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Tbilidi lovers by a statue of King Vakhtang - photos by Steven Knipp
Tbilisi lovers by a statue of King Vakhtang - photos by Steven Knipp
Georgia: Days of Wine and Roses


By
Steven Knipp

Remember those whimsical old Dannon yogurt commercials on television years ago? The ones showing cheery mustachioed old men sitting in a sun-dappled garden playing chess with their mates? The voice-over said:

"Eighty-nine year old Bagrat Topagua loves to play chess in the sun... and he always remembers to eat his yogurt." Then a tiny old lady pops out from behind him and the voice over said: "And that makes his mother very happy!"

The Dannon company hoped to link eating yogurt to a long and healthy life. In fact those commercials were filmed at a real location where many people really did eat yogurt every day and really did live very long lives -- many well past 100. These hearty mountain people lived in an exceptionally scenic realm in the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Turkey, which at the time was a satellite of the USSR known as "Soviet Georgia."

As the first country to break free from Russian control after the USSR collapsed in 1991, Georgia is today a vibrant young nation -- even its American-educated president is just 38. But this is also a land born of an ancient womb.

For 2,000 years Georgia was an independent kingdom. Its language has no known links to any other tongue, and even its strange curlicue alphabet is absolutely unique.

But then in the 12th century the Mongols overran the country, followed by the Turks, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and finally, the Russians. The Russians, in particular, remained so enamored with Georgia's physical beauty, its Mediterranean-like climate and cuisine, and its ruby red wines, that they held tight to the gem-quality colony for nearly 200 years.

During Soviet times Georgia became a virtual private playground for the Russian elite. The Kremlin's top cats and their families flocked here to savor winter ski holidays in the snow-capped Caucasus (which are higher than the Alps), and booked rustic dachas along the country's balmy Black Sea beaches during the steamy summer months.

The Church of the Holy Trinity with Mt. Kazbegi behind
The Church of the Holy Trinity with Mt. Kazbegi behind

Renovating what the Russians started

Today, much of the tourism structure built for the Russian privileged -- the ski resorts, the climbing companies, the remote alpine trekking paths, the heli-hiking, the beachside resorts and cafes -- is being renovated and modernized.

And now a new generation of adventurous travelers from the West are discovering a Carolina-sized country that is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with craggy snow-topped mountains where alpine streams plunge down sheer granite cliff faces and flocks of sheep look down on miles of vineyards -- a wildly cinematic mixture of New Zealand and British Columbia.

Except that Georgia also boasts hundreds of ancient churches and scores of crumbling 12th century castles -- World Heritage Sites which, anywhere else, would be overrun with tourist throngs.

Celebrating St. George's Day
Celebrating St. George's Day in Tbilisi

Meanwhile, the country's charming capital, Tbilisi, with its cathedrals and leafy tree-lined streets, its quaint gift shops, small bookstores and funky art galleries, is experiencing an economic renaissance.

This is no glum post-Soviet Eastern European capital, that's for sure! A booming new cafe society has sprung up, where young stylishly dressed Georgians gather to flirt and gossip. And when they aren't dining in cafes, they're often found relaxing in the district known as Old Tbilisi, where underground sulfur hot spas once favored by the Mongol conquer Tamerlane are still used.

Americans will feel at ease here, too, because virtually everyone under 45 speaks English, the schools having switched from teaching Russian as a second language to English 15 years ago.

Georgia is a nation of churches.
Georgia is a nation of churches.

Georgians seem particularly fond of Americans, perhaps because we were the first people to help pull them free from the crumbling ruins of the Soviet empire, and then stood with them through the years of turmoil and corruption which followed as they struggled to cleanse themselves of its Soviet-style sleaze and corruption. Our early friendship to them has apparently never been forgotten.

Architectural eye candy

Now a host of fancy new five-star American-managed hotels have opened, including a Sheraton and two Marriotts, with a Hyatt, Radisson and Intercontinental planned.

Strolling down Rustaveli Avenue (named for a beloved Georgian poet) it's easy to imagine that you are ambling through a smaller version of Prague with its architectural eye candy. After dark, the Georgian Parliament Building, the National Museum, the Opera House and the Academic Theater are all spectacularly floodlit.

