Gorgeous Georgia - God's own country

Mike Gerrard finds a land of milk on honey on the Black Sea, where you won't bump into many other Brits
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you don't like to hear other British voices when you go travelling, try Georgia. It expects just 25 tourists from the United Kingdom this year, according to Saba Kiknadze, the general manager of Caucasus Travel in Tbilisi. "In 1989," Saba told me, "we had 1.8 million visitors, of which 280,000 were non- Soviet. In 1997 we expect the total figure for all tourists to be no more than about 1,500. From Britain? Maybe 25."

Declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 didn't do much for Georgia's tourist trade with Russia, of course, and the Georgians still haven't established their country on the world map. Not easy given that most people only seem to know two things about Georgia: it's where people live to be more than 100, and it's the place where Stalin was born. The first isn't true anyway (life expectancy is around 68), and the second is hardly a major selling point, is it?

So what about all the things people don't know? It's a country roughly the size of Ireland, yet it ranges from the Caucasus mountains in the north, almost 17,000ft high, to desert regions near the south-eastern border with Azerbaijan. It has over 200 miles of Black Sea coastline and fertile valleys inland which once provided the Soviet Union with much of its fruit, vegetables and wine. The Georgian language has no connection with any other known tongue, and its script is unique too. Every word looks like a swirling nest of vipers and consonants cluster together like bad hands at Scrabble. "Welcome" is mohrzandit and "good morning" dila mshwidobisa.

You will need to master gagimarjot (cheers), as dining in Georgia is punctuated by regular toasts, and usually to the sound of people hauling out a guitar and harmonising soulfully at the next table. Any sound the visitor makes is more likely to be a groaning one as a Georgian meal is the kind where, just when you think you've finished, they bring out the next course. And what courses: spinach and walnut pates, red caviar, black caviar, sturgeon in a pomegranate sauce, field mushrooms roasted with eggs, a plate of mixed herbs, a plate of tarragon, flat bread the size of a tennis racquet, cheeses, khachapuri (a kind of grilled cheese pizza pancake), lamb in coriander and Caucasian mountains of fresh strawberries. All mouth-watering, and all organic, as is Georgian wine: additive-free and therefore, in theory, hangover-free. On the evidence of my own last night in Georgia, when this theory was certainly put to a very strong test, it may even be true.

On my first morning I'd strolled out of the hotel in Tbilisi having little idea what to expect from Georgia's capital. Soviet apartment blocks? Stalinist architecture? Within two minutes I was looking down over the fast-flowing and wide river Mtkvari. Swifts filled the sky, and a rustling by some bushes proved to be two enormous lizards. It was a hot May morning and to my right a high rock face, topped by tumbledown balconied houses, curved gently round with the river. On the far side, below me, was the old town - more balconied houses, church towers, trees, a Turkish fortress. Behind these was the Holy Mountain of Mtatsminda, 1,300ft high, and away to my left more green hills were sunbathing by the river. It was love at first sight.

And was it my imagination and my general good mood or were Georgian women really so stunningly beautiful? It wasn't just the sunshine and May sap affecting me, though, as a few days later I read in Mary Russell's travel book, Please Don't Call It Soviet Georgia, that: "I have never seen so many truly attractive women, in such numbers, as I have seen in Georgia." The women have olive skin and passionate brown eyes. Older women wear black, half way between a Greek widow's weeds and a chador. Younger women wear flowing cotton skirts that could have come from Sixties London. Some men wear white shirts with smart black waistcoats and trousers, others have the baggy jackets with fraying sleeves that betray the country's poverty, as if dressed at Oxfam.

Shopkeepers are damping down the dust on the pavements. There are pastelcoloured buildings reminiscent of Prague, a few restored in blinding fresh paint, others fading to a different kind of beauty. Plump women are sweeping the streets with brooms made of twigs. Buses chug by with their backsides hanging out. Ladas race by, and you soon discover that one reason Georgians do not live to be 100 is the standard of their driving. The standard of the roads, too. We head towards Russia on the Military Highway, which sounds impressive but soon degenerates into a pot-holed track. By the roadside a pig is snuffling, and further on another fat porker with her pink piglets trots by on the verge. A woman leads a cow on a rope. Someone is fixing a puncture in a battered blue Lada, while under a tree some men are playing dominoes.

We are stopped by a herd of maybe 100 sheep in the road. Our Georgian guide, Ia, says that it takes two to three weeks for the shepherds to get their flocks up into the mountains for the summer grazing. The grizzled shepherds plod on, crooks in hand. There are several pack-horses and laden donkeys with them, and mixed in with the sheep are tiny baby goats, baby donkeys scarcely bigger than the sheep, and several donkey-size goats with daunting horns, some curled over like seashells and others high-pronged but crossed like fingers for good luck.

