Georgia – from mountains to monasteries
When God was dividing up the earth he called all the peoples of the world to a meeting. The Georgians arrived about a day too late and smelling of alcohol. God was not amused. “I’ve given all the land away now ” he said. The Georgians looked very sad and turned to go. “We couldn’t leave without giving a feast in your honour and toasting your greatness,” they said. “Well there is one bit of land,” he said. “It has the sea, mountains, plains, a sub-tropical area and beautiful farmland. I was keeping it for myself.”
I’ve heard many people describe their homeland as ‘God’s own country’ but the Georgians believe that theirs was truly given to them by God. With a coastline on the Black Sea, bordered by two mountain ranges, and with five micro-climates it is certainly rich in natural assets for a small country. And no wonder so many rulers coveted it and invaded. Georgia is an ancient civilisation with a chequered history of people trying to conquer them. This may explain why their cultural identity is so strong and resilient – surviving most recently over 70 years of attempted homogenisation by the Soviet Union.
I’d wanted to visit ever since I read blog posts by Kerstin and Helen and finally I was here. These impression are just the tip of the iceberg that this magnificent country has to offer. In addition to the ten wineries and all the restaurants we went to, here are a few sights from along the way.
Taxi-ing in from the airport down George W Bush street, past shabby soviet era concrete blocks of flats I’m slightly nervous about what the capital of the Republic of Georgia will be like. A huge bunch of grapes hangs in the gateway to the airport and we pass a railway terminus that’s like a golden mirrored beetle. Ridged mountains, their Jurassic ripples visible, are a dull backdrop – quite bare and spartan, a huge carved dark Mordor-like tower looms menacingly, part of the sculpture has fallen away exposing the inner metal skeleton. The dawn is breaking revealing women at the edge of the kerbs sweeping the road with straw brooms – odd when the grass verges are full of litter. Many houses are wooden and ramshackle – like Little House on the Prairie without Pa to fix it. But turning a bend a panorama of the city flanking the banks of the river Mtkvari is seen in all its juxtaposed glory. Houses hug the top of the old city wall, literally built on top of it, Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda), Narikala Fortress and Bagrati Cathedral (Kutaisi) watchful above, gleaming organic shapes resembling tubes or pine forests or shells are shiny ultra-modern buildings, pavements are dotted with bronze figurines. The Tbilisi Public Service Hall looks as though its mirrored walls are topped with an array of giant funghi. Sweeping round into Freedom Square, The stately Marriot Courtyard lines one side while a bright golden statue of St George (yes the same patron saint as England) towers over the combination of buildings ranging from Stalin-built stone grandeur to charming wooden ones with bright if peeling paint.
A cable car ferries people up across the river to the highest point ending in a restaurant and telecoms aerial which lights up dramatically at night. McDonalds inhabits a most elegant curved building, its investment rescued and restored the building with an ornate golden arched roof to which it added its own neon version.
We only have time to explore, briefly on two occasions. Restoration has begun on the old town but I take a wrong turning on my first foray out with my camera and plunge directly into the deepest parts of the ‘before’ area. It is dream to photograph, Rowena and I have our cameras permanently attached to our faces, with crooked houses, crumbling facades and intriguing alleyways, but it’s probably not a dream to live in. After this the cleaned up areas seemed too new and clinical – our guide Geo indicates he feels the same and looks forward to a couple of years time when they will have softened with age. Georgia is called the bridge between Europe and Asia and Tbilisi was a hub on the Silk Route. Caravanserai are buildings where travelers could rest consisting of many floors. The basement housed camels and horses with rooms arranged on balconies around a main courtyard and the roof open to the sky. Geo takes us to two caravanserai which shows the contrast between old and new dramatically. We creep in through ancient wooden doors of the first looking up to a washing line strung with clothes and a tacked on corrugated roof. It looks as though the camels have just moved out but in fact houses several families by the look of it. The next one is gleaming with new paint and has been opened as shopping centre with a cafe, wine bar and several galleries.
