In 1935, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova began to write a poem called Requiem. Stalin’s purges were under way, people were disappearing from one day to the next, yet no one talked about what was happening because they were afraid to do so. Standing in line at the Kresty prison in Leningrad one day, Akhmatova was approached by an unknown woman who asked her if she could write about what was happening. Akhmatova agreed that she could.
And so she took it on herself to write a series of poems so that the terror being visited on the Russian people should never be forgotten. She wrote alone in her room at night, learned each text by heart, and burned the paper it was written on. If the NKVD had found it, they would have sent her to the camps.
Picking up a French translation of the poem in a bookshop one day by chance, I was fascinated by Akhmatova’s themes of time and memory and loss and survival. Digging into her biography, I found the story of her affair with the artist Boris Anrep, who moved to England in 1917. Akhmatova never forgot him, and they were reunited briefly in London in 1966.
Survival through memory is the theme of Compassion, and the love that defies space and time is its foundation. I used Anrep and Akhmatova as models for the main characters, even though I had to take extensive biographical liberties to make the project work.
The title of the book came from Anrep. One of the mosaics he created for the vestibule of the National Gallery in London represents Akhmatova, and he called it “Compassion.”
In my book, I called the two main protagonists “Andrei” and “Nina.” Andrei is entirely an invented character, for I was unable to discover much about Anrep’s life. Anrep was a mosaicist, but I made Andrei a sculptor.
Akhmatova was different. She had a complicated private life that involved three husbands and numerous lovers. In Russia she is revered as a major poet, and in the West as well. None of the accounts of her life gave me a sense of what she was like as a person, especially when she was young. Hagiography, not biography, was the order of the day – and of course I was suffering from reverence myself. Akhmatova overawed me. I didn’t feel I could work with her, which was why I created Nina. Nina and Akhmatova are not the same person, even though certain outward elements of Nina’s life resemble those of Akhmatova, and the poetry I ascribe to Nina was written by Akhmatova. Nina is a product of my imagination just as much as Andrei.
In Compassion, the story I tell is this: Andrei arrives in Petrograd in 1921. He sees the celebrated poet Nina Anishkova walk into The Stray Dog cabaret, and Nina sees him. It’s the start of a love affair which will last for the rest of their lives. But Andrei is half English and, when the Bolsheviks threaten to shoot him as a British spy, he is forced to flee to London.
Nina fails in her attempt to join him, and the gates of Soviet Russia slam shut behind her. Destitute, half-starving, forbidden to publish her poetry in spite of her fame, trying desperately to make a life for herself and her son, she is forced into a loveless marriage by her need to survive.
During the Terror, her husband is taken, and she begins to write Witness, a poem about the purges. Working secretly at night, alone in her room, she learns each line of the poem by heart, and then puts a match to the pages.
Unlike many of her fellow poets, Nina survives the purges, and in 1944 she is reunited with Andrei in Moscow. Again they attempt to make a life together, again they are thrown apart. Andrei is deported from Russia. Nina stays behind.
In 1968, they meet one final time in London. Nina dies shortly afterwards, but Andrei lives to see Witness published in Russia for the first time, fifty years after it was written. Andrei is now over ninety, and a world-famous sculptor. He tells his grand-daughter Charlotte about his love for Nina, and the life they should have had that was stolen from them.
Akhmatova and her third husband Nikolai Punin lived in an apartment at the back of the former Sheremetev palace, which stands on the banks of the Fontanka canal in what is now St. Petersburg. It was Akhmatova who christened it “Fontanny Dom.” The apartment is now a museum. I went there for the first time in the early 2000s, and returned a second time in 2010 when I was researching Compassion.
The apartment doesn’t overlook the canal, but a tree-filled courtyard. Since my last visit, it’s been revamped. There’s an excellent English audioguide, and some new exhibits. Visitors are sparse. The atmosphere is austere. The previous week in Moscow, I had visited other poets’ houses: Tsvetaeva’s apartment and Pasternak’s dacha. Both were contemporaries of Akhmatova. In both places, the atmosphere was one of fond familiarity, but it’s not like that here. Akhmatova is never referred to as “Anna,” not even “Anna Andreyevna.” She is never anything but “Akhmatova,” and it’s a little like being in church. You can almost cut the reverence with a knife. This is not a family home, even though her husband Punin’s overcoat hangs in the hall, and his cameras and family portraits are on display. This is sacred ground. This is where she wrote Requiem during the Terror, this is where she and her friends learned the text by heart, this is where where she burned the paper in the ashtray.
Revisiting the house makes me remember why I wanted to write about her. I take notes and a few surreptitious photographs, and the museum attendants smile at me, let me sit down to listen to the audioguide, and thank me for coming. When a foreigner shows an interest in their culture and literature, Russians lose their habitual glumness and blossom in an unexpected and charming way. The previous day I spent a long time dithering over tickets for a Mahler concert that cost upwards of $40 each. (Prices for foreigners are higher than for locals.) In the end I decided they were too expensive and went away. Halfway down the block I changed my mind. It wasn’t as if I got the chance to go to the St. Petersburg Philharmonia very often. Retracing my footsteps to the concert hall, I was greeted with open arms by the ticket lady, who cheerfully sold me two tickets at the Russian price of $20.
The next poet on my visiting list is Aleksandr Blok. Leaving the Sheremetev palace, I continue along the Fontanka, and cut up past St. Nicholas’ Cathedral (where Akhmatova’s funeral service was held), to the legendary Marinsky Theatre on the Street of the Decembrists.
Blok lived right at the end of Dekabristov ulitsa in a house that overlooks a canal. As soon as I see it, a reference in one of Akhmatova’s poems from 1914 falls into place. She visited the great Symbolist poet in his high grey house by the sea-gates of the Neva, on a Sunday, precisely at noon. Seeing the house for myself, I can picture it exactly.
Blok appears briefly in Compassion under the name of Vyacheslav Feld. He is my heroine Nina’s first husband. In real life Akhmatova and Blok were never married, but the idea that they might have had some kind of relationship came to me from reading what they wrote about each other. Blok wrote about a rose in a glass of champagne and a tantalizing woman that everyone is in love with. In her poem To Aleksandr Blok, Akhmatova wrote: His eyes are so serene/one could be lost in them forever./I know I must take care/not to return his look.
Poetry is not proof, of course, and none of the respectful biographers hint at anything untoward. Still, reading between the lines, it felt like something that could have happened.
Blok had a fabulous view from the big, quiet room where he worked at the top of the house, but he lived in the middle of nowhere. Central St. Petersburg is remarkably short of public transport. The metro is designed to bring people in from the suburbs, not get them around the centre, while buses are few and far between. This means you have to walk. Before setting out on the long trek back to my hotel near Nevsky Prospekt, I stop at the nearest café to get a drink. The café is Georgian. A lady with very dyed red hair is arranging napkins in intricate structures for the evening’s clients. A bland male voice is crooning something vaguely oriental, and she hums along. The poets of 1920s Petrograd are long gone.
The reason we take the night train from Tbilisi to Baku is because I have an unshakeably romantic notion of overnight trains and their glamourous ways. You climb aboard in Liverpool and wake up in London; you go to sleep in Samarkand and wake up in Tashkent. Kathy, being a good sport, goes along with this. My first doubts emerge when we get to the rail station in Tbilisi. It’s a desolate concrete hall with scuffy shops and a tragic cafeteria. There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere to wait. There are no exotic countesses of mysterious lineage, swathed in furs, stalking through the crowds. One reason for this is that there are no crowds. Come to that, there aren’t many trains. The whole place has a derelict feel. On the platform, I trip over an oddly placed lump of concrete and go down hard on one knee.
They let us board the train half an hour before departure. It’s cosy and shabby. We have a compartment for two with a door that locks, and just enough floor space between the bunks to stash our suitcases. An attendant hands out mismatched flower-patterned sheets and pillow cases, and a tiny square of towel for ablutions in the grim toilet at the end of the corridor. Usually they give you free chai on overnight trains, but sadly the samovar on this one doesn’t seem to be working.
The train leaves Tbilisi at 19.15 and arrives at the border with Azerbaijan at 20.30. A Georgian official comes through the coach collecting passports. Mine is French, Kathy’s is American. After a while, they’re returned with exit stamps. Then we chug off to the Azeri frontier. The journey across no man’s land takes a good ten minutes. It’s too dark to see what they’ve got out there. Mines? Miradors? Barbed wire? The last time I crossed an ex-Soviet land frontier – on a bus between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – things were pretty relaxed. But, as Lonely Planet delicately explains, entering Azerbaijan is “sometimes awkward.” For a start you need a visa, unlike the other Caucasian countries. Azerbaijan has a repressive political regime, and unresolved disputes with its neighbour Armenia. The train shudders to a standstill, and the Azeri officials board.
When the Soviet Union started to fall apart at the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions blossomed in the Caucasus. First there was unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh (a predominantly Armenian enclave inside Muslim Azerbaijan), then there were anti-Armenian pogroms in and around Baku, then Moscow sent in Soviet troops and their intervention caused dozens of deaths. Sixteen percent of what used to be the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR is currently occupied by Armenia, and so the first thing everyone wants to know is whether we’ve been sleeping with the Enemy. Fortunately, we have not. Our itinerary on this trip didn’t include Armenia. Just as well: it’s the main thing on everyone’s mind. The immigration officials ask if we’ve been there, so do the customs officials, and later so do our guides in Baku. Land grabs and blood feuds are taken seriously in this part of the world.
The passport officials commandeer an empty compartment further down the coach and the passengers are summoned one by one to give an account of themselves. It’s very Agatha Christie. You start to wonder if you’ve murdered someone. In a modern twist, they take our photos too. Kathy is asked again if she’s been to Armenia. When it’s my turn, since they can see I was born in England, they cunningly inquire if I’ve got another passport (which I might have used to conceal any treasonous detours). Of course not, I say, feigning perplexity. Welcome to Azerbaijan, says the official.
Next along the coach is a lady customs official, who wants to know what we bought in Georgia. Spices, ma’am. What else? Since I’m stupid enough to mention some kilim cushions I bought in Tbilisi, she makes me dig them out of the bottom of the suitcase. Kilims over a certain size require an export licence, and I can’t make her grasp the concept of cushions. By the way, have we been to Armenia?
