Back in the USSR: Georgia's stuck in the past - that's its beauty

A thousand years of religious conflict have shaped this country's intriguing landscape. Michael Church uncovers its rich history
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The Independent Travel

It's a jaw-dropping sight, but nothing unusual in Georgia, where history is writ large in public life. These Christs have just been blessed at the place where Mr Saakashvili was sworn in: Gelati monastery, founded 900 years ago by King David the Builder out of gratitude to God for his victory over the Turks. When we get there, the rain has stopped and the sun beams down on this imposing complex of sandstone churches with conical towers. Gelati was laid waste by the Mongol warlord Tamerlane, who led his armies through Georgia time and again. Georgia has spent a thousand years at the sharp end of the Christian-Muslim conflict, and though it's not under military threat these days, you sense that collision in everything from architecture to food.

King David wanted to make Gelati "a second Athens and a second Jerusalem", and the academy where his poets, astronomers and artists worked still stands. Though the dramatic frescos are 17th century, David's original mosaics still glow; his vast tombstone is placed, according to his last command, where everyone entering the cathedral has to step on it. Graves haunt our journey today. At the stone church in Ubisa, our driver stops by two tombs, lights a cigarette, and gazes at them reverently while pigs and geese roam round. "Here his grandparents are buried," explains my guide. "They will never die so long as their descendants visit them. These people are lucky."

Our next stop takes us deeper into history. Parking the car in a valley, we walk along a lane lined with trees covered in prayer-ribbons until we reach a pretty basilica on a crag - Motsameta. Presiding among the icons is Father Sulkhan Gudushauri, an ample, bearded gent with a passionate desire to enthuse us. Casting aside a red velvet curtain, he reveals two blackened skulls in a casket. These are David and Constantine, brothers who ruled this province until defeated by the Arabs. Refusing to convert to Islam, they were thrown into the river with stones tied round their necks. "But then a beam of light shone down from heaven, showing where they should be buried," says Father Sulkhan.

Along the road to Kutaisi are examples galore of Georgian resilience in the face of economic adversity. Everyone puts what they have for sale on view by the roadside: apples, cabbages, eggs, geese, and even the occasional puppy. One village specialises in wooden beds, which line the road for a mile; another does nothing but hammocks.

We stop by a stall offering what look like pieces of thick brown rubber sheeting, which turn out to be a local sweet made from mulberry juice: the berries are mashed, the paste is left to dry in the sun, and then cut up into squares which taste like old English toffee. The air is thick with burnt cinnamon in another village, where little wooden bakeries stretch as far as the eye can see; each has a custodian who stokes her oven and pulls out the sweet steaming loaves. It's wonderful bread, stuffed full of sultanas, but how everyone makes a living is a mystery.

Kutaisi may be Georgia's second city, but it's shockingly run-down, and though the river runs red from manganese ore in the mountains, the factories are derelict - one still plastered with bright posters depicting the glorious life of the Soviet manganese worker. The black-clad women Kutaisi look superb as they totter on stiletto heels down muddy streets, but their men look hunched and shamefaced, because there's no work to be had.

Kutaisi isn't just dead factories. Twelfth-century Bagrati Cathedral may be a ruin, but it's majestic on its grassy hill. Wandering through the old town I find myself in Jerusalem Street, where scores of Georgian-Jewish families still live despite perennial encouragement by unsympathetic governments to leave.Drawn by the sound of girls' singing, I find Shorashim ("Roots") going through their repertoire of Jewish songs, with the next Katie Melua in stirring voice.

Pressing on south, we find ourselves among horses, cows, sheep, and goats, as stone forts loom over rope-bridged chasms, and the landscape becomes a rugged wilderness. Just north of the Turkish border, we come to a towering mountain honeycombed with caves - Vardzia, a city completed by Queen Tamara in the 12th century when Georgia's empire was at its height. Vardzia is also a monastery, whose frescoed chapels are attended by monks. Father Giorgi, who shows me round, is a bushy-bearded, pink-cheeked 22-year-old who'd look more at home in a bikers' bar, but who tells me solemnly that he's opted for this wineless and womanless steadfastness to give his countrymen the support of prayer.

All this was in a journey through only one of Georgia's provinces: comparable delights are to be found in Kakheti to the east, where the mountain monastery of David Garreja looks out over the Azerbaijan plain. The high Caucasus in the north is idyllic, but currently out of bounds because of Chechen terrorism.

In Tbilisi you sense a country sparking back into life: in the clubs and restaurants along the river, in the shops and markets and even in the flash new hotels bought with oil money - but above all in the music. For this was the city where Tchaikovsky conducted, where Verdi worked on Aida, and where the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin declared: "I was born twice. In Kazan I opened my eyes to life, and in Tbilisi to music." I always make sure my visits to Tbilisi include a Sunday morning at Sioni Cathedral, and this time the atmosphere was as fervent and uplifting as ever.

FIVE MORE MUST-SEE SIGHTS

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Just outside Tbilisi, Mtskheta was once the centre of Georgian Christianity. Today a Unesco World Heritage Site, its highlight is the 15th-century Svetitskhoveli (Pillar of Life) Cathedral, which, according to local legend, was built on the spot where Christ's crucifixion robe was discarded AD328.

Sulphur Baths, Tbilisi

The area around Abanos Street was home to more than 60 sulphur baths in 12th-century Tbilisi. Today there are a mere six. The oldest is the Herekle Bath, a typical sulphur-rich pool set below ground in a stone building with domed ceiling.

Cave City, Uplistsikhe

Also known as the "Fortress of God", this vast complex of natural caves near the town of Gori dates from the 6th century. Originally only dwellings, the caves transformed into a more sophisticated settlement over the centuries, featuring shops, public buildings and even a theatre. Though it was largely destroyed in the 13th century, visitors can still tour the ruins - which include wine cellars, a pharmacy and Tamar's Hall, one of the largest cave dwellings - and try to piece together how they once would have looked.

Black Sea Coast, Batumi

This Black Sea port, near the Turkish border, has a lush, subtropical setting, with citrus groves and tea plantations. Its highlights include a mosque, a 19th-century bath house, the Ajarian Museum, Circus Park and the Botanical Gardens. The nearby beach resorts of Kobuleti and Chakvi also draw the crowds.

Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi

First established by the Persians in the 4th century BC and rebuilt in the 17th century, Narikala Fortress was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1800s. Today these ruins are a popular picnic spot, not least because they offer spectacular views over the old city of Tbilisi.

Katherine Bebo

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled with Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), which can arrange nine-day itineraries from £890 per person, including return flights, accommodation in private homes or family-run hotels, most meals and excursions.

Further information

The Foreign Office (www.fco.gov.uk) advises against all travel to the Georgian regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Pankisi Gorge.

Recommended reading Georgia: The Bradt Travel Guide (£13.95).

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