We are inching through an October snowstorm along an icy, narrow portion of the Georgian Military Highway, navigating hairpin turns and keeping maximum distance between our rented Rav4 and the underwhelming guardrails that separate us from precipitous drops into gaping ravines.
As we crawl through Jvari Pass (at 2379 meters, it is the highest paved road in the former Soviet Union) behind an ambulance, a squall rises up, delivering near white-out conditions. We crest a short incline and are suddenly mired in a rat’s nest of cars, trucks and minivans, each chaotically jockeying for position, spinning their wheels on the un-salted, un-sanded peak.
A Jeep has run off the road. Its driver stares blankly into the distance, a limp nylon line draped across his hood. A large truck towing a car with a double-knotted rope tries to insinuate itself into a nonexistent breach between two nonexistent lanes. Several drivers get out of their cars and start issuing contradictory and confusing instructions. No one is in charge and the situation looks hopeless. The only saving grace may be that, if we do get stuck on the mountain for hours, days perhaps, at least there is an ambulance nearby.
The Republic of Georgia is a place of exquisite paradoxes – sometimes they are lovable, but just as often they are infuriating.
The nation’s four million souls inhabit a land of stunning, diverse natural beauty that in places rivals Switzerland or Napa, yet the country – often called “The Pearl of the Caucasus” – is like a stunning jewel in a gaudy brooch, due to its unlucky geopolitical setting. To the north lies Russia (which also occupies roughly 25 percent of Georgian territory), with whom diplomatic relations were severed after the countries’ 2008 war; just over the mountains to the east are war-torn Chechnya and Dagestan; to the west is the Black Sea; and to the south is Turkey, a NATO member embroiled in the Syrian morass.
But the paradoxes do not end there. Georgia is the birthplace of wine and yet enology comprises less than three percent of export revenues. Tourism is a crucial lifeline (some seven percent of the economy), yet the very hospitable country can be very hard to get to and its intricate language and non-Latin script are intensely intimidating. Georgia aspires to EU membership and modernity, yet it is plagued by a deeply embedded rural conservatism and crippled by the imprint of 70 years of communist rule.
My wife and I first visited Tbilisi half a lifetime ago, in 1989, when Georgia was a quiet southern republic in the ailing Soviet empire. We fled chilly Moscow on the eve of the November holidays, and were embraced by this warm city on the Mtkvari River. We enjoyed long strolls through the prosaic streets of the old town, savoring Turkish coffee in welcoming sidewalk cafes that were unlike anything the Soviet capital had to offer.
Twenty-seven years on, we have returned to spend a week in Tbilisi, with day trips north, east and west, and we find a very different Georgian capital. Two modern architectural showpieces – the bright Bridge of Peace and the Seuss-esque Opera House – are garish misfits injected into the heart of the ancient city. And much of the charming old town has been kitschified – strung with neon to lure unsuspecting tourists, while off the main drags buildings crumble and lean.
Indeed, Tbilisi is a city of contrasts. Its very founding is an odd mixture of death and discovery. Legend has it that, in the year 458, King Vakhtang I was out hunting when his falcon tangled with a pheasant and both birds fell into a sulphurous hot spring, where they perished. This impressed Vakhtang, and so he cleared the forests and built a city, which has since borne a name that means “warm place.” To this day, a bad-egg-odor river flows out of a mountainside and through dome-capped baths that promise healing for skin diseases, nervous disorders and insomnia, among other things.
The king after Vakhtang moved his court from neighboring Mtskheta to Tbilisi, whence commenced half a millennium of the city’s conquest by and fealty to various invaders, from Romans and Byzantines, to Khazars, Arabs and Turks. Finally, in 1122, King David the Builder made Tbilisi the center of a united Georgian nation, and the country became a serious regional power.
A Golden Age arrived, yet it did not linger. As in much of this part of the world, darkness arrived astride squat Asian horses: from 1236 until well into the fifteenth century (but for an interregnum in the 1300s), Georgia was a vassal of the Mongol Horde.
The Iranians replaced the Mongols in 1503, and in 1801 Georgia sought and attained Russian protection. Over the century that followed, as Tbilisi and Georgia were integrated into the Russian Empire, there was both significant economic development and unbridled literary romance. Writers from Pushkin to Griboyedov, from Lermontov to Tolstoy all fell in love with this “exotic” Caucasian land, and more specifically with this warm, southern city.
Understandably, despite the appearance of railroads and stone palaces, Georgians chafed under the empire’s rule. They wanted to have their own university and institutions; they wanted their language and culture to flourish, not be subsumed by all things Russian. So when the Romanovs fell from power, Georgia reveled in a brief period of independence (1918-1921), after which the country was brutally absorbed into what would become the Soviet Union.
Real independence arrived only in 1991. When the USSR fell apart that year, Georgia finally outlived the last of many empires that had subjugated it since 1236.
