This small country that is “badly stuck”, to use a local expression, between cumbersome neighbours would have all the reasons in the world to be wary of foreigners.
Who would dream of being pressed against the flank of the Russian ogre, always ready to bite into a piece of territory, Turkey and Azerbaijan, with the added bonus of Iran, which is not very far away. Even its access to the Black Sea is the object of all envy. Georgia has seen in its history all the invaders, from Genghis Kahn and Tamerlan, who massacred Christians with constancy. The Persian and Ottoman invasions of the 16th century were followed by Russian occupations from 1801 onwards, the most recent being that of South Ostetia, still occupied to this day. The small green signs, near the road, which indicate that beyond this limit, the Russian army is waiting for you are a strange vision. The Georgians try to approach this with humour, by trading images of Stalin… Indeed, a little bit of a squeaky humor.
Despite its small size, and its Lilliputian population – less than 4 million inhabitants – Georgia has managed to preserve its identity. A miracle of faith, no doubt. The multiple Muslim persecutions have only strengthened the Christian fervour that has now crystallized into an inseparable part of the country’s identity. You must attend an Orthodox Mass to measure the devotion of these piously veiled women and men who are in a hurry to receive communion. At the four corners of the Sioni Cathedral, small groups take turns to sing their bewitching songs, a faithful crowd before the icons and paintings of saints, the most famous being the one of the St. Nino cross, the origin of the royal family’s conversion in the 6th century. Legend has it that Nino clumsily tied a cross with his hair, giving it a curiously curved allure. In Tbilisi, despite everything, the different religions seem to live in harmony in the centre and Orthodox churches coexist with the minaret of the brick mosque, an Armenian church and the synagogue. In the latter, the faithful feel so confident that they leave their personal belongings inside their desks.
The Tbilisi Centre
To enjoy the view of the old centre, which goes down from the fort to the river, settle into the brand new Sole Palace****, a pretty boutique hotel whose terrace offers a view of the Narikahala fortress. The architecture of the capital presents a mix of traditional districts and futuristic buildings which are sometimes quite bizarre-looking. The Gregorian Metekhi Church and Narikahala Fortress have charmed travellers on the Silk Road as well as a host of beautiful houses overlooking the river. We walk through the alleys, our noses up in the air, to better admire their wooden lace balconies painted in soft colours and the carved verandas.
One of the population’s favourite gathering places is along a river, and near King Rostoma’s baths in the old town. Next to the old buildings topped with domes of oriental inspiration, it is fashionable to macerate in boiling baths in sulphurous waters full of minerals, then to be massaged by vigorous Azeris, without a doubt the descendants of those who traumatized Alexandre Dumas and bewitched Pouchkine, two lovers of traditional massages.
A Golden Museum
On the other side of the river, at the National Museum, the second one to be built after the Hermitage since 1825, do not forget to visit the treasure room, which contains extraordinary gold jewelry from the V-IV centuries BC that reminds us that Georgia was long nicknamed the land of gold. The room on the history of the Russian aristocracy is also worth a visit. A stone’s throw away, next to the Dry Bridge, is the large Tbilisi flea market, where collectors hunt for a variety of Georgian and Russian objects.
Operas and Ballets
It is on this same shore that operas and ballets are performed. At the Opera, spectators gather around colourful shows, which will be fiercely applauded. With a little bit of luck you will see the Sulikos quartet, a group capable of making a seamless transition from opera to traditional fields.
With even more luck, you can attend a performance by the Georgian National Ballet, created in 1945 by Iliko Sukhishvili. This troupe of 35 dancers, held with a velvet hand by Nino Sukhishvili, his descendant, offers striking interpretations of Georgian traditions. Here, the men are the ones to lead the dance, in a manly fashion. Showing their strength and indifference to pain, they complete their spectacular jumps on their knees. The female dancers, distant dragonflies, stand back. In theory, they each wear one of the troupe’s 800 traditional costumes. But whoever has the privilege of attending a rehearsal without costumes, realizes that these dances remain perfectly contemporary.
The Fabric District
Tbilisi has a double face, between tradition and modernity. The Fabrika district, located on the outskirts of the flea market, is several light years from the centre, with its ultra trendy bars and restaurants and its walls designed by street artists. In the evening, the young people gather to dance at free concerts, have a drink or stroll through the bars. A caravan hosts a photo booth while an old car stamped “Fuck Poutine” serves as a meeting place.
In the centre, there are also some trendy spots. Some hotels such as the Room Hotel Tbilisi or the Stamba Hotel, located in a former publishing house, offer a contemporary decor lesson, with their ultra-design bars and bobo rooms. The capital still has vast spaces open to transformation, such as Ghvinis Karkhana, an ex-wine cellar transformed into a multifaceted space that includes boutiques, bars, restaurants and fashion or vintage furniture shops. Its wine bar claims 1200 bottles, a record in town.
