GE­OR­GIA’S GIFTS

With land­scapes so lovely and hos­pi­tal­ity so gen­uine, Ge­or­gia has it all, writes Helga Barnard

Sunday Times - - Fashion News - © Helga Barnard

If you are look­ing for a fas­ci­nat­ing, af­ford­able, visa-free desti­na­tion, his­toric Ge­or­gia (or “Saqartvelo”, as it is known to lo­cals) is for you. Border­ing Russia, Azer­bai­jan, Ar­me­nia and Tur­key, with a short stretch of Black Sea coast­line to the west, it is a Eurasian junc­tion. Ge­or­gia is as­tound­ing, from its en­er­getic cap­i­tal, Tbil­isi, to the towns in the Great Cau­ca­sus moun­tains and beach re­sorts on the Black Sea, from the age-old vine­yards of Kakheti to an­cient, dusty rock towns and quiet, hill­top monas­ter­ies and churches.

The peo­ple of Ge­or­gia are cheer­ful and gen­er­ous, proud and sin­cere. Guests are con­sid­ered bless­ings, so ex­pect to be of­fered gifts of home­made wine, freshly baked cake or home­grown fruit.

Wine­mak­ing in Ge­or­gia goes back more than 8 000 years, and the tra­di­tional qvevri method, by which wine is made in large earth­en­ware ves­sels, is still prac­tised widely, along­side modern meth­ods.

Food is cen­tral to the cul­ture. Dishes are quite unique in flavour, per­haps due to Ge­or­gia’s lo­ca­tion on an­cient spice routes. Blue fenu­greek, tar­ragon, co­rian­der and marigold blos­soms are fre­quently used.

The rich soil pro­duces lus­cious fruits and veg­eta­bles that farm­ers sell at lo­cal mar­kets. A loaf of bread, a chunk of ten­der Imeruli cheese, plus toma­toes and fruit from the mar­ket make a fine meal. Don’t for­get to pick up a bot­tle of wine on the way home.

THE PUR­PLE FOOD

Restau­rant menus usu­ally fea­ture the Ge­or­gian sta­ple, khacha­puri (cheese pas­tries), meat, dumplings, stews and many veg dishes. These are usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by what we would call a mixed salad, but with a dis­tinc­tive in­gre­di­ent: pur­ple basil. Wal­nuts, pomegranates, beans and plums are also used in 100 mouth­wa­ter­ing ways.

Whilst Tbil­isi has an ef­fi­cient and con­ve­nient metro sys­tem, na­tional trans­port is gen­er­ally via marshrutky, not much dif­fer­ent to our own minibus taxis. They do, how­ever, stick to a timetable (in the loose sense). Pri­vate driv­ers and pro­fes­sional tour guides, at rea­son­able rates, are widely used.

My hus­band, Len, and I started our visit in Tbil­isi, a fas­ci­nat­ing city brim­ming with his­tory but also modern. An an­cient fortress gazes over weath­ered, bal­conied houses, count­less churches and squares, with in­ter­est­ing con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture and leafy parks. It’s an an­cient city find­ing it­self firmly in the 21st cen­tury with a vi­brant art scene, the­atres, lively bars, restau­rants, cafés and wine shops.

FUR­THER AFIELD

Our next stop was Stepants­minda, a pop­u­lar base for moun­tain-bik­ing and hik­ing. Set in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, the small town is a strange mix­ture of ac­tiv­ity and tran­quil­ity. A rough 4x4 trip up a wind­ing dirt track brought us to the re­mote, iconic and al­to­gether photogenic Ger­geti Trin­ity Church.

Then we headed to Sig­nagi and Telavi, two very dif­fer­ent towns in the wine­pro­duc­ing Kakheti re­gion. Sig­nagi is a charm­ing place, if some­what touristy, with a hill­top set­ting and Mediter­ranean am­bi­ence. Telavi is more of a work­ing town. A day trip into the coun­try­side to visit the monas­ter­ies, churches and winer­ies dot­ting the vine­yards of the Alazani val­ley was a def­i­nite high­light.

MOVED TO TEARS

Vis­it­ing Ge­or­gia was an emo­tional jour­ney for both my hus­band and me. I cried of­ten. I had to leave be­hind so many friends over the course of the hol­i­day: my young Tbil­isi street cat with her two kit­tens, my bovine neigh­bour in Stepants­minda, my street dog at the Sig­nagi bus sta­tion, my 15 cats in the 9th of April Park in Tbil­isi, and all the hosts who treated us like close fam­ily.

I also cried be­cause there were mo­ments that I felt over­whelmed by the beauty of Ge­or­gia, or when some­thing would re­mind me of my fam­ily, some no longer with us. Some­times it was the chacha (a drink sim­i­lar to grappa). And once, be­cause a hid­den speaker in the tran­quil park of the Chavchavadze Es­tate at Tsi­nan­dali was play­ing the most soul-stir­ring mu­sic.

But mostly I cried for the home­less an­i­mals of Ge­or­gia (there is a ster­il­i­sa­tion pro­gramme in place in Tbil­isi, but much still needs to be done out­side of the cap­i­tal).

So, should you visit Ge­or­gia? A re­sound­ing yes! Meet the warm and wel­com­ing peo­ple. En­joy the mag­nif­i­cent cui­sine and tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian wine. And go be­yond, to the moun­tains and vine­yards, where a herd of cat­tle is the only road­block you will find. Re­mem­ber to buy pet food to feed your furry friends along the way. And travel light. And go soon.

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Pic­ture: Helga Barnard

STONE ROSE Nekresi Monastery is one of the most sa­cred places in Ge­or­gia.

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