Georgia - reserved for the interested. First Impressions and Day 1 – Tuesday 28th September – Lari and tiny lari Flying in to Tbilisi airport at night was quite a surprise. We’d had a bit of turbulence coming in to land but even so, looking out the windows I could see a very modern curved glass building that was lit with green neon lights - not what I had expected at all from this ex-Soviet state that was last invaded by Russia as near as 2008. The airport is immaculate, clean and modern and fairly new.We are met by our tour guide for the week and our driver – both seem very happy to meet us and cram our oversized suitcases into the under sized bus. First impressions – lots of neon lights and beautifully lit landmarks all over the hillsides. A drive along George W. Bush Avenue, complete with a picture of his hollow grinning face on the road sign and we’re driven along the river. The pedestrian Peace Bridge designed by architect Michel De Lucchi and French lighting director Philippe Martinaud is a stunning piece of design and contrasts with the other architecture wonderfully. We hear some controversy about the bridge, along with the other similarly designed Interior Ministry building and rumours of corruption and devastatingly massive cost. Our primary base for the week is the Beaumonde Garden hotel just outside the main centre of Tbilisi. It’s a little bit out of the way and takes us four or five attempts along Marshal Gelovanis Avenue to find the turning. Check in is not smooth but the staff are, on the whole, friendly and happy. It is all relatively new and cut into the rock (which is exposed in the foyer and dramatically lit). We are all to be sent to the brand new top floor, which they claim to have finished last week. On closer inspection, it’s still not quite finished, but their pride in the new floor is obvious. One of our group is asked their opinion on the marble floor in their room – seemingly harmless, but we’ve been travelling for over 12 hours now and they were in desperate need to experience the en suite. They can’t find the key to my room so, temporarily I am given a suite on the floor below. They wait until we are laughing about their state of un-readiness and confusion before laughing along with us whilst apologizing again and again. The early start is easy – I was so tired last night that I forgot to close my curtains and the sun rose right onto my pillows. Today was the day for getting our currency and seeing the capital. I find foreign currency fascinating as it is so often used as a means of national pride – the most famous cultural and historical figures are put on display to all as a permanent reminder of what we in this country can do. Such a shame then that in England we replaced Edward Elgar for the economist Adam Smith because Elgar’s beard was too easy for forgers to replicate! I digress... Tbilisi is a fascinating city. We are taken to see the 5th century Metekhi Church overlooking the Mtkvari River with a huge statue of King Wakhtang Gorgasali who seems to look out over to the statue called “Our Mother” who has a sword in one hand for Georgia’s enemies and a bowl in the other for Georgia’s friends. Legend has it that King Wakhtang went hunting with a falcon in the forests that covered the area in 458 AD. His bird caught a pheasant during the hunt and both birds fell into a hot
spring. He was so impressed with the springs that he cut the forest down and built a city on the location called Tbilisi from the Georgian word for ‘warm location’. Fitting then that our next stop was to the old 17th century sulphur baths. In one of the oldest parts of Tbilisi we see the distinctive balconies. We go down to the baths, at first the smell of sulphur is unpleasant but gradually you get used to it until it catches you again. The second baths we visit are reportedly Pushkin’s favourite baths. It’s hard to get too enthused about these baths because the smell is notably stronger down here. Next stop is the Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral commonly known as Sameba. I cannot begin to say how absolutely massive this cathedral is. Built between 1995 and 2004 it can apparently accommodate up to 15,000 people at once and at it’s tip is 78 metres high.What was particularly striking here though was not the building. It was the range of people in there going about their religious practices. From teenage men right through to older Georgian women. It was fascinating to see the whole spectrum of Georgians going about similar religious practice. The Christian Orthodox priests act as comforters and counsellors. It is also a first glimpse at how warmly Georgians greet each other. Again, across the spectrum of ages – everyone is greeted with a hug and a kiss on each cheek – from good mates to mothers! Lunchtime takes us to Chardin Street. Taking its name from the French artist Jean-Baptists-Simeon Chardin, it is supposedly a favourite meeting place with cafes, clubs, galleries and art salons, although it seemed very quiet at lunchtime. We were shepherded off to a small backstreet hotel for lunch which was a feast! In retrospect we were far too exuberant with what turned out to be the start of a four-ish course meal. A little warning to you though – if you order a lemonade – it might not be lemon. It is likely to be pear, peach or even tarragon. After a gargantuan lunch we are driven to the Jvari Monastery which sits on top of a hill towering over Mtskheta. We arrived at the same time as a coach load of tourists and so this gave me time to wander around the outside and take in the landscape. The name of the church (meaning Holy Cross) is attributed to a wooden cross which stood on the site before the small church was build in the late 6th century. The last stop of the day was to the Svetitskhoveli (“The Vivifying Pillar”) Cathedral. This was built at the site of the first Christian Georgian church and is, since Sameba, the second largest church in Georgia. Enclosed in walled grounds, it is, like much of Tbilisi, undergoing huge restoration/building works. As we leave to board the bus, we see a wedding procession entering the grounds, some stop to pose for photos with one of our
group, now dressed in a sheepskin hat and coat and carrying a sword from a local trade stall. We really are starting to get a feel for this country.They are very religious, very friendly and very inquisitive.There seems to be a real interest in what we are doing there with our cameras and note pads! Which probably explains the media attention that follows tomorrow!
