For many people, “Georgia” conjures up images of deep south America. But for anyone who has been lucky enough to visit the former Soviet state of Georgia (საქართველო), the name will instead lead to memories of food, wine, amazing scenery and incredible hospitality.
We crossed the border into Georgia with very little hassle other than a Georgian border guard who seemed convinced that our passports were forgeries and so looked through them with a thoroughness we have never experienced before! But everyone went through without too much difficulty, and as soon as we were clear of the border compound we picked up our local guide, Zaza, who would travel with us during our time in Georgia. Having a local guide on board is a fantastic way of finding out about the country, and Zaza is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about his country. Also, in Georgia where the writing is completely unique, it is also very handy to have him along for translation purposes!
After a brief lunch stop at one of the best preserved Roman forts in the world, we headed to Batumi and our “luxury yacht” hotel. Well, you can’t believe everything you read can you, but after several nights in bushcamp, anything with an ensuite and a shower is a bit of a luxury! After everyone got settled in we retired to the deck to drink our first Georgian wine as the sun set over the Black Sea.
The Georgians are passionate about their food and wine, and to give everyone an introduction we walked along the promenade to a boat restaurant (there is a bit of a nautical theme in Batumi!) where we had a massive feast of local food and wine. Suffice it to say the wine took its effect there was much dancing (including some Morris Dancing from Nick, and a bit of ballroom dancing from Barry & Pauline), and a great time was had by all.
It was a very quiet group on the truck the next morning as we started to climb into the mountains towards the village of Mestia. Officially called a “motorway” in the local tourist publication, we had suggested that anyone afraid of heights sit on the left hand side of the truck, and as we started climbing further up it became clear why! The scenery is incredible, the road is also incredible in its own way, and it was a great time to get everyone up on the roof seats (although Neill might not have agreed when he was driven through a waterfall!)
A road was only built into the village of Mestia in the 1930’s, before then it was even more isolated. Cows and pigs roam the streets during the day, and live in the gardens at night. Siege towers, some constructed as many as 600 years ago in order to protect wives, children and valuables in times of invasion (or in some cases disputes with neighbours) dominate the sky line. Old Soviet building projects lie abandoned on the river’s edge, and a fancy new hotel financed by American money looks out of place sitting high on a hill with a commanding view over the town. And all around there are snow capped mountains; it really is a very special place. But scenery aside, one of the most special parts of our time in Mestia is the hospitality of our host, Nino. Mestia is the first of our homestays in Georgia and Nino sends us off to stay with her relatives all over town, but we all head back to the main house in the evening for another amazing Georgian feast. With breakfasts also of epic proportions, it seemed a good idea to head off for a walk to burn off some of that meat and cheese-bread which is the local speciality. Some of the group headed up to the cross high on a hill – including the Suffolk Mountain Goat himself, Simon. Others took a short jeep ride before starting a walk up to a glacier.
Others had a day trip up to Ushguli, the highest permanently occupied village in Europe (depending on where you think Europe ends of course!) with two of the group managing to negotiate a ride in the more comfortable Army 4WD both up and down the mountain! For those not wanting to go so far afield, it was a great chance to wander around the town and observe a lifestyle that is so different from our own.
Winding back down the mountain from Mestia we briefly stopped off at Zugdidi so that Darrell, Kaye and Rich could head to Tbilisi, Darrell to fly back to the UK for a week, and Kaye and Rich to head to the Chinese embassy in Tbilisi. After waving them goodbye as they boarded the overnight train, Calypso took the rest of us to a new bushcamp beside the Senaki fort. It was another great bushcamp, and a relaxed start in the morning gave everyone the chance to wander through the fort which featured not one but three thick walls to prevent invasion, and a partiuclarly well-preserved tunnel linking it to the river.
From Senaki we drove into Kutaisi, and our first proper market. Imagine rows of tables on which everyone can set out their produce, allowing you the chance of walking around to find the best tomatoes, or the freshest lettuce before starting to haggle on the prices. It is a great way to shop, far better than buying everything wrapped in polystrene and cling film. The meat market can be a bit off-putting for some people, as the animals heads are on display and entire carcasses hang from the ceiling, but it hasn’t caused anyone to become vegetarian yet! After a couple of hours of wandering the market and doing a big shop for the coming days, we headed to Uplistsicke where we set up bushcamp and had the chance to wander through the ancient caves.