I first got interested in Baku in the 1990s. Caspian oil reserves were neglected by the Soviets, but when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991 no time was lost in scouting out international investment. The foreign oilmen jetted in, with the Western press hard on their heels. I was fascinated by the tales of Western oil barons doing deals with former stars of the Communist Party in a town where oil rigs stood side by side with Caspian Belle Époque mansions. I put Baku on my list of places to visit – but it’s taken me twenty years to get there.
Right now Baku is in the middle of its second oil boom. The first one began in the 1870s – oil was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century – and by 1905 the sleepy provincial Caspian town had become a modern metropolis supplying half the world’s oil. Its population shot from 14,000 to 206,000. Ethnic Azeris were outnumbered by Russians, Armenians, Jews, and Europeans. Wedged between the desert and the Caspian, Baku became a cosmopolitan city whose inhabitants thought of themselves not as Azeris, but as Bakintsy: sophisticates not shepherds, men and women of the world. (The chess player Garry Kasparov still identifies himself as a Bakanets.) World War I triggered an international scramble to control the Caucasus and its oil wealth. For a while it looked as though the British had won, but then the Bolsheviks pushed them out. Twenty years later, the lure of the oil wells drew the Nazis south towards the Caucasus. Happily, Hitler got sidetracked by the siege of Stalingrad. If the Wehrmacht had made it down to Baku, Caspian oil might have allowed him to win World War II.
As soon as all the officials have left, the attendant moves down the coach, turning off lights. Sleep time, she says as she walks past our door. When we wake up we’re in Azerbaijan. Raising the blinds we peer out at an inhospitable vista of scrubby desert and arid mountains. Gradually the landscape turns into an oilscape. The train chugs past mile after mile of refineries and pipelines. A flame of fire burns brightly in the morning gloom. Half-constructed houses stand sadly amid the oil rigs. After a lengthy stop in a station on the outskirts of town, the train gasps into Baku an hour late.
The Baku rail terminal is a thing of wonder. It ushers you slickly into the country: it gleams, it sparkles. Money talks! Oil money talks loudest of all. It’s cold and rainy and there’s no one to meet us. We find a bench to sit on and start calling and texting, and after a while, the driver from the tourist agency ambles up. He doesn’t apologise for his lateness. He looks a bit like Yul Brynner. His English isn’t great, but he speaks some Russian. We set off for the hotel.
The Shah Palace Hotel is located at the entrance to the Old City, and overflows with Arabian nights charm and Azeri oil bling. The floor of the lift is so ornate it seems a shame to walk on it. The inner courtyard is stunning. We’re too late for the buffet breakfast, but the hotel provides an amazing improvised picnic. Our irritability subsides.
Still, it can’t be said that our stay in Baku is an out-and-out success. The planets are not in the right conjunction. Part of the problem is the weather we encounter, and part is the people we find ourselves dealing with. October in Baku is supposed to be balmy, but we’re out of luck and it rains almost non-stop. Our view of the city is consequently blurry. We perceive it mainly through fogged-up car windows. Baku is said to be choc-a-bloc with fancy cars and up-market boutiques, but we can’t actually see them. It’s too cold to get out and stroll. Baku escapes us. On top of that, the itinerary is a mess, and the guide makes it clear that we’re invading her personal time. The charm and spontaneity of the Georgians is replaced by a warier, more rigid mindset that brings to mind the Soviet past.
Laila, our guide, is a short, frenetic woman who does everything at top speed. She shows up half an hour late, claiming that the streets were blocked because the President was on the move (something she might have considered checking beforehand), and announces right away that she’s changing the programme. Today we’re supposed to be getting a city tour, and a visit to the Old City. Tomorrow we’re meant to head out of town to an archeological reserve in Qobustan, and a winery in Gabala. Wednesday is free, and on Thursday we fly back to Paris. Laila decrees that we’re going to Qobustan today. Since it’s tipping down the kind of rain that impelled Noah to build an Ark, we’re quite thankful to sit in a warm car and be driven round. Qobustan, it turns out, is only 60 km away, down a well-paved six-lane highway. The rain prevents us from seeing much, but Laila entertains us with statistics.
Azerbaijan has a population of ten million, four million of whom live in Baku. Another thirty million Azeris live in Iran. They’re separated by the Arax River. Laila says the northern Azeris, who have lived for a long time in the Russian sphere of influence, are more “modern” than the southern Azeris, who have traditionally been exposed to Persian mores and customs. The mullahs versus the commissars? No doubt she’s right.
Oil was discovered here in 1846, and attracted European investors such as the Rothschilds in 1873, and the Nobel brothers in 1876. The oil barons built themselves mansions in the Parisian style, with the help of Polish and German architects, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Baku attracted physicists, doctors and engineers – “people with good brains” – of varying nationalities, who thought of themselves as Bakintsy, residents of Baku, rather than of Azerbaijan. One of them was the notorious Soviet spy Richard Sorge, who reported to the GRU from Japan while disguised as a German journalist. He warned Moscow of the imminence of a German invasion in June 1941, but his warnings went unheeded. There’s a monument to him, says Laila, in the centre of town. The day after, she makes sure that we see it. Sorge seems to be a hero of hers. He was hanged in Japan in 1944.
Moving right along. From 1993 to 2003, the President was Gaidar Aliyev, who was formerly the First Secretary of the Azerbaijan SSR, and before that the head of the Azerbaijan KGB (actually, she doesn’t mention that). When he died, his son Ilham succeeded him. Until 2012, there were oil rigs right in the centre of Baku, but they have now been replaced with a seaside park. On September 20, 1994, the Contract of the Century was signed with four major oil companies: Lukoil, BP, Aramco, and Unocal. It was a great day for Azerbaijan.
We’re driving down the coast of the Caspian Sea through a vast industrial zone which stretches for miles. There’s gas as well as oil in the Caspian. We pass the Baku Shipyards, which opened in 2013 to make cargo tankers for use on the inland sea. Laila points out the limestone quarries which provided the stone for the oil barons’ mansions in central Baku. There’s a cement factory, and a solar energy plant. (Demand for oil is likely to decrease worldwide in the next few years. Solar energy must be Plan B.) Meanwhile Azeri oil is being piped to the West through the BTC pipeline, which has made the country extremely rich. BTC stands for Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and the pipeline is 1747 km long. Ceyhan is on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and the route of the pipeline neatly bypasses the Enemies in Yerevan and the unreliable Neighbours in Russia and Iran.
In between bouts of spouting facts, Laila talks on the phone. She talks to her husband, who is looking after their daughters this afternoon, her mother-in-law (sorry, but she really has to take this!), and several unidentified others. Azeri is a Turkic language and its sound is harsh. After Independence, Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, and the road signs are written in Latin script. The transition was difficult for older people, says Laila, and her parents had a lot of trouble adapting. English is mandatory in schools, and her daughters, aged 10 and 11, both have English classes. It’s not clear if Russian is obligatory too. Most of the Azeris we deal with seem more at ease in Russian, which was of course the Soviet lingua franca.
Qobustan is a sea of rocks decorated with petroglyphs 12,000 years old. The rain has not let up, and it’s blowing a gale. It’s flat along the Caspian, and Baku is always windy. We bundle up as best we can, and set off up the hill. Laila leaps athletically ahead of us from rock to rock, not bothering to check if we’re keeping up, disbursing information to whoever catches up first. Qobustan is a strange other-worldly landscape, with the decorated rocks and the grey Caspian sea in the distance, but it’s too cold to linger. We polish off the visit in double quick time and retire to the shelter of the museum. Claiming she’s sick, Laila sends us off on our own, and settles comfortably in the lobby with her phone.
Azerbaijan has an authoritarian regime nurtured by the Aliyevs père et fils. A lot of police cars can be seen on the road, and one or two more are parked prominently beside the museum. Compensating for the absence of democracy are the very clean toilets we encounter everywhere. After two weeks of rather nerve-racking Georgian facilities, it’s a welcome surprise.
Next on the itinerary, we’re happy to hear, is lunch. Laila takes us to a restaurant on the outskirts of town tucked away beside a “naphtaline” clinic, whose purpose is not quite clear. The restaurant is impossible to find if you don’t know it’s there. Laila says you can tell it’s good food because “there are men in there.” (In France they say you know a place is good if you see truck drivers eating there. Men must be the same everywhere.) Several tables at Chez Naphtaline are occupied by groups of men. Judging by the way they’re dressed, they aren’t truck drivers. Lunch consists of three different salads with a purée of red berries (odd but tasty), followed by soup, and then some kind of meat stew. It’s all very good. Just what you need on a cold wet autumn day. Wine is not on offer, but there’s some fruit stuff they call kompot. Like the Georgians with their sweet lemonade, the Azeris like sugary drinks with their food. Happily there’s mineral water too.
Warmed, fortified and bathroomed, we head back into town. Laila points out the Ministry of this and that, the Presidential offices, and a few other things. It’s still pouring with rain. The driver doesn’t slow down to let us admire the prestigious buildings, in fact I think he accelerates. He speaks Azeri only, and is not especially friendly. We stop in a vast marble park with a fabulous view over the city and the Caspian. The rain lets up a bit. The city stretches along the water’s edge for miles, and the sea is sullen and grey. Laila explains that a train used to run along the sea front to service the derricks and oil rigs, but it’s been removed, the area has been cleaned up, and the business end of the Caspian has been transformed into the Bulvar, a long sweep of parkland along the edge of the bay, home to some very nice hotels – the biggest in the Caucasus, she says. Of course they are. Lonely Planet claims the Bulvar is a great place to take a stroll on summer evenings, but at the end of the season, with the air full of rain, it’s frankly not appealing.
The park contains memorials to victims slain by the Soviet Army in 1990, as well as a memorial to Turkish soldiers from World War I. The Turks helped us to fight the Armenians, Laila explains. Farther off we can see the Flame Towers: three huge glass skyscrapers in weird flame shapes that were completed in 2012. Azerbaijan is the Land of Fire, and these are its emblems. The buildings bear more than a passing resemblance to the towers of Batumi on the other side of the Caucasus, and it occurs to me that one might have inspired the other. Baku also boasts a Trump Tower, and Kathy asks where it is. Laila points it out. Then she asks why we don’t like Trump. We’re perplexed. Where to start? In the end, Kathy says the family is very corrupt. Oh really? says Laila coolly, and chivvies us down vast flights of slippery marble steps back to the car.
