Georgia: Time Traveling Through the Caucasus

A priest who makes fine wine in the Republic of Georgia. Max Hartshorne photo.
A priest who makes fine wine in the Republic of Georgia. Max Hartshorne photos.
A dancer in a traditional costume performs at a restaurant in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. Max Hartshorne photos.
A dancer in a traditional costume performs at a restaurant in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. 

Republic of Georgia: Traveling From the 10th to the 21st Century

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

A journey to the Republic of Georgia from the US is a formidable voyage.

Flying out of popular US gateways like Washington DC or Boston on Lufthansa, you arrive in Munich or Warsaw and have a nine-hour layover waiting for the connecting flight to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.

There are no direct flights from the US. It seems that every flight into Georgia from Europe arrives in the middle of the night–yet at 4 am, when we arrived in Tbilisi, the airport was packed with people waiting to pick up relatives and cars filled the parking lots and waiting areas.

It’s one of those destinations that are hard to get to but after you’ve toured the countryside, sampled the wine, sat at a mezze table filled with tantalizing small plates of fresh vegetables; it’s all very much worth it.

listenradioFirst, a little geography, since most people thought I was talking about peaches and Atlanta when I said I was in Georgia. The country is below Russia, between the Black and the Caspian seas, just above Turkey. It’s the crossroads between Europe and Asia and the famous Silk Road ran right through it, the main trading route during Marco Polo’s time.

A Georgia Fan

Max Johnson of Winnipeg, a garrulous Englishman who’s been to this country 15 times, loves it in Georgia. He travels all over the world, but he has a special place in his heart for The Republic of Georgia. He bought some land in the up and coming wine region town of Sighnaghi. A farm with guest rooms is planned.

Tbilisi's Royal Baths are a sulfurious treat, not to be missed.
Tbilisi’s Royal Baths are a sulfurious treat, not to be missed.

The Republic of Georgia has a brutal history. Invaders tried to crush Christianity twenty times over the years, from the Persians to the hordes from the north, to the Turks, and yet each invader was only able to destroy buildings and kill people–not dent the fervent faith of the Georgians.

So Christianity is a big part of the tourist sites and some of the highlights of the culture are in the churches.

Fresco of Saint George being tortured by invaders in Ipari, Georgia.
Fresco of Saint George being tortured by invaders in Ipari, Georgia.


We visited a Georgian Orthodox church in Tbilisi that was packed full of worshippers, which is typical in Georgia.

We also visited an astounding tenth-century church where one has to bend down to get inside—built back when invaders searching for victims might be more easily thwarted by a low doorway.

At the Nakipari church in the remote tiny village of Ipari, we saw George, the country’s patron saint, memorialized in painful detail on a fresco being tortured over a barrel by invaders. These frescoes were spared being whitewashed over by invaders, a stroke of luck that makes them so precious.

Everywhere in Georgia are symbols of both their Greek Orthodox Christian religion and what the Soviets left, perhaps called Anti-religion.

There are hulking factories that stand abandoned off the highways, and hundreds of gas stations rusting, no longer serving any use, and then a dozen shiny new gas stations right nearby.

It’s as if nobody ever tore down anything they just left buildings that no longer served a purpose to rot and began Cow and apartment building. Along the roadsides, loose cows, pigs and donkeys are quite common.anew. These and a disconcerting prevalence of litter are the only ugly things we saw in an otherwise beautiful country.

Joseph Stalin Museum

From 1921-1991 the Bolsheviks and then the USSR occupied Georgia and their legacy is a murderous and bitter one. Native son and chief architect of a reign of terror here is Joseph Stalin, who was born in the gritty city of Gori and today is memorialized there with the sprawling Joseph Stalin Museum.

While the exhibits are barely lit, due to the expense of lighting in a museum that few Georgians would want to visit, the tour guide presents the dictator’s life in a monotone, pointing out photos of the man with Lenin and as a child. You can even see the preserved small wooden house that Stalin lived in until he was four, today covered by a garnish cement roof crowned by a hammer and sickle.

A few years back most of the communist and Soviet symbols were removed from the museum, but in the gift shop, you can buy a hammer and sickle pin, tiny busts of Stalin, and lighters that look like bullets. How appropriate!

The stern tour leader at the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori.
The stern tour leader at the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori.

For anyone interested in Soviet history, Georgia presents a wide variety of places to immerse oneself in that pre-1992 era. In Tbilisi, locals encouraged us to visit the National Museum where the top floor is dedicated to the Russian occupation.

Striking beautiful foliage in rural Svaneti, in the north.
Strikingly beautiful foliage in rural Svaneti, in the north.

A banner in blood red type lists the number of displaced Georgian citizens and dryly chronicles what happened to nearly every prominent artist, actor or orchestra leader–shot, shot and shot again.

A Place to Hide

Today, there is a macabre sense of self-preservation: singers during a festive show at a restaurant sang of finding a place to hide from invaders; our guide Tamara made a point of stepping harshly over Russia on a big map of the country spread out on the ground when she showed us the vast swaths of territory that have been re-occupied in recent years.

South Ossetia was annexed in 2008, and Abkhazia a few years earlier. These two big chunks of the country are now occupied by Russia and no Georgians can enter the territories. Large refugee camps are filled with hundreds of thousands of Georgians who were displaced.

A winemaker shows off some of his qvevri underground casks where wine is aged. - Copy
A winemaker shows off some of his qvevri underground casks where wine is aged.

Today, the path once trod by Marco Polo and the great traders is driven by Turkish 18-wheelers, who travel from Pori on the Black Sea east and then down into Turkey to the south.

There are dozens of cafes along the route serving Turkish coffee and food, as the robust trading continues across this well-traveled crossroads between two seas.

Georgia is famous for its food and wine. For anyone who likes to graze, you’ll be in heaven–the tables are set with dozens of assorted mezze dishes, each tweaked for their own region.

Some of the best winemakers are priests, and there are thousands of churches all across Georgia.
Some of the best winemakers are priests, and there are thousands of churches all across Georgia.

At every meal, you’ll find a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers. Also, freshly baked bread, salty feta cheese, and cheese pies, which are a layer of dough with melted cheese inside are mandatory, called a khachapuri.

The varieties of these pies include versions with meat and different kinds of cheese but they are a part of every meal.

The meals were perfect in case you, like me, prefer to graze than gorge. You’ll find so many small plates on the Georgian table you’ll never get bored or overfilled!

Like the toasts that Georgians so enjoy giving, raising up glasses of their unique strong-white wines made from Georgian grapes like Tsitska, they toast to family, and to happiness, and to your wife and to your family.

Festive and faux-formal, these toasts, we learned, are important.

Wine in Georgia

Wine is an essential aspect of life in Georgia. You’ll hear again and again that this is where wine originated, with more than 500 different varieties of grapes, and the archeological research claiming viniculture stretching back more than 7000 years.

We spent a good part of two days driving from Tbilisi to the far northern area of Svaneti, where there was fall foliage that gives Vermont a run for its money. Brilliant like October in Williamstown Mass, the steep hillsides, a giant blue man-made lake we drove around, all were surrounded by these blazing foliage colors.

In Svaneti there are ancient towers built to hide villagers from invaders, which dot the countryside. This place is truly a step back in time; when you see the endless miles of mountains dotted with the towers and realize how remote it is, you just could be in the 10th century once again!

Find more information at www.georgia.travel

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.