Europe + wine - Russians = Georgia

The border with Georgia was interesting - after the small war Georgia had with Russia a couple of years ago, the president ‘Mischa’ Saakashvili is now hell-bent on joining the European Union and NATO. Not only do western tourists not need a visa to enter Georgia but the Georgian guards wore American styled uniforms (white t-shirt covered by a dark blue short-sleeve shirt) and actually said ‘welcome to Georgia’ - with a smile! Incredibly rare on borders where the prerequisite seems to be grumpiness and sullen faces.

People drive a bit mental here; within ten minutes of being within Georgia I witnessed the aftermath of a car crash; a stationary car at a weird angle and people running towards it with a smoking engine and people trapped in the back; as we drove past the scene, the Georgians in the marshrutka tutted in disapproval and made the sign of the cross. I and the Iranians looked at each other in disbelief.

The second thing I noticed was more weird script - yes the Georgians also have their own ancient alphabet - similar to Armenian and impenetrable. Thankfully English is much more widely spoken in Georgia - the teaching was speeded up once the Russians became personas non grata. The third thing I noticed in Tbilisi was the European Union flags and the distinctive flag of Georgia - a red cross of St Georgia like he flag of St George in England but with a smaller Romantic cross in each quarter. The blue EU flag was interesting because Georgia isn’t even part of the E.U. yet - although clearly the government has made its intentions clear.

I left my Iranian friends at the bus station - they wanted to get a hotel in the centre - one that wasn’t in a guesthouse of home stay like the one I was going to. As with every new city I arrive in - I’m basically in the dark about distances and taxis - how do I prevent myself from getting ripped off? Luckily I had gotten talking with a multi-lingual Armenian-Georgian who was living in Russia as a student and in Tbilisi staying with his grandparents. I was talking to the Iranians for quite a long time - from my forward seat - eventually he piped up - he knew English all along and was just listening in. I didn’t like this or his oddly expressionless face - the face of thinking in three or four languages. He hooked me up with a pushy taxi-driver and told me that the price to the home stay was reasonable’ - I simply had to trust him.

There were no hostels in Tbilisi but there were homsestays - a new concept for me on this trip. Dodo’s was a real surprise - a family home in a busy residential neighbourhood - with a courtyard full of other neighbours and a gobby dachshund. I had the room to myself - a high-ceilinged affair with two bunk beds and three camp beds. It was early evening by the time arrived and I was famished so I dumped my bag in the room and went for forage - but first I needed to get Georgian money out. The Bank of Georgia wouldn’t give me any money out for some reason - so I tried another ATMS and the same thing - contact your bank, unable to dispense money. Grr - I was still starving and so I went back to the home stay and in reception I changed a 100 dollar Euro note into local Georgian Lari (GEL). I finally got my food in the form of a falafel style hamburger which cost about 20 pence.

In reception I got talking with the two sisters who were running the place both of whom spoke excellent ‘I get your jokes’ English - one of whom had also worked at the Georgian consulate in Milan. A clever girl. The other sister admitted ‘I speak poor English but much better Russian’ - she loved the Russian language, its literature and classical music but the government was awful. She had a house in the break-away and Russian-backed region of Abkhazia but the Russians were now barring the way. They were now acting as ‘peacekeepers’ in punishment for the Saakasvhili’s attempt to bring back into the fold another break-away region , South Ossetia - this the same region that sparked a Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. A western-leaning, New York educated, multi-linguist, anti-corruption president who swept away a decrepit misgovernment of Eduard Shevardnadze versus ex-KGB agent, ‘end of USSR was greatest tragedy of twentieth century’ Great Leader Vladimir Putin - you should know who I’m backing.

Georgia is different to Armenia in quite a few small but significant ways. People here cannot pass a church without kissing it - but like Armenia they also making the sign of the cross three times. Our home stay just so happened to be adjacent to a Russian Orthodox Church and every time I passed it there were people surrounding a grave. It was curious and I found out later that in this branch of Christianity - the grave of the dead is attended to for 45 days or something afterwards. What happens once the 45 days expires I don’t know? The biggest difference I found was a lack of homogeneity in people’s looks - there are strawberry blondes here for a start and facial features are quite varied. The women are not as beautiful nor have the same fantastic figures as the Armenians (sorry Georgia!) but at least they don’t stare at you. I found the Armenians to be the ‘most stareyest country’ I’d ever been to.