It’s getting dark by now, and the rain is still falling, but we aren’t done yet. Laila sweeps us off on a snappy walking tour of the Old City – “to get it out of the way,” she announces blithely: just a quick orientation tour, so we can find our way around. The Old City was the heart of Baku before the oil barons’ builders moved in. It’s small and charming with narrow streets, mosques, galleries, and carpet shops. We’re too busy watching our feet on the slippery cobbles to take much in. Laila marches ahead. When we’re thoroughly disoriented, she points out the restaurant where we’re to have dinner, asks what time we want to eat, and leaves us to it. It’s a relief to see her go.
The restaurant is round the corner from the hotel, down a flight of steps in a cosy little room. Laila has ordered us salads and pancakes, which is plenty. Kathy adds in a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which slides down very nicely. On one side of the room is a live singer, and on the other side is a muted television screen showing a movie that looks as though it might be Turkish. But then some of the characters board an Aeroflot plane. It must be home-grown Azeri (definitely not Bakintsy). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. Everyone has a good time.
So in just half a day Laila has ripped through pretty much everything on our two-day itinerary – except for the winery in Gabala, which she has made up her mind not to go to. On the face of it, her objections are perfectly reasonable. For one thing, it’s a 200 km drive from Baku. It turns out to be in the opposite direction from Qobustan, which we were supposed to see on the same day. (In Georgia the itinerary suffered from a certain amount of unrealistic planning, and this looks like more of the same. Plainly the lady who sold us the tour has never been east of Boston.) Gabala is nice in summer, says Laila, but much too far to go in weather like this. We don’t need convincing. Having spent two weeks driving the length and breadth of Georgia, we’re more than willing to pass up another long drive, but she comes back to the subject so often, and harps so much on how unrewarding it would be, that we start to suspect that she’s pulling a fast one. But by now we’re as anxious to get shot of her as she is to get rid of us. She talks too fast, she moves too fast, and she despises senior citizens. But she has to occupy us a few hours longer to forestall any complaints, so on Tuesday morning she takes us out to the Absheron Peninsula, which lies east of Baku, jutting out into the Caspian Sea.
Ab means water, and sheron means salty. The main attractions here are the unquenchable flames of gas spurting out of the earth. Marco Polo saw them in the thirteenth century, though the landscape might not have looked as weird back then as it does now. The peninsula is covered with rigs and derricks and, mixed in with all the oil industry bric-à-brac, is a dazzling array of petrohotels, petrovillas and petrobeach resorts. Baku is a really strange place. There’s a stadium which housed the 2015 European Games, something else that housed the Eurovision Song Contest, and an Olympic Village built in a sort of Oriental-Haussman style. There are Soviet housing blocks whose façades have been redone in the Caspian Belle Époque style of the city centre (with the authentic Soviet plumbing presumably untouched behind them), and refugee housing for people driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh. By the way, asks Laila, have we been to Armenia?
We stop to see a house owned by the Nobel brothers called the Villa Petrolea, and continue on to the Suraxani Fire Temple, a flaming fire temple originally used by Zoroastrians, and rebuilt by Indian devotees of Shiva in the eighteenth century. Inside the walled courtyard are cells for worshippers, now ornamented with wax figures of devotees and donkeys.
On to Yanar Dag, the Fire Mountain. It’s a long stretch of hillside with flames flickering out of the earth. At least it warms us up. I’m disappointed to learn that they aren’t the same flames that Marco Polo saw. These were lit accidentally in the 1950s by someone’s cigarette.
Back into town past the oil rigs and the petrovillas. In the car we start asking questions about daily life and how ordinary people survive. Laila has to think a bit about questions that aren’t in her prepared script, but in the end she admits that there’s a lot of corruption – the envelope system, she calls it – and everyone gets by as best they can. And then she announces that she could have told us something very interesting if only I wasn’t writing it all down. (Yesterday she asked why I was taking notes, so I told her I was a writer. What did I write? Novels. What kind? Contemporary history. Was I researching a novel now? Not sure.) So I ostentatiously close my notebook and put my pen away and wait for the revelations. She hums and haws a bit, and then informs us that we are in very good hands here in Baku because her husband works for the Ministry of National Security (that’s the successor organization to the KGB) and that he’s responsible for the safety of foreigners. Oh really?
I wait till lunch to follow up. (Back to Chez Naphtaline: she’s out of ideas.) It’s hard to do because she spends the whole meal on the damn phone. In the end I manage to drop in a question about what kind of foreigners her husband deals with. Is he responsible for all foreigners or just some of them? She says the husband specializes in Saudis and Middle Easterners, and adds that he’s on his way to Moscow even as we speak to confer with colleagues. Is he indeed? So why is she telling us this? To impress us? to intimidate us? to warn us against writing disrespectful novels? Hard to say. I’ve changed her name in this account: maybe that’s what she wanted. Our last stop is at the market, at our request. She’s a bit surprised by this – I suspect she can’t cook – but the market is fun. A slice of real Azeri life. We stock up on loukoum and walnuts and sumac, and then the driver drops Laila at her home, and takes us back to the hotel.
We spend the afternoon wandering round the Old City at our own leisurely pace, investigating kilim shops, looking at towers and fortifications, drinking tea. In one of the shops, I ask the vendor where a kilim comes from. South Azerbaijan, he says. Do you mean Iran? Yes, but we don’t like to call it that, he says with a sad smile. All of the Caucasus seems to be haunted by lost lands and lost peoples.
The main attraction in the Old City is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the seat of the ruling dynasty in the Middle Ages. We’re shown round on Wednesday morning by a young English-speaking guide who explains things at normal speed, waits when we lag behind, and seems to enjoy her work. There isn’t an iPhone in sight. It only gets weird when I ask her about the significance of the Azeri national flag. The flag consists of three horizontal stripes: blue, red, and green, with a crescent and a star on the red stripe. The green, she says, symbolizes Islam, the turquoise blue is the blue of the Turks, and the red stands for blood. Blood? What does that mean? Don’t tread on Azeri toes, or woe betide you? Double-checking with Wikipedia later on, I see that the red stripe is meant to symbolize modern European democracy. So what was that about?
In the afternoon we take a taxi to the Carpet Museum, a futuristic space in the shape of a rolled-up carpet on the edge of the Caspian. The taxi driver talks about his daughter, a junior chess champion, who is scheduled to meet the President, and play in an international competition. The Carpet Museum is a cylindrical treasure trove with some fabulous pieces on show. The rain has stopped and it’s a damp gloomy day. We take a quick peek at the Caspian, but there’s nothing to see. Then we ask the driver to take us to the Ali and Nino Café, which is just off Fountains Square. Leaving us in the car, he goes off to find it, then returns and says it’s closed. (For more on Ali and Nino, see The Kitchen On Top of the Caucasus. The statue below is in Batumi.)
Our last evening in Azerbaijan is spent at a tourist restaurant off Fountains Square. Amalia, the tour coordinator, escorts us there, settles us at a table, and orders the food. The waiters start to bring the dishes. Amalia flutters in the background. The food is mediocre. We’ve had some good meals in Baku, but this isn’t one of them. We order wine. Amalia informs us that it’s not included in the price. We tell her we’ll pay for it separately. For a while after that, the dishes keep on coming, and then the service breaks off. The waiters ignore us. No one brings a bill for the wine, but there’s no more food. Amalia has disappeared. Once again, Baku has evaded us. In the end we get up and go.
A few hours later Yul Brynner appears to take us to the airport to catch the one direct flight to Paris of the week. It’s four in the morning, but he’s exhaustingly full of useful facts and historical commentary. The airport glitters even more than the railway station. By the way, have we been to Armenia?
In September 2017, my friend Kathy and I took a trip to Georgia. The first part of our trip is recounted in The Georgian Military Highway, and this takes up where the first post left off.
Svaneti is a mountainous region so remote that it was never tamed by any of Georgia’s rulers. Even in Soviet times it was pretty wild. It’s a landlocked area high in the Caucasus, famed for the square stone defensive towers where villagers took refuge in times of conflict. Blood feuds were big here until recent times. The dialect they speak is incomprehensible to other Georgians. Svaneti used to be fairly inaccessible, even in summer, but tourism is being developed, and the road that leads up from Zugdidi is being rebuilt. The main town, Mestia, now has ski-lifts, and flights from Tbilisi to the brand-new airport.
The road follows the Inguri river up into the hills, past the Jvari Reservoir, and up towards Mestia. Mist-wreathed mountains unfold into the distance, steep wooded slopes plunge into the ravine, and the trees are tinged with the last pink rays of the sunset. Night is falling, we’ve been driving all day, and everyone is tired. We stop at a roadside café so that Zaza can smoke, but a horde of howling dogs deters him from leaving the car. At the next café things are quieter. But then we hit the roadworks and our pace slows to a crawl. I wish I’d never come on this trip, mutters Kathy, halfway up the mountain.
We reach Mestia about nine p.m. It’s an austere mountain town. We are staying at an austere mountain hostel called the Hotel Svaneti. After the quirky bohemian Kisi in Tbilisi, it’s a bit of a shock. The staircase is steep with uneven treads, and the shower is a death-trap. There’s no bathmat, and no hairdryer. (What??) Reception is staffed by a limp pale girl who looks like the Dryad of the mountains, and is not used to dealing with entitled Western ladies of a certain age who require a certain degree of comfort. Offered a choice of two demoralizing rooms, we take the one alleged to have a view (it’s too dark to check). Dinner is the backpackers’ special – Georgian salad, lumps of cheese, and slices of odd-looking sausage – but then comes soup, which turns out to be just what we need. We clamber back up the neck-breaking staircase, and sleep remarkably well.
At dawn, the view appears. It’s a grey day and there’s mist on the mountains, but I count eleven square stone towers from the window. It’s quite a sight. Discarding plans to go further up the mountain to Ushguli (six hours there and back on an unpaved road), we spend the day in Mestia, where, sociologically speaking, there is plenty to see. We start off with coffee. It’s Nescafé only in the backpackers’ hostel, but Irma guides us to the perfect café just round the corner, where a morose Belarusian lady, who is tired of life in the mountains, serves us café cortado (a stronger, shorter version of cappuccino). It’s cooler than down in the plain, and you need a jacket.
Mestia is not very Soviet. Up here, time skipped a beat. What we see is twelfth-century stone towers and twenty-first century guest houses. The former are still inhabited, the latter not always. For one thing, the season is nearly over (the hiking trails are only open from June to September); for another, a lot of them are only half-built. The Saakashvili government paid to repair the façades, but put nothing behind them, no businesses and no shops. Mestia is a Potemkin village.