Day 2 - Wednesday 29th September – Kahketi Region “Come for the wine, Stay for the people” – Georgian Tourist Board publicity. This day was always going to be a long one! We had a long drive ahead of us and a night in a guest house which we were all dubious about. First up was the drive to the David Gareja cave town. It was a long, hot and bumpy journey but utterly worth it. Simply put, tranquil and beautiful with a stillness like none of us had ever experienced all set in a stunning mountainous landscape. The monastery itself was built in the 6th century abandoned and reoccupied numerous times and used as a military base during Russian/ Afghanistan war. The rooms are built into the rock face and although you can’t explore as many as you would perhaps like, you can see a number of other doorways set into the rocky peak from the sunbathed central courtyard. Having lent one of the occupants a biro to, we assumed, finish his Sudoku, we ventured into the very plain and simple Chapel. Something about the setting made even the non-religious amongst us calm after the journey. The frescos and ornaments we had seen in other churches are stored in an inaccessible area but this seemed only to heighten the spirituality of this monastery. Back in the bus and we drive back down the bumpy roads past a huge herd of sheep, goats and cattle led by two tired looking donkeys and a similarly tired looking herdsman. Our guide tells us that they are walking back from summer pastures over 300kilometers away. This journey takes them 3 weeks on foot. They wave as we take pictures and the sheep fill the road! A bit of a doze on the bus until we arrive in Sighnaghi.We are here to be filmed for a news feature on the equivalent of the BBC 6 o’clock news. But first, another banquet style feast. Now we know from yesterday’s lunch to pace ourselves and instantly recognise some of the treats in front of us. Despite this knowledge we plough on through one delicious plateful after another. Thankfully the filming crew want footage of us walking around looking at the town before they interview us. This not only gives us a chance to let lunch go down but also to admire the wonderful architecture. The slim bricks used in much of Georgian architecture, here give the town a sort of cobbled street, walled town, chocolate-tin appeal. The huge town hall clock tower, although displaying the wrong time, suggests some Swiss architectural influence if not time-keeping! Set in the Kahketi region we look over the valley and try not to make eye contact with the camera. Some of us wander off in search of the museum which, incidentally, contains some fascinating ancient artefacts found in the valley below Photograph by Rama Knight the town and others soak up the incredibly warm local atmosphere. Everyone smiles back. Groups of old men sit playing backgammon joking and flirting with the ladies in the group. After a lovely afternoon in the sun in this beautiful town it’s a not so quick attempt at buying a bottle of water from the local shop before we get back on the bus. This
exchange was strangely reassuring – in a town that supposedly has around fifteen hotels, it is good to see that mass tourism is not even in sight. Now, I fall asleep on bus journeys. I always do. And it’s embarrassing because I am not an elegant sleeper. But at the pace we were getting around the country, it was difficult to stay awake.Waking up as we pulled in to the side streets of Telavi where I knew we were going to be staying I was a little dubious. The houses looked in need of some real repair. The roads were really rough and lined with cows. As usual though, this first impression was blown away by the people. Dinner was another banquet, but the Shashlik (kebabs) and bread here were utterly astonishing. Our hosts supplied us with home made wine throughout the night and the driver and guide kept the toasts moving nicely. However, as we were being served our fourth or fifth course a Latvian dance group arrived with a local Georgian singing troupe. We knew about the Georgian singing tradition but we weren’t expecting to experience it in such a pure form. They took over the toasting and followed each toast with a song.All night they toasted to wine, women, music, love, ancestors and most touchingly to that moment in case we never meet again. The night before my first birthday in a foreign country was easily one of my most memorable evenings ever. In a wonderfully humble and warm family home with singers from Telavi, our Georgian tour guide and driver, a representative for Ukrainian International Airlines, a Ukrainian ex-BBC broadcaster, dancers from Latvia, travel agents, tour operators and journalists from the UK.