Tbilisi is also a place where hard men with mafia appearances drive around in BMW and Mercedes Benz cars with Whitney Houston’s, ‘I Will Always Love You’ and Annie Lennox’s ‘No More I Love Yous’ blaring from their stereos.

Way back in the 12th and 13th centuries Georgia had a golden age much like Holland and England in the Middle Ages - it was a centre of Christian art and church-building. However in 1235 the Mongols laid Georgia to waste, afterwards the Black Death turned up and in 1386 Tamerlane came along like much of the Middle East and destroyed the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. In 1795 Tbilisi was destroyed by the invading Persians - so there’s not a whole lot to see of the medieval city. However what is left after the Persians is the old quarter of the city with winding streets, wooden Georgian houses with balconies and old churches. It’s a great place to just wander about in and a hidden gem of Europe - if indeed Georgia is ‘Europe’?

I entered the 13th Century Sioni Cathedral holds relics of St Nino who converted Iveria (kingdom of eastern Georgia) in the 4th Century about twenty five years after St Gregory the Illuminator converted the Armenians. I entered during a service and I noticed many women also covering their heads with veils. I sat down on at bench at the back and watched the bearded priest in his dark Orthodox garments and hat shaking his incense around and then he came towards me - motioning his arm towards the door. Startled, I stood up and some bloke motioned me out saying ‘it’s impossible, it’s impossible’ pointing at me shorts. Yep, that’s right, I was wearing shorts in the church and that was a big no-no - knees are the sign of the devil apparently. Okay, okay I know it’s all about modesty but it’s ridiculous that on a hot day shorts can’t be worn in a church - surely the most important matter should be that I’m actually visiting a church? Or maybe it’s because I was a foreigner and not part of the Georgian Church and therefore not part of God’s plan or something. It’s at humiliating chauvinistic moments like these that I find Christianity so baffling and well, fucking pointless.

Back at Dodo’s homestay I found I was sharing a room with a pensioner bloke from England - he must have been in his late 60s or something. He had an impressive itinerary from England through all the ‘Stans’, India, SE Asia and onto Japan. I didn’t really get along with him; that first night I came into a darkened room that was so loud with traffic noise because he had the window open. I closed it and put on a fan instead much to his grumblings. I didn’t really get

along with him - a Manchester man I found him to be unsmiling, sententious and a grumpy northern bastard if I’m honest. He was clearly a kept man most of his life because he was holding his trousers up with a safety pin until I told him there was more than likely a spare button inside his trousers which he duly found without as much as a ‘thank you’ or a ‘ta’.

Plenty of Dutch at the home stay - mostly from Utrecht and Groenigen - I can’t seem to escape these people on my travels! But they are university towns so it’s to be expected that they will travel. We sat around tables in the courtyard, talking the usual travellers’ shite about where we’d been where we were going. An English girl of 21 or so who apparently spoke fluent French and Spanish, some Arabic and Russian was also one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met - from Spanish writers to Siegfried Sassoon. Unfortunately I think a kind of hubris had settled in her brain - ‘daddy’ was supporting her in Lebanon and she ordinarily spoke about the times she had been proposed to or someone

had tried to shag her. I made it a point of honour that I would not end up in one of her anecdotes - so she’s in mine - her teeth were too ‘English’ anyway.
I really liked Tbilisi - capital city since the 5th Century it is surrounded by hills, very European yet distinctly Georgian. The Soviet era-Metro system was ‘dark and dank’ accurately described by the Lonely Planet, but also super-cheap - 20 pence a ride per token which is how got about the city. I walked along elegant tree-lined streets with large yellow painted baroque houses and apartment blocks - they were worn and run-down; Cafes and restaurants on cobbled streets - quiet churches and courtyards. Then I’d come across splashes of the new and modern like Freedom Square - once Lenin Square whose statue has been replaced by a brilliantly golden statue of Saint George spearing his dragon. Then the striking glass bridge crossing the Mtkvari river that winds through the city.

Although I’m not a big foody (I’ll eat anything me) I wanted to try Georgian cuisine and their well-regarded wine - in fact it might well have been invented here. So off I

went one night (on my tod again) to a restaurant called Dzelli Metekhi situated in the Old Town and beside the river. Adjacent to my table were two blokes smoking fags, surrounded by dishes, drinking some kind of spirit and toasting each other every two minutes. I did my best Englishman imitation by pretending not to notice them - but then the wife got up on stage and started singing karaoke - what was a pleasant quiet restaurant was now like a Georgian version of The Red Lion pub on a Friday night. Weird. And still the two fellas made toasts - apparently you only toast your enemies with beer here - so they were toasting their mothers, friends, success etcetera. I wish I had that much goodwill in me!