The Svans don’t have the usual dark Georgian complexion. They have light-coloured hair, and their eyes are blue or green. Might they be descendants of Vikings? Steppe peoples? Who knows? They glower resentfully at the tourists bustling through the town in search of Snickers and Kleenex and taxis to Kutaisi. The old men stand around looking lost, the young men operate the taxis. Old ladies sit in their shops with their crosswords, barely looking up when you go in to buy bottled water.
The municipal graveyard is romantically overgrown, and features tombstones with pictures of the deceased, and graves fenced in with iron railings to produce a kind of bedstead effect.
The Ethnography Museum is a well-laid out modern space with comfortable white couches to sit and contemplate the valley. It holds an amazing collection of icons from Svaneti’s churches. Eleventh-century Svan masters had a unique style, and certain icons depict St. George spearing, not the traditional dragon, but the Emperor Diocletian. (St. George was a Roman army officer who was executed in AD 303 for resisting Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.) Our guide explains that the Georgians settled in Spain, and named it Iberia, after Iveria, which is another name for the kingdom of Kartli. Well, why not? They might have shared their language with the Basques on the same trip.
The stone towers have three storeys, but the upper floors were used only in summer. In winter one stayed on the ground floor with the animals and tried to keep warm. The tower we visit has furniture dating from the fourteenth century. There are storage bins for flour, meat, and cheese; stalls for the animals; and a tunnel to communicate with the tower next door in case of enemy sieges. We stop at a roadside stall to buy the strong-tasting Svan salt that is a staple of much Georgian cuisine, and then it’s time for cooking class in a Svaneti farmhouse.
What strikes me as we walk in is how much the kitchen resembles that of my husband’s family in Normandy forty years ago. The same kitchen cabinets, the same long oilcloth-covered table that also serves as a work surface, the same bench against the wall, the wood-burning stove and the gas stove side by side. I’ve fallen through a place warp. Granted, Svan wood stoves aren’t exactly the same as the French variety. Also this kitchen serves a few extra functions, such as parlour, television room, and bedroom. Apparently four sons and their families also live in the house, so everyone has to squash up.
Dali has put on her best black dress to greet the tourists, and borrowed her neighbour’s kitchen because it’s bigger than her own. The neighbour slouches round a bit, watches the cooking, and then heads off to milk the cows. Dali shows us how to make kubdari, a kind of meat pie. The dough demands far too much kneading and rising ever to be undertaken in my household, and the meat filling is seasoned with Svan salt, regular salt, garlic, dill, coriander, pepper, and something called gitsruli, a herb found only in Svaneti. You flatten the ball of dough, add the meat mixture, pull the edges closed from underneath, and flatten some more. We’re allowed to try. After that the top is glazed with melted butter. Next comes khachapuri: you place the cheese on the dough, cover the cheese, then make a hole on top. Next comes chvishtari, cornbread with cheese, fried not baked. Next comes tashmujabi, mashed potato with cheese. Next comes dinner, and after that, if you’re not careful, comes indigestion. It’s hearty peasant food to keep out the cold. The winters are very hard and brutal here, says Dali. It’s all washed down by some noxious brew that reminds me of the pear-based stuff my father-in-law used to inflict on the unwary. Forewarned is forearmed, and I stick to pure mountain water.
When we’ve tasted everything, Dali relaxes, takes off her protective hairnet, and sits down to chat. In Soviet times, she used to manage a warehouse, and her husband ran a hotel that was frequented by the Party elite. Back then everyone had work. These days you need higher education or special qualifications to get a job. Despite that, she says that life is better now. One thing she regrets is that young people are in no hurry to get married and settle down. She has sons aged 40 and 35 who are still living at home. A Georgian movie called My Happy Family that I saw in Paris describes the attempts of a fiftyish lady called Manana to escape life under the same roof as her extended family (parents, husband, daughter, daughter’s boyfriend). Although she manages to move into a room of her own, she can’t escape family meddling. Something melancholy about Dali makes me wonder if there’s a Manana in her trying to get out.
Café Laila on the central square has reliable wifi, unfriendly waiters, and a sign that says Feel the Food. We order two glasses of Saperavi to make up for Dali’s farmhouse plonk, and I read Daniel Silva on the Kindle while Kathy deals with work-related e-mails. On the way back to the hotel, we run into Zaza. It’s nice to see a friendly face on the ill-lit streets. We’re pleased to see him and he’s pleased to see us, but beyond that we can’t communicate. Zaza never learned either Russian or English properly when he was at school. Kathy is working hard on the Georgian alphabet, but our spoken skills haven’t progressed much beyond Hello and Thank you. Fortunately Irma is a gifted interpreter, sliding effortlessly from Georgian to English to Russian as the occasion demands.
We’re late leaving Mestia next morning, partly because I need to wrest my laundry back from the Dryad (the clothes come back still damp, and she deducts one lari off the price per item), partly because we need more café cortado, and partly because we have to buy wine for the picnic we’re proposing to have with the leftovers from Dali’s kitchen. We get our reward in heaven. Driving down the mountain, the clouds drift apart and the summit of Mount Ushba appears above us. Ushba means The Road to Nowhere in Svan dialect. It’s one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus, and is often covered in cloud. Zaza stops the car, and we all leap out and take photos. Going down the mountain in daylight is a big improvement. The bends still make Kathy nauseous, but at least we can see the view. The cold grey waters of the Inguri river plunge down the mountain through ravines so deep that the sun never reaches the bottom, but when they reach the reservoir at the foot of the mountain they turn a startling green – the same colour as the Zhinvali reservoir the other day. Either there are some pretty amazing minerals in the soil, or some pretty amazing chemicals in the water.
Time for the picnic. Zaza stops the car in a likely spot, and Irma removes a bit of barbed wire fence to let us into the meadow. Are we allowed to do that? Of course! she says. Georgia is a big home for all Georgians and friends of Georgia! Zaza sets up the picnic table, Irma uncorks the wine, and we sit in the sun in the meadow eating Dali’s cold khachapuri and kubdari, drinking dry red wine. A Georgian flag, with its five red and white crosses, flaps behind us. Music by Laid Back (a Danish group) drifts over from the car: I’m a happy dreamer, I believe in love….
Batumi has a Mediterranean feel. The sun gleams on the Black Sea, the palm trees and the tangerine trees, and Irma’s favourite pale-blue café overlooking the port. At one end of the bay is a cluster of futuristic towers, and there’s a concert hall where the Black Sea Jazz Festival is held. After the chilly mediaeval austerity of Mestia, it feels like landing on Mars. No more hostels for us. For the next two nights we’re staying at the Sheraton.
The Sheraton gives the concept of bling a whole new dimension. The atrium is several storeys high and decorated with blow-ups of rock stars. Behind the reception desk are large fake bookshelves housing large fake books with heavily gilded spines. I’m not happy about the lack of respect for literature, but the receptionist is helpful and smiling, and a great improvement on the Dryad. Our room is on the eighth floor with a view over a building site on which another nouveau-Saudi edifice is under construction. Over the bath is a rain shower which can’t be turned on; behind the television is an elegant portrait of Margot Fonteyn in swan mode; and in the cupboard is an iron, which I use to salvage the rumpled laundry from Svaneti. Presumably this is the room where visiting oligarchs house their maids.
For centuries, Batumi was an Ottoman city. Annexed by the Russians in 1878, it expanded at the end of the nineteenth century when the oilfields in Baku were developed and a railway line was built to connect the Caspian to the Black Sea. The Old Town is still redolent of Caucasian belle époque, with elegant mansions and ironwork balconies. In 1884, a park was laid out along the seashore for visitors to take the air, and this has been recently revitalized with cafés, shops, fountains, and a 7-meter-high statue of Ali and Nino.
Ali and Nino is a Caucasian cult novel that was originally published in German in 1937. Set in Baku during World War I, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between an Azeri Muslim aristocrat and a Georgian Christian princess. The author’s name was Kurban Said, but no one knew who exactly he was until the 1990s, when Tom Reiss, a writer for the New Yorker, discovered that he was an expatriate Jew from Baku called Lev Nussimbaum, who had died in 1942 in Positano (see Reiss’ book The Orientalist).
The statue occupies a prominent position on the Batumi Bulvar, surrounded by tourists pointing their iPhones and local kids perfecting their dance moves. It’s best viewed at night. The two figures glide slowly towards each other, fuse for a moment, then glide away again. In the troubled Caucasian world of 1918, Ali and Nino had no place to make their lives. At the end of the book, Nino takes the last train to Tbilisi with their child, and Ali dies defending his country against the Russians.
A century later, not all that much has changed. With the collapse of Soviet power, age-old regional insecurities have returned to the surface, and all the small mountain peoples are jockeying for position. Abkhazia has seceded from Georgia, and so has South Ossetia. If Adjara did the same, Georgia’s territory would be drastically reduced, and it would have virtually no access to the Black Sea. But at the moment, this seems unlikely. For one thing, the Adjarans have been classified as Georgians since the 1930s, and the Turks (unlike the Russians) are not offering big-power support. For another, thanks to Saakashvili, Batumi has been given a face-lift, with eye-catching modern towers and a renovated Old Town, and turned into an attractive place to visit. Having destroyed Sukhumi, the Russians come here instead. The beach is pebbly, but there are lots of casinos.
Our next cooking class is supposed to be with Guguli in a village a few miles from Batumi, but it turns out to be with Zebo. Zebo is Guguli’s husband, a Charles Aznavour lookalike, former “revolutionary,” and shameless self-promoter. At the other cooking classes, the menfolk tend to drift away and let the women get on with it. This time Zebo takes over the show, and Guguli barely gets a word in edgeways. Since Kathy is from Virginia, which Zebo once visited on what seems to have been a fund-raising trip, he immediately bonds with her, and dresses her up in a traditional Georgian man’s costume, while Guguli and Irma stretch out the dough between them like a blanket for khachapuri achma, which resembles lasagne.
When we sit down to eat, he takes on the role of tamada (toastmaster) and proposes toasts to Peace, Love, Women, America (without which there would be no money), Villages (without which there would be no Georgia), the Virgin Mary (who is Georgia’s Protector), and Founders (the first people to settle in the village fifteen hundred years ago). Traditionally the toasts are always made in the same order. Sadly they are all drunk in village plonk. It’s wine they must have made last week, and it’s truly disgusting. I get by with just wetting my lips. Irma does the same.
