Georgia Beyond Tbilisi: Recollections of Roads Less Travelled
12 July, 2018
The name Georgia is said to derive from a Persian word meaning "land of the wolves". Indeed, the fabled canine is a fitting representation of a country that is the subject of both myth and legend, at once wild and graceful. Its capital, Tbilisi, is a cultural meeting point of vivid tradition and youthful vision, but despite the city's increasing popularity among global travellers, there's a world beyond that. Escape the city and discover a land marked by ancient prosperity and modern occupation; a land that is still governed by history and ritual in many ways; a land of warm characters and compelling personalities; a land of wolves. These are a few of my own tales from beyond the capital.
I'm pacing a gravel track, back and forth, while our forlorn-looking driver is smoking a cigarette and chattering anxiously into his phone. In the distance is the silhouette of a ski resort, framed against white mountain peaks. The momentary promise of coffee is quickly dashed. It's out of season, I'm told; the lifts are empty and the cafés shuttered.
I'm in Georgia, high in the Greater Caucasus, and our stop isn't on the itinerary. The van that so steadfastly carried us from Tbilisi to Kazbegi has decided the next leg of the journey is frankly too much work, and has given up the ghost.
On any other trip the delay might be a nuisance, but I'm still riding high on the revelation of Kazbegi and this is, as they say, all part of the adventure. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to reflect on the past few days, in which seemingly every hour has been ripe with new experiences. Such is Georgia.
Less than an hour out of the capital on the journey mountain-ward, the faded rows of Soviet-era housing gave way to breath-taking countryside, punctuated with ancient monasteries and charming towns that tell a tale of the nation's rich and complicated past.
The Jvari Monastery, our first stop on the road, dates from the sixth century, and from its high perch overlooks the meeting point of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. The road below is flanked by stalls selling dried fruit and churchkhela; a candle-shaped local sweet that I consumed in quantities best described as unholy - given our surroundings. But if my own indulgence was less than pious, the same can be said of the monastery's resident Orthodox priest. On suspecting a fellow traveller of taking his picture, an almighty tirade was unleashed that Dato, my guide, declined to translate, joking only that they weren't the kinds of words he'd use in front of his mother. "To be honest, I'm surprised he even knows them," he quipped.
A stream flows nearby and it was here that I took a few moments to appreciate a passing shepherd, herding his affable flock through the currents. These nomads traverse the mountains, moving from high to low ground as the seasons dictate, making their home only for as long as it takes for the leaves to change. It's a world apart from the hip cafés and booming restaurant scene of Tbilisi.
As we re-joined the road and ascended, green gave way to vast swathes of snow and spectacular mountain views. The route to Kazbegi is a storied one: the Georgian Military Road connects Georgia with Russia and is the path that has been taken by traders and invaders alike. Just beyond the rim of the Higher Caucasus lies the occupied region of South Ossetia, while the spectre of Chechyna looms beyond the nearby border. There's a palpable sense that this isn't the average holiday spot, which in turn brings its own inimitable thrill.
Just past the Jvari Pass, where the road reaches its highest, the now somewhat ironically titled "Friendship Monument" is a bold remnant of Soviet-era architecture. Suspended on the edge of a cliff face, a meander around its imposing arches is as though walking in the footsteps of a not so distant, but unsettling, history.
On we trundled into Kazbegi itself, which is small but characterful and - like much of Georgia - full of surprises. Amid rustic traditional houses and humble restaurants selling kebab sits Autobus, a former bus-turned-coffee-shop staffed by knitted-hat-wearing hipsters, while on the hill overlooking the modest town is one of Georgia's coolest design hotels, Rooms Kazbegi.
But despite the undeniable comfort and good looks of the hotel - not to mention the spa - Kazbegi's appeal lies outdoors. After an early rise watching the sun burst from behind the peaks, I surrendered my safety to a wizened driver and his well-worn truck for an off-road expedition through the mountains. Not for the faint of heart, or weak of neck, we scaled the slopes in suitably energetic fashion; often at physics-defying angles that would sometimes see the ground reach up to meet my - perhaps inadvisably - outstretched arm. Once at the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church, action was replaced with contemplation, looking down onto the model town below. The mountain air was clearly keeping the priests in good spirits here - despite being used to a relatively solitary life, they chose smiling over swearing when greeted by a camera-touting foreigner.
Dato tells me the area is popular with Georgian city dwellers looking to escape, and I can't help but find humour in the fact that a region known for delivering peace of mind would, for me, later end in a breakdown.
"Excuse me sir, can I ask where you're from?"
"The United Kingdom."
"Wonderful! What a pleasure to meet you. What brings you to Kutaisi?"
It's late on my last night in Georgia's third-largest city and I'm enjoying a glass of local red on the hotel's rooftop bar. The memory of this morning's encounter with a friendly stranger prompts a smile. Early (as I frequently am), I'd been waiting for Dato to meet me on the pavement outside, when the well-dressed middle-aged gent approached, full of energy and clearly eager to strike up conversation. My bone-white complexion and bulging backpack had unsurprisingly given me away as a tourist. "It's so nice that you would want to visit us here in Kutaisi. You're very welcome and I hope you have an excellent stay," he said, before sauntering off with a wide grin.
Perhaps to my shame, but after years travelling the world I've been conditioned to view such happenstances with an air of polite suspicion. And had this been a few days previous, I may still have, but Kutaisi - Georgia's "city of smiles" - had corroded my wariness.
