18.08.2012. CLINGING TO THE EASTERN edge of Europe, where the continent slides into the Black Sea and soars into the Caucasus, Georgia has always tantalised travellers with promise of the extraordinary. Legend has it that the Golden Fleece enticed Jason and his Argonauts on a voyage to the farthest fringe of the ancient Greek world, where they had to slay the harpies, a gang of six-armed giants, and a fire-breathing dragon to secure their prize.
For the tsars, Georgia was an exotic land beckoning beyond the mountains, inviting invasion for its strategic value in Russia’s struggle with Persian and Ottoman empires, and subsequently savoured by the Russian elite for its wonderful wine, food, scenery and women.
Georgia and the surrounding region beguiled great Russian writers of the 19th century such as Tolstoy, Pushkin and Lermontov, who all spent several years in the Caucasus. Anton Chekhov only holidayed there, but of that “wonderful summer” he wrote to a friend: “If I lived in the Caucasus, I’d write fairy tales there. An amazing country!”
The banks of the Mtkvari river are linked by the Bridge of Peace, a striking Italian creation traversed by rippling waves of light and by promenaders moving between old and new Tbilisi. They linger over its magnificent views up to the craggy ruins of Narikala, the ancient fortress that dominates the ridge high above, and to the illuminated domes and spires of churches that stud the dark valley walls and the skyline of Tbilisi, speaking of a Georgian history that is both cosmopolitan and deeply rooted in the Christianity that came here in the first century after Christ.
Stylish clubs sit beside sellers of carpets from across the Caucasus and central Asia, and visitors tired from touring the old town’s historic Georgian and Armenian churches, mosque and synagogue can revive themselves in the sulphurous waters of the grand, blue-tiled Orbeliani baths.
The old town meanders gently away from the river before opening out onto Freedom Square, where traffic whirls around a landmark golden statue of St George and weaves off down Rustaveli Avenue, named after Georgia’s national bard and the most famous street in the country.
Mikheil Saakashvili has run the country ever since and, though he has drawn criticism for his attitude towards opponents and for his handling of Georgia’s five-day war with Russia in 2008, he is praised for modernising central Tbilisi and purging its once notoriously corrupt police force.
And wanderers can rack up the miles knowing that culinary reward is never far away. Georgian food makes full use of the country’s superb produce, from grilled shashlik kebabs of lamb and pork to dishes like chakapuli, a layered stew of lamb or veal with tarragon and white wine; aubergines stuffed with a paste of walnut and garlic and called badrijani; a dish called pkhali that combines spinach, green beans, cabbage or beetroot, walnut, garlic and coriander; and ubiquitous warm cheese pancakes called khachapuri and meat dumplings known as khinkali.
Khinkali – eaten by hand and with care not to spray meat over your companions or down your shirt – go well with local beers such as Kazbegi and Natakhtari, the latter produced by a brewery that also makes a range of popular lemonades, including a remarkably good, if luridly green, tarragon flavour.
Georgians are also very proud of Borjomi, a distinctive mineral water that was a favourite across the Soviet Union, but was banned by Russia in 2006 on “safety grounds” that may not have been entirely unconnected with the sharp deterioration in relations between the countries.
Moscow also barred the import of Georgian wines six years ago, cutting off a huge market for the country’s wine makers and damaging the reputation of a country that claims to be the oldest wine producer in the world, with an 8,000-year history of viniculture.
Strong sales to other ex-Soviet states and the development of new markets are now returning the Georgian wine industry to health, and bringing greater international recognition to the country’s 400 or so grape varieties, many of which are unknown in the West.
The country’s premier wine-growing region is Kakheti, about two hours east of Tbilisi, where cool breezes from the snow-capped Caucasus fan vines growing on the sun-drenched plain below.
Several vineyards offer tours and tasting sessions, including Teliani Valley and the Schuchmann winery in village of Kisiskhevi.
Here, the team of German entrepreneur Burkhard Schuchmann makes two ranges of wines, one with modern technology and the other using traditional local methods, which involves fermenting wine in traditional earthenware amphorae called a kvevri.
The portly kvevri – some of which are big enough for a man to climb inside to clean them – are buried up their necks and covered with a slate lid for months or years, until the wine is ready for drinking. It is of a deeper colour and contains more tannin than modern wines, due to longer contact with the skin and pips of the grape.
Schuchmann grows some of Georgia’s most popular grape varieties, including Saperavi and Kindzmarauli for reds and Rkatsiteli and Mtasvane for whites, and his renovated villa with superb views of the mountains is a wonderful place not only to taste wine but to stay while touring the area.
Just down the road is Tsinandali, where the noble Chavchavadze family hosted the likes of Pushkin, Lermontov, Alexandre Dumas and Russian playwright Alexander Griboyedov in their own elegant villa. It now stands restored in its beautiful gardens, and welcomes visitors to taste wine made on the estate and hear the dramatic history of the Chavchavadzes and their home.
Alexander Chavchavadze, a poet, soldier and statesman, first planted the gardens, and his daughter Nino married Griboyedov when she was just 16 years old. Within a year she was widowed, when Griboyedov was torn to pieces by a mob in Tehran.
Later, Tsinandali was overrun by fighters loyal to Imam Shamil, who was resisting Russian rule on the other side of the Caucasus. The raiders rode back to Dagestan with the wife of Nino’s brother, David, and their nine children and French governess as hostages. David eventually bought their freedom, but the debts he racked up in raising the ransom led to him losing possession of Tsinandali.
From the shade of the villa, a glass of crisp white wine in hand, it is pleasant to imagine gazing back down to Tsinandali from the towering peaks that gleam in the middle distance. But it is a tough road up into the Tusheti region, where 4,000m mountains mark Georgia’s border with Russia’s restive republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.
The rewards for getting there are immense, though: it is perhaps the most remote and spectacular trekking country anywhere in Europe, and it stretches all along the Caucasus ridge that curves across northern Georgia before dropping into the Black Sea.
Most beach-lovers in Georgia make for Batumi, a sub-tropical Black Sea city developing at breakneck speed which Donald Trump, while eyeing possible investments on a recent visit, called “the Monte Carlo of the region”.
While currently lacking the cache of Monaco, Batumi is building something special for its visitors – and entirely in keeping with the country’s intoxicating hospitality: a 25m fountain which, once a week, will not spurt water but the local firewater, called chacha. Like the rest of Georgia, it will make a powerful impression on those bold enough to try it.