This is our first glimpse of the supra, the Georgian feast. At Tamara’s, we experienced food as an event; at Dali’s, food as subsistence; but at Zebo’s, food is a ritual. The supra is a ceremony underpinning Georgian society, and it is not to be taken lightly (as you can see from the toasts.) A few days later in Tbilisi we see a painting by Pirosmani called Feast in a Grape Gazebo, which shows three dapper gentlemen holding their goblets aloft. The dog in the forefront of the picture looks reasonably cheerful, but the expressions on the faces of the three gents make it clear that feasting is a serious business.
Georgians are not the cheery hedonists that all the food and wine imply. They are mountain men: their life is hard. Their music is melancholy, their expressions are solemn, they are slow to smile. Showing hospitality to guests is a way of proving that they have overcome the trials of their existence. Life is hard, but there is a banquet on the table. It’s a matter of honour.
The next few days are frankly a bit of a blur. We’ve been on the road too long, and we’ve seen too much. We’ve also eaten far too much khachapuri. We knew we were getting cooking classes, but we didn’t realize we’d be expected to consume everything we made. A few things stand out:
At the Ajarian Wine House near Batumi, a bored youth gives us a perfunctory glimpse of the cellars, and a clueless girl provides us each with three half-glasses of different wines, pre-poured and taken straight from the fridge.
At Castello Mare, an imposing Gothic construction on the edge of the sea, we spend a lazy, food-free afternoon in the deserted, end-of-season spa.
In Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, we buy blue fenugreek, marigold powder, saffron and coriander in the indoor market, and visit the tomb of King David the Builder, where Saakashvili swore his oath to make Georgia united and strong.
Wandering through the cemetery in the rain, we see graves with the sculpted heads of the deceased, and tombs with little marble picnic tables where families can chat to their loved ones over lunch.
At Café Palaty, which has faded paint and flowered tablecloths and a pleasing old-world atmosphere, we discover Adjaran khachapuri, which is shaped like a boat and has an egg on top like the sun. Also butter. Very tasty.
Kutaisi is sadder and quieter than cosmopolitan Tbilisi, and has attracted less investment. In the nineteenth century, it was home to artists, poets, singers and intellectuals, but Stalin turned it into an industrial centre. The intelligentsia fled to Tbilisi, the peasants moved to Kutaisi to work in the factories, and after the Soviet collapse it went into decline. Irma grew up in Kutaisi. She remembers the 1990s as a difficult period. Shevardnadze failed to impose a strong central authority. There was no electricity, no water, no heat. It was best to hide your jewellery when you went out. As a student, she had to read her texts by the light of a kerosene lamp, and some days she was unable to get to the university to attend her classes. In 2012, Saakashvili attempted to give the city a new lease of life by transferring Parliament here, but the glitzy new building has failed to give the city the hoped-for boost. MPs come to town to attend debates, and rush back to Tbilisi as soon as they can.
We spend the night at the Tskaltubo Plaza, in a nearby spa town. Behind a façade reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel lurk narrow brown cells where you can barely open your suitcase. We have one more cooking class, and then it’s back to our loft at the Kisi.
Daji is an energetic lady in her mid-sixties with two hip replacements who bustles energetically round her kitchen heating clay dishes called ketsi on an open fire. When the dish is hot, she takes it off the flame, puts some rhododendron-type leaves called nesho in it, places a ball of cheese and dough on the leaves, and piles up the dishes beside the fire to cook. She’s starting to run out of clay dishes, she says, because they all eventually break. We sit down to eat. Daji gives us fire-baked khachapuri, then run-of-the-mill Imereti khachapuri, and when we think we’re done, she suddenly produces a Mingrelian khachapuri too. Guests are a gift from God. Taking on the role of tamada, she proposes toasts to Peace, Georgia, Good Relations between Georgia and the US, ditto Georgia and France, Friendship, Families, the Dead (Zaza’s father gets a mention here, and so does my husband), New Life, and the Virgin Mary. The wine is no better than usual, and to my dismay she makes me drink it – but then she produces home-made chacha, which is delicious, and goes down much better. The floor in Daji’s kitchen is of beaten earth, and her life seems harder than that of our other cooks, but her generosity is irresistible. She reminds me a bit of my mother-in-law. She’s a very nice lady.
So that’s the end of the Khachapuri Trail. The meal after that is a refined little urban snack in the Rooms Bar in Tbilisi. It feels good to be back in the city, drinking expensive cocktails in a stylish environment, even if the music is far too loud, and most of the clients are under twenty-five. When we ask the waitress to turn down the music, she says No, she can’t, it’s Friday night, and turns it higher. Bela joins us for a drink, but our attempts to discuss the future of Georgia and women’s role in society are drowned out, and we go home early.
Saturday morning is cold and grey. In the thirteenth-century Sioni Cathedral, which houses the sacred cross of St. Nino, people are queuing up for communion, and the priest is blessing the harvest. Someone gives sephiskveri to Irma (the equivalent of a communion wafer), and she gives one to each of us. It’s like a small bread dumpling with an image of the Madonna and Child. It’s sitting in a drawer of my desk.
Rustaveli Avenue is a wide modern boulevard laid out by the Russians in the nineteenth century as part of a plan to transform the old Persian city into a European metropolis. It’s named after Shota Rustaveli, the national poet, author of an epic entitled The Knight in the Tiger Skin (in some versions, Panther Skin). Protests and marches are generally held here, and a monument commemorates the nineteen hunger strikers killed by Soviet troops in 1989. After that it was downhill all the way to the conflicts of the 1990s.
In the National Gallery we see works by the nineteenth-century painter Pirosmani, who blends the naiveté of Douanier Rousseau with the mystical atmosphere of Chagall. We browse in the well-stocked English-language book store Prospero’s Bookshop, and take our elevenses in Caliban’s Café right next door (not great coffee). In the Dry Bridge flea market (so-called because the bridge spans a road, not the river), there are swords, jewellery, znachki, teaglass holders, and LPs of Sinatra and Bill Haley. It looks as though all the china cupboards of all the grandmothers in Tbilisi have been raided and put up for sale. On our way home, we spot a large white truck lying on its side at the bottom of a large muddy hole where an underground car park is under construction. It’s quite a shocking sight. Several men are standing round scratching their heads. It’s not clear how they’re going to get it out.
Back at the Kisi, the Saturday wedding parties are struggling up the hill for a photo-op in the Botanical Gardens. The cars get stuck in the narrow street, and the wedding guests – and some of the brides – have to trudge up the cobbles in their pink satin finery and stiletto heels. Down in the Sulphur Baths we are soaked in sulphur, scrubbed and kneaded on a marble slab, and sent back to soak some more. Not a pleasant experience. It serves us right for taking advice from people who have been there once (and once only).
Dinner is at the Café Littera in the Georgian Writers’ building with Irma, Zaza and Natia. The décor is gracefully old-fashioned, and the cuisine is deliciously nouvelle. The chef, Tekuna, is a friend of Irma’s. She spent seven years working in New York. Cheerfully admitting that traditionalists don’t like her way of doing things, she points out that Georgia’s position on the Silk Road has always opened its cuisine to outside influences. She still relies on time-honoured ingredients, she insists, she just uses them in a different way. Her food is delicious. Aubergines and beetroot blended into a walnut paste, Georgian yogurt sauce with pomegranate, shrimps kharcho on polenta, warm artichoke salad with danduri (Kakhetian herbs).
We’re due to leave Tbilisi on Sunday on the night train to Baku. Our final culinary treat is lunch at Barbarestan, one of Tbilisi’s best restaurants, which uses recipes from a book compiled by a nineteenth-century duchess called Barbare Jorjadze. The occasion is a lot more relaxed than our first dinner with Irma and Zaza at the Tsiskvili two weeks ago. Trundling round Georgia on bad roads in all weathers has forged ties that bind. If Irma and Zaza hadn’t been such nice people, the trip could have been a disaster. Barbare, born in 1833, was the first Georgian feminist. She died in 1895. The name of the restaurant means Place of Barbare. Two families manage it, and all the servers are family members. We have a table downstairs in the cellar, the décor is cosy, and the food is good. There are 806 recipes in the cookbook and they use 150 of them.
At the onset of the twenty-first century, Georgia is going back to its ancestral roots. Old cookbooks, old-fashioned décor, village traditions, regional cuisine. On one level they’re trying to wipe out the Soviet legacy, on another it’s just what they’ve always done. Unlike the Armenians with their far-flung diaspora, and the Azeris with their links to Turkey and Iran, Georgia looks inward, and cultivates its home-grown talents. Saakashvili’s attempt to build a united, outward-looking Georgian state with links to Europe collapsed, partly because of Europe’s preoccupation with issues closer to home, and partly because it doesn’t seem to have been what Georgians wanted. It must mean something that a party called the “United National Movement” was ousted by one called the “Georgian Dream.”
Since the Georgian Dream party took over, the country has been pretty much standing still. That might not be such a bad thing. Local conflicts have receded to the point where films can be made about them (Tangerines, Corn Island, Khibula). The big neighbour across the mountains has turned its attention elsewhere. The tourists, reassured, are flooding in. Khachapuri rules. The supra survives. Maybe that’s the Georgian Dream.
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.
The second part of this trip is described in the post: The Kitchen On Top Of The Caucasus.
Originally published on the internet, back in olden times when e-books were new and shocking, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the prestigious Booker Prize. It’s the story of Sergei, a Soviet dissident, who meets Stéphanie, a French student, in Leningrad, and persuades her to marry him so he can leave the country. But Sergei is not all he seems, and his real target is a woman who defected to France twenty years earlier. A review in the Times Literary Supplement described the book as a “sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika.”
Here’s a short excerpt:
My cousin Stéphanie arrived in Leningrad in February 1986. It was her first trip to the Soviet Union. Russia had possessed her since she was a child, not the grey utilitarian empire of Lenin and Stalin, but a romantic fairytale Russia of izbas and palaces, haunted aristocrats and mad gamblers, golden domes and white nights. For nearly all her life, Russia had been the meeting point of her mind and her emotions, as she waited steadfastly to make the journey in the flesh. But during that brief six-month stay in the USSR, the poetic soul of Russia eluded her: what she encountered instead was Lenin’s ghost.