Over the centuries Tbilisi has been overrun by foreign armies 30 times, yet it seemed to me one of the most tolerant places I'd ever encountered. In a single neighborhood, for example, I came across a Georgian cathedral, a mosque, two synagogues, an Armenian church and a Zoroastrian temple.

Grandmother and granddaughters at the ballet
Grandmother and granddaughters at the ballet

When some well meaning locals insisted that I attend the ballet one evening, I expected to find Tbilisi's elegant Edwardian-era opera house virtually empty; but was astonished to find it packed to its ornate rafters with hundreds of preteen girls and their doting adoring grandmothers.

Ballerinas bathed in blue light

For two full hours, the youngsters sat in silent spellbound attention as beautiful ballerinas bathed in a pale blue light pirouetted past them. The little girls' eyes glowed with unadulterated awe. Then, at the grand finale, the little girls leaped up, almost as one, and seemed to rock the building with their thunderous applause.

The ballerinas all moved forward on stage and applauded back at their appreciative pigtailed spectators. The very air seemed to crackle with an electrifying enthusiasm between artist and audience.

The Georgian NatiThe Georgian National Dance Troupe performs to sell out audiences in the capital of Tbilisi.
The Georgian National Dance Troupe performs to sell out audiences in the capital of Tbilisi.

Next day, I visited the National Museum, a first-rate facility, with links to the Smithsonian, where I learned that the legendary Golden Fleece (of Jason and the Argonauts fame) actually existed in Georgia.

The real Golden Fleece

The museum's exhibits of exquisite gold jewelry created by ancient craftsmen is proof that Georgia's riverbeds have always been littered with gold. The ingenious ancient Georgians were able to extract the tiny nuggets from the swift currents by using densely woven "nets" made from simple lamb's wool. Hence the celebrated name -- Golden Fleece!

It was while hunting for gold that Jason fell in love with a local king's daughter. Her name was Medea. Georgian legends claim she was the world's first female doctor, and thus the modern word "medicine" derives from her name.

Three Georgian girls
Three Georgian schoolgirls

Not all of Georgia's past is so uplifting. Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- better known to the world as Joseph Stalin, was born in the small town of Gori, which still honors their favorite son with a large and eerie shrine-like museum that makes the merciless dictator seem like Abraham Lincoln. Read more about the Joseph Stalin Museum

When pressed about Stalin's atrocities, the museum's guide, a woman named Olga who could pass for Ernest Borgnine's brawnier sister, told me: "There's good and bad in all of us." Stalin's 70-year-old grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, still lives in Tbilisi; a retired Red Army colonel, he bears an uncanny and unsettling resemblance to his monstrous ancestor.

Local bed & breakfasts

Musicians perform on special feast days in the ancient Georgian cave town of Uplistsikhe.
Musicians perform on special feast days in the ancient Georgian cave town of Uplistsikhe.

A compact county, much of Georgia can be explored on day-trips from Tbilisi. But the country's rural splendor is best experienced over several days. Week-long specialty tours are available, including cultural excursions and trekking expeditions, as well as winery tours, which can include the added appeal of staying in bed and breakfasts, owned by local farm families.

One of my favorite places was the medieval mountaintop town of Sighnaghi, which overlooks the lovely vineyards of the Alazani Valley, and the soaring Caucasus beyond. It was here that I met soft-spoken American John Wurdeman.

A distinguished artist at 31, Wurdeman was born in Santa Fe but raised in Virginia. In 1995, he moved to Moscow to study at the renown Surikov Institute of Art. He later traveled to Georgia and was so captivated by what he found that he decided to stay on. Seven years ago he married a Georgian girl and now has two small children.

Georgian wine
Georgian wine

A fluent Georgian speaker, who sings in the local choir with his wife, Wurdeman told me: "The songs lured me here, and the feasts and relationships that developed at them. And the wine, and amazing history made me want to buy property. The ancient Georgian Orthodox church and its spiritual depth has made me never want to leave!"