Near dusk one evening, we climb the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets up Sololaki Hill to Narikala Fortress, the picturesque stone citadel that has stood sentinel over Tbilisi since soon after its founding.
The original name for the fort, in Georgian, was Shuris-tsikhe – “Envious Fort.” It is a fabulous name, but the Mongol occupiers insisted on demeaning it as Narin Qala (“Little Fort”). Narikala has been damaged and rebuilt countless times over two millennia. Most of what is visible is the result of repairs and construction that are “only” three to four centuries old.
A full moon rises in the East as we ascend to Narikala’s highest ramparts. With a stunningly lit Tbilisi glowing beneath us, its golden lights shimmering off the Mtkvari River, and the bulbous Bridge of Peace glowing the colors of the Georgian flag, it is not hard to see why so many poets and travelers have fallen in love with this warm city whose steep hills hug the river that curls through it.
Not far from Narikala stands the 20-meter-tall, aluminum Georgian Mother (Kartlis Deda), erected in 1958 on the 1500th anniversary of Tbilisi. Illuminated to a bluish cast, she is the symbol of the nation: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine – for those who come in peace; in her right is a sword – for those who do not.
Having stoked our appetites, we descend a narrow pathway in the gathering darkness and catch a cab to Azarphesha, a cozy subterranean restaurant with just half a dozen tables and a menu featuring delectable dishes like pumpkin stuffed brioches with a piquant side relish, grilled lamb with pomegranate sauce, and of course a rich selection of local wines.
I arise early one morning to photograph the sunrise and am shooting from Baratashvili Bridge when suddenly, at 6:58, as sunrise-pinked clouds are just making their appearance beyond the hills, every public light in the city is extinguished. The near blackout makes me think of the 1990s, when, besieged by war and economic collapse, Tbilisi and much of Georgia often went dark for lack of electricity.
This is not that, of course, but just routine city resource management. Luckily, I had captured some good shots before the blackout made the city far less interesting, photographically, so I decide to pack up my gear and stroll the twilit streets.
One of the best things about Tbilisi is its walkability. It takes just 30 minutes to traverse two bridges, visit the towering statue of Vakhtang I in the Metekhi neighborhood, then cross another bridge and circumnavigate much of the old town on the other side of the river. But, since Georgians are apparently not early-risers, there is no reason for coffee shops to be open. I had been hoping to get my morning fix at Dots, a wonderful espresso bar and clothing shop we discovered on Kote Afkhazi Street the day before, but it will not open until 10. So I settle for Dunkin Donuts, whose gleaming pink franchise on Freedom Square opens promptly at eight. At 7:50, I join a hungover Brit and three well-dressed Chinese women in a menacing multinational pacing and door rattling exercise that succeeds in getting the doors opened three minutes early.
Over three days in Tbilisi, we walk much of the city. Shota Rustaveli Avenue artery offers a comfortable, hour-long stroll from Freedom Square past museums, theaters, the old parliament (where Mikheil Saakashvili carried a single rose that sparked a revolution), and tony shops toward a gargantuan Wendy’s Restaurant, which happens to be in the building that, 27 years ago, is where we got our first taste of Georgia’s rich, Turkish-style coffee brewed in copper pots atop a griddle piled with sand.
It is also not a long walk on Saturday morning from Freedom Square to the Dry Bridge Market, located near the curiously named Saarbrücken Bridge. This colorful and strange flea market – Russian is its language of commerce – sells all manner of post-Soviet collectibles, from badges and watches, to swords, coins, and profoundly useless Russian technical manuals on water management.
Across the river, high atop Elia Hill, we walk to Holy Trinity Cathedral (known to Georgians as Sameba) – the massive house of worship built from 1995-2004 as the main church of the newly empowered Georgian Orthodox Church. Its impeccably landscaped grounds and the plumb, clean lines of its buildings contrast sharply with the teetering slums that surround its approaches. Apparently, building a monumental religious showpiece was more important to the city and the Church than was restoring and renovating suffering neighborhoods.
We descend back to river level and pass through pleasant Rike Park and across the Bridge of Peace. Seeking respite from the cheese-and-bread-heavy diet that is the Georgian norm, we slip into MacLaren’s Irish Pub for Guinness, French Onion Soup and chili. Only the beer is not a mistake.
Every Georgian dish, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once wrote, is a poem. There is something to that. For poetry is about working within restrictions, creating art with a limited number of elements within boundaries you choose. Georgian food is the same. It is closely bound to the nation’s land and the products it can produce: bread, beans, cheese, lamb, chicken, nuts (especially walnuts and hazelnuts, of which Georgia is one of the world’s largest exporters) and herbs, tree fruits, potatoes and root vegetables.