In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just under twelve months. Gorbachev was the first General Secretary for years who could walk unsupported and talk in coherent sentences: the knight on the white charger come to save the system. Fortress USSR, though still outwardly imposing, was mined on the inside by mould and dry rot, over-centralization and inertia. Gorbachev’s first twelve months in office had been spent cleaning house: clearing the old, dead-wood Brezhnevite officials out of the Party lumber room, urging the population at large to drink less, work more, and to speak out openly about any societal shortcomings that had caught their attention.
Stéphanie had not paid attention to any of this. She was not in the habit of taking notice of trivial things like the deficiencies of the Soviet economy, nor was she going to get excited over a bout of hiring and firing in the Central Committee. Stéphanie had come to Leningrad to research her master’s thesis on Pushkin, and she spent most of her time in the nineteenth century. Gorbachev’s attempts to mobilize the masses passed her by completely. Glasnost and perestroika left her unmoved. Even the explosion of Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failed to make much impact on her — a triumph, of course, for Soviet media coverage of the event, which had been designed with precisely that in mind. It was three days before the television news got around to mentioning that a reactor had been “damaged” and that measures were being taken to “eliminate” the consequences of the accident. Why alarm people by telling them that fifty tons of radioactive fallout have been released into the atmosphere and that the fire is still burning?
The wind blows north from Chernobyl towards Sweden, passing not far from Leningrad on its way, but it was several months before Stéphanie discovered that the reactor had burned for five days and that thousands of people had been irradiated. Foreign newspapers were hard to come by in 1986 in Leningrad, and she had no radio set on which to tune in non-Soviet radio stations. In any case, she lived in a pre-nuclear age. Nothing that happened after World War I held any importance for her. This was a recurring source of aggravation at family dinners, and my father, Stéphanie’s uncle, sometimes got quite annoyed about it. But Stéphanie was nothing if not obstinate. The books she read were by nineteenth-century authors, the concerts she attended were by nineteenth-century composers — in both cases, preferably Russian. When Sergei saw her for the first time, standing alone in front of the Philharmonia Theatre in Leningrad, she was waiting to hear the Symphonie Pathétique.
It was a Sunday evening in May. On Arts Square, next to the Philharmonia, the tulips were in bloom. Sergei could tell she was a foreigner just by looking at her. The clothes, of course, were an immediate giveaway. The pullover was cashmere, not acrylic, and the trousers were of a cut and shape never beheld in local emporia. But more than that, there was something about the way she held herself, and her skin too had some kind of inner glow that Soviet faces didn’t have.
He went on watching her. The pavement around her was emptying, the concert was about to start. She was looking around, biting her lip, craning her neck for a glimpse of the friends who had failed to show up, casting occasional irritated glances at her watch. The latter looked expensive, even from a distance. Probably Swiss, thought Sergei, glancing at his own battered Soviet model. Five minutes to eight. The concert was about to start. Time to make his move. He left his observation post by the statue of Pushkin in the middle of the square, and sauntered towards her. She was searching for something in a capacious leather bag. By now the pavement was deserted. She caught sight of him and, to his astonishment, marched decisively towards him.
“Excuse me, do you have a dvushka?”
In 1986, dvushki were like gold dust in Leningrad. They were the two-kopek coins that you needed to operate public phone boxes, and people hoarded them jealously. In spite of himself, Sergei hesitated before digging in his pocket and reluctantly handing one over.
“Here you are.” He managed a smile, and she smiled back. Her long dark hair fell like a curtain round her face, her features were perfect, her cheeks were smooth. There was something luminous about her. None of this had been evident on the photo they had shown him. Sergei watched her walk over to the phone box with a distinct feeling of dismay.
The Judas Tree reviewed for The Paris Readers’ Circle by Dick Aherne
Patricia le Roy’s The Judas Tree is a fascinating, tortuous tale of the atrocious behaviour of the then-East Germany’s internal security agency, the STASI. The French writer Henri de Montherlant observed, “one writes of happiness in white.” The Judas Tree by contrast is black, unrelievedly black.
But lack of sprightliness in the face of horror is no sin. Above all le Roy’s is a story of normal people trapped in what seems a no-win situation. And she has the courage to end it that way: no one wins.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall we learned that the STASI had, among many many other things:
– surreptitiously organized and financed Adolf Eichmann’s legal defence team for his trial in Israel
– financed and trained members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, at its time the most notorious of terrorists and assassins in West European democracies
– encouraged and financed neo-Nazis in West Germany, promoting their all-too-often-successful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in West Germany
– made it seem to many that the US was responsible for HIV/AIDS. The early years of AIDS were frightening times, and the many STASI deceptions – forged documents, phony endorsements, and so on – often convinced people, especially in the Third World.
For the last 32 years of East Germany’s existence STASI’s director was a German sent by Stalin to Spain during the 1936-39 civil war. His mission was to locate and assassinate any among Russia’s “allies” who seemed insufficiently supine before Stalin’s wishes. Socialists and other leftists were murdered by the hundreds, while Russia’s contribution to the actual war – with Franco’s armies – was minimal.
Le Roy dramatically makes clear though that to write off STASI – and thus East Germany – as a sort of dry, adjectival, and ultimately tragic history misses the point. The real story is what was done to individuals: how hopes were killed, emotions seemed dangerous, friendships were risky, one’s own family owed a higher loyalty to the state than to its members. And internal debates and uncertainties could easily become, literally, matters of life and death.
It is an unusual book stylistically. Each key character expresses, seriatim, in his or her own words, their emotions, hopes and wishes, and eventual disillusionment. They come together at the end but not – as one might’ve expected in opera, for example! – in a grand rhapsodic resolution. Instead we simply learn the by-then-expected reason for the principal character’s death, and must think our way through the rest.
The unusual structure takes a little getting used to. Think for example of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. At first it seems an odd collection of disparate images, united only by their media – paint and canvas. But keep looking, and your eye gradually tells you there’s more than paint and canvas, there’s a person. Moving. And you are privileged to realize you’re actually seeing three dimensions, though only two appear.
The Judas Tree gives the reader two gifts. First, most of us need its kind of encouragement to think seriously about the way we human beings behave in everyday life. Second, by encouraging careful contemplation of each element it allows us to see images and colors in ways not at first evident.
My sister died on a steep stretch of road on the edge of the Cévennes. She was twenty-eight years old. What she was doing on that isolated road between St Jean du Gard and Mialet we never discovered. She had borrowed my car at ten o’clock on a clear summer morning, ostensibly to run an errand in Avignon. When she failed to appear for lunch, we started to wonder where she was, but by the time the gendarmes appeared in the middle of the afternoon, we had scarcely begun to worry. Anne had always been unpredictable. Her car had gone off the road at high speed and plunged into the ravine. It had careened down the slope, overturned, and finally come to a halt at the bottom of the gully. Anne had not been wearing her seatbelt. She had died instantly of a blow to the head. She had also sustained a broken neck and several other injuries.
At the time of the accident, there were no other cars in the vicinity, and no pedestrians. Two cyclists who had been standing on the Pont des Abarines at the bottom of the valley, admiring the view, heard the roar of the car engine hurtling round the bend, followed by a series of thuds and crashes and the noise of rending undergrowth. What they did not hear was the screech of brakes, and there were no signs of brake marks on the road. When my sister realized she had lost control of the car, she had been too scared to react. She had been literally paralyzed with fright. By the time the cyclists toiled up the road on their bikes, the woods were quiet again and the hum of insects had resumed. All they could see from the road was a wide trail of broken ferns and uprooted trees, and a thin wisp of smoke rising from the bottom of the ravine.
Preparing the funeral was a nightmare. My mother was hysterical, and I had never seen my father so shaken. Olivier and I had to do everything. He dealt with the funeral arrangements, and I dealt with the family. Since he was a psychiatrist, it would probably have been better the other way around, but we didn’t have the choice. I was the one who had met Matthias, and I was the one who spoke German. It was me who had to call him in Leipzig to tell him what had happened. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. For several minutes, neither of us could speak.
“The funeral,” I managed in the end. “We thought next Tuesday. Will that give you time?”
“I won’t come to the funeral,” he said.
“You won’t come?”
“I can’t, I… Sophie, I…”
“All right. All right. I understand.”
“Forgive me, I …. We were supposed to go to Uzès together. All that way without her, knowing she… I just…. ”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry.”
“You must come when you can. When you feel like it. Later. When ….”
“Yes, I will.”
I made no attempt to try and change his mind. It seemed like a reasonable decision. He was in shock. His aunt was ill. He had never travelled to the West before. If the truth be told, I was relieved. We had enough to do without coping with him too.
I expected him to appear a few months later, when the rawness of the emotion had worn off. But he didn’t come. I wrote several times, inviting him to stay with us, but there was never any answer. We heard nothing from him, except for a printed card to say his aunt had died. After a while, I stopped writing. I began to accept that he would never come.
But in the spring of 1993, he finally called.
When the phone rang, I was in the studio. The weather was warm, and the window was wide open. It had rained earlier in the day, and the scent of thyme came sharp into my nostrils.
“Sophie?” a voice said hesitantly. “Hier ist Matthias.”
“Matthias?” I said incredulously.
“Yes, I… I did not know…. I did not want…”
I let him stutter. I had been annoyed by his failure to answer my letters, and saddened too. My eyes met those of the Ambassador across the room. He stared out of the canvas, watching me, waiting to see what I was going to do.
After a moment, Matthias pulled himself together, switched into French, asked how I was, and apologized for his failure to keep in touch. I waited for him to explain why he hadn’t answered my letters. Instead, he inquired, in his formal German way, if it would be possible for him to travel to Uzès and pay us a visit.
“Now?” I said.
My first impulse was to tell him he couldn’t come. Not any more. Now now. I would have welcomed the chance to see him and talk to him three years ago, but I no longer wanted to do so. Now he belonged to the past. It had taken me a long time to put Anne’s death behind me. I did not want to have to deal with this husband of hers, appearing years after the event, opening old wounds, asking unanswerable questions.
But of course I said none of this. The Ambassador gazed at me with his mute ironic smile. With a mixture of foreboding and annoyance, I heard myself inquiring after train times and arranging to pick him up the following Tuesday. Yes, Avignon, the TGV from Paris, and we all looked forward to seeing him.
When I hung up, I remained quite still, with my hand on the receiver, looking out of the window. The hill behind the house was bright with flowers. Matthias was coming. After all this time, he had decided to come to France.
