The Russians are fed propaganda about us... but leave with our wine!
MY ELEGANT lodgings conveniently named ‘Rooms Hotel’ used to be a no-frills Turbaza (group holiday residence for Communist party members) and even a training camp for Olympic athletes back in Soviet days.
The lovely atmospheric hotel (its sister hotel in Tbilisi is also an architectural gem) with a sweeping terrace to admire stunning mountain views, an Alpine styled subterranean wellness spa is the comfort filled terrain of well-heeled guests from around the world.
Yet, wolves are occasionally spotted in woods that dot the hillsides behind the hotel’s car park. An extensive variety of birds of prey, wild horses and Ibex are also found here, surrounded by the vastness of nature.
Locals fill their ramshackle 4 by 4s with such tourists (spending €20, a fortune by mountain standards) to make the bone-shaking return journey through a gorge filled with craters and rough tracks of hairpin bends for most of the journey up to Gergeti Trinity Church.
These fearsome highly skilled drivers will have to invent new adventures to isolated Caucasus beauty spots for future visitors. Bulldozers and road builders are cutting out a smooth wide tarmacadam road, in the early stages of construction during my recent visit to increase access and shorten the journey but lessen the helterskelter thrill of reaching that Gergeti spiritual summit.
Opinions are mixed about the fast pace of tourism progress in such far-flung Caucasus regions.
Georgians welcome tourism revenue and truly value the guest with a famous proverb stating: ‘a guest is a gift from God’ – but they caution against the potential dangers of over-tourism and the destruction of fragile vulnerable mountain communities and traditions.
On our journey along the Georgian Military Highway – an ancient passage across the Caucasus we negotiate the challenging Jvari pass in both directions and other mountain terrain whose one road was only properly engineered in the 19th century.
It has numerous twists and turns and sheer drops. Not for the fainthearted the narrow road is clogged up with often dilapidated Armenian trucks crossing via Russia because Georgia’s borders with Armenia are shut.
Turkey’s borders with Armenia are also a no-go area. Georgia, for its part, gains important revenue in export taxes for transit commercial traffic between Russia.
The relationship between Georgia and the former coloniser is icily complicated.
Georgians need a visa to travel to Russia whereas Russians need none to visit the republic of Georgia, whose original name incidentally Sakartvelo may have been renamed by crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.
Spoken Georgian, like no other language, belongs to its own ancient linguistic group with a guttural sound reputedly torturous for beginners. To write Georgian is to embark on a vast number of painstaking artistic swirls and flourishes.
The interesting guide Davit Jishkariani tells me ‘Russia demonises us but we are happy to see them come here as tourists so they learn the propaganda they are fed about Georgia is false; here they spend their money, enjoy our beautiful food and famous wines, often buy the sweeter varieties of cheap wine, but we don’t mind that! THEY buy souvenirs, carpets, textiles, Soviet era bygones, even posters of the dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin, our most infamous export; they discover that Georgians are not what they expected at all, some even learn to like us’.
For millennia Georgia has seen civil conflicts, even in the postSoviet period secessionist strife. A five-day war with Russia in 2008 saw Russian tanks coming within 35km of Tbilisi, before an EU-brokered ceasefire halted hostilities. Today peaceful, safe and warmly
welcoming tourists, Georgia looks towards the EU for future prosperity and co-operation and NATO membership for peace of mind.
We stop at a huge Soviet friendship wall near the Jvari pass. The multi-coloured series of murals depict ecstatic Soviet workers driving tractors and toiling in the fields, intertwined with arcane folklore. Below are the roadside stalls you find wherever tourists stop, a lifeline to the subsistence farmers and peasants selling souvenirs fruits, nuts and Georgia’s famous Churchkhela, strung walnuts that are dipped in a hot grape and flour mixture resembling edible candles.
Tbilisi deserves a couple of days of discovery with blossoming arts, culinary and fashion scenes, great museums (including its outstanding National Museum) great value shopping and dining out plus a renowned nightlife.
I am sorely tempted to dip into Bassiani the capital’s legendary party venue that can hold 1,000 bodies moving with abandon to techno sounds in an emptied out Soviet era swimming pool dance floor.
But I am dissuaded on upper age grounds plus the club’s late start – a wee hours kick-off. Instead, we repair to a cosy Irish pub The Hangar on the lively pedestrianised Shavteli. The popular bar serves an Enda Kenny burger along with Angela Merkel and an Obama versions on the burger menu dedicated to world leaders. The bar is festooned with rugby memorabilia collected by the owner, a staunch Munster rugby fan.
The conversation here turns to Georgian rugby and the country’s ongoing ambitions for inclusion in the Six Nations, bankrolled by Georgia’s richest man, former prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
GEORGIA’S enthusiasm for rugby has roots going back to an ancient folk sport called lelo (also the nickname of the national team) when villages competed on a playing area separated by streams and the priest threw in a ball weighing 7 kilos.
Another must-do while visiting Georgia is a visit to one of the many hot sulphur baths. The best known are those in Tbilisi on the west bank of the Mtkvari river, according to legend discovered by a 5th-century tsar who sent his falcon after a pheasant and found them both boiled in a hot spring.
I took a scalding dip in the most beautiful of the old Persian style mosaic tiled bath houses called Chreli Abano, enduring an invigorating foaming scrub by an attendant with the shoulders and arms of a sumo wrestler.
Another chance to plunge in an open-air hot sulphur bath in the spa town of Borjomi, made fashionable by the ill-fated Romanov Tsarist dynasty, involved a 6km round hike to the isolated tranquil site through mature forests.
Tbilisi’s architecture is a diverse mix of Tsarist era domed neoMoorish buildings, baroque, art nouveau, Stalinist era eyesores and brutalist soviet flats complexes.
Hugging the horizon too are some futuristic glass flights of fancy built by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, apparently aimed at impressing foreign investors and politicians from abroad.
Nothing tells you more about the spirit and culture of a country than its native food and wine. Georgia’s is in one word SPLENDID.
The country also has the oldest continuous unbroken tradition of wine-making in the world, stretching back 8,000 years. Throughout my stay one memorable meal after another, washed down with great wines almost (but didn’t!) made me shout STOP!
Georgian delicacies such as Khinkali, juicy meat dumplings were savoured at Chabarukhi, a roadside restaurant where we paid €2,40 for ten and 90 cents for a large beer to the superb cuisine served up at Pheasant’s Tears (www.pheasantstears.com) also a winery owned by American born cook-artist-winemaker-businessman John Wurdeman in Sighnaghi. He has lived in Georgia for many years and is an inspirational leading light in the country’s wine and culinary scene.
At the winery of Iago Bitarishvili and his wife Marina, Georgia’s No.1 female maker of natural wines we were served a feast of ‘traditional Georgian dishes which included addictive flat breads, filled with cheese and spinach called khachapuri, platters of Georgian cheeses, chunky Pkhaleuli (vegetarian dishes with a walnut paste base) badrijani Nigvzit (eggplants seasoned with ground walnuts, pomegranate seeds and spices)barbequed spicy meat and much more.
It was a similar story at the home of the Togonidze family in the heart of Kakheti wine country, where the toasts kept coming and food and wine was relentless.
Davit Nozadze, a proper wine buff explains: ‘80% of Georgians make their own wine, much of it the traditional way in large earthenware vessels called Qveri; wine is our religion, we wouldn’t convert to Islam after the Arab invasion because of our attachment to wine’.
Georgians refused to give up drinking and all one can say to that is ‘Amen’ hoping the teetotaller monk from Gergeti Trinity monastery is not listening!
Pictures of Georgia: Wild horses, the wild Joseph Stalin and what grows in the wild