But relying on a limited number of ingredients does not mean the result needs to be bland or boring. Indeed, Georgian food is rich and flavorful, with sauces from pomegranate and plum, cilantro and coriander, walnuts and tomatoes, blackberries and mint. It is also hearty comfort food, with whole grain breads, meats grilled over an open fire, soft cheeses and fresh yogurts. And of course there is the ubiquitous snack treat, churchkela – nuts on a string, dipped in a thick grape juice and hung to dry.
It is the sort of food you would expect an agricultural, land-wealthy, monetarily poor land to produce: foods that are inexpensive, yet nourishing.
And you don’t have to be very far outside of Tbilisi, on anything other than the major highway, to recognize just how agricultural this country is (55 percent of Georgians work in agriculture). Cows and pigs roam and forage the fence-free land freely, and can lie in wait behind any blind bend in the road. Shepherds and their huge, lumbering dogs tend flocks of sheep along steep mountainsides, stoically bearing up under all types of weather.
We devour khachapuri (various combinations of cheese and dough) everywhere we go. It is an excellent appetizer at sit-down restaurants, an easy-to-eat road food when caught in a rainstorm near Ananauri Palace, and a vital sobriety aid at the infamous Georgian supra, a feasting event that stretches for hours, featuring countless toasts and innumerable dishes layered across the family table.
At a supra southwest of Borjomi – in Georgia’s “potato corner” – a tipsy toaster asks, “How is it that our country, which has been around for two millennia, is so poor, while your country, which is only 200 years old, is so rich? What makes the difference?”
It is the sort of question political scientists and economists grapple with unsuccessfully over a lifetime, and yet, my faculties diminished by too much food and wine, I must offer an intelligible answer. “I would guess a lot of it has to do with being at a crossroads of civilizations,” I offer. “Georgia has constantly been overrun by its bigger neighbors.”
Indeed, history dealt Georgia a difficult hand. A millennium ago, Georgia was well ahead of the Europe. Its enlightenment preceded that of Italy by 200 years. It had a fine university and was a regional economic power. But its precarious location between the borders of Christendom and Islam conspired to stunt its further development. But not its natural environment, thankfully.
A founding myth of the Georgian state has it that, when God was doling out various lands to the world’s peoples, the Georgians were off enjoying a particularly good supra. When God asked where they had been, they apologized, saying they were so caught up in enjoying the riches of this world, praising God, that they had forgotten about the meeting. Touched, God gave Georgia a little bit of land he had been saving for himself.
Which brings us to the wine.
The world’s original wine grape is reputedly native to the Caucasus region, and the Georgian word for wine, ghvino, may well be the prototype for the word as it appears in most other languages.
Georgia’s most prolific wine country lies east of Tbilisi, in the Kakheti region. We drive there through rolling, winding, scarcely populated hills that eventually take us through the Gombori Pass (1600 meters). At the top, there is a thatched hut where an enterprising fellow named Gio offers coffee and tea for 2 Gel (just under $1). Unfortunately, it is a very poor cousin of the Turkish coffee we discovered here 27 years ago and have romanticized ever since.
We descend and pass through Telavi, putting up at Schuchmann Winery. Founded in 2008 by a German engineer who fell in love with Georgian wine, the chateau-style winery (with restaurant and hotel) is an oasis of Teutonic exactitude and fastidiousness in the middle of the small, deteriorating farming village of Kisiskhevi.
Iosif, the charming, phlegmatic, 20-something restaurant manager takes us on a tour, followed by a tasting on the veranda. “We are the largest producer of qvevri wine in Georgia,” he asserts, showing us the cool, brick hall where dozens of 3000-liter clay cisterns – the qvevri – sit submerged beneath the earth.
Qvevri wine is made the old fashioned way, Iosif says, and contains nothing but water and grapes. They deposit the mash in the qvevri, then the wine ferments naturally, at its own pace (usually about 28 days). When it is done, all the solid bits precipitate to the bottom, making filtering unnecessary. When the wine is pumped out (then aged in French barrels), the dregs are used to distill chacha – a dangerously powerful spirit. “Everything gets used,” Iosif says, “and we can use the qvevri over and over again, even with different kinds of grapes, if the qvevri are properly cleaned.”
Schuchmann also creates wine the “new way,” meaning in two-dozen climate-controlled, 20,000-liter vats on the other side of the chateau. But it is the qvevri wine that has brought us here, so we select those (bottled under the Vinoterra label) for our tasting. The dry red (a 2014 Saperavi) has a rich, tannic flavor that is at once surprisingly fruity and nutty. The dry white (a 2014 Mtsvane) is creamy, fruity, and the color of warm honey. Both are absolutely delicious.
It used to be that Georgia exported most all of its wine Russia. But rocky relations since 2006 have forced it to seek markets elsewhere, though changes on the international scene may be bringing Russia and Georgia back together, albeit slowly and cautiously.