Day 3 - 30th September – Birthday on the road After as much wine as we were given last night I was expecting quite a hangover but as I open my eyes expecting the worst I am pleasantly surprised. Nothing. Quite a relief! We’ve got a lot of driving today and a hangover is not on the cards! After my shameful preconceptions were shattered by the meal the night before, the plumbing in the morning could easily have rebuilt them, but it was my birthday and I was excited to be Photograph by Rama Knight there so nothing mattered! Breakfast was perfect – homemade natural yoghurt and homemade blackberry jam with some lovely almost Panettone/brioche style lemony cake, which we wrapped up for the journey! First stop was the monastery of St. George in the Alazani Valley. The 11th century domed ceiling is certainly impressive as it is unimaginably high up for such an old building. Unfortunately however, the church was undergoing some heavy refurbishment so our visit here was fairly hurried. Next stop the Tsinandali Palace. After a brief tour of the palace we are led through the grounds to the wine cellar which contains, as their pride and joy, several bottles of 150 year old (or older) wine. They claim that’s the best – I think that might be pushing the ageing process too far. It does however raise what I think might be an important export and interest that Georgia should be made more famous for. And something that the next stop confirms. The Shumi wine factory is just down the road from here and we are given a tour of the museum. Georgians consider their country to be the birthplace of wine with evidence of wine making and storage going back 7000 years. We are shown around the vineyard and sample grapes from the vine before taking our seats to sample the wine. Under inspection are Tsinandali, a very tasty light dry white, Sapheravi – my personal favourite – a ruby coloured dry red and Kindzmarauli – a port-like semi-sweet red and reported favourite of Josef Stalin. Strangely, although this became less of a one off experience as the week progressed, they were surprised that we might want to buy some bottles to take back with us.This seemed even more strange that they should have a museum here but no gift shop. Think of any other museum you have been to that has no shop, think of any Californian or Australian vineyard where you can go from a tasting Photograph by Rama Knight room back to your coach without almost being expected to leave with bags and gift boxes full of your favourites and anticipated favourites of family and friends. Each bottle we ordered was labelled and packaged right in front of us as we waited.
Finally loaded up with wine we jumped back on the bus, in very jolly spirits and set off back to Tbilisi for another big lunch (with dumplings this time) and an hour of free time. A small group of us took a stroll up the main road from Freedom Square to see what the commercial centre of Georgia was like. It’s a truly buzzing city which is growing and being rapidly developed and redeveloped.We would have loved to have had more time to see more but sadly we were due at a dinner with representatives from the Georgian Tourist board.You guessed it, a banquet of walnut and aubergine salads, Khachapuri and Shashlick accompanied by our new friends Tsinandali and Sapheravi.
Day 4 - 1st October – From Tbilisi – the capital to Gori – a devastated town to Batumi – a coastal town on the rise. Another long drive ahead of us and another hotel at the end of the journey. But first to Gori. This place was in the news fairly recently as it was the first place bombed and then occupied by Russian troops in 2008 during the South Ossetian war - destruction was fairly severe but the reconstruction has practically restored the town to it’s former state, yet the side streets still tell the stories of a former communist state that’s been through it. The Georgian alphabet is so artistic and beautiful that it almost makes the graffiti look attractive, apart from this example.We were in Gori to visit the Stalin museum which is based around a site by the house in which a young Georgian boy, Soso Jugashvili (later Josef Stalin), spent his childhood. It’s an odd place where the exhibits and the guides skip over the three million people killed under his Communist regime and miss out some key facts, figures and faces from the history books. Our next stop comes a close second for the ‘Best Experience in Georgia’ award. Uplistsikhe cave town is a huge ancient complex of natural caves roughly 10km from Gori on the bank of the Mtkvari river. Rooms of various sizes and functions, including dwelling halls are carved in the rock. Especially impressive are the pagan temples and Christian churches, the theatre, dungeons and wine cellars. This place is stunning. The views across the river are stunning. The history of the place is amazing. Having waited all week to get a chance to run around playing photographer, now I was in heaven. Oh, and to make it even better, the place was filled with the Georgian Army posing for photos. Rama, the other photographer with us disappeared among them and when we returned to our bus after they were all there with him having more pictures taken on their huge army trucks. The pictures from here say more than I can, should and therefore will!