We stop to buy some water and a few nibbles. Ia produces what seems to be a sausage but inside the skin are walnuts soaked in grape juice. "Georgian Snickers," Ia says. Very tasty they are too, chewily soft, which is more than can be said for the tklapi I buy from an old lady, who had laughed at the thought that I could want to take her photo. A tklapi is a dried fruit roll-up, like a piece of plum lino. There are rainbow socks for sale, and woollen hats so big it would surely be easier to walk round with a sheep on your head.

Elsewhere we saw roadside markets where red apples and yellow pears were piled high in pyramids, and where people sold cherries on a stick. The cherry stalks were tied round the stick with twine, so that you simply plucked off the cherries and threw the stick and the stalks away at the end. We first see these in Georgia's old capital, Mtskheta, about a half- hour drive from Tbilisi. An old lady outside a church is selling them.

"When I was here in the autumn," says our guide, "all the trees in the centre of town were weighed down with fruit: avocados, olives, sharon fruit, everything. You could just reach up and pick them from the branches." Mtskheta is a small old town, on the banks where two rivers meet. The Aragvi flows down from the Caucasus Mountains and at Mtskheta swells the Mtkvari, which has come from the south Georgian mountains and flows on through Tbilisi and into Azerbaijan. The town's main church, Svetitskhoveli, is packed on this Sunday morning, with worshippers, coach parties, groups of children having their photos taken. Inside is a church within a church, known as the Jerusalem church, a square stone structure on the right of the entrance that disappears up into dark shadows. Built in the 11th century, this is the burial place of King Erekle II, 1720-1798, the grandfather of the last king of Georgia. A woman in a headscarf is putting pale purple peonies on the king's grave. Nearby is a singing lesson, a young boy being trained in Georgian harmonious chanting by a black-bearded priest and a small white-bearded elderly man, looking like Father Christmas in a shabby brown suit.

Close by is the smaller church of Samtavro, parts of which also date from the 11th century. Inside here a baptism is taking place, with another black-bearded priest in white robes doing the honours. A small group of nuns is singing, in impeccable harmony, a slowly drawn-out Hallelujah ... Hallelujah ... which swirls up towards heaven into the high dome where the faded 14th-century frescos are waiting to receive the beautifully blended voices. If you could hear angels singing, it would sound like this.

I'm reminded of the old story that tells how the Georgians got their gorgeous country. God had handed out the rest of the world to all the other nations, but the Georgians were too busy eating and drinking and turned up late. Sorry, said God, I've no land left. Never mind, said the Georgians, who invited Him to join them in food, wine and singing. God enjoyed himself so much that He decided to give the Georgians the last spot on earth, which He'd been secretly saving for himself. And now at last the rest of us can take a look too.

FACT FILE

Flights

British Airways flies three times a week from Heathrow to Tbilisi, on Mon, Wed and Fri. Services are operated by the independent carrier British Mediterranean Airways. BA has offers on fares from pounds 429 return (tel: 0345 222111), with other flight-only offers available through Regent Holidays.

International Festival

The first Georgian International Festival of Arts is being held in Tbilisi from 12-26 October. Further details from: William Burdett Coutts, Riverside Studios; tel: 0181 600 2311.

Visa

Call the Georgian Embassy on 0171 937 8233; two-week visas are obtainable for independent travel. Otherwise, a Georgian visa costs pounds 24 through Regent Holidays.

Inoculations

None necessary.

Background Reading

The Odyssey Guide to Georgia is being updated. Claws of the Crab by Stephen Brooke describes Georgia and Armenia during the first stirrings of independence, as does Please Don't Call It Soviet Georgia by Mary Russell.

Mike Gerrard travelled as a guest of Regent Holidays, 15 John Street, Bristol BS1 2HR (tel: 0117-921-1711), the only British tour operator running holidays to Georgia. A five-night break in Tbilisi, including a visit to Mtskheta, costs from pounds 699 per person full board, plus a pounds 195 single room supplement. A 16-day tour of Georgia leaves on 11 September and costs pounds 1,655 per person full board, plus pounds 450 single-room supplement. Prices are subject to change, as is everything to do with Georgia, and the high single-room supplements are due to the limited amount of good hotel accommodation available as yet. Other tours can also be arranged through Regent with Caucasus Travel in Tbilisi, for example the Wine Route, Georgian Wildlife, Caucasus Mountain Life, Ski Adventure or the Land of the Golden Fleece.

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