A Living Painting
Art galleries are still rare, but Tbilisi’s art scene is becoming increasingly important abroad. “For the past 20 years, Georgian painters have found a place on the international scene, particularly at the Venice Biennale,” observes Kako Topouria, an abstract painter and arborist, who exhibits his work in an old caravanserai, converted into a cultural space. We remember the interest aroused by Vajiko Chachkhiani’s abandoned house at the 2017 Biennale. In a completely different style, the sculptor Pidzina welcomes his female visitors with a hand kiss. This artist retired to the bottom of a valley to draw and sculpt wood inspired by ancient themes. Foreign customers do not hesitate to order works from him despite his distance.
But it is time to take off from the world of art to discover the world of the art of living, and in particular the world of wine. Georgia is already known for its gastronomy. Cradle of the vine, Georgia claims a wine-growing tradition dating back to 8000 BC, which allows it to claim the invention of wine-growing. The wine route can be an entry point to discover not only this ancient tradition, but also to better understand the essence of the Georgian soul. “Wine has always had a sacred dimension in Georgia. The warriors left with a vine stock, and asked that it be planted on their graves, to fertilize the future branches. Wine is also closely associated with Christianity and is part of the country’s way of life,” explains Eko Glonti, founder of the Lagvinari cellars, between two toasts launched according to local tradition. “I chose the Georgian method of matured wine, in terracotta jars. Moreover, here we consider that “making wine” means falsifying it. We prefer the idea of “helping it to be born”, says this skilled specialist.
According to an ancestral technique, grape juice is stored, with the slack, in monumental jars (called kvevris), closed and buried in the ground to the neck, for several months, before being filtered and then transferred to other jars or bottles. Despite the total absence of additives, Georgians manage to create interesting red wines and especially excellent white wines, with fruity accents. These natural winemaking methods can be used both in medium-sized properties (Barbalé) and on a larger scale (Kalhuri cellar) or at a very artisanal level (Amerimeri cellar) each inhabitant being able to “give birth” to his wine, provided he has a cellar and a piece of vine.
On the wine routes it is recommended to take several cultural stops. In the Kakhetia wine region, which can be reached via the Gombori pass, a break is needed in the Alaverdi Cathedral, the second highest in the country, partly dating back to the 6th and 11th centuries, a monument of striking beauty lost in the countryside. The poet Chavchavadze’s palace, despite its turbulent history, is a no less pleasant place to take a stroll in the countryside thanks to the opening of its beautiful park.
Another prime stopover, located 15 km from Tbilisi, Mtskhéta is home to two flagship churches for the faithful. Djvari dominates the crossroads of two rivers and offers a panoramic view of Mtskhéta. It is in the heart of this city that you can discover the sumptuous cathedral of Svetitskhovéli (11th century), one of the oldest in the country. Surrounded by fortifications, this church houses the legend of Sister Sidonia, who seized the Holy Shroud in order to die immediately, without anybody being able to tear it off. A sacred tree is said to have grown on his grave.
The Troglodyte City of Vardzia
The Caucasus, large or small, is another story. On the side of the small Caucasus, more accessible, the cave city of Vardzia was founded by Queen Tamar, an important figure in Georgian history, in order to protect her people and culture. In fact, this city proved to be impregnable and perfectly autonomous, thanks to its terraced crops and natural springs. Located in a canyon, above a river, through which Ottoman and Mongolian troops used to pass a little too often, this troglodyte city, which stretches over nearly 500 meters of cliffs and 13 floors, became an important monastic centre between the 12th and 13th centuries.
The site sets itself apart thanks to its size, and to its level of refinement since this city was equipped with all the services: water pipes, cellars filled with wine jars, pharmacy, etc. The hand-dug dwellings often have perfectly pure arches, rooms, remains of furniture and a pretty church. These caves could contain more than 6,000 dwellings for monks and those fleeing invaders. The only way to get to this underground kingdom was through a secret tunnel that led to the nearby Mtkvari River. Only the earthquakes eroded the resistance of this site.
Bordjomi and the Monastery of Ananouri
After a short break at the Tulip Hotel in Bordjomi, a charming stopover in a spa town that used to delight the Romanov family, we head for the Greater Caucasus. The famous military road to the north runs along the Jinvali lake, overlooked by the Orthodox monastery of Ananouri, a fortified site of deceitful calm, since its history is turbulent and made up of bloody family wars.
The road continues towards Kazbegi along the mountainsides, flowered with corncrakes. Gradually, the landscape becomes more harsh, up until the appearance of Stepantsminda (Kazbegi), a strange city, that somewhat resembles a ski resort, nestled on a mountainside. Mount Kazbek, Georgia’s second highest mountain, dominates the valley. One of the best views to contemplate it is from the Hotel Kazbegi, a particularly beautifully designed location. From its terrace everyone can admire the magnificence of the snowy peaks and see on one of the peaks, the church of the Trinity of Gerguétie. Perched at 2,170 m, this charming 14th century building can be reached by hiking… or by 4 by 4 for the lazier. A thin stream of tar stretches along a green slope of Mount Kazbek up to this little light of Georgian faith. From this church, the view of the mountain range becomes a breathtaking beauty that you can enjoy, as you attempt to forget that the Russian border is only approximately ten kilometres away…