The church next to where we are staying (The Marriot) sees visitors of all ages popping in and out at most hours of the day. Women cover their heads, people queue at a kiosk outside to buy thin, beige tapers to light with their prayers.
I needn’t have been alarmed. Tbilisi is a charming tableau of a city, its vivid history written large, laced with an optimism similar to the one I sensed on a visit to Krakow in 1998. This hope for the future is not completely carefree though – there is a political settling in and all with a watchful eye on what Putin will do next.
Tbilisi flea market
Otherwise known at the Dry Bridge Market as paintings line the road adjacent to the eponymous bridge on the edge of a small park. Behind the artworks and along the bridge are stalls, or rather blankets on the ground where sellers display their wares. The main market is on a Saturday but some are there everyday. It’s a food styling prop dream with tarnished sets of cutlery, chipped enamel, and odd china tea cups much reflecting soviet era taste. Everything else is there too, from musical instruments to old weapons. I am sorely tempted to lug home ancient-looking iron pots which look as though they’ve just been pulled from the hook of a medieval kitchen fire. After a bit of good-natured haggling (in sign language) a little enamel jug and some cross-stitched Georgian hats go home in my bag.
Tbilisi main fruit and vegetable market near Didube
Stalls full of fruits and vegetables, spices and churchkhela, chickens and preserves, a hall filled of cheese and offal, butt up against electronics and hardware supplies. A labyrinthine feast for the senses in all manner of ways – more to follow soon in a post about Georgian food.
National Museum of Georgia
After a wonderful week, my brain is over-stimulated and can’t take any more information. I don’t want to visit the museum but would rather wander through the streets breathing in the crisp air. Geo suggests we go straight to the treasury on the top floor and work our way down. I drag my heels a bit but obey – and meet an elegant room of illuminated cabinets with an impressive amount of beautifully made gold implements and jewellery. It’s a demonstration of how old and how sophisticated early Georgian society was. Many of the items look contemporary they’re so fine and well-made. I’m restless and leave the group to go at my own pace through the other floors. Exquisite paintings, beautiful kimonos and collections of hand-scribed books of The Knight in the Panther skin keep my interest. Turning from the light airy rooms I enter the dark wing dedicated to a new exhibition called Soviet Occupation 1921 – 1991. A wooden railway carriage shot through with holes greets me, black and white images of families who were assassinated, statistics and letters tell the story and extent of atrocities committed including transporting people to Siberia (from where few would return). I’m angry and upset, not least because my own father and his family were displaced from their homeland by the Russians (in an area which is now in the Ukraine) and my Grandfather died in Siberia. The museum reminds, once again on this trip, how resilient and richly resourceful this nation is.
There were so many things left to do in Tbilisi – visit the sulphur baths, take a cable car to the highest point, see inside the Nariqala fortress and the many, many churches and cathedrals, walk to Mother Georgia….. but we had a lot of wine to taste. The rural areas are a contrast to city with its gleaming shafts of modernisation , the villages are poor and ramshackle but dedicated to the land and every centimetre is planted with something. We see huge flocks of sheep tended by shepherds, sometimes spilling across the road. There are horses and carts, and haystacks scythed by hand. Dogs are everywhere in the city, towns and villages – some have seen better days but all look well fed. It’s all very poor but there is a sense of Georgians understanding where real riches lie.
We stop for lunch in Mtshkheta – the former capital of Georgia – and can see this 6th Century monastery on top of a high hill. On our winding journey there it looks down on us as we climb higher and higher. There are few visitors, souvenir stalls camp out the gate with a few beggars lining the steep path up. There is a magnificent view over a sweeping bend in the Aragvi river. Inside this cruciform church (in the shape of a cross) it is calm, cool and dark with a towering ceiling. The stillness and simplicity of the place is beautiful and we are allowed to try to capture this on our cameras without flash. Suddenly the peace is broken by angry shouting. I am appalled that one of our party has taken a photo of the black clad, bearded Georgian monk without permission and using flash. He is unconcerned and seems to think it’s his right. Once a place of pilgrimage as St Nino, credited with converting King Mirian III of Iberia (a former name for Georgia) to Christianity erected a wooden cross on this site; it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site just in the nick of time due to erosion, by the sound of it.
