposite Mount Kazbegi (5,000 m). The vast outdoor terrace offers amazing views across the valley. The long indoor bar has deep couches and well-filled bookshelves. Kathy has been sick all day, and she falls straight into bed. In the sauna, I meet Anne-Marie, who worked with an international organization in west Georgia in the 1990s, and returned ten years later. She fills me in on local conflicts while we quietly perspire, observing that none of the different national groups have any major grievances. They hurl insults at each other during negotiations, then exchange cordial greetings once the session is finished, and ask after each other’s families. The hourglass in the sauna hits the ten-minute mark. Outside, the sun is setting behind Mount Kazbegi. Anne-Marie mentions that she’s travelling with an old friend who is a member of the Gamsakhurdia family. Really? I prick up my ears. Zviad Gamsakhurdia is the man responsible for quite a few of the local conflicts. He was Georgia’s first president after Independence: a man with a mission, a die-hard Georgian nationalist.
In Soviet times, the Republic of Georgia controlled autonomous territories belonging to three small mountain peoples: the Abkhaz, the Adjars and the South Ossetians. What began as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience spiralled out of control when the USSR began to collapse. When Georgia demanded independence from the Soviet Union, the autonomous areas demanded independence from Georgia. Gamsakhurdia riposted that “the territory of the sovereign republic of Georgia is united and indivisible,” and did his best to fan the flames, informing the Adjarians that they were not “proper” Georgians, and the South Ossetians that they were only “guests” in Georgia. It did not end well. Elected president of Georgia in May 1991, he was forced into exile eight months later. By then the economy had collapsed, and the country was controlled by armed militias. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been Republican First Secretary before serving as Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, was invited to come and sort things out. He was partially successful. An agreement was reached with South Ossetia in June 1992, but war with Abkhazia broke out in August. The Russians intervened on the Abkhaz side; most Georgian residents fled; Sukhumi, the capital, was devastated.
Anne-Marie’s friend Madame Gamsakhurdia was one of the Georgians who fled Abkhazia. She now lives in Tbilisi. Abkhazia has seceded from Georgia, but remains a ghost nation recognized only by Russia. Zaza, our driver, lost his father to the conflict when he was four.
The Tsminda Sameba church sits on top of a hill, with Mount Kazbegi rising behind it. This is where Prometheus was chained after stealing fire from the gods. In 1988, the Soviet authorities constructed a cable car to get up to Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) from the valley, but the villagers thought it defiled their sacred place and destroyed it. The road up to the church is a horrendous series of hairpin bends potted with holes and strewn with rocks, but the views from the top are amazing. Kazbegi rears into the pale blue sky, cotton wool clouds float past its summit, a breath of eternity hovers around us.
On the way down the mountain we pass the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, an odd circular structure built in 1983 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk two hundred years earlier. The treaty established eastern Georgia as a protectorate of Russia, putting an end to centuries of Persian influence. A fateful decision.
We’re now on our way to Kakheti, modern Georgia’s main wine-growing area. Around four we stop for lunch in Tianeti. It’s very hot. The restaurant has a shady first-floor veranda, and the menu features mainly butter and cheese – melted cheese, moulded cheese, dough with cheese – khachoerbo, dambalkhacho, gamosula. Only two kinds of cheese were available in the USSR, so they have to make up for lost time.
Grapes have been cultivated in Georgia for at least 8,000 years and Georgians may have been the world’s first wine drinkers. Georgia has more than 400 kinds of wine, and drinking wine at table is central to the collective identity. At the Shumi winery, we see how Georgian wine is traditionally produced. After the grape harvest, the grapes are placed in clay jars called kvevri, buried in soil and gravel, covered with a glass sheet, and left for six months to ferment. The constant temperature underground allows for optimal fermentation. By the spring, the fermented liquid will have risen to the top of the jars and the skins will have dropped to the bottom. The wine is then transferred either to oak barrels or another kvevri to age. The grapeskin pulp is transformed into chacha, a kind of grappa. In Soviet times, wine-making was geared to the Russian taste for sweet wine, and semi-dry reds still lurk on restaurant menus to trap the unwary. Irma steers clear of these, and we follow her lead. After the visit, we taste two of the kvevri wines: white Tsinandali, which is a bit too sweet for my taste, and red Mukuzani, a bit too heavy.
Today is our first masterclass in Georgian cuisine, given by a Georgian cook in her own home. At Vakirelebi, we are received by Tamara. Tamara is half-Georgian, half-Russian, born in Moscow, lived for a while in Istanbul, worked as an event organizer, and speaks excellent English. The house belongs to her parents-in-law and Tamara’s project is to present traditional cuisine to tourists with the help of her mother-in-law, Eka. Tamara has turned Eka’s passion for cooking into a business, and the result is a feast of traditional dishes made with home-grown ingredients.
