In the heart of the Caucasus

The locals call their land Saqartvelo, whereas everyone else calls it ‘Georgia’, a place (and many men thereafter) named after its patron Saint. For the longest time, it has been a country shrouded in shadowy myths (for me at least), lumped in with the rest of the Soviet states and forgotten about, until the Travel Companion (TC) bought a bottle of Georgian wine years ago.

My research into the place started in earnest then. I looked into their ancient language – a part of me imagines this is how Proto-Indo European might have sounded like -, the wine, the gorgeous churches, the mountains, the fabled hospitality of the people…and I was sold.

A few days into this trip, well, let’s just say that reality is a little more sobering. Avlabari, the site of old Tbilisi where the hotel is, is oddly chaotic and I’ve never gotten so many wary, distrustful stares from people and that’s not because I have unshaven armpits.

Georgia has always been the pawn of a larger power or another, tussled among those who warred over its ancient, fertile soil. War, or at least some kind of conflict has plagued its borders every few years, the latest being the looming spectre of a revived Russia seeking to inch past its borders. Consequently, there’s always a long story made of facts (and some entertaining fiction about saints and sinners) that every guide will enthusiastically tell of their colourful history, though getting their personal opinions of their conquering powers and the recent political situation is equivalent to pulling teeth.

Tbilisi is on its own, a huge contradiction but a proud survivor of its turbulent past: a beautiful mixture of architecture (best seen in the carvings on the balconies in the old quarter), a blend of old and modern, centuries-old Orthodox churches, bordered at times by grim, industrial-looking Soviet architecture on both sides of the Mtkvari River.

The guide that we had in the free walking tour of Tbilisi exemplified this quirk in his anachronistic dressing that belonged better in Dickensian or Victorian England. He took us around the old city, explained about the family network of Georgians as seen in the sharing of balconies/terraces, walked us through the sulphur baths, the Siony church, Freedom square and gave us a taste of Churchkhela (Georgian traditional candy made of nuts dipped in a sweet wine roux and left to dry out).

But there is as always, much more to the country than just its capital. I couldn’t wait to find out.

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