By David Rich
I’d hopped into the last available seat in a 16-passenger van leaving Qax, Azerbaijan, between a four-foot-high granny and a couple of newlyweds.
The newlyweds, though cruising the second day of their honeymoon, managed to momentarily untangle themselves for introductions, offering anglicized names of Pat and Rusty.
As I looked around the van it seemed full of quiet and sedate people, all bound for Tbilisi, the capital of a brand new country, for me: Georgia, recently bloodied by a slam-bang war with Russia, which excluded the possibility it might be a familiar part of the U.S.A.
After a tedious border crossing into Georgia, Rusty magically produced a bottle of Georgian wine, twirling it to catch the light: full-bodied purple.
A Taste of Pure Pleasure
“We invented wine,” he said, screwing out the cork and offering plastic cups around, the first directly to me. I’d read that Georgia at least took credit for inventing wine, readily playing the California sophisticate, swirling the wine in a red plastic mug and inhaling the aroma before sipping. Those in the rest of the van simply tossed it down.
“Nice,” I said. And it was, robust with a back taste of pure pleasure after the anemic wines on offer in the Stans, which included Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
I looked reminiscently at the plastic cup as the last dribble rolled down. “Mighty nice,” I added reminiscently as the van driver threw it into gear and swerved into Georgia.
Rusty sensed my disappointment at the initially small offering, magically producing and wigwagging a liter and a half of homemade stuff, slightly pinker, produced like a rabbit out of a hat. He topped up my plastic cup with a flourish. “To Georgian wine,” he cried.
The entire van, including the diminutive granny next to me, was uncorking bottles and my poor little cup was inundated, which meant the next two hours passed with a blur.
I vaguely remember stops every half hour to purchase additional bottles, whole roast chickens, and fabulous Georgian bread hot from the kiln, shaped like a pig with two tails. We arrived in Tbilisi, I seem to recall, exceedingly happy.
Tbilisi, which means warm, was named after legendary hot springs frequented by Pushkin and Dumas, and was like being back in Europe after months in Central Asia, but without European prices.
Its tree-lined boulevards converged on an ancient town crammed with old churches and pointy towers bisected by a great river, the name of which I could never remember how to spell or pronounce: Mtkvari.
This was typical of Georgia, which has a language similar to no other country on earth and uses an alphabet that looks faintly Thai, which is to say cursive lower case and incomprehensible to Westerners.
The city was overseen from high above by Narikala Fortress and St. Nicholas Church on a lofty ridge frequented by amorous lovers, and Mother Georgia thirty meters tall in burnished aluminum: an inexorable blend of old and young.
A Frigid Universe
During two weeks in Georgia, I saw neither Russian troops nor tourists, excluding an obviously lost American cyclist and a Swiss person, but it was November when no tourist or soldier in his or her right mind would venture to such a frigid universe.
Religion, as elsewhere, had managed to shatter the country, severing the Islamic parts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia while its next-door neighbor, Armenia, in 1994 had managed to chase the Islamists out of Nagorno-Karabakh, back to Azerbaijan.
The neighborhood, consisting of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, continues to be a political mess, which is to say religious mess on the ostensible front lines of the terrorist wars.
Of course, these inflict the entire northern half of the planet from Europe through North America while the south, fortunately, continues to snooze. I wished I were south for the weather alone, way far south.
A Sickening Eulogy
The highlights of Georgia ranged from the lowest to highest. The lowest was a posh museum, priced at an exorbitant $11 and dedicated to the 20th century’s most proficient butcher who made Hitler look like small potatoes.
I’d suggest skipping the Stalin Museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia, which chronicles his earliest roots from the rustic house he was born in to photos from religious education at the Gori Seminary to the excellent railroad car he rode to Yalta to shape modern Europe along with Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The museum was a sickening eulogy to the rosy side of brutality, concealing the beast. The most satisfying exhibit was Stalin’s Death Mask.
An Ancient Cave City
Gori was partially redeemed by an ancient cave city ten miles (16 kilometers) east at Uplistsikhe, founded in 1000 B.C.E. and the residence of Georgian kings when the Arabs invaded, 150 caves remaining of an original 700.
This complex, however, is eclipsed by Vardzia’s cave skyscraper in Georgia’s remote southwest, a mere 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Turkey, thirteen floors of caves covering an immense hillside of limestone above the usual river with an unpronounceable name: Mtkvari.
In its heyday Vardzia housed 50,000 people, naturally centered on a church, that of the Assumption.
Georgia’s most impressive and spiritual church is located at its ancient capital a few miles north of Tbilisi at Mkskheta, the grand Sveti Tskhoveli Cathedral built in 1010 on the site of the first Georgian Church founded in a very early century.
Across the river on a high butte sits the Jvari Church with grand views across the valley.
Other Georgian highlights include Kazbegi in the frigid mountains on the Russian border and the grand Ananuri Fortress on the way up to Kazbegi.
But lest we forget, the greatest Georgian highlight may be found ubiquitously all over Georgia, beginning with my favorites in the Telavi-Kakheti region, naturally with its allotted share of churches and monasteries, but spotlighting Georgian wine, and I’ll always drink to that.
When you go:
Budget airlines Air Arabia, Air Baltic and others fly to Tbilisi from European capitals from $300 return, but go in the summertime instead of November.
Hotels in Tbilisi range from $50 double and way up while restaurants are more reasonably priced, from $5 for a feast.
Transportation is simple, via marshrutka (aka mini-van) to anywhere in the country for a pittance up to $10; any bus station or the train station in Tbilisi is easily accessible from the subway for $.25 a ride. Wine is also reasonably priced so enjoy.