So what had happened to change his mind?
The Judas Tree is the story of a betrayal. How it began, and what caused it. Who was hurt. Who was destroyed. Treachery in all its forms has intrigued me for years, and lurks at the core of nearly all my books. IM is the abbreviation used by the former East German secret police to denote their informers. It stands for Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or Unofficial Collaborator – a delicate euphemism if ever there was one. When I began to read about the Stasi files, I realized I had discovered traitorousness cum laude. Betrayal as a way of life. It doesn’t get worse than this.
My story begins in 1985. Anne leaves Provence to study for a year in Leipzig. She falls in love with Matthias, marries him, and settles in East Germany. She is a violinist, he is a cellist. They play music together, and stay out of politics. But in 1990, visiting her family in Uzès, Anne is killed in a car crash. Matthias is devastated. He does not attend her funeral. He declines invitations to visit. Until, three years later, he abruptly announces that he is coming to France. Anne’s parents and her sister Sophie are perplexed. Why is he coming now? What has happened to change his mind?
Matthias stays with Sophie and her husband Olivier at their house near Uzès. He is dazzled by the light and colours of the Provençal spring. Back home in Leipzig, it’s still winter, but Sophie’s garden is alive with the colours of spring. While Olivier is at work in the hospital, and Sophie is restoring pictures in her studio, Matthias sits on the terrace, on the bench beneath the deep pink blossoms of the Judas tree, and plays his cello. He is profoundly troubled, that much is clear, but Sophie is hesitant to ask what he is doing in France.
As for Matthias, he doesn’t know how to tell her why he has come. How can you explain to someone who has not lived in East Germany what it was like? How can you explain what people did and why they did it? Two weeks earlier he saw his secret police file. It has turned his world upside down.
The Stasi had ninety thousand full-time employees and about twice that number of IMs. They infiltrated every aspect of East German life. People were forced to inform on families and friends, and everything they said went into the files. When Germany reunified, the files were opened and everyone was able find out who had informed on them. Many people got unpleasant surprises. Matthias is one of them.
I started reading about the Stasi files in 1999. That gave me the idea for The Judas Tree. My daughter was studying in Leipzig that year. I paid her a visit, stayed a few days, walked around town, and tried to imagine what it must have been like ten years earlier. I had introductions to a lawyer and a university teacher, who between them told me a lot about life in the DDR, though they both turned evasive when the Stasi came up.
I visited the former Stasi headquarters, now home to the Gauck Behörde, the agency that controls the files, and explained that I was doing research for a novel. I didn’t get to look at any files – people are only allowed to see their own – but a very helpful lady showed me round, provided indispensable trivia on how the file numbering system worked and what colour the files were, and gave me a glimpse of the reading room where people went to have their souls turned inside out. She was too young to have had a file herself. She said that, for some people, reading their file can be a life-shaking experience: “Sie müssen zurück in ihrer Seele gehen.”
I used Provence as the framework of the book because I wanted a relaxed, aesthetically pleasing West European setting to contrast with glum communist Leipzig. The contrast worked two ways: I could show the dour, traumatized DDR through the eyes of a naïve young foreign student (Anne), and depict lush, romantic Provence from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man who has never travelled outside his own country before (Matthias).
Uzès is an enchanting town, and I’d been there several times visiting friends who have a house in the garrigue. (Technically, no, it’s not Provence, but it’s not very far away.) I stole my friends’ house, plagiarized their children’s childhood memories, and made them drive me round local cemeteries looking for Anne’s final resting place.
We made a trip to the Musée du Désert, and I worked out the story of Matthias’ ancestors who emigrated to Germany. “Le Désert” is how French Protestants refer to the century between the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the French Revolution when they were forced to worship in secret.
Visiting another friend in Anduze, I located Emmanuelle’s house and chose the scene of the car crash.
The events of The Judas Tree are related by eight different narrators. Sadly, publishers hated this, but it was the only way to do it. None of the characters is quite what they seem. Everyone has secrets, they all know things that no one else does, and they all know things they cannot share with anyone else. They tell the reader what they cannot tell each other. We learn what Matthias cannot tell Sophie, what Anne could not confess to Matthias, what Olivier is reluctant to tell Sophie about her sister.
Conflicting accounts of life in East Germany come from Werner, the dissident who believes that his ideals have been travestied; Dieter, the Stasi officer who thinks what he did was justified; and Anne, who is trapped into doing what she never thought possible. In his review of The Judas Tree, the literary blogger Paul Samael writes that the book “brilliantly conveys the emotional/psychological impact of the Stasi’s grip on East German society, reminding us just how insidious and corrosive a force it was.”
Researching the Stasi was a peculiarly unpleasant experience. I couldn’t sit and read about the organization and its operating methods for more than an hour or two. I needed to breathe fresh air. The Stasi did not have the same reputation for brutality as the KGB. It used means other than violence to reach its ends. It did enormous psychological harm. There were no physical wounds and no death camps, but that doesn’t mean it left no scars. They were invisible, that’s all.
The German word for what the Stasi did is Zersetzung, which defies translation. The aim of the Stasi was to destroy DDR citizens from within. Its goal was to undermine their sense of self.
In the Gulag or the torture chamber there is you and there are them. You know where the boundaries are. But in the antechambers of the Stasi, you fuses with them and them with you. They creep insidiously under your skin and into your pores, they follow you, they inform on you, they pick through your things. Your will seeps away, and your identity with it. The KGB evokes outrage, and the Stasi profound disgust.
I set the East German part of the book in Leipzig for two reasons. One, because most non-German writers stick to Berlin; and two, because what happened in Leipzig fits in perfectly with my story. For years Leipzigers attended Peace Prayers every Monday evening to protest the missiles that Soviets and Americans were positioning on German soil. The Friedensgebet was held in a historic Leipzig church, the Nikolaikirche. The Protestant Church had always enjoyed a relatively protected status in East Germany, due to the stand it had taken against the Nazis. During the 1980s, as discontent with the regime grew, people saw the church as a place they could go to speak about their problems, learn about other people’s, and feel they were not alone.
In 1989, the congregation of the Nikolaikirche started to hold a silent march in support of free emigration. By then people were fleeing the DDR in their thousands. First they fled through Hungary into Austria; later they stormed the walls of West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. The bemused elderly leaders were incapable of reform. “Would you feel obliged to decorate your flat if your neighbour decorated his?” demanded General Secretary Honecker. All they knew was repression. More police were sent to the Monday night demonstrations. Leipzigers were undeterred. The number of marchers went from five hundred to ten thousand in the space of a month.
One of the demonstrators on the street is Anne. She has been attending the Peace Prayers for months. Despite the danger, she rejects Matthias’ pleas to stay away. On Monday October 9, 1989, there are rumours that the police will shoot. Matthias begs her not to go. Anne stands firm. Matthias goes with her. There are seventy thousand marchers on the Leipziger Ring that night. The police hold their fire. There is no violence. The marchers are carrying candles. You need two hands to carry a candle: one to hold it, and one to protect the flame and stop it going out. You cannot carry stones or sticks as well.
“We had planned everything,” said a member of the Central Committee later. “We were prepared for anything. Only not for candles and prayers.”
The Leipzig demonstration deals a death-blow to the regime. One month later, the Wall comes down. The nightmare is over.
Or is it? Anne’s relief turns to terror as it becomes clear that Germany will reunify, and the Stasi files will be opened. Matthias will see his file, and discover the truth she has tried to conceal. What is she to do? No one can help her. Julien, her father, admits that when she came to him for advice he had none to give. Luise, her mother, has never got past the tragedy she lived through as a child in wartime Germany, when her father Ernst betrayed his family to the Gestapo.
Sitting under the Judas tree in Sophie’s garden, lost and desperate, Anne comes to think that, like her grandfather Ernst, she has only one way out.
January 2017: An updated version of The Judas Tree is available on Kindle, and a new print edition will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.
Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, midway between Sicily and Tunis, Istanbul and Gibraltar. The island was colonized by Phoenician traders, Roman warriors, Islamic armies, and Norman warlords from Sicily. In 1530, the Emperor Charles V presented it to the Knights of St. John. The legacies of the invaders are still visible. The Phoenicians left boats, the Romans left villas, the Arabs left language, and the Knights left everything else.
Valletta was named for one of the sixteenth-century Grand Masters, Jean de la Valette. It rises behind huge honey-coloured walls on a rocky peninsula with deep natural harbours on either side. The coast on this side of the island is a maze of creeks and inlets. Beach resorts stretch away to the north; fortified towns crouch on headlands to the west. My friend Julianne and I are staying in Sliema, in a hotel astutely chosen (or so I thought) for its waterfront views. When we arrive, it’s already dark. The balcony is all we hoped, and the views of Valletta are stunning, but I am mortified to discover that the main road from the capital to the beaches thunders right beneath our windows. Booking.com didn’t mention that. We sleep with everything closed tight and the A/C on full blast.
Next day is Saturday: warm and humid and slightly cloudy. The hotel continues to be not quite what we hoped. The wifi demands a password each time you connect, the towels are threadbare, the toiletries meagre. The breakfast buffet features full-English grease, blancmange-textured yoghurt, flabby croissants, and miniature pea pasties (a bit of a shock, that one). Still, the room is spacious, and the staff are friendly. Crossing the harbour on the Sliema ferry, the sixteenth-century ramparts that guard Valletta take your breath away. Constructed in limestone by the Knights of St. John, they have been recently restored and they look fabulous.
The Knights of St. John were soldiers and monks, and their Order was founded during the Crusades. Kicked out of the Holy Land in 1291, they took refuge first in Cyprus, and then in Rhodes. In 1523, the Ottomans expelled them from Rhodes. They were settled in Malta seven years later on the understanding that they would keep on fighting. The road up the hill from the harbour is steep, and we opt for the shuttle bus to the city centre. In front of the Palace of the Grand Masters, musicians are setting up for tonight’s free concert. It’s the first weekend in October, the Notte Bianca. Museums will be open, restaurants will spill over the street, there will be strange art installations. The Palace is now the official residence of Malta’s President, but visitors get to see the State Apartments, which are suitably grand, and the Armoury, which is all right if you like armour.
