Liz Gill experiences the warmth and hospitality of this burgeoning new holiday destination
>I’ve been in Georgia barely two hours when I learn my first phrase: gagi marjos. It means literally ‘to victory’ – this is after all a country that has seen plenty of fighting – but colloquially it’s their ‘cheers’ and very handy it’s going to be over the next few days.
For Georgians love making toasts. At the drop of a hat they’ll rise to their feet, make an impromptu speech and raise a glass: to God, to friendship, to beautiful women, to their country, to your country, to love. It’s not uncommon for there to be seven or eight during the course of a meal and since it’s considered courteous to stop eating and listen, getting to the coffee stage can take quite a long time.
But this is only fitting. For this is a place that not only prizes hospitality but can legitimately claim to have invented the liquid for those toasts: grape seeds and vessels have been found suggesting wine making began here about 7,000 years ago.
I’m taught gagi marjos on our first night in Tbilisi in a lively little pavement cafe but I have to wait a couple of days and a couple of hour’s drive from the capital before I really see it in action. We are having a supra, a traditional feast with entertainment, which begins with a woman showing us how to slap crescent shaped dough onto the inside of a fearsomely hot outdoor oven while a man barbeques pork and chicken over a vine wood fire.
The eating starts with a fine spread of appetisers – aubergines stuffed with a spiced walnut paste, cheese and potato croquettes, herbed mushrooms, tarragon salad, wonderful tomatoes, olives and pickles – and then moves onto the meat. Wine flows and toasts are drunk; so catching is the habit that we feel honour bound to make a couple of our own.
And then the most extraordinary moment happens: the four men at the end of our long table start singing in a close harmony style which we learn later is peculiar to Georgia and so haunting and so sorrowfully beautiful is the music that I find tears pricking my eyes. I sniff and blink hard and am glad of the diversion of the next toast.
The quartet are professionals; they’ve even, we’re told, beaten a Welsh male voice choir on their home ground of an eisteddfod but the phenomenon we’ve just experienced is not confined to prearranged performances. We meet it again a few days later when we’re strolling through the wonderful Botanical Gardens of Batumi and come across a group of men in a little wooden summer house.
They’re celebrating a birthday and here again there is a groaning table, a stash of home-made wine and music. Before we know it food and drink are being pressed upon us, songs are being sung (this time they’re more cheerful) and glasses are being chinked. By now we feel seasoned enough practitioners to propose a toast or two in response.
And if that wasn’t enough to convince us of the friendliness of Georgian welcomes, we encounter it a third time on a sunny Sunday morning by the ancient arched Maxunceti bridge where an off-duty policeman and his two chums entreat us to join them in a glass of the local fire water. By now I am almost beginning to suspect that there is a central casting agency supplying sturdy, grey-haired men with big chests and warm words.
One must hope, of course, that all this congeniality survives the influx of visitors the country is hoping to encourage: there were two million of them in 2010, more than 40 per cent up on the previous year. Three quarters come from Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan but the government, which wants tourism to remain its fastest growing sector, is looking past its neighbours to Western Europe and beyond.
So tourism in Georgia is a work in progress – literally in many places. Mestia, for instance, in the High Caucasus, resembles a cross between a modern building site and an early Wild West town. There’s a six months old airport, a major highway and six chair lifts under construction and hotels and guest houses springing up all over as the little town strives to become a new ski resort. But the old road is potholed, cows wander as they please, there are no pavements and the shops seem to be selling a random collection of whatever they’ve been able to get hold of.
It has to be remembered though that for most of its long history this Svaneti region was so isolated that even the Mongol hoards failed to reach it and it became not just the hiding place for the nation’s holiest relics and treasures but often for the rulers’ heirs as well. Even today the famously long-lived Svans speak a dialect incomprehensible to most of their fellow countrymen and relish their reputation as tough fighters.
The architectural reminders of that reputation can be seen as we fly in over the dramatic mountain scenery: dozens of tall stone towers, most of them dating from the 13th and 14th centuries when they were used not just to watch out for foreign invaders but often to spy on other clans with whom there might be a long-standing vendetta.
One of the adjoining houses has been made into a museum where we hear about the lives of people who lived through the extreme winter months sandwiched between their cattle on the level below and the hay loft on the level above but who had, our guide points out, their own version of the chandelier and the hostess trolley. They also had an example of early feminism: the head of the household, the makhshvi, was chosen for wisdom rather than brute strength and could be female as well as male.
Afterwards we’re allowed to climb up the tower first via a rickety outside staircase and then up six internal ladders. There’s no hard hat supplied or other health and safety stipulations and we relish the derring-do feel to it all, gasping at the top with pride in our rather nerve-wracking achievement and in awe at the panoramas on all sides.
Mestia is around 300 miles north west of Tbilisi, Batumi just a little more due west – the whole country is only around the size of Ireland. And while Mestia is aiming for the winter sports crowd, this Black Sea resort is going for summer holidaymakers plus the conference market in winter. So here again is building on a substantial scale: a massive Sheraton already dominates the skyline, other international brands are emerging from holes in the ground.
For Brits able to take their pick of lovely locations in the Med and elsewhere, the pebbly beaches, the often rough currents of the sea and the clunking new architecture of Batumi probably does not have much appeal. But other parts of Georgia most certainly do: the countryside is beautiful and has a lot to offer the outdoor enthusiast: hiking, climbing, bird-watching, fishing, exquisite wild flowers and wonderful vineyards with tours and tastings.
Tbilisi itself is an interesting and attractive capital. It looked particularly magical on our after-dark arrival with its key buildings floodlit, its illuminated tv mast a small-scale Eiffel tower up on a hill beside a sparkling big wheel, its boulevards and squares lively with outdoor cafes and promenaders.
By day you can explore the old city with its winding streets and balconied houses and interesting shops, visit the ancient Georgian orthodox churches or the huge modern cathedral built in 2002 or climb up the hill to the Narikala Fortress and drink in the views. Everywhere are reminders of the country’s past and its constant struggle against foreign aggressors from Tamerlane to the Russian empire and its Soviet successor.
But there are also optimistic markers of its new status : it became an independent republic only in 1991. Lenin Square is now Freedom Square, the new police stations are made of glass so that their workings are literally as well as metaphorically transparent and there’s a splendid structure called the Peace Bridge across the Mtkvari river.
The city takes its name from tbili meaning warm and a visit to the naturally occurring sulphur spring-fed baths provides an instant authentic if somewhat rough-hewn Georgian experience: the women who wash and massage you don’t err on the side of tenderness. We stumbled out into the sunlight feeling we’d done a couple of rounds in the boxing ring to the bemusement of the men on the ticket office. But then the international magic words Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea were exchanged and before we knew it cups of tea were being pressed upon us. That famed hospitality again.
Liz Gill travelled with British Midland International who fly between London Heathrow and Tbilisi three times a week . Fares start from £526 return www.flybmi.com Rooms at the Hotel Inn in Tbilisi and the Intourist Batumi are from around £105 a night . www.holidayinn.co and www.intouristpalace.com