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.