Georgia: Blessed in a big-hearted country

imageLisa Grainger gets a surprising welcome in a former Soviet republic that may be economically poor but has many other riches.

Within five minutes of arrival I knew Georgia was unlike any other place I had visited. On the London-Tbilisi flight, there had been only a handful of passengers, and one I had been watching with particular interest.

A dead ringer for Rasputin – tall, dressed in black and exotically handsome, with a grey bushy beard and hair bundled into a bun – he had bounded up to the plane door as soon as the wheels touched down, a little Harrods bag clutched aloft, like a Wise Man arriving to give Jesus gold.

I had flashed him an understanding grin as he bolted up the aisle (after eight long hours, escaping was what we all wanted to do), so when he came striding up to me in the luggage hall I wasn’t that surprised. What did throw me was his taking my face in both hands and stroking my cheeks while muttering and crossing my head. It wasn’t exactly the sort of first encounter I’d expected to have with a Georgian – and it was certainly the first blessing I’d ever been given in a luggage hall.

Such is the power of religion in Georgia that when I mentioned this experience later to locals it was not seen as entertaining but as a portent. The robed figure was not just any old Harrods shopper, but one of the heads of the Orthodox Church, who had just accompanied His Holiness Ilia II, the equivalent in Georgia of the Pope, on a trip to London. The fact that I had been blessed was a sign, I was assured: I was now in God’s hands and would have a heavenly holiday – which indeed I did.

Even if one has not been held by holy hands, Georgia is the sort of country that does make one count one’s blessings. It clearly struggles. Being sandwiched between Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey is not a particularly comfortable place to be, politically or economically.

Unemployment is at 16 per cent, the countryside is littered with derelict former Russian mines and factories, and a quarter of the population survive below the poverty line, in buildings that have been rocked by war and earthquakes.

But it has such a rich and interesting history that after a while these glaring disadvantages start to fade. So, yes, a lot of the houses are falling down and the roads are potholed and the accommodation is often basic. But when you witness the Caucasus Mountains soaring into blue skies like some mythical snowy set from Lord of the Rings, when you step into ancient sacred hilltop churches aglow with gold mosaics, and when you sit and feast with big-hearted, cultured people, suddenly Georgia doesn’t seem so poor after all.

Like most visitors, I based myself in Tbilisi, the capital, and took day trips from there – the best way to see the country, if you like a break from basic guesthouses, an occasional European meal and classical music in gilded concert halls that wouldn’t be out of place in Vienna. Built in the 6th century around an area of hot springs on the banks of the Mtkvari river, the city bears the scars and glories of more than 40 invasions, from Greeks such as Jason in search of the Golden Fleece to Russian oligarchs in search of golden opportunities.

The most interesting bits of Old Tbilisi are walkable and were built in the last century, when Russia was looking to Europe for inspiration. Climb one of the many hilly streets and you will feel as though you are passing ramshackle parts of Paris, replete with crumbling shutters and intricate ironwork balconies.

Stroll along others and you will spot wooden houses that look like set pieces from a Tolstoy novel: charming double-storeys painted in pastels, their ornate verandas hung with grapevines.

The buildings that dominate the city, though, are mostly houses of worship. Wherever one looks, the spire of a church or mosque pops into the skyline. It is to these, while concert halls and galleries are refurbished following years of war, that most citizens go to get a cultural fix. Given that the nation was the second, after Armenia, to make Christianity the national religion (in 337), these spaces are rich with spiritual music and glorious artworks.

I went into more than 10 churches in a week (if churches aren’t your thing, then Georgia probably isn’t your destination). My favourites were probably the darkest and most ancient in the city: the 6th-century Anchiskhati, whose choir’s voices were so pure that they made my hair stand on end, and the dark, fresco-covered Sioni Cathedral, where a replica of the cross of St Nino (who brought Christianity to this region) is on display.

It is by examining the remnants of previous civilisations that one sees this country’s colourful – and rather bloody – history brought to life. Drive to the wine valleys of Kakheti, two hours north-west, and one passes ruins of the palace of the second king, Gorgasali, who died in AD502, its turret now crumbling into the forest. Drive a little farther south, into semi-desert at David Gareja, and you can venture into Bronze Age caves that were painted with frescoes in the 13th century and are still inhabited by a few remaining monks.

In the hills of Uplistsikhe, one can explore an entire cave city that was once inhabited by 20,000 people, then explore the murals of the beautiful Gelati monastery, with its giant golden mosaic of the Virgin that twinkles in the darkness amid the echo of monks chanting mass.

I travelled earlier this year when it was too early to explore the mountains, and wished I had come later (or was a better skier – there are three ski resorts, the newest of which, Mestia, offers Swiss lifts, free lift passes and clean guesthouses for £50 for a double room). Tbilisi is surrounded by mountains and parks, all of which have trails, campsites and forests that are said to be ablaze with colour in autumn, and virtually empty of tourists.

However, in the cold, what I could explore was food and wine – both of which the Georgians enjoy in great quantities. Meals are usually big buffet-style events, featuring barbecued meats, plates of steaming khinkali meat dumplings, slices

of white cheese, fresh salads and spicy pickles, and several varieties of khachapuri: a moreish cheesy bread.

When I next go, I will spend less time eating, and more exploring the wine lands of Kakheti (particularly now the German-run Schuchmann winery has opened, with airy vineyard-view rooms) and the pretty art-filled town of Sighnaghi, encased by a great wall (not unlike China’s, but with 28 towers).

I probably won’t return to Gori to see Stalin’s museum again – one visit to the grim little home town of the Georgian-born dictator is enough – and I wouldn’t return to the town of Kutaisi, other than to revisit the heart-stoppingly beautiful Gelati monastery again.

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