I’ll say it straight up, Batumi is a long drive from Gori and we started off today in Tbilisi – we really are covering the whole country today. Our journey was plagued with diversions on bumpy tracks through some devastated roads but as our guide said “time destroys everything”. Though this made sleeping on the bus difficult it was a wonderful insight into some of the poorer communities in the country. Cows and goats wander out into the line of traffic as you pass
through town after town. Once school is over children play on the streets, groups of men sit, laughing and playing backgammon. Every generation of women in each home sit on the steps of their homes talking to each other.This truly could be a photographer’s paradise if only we weren’t three hours behind schedule! Under the cover of darkness we arrived at the Era Palace hotel in central Batumi. The foyer gives us all a sense of the place’s tacky-chic Vegas look. The check in is painless and quick, unlike the lift which is painfully slow. The room is a standard hotel room layout with some fabulously over the top wardrobe doors with faux-crocodile-skin panels inlaid with huge gold plaques displaying the hotel logo. This place feels strangely out of place in a country where the concept of branding and corporate imagery is left to the international chains. Dinner is at a place just outside of Batumi itself and yet again it’s the cheesy bread, Tremali sauce, spicy beef curry feast we’re just starting to get fed up with! However, the waiters are attentive, efficient and friendly and keep the Sapheravi and Tsinandali flowing all evening. We toast to all manner of things, notably the Georgian army we met earlier that day and that Georgia might live in peace, Leon Trotsky who was cleverly left out of the Stalin museum apart from one tiny photo, to our driver Zura and our guide Beca, to Sudafed and Ibuprofen and to the vine. We toast to the future of the country and to friendships old, new and absent. As we leave the hotel we see that this huge and very impressive looking restaurant has no sign on it, in fact there is no clue that this place is a restaurant at all. On our return to the hotel we decide it’s time to try the legendary cha-cha spirit our guides have been threatening us with all week! It is essentially grappe - a 45% second distillation of the grapes with a potent odour and taste similar to tequila. We know it’s not going to help us tomorrow but as responsible pioneers in this largely unknown destination we put our own clear heads to one side and get down to some serious research.
Day 5 – Heading for a Midnight Plane from Georgia The morning after is unwelcome, what’s more unwelcome is the shot of cha-cha on the breakfast table. I decline mine submitting to the other men - it appeared I made the right choice. Later, my headache cleared, theirs didn’t. Unfortunately my victory was not long lived. After a coffee in a stunning modern bar cafe on Batumi beach my cold really took hold (I won’t bore you with details this, although at the time this man-flu was deserving of some sympathy) just in time to get back on the bus and return to the Tbilisi hotel ‘base camp’ that has started to feel a bit like a home from home to wait for our one o’clock pick-up time for our flight back to Gatwick. We’ve seen a short glimpse of an entire country in just under a week.We’ve driven through deserts and lush countryside, experienced traditional family feasts, visited churches and cave town. We’ve been on the news (twice), met the army, listened to traditional Georgian singers and eaten traditional Georgian family food, sampled the wine (which I’ll be searching for in the UK). We’ve laughed at the state of the cars on the road and all decided we’d rather have a Lada or Eastern European truck or bus with rust, no bumpers and a crack in the windscreen than any western super car! Georgia is a country steeped in local traditions. A deeply spiritual an religious place where a determined population go about their lives emitting a warmth and friendship I haven’t seen in any other country. This country has been through too much conflict recently and now needs time to heal and grow naturally - not an influx of mass tourism that will only serve to destroy what makes it so special. I implore the adventurous amongst you to go and pick up some of the Georgian love and hospitality. Go, absorb as much of their spirit as you can, see what they’ve been through and what else they have to give but please don’t leave anything of ours behind. For more photographs go to www.flickr.com/photos/bobbyford or to www.ramaknight.com/georgiantravel/index.html
Published on Nov 4, 2010