Hello Georgia, halfway between East and West, historically surrounded by vast empires and religions in conflict, and which calls itself the final frontier of Europe. Held in the embrace of the towering Caucasus Mountains, its people have developed an indomitable character, yet their warm hospitality to strangers has become legendary.
Georgia, the last boundary of Europe ... Europe? A quick look at the map seems to indicate otherwise. How European a country can Georgia be if its capital city is closer to Baghdad, Damascus or Tehran than that of any country in the continent? Rooted in Greek mythology, battled by the Ottomans and Persians, a stronghold of Christianity frontiering with Islam, absorbed by the USSR, the Caucasus has always been a crossroads, a puzzle that I intend to decipher. But it’s barely 6 am and for the moment I just try to concentrate my efforts on simply memorizing a Georgian greeting to get off on a good note with the customs officer.
“Gamarjobat, gamarjobat, gamarjobat...” I repeat to myself again and again. “Gaumar... Hi, good morning”, is all I am able to say when my turn comes. And I smile to myself.
Outside, in the rain, awaits a crowded marshurtka, a type of van that is used as a minibus, very common in this part of the world. Once inside, I am the last one to find a spot, and, apart from some Russian or Polish backpackers, there seems to be no other foreigners. We set off on our way. Just as morning reveals itself among dawning clouds, the scenery slowly unfold before us. The first constructions of Kutaisi don’t resemble the cold Soviet blocks which I was expecting.
Instead, they are welcoming cottages with gardens and vines. Despite being the country’s second largest city, my sensation is that of entering a warm and picturesque village. “A very big one, if anything,” I think to myself. The small farms and houses, dotted with Orthodox churches here and there, seem to extend as far as the eye can see. Soft silhouettes of leafy hills encircle the city everywhere. All the more impressive, due precisely to this, is seeing the Bagrati Cathedral rising in its very center, built atop a hill around which the city is organized.
Once in the heart of Kutaisi I ask the driver to let me out in Davit Aghmashenebelis Moedani. I immediately recognize the square: to one side is the Opera Theatre, markedly Russian, with the National Museum standing in front of it, and in the centre is a wide flowing fountain decorated with mythological figures. The meaning of many of them is uncertain to me. There is one, however, that, as a child, had enchanted and bewitched me, when through cinema I discovered the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. I circle the fountain looking for it. It is no longer raining and and a few sunbeams break through the clouds. There it is, its polished brass bathed in the morning light, the Golden Fleece.
Founded some 4000 years ago, today Kutaisi stands as one of the oldest living cities in the world. Capital of Colchis, the kingdom of the mythical Aeetes and his daughter Medea, Jason, prince of Thessaly, arrive in leading a party of brave heroes (Hercules himself among them) with the intention of seizing an object of incalculable magical power, the Golden Fleece. “Well, it took me far less than him,” I think.
Without any sign that reveals it is a guesthouse
I am not too far from the place that someone recommended to me and I’m glad to discover that it is one of those typical Georgian houses that had previously attracted my attention, with its courtyard and balcony, its trained vine... But without any sign that reveals it is a guesthouse. Uncertain, I ring the bell and a few moments later a young girl emerges from within. She speaks in Georgian, while drying her hands with a kitchen rag, and with imperatively good manners, lets me inside. “Gaumar...” “Is this...” But my efforts prove useless, as the girl has already led me to a cozy living room where an aged woman invites me to take a seat, and in a mix of English, Russian and Georgian, tempts me to share her breakfast with her. “I don’t want to disturb...” I say. “Ah.... pazhalsta, pazhalsta,” she answers, offering me coffee and some irresistible cheese-filled flatbread.
“Khachapuri, khachapuri. Georgian, very good.” My hostess smiles at me, and as she places her hand to her chest, says “Suliko”. “Luis,” I reply. “The guest is a gift from God,” she adds and with a kind gesture edges me to continue eating.
The preferential place in the Suliko’s living room is occupied by an altar, filled with candles and icons. Her house, like so many others in Georgia, seems to revolve around this sacred abode. Founded in the first century and adopted as the state religion in the fourth century, the Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world and, in an Islam-dominated environment, remains one of the pillars sustaining the country’s national identity. I would later recall this modest shrine walking within the walls studded with frescoes and gilded mosaics of the Gelati Monastery, where monks today intone the same robust melodies as their predecessors had done one thousand years ago. Here, one can feel how the intense presence of the country’s history remains within the dark interiors of its temples, in its incense-laden atmosphere, in the energy that its solid masonry holds.
Following the quiet, almost dreamy, rural atmosphere of Kutaisi, Tbilisi flaunts modernity. In a visible struggle to reinvent itself, Georgia’s capital city seems to want to confront the somber Soviet architecture that dominated during decades, with ultramodern glass and steel structures emerging in recent years along the banks of the Mtkvari River. Undoubtedly, the privileged position from which to truly appreciate this vivid reflection of the country’s tumultuous history is from the ancient citadel that dominates the Narikala neighbourhood. Medieval Churches of conical towers and elegant buildings reminiscent of Saint Petersburg fuse with the old mosque minarets and the vaulted roofs of the sulphur baths which gave birth to the name of the city.
