Georgia is a breath of fresh air. We seem to have been crossing the hot dry desert for ages and ages. Now that we’re in the green mountains, it feels like coming home. At last the temperature is perfect for me, in the mid-20s. Where Azerbaijan was slightly more Asia than Europe, Georgia is definitely more Europe.
Sighnaghi, the ‘city of love’ is not really a city at all, but a lovely small town of about 3000 people. It’s the perfect place to start our time in Georgia. It’s so pretty with steep cobblestone streets, pastel coloured houses with wood and wrought-iron balconies and an over-abundance of churches. It’s in the famous Kakheti wine region with views of the Alazani valley and the snow-tipped Caucasus mountains, with Dagestan just beyond.
There are little shops and stalls selling crafts, especially elaborate felt work, and homegrown, homemade everything. The welcome gift from our apartment host is a fridge full of homemade alcohol, from deep red wine to a highly poky opaque spirit, plus huge bowls of fresh homegrown fruit – cherries, melons and peaches. The people are very friendly and after a week we feel like locals. The dogs accompany us up the steep hill to the town square and we’re regulars at our favourite restaurant. They give us free wine and their dog sleeps under our table.
Lots of people come to Sighnaghi to get married, hence the ‘city of love’. Georgians tend to get married young (early twenties) and the culture is very much centred around the family – and food and wine – not necessarily in that order. All that good living means that Georgians tend towards the rounded and chubby. They’re a happy, hospitable and generous bunch and all the men seem to be called George.
There’s a continuous history of at least 8000 years of winemaking here. In fact, Georgians believe that wine was invented here. Some other countries also claim this honour but I’ve never seen another culture so passionate about wine. From the growing of grapes, through the whole creative process of making it, to the drinking of it, they just love it. It’s hard to resist their enthusiasm. Every family seems to have their own grapevines and wine cellars.
Our mate (George) took us to Numisi, a really old winery in a nearby village. It was so interesting to see how they make different types of wine and other drinks using the same natural fermentation processes they have for thousands of years. They use every part of the grape, often more than once, for so many things. One of the chief winemakers there is also a champion weightlifter. He says that he trains every second day and on the alternate days he drinks at least four litres of wine. Our wine-tasting included shots of ChaCha, a 55% proof grape alcohol. I think you only need one of those.
The 18th century fortress walls of Sighnaghi are still fairly intact. There are 23 towers, six gates and 40 hectares enclosed inside. Each gate is named for the village at the end of that road. The fortress was built to hold everyone from all of the nearby villages in the event of invasion – a common occurrence I’d say. It’s so easy to picture the alarm being sounded from one of the 23 towers and the people pouring in through their closest gate with their sheep and chickens. Such an excellent plan.
The Bodbe Monastery near Sighnaghi is all medieval christianity. It was originally built in the 5th century but some parts were reconstructed in the 19th century. It’s now a nun’s convent where they grow their own food, make their own wine and other things. Not a bad life. There are two churches. The new church is very beautiful. It’s like they’ve taken the medieval style, exaggerated and improved on it. The old church is small and simple but it has an interior of incredible original frescoes and the bones of St. Nino in a glass casket. She (yes, she!) is credited with bringing christianity to Georgia in the 4th century and is much revered. The paintings are fascinating at Bodbe. I’m intrigued by the medieval christian style, with the bright rich colours, golden haloes and little feet hovering above the ground. Christianity is an important aspect of Georgian history and culture and there’s a lot of christian art and architecture.
The capital, Tbilisi, is charming and quirky. It’s surrounded by mountains and built on both sides of the Mtkvari River. Lots of the buildings are actually built into the rock on the steep riverbanks. Although there’s been a settlement here since the Palaeolithic era, in its present form it’s a medieval city with an architectural overlay of Neo-classical and Art Nouveau, then a layer of Soviet and shiny modern on top. The ancient bones seem to poke up through the various layers. I read that it’s been destroyed and rebuilt at least 29 times. Most recently it was attacked by Russia from the air in 2008.
A lot of the beautiful old buildings in Tbilisi are all cracked, peeling and in danger of falling down. We stayed in one of these lovely old buildings and the floor was on a steep angle. It felt like we were going to tip over. The old streets are quite steep too and choc-a-bloc full of groovy little bars and excellent music. Tbilisi is very much the intellectual and political heart of Georgia and there were ongoing anti-Russian protests while we were there.
A lot of cities seem to have a cable car for sightseeing. It’s a great way to get an aerial overview. We went on the one in Tbilisi and it was so impressive that I want to do that everywhere now. There’s so much to see in Tbilisi, from the big things like the ancient sulphur baths, magnificent churches and the ruins of the Narikala Fortress on top of the hill to the graffiti, art, old streets and interesting bridges across the river. My favourite is Kartlis Deda or the ‘Mother of Georgia’, a 20m statue that overlooks the city. She has a glass of wine in one hand for those who come as friends and a sword in the other to deal with enemies.