It was to be a leisurely start the next day, but unfortunately courtesy of some new sandals and dewy ground, Nick dislocated and broke his toe, and so we packed up as quickly as possible and headed off to the “Legal Law Person Military MOD Hospital” (yep, that is actually its name) in nearby Gori where we also stopped off to take a photo of the group in front of the statue of Gori’s favourite son, Stalin. While Nick received some very thorough treatment involving significantly more plaster than would be utilised in the UK for such an injury, the rest of the group had a tour of the Stalin Museum. It is a fascinating museum not from the point of view of what is on display, but rather the way in which it is explained that, in essence, Stalin was just misunderstood.
Georgia is a small country, but is blessed with many spectacular mountains, and so after Gori we headed up to Kazbegi (or the town that is also known as Stepantsminda) past Georgia’s premier ski resort, through some interesting Soviet tunnels and up and over a mountain pass of 2,400m, the highest we have been to date (seems crazy to think that we will be another 3km higher than this in July!). Home to a church on a hill made famous by the cover of the Lonely Planet for Georgia it was another great opportunity for the group to go walking in the hills and all the group made it to the top.
To say that we have been lucky with the weather is an understatement. However our luck had to end, and the heavens opened in the evening, but with the kitchen / shower tent up and the side awning protecting us, we were still able to enjoy a fantastic meal of traditional Georgian shashlik (pork cooked on a skewer over a fire) prepared by Zaza.
After 4 nights of bushcamping (albeit with the electric shower up and running everyone survived without too much difficulty!) we headed down to Telavi, and another homestay. Where the homestay in Mestia is small and cozy, the one in Telavi is grand and impressive. The home of a former high-ranking official, the corninces, chandeliers and sweeping staircases have to be seen to be believed! While the surroundings might be different, the hospitality remains the same and we settled in for another Georgian feast, supplemented by a beautifully decorated cake to celebrate Kirsten’s birthday.
Georgia claims to be the home of wine (although there seem to be a couple of countries that lay similar claims), and so a visit to Georgia would not be complete without visiting a winery or two. Our first stop was a regular on our expedition, a small family-run winery. Wine tasting might mean tiny pourings in posh small glasses in other parts of the world, but at this winery it is large pourings in tumblers, and as many refills as you like! The winery makes both European and Georgian style wines, and we all got to sample plenty of both (except for the driver of course – we might be adapting to the Georgian style of driving, but not to that extent!). As usual a full spread of cheese, tomatoes and bread was laid on for us; Georgia is definitely not the place to lose weight!
The second winery was a slightly posher experience (they provided strawberries and champagne flutes and had amazing 400 year old pottery jars for storing the wine), but the wine took a backseat to the cute little puppy!
As we poured ourselves back into the truck it was only a short drive to one of our favourite bushcamps just outside Telavi. Another amazing meal later (Zaza cooked shashlik again as he was unhappy with the one he had cooked for us in Kazbegi) and a good night’s rest set us up for the big event – a village party complete with a lamb cooked on the spit and local families invited to join us.
After putting the lamb on to cook at midday the boys took time out to play a game of football with the local lads where we unveiled our secret weapon – Taylor. “He’s quite good at goalkeeping” said Zaza, “He should be, he used to play for Scotland” was our response! Even with our secret weapon it was perhaps the fitness of our forwards (and centres and backs for that matter) that gave the locals a chance and we only scraped victory winning by 8 goals to 7.
With the games out of the way (we were never going to win the wrestling were we?) it was time to get to the serious work of preparing a feast to live up to the hospitality that has been shown to us. With the lamb being regularly basted in a secret Odyssey blend of herbs, spices and beer the salads, potatoes, ratatouille and mint sauce was prepared by cook group. As out guests arrived with wine and children in hand, the feast began, and carried on for several hours around the campfire. Very little Georgian is spoken by our group, and very little English by the Georgians who joined us, but conversations, dancing and laughs flowed freely. It was a great night that will be remembered by everyone for many years to come.
The capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi, is a funky city with lots to see and do particularly when we made sure our visit coincided with the Independence Day celebrations so have been treated to military fly-overs and army parades. We are to be celebrating three birthdays in Tbilisi and the return of Darrell so it is sure to be a fairly hectic couple of days here! Fortunately we are staying in a lovely hotel so everyone can recover in comfort!