Georgia, at the edge of Europe

John Westbrooke discovers this little known but fascinating country

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Georgia is at the farthest limits of Europe – from the UK, anyway. If it wasn’t for Eurovison and the occasional football match it would hardly appear on the radar of most western Europeans.

And Tbilisi, its capital, is now what old Istanbul used to be: crumbling, mysterious, half in a different continent and a past age, the sort of place you’d set a spy novel.

There have been people here since maybe the 12th century BC. Some 8000 years ago they’re said to have invented wine. The Greeks knew Georgia as Colchis, where Jason and the Argonauts went looking for the golden fleece. In the early 300s it was the second country to convert to Christianity, after neighbouring Armenia but decades before Rome. In the 1100s it had a queen, Tamar, so powerful she was called King Tamar.

For all that illustrious history, its position at the eastern end of the Black Sea meant it was constantly walked over by a succession of empires: Assyrians and Persians, Seljuks and Mongols, Ottomans and most recently Soviet. It declared independence as recently as 1991, but the Russians have since liberated a couple of chunks, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Foreigners are welcome, though, and the tourist industry is burgeoning. I tried to buy an apricot from a Tbilisi market stall and the owner, nonplussed that anybody would want just the one, refused to take my money; she even gave me another one. Beat that, Tesco’s.

Tbilisi, like Istanbul before it, is smartening itself up. Alongside scattered art deco, 19th-century baroque and Soviet slabs is some striking modern architecture: the National Bank vault, for instance, which looks reassuringly like a concrete block with a corner lifted, or the curvy glass footbridge across the unpronounceable Mtkvari river, known as the Always Bridge because of its resemblance to a giant sanitary pad.

In the heart of town, around Freedom Square with its big hotels and statue of St George, you could be in any well-kept modern city. Old wooden buildings with elaborate wooden balconies have been restored. Cars clog the streets. On the brick-domed roof of a centuries-old bath-house teenage boys were practising breakdancing to ghetto blaster music as a crew filmed their moves. Girls in red shorts and baseball caps came to our rescue in the summer heat with free promotional cans of cold Coke.

And yet go round any corner and it’s a different place. Plaster peels off walls in dusty alleys, and the wooden balconies sag. Black-clad priests pass along the shady side of the street. Abandoned houses slowly tilt towards collapse. Guard dogs barked furiously at me from behind iron gates until distracted by a passing tortoise. Nothing seemed to have been painted since the Ottomans left.

There are churches tucked away everywhere, often in the shape of a small cross with a high brick drum holding up a conical dome.

One, Metekhi, is worth a visit just for the view: from a cliff-top above the river it looks out to the old town opposite and the hills beyond, where there’s an old fortress (with an even better view) and a giant aluminium statue of Mother Georgia, holding a bowl of wine for friends and a sword for enemies.

The oldest church is Anchiskhati, dating from the 6th century, grimy with age, its murals faded, but still in use. The grandest is the hilltop Holy Trinity cathedral, new and spacious and rather plain inside.

We visited the Museum of Georgia for an overview of the country’s history – don’t miss the ancient gold work from Colchis – and dined in the restaurants in Erekle II St, which provided great food, and cheap too. And do try the wine, though there is some dispute over whether the grapes are best trampled by men or unmarried women.

Then we went to see what the rest of the country had to offer.

East toward the Black Sea we visited the Stalin Museum in Gori. The Soviet leader from 1922 to 1952 was born here in a wooden cottage, which now has a big classical stone building all round it. He seemed fond of his compatriots, and let them keep their alphabet rather than switching to Cyrillic.

The feeling wasn’t completely mutual. The museum closed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it’s now open again, giving a balanced account of his life: tyrant, mass murderer, but also the leader who kept Nazi Germany at bay and turned a land of peasants into an industrial giant.

Out west, in the dry lands towards the Azerbaijan border – in fact across it, if you believe the Azeris – is the David Gareja monastery complex, founded by an early missionary in the 6th century. It must have been a harsh life; the cells and churches are half-fortress and seem to be part of the rocky landscape. Like the whole country it has been laid waste many times, but monks still live here.

The greatest scenic route, though, heads north along the Military Road across the Caucasus mountains to Russia. (Or from Russia, since armies tended to be coming the other way.)

Past Tbilisi’s reservoirs it goes, along rivers (you can see two of them meeting at Aragvi, light water flowing alongside dark, refusing to merge for miles), by fields of wildflowers and ravines of ice, past a slightly tatty Soviet-Georgian peace memorial and a mineral spring that runs orange, weaving around road gangs carrying out repairs before bitter winter cracks up the surface again. Up here, it is said (by townies), people think more slowly and phlegmatically because of the different air pressure. They have their own accent, generations-long vendettas, and free electricity.

Finally, 5,700 feet high, you come to the town of Kazbegi, in a valley in the shadow of the mountain range that forms the border. The town is now supposed to be known as Stepantsminda, but seems not to be.

We stayed in the refurbished Hotel Rooms. It has wooden floors that are awfully noisy when guests trundle suitcases along them at 5am. The bar staff wrestled with the concept of a gin and tonic. But oh my word, the views. If you can’t get a room on the valley side, just stroll out on to the full-length balcony and gape at the prospect of Mt Kazbek.

Here on this inactive volcano Prometheus was chained after stealing fire from the gods. Here Jesus’ manger was kept. Or so they say. Steep and snow-clad, it’s 16,500 feet high. Dawn is the best and least cloudy time to admire its grandeur, as the sun makes its way to the valley floor.

On a hilltop in front of it, Holy Trinity church completes the view, probably the most dramatically sited of all Georgia’s dramatically sited churches. We went up – it’s quite a climb but taxis will take you – to watch cattle mooing their way past it and blue patches of gentians growing in cracks in the rocks, and to look down at the town beneath us, with Russia at our backs.

Among tour operators to Georgia are:

Voyages Jules Verne

Regent Holidays

Text and Images ©John Westbrooke

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