Saturday, October 05, 2002

Sakartvelo (Georgia)

Why are country/place names sometimes so different in English compared to their mother tongue? Take 'Georgia' for example. In Georgian, the country is called 'Sakartvelo'. Maybe it's something to do with the patron saint of the country (Saint George, of dragon slaying fame - same as England)?

Anyway, on with the tales:
crossed into Georgia and spent the first night camping on the edge of a small mountain village called Gremi. Stopped off in town first to buy 10l of home made wine from one of the houses, then camped and made dinner. Which happened to be caviar and vodka for starters (both dirt cheap in those parts), then incredibly tasty pasta and meat washed down with the incredibly smooth local wine. This is how life is meant to be!

Whilst eating dinner, a car pulled up and some locals got out and started chatting to us. After about 15 mins they invited (all 15 of) us to their place for drinks and a chat around a warm fire. We tried to decline, but they just postponed till the next morning, converting the offer into one of breakfast.

So, next morning (happened to be one-of-the-girls-on-the-trip's birthday) we had a hearty breakfast then had a quick look at some precariously perched Georgian churches (they seem to have a penchant for building churches on top of mountains and at cliff-edges). Then we hunted for the house of the Georgians who made the invitation the night before. We found them eventually and they invited us all up to their balcony where they chatted with us through our interpreter for 5 mins then started to bring out the 'hospitality'... watermelon, candied watermelon, doughnut-style pastries, bread and WINE. Lots of wine. For breakfast. And not only was there wine on the table, but our hosts kept making toasts. Which is ok, a basic toast must be followed by a polite sip of the vino. Then they warmed up and started making bigger toasts to more worthy subjects, and named all the toasts 'to the bottom (of the glass)'. Very dangerous, but it got us all in the right mood for a day of birthday celebrations!

When we finally escaped the suffocating (in an incredibly good way) hospitality it was on with the itinerary -

first off to a medieval nunnery. With a beautiful, serene, Georgian Orthodox chapel, and fragments of fantastic frescoes. Unfortunately they have been destroyed by successive whitewashing - first by the iconoclasts (the Georgian (Russian?) Orthodox church went through an Iconoclastic (icon breaking) period where they decided that all religious imagery and statuary was contrary to the commandments and smashed/whitewashed/destroyed it all) and then by the soviets (who thought that religion was anti-communist, so they converted the chapel into a grain store).

second, to a winery. More Georgian wine (of varying qualities), quite close to the border with Chechnya. Therefore, there were lots of Georgian army blokes around. Armed with macho poses, big bellies and evil stares. There seemed to be a particularly high concentration of them in the winery too - must be a very important site of great strategic importance...

then a mountain drive towards Tbilisi. Until the road ran out due to a mudslide and we had to backtrack onto the less scenic route.

Arrival in Tbilisi just before dusk for a magical introduction to this jewel of the Caucasus. It has a river through the middle, a couple of hills in the middle, mountains in the background and lots of churches sprinkled liberally over the landscape. In the reddish glow of sunlight it's quite amazing. Time enough to go to our hotel (of which only three floors were open. The rest were full of refugees. In Georgia, the refugees are from South Ossetia (northern Georgia) and the North-West of the country and are fleeing from separatists (who want to be a part of Russia, I think). PS. I think I got a little mixed up in my names of Azeri provinces. "Nagorno-Karabakh" is the bit East of Armenia and occupied by Armenian troops. "Naxcivan" is the exclave between Armenia and Turkey. Now you know!)

Then out to a 'traditional' Georgian banquet. Lots (AND LOTS) of top-notch food, caraph after caraph of drinkable wine, lots (AND LOTS) of toasts from our Georgian guide (a different one from the morning, I think they were taking it in shifts to get us inebriated), a dodgy moment when my fellow travellers discovered that I was drinking pear juice instead of wine (I was trying not to get *totally* hammered...), then no-hands dessert, which turned into "pass the peach" Or plum. Or grape. :P(: Carnage. Carnal carnage. Excellent!

Then it all ended up in a nightclub with stupidly cheap vodka and a funky mix of latin and techno music. I think I've invented a new dance form: techno-salsa...

I'm sure I've lost a good proportion of my readers by now so lets up the speed:

Rest of time in Tbilisi:
Great - lots of history, interesting sites, lots of things to do, including Irish bar with Georgian band covering pink floyd whilst 18 yo girls dance like monkeys and a woman who the three of us SWEAR was a man proceeded to pull a slightly drunken local.

Mountains of Shovi:
Interesting, if bloomin cold - the back of nowhere, totally run-down. Raining when we arrived and miserable - set the tone perfectly. Explored 'Sektor X' an old soviet secret area, posed for pics in the lap of a crumbling Stalin statue, had incredibly stodgy food for dinner then drank all our wine supplies to keep out the chill.Next day the sun came out and we went for a 6 hour hike into the mountains. Stunning views in the valley near the top of the mountains - looked like I imagined the Shire out of lord of the rings, and one half-expected a hobbit to pop out of his hole at any moment.

Small towns en route:
Visited another winery (taste/price ratio of Georgian wine is excellent!). Stopped in one town and one of the passengers got given a bouquet of flowers by a 15 yo girl. Given local moonshine by a market trader in exchange for taking his photo (luckily I didn't go blind, but it was touch and go for a few mins).

Happened to coincide our visit with the anniversary of the birth of the Virgin Mary, so got to go inside the ruined (roofless) cathedral that's closed 364 days a year. Saw the Georgian patriarch (the Georgian Orthodox church's pope) and lots of local politicians giving sermons and speeches, with bodyguards looking shifty in the background. One passenger got chatted up by half a dozen 18-20 yos (same one who got the bouquet from the 15yo) - but he's 30 so decided discretion was the better part of valour.

Happened to coincide our visit with the first day of the Batumi women's tennis open. So got to wander in for free and take lots of courtside photos of young tennis beauties. One passenger (the same one, again) spent about 3 hours, in the blazing sun, taking photos of them and trying to chat them up.

From Batumi to the border, then across to TURKEY.

But that's another country, and another email...


Post a Comment

<< Home