Georgia has been on my wish list for a long time. At the start of June, I finally managed to squeeze in a twelve day road trip that took me from the hubbub of its capital Tbilisi, to the soaring mountains of the High Caucasus close to the Russian border; from the vineyards of the world’s oldest wine industry in the eastern region of Kakheti, south to the border with Armenia and Turkey, and astonishing, isolated Orthodox monasteries perched precariously amongst mountainous landscapes.
Along the way I sampled some of the most delicious food of my life, tried wines still made by methods pioneered 8,000 years ago, and risked life and limb driving mountain roads and through Tbilisi’s rush hour – a terrifying and nerve-jangling experience that I don’t wish to repeat. Ever. Wherever I went it was impossible not to marvel at the extraordinary landscapes of a country that defies expectations. Outside tourist hubs not much English is spoken, but people were always friendly.
Georgia is a candidate country for European Union membership, and is desperate to break its traditional dependence on Russia. EU flags can be found everywhere you go, yet Georgia challenged my understanding of what is Europe and who is European. Physically, where Europe begins, in the west at least, is clear. There’s water around it. Where Europe ends is an entirely different question. In Tbilisi you’re only a geopolitical stones throw from Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Chechnya and Azerbaijan.
It’s no surprise that Georgia is looking west. In 2008, its relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia led to a disastrous war. The result is two Russian-occupied ‘breakaway’ regions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. All were part of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991, modern-day Russia is having a hard time letting go. Recently, mass protests broke out in Tbilisi when a Russian politician visited the Georgian parliament. Russia responded with economic pressure, suspending all flights to Georgia.
Not long ago, Georgia could be described as off the beaten track. Although it’s now definitely a destination, tourism is still limited and the infrastructure is still fairly basic. Yet tourism is making an impact, often not in a positive way. Unless there’s another conflict with Russia though, things will only go in one direction. That will open isolated parts of the country to travellers, but local people are already sounding the alarm over the impact on traditional ways of life and the environment.
The country’s location and relative isolation thanks to multiple mountain ranges, have bequeathed it a unique and diverse cultural heritage. Here you’ll find Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, as well as a few people who don’t believe any of that. Religion plays a major role in daily life, and the Orthodox Church is strongly linked to national identity. Perhaps not surprising in a country that suffered seven decades of communist rule. What accounts for epidemic levels of machismo is less clear.
My first day in Tbilisi was dulled by exhaustion from a sleepless night spent in Istanbul airport. This was made worse by temperatures in the mid-30ºC, crushing humidity and world class levels of air pollution. If they introduced a low emissions zone in Tbilisi there’d be no vehicles left on the streets. Which would make crossing the road a whole lot safer. Despite these small inconveniences, I knew from the first meal I ate that I was going to like Georgia.
I combined khinkali dumplings, rich and delicious lobio bean stew and dolmas with one of the many varieties of cheese bread, khachapuri. All washed down with a delicious bottle of red Saperavi wine. I told myself that no one comes to Georgia to lose weight, and so it proved. It was this first introduction to the national cuisine that made me start wondering about Georgia’s true identity. Not quite Europe, the Middle East, or Turkey. In fact, somewhere unlike anywhere else I’ve been.