Under the Knights, Malta served as a rampart between Ottomans and Christians, East and West. Between 1559 and 1565, three forts were built on adjacent headlands to repel the Turkish fleet. One of them was Fort St. Elmo, our next destination. In May 1565, the Turks began besieging the island. The Knights were vastly outnumbered, but all that summer they held out, despite huge losses. In early September, reinforcements arrived from Sicily, and the Turks retreated demoralized to what was left of their fleet. The end of the Great Siege is still celebrated on September 8. Fort St. Elmo has been recently restored, and now houses the Malta War Museum, which is amazing. The science of warfare is usually beyond me but thanks to an inventive range of audio-visual displays the Great Siege comes alive as if you were there.
The other highpoint of Maltese history was World War II. The island’s strategic importance came into play again: not East-West this time, but North-South. Malta served as a base for Allied planes carrying out bombing missions to Sicily and North Africa, and Allied submarines attacking Axis shipping. It was heavily bombed, first by Mussolini and then by Hitler. I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing at all about this. Starvation and lack of supplies brought the island to the point of surrender, but it held out, and was awarded the George Cross for bravery by George VI in 1942. One of the three antiquated bi-planes that defied the Italians is on display in the museum. Its name is Faith.
By the end of our history lesson, it’s three o’clock. Time for a late lunch of home-made pasta to get up our strength for more walking (no more museums today). Valletta is a city built “by gentlemen for gentlemen.” It was the brainchild of Jean de la Valette, who masterminded the island’s defences during the Siege. Small but stunning, it consists of high limestone buildings with shuttered gallerijas that overhang the street and lend an Oriental air. The Order of St. John was divided into eight Langues, one for each national group (Castile, Provence, Auvergne, Aragon, etc.); each Langue had their own Auberge, and there’s a palazzo on every corner. More recent constructions include Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building, which blends wonderfully well with its sixteenth-century surroundings, and his open-air opera space, built on the ruins of the opera house that was bombed by the Germans.
Valletta was hard hit by the war: some residents moved out to new beach resorts like Sliema, and many gracious old buildings were left uninhabited and decaying. But Malta joined the European Union in 2004, urban renewal is well under way, and boutique hotels and chic restaurants are springing up. What you see at street level still tends to be backpacker bars and restaurants displaying plastic pictures of the food, but that may be about to change. In 2018, Valletta will be a European Cultural Capital. The New York Times recently ran a travel piece proposing 36 hours in the local hotspots. No doubt the buzz will create a new kind of tourist.
As things stand, Malta’s infrastructure is basically that of a package holiday destination. Until now the island’s attraction has resided in warm climate, blue lagoons, good diving, cheap alcohol, and of course the English language. The Knights were expelled by Napoleon on his way to Egypt in 1798, Malta fell to the English a few years later, and in 1814 it became a British colony. Nearly all Maltese speak English, and Marks and Spencer occupies central locations in Valletta and Sliema. But the mood is Mediterranean and it never feels as though you’re in England. (Sometimes you could be in Sicily.) The island became independent in 1964. They still drive on the left, admittedly, but with southern panache. Maltese is the only Semitic language with a Latin alphabet. Apart from a sprinkling of Italian and English words (palazzo, pjazza, computer), it is deeply incomprehensible.
Back at the hotel, we collapse on the balcony to drink the duty-free gin that Julianne picked up in Madrid airport (always a wise precaution if you’re not sure of the wine). Over the water, the lights go on in Valletta. Somewhere beyond the headland, fireworks explode. The area round the Waterfront Hotel is beset with noisy plastic restaurants so we settle for dinner in the hotel, which proves disappointing. The buffet offers quantity rather than quality: everything from leek soup to chocolate gâteau, via overcooked vegetables and some rather nasty fish. Our fellow diners are mainly older British couples. Some of the ladies have dressed for dinner, with interesting results.
Sunday is the day of the fish market in Marsaxlokk. Succumbing to one of the touts on Sliema waterfront, we take a ride down the east coast from Valletta to Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock). It’s not entirely pleasant. The sea is choppy and the boat is small. The Brits are out in force. The gents wear checked shirts and baggy shorts, and the ladies step out self-consciously in patterned resortwear. Seen from the boat, the land looks stony and arid. The market is less exciting than promised (only three or four fish stalls, buried in several acres of cheap T-shirts), but the village is pretty, fishing boats lie at anchor in the bay, and the port is lined with open-air restaurants. In 1989, George Bush met Mikhail Gorbachev on a Soviet cruiser anchored in the harbour. The Malta Summit signalled the end of the Cold War (or so they say). The sea was rough then too.
By early afternoon, we’re back in Valletta. The weather is clear, and the sun beats down. We stop for iced coffee in a café on the square opposite the Parliament. After that we attempt to catch a bus to the Three Cities, which is not as easy as it sounds. Knowledgeable informants all assured me that you can get round on local buses. This may be true, but it’s hard work. (Oddly, none of my informants could remember where they’d been.) For a start, there’s the name thing. Once upon a time, the Three Cities (villages really) were called Birgu, L-Isla, and Bormla. After the Great Siege, the Knights re-christened them Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Conspicua. The guidebook adheres to Knightly usage, but the bus company prefers the original. Thankfully, the locals are helpful. “Stick with me,” says a lady on the bus, “and I’ll tell you where to get off.”
Entering Birgu/Vittoriosa by the main gate, we find ourselves on a narrow street lined with ancient buildings of golden stone. One of them is the Inquisitor’s Palace. Malta is a Catholic country with restrictive laws on abortion and divorce, and the exhibition is determined to show the Inquisition in a favourable light. Unblinkingly placing the Inquisitors on the same footing as missionaries, it claims that really they just had the welfare of their flock at heart. We are informed that the kindly Inquisitors built comfortable cells for their guests, and restricted whenever possible the use of torture – even though a tantalizing list of victims and sins is provided. Particularly mystifying is “abuse of sacramental oil.” (How did they abuse it?? To do what??) I’m also intrigued by the case of Massimo Herrich, a 27-year-old sailor from Provence, who was accused of apostasy to Islam and infringement of abstinence on 19 September 1641. Why was a sailor supposed to be abstinent? Why would a Provençal convert to Islam? I will never know. We wander back to the bus stop along the marina, past spires and masts and honey-coloured walls, all gilded by the misty evening light.
On Monday we head inland on the Hop On Hop Off bus, which does tours of the island, and gives you some potted history on the way. Leaving Valletta, we drive past run-down apartment buildings, well-kept baroque churches, glossy office complexes, and billboards attesting to European funding. The urban sprawl peters out, tidily-laid stone walls edge the newly-paved road, and Mdina (pronounced EM-dina) rises from the plain on its fortified hilltop. Before the Knights came to Malta, Mdina was the capital of the island. The Phoenicians, the Romans and the Arabs all had their fortresses here. The city is a maze of winding streets lined by high stone walls that open into quiet squares and hidden alleys. Great painted doors open on to mysterious courtyards and mediaeval palaces. The city is home to a cathedral and several convents. It has a population of 400. From the café perched high on the ramparts, you can see the sea. Just outside the city walls is the Domus Romana, which houses the remains of a Roman villa from the 1st century BC. Little is left but an impressive mosaic floor. Part of the site was damaged when the British blithely laid tracks for a railway which soon went bankrupt.
Time for lunch. We find a café in the shade serving Maltese Platter (a kind of Mediterranean ploughman’s lunch), with a soundtrack of Sixties pop hits for the current tourist intake. The balding gent at the next table wiggles his shoulders with discreet abandon to Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Ah, those were the days! Neil Sedaka! After lunch, Julianne visits some catacombs, and I do not (claustrophobia). Back on the bus, we head for Bugibba and the north of the island. After the manicured time-travel charm of Mdina, it’s a bit of a shock. The Maltese began developing the area for package tourists in the 1960s, and a tacky strip of hotels and bars sprawls relentlessly round every headland. People supposedly come here for the beaches – which is odd, because viewed from the bus the beaches seem to be pure rock. Occasionally there’s a watchtower built by the Knights.
By the time we get back to Sliema, our heads are aching from too much driving and too much concrete, and we have no desire to go out and forage for dinner. (In Sicily, there’s always a little trattoria round the corner.) Last night we walked across the headland to a place called the Electro Lobster Project, for swordfish and our first taste of light crisp Maltese white wine, but it was a very long way. They’re re-developing the area behind the hotel, and seem to have ripped a few roads off the map in the process. Cravenly we repair to the balcony with supermarket cheese and crackers and vodka (the gin ran out) and read our books. Mine is Martin Cruz Smith’s Havana Bay. Different waterfront, different island, very different rules.
Tuesday is our day off. Definitely no buses. After a peaceful morning at the rooftop pool (stunning views, but bring your own towel), we take the ferry to Valletta to see the sights we missed the other day. The co-cathedral of St. John (the other co-cathedral is the one in Mdina) has a bling-bling interior decorated by the Knights, a shiny chapel for each of the Langues, and an oratory housing two paintings by Caravaggio, who was himself briefly a Knight before being arrested and excluded from the Order. It’s all rather splendid. Knights lie under marble tombstones beneath our feet. Tourists wander round with their audioguides, and a school group shuffles past ignoring everything.
In the Archeological Museum, a Sleeping Lady, Neolithic, 5000 years old, lies curled up on her side. She has a tiny head and hands and feet, and enormous hips. She wears a pleated skirt. The Maltese are reputed to be obese as a result of too many pea pasties, and it’s true that the people on the street are a little bulky, but seeing this statue makes me wonder if they’re not just reverting to what nature intended. We solve the dinner problem by staying in Valletta, killing the hour before dinner time with an apéritif in the café opposite the cathedral. Dusk falls, the air is soft, the lights go on. It doesn’t feel like October. In Scoglitti, the Italian restaurant by the Sliema ferry, the mood is more serious, and the bustling, stone-faced waiters make it plain you’re in their way. (“Glassy and classy,” says the New York Times.) We eat our fish, drink our wine, pay our bill, and amble over to the landing stage in good time for the ten p.m. ferry.
Wednesday is our last day. We had planned to make a day trip to Gozo, the next island along, but this would have involved either all-day buses (which I veto), or else an all-day sea trip (which Julianne vetos), and that makes things tricky. Instead we stick with the Knights. Back in the Three Cities, we have lunch on the marina in Birgu. Two ferries to get there, two to get back, no buses, only sea. The sun shines on the ochre stone and the masts glitter above the water. The Knights sleep undisturbed. The ferocious old religion that made them fight to the death is on the wane. Church attendance is down these days, and the new craze is casinos.