Jill Turton discovers a country emerging from the post-Soviet shadows as a beautiful tourist destination with a remarkable food culture.
No, not Georgia USA, we were on the new direct flights from Britain to Georgia, the country, a service that began only last year and could be the start of making Georgia a compelling tourist destination.
Bounded in the north by the snow-capped Caucasus mountains, providing a natural border with Russia, and in the south by Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia gained its independence from the USSR in 1991 and since its president sacked 30,000 police officers in 2005 to stem corruption, it appears to have emerged a vibrant, safe, hospitable and breathtakingly beautiful country.
We read up on its history of invasions, occupations, civil and holy wars, its wealth of monasteries and castles, its food culture and ancient winemaking tradition, and how temptingly cheap it all is.
Not that there is much to commend the last flight out of Gatwick on dour Georgian Airways. Arriving shortly after dawn we wander the streets of Tbilisi’s Old Town, and take in its lovely old buildings, art deco balconies and rickety fretwork verandas, in striking contrast to some brutalist Soviet leftovers and its proud new architecture: the shiny cylinders of the Tbilisi Concert Hall and the garish Peace Bridge.
We get to grips with Georgia’s food culture at the sprawling Dezerter Food Market and its piled-high stalls of garlic, onions, beetroot, walnuts, sheep’s cheese, pickles and jars of fiery ajika paste. We bypass pigs’ heads and trotters and negotiate for a bag of walnuts and churchkhela, a strange sweetmeat made of nuts encased in reduced grape juice that hang like sausages on strings.
And fabulous bread. All over Georgia, in tiny back street bakeries, pieces of dough are slapped onto the inside of a ragingly hot toné, a tandoor-style oven in the centre of the shop. When the baker judges them crisp and golden he deftly hooks them off onto a rack in the shop window.
The reputation of Georgian food and wine is as much a draw as the scenery, the mountains and the monasteries, and we dine exceptionally well on aubergines filled with tahini, mint and pomegranate; peppers stuffed with walnut paste; trout with plum sauce, grilled meats and the ubiquitous katchapuri flatbread stuffed with cheese.
At the Writer’s House we eat stylish modern Georgian food beneath the stars in the leafy garden of a beautiful old villa and drink the best wine of our trip, a dry white Alvani Rkatsiteli, which is startlingly amber coloured, made in the time-honoured qvevri.
Qvevris are terracotta pots sunk into the ground where the crushed grapes, skin, pips and all, ferment using only natural yeasts. It’s the amount of ‘skin contact’ that gives the wine its amber colour. Wines have been made this way in Georgia for some 8,000 years. Indeed Georgia has been credited as the cradle of wine, with a fast growing international reputation.
Within the Georgian National Museum is the Museum of Soviet Occupation showing the steel cells where dissidents were once held. By contrast, in the suburbs, is the Stalin Underground Printing House Museum, curated by a lone 82-year-old comrade upholding the faith. Stalin was born in eastern Georgia and in Tbilisi, he hid in a secret cellar to print revolutionary tracts. You can see the printing press along with a first edition of Pravda and Stalin’s Communist Party membership card numbered 0002. Nowhere else is Stalin celebrated.
Although religion was repressed during the Soviet era, 84 per cent of Georgians now claim to belong to the Christian Orthodox Church. At Davit Gareja, monasteries and frescoed caves can be reached by minibus along 50 bumpy miles to the border with Azerbaijan.
The journey is delightful. Shepherds on horseback are moving huge flocks through vibrant fields of green and carpets of wild flowers before the summer heat turns the whole area into arid semi-desert.
At the monastery site, we make the stiff two-hour climb to the Lavra and Udabno monasteries founded in the sixth century with views across to Azerbaijan, a wilderness stretching into the hazy distance. Keeping lazy watch on the summit are three armed border guards.
Ten remote miles away is the well-named Oasis Club, a rough and ready, Polish-run hotel and hostel, staffed by a laid-back international crew serving cold beer to us and a fast drinking band of sun-baked nomadic Azerbaijani shepherds. We eat lobia – a thick spicy bean soup and kubdari, bread filled with meat, onions and herbs. We share shots of Chacha, the local grappa, with the shepherds before they stumble off into the night and we settle in to one of the newly erected en-suite cabins.
The pretty hilltop town of Sighnaghi, in the wine-making heartland, gives us our first thrilling sight of the distant Caucasus range. We stay at Nana’s Guest House where voluble and syntax-free Nana urges us to eat her farmhouse breakfast: “Eggs family, cheese family, yoghurt family, jam family. All family” before setting out again with a driver – don’t even think of hiring a car; it’s cheaper and easier to find a driver.
In an ancient Mercedes we head for the Caucusus, up the Georgian Military Highway, the sometimes hair-raising road that links Georgia and Russia, tracing the route taken by retreating Soviet tanks in the collapse of the Eastern bloc.
Kazbegi, 15 miles from the Russian border is the main town in the heart of the mountains. Higher than the Alps, their jagged peaks are awe-inspiring. Mount Kazbek, at 5,047 metres, dominates the valley and on a lower peak sits the 14th century Gergeti monastery.
Forgoing the taxi ride for a steep hike to the summit, we find the church is closed for cleaning, but breathtaking views are our reward, this and griffin vultures soaring above, the vibrant blue gentians, purple phlox and pennycress in the meadows.
We reach for our water bottle and raise a toast to St. George.
Georgian Airways fly Gatwick-Tbilisi from £300 return
Guide Books to Georgia:
Georgia by Tim Burford. Pub: Bradt Travel Guides
Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan Travel Guide. Pub: Lonely Planet
Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus, Carla Capalbo. Pub: Pallas Athene