The food was pretty good - I started with Khachapuri - a Georgian cheese pie which they are obsessed with here and a calorie overload of course. Then I had some homemade sausages with mashed potato and some beautiful white wine. It was slap up meal and all for about twenty bob. I also climbed to the top of the fortress overlooking the city and what a panorama -

I could see nearly everything including the new presidential palace - which sadly looks like Lakeside Thurrock shopping centre with its glass dome.
I think Tibilisi would make a brilliant destination as a long weekend. In fact I had read that Ryanair were in discussions with the government to begin flights - so maybe you can check it out for yourselves.
Dodo was the little retired lady who ran the home stay and although nice and pleasantest on first appearance was aso bit of a hustler. She would ask you where you were from but it was only used to establish where you had been and where you were heading to - she would then offer to arrange a taxi anywhere (with a cut of course). It was irritating because she acted as if we’d all just turned up in Georgia and had no clue what we were going or what to do. Lonely Planet guides! Sometimes she would simply dismiss a place you intended to go to with a ‘Why you want to go there for?’ - I dunno Dodo - but I’m thinking the same of this place though. Anyway - she did come in useful once because

everyone in the place seemed to be coupled up and/or had their own plans. Dodo suggested getting others in the home stay together and to take her taxi to a place called Davit Gareji - an ancient monastery about an hour and a half away by car. However, because it was in such a remote part of the country in the border area next to Aerbaijan - there was no public transport and getting a taxi on my own would have been expensive. The next day Dodo organised a taxi driver and two middle-aged women from France and then we were off. The drive south passed through some beautiful rolling hills and countryside - a grasshopper jumped straight onto my knee and stayed there. The road also got narrower and the pot holes larger and larger until we finally arrived at a mountain side.

There were once 12 monasteries at Davit Gerreji but most of them were destroyed during the usual invasions by the usual suspects (can you guess which ones?). But in 1615 Persian king Shah Abbas made an incursion and murdered 6,000 monks here - which ended life here for a long time. I wonder if demagogue

Osama Bin Laden knows about these things when he’s making he makes his Muslims are victims diatribes. The Lavra monastery is set into the mountain itself and has monks’ cells carved out of the rocks - doors and all - looking like a post-modern apartment complex.

A Dutch tour group were visiting the monastery and as I drank some water in the shade of a gatehouse I struck up a conversation with one of them. Peter was from Amsterdam and 80 years old and despite his age was still travelling as he had always done throughout his life. However, he had opted out of climbing to the next monastery because he was too frail so we got talking. They had previously visited Armenia and whereas he said he had loved it I said I had became alienated by the religiosity and also the chauvinism - stemming from the bar incident. I told him that I was dismayed by the nationalism shown in Armenia and pondered the lessons unlearnt from the 1930s in Europe. He didn’t agree with me but he recalled watching as a kid during WWII the hundreds of Allied bombers flying overhead towards Germany; for several days

they would not see the sun as a result of the German cities that were on fire. He then told me something very interesting about the British people he would meet in Amsterdam; when he told them he was Dutch, that they looked at him in pity as if to say ‘what a shame’. We soon said our goodbyes after talking for a good 20 minutes about things, shaking my hand and complimented me as being ‘a good European’. Ha!

I went out into the enervating sun and began my ascent to a hill top monastery called Ubabno. 30 minutes later and after sweating my face off I eventually reached the top and terrific views of the surrounding hills and valleys. I followed the fait arrows that were somewhat haphazardly painted and began to walk along a narrow pathway that skirted the hillside. I then came across the dozens of semi-destroyed and abandoned monks’ cells and chapels. Inside many of them were 7000 year old frescoes; beautifully colourful images of saints, the Last Supper, Christ and the Virgin Mary and although I could appreciate their art, their antiquity and indeed many of the images themselves - it was like being in a museum and it was at these times that I wished I ‘had religion’.

Three hours later and I was back down the mountain; the remoteness, views and quiet instantly made it into one of my highlights combined with what was something like fifteen quid for the whole trip.

Written: August 10th 2010 by Sepulchre