The Rus­sians are fed pro­pa­ganda about us... but leave with our wine!

Irish Daily Mail - - Travel -

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.pheas­ 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

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