The Georgian love of food & wine

For me, one of the most potent pleasures of travel is food. In a word, Georgian dishes are mouth-watering. In no other country, except perhaps France or China, have I come across people who take such evident delight in eating.

But it's hard to tell at which role Georgians most excel, as master cooks or magnificent hosts? Temperamentally Georgians are completely different from their dour Slav neighbors just to the north. They're more like Italians -- they love to talk (at one boozy dinner I counted 15 different toasts) and to laugh, while eating and sipping their silken wines.

In fact, they insist that wine was a Georgian invention. And it's true that the ancient Greek Homer specifically mentions Georgian wine in his Epics. Georgians maintain that the wily Romans stole their winemaking techniques, taking them back to Italy. The Georgian word for wine is "vhino," so who knows?

All the food in Georgia is organic.
All the food in Georgia is organic.

Gastronomic rapture

In particular, the Georgian cheeses are especially out of this world -- some are salty with an appetizingly tart taste, but others are actually sweet, a variety which Georgians serve at breakfast, with a dollop of honey. It may sound strange, but the combination is a delicious way to start a day. In fact, their national snack is a delicious hot cheese pie called khachapuri, which would make pizza lovers swoon in gastronomic rapture.

What's more, everything from those famous life-lengthening yogurts, to sizzling grilled lamb and Black Sea sturgeon, to aromatic mountain mushrooms, and Georgia's roasted potatoes, are all organically grown, because for more than a decade the farmers have completely stopped using pesticides or agricultural chemicals.

The evolution of a nation

Aside from all the natural enticements which Georgia offers -- its spectacular scenery, charming people, and superb foods and wines -- there's also something extraordinary about Georgia which I experienced -- a palpable feeling in that you are an eyewitness to history-in-the-making seeing, close-up, the evolution of a young nation as it peacefully strains to reach its full promise.

A Georgian priest 'crowns' a new bride.
A Georgian priest 'crowns' a new bride.

Every morning from my Tbilisi hotel window, for example, I was able to glance down on the splendid 5th century Metekhi Church to witness yet another boisterous wedding party enter the cathedral, where a majestically bearded Orthodox priest would crown the blushing bride with a golden tiara, amid a glittering candle-lit ceremony, an ancient ritual which for seven decades had been outlawed under the Soviets.

While attending the ballet I had the opportunity to chat briefly with the troupe's manager. As prima ballerina of the celebrated Bolshoi Theatre, Nino Ananiashvili had been the talk of Moscow's elite. Yet her lovely Audrey Hepburn-like face glowed with pride as she informed me that she was, in fact, Georgian-born, and so never hesitated to relinquish her illustrious career in Russia to return home to help a new generation of Georgian dancers.


Tbilisi vendor, golden smile

Even on my penultimate night in Tbilisi I felt the thrill of history moving beneath my feet. It was St. George's Day, so I eagerly followed a mammoth mob of laughing, shouting Georgians as they made their way through the thronged streets towards Freedom Square, so named because it was here that they had first thrown off Russian rule in 1991.

We were all there to witness the unveiling of a new gold statue depicting St. George slaying the dragon. The gleaming figure of St. George sat high atop a column which had previously displayed a stone statue of Lenin.

The crowds were doubly joyful because this day was not only dedicated to their beloved patron saint, it also happened to be the 3rd anniversary of Georgia's illustrious "Rose Revolution," so called because their newly elected president Mikheil Saakashvili had literally tossed roses at the last departing Soviet officials, as they were forced to step down.

In 2005 George W. Bush became the first president to visit Georgia, addressing 10,000 Georgians in this square, congratulating them for their long struggle for true independence.

And on this night, amid the fire works, and the people laughing and singing all around me, the shy offerings of peanuts and popcorn, the fine wine served in simple paper cups, there was an explicit sense that things were finally, at long last, going well for the good people of Georgia.

Steven Knipp

 Steven Knipp is a veteran writer, journalist and correspondent. Previously based in Hong Kong for many years, he wrote for the South China Morning Post, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the Eastern Express. Currently, he lives in Washington where he works as a correspondent for several major Asian newspapers. He also writes for the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the International Herald Tribune.

 

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