Steeped in tradition with a tumultuous history, Gilly Pickup visits Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, which has its own language, culture, alphabet and also claims to be the birthplace of wine.
Escape: Georgia On My Mind
I quickly discovered that the Georgians overfeed you with both food and pleasure. It was only my second day in the country and I’d already experienced three ‘supras’ (feasts). Georgians are extremely hospitable and it would be against their cultural code not to offer guests a table overflowing with food. So, as a foreigner, I was treated to these lengthy restaurant supras by my kindly hosts, each accompanied by traditional dancing and singing.
When guests sit down to a supra, the table is already groaning under the weight of countless dishes – canoe-shaped breads dripping with melted cheese and butter, fat steaming beef dumplings which you eat with your fingers, colourful salads mixed with walnuts and herbs and plenty of delicious Georgian wine to wash it all down with. Then, before the original dishes have little more than a dent in them, more arrive – in the shape of earthy soups, heady stews, kebabs, chicken cooked in milk and garlic, heavily spiced ratatouille, hot cornbread… and so it goes on – and on – enough to feed the five thousand and then some.
But first things first and food aside, I should explain for those who are not quite sure, that Georgia is a country located in the Caucasus mountain range, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It is remarkably welcoming to visitors and listed as the world’s eighth safest country on the Crime Index.
I had arrived in Tbilisi, the country’s thousand-year-old capital, courtesy of Air Astana from London’s Heathrow with no idea of what to expect in this still emerging destination. The name ‘Tbilisi’ comes from the Georgian word for ‘warm’, referring to the natural hot springs which feed the city’s sulphur baths. ‘Taking the waters’ has been part of everyday life for the locals for centuries – the water is said to cure all manner of ills; you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction when your nostrils catch the distinctive eggy smell ad you see the dome-shaped bathhouse roofs.
The city itself is a jumbled mix of architectural styles. Crumbling mansions sit next to Byzantine churches, synagogues and mosques, art nouveau design rubs shoulders with neo-classical buildings, all interspersed with grey Soviet-era apartment blocks. Most eye-catching of all are the balconied dwellings perching precariously on cliff tops above the Mtkvari river as they have done for centuries. Not that it’s all blast from the past stuff. There are plenty of trendy clubs, modern art galleries and a burgeoning fashion scene in town too and, rather bizarrely, recently build police stations and government buildings are constructed from steel and glass, rendering them see through, symbolic of Georgia’s aspirations for democratic transparency.
Climbing and Wine-ing
Lording it over the mish-mash of styles is fourth-century fortress Narikala, best reached by cable car unless you feel like a seriously tough climb uphill on foot. Alongside is the gigantic aluminium statue of Kartlist Deda or ‘Mother Georgia’. She has been there since 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary, holding a cup of wine in one hand while brandishing a sword in the other. How better to symbolise the country? Georgia puts enemies to the sword and welcomes friends with wine.
Next morning I set off by minibus to follow in the footsteps of Silk Road travellers to visit cave town Uplistsikhe. Built high on a cliff in Kartli and overlooking the Mtkvari River, this rock-hewn settlement, dating back to the early Iron Age, was once home to 20,000 people. As I clambered upwards to the 10th-century Christian stone basilica, I passed structures which were once dwellings, a pharmacy, bakery and pagan places of sacrifice. All evidence of a fascinating past. Although Uplistsikhe gives the impression of being in the back of beyond, it is only 10km from the small town of Gori.
A Tumultuous History
Gori was the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953. Georgians are not proud of Stalin and my guide and driver Vladimir was reluctant to stop. However, I managed to persuade him to let me spend a short time there though understand that Stalin is not high on everyone’s list of tourist attractions.
I learned that he was born Josef Dzhugashvili but took the surname Stalin later in life – it translates from Russian as ‘steel’. The simple dwelling of his birth is now housed inside a glass-roofed temple-like structure, while in the grounds his 83-tonne personal Pullman bulletproof train carriage, in which he travelled to the Yalta Conference in 1945 is popular with camera-clicking tourists.
A Bright Present and Future
On the way back to Tbilisi, there was a visit to Mtskheta, Georgia’s capital for 800 years and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dusty main street of this small, dishevelled town which dates back to the fifth century BC, is lined with stalls selling fruit, souvenirs, wine and local handicrafts. Stallholders are keen to offer food and drink samples, ever hospitable. Mtskheta’s pride and joy is the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, heavily adorned with stone carvings outside and in. It is revered by worshippers as legend has it that Christ’s crucifixion robe is buried under the central nave.
I barely scratched the surface of this East meets West cultural and political hotspot – but there was no doubting its warm, embracing welcome, embedded in its abundance of delicious food.
Air Astana offers return flights between Heathrow and Astana from £508 and return flights between Astana and Tbilisi from £213. Air Astana offers a stop-over in Astana with transfers and hotel on B&B basis for $1 for the first night. airastana.com