Before we have lunch, Marika from next door shows us how to make churchkela, walnuts threaded on a string and coated in a thick caramel sauce derived from grape juice. We’ve seen it hanging on pegs at roadside stalls and now we’re given the chance to dip the walnut string in the caramel ourselves, swish it round and pull out the string fully coated. The strings are hung up to dry, and we move upstairs to the shady first-floor veranda for lunch. A spread of dishes including catfish with coriander, mushrooms with tarragon, and aubergines with walnut paste awaits us.
After that, there’s shashlyk grilled over vine branches (makes it juicier), and then Eka shows us how to make the walnut paste for the aubergines. The ingredients include blue fenugreek, marigold flowers, and celery leaves. Chickens wander through the yard, and the trees are heavy with fruit. The view stretches across the valley to the distant hills. It’s the perfect place to spend a drowsy summer afternoon listening to Irma and Tamara discussing how a dish can vary from one place to another, and how exploring local traditions brings people to a clearer sense of their own identity.
Signaghi, just down the road, has the feel of a Tuscan hill town. There are wonderful views from its ramparts across the valley to the Caucasus, some nice buildings, and a charming cobbled square. But Kathy is still feeling ill, and today I am too, so after a rather nasty trip to the municipal WC we decide to cut short the visit and drive back to Tbilisi.
Back at the Kisi, it’s Friday night. Loud Georgian rock music blasts up the hill from the cafés down by the river. Kathy wants to see a doctor, so Irma whisks her off to the emergency room in a modern hospital that caters to foreigners. Diagnosed with Traveller’s Diarrhoea, re-hydrated, told to take something called Cipro, she returns to the Kisi at half-past one in the morning.
Next day we set off for western Georgia, stopping first at Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up coffee. Coffee is not the Kisi’s best thing, and “elevenses” are becoming a tradition in our little family. A sign on the outskirts of the city wishes us a Happy Journey in English. It’s 1,715 km to Istanbul and 942 km to Ankara. At Tserovani, we pass a vast refugee camp for Georgians who fled South Ossetia when war broke out nine years ago. When Saakashvili came to power in 2004, he swore on the tomb of the twelfth-century ruler King David the Builder to “restore [Georgia’s] wholeness and become a united, strong state.” Abkhazia had been sewn up by the Russians by then, but Saakashvili got rid of the corrupt regime in Adjara in 2005. Then he attempted to do the same in South Ossetia, but the plan misfired. Open hostilities broke out in 2008, the Russians came to the aid of the South Ossetians, the West failed to give Saakashvili the support he expected, and Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent republic in August 2008. Another ghost nation. Since then Russia has been discreetly attempting to unite South Ossetia with North Ossetia on the Russian side of the Caucasus by surreptitiously moving border fences when no one is looking. Every time the Russians come to Georgia they take something from us, says Irma.
The road to Kutaisi is a fast four-lane highway. The land is flat and fertile with mountains in the distance on either side. Today we’re hearing songs by a Georgian-Irish singer called Katie Melua. We pass Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, without stopping. (Probably we ought to, but we can’t quite face it.) The highway ends 100 km from Tbilisi. Crossing Mount Likhi, we enter western Georgia, which used to be a different kingdom. Modern Georgia was pretty much created by the Russians, who pulled a patchwork of small states together in the nineteenth century. Kartli, the area around Tbilisi, gave its name to the whole country, which Georgians call “Sakartvelo.” The name “Georgia” that outsiders use derives from the Persian “Gurjistan.”
West Georgia was once the Kingdom of Colchis, Jason’s Land of the Golden Fleece. Sheep’s fleeces were used in ancient times to sieve precious metals in the rivers, which is how the Fleece became Golden. In West Georgia it rains more, and the landscape is less arid. Barbie-pink bus shelters stand by the side of the road, and cows wander across the highway. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole sings Over the Rainbow. Kathy and I join in. There seem to be no speed limits on the roads, and Georgians drive as fast as poor road surfaces and meandering cows will let them. Zaza handles his SUV safely and skilfully, but somewhere between Khashuri and Kutaisi he’s stopped by the police for crossing a white line. He loses 30 points out of 100 on his driving licence, and has to pay a fine of 200 lari. For a while, this slows him down.
Cutting round the edge of Kutaisi, we head northwest to Zugdidi. This is Mingrelia, home of Lavrenty Beria and the Gamsakhurdia family. The main drag is named for Konstantin, Zviad’s father, who was a well-known writer. We stop for lunch at four at the Diaroni restaurant. The weather is greyer and colder than in Tbilisi. The restaurant is surrounded by unlovely high-rise buildings. We were supposed to have a cooking class, but the waiter claims that the kitchen is under renovation. It’s just as well. It’s getting late, and we still have to drive up the mountains to Svaneti.
Coming soon: Part 2: The Kitchen On Top Of The Caucasus