Welcome to Georgia! Have a triple vodka.
Polite Brits; punctual Germans; orderly Japanese… national stereotypes are usually a bit ropey, but from the evidence of my first day, it seems the local version – hospitable Georgians – has plenty of substance.
I’m wandering down an alley of elegantly-restored wooden balcony houses in the capital, Tbilisi, when I poke my nose through the doorway of one of these typical old dwellings that appears to be halfway through renovation.
No sooner have I posed a few interested questions to the plaster-dusted tradesman inside than he’s invited me into his office, sat me down and plonked a shot glass in front of me that he deftly fills with homebrewed chacha – the local firewater – from an old coke bottle.
Over succulent slices of pure pig fat that were a delicious accompaniment to the next two shots (or was it three? Forgive me, it became a bit of a blur…), Zura Ozmanov described his work renewing many of the storied old residences hereabouts – part of a collective effort that’s helping to make the city an increasingly compelling place to visit.
Supras – Georgia’s legendary, or perhaps notorious, feasts such as the mini-version I’ve just survived – are one of the country’s trademarks you’ll probably encounter in the capital. But when the inhabitants of the city aren’t drinking chacha or wine (Georgians have been making it so long they virtually invented the stuff) they’re just as likely to be browsing antiquarian bookstores, hanging out in arty cafes or launching into a bout of entrancingly melodious singing.
For some time now Tbilisi has been been luring independent-minded travellers who are unfazed by red-eye arrivals via Istanbul or Kiev. But this rough-cut Caucasus jewel has just got more accessible, with a direct Georgian Airways route from London to Tbilisi launching this month [May 2017] followed, in June, by Wizz Air flights to the Georgian gateway city of Kutaisi, three-and-a-half hours’ drive west of the capital.
What you’ll get here, after around five hours in the air, is a sophisticated but under-visited metropolis where, as a Brit, you’ll still feel like a bit of an adventurer.
Tbilisi itself has delights enough for three days or longer, but it’s also the launching pad for further exploration of this country of three-and-a-half million people, tucked beneath Russia, that’s held onto its own distinct culture and language over several millennia of sporadic but fierce adversity.
It’s a land full of historical interest and often breathtaking natural beauty (they still have wolves and bears here, and even a – Caucasian – leopard), where your visit may be interspersed with those chacha-fuelled feasts of spit-roasted meat, river fish virtually leaping from your plate and some of the most mouthwateringly-fresh vegetables you’ll encounter between here and Sicily (which Georgia, as it happens, rather resembles).
And did I mention it’s cheap? Tbilisi’s 20p bus rides and £2 taxi fares are a good indication, while a decent hotel room in the city need set you back only around £40 – and less elsewhere in the country.
Tbilisi’s old city area, clustered on the right bank of the wide brown Mtkvari river which courses through the capital, is a natural place to start.
There you’ll find the Orbeliani sulphur baths. Coated in shimmering blue tiles like a madrasa teleported out of Fes in Morocco, this most impressive example of Tbilisi’s version of the Turkish bath will reopen again (authorities promise) in July. Then you’ll be able to wash the sweat and grit of Tbilisi’s sometimes fierce heat from your hide, just as wandering writers Pushkin and Dumas did a couple of centuries ago.
For another classic taste of the city, cross the Mtkvari by Metekhi Bridge, near the baths, to reach an exquisite little church of the same name on a rise offering a good vantage point over the old centre. On Sundays, a cluster of the faithful jostle here for the attention of a bearded, black-robed priest – a very Georgian scene.
The sign of the cross remains second nature to many Georgians: clearly the attempt of the Communists who ruled the country from 1921 to 1991 to eradicate religion (the opiate of the masses, don’t forget) was of limited success. Keep an ear out when wandering Tbilisi’s streets for eerily beautiful chanting: many of the city’s churches host choirs of amateur to more professional quality.
Georgian policy these days is to embrace the west – rather than Russia, with which it went to war briefly in only 2008. The pace of change, in other words, is picking up, with gives you all the more reason to get there soon. To travel in time in the opposite direction, wander off Leselidze Street, in Old Tbilisi, where streets of balcony houses vividly recall the city of a century ago.
Further away from the river, the calm Betlemi neighbourhood offers respite from the traffic honk-fest that is one of Tbilisi’s less endearing sides. Here some of the old residences, in better shape, have gorgeous stained glass panelling, and there’s even an ancient Zoroastrian fire worshippers’ temple pointing to a tradition of religious tolerance of which Georgians remain proud.