“I think all of Russia was in Georgia this summer,” Iosif jokes, noting how recent terrorism in Egypt and tensions with Turkey led many Russians to redirect their travels to Georgia. “We had a doubling in business,” he says.
Strains remain, not the least reason being because Russians are fed a constant diet of propaganda about how NATO is establishing a foothold in Georgia. “I had one guy,” Iosif says, “a Russian, ask me where the NATO bases are.” Iosif nods out the windows of the veranda toward the fog-veiled mountains to the east. “He thought he should be able to see them from here. He had no understanding of the news.”
No trip to Georgia would be complete without a jaunt into the Caucasus mountains, so we resolve on an overnight visit to Stepantsminda, which neighbors the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church and the towering Mount Kazbegi.
It is normally just a three-hour drive from Tbilisi via the Georgian Military Highway, but we take it slow, with a stop in the rain at Ananauri Monastery, which perches on the northern edge of Zhinvali Reservoir, offering a stunning landscape.
In Stepantsminda, after a travel snafu that no trip should be without (last minute broken sewer pipe, replacement lodging that smelled of tar, burning leaves and toilet) we book a suite at the upscale Rooms Hotel Kazbegi. It is a hip, nicely renovated former Communist Party retreat with a homey restaurant and incomparable mountain views. Yet, paradoxically, it lies at the end of a half-mile road from the town center that can only generously be described as cratered and half-washed-out.
From the window of our fourth floor room, we can easily see the path to Gergeti Church on the opposite side of the valley.
Then, thirty minutes later, a fog rolls in.
This fog, it turns out, is the leading edge of an unexpected, early winter storm. Overnight, three inches of snowfall close the path to Gergeti.
Our hiking plans foiled, we decide to head back to Tbilisi. Halfway up the mountain, cars are pulling to the side of the road, forced to put on chains or turn back. We are let through because we are driving an all-wheel drive vehicle.
I question a Russian driver who has just made it through from the other direction; he warns us to turn back, saying it is “bad, very bad,” that even the jeeps up top are spinning their wheels.
But, we figure “how bad could it be?”
Bad, very bad.
It is only through a bit of luck and aggressive driving that I punch a hole through the chaotic traffic jam we meet just after Jvari Pass. I swerve around the ambulance blocking our path, and soon we have the ice-packed road mostly to ourselves.
A line of stopped drivers on the opposite side of the road signals me to stop, then asks what the conditions are like up top. I don’t know Georgian, so I repeat several times in Russian:
“It’s bad, very bad.”
Another kilometer along, the Georgian road crew appears in the oncoming lane. It consists of a large dump truck, its bed full of sand, and two workers standing in the back, each wielding a shovel. Theirs is a beautifully choreographed dance: first one and then the other scoops a shovelful of sand and tosses it onto our lane, creating thin, interlocking semicircles of brown grit on the frozen road.
We continue inching slowly down the icy mountain road, atop absolutely ineffective, yet somehow artistic arcs of Georgian sand. RL
All the usual suspects (Lufthansa, Delta, even Ukraine Air) can get you to Georgia, but Turkish Airlines (via Istanbul Airport) offers the most connections to Tbilisi, including one of the few flights that do not arrive in the middle of the night. What is more, its in-flight food, entertainment and hospitality are exemplary and its prices are very competitive.
2 Ingorovka Street
An exquisite dining experience. A superb wine list, and Georgian dishes presented in new, refreshing ways.
Black Lion (Shavi Lomi)
23 Amaghleba St.
+995 322 93 10 07
This popular restaurant that can be a challenge to locate – signified only by a black lion stenciled on a residential neighborhood wall. Features the usual Georgian fare, suitably prepared, and not overpriced.
Dots Coffee and Fashion Shop
22 Kote Afkhazi Street
A oasis of fine espresso and nice, Georgian-made couture in the heart of the old town.
MacLaren’s Irish Pub
5 Rkinis Rigi St.
For when you need a taste of home. Open to 3 am. Take the Guinness, leave the chili.
Citadines Freedom Square
4 Freedom Square, Tbilisi.
Ph. +995 (0)32 2547030
Perfect location on Freedom Square, but at rates well below the neighboring Courtyard Tbilisi. Large suites available and some of the friendliest staff ever.
Urban Boutique Hotel
Gogebashvili Street #9, Tbilisi
+995 551 08 08 08
A quiet, clean hotel at the other end of Rustaveli, in a hilly, residential neighborhood. Breakfast included and lower prices than at more centrally located hotels.
Kisiskhevi Village, Telavi, 2200
Ph. +995 7 90 55 70 45
Superb hotel with a fine restaurant and stunning views of the Kakheti region and mountains beyond. On-site wine spa.
Rooms Hotel Kazbegi
1 V.Gorgasali Street
+995 32 2400099
Great mountain views and a homey restaurant with excellent food. Higher than guest house prices in town, but well worth it.
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