TBILISI, GEORGIA - I quickly discovered that the Georgians overfeed you with pleasure. It was only my second day in the country and I’d already experienced three supras, or feasts. Georgians are extremely hospitable and, in their culture, it would be extremely rude not to offer guests a table overflowing with food. So, as a foreigner, I was treated to these lengthy restaurant supras by my kindly hosts, each accompanied by traditional dancing and singing.
When guests sit down at a supra, the table is already groaning under the weight of countless dishes of food — canoe-shaped breads dripping with melted cheese and butter, fat steaming beef dumplings which you eat with your fingers, colourful salads mixed with walnuts and herbs and plenty of delicious Georgian wine to wash it all down. Then, before the original dishes of food have little more than a dent in them, more food arrives — in the shape of earthy soups, heady stews, kebabs, chicken cooked in milk and garlic, heavily spiced ratatouille, hot cornbread … and so it goes on and on.
But first things first and food aside, I should explain for those who are not quite sure, that Georgia is a country located in the Caucasus mountain range, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It is remarkably hospitable to visitors and listed as the world’s eighth safest country on the Crime Index Rate.
Above: Georgians like to treat their guests to wine, traditional dances and an abundance of food.
I had arrived in Tbilisi, the country’s 1,000-year-old capital with no idea of what to expect in this still emerging destination. The name Tbilisi comes from the Georgian word for warm referring to natural hot springs which feed the city’s sulphur baths. “Taking the waters” has been part of everyday life for the locals for centuries — the water is said to cure all manner of ills — and you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction when your nostrils catch the eggy smell of sulphur and you see the domeshaped bathhouse roofs.
The city itself is a jumbled mix of architectural styles. Crumbling mansions sit next to Byzantine churches, synagogues and mosques, art nouveau design rubs shoulders with neo-classical buildings, all interspersed with grey Soviet-era apartment blocks. Most eye catching of all are the balconied dwellings perching precariously on cliff tops above the Mtkvari River as they have done for centuries. Not that it’s all blast from the past stuff. There are plenty of trendy clubs, modern art galleries and a burgeoning fashion scene in town, too, and rather bizarrely, recently built police stations and government buildings are constructed from steel and glass, rendering them see through, symbolic of Georgia’s aspirations for democratic transparency.
Lording it over the mish mash of styles is 4th-century fortress Narikala, best reached by cable car unless you feel like a seriously tough climb. Alongside is the gigantic aluminium statue of Kartlis Deda or “Mother Georgia.” She has been there since 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1,500th anniversary, holding a cup of wine in one hand while brandishing a sword with the other. How better to symbolize the country — Georgia puts enemies to the sword and welcomes friends with wine.
Left: The rail car that carried Stalin to his grave. Right: Ruins of the 11th-century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral.
Mtskheta, Georgia’s old capital, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about an hour’s drive from Tbilisi. The dusty main street of this small, dishevelled town is lined with stalls selling fruit, souvenirs, wine and local handicrafts. Stall holders are keen to offer food and drink samples — as I said, these are really hospitable folks. Mtskheta’s pride and joy is the 11th century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, heavily adorned with stone carvings outside and in. It is revered by worshippers as legend says that Christ’s Crucifixion robe is buried under the central nave.
The small town of Gori in the Georgian countryside is famous — or infamous — for being Stalin’s birthplace. He was born Josef Dzhugashvili but took the surname Stalin later in life — it translates to “steel” in Russian. The simple dwelling of his birth in is now housed inside a glass-roofed temple-like structure. In the grounds, his 83-tonne bulletproof train carriage, in which he travelled to the Yalta Conference in 1945, is popular with camera clicking tourists.
You can follow in the footsteps of Silk Road travellers to the cave town Uplistsikhe. Although it gives the impression of being in the back of beyond it is only 10 kms from Gori. This rock-hewn settlement dating back to the early Iron Age was once home to 20,000 people and features a 10th-century Christian stone basilica.
On the way, you’ll pass structures which were once pagan places of sacrifice, dwellings, a pharmacy and bakery, all evidence of a fascinating past.
WHERE TO STAY: The stylish Rooms Hotel Tbilisi (http://www.roomshotels.com/Tbilisi ) and the Mercure Tbilisi Old Town Hotel http://www.accorhotels.com Both are centrally located, serve fabulous food, have friendly English speaking staff, comfortable, very clean rooms and free WiFi.
HOW TO GET THERE: Canadians can fly to London with either Air Canada or British Airways and then fly to Tbilisi with Air Astana.