Georgia on my mind

`Nobody can fail to be charmed by a city that is rediscovering the thrill of being alive.'
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The Independent Travel
Attention all travellers: you can once again take the midnight train to Georgia, cheaply, easily and with little fear of the gunmen, thieves and card-sharps that only a few years ago used to plague the service.

I sing not of the American state that so recently hosted the Olympics, but of the real Georgia, which has emerged from post-Soviet civil war and anarchy to become once again a delightful place to take a safely adventurous holiday.

To catch the train, I admit, you will have to go to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku first. All other lines are regrettably still cut where the front lines of various conflicts got stuck. For my trip, I settled for a midnight plane to Georgia from Istanbul.

The thick, warm, sour smell of the cabin of the Air Georgia Tupolev took me straight to the very different world of post-Soviet travel. A stern Russian hostess plonked plastic cups of coloured water before us, plump lady suitcase traders chattered about their purchases and I meditated about the "Escape Rope" hanging over my improbably large circular porthole.

When the rubbery plastic-wrapped food had been distributed, packs of mint Tic-Tacs were handed round on a tray like after-dinner cigars. But before we knew it, we had landed sedately in Tbilisi, and were ushered out into the unlit back of a primitive airport bus.

But change in Georgia is more than just trays of Tic-Tacs. A bright new airport terminal greeted us efficiently. Visas - available with a few days' wait in London - are sold over the counter, as they are in Turkey. Passengers were carefully reunited with their luggage and within minutes a taxi was taking me into the prettiest capital in the Caucasus.

I should admit, perhaps, that Tbilisi is my kind of place. It may not be everybody's. Georgia is not competitive for sunbathing, children, plentiful hotels or carefully pre-arranged programmes. But there is plenty to rediscover, new trails to be blazed by truly independent-minded backpackers, climbers, trekkers, high-mountain skiers and travellers of the world.

The overlapping combination of civil wars, Russian subversion and old- fashioned banditry between December 1991 to late last year played havoc with accommodation in a country that was once the Soviet Union's top tourist destination. At first sight, lines of refugees' washing and belongings piled on balconies make the central Iveria Hotel seem an impossible choice. But the manager has saved one floor in what is Tbilisi's best location on Rustaveli Prospect. At pounds 10 a night, the rooms are also the cheapest in town. The Adjaria, slightly less central, has also reopened for business at about pounds 15 a night. Don't expect hot water.

I ignored both of these - as well as the pounds 160-a-night un-Georgian luxury of the Metechi Palace Hotel - and headed for one of a new generation of guest houses.

Lia Salukvadze's delightful menage, where I stayed, was a fine introduction not just to the family life that dominates Georgian society but also to Georgian cuisine. Most guest houses include breakfast, dinner and unlimited wine in prices that range from pounds 30 to pounds 80 for a double room.

Once installed, nobody can fail to be charmed by a city that is rediscovering the thrill of being alive. Cafes and bars have sprung up on main boulevards along which Georgians love to promenade all day long. Wherever you stop, within minutes somebody will strike up a conversation that, given the Georgians' experiences of recent years, is unlikely to be boring.

If you feel like checking out a remarkable piece of British entrepreneurship, too, you can drop in at Winston's Beer Garden where 29-year-old adventure capitalist Nick Carratu and his partners have installed a micro-brewery serving real English ale. It's at the Dom Kino, at the foot of the soon- to-be-reopened funicular railway to the mountain overlooking the town.

One of the great pleasures of visiting Georgia now is that the Georgians are so pleased to see tourists return: the biggest travel agency, SAK, looked after 150 this year; just five were counted at the best-known guesthouse, Betsy's Hotel, an intriguing latter-day Rick's Bar for spies, diplomats and aid workers during the war years.

In other words, Georgians have been frustrated for four years in their natural love of throwing banquets for impromptu guests who have taken their fancy. This sense of hospitality grows in the countryside, where it is now safe to travel everywhere that the government controls (which therefore excludes the old resort town of Sukhumi and the surrounding region of Abkhazia).

The banditry of recent years is now a thing of the past. Following in the new British ambassador's footsteps, visitors can now even take the long, jarring, nine-hour ride into the high mountains of Svanetia and its strange villages of houses with high early mediaeval stone towers.