We arrived under darkness; faint outlines of high-rise flats rolling past as we entered the city proper. Dinner at Our Garden, a family run restaurant beside the Bagrati Cathedral, was nothing short of a feast, with newly familiar dishes spilling across the table: spiced roast chicken, trout, pickles, khackapuri (a staple cheese-filled bread), fermented jonjoli and an unctuous hazelnut-flavoured stew. If the way to someone's heart is through their stomach, Georgia knows how to woo.
If the first dinner in Kutaisi was the courtship, then the following morning's visit to the bazaar was the marriage. Boundless interconnected halls are divided by foodstuff: a veritable hanger for fresh veg, another for cheese and on and on. The closest comparison might be Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda, but with less pushing.
The market seemed predominantly staffed by chuckling women, who gleefully force samples on passers-by. Such is their doggedness and charm that it's difficult to leave unburdened by handfuls of swollen brown paper bags. One elderly stallholder - squeezed in behind a crowded counter - insisted we take a picture together. As Dato would later explain, she has a thing for redheads. Finally, it seemed, I'd found my city.
Part of Kutaisi's allure, though, is in its multiple personalities. It's at once frenetic and sleepy. Wander a neighbourhood or two from the bazaar and streets with beautifully crumbling architecture are almost deserted; the odd bike creaking past or a neighbourhood dog jogging up to sniff of your shopping.
Leaving my own canine companion at the gates, I stumbled upon the city's historic synagogue. The impressively ornate interior speaks to a once vibrant Jewish community that existed in the city, but today there are just nine men left to tend to it. It's not even enough for a minyan (prayer service), but enough to keep the building alive for those visiting who wish to observe. For such a flourishing city, and indeed country, the echoes of what was still reverberate.
Just outside Kutaisi, lies Tskaltubo, a former Soviet spa resort that once played host to Stalin; Wes Anderson-esque and decidedly otherworldly. Part of it still operates, and is particularly popular with visitors from Azerbaijan, who avail of health-giving treatments in radiated water. Elsewhere on the grounds, cosmic-style Soviet bathhouses have been left to decay. I kick about in the concrete ruins of an immense, almost alien structure. It is slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding foliage - a leftover of the empire that didn't stick; a photographer's paradise.
My hotel is beside the river and in the black I can hear its currents raging. I'll shortly be pushing on myself, away from Kutaisi and to try canoeing in the canyons of Martvili. We'll stop at a patskha, a humble wooden hut on the road where weary travellers can enjoy a banquet of flavoursome fare for the price of a coffee and a sandwich in my home city. Just another thing to smile about.
Where there is wine there are personalities. Or such was my experience of Kakheti, where grape vines stretch to the horizon and where, seemingly, the sun always shines.
I'd set off early from Lopota Lake Resort, a scenic stay that involved some quickly stolen time by the pool during a dramatic sunset. My first stop was the Pheasant's Tears Winery, where I met with John Wurdeman, the owner and resident storyteller. American by birth and Georgian by choice, Wurdeman arrived in the country two decades ago and has since become a star name in the field of natural wine. His boutique label is stocked internationally and, as well bringing quality vino to the world, he co-owns two of Tbilisi's top restaurants. The food and folk singing I can vouch for, from my own time in the city, even if I didn't join in on the latter. Much to the gratitude of the neighbours I assume.
His Santa Fe accent has long ago dissipated and he speaks of Georgia with the kind of passion that, perhaps, only an outsider can bring; bestowing an appreciation for the things that some locals at one time took for granted, not least their distinct wine-making process and culinary traditions.
Wandering the vineyards, Wurdeman explained his mission to bring almost-lost grape varieties back to the country and conveyed his own pride in being - in no small part - responsible for Georgia's increasing prominence on the global natural wine scene. I begrudgingly sample several and we enjoy a hearty lunch at Crazy Pomegranate, the winery's sublime restaurant, his wife occasionally cocking her head from the kitchen to check the food is hitting the right notes.
At the nearby town of Sighnaghi, which hangs off the side of a hill, I take in the sweeping vista, as a fertile landscape unfurls beneath me, with only the distant mountain ridges of the Caucasus to break the horizon.
For wine lovers, there is something uniquely compelling about Kakheti. Unlike Bordeaux or Stellenbosch in South Africa, the dense tourist throngs have yet to arrive. But yet there's little doubt that, in time, they will.
It's my last evening in Georgia and I'm spreadeagled on a sofa in the lounge of Tbilisi's Rooms Hotel. It's been an eye-opening and horizon-broadening trip. Next door, the stylish Stamba Hotel is welcoming its first guests. I blagged a tour of the property while the bookcases were still being stacked and the dust covers yet to be removed. A former Soviet publishing house, it's now a design-led destination waiting to be occupied by bright young things, keen to see what this increasingly on-trend city is all about. But thriving as it is, I've learnt there's much more to Georgia than its buzzing capital.
I think back to my first night in the country. It's the early hours and we're strolling home from dinner along a busy road when a somewhat beaten-up car begins to slow alongside us. It's occupied by three, maybe four, young guys and heavy bass music thuds from the sound system. They wind down the window and I feel my chest tense, as Dato and the rest of our international gang edge closer to one another. Then comes the yell.
"Welcome to Georgia!" they holler, speeding off again while waving earnestly, as we muster a surprised "thank you" in response. It's something of a testament to the welcome one can expect in Tbilisi, but more than that, it's a testament to the welcome one can expect in Georgia - only if there's a willingness to take the roads less travelled.