Adorned to seduce the elusive lover that is Europe
As I walk along the freshly spruced Rustaveli Avenue, of unequivocal Russian flavour, the ubiquitous European Union pennants draw my attention. As if adorned to seduce the elusive lover that is Europe, Tbilisi looks as resolutely towards Europe as it defiantly turns its back to its former dominator. The elegant boulevard is home to many major government buildings, museums and theatres, while in the basements, luxury shops and haute couture boutiques line up one after another. Along the pavements, street vendors offer all kinds of items at low prices: soap, shoes, toys... As well as the very tempting Kantsi (drinking horns), although the mischievous grin of the merchant warns us that perhaps these are not real antiques.
I lose myself along the uneven cobblestone alleys of the old town; a true maze of cramped buildings, gloomy churches, hidden courtyards and ramshackle dwellings with wooden lattices. Too many of these are threatening to collapse. The large investments appear to not have arrived here yet. I wonder how long these streets will remain standing, overloaded by the memory of a time during which the city was the obligated transit route for Silk Road merchants.
Nearby Tbilisi, Gori and Mtskheta represent contradictory and complementary elements of the of the national psyche. Mtskheta, today little more than a sleepy village, was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Iveria where, in the early fourth century, in the place of the Svetitskhoveli basilica, their kings converted to Christianity. The true spiritual heart of the country and symbolic of its political and religious unity, it is here where emanates the will that for centuries has given Georgians their fierce sense of resistance, and strong sense of identity.
In other ways, however, the Georgian’s attachment to their history may seem incomprehensible, even unacceptable. I dwell on the massive cathedral-like museum in Gori devoted to the greater glory of a certain local boy full of dreams... turned into mass murderer, Iosif Stalin.
He simulates a rifle in his hands
From Tbilisi, the usual way to Svaneti begins on the weekly night train that runs to Zugdidi. When I get to my compartment, the train is already moving fast. Three 20somethings happily sharing a huge loaf of bread, cold meats and watermelon stare surprisingly at me. He who looks older breaks the silence. “Sit down”, he says, and with an energetic gesture tells his companion to remove his bags from my seat. “Gaumar...”, I try to say. “Eat”, he says whiIe passing me a huge slice of watermelon. “Mestia?”, “Ushguli”, I respond with some pride.
“Mmmmh big problem Ushguli.” “Really? Why?” “Boom, boom.” He simulates a rifle in his hands... His English is expressive enough... “Really?” I repeat frowning ... “People problem, kidnapping, boom, boom”. A silence follows, in which my companions seem to measure the concern in my face as the train rattles into the night. All of a sudden, one of them breaks out laughing and the others follow. “But this all before, finish! Ushguli no problem, Ushguli beautiful!” “Let’s drink”, he adds while taking a carafe of sweet wine out of a basket.
At the break of dawn, the only marshrutca leaving to Mestia, the gateway to Svaneti, that morning awaits before the station. Soon the asphalt road turns into a cement track, sinuously rising through the morning fog. With little success, the driver tries to tune in to a local radio station and lights a cigarette after having barely finished another. He cranks up the volume and with a sharp swerve keeps the vehicle within the track just as it seemed to be rushing into an abyss. Gradually, the scenery becomes increasingly dramatic, as we head steeper and steeper.
Six hours away, Mestia is a transit point for me, and I look around the square for a driver willing to take me to the almost inaccessible Ushguli. During the journey, along a slippery loose-pebble track crossing daunting gorges, endlessly stretching as in a single bend, my eyes can’t help but notice the small altars that disturbingly line the roadside. I prefer not to ask about their meaning, I can imagine it. As we ascend, small farms and groups of houses appear, hanging dangerously on the cliffs, clustered around medieval towers. They are the Koshki, the imposing defensive towers of Svaneti and its most visible symbol, a reminder of a time not so long ago when banditry and a bloody tradition of local justice coexisted with the legendary hospitality of the region.
The highest permanently inhabited village in Europe
Nearly three hours after Mestia, I take sight of several clusters of stone houses stacked around dozens of towers, occupying the entire width of a verdant glacier valley behind which the mass of mount Shkhara rises: it is Ushguli. Its first sighting holds something of a mythological appearance. I recall Jason and Colchis again. At 2,200 meters, and despite remaining completely isolated each winter it is the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe.
Ilia, my driver, offers to accompany me to the house of some relatives of his, willing to host me. Together, we walk through muddy alleyways where farm animals roam freely. Houses, towers, stables and barns are all built of the same dark stone. Ilia, whose face is kind but somewhat weary and sulky, hardly speaks except to greet the horsemen that cross our path. As we ascend to the last of the hamlets that make up Ushguli, I feel like I’ve stepped back to a remote period in time. There, just under Lamaria, an imposing structure dating back to the 12th Century, half church, half fortress, is his relatives’ house.
At the door, waiting for us, we meet Giya, Ilia’s brother, who invites us to go inside and get some rest. Maia, his wife, brings us some fresh cheese, bread and beer. We chat about Ushguli and, with the Golden Fleece in mind, I drop: “I’ve heard that in Svaneti there are still people searching for gold in the rivers using a sheepskin...” For the first time I see Ilia with a big grin on his face as his knowing look crosses his brother’s. As if to quench my thirst for legends, he responds, “I’ll tell you a story.” The day when God distributed the land among the people of the world begins. The Georgians were late because they had spent the entire day drinking and so by the time they arrived there was nothing left for them. However, realizing that they had been toasting in his honor, God gave them the land that he had kept aside for himself. And that’s why this is the most beautiful land in the world.” Chewing on a piece of cheese and, cunningly, he smiles at me. “Maybe in the river, on the way to Shkhara...” he says finally.
Relying not so much on finding gold diggers as in