The previous capital before Tbilisi was Mtsketha, just 20km away. Like everywhere in Georgia, it’s picture-postcard pretty. The Church of the Holy Cross (Jvari) was built in the 6th century, incorporating a 4th century cross from Nino. It’s built on the top of a ridiculously steep hill with magnificent views of Mtsketha. It was Sunday when we visited the church and there was a service going on. I wasn’t allowed in because my arms were uncovered.
Joseph Stalin was born in the Georgian town of Gori. There’s a Stalin Museum here that has loads of interesting trivia about him. His name, incidentally, wasn’t Stalin at all. This was a nickname he was given as a young communist revolutionary and means something like ‘man of steel’. I thought the museum gave a very balanced view of him. With his poor working class family background it’s easy to understand his passion for improving the lives of workers. He was quite dashing as a young revolutionary and I found myself really liking him. It’s disturbing to think he ended up murdering millions of people.
Stalin was sent to Siberia (and escaped) many times in his early years and yet he ended up doing the same to so many others during his insane purges. He seems to have been such a complex character. Apparently when his son was captured by the Germans during the war they offered him a deal to trade hostages. He refused and said something to the effect of ‘how can I save my own son, and not the sons of others’. Consequently, his son was shot. Such a mixed bag of principles and power. It was chilling to see his bronze death mask and the armoured train carriage that he traveled around in.
Near Gori is Uplistsikhe, the incredible ruins of a 3600 year old city carved out of rock. It was a centre of pagan worship until the christians came and trashed the place. In the 9th century a church was built on top of the pagan temple. The city was still inhabited until the 15th century and was a stop on the Silk Road. There’s an entertainment amphitheater overlooking the Mtkvari river and the houses look just like the Flintstones.
The city of Batumi is located in a natural bay of the Black Sea. Surrounded by misty mountains, it is beautiful and not at all like I expected. It’s definitely a party town of nightclubs, bars, restaurants, casinos and, strangely, Thai Massage parlours. DJs play loud techno from town squares and buskers of all styles ply their trade along the boulevard. However, it’s much more than that and older than I thought. The first written mention is from Aristotle in the 4th century BC. There are magnificent gothic and art nouveau buildings decorated with mermaids and other mythical creatures. The busy cargo port with the magical mountain backdrop, the fabulous architecture and the narrow cobblestone streets is a visually striking combination. In the daytime, the streets are lined with little vegetable and wine shops and outside cafes. At night, it’s all lit up like a party wonderland.
The Seaside Park Boulevard follows the seashore for 8km and has all manner of extraordinary sculptures, boardwalks and entertainment – even outdoor pool tables and gyms. It’s crowded, noisy, eccentric and totally alive. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Even the churches and mosques are noisy. The church bells play a jaunty ditty and the call to prayer from the mosque is loud and tuneful. The whole cacophony is upbeat and joyful. Batumi is home to the famous ‘Ali and Nino’ Statue of Love. I’ve been wanting to see this. The figures of a woman and a man move very slowly towards and away from each other. At midnight they’re a few metres apart and facing in opposite directions. They gradually turn to face each other and at midday they blend together and become one.
It’s been a longtime dream of mine to go to the Black Sea, ever since I read an inspiring story, many years ago, by one of my biggest heroes, Negley Farson. He built a small boat in England and sailed it through Europe to the Black Sea in the 1930s. Nobody seems to know exactly why it’s called the ‘black’ sea but it does change colour and sometimes it most definitely looks black.
We wanted to get on a cargo ferry from Batumi to Bulgaria. The process is shrouded in mystery, similar to the situation with the Caspian Sea ferries. However, with a clever bit of detective work (I thought) we managed to find the secret office near the port and reserve passage. Everything went quite smoothly from then on. We just had to wait for the office to call us when a ferry was ready to go that way. The call came about 10pm one night, and we had less than an hour to get down to the port and onto the ferry. Easy peasy.
The ferry was a bit newer and smaller than the Caspian Sea one and there were a few more passengers. We all became friends by the end of the trip. There were two German families, an Austrian couple and two young Georgian girls – plus the standard drunk and rowdy truck drivers. These ones were Bulgarian and very fond of drinking games and singing.
On the first day of the Black Sea crossing, I slept for 24 hours straight, except for meals. JH saw some dolphins but, as usual, I was too slow and didn’t see anything. On the second day, we came upon a big deserted ship just sitting out there in the sea. It didn’t look that old but there was no one on board. Weird. Our ferry blew its horns, the crew did some emergency drills and my imagination got carried away with itself. We hung around for a bit, then we saw another ship come over the horizon and we went on our merry way. On the third day we arrived in Burgas, Bulgaria and it’s hello Europe!