Buses, cars and even a train go to other parts of the country, the wine valleys of Kakhetia, Stalin's birthplace of Gori, the ski resorts of Gudauta, the newly-reconsecrtated bare hill monastery of David Garedshi, the climbers' bases in the high mountains and the Black Sea city of Batumi in the lush semi-tropical province of Adjaria.

Tbilisi is also a good base for excursions to Armenia and Azerbaijan, Caucasian countries now open for business as well. I turned south to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, six hours by expensive taxi from Tbilisi or 10 hours by a cheap bus.

Driving is still painful. In the last five years not a road in the country has been repaired. The potholes could easily swallow up one of the huge pigs wandering by the roadsides. But the scenery can be beautiful, with glimpses of lovely stone churches among the mountain peaks and peasants tending their new, fast-growing herds of cows with loving capitalist care.

Armenian roads are better and their cities appear to have been better favoured in the Soviet era, but there is still much evidence of tragedy in the towns and villages around Spitak, epicentre of the December 1988 earthquake that killed 20,000 people.

Yerevan itself is a Soviet city of the 1930s and 1940s, weighed down by the greyness of the volcanic stone used in many buildings and the often stony faces of its inhabitants. But here too, renovated hotels are back in service, street life is busy and the sumptuous opera still stages works with magnificent music and singing.

From Yerevan the best excursion is to Echmiadzin, the religious centre of the Armenian church and a repository of a remarkable collection of saintly relics, if only you can find somebody to explain them to you.

It's also worth the detour to the monastery on the border where Armenians can still be seen giving animal sacrifices on a kind of altar facing the extraordinary 5,000 metre peak of Mount Ararat, tantalizingly out of reach for Armenians over the closed border with Turkey.

Succulent Armenian pears and apples lightened my journey back to Tbilisi, where I ended up staying in a flat outside the city centre. Finding a flat to rent is not so difficult to arrange as it sounds, and gives a full feeling for what the Georgians have been through in recent years.

There is no hot water from the old central supply. Central heating doesn't exist. The city gas supply to the stove was cut off long ago. Electricity is sporadic to say the least, coming on and off with the most remarkable surges of current.

Watching water boil on a chip of paraffin wax, lamps flickering on and off above me, I was glad this was not how I had to live all the time. But the changes for the better are already remarkable. Those who go to Georgia now will experience how the Georgians, too, are just beginning to believe that they may no longer have to live like that for much longer.

Georgian times

Getting there: If you insist on catching a midnight train to Georgia, you must start off in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan; British Airways (0345 222111) flies there three times each week from Gatwick. The lowest fare for travel in November is an Apex return of pounds 780 including tax. Azerbaijan Airlines (0171-493 2281) has a fare of pounds 359, but operates from Gatwick only once a week, on Tuesdays.

No direct air services operate between the UK and Georgia. The easiest route is probably from Heathrow to Tbilisi via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (0171-499 4499). A week in November costs pounds 375 including tax. Alternatively, you can travel to Frankfurt and onwards on Air Georgia. Or fly via Istanbul to the city of Trabzon in eastern Turkey (pounds 225 return on Turkish Airlines) and travel across the convenient land border from Turkey daily pounds 20-a-seat buses from the city of Trabzon to Tbilisi.

Accommodation: the Metechi Palace Hotel (expensive), tel 742052. Guest Houses: Lia Salukvadze, tel 984443; Betsy's Hotel, tel 989553. If you are calling direct, note that the telephone system is still centred on Moscow; the country code from the UK is 00 95 32, and calls are prone to technical problems.

Organised trips: SAK Tours (982966) organises a package of programmes for the Caucasus. From abroad, the company is best contacted via ERKA Reisen, Postfach 4020, 7626 Bruchsal, Germany (00 49 7257 4193). Within the UK, Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) can help arrange independent itineraries. The British Museum Traveller (0171-323 8895) is organising an 18-day trip next September, price pounds 1,985.

Money: Sterling is not usually accepted by bureaux de change, which prefer dollars or Deutschmarks.

Temperature: the weather can be very cold in winter, especially at night.