Ikalto church, monastery and wine academy
The sun on the stone of this 12th century collection of buildings makes them glow, the sky a brilliant blue and then I realise my camera battery has run out. Right at the beginning of a day of stunning sights. Taking a deep breath I decide to live in the moment and thank my iphone for taking the strain. The walls of the church are hung with icons; women have to cover our heads to enter. The attractive ruins and collection of qvevri (traditional clay wine-making vessels that were buried in the ground) are the focus of many lenses. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place surrounded by trees and bird song.
This peaceful place originally dated from the 6th century although, as everything in Georgia, bore the brunt of one of a litany of invaders – in was completely devastated in 1616 by the Persians. Beautifully restored, the walls of the inside of the monastery glow with icons.
The first picture is from the coach hence the reflections – but the whole place is so magical. The cathedral itself towers high above our heads inside and the ban on photography means we have to just concentrate on seeing the place and drinking in the atmosphere. Polished stone slabs from earlier era show that Georgia’s alphabet has changed a few times. Right at the end I glimpse a view through a crack in the screen and see a kaleidoscope of colour around the inner altar; a stark contrast to this cool stone interior. We walk past vines trained in heart-shapes and then meet Father Gerasim who shows us the wine making process, answers questions and leads a tasting with lunch… but that’s for another time. And this place does seem like it’s from another time.
The mountain road was closed due to icy conditions so our 2 hours from Tbilisi to the capital of the Kaheti region became a mind-numbing four-hour coach journey. The town centre square was lit up, pristine and soul-less – Geo explained these were Stalin-era buildings that had been restored. We faced another ‘supra-like’ feast and then crawled into our rooms with strange ornate furniture and hi-tech showers that had a nozzle for every part of your body. I headed out through the town early morning and noticed that the restoration didn’t extend very far and enjoyed the fresh air and stunning mountain views. The part signposted ‘old town’ has been restored to within an inch of its life. There seems to be no middle ground here. Telavi is the perfect base for seeing the wineries and sights of the Kaheti region (which is exactly what we did including the above); the Batonistsikhe Castle glimpsed from the coach on arrival, looked worth further inspection.
Set in high above the Alazani valley flanked by a breath-taking view of the Caucasus which have been a backdrop to our journeys but never looked so stunning as from this pretty town. Here the balconied houses have been restored but keep their charm. There is a character to the town. A bas-relief plays homage to the dead – a sight we’ve seen in many forms in many towns. A parade of men clad in bright military red coats laugh and joke as the climb up the steep hill. A market is glimpsed through the door of a hall, jars of pickles stacked along side fresh vegetables and piles of clothing. A supra (feast) with polyphonic singing, folk dancing and of course wine drinking and toasts is our main purpose but we get time to steal away to the Bodbe convent the next morning. It’s another calm, gentle place and silent nuns clean the painted frescoes of this place of pilgrimage – St Nino is buried here in a beautiful tomb. Cypress trees tower over us as we gaze once more at another view of the valley to the sound of birdsong.
This is a disparate list of places and only tells a part of the story as our main focus was with eating and drinking – as guests of the Georgian National Wine Tourism Administration and National Wine Agency of Georgia for the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC). It’s impossible to separate food and wine from any trip to Georgia so those chapters will follow soon.
I travelled to Tbilisi from Dubai on Fly Dubai and the flight time is only 3 1/2 hours.
In the meantime….
I can’t remember a more authentic and undiscovered place that I’ve travelled to. Have I tempted you to go? Love to hear in the comments….