Descending again to the river, the sprawling Dry Bridge flea market (open daily 10:00-17:00) offers a more recent experience of time travel, with Lenin busts, vintage dumbbells and dusty Frank Sinatra albums available to buy – there’s a good few hours of fossicking here to be done for souvenirs and presents.
Speaking of old stuff, Tbilisi does a nice museum. One of the most rewarding stops in this arty city, down a quiet tree-lined street in the posh Vera district, is the restored home of the late artist Elene Akhvlediani(11am-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday, although call ahead on +995 322 99 74 12 because hours are a bit vague!). Her impressionistic Georgian scenes are absorbing enough, but the feeling of being invited into the pad of a bohemian Georgian who lived through the country’s fraught 20th century is worth the price of entry alone.
Another essential stop is the National Museum (10am-6pm, Tuesday-Sunday) for the fascinating pre-Christian gold jewellery and other objects on display in the basement. How these ancients, you think, must have looked in their finery! Upstairs is a mini-museum about Soviet rule in Georgia from 1921-91, with moody lighting and a layout like a cinema set.
If you’re interested in art, the naive but moving works of Georgia’s most celebrated painter, Pirosmani, in the National Gallery (10am-6pm, Tuesday-Sunday), may grow on you. A classic vagabond artist, he spent much of his life sleeping in doorways and died an anonymous death before his starkly human portraits of Georgian tillers and tradesfolk finally struck a chord.
Finish the day by ducking into one of Tbilisi’s growing number of ‘art cafes’: half galleries, half meeting places, where the city’s cool crowd gather. Cafe Linville and hidden O, Moda, Moda have a particularly in-the-know vibe. You can also get something to eat in these appealing settings.
Speaking of nosh, where to go for one of those supras I keep banging on about? Well, ideally you’d befriend a vagabond artist and spend the night with his poor but brilliant mates drinking cheap chachaand chewing on spit roasts but, failing that, Shavi Lomi, in a lovely old Tbilisi house that has retained a vintage feel, offers a scrumptious substitute. Based on traditional Georgian food, reinvented dishes include beef and wild plum soup and chicken in blackberry sauce.
Also recommended, Barbarestan’s menu is inspired by a rediscovered 19th century recipe book. Retro dishes such as duck stewed with pear, and mountain trout stuffed with nuts can be prepared with alternative vegetarian ingredients; there’s also a fine selection of teas and cheeses from a female monastery.
Pricey for Georgia (although still only around £15 for a main), Cafe Littera is a treat, serving up seriously delicious ‘new Georgian’ cuisine to stylish Tbilisi-ites and outsiders, such as mussels chakapuli and trout tartare with spicy paste.
Tbilisi isn’t going to run out of tourist tat any time soon, so don’t feel guilty about not buying a vinyl drinking horn or a Stalin (Georgian, of course) memorial plate. EthnoDesign (23 Akhvlediani Street) has thick felt rugs with arresting traditional designs and delicately patterned blue table cloths; buying here helps keep Georgian heritage crafts alive.
Gallery 27, in one of the most charming balcony houses in the city, offers handmade textiles and simple Georgian artworks that rise above the daubs on sale elsewhere. For examples of minankari, the revived ancient art of enamelling jewellery and other objects, try the Enamel Gallery, next to Prospero’s books.
To buy a handwoven Georgian carpet, most guides point you to the Caucasian Carpets Gallery, on Erekle II street, but there’s a better selection at Meidan 91 (5 Samgebro Street; +995 571 71 74 74; you might have to call the owner to set up a rendezvous). Like many such shops in the city, hours are from around 10am until as late as 9pm.
It would be a shame to fly all this way and not explore beyond Tbilisi. An hour’s drive away from the capital, the 11th century cathedral on the former pagan site of Mtskheta trumps Tbilisi’s in its solemn, simple grandeur.
In the spa town of Borjomi, two hours away, you can drink healthful (so they say) sulphur-rich water and explore one of the country’s largest national parks, rich with wildlife. To the east, Sighnaghi is a pretty Italianate cobbled town in Georgia’s wine country; try lunch here at Pheasant’s Tears.
Three hours from Tbilisi, Vardzia is an incredible former cave city supposedly once housing 50,000 people; stay at the bucolic riverside Valodia’s Cottage chalets nearby (rooms from £25 a night), with fresh trout.
At least four hours away, Kazbegi is a mountain town base for trekking with such gorgeous surrounding scenery it might just inspire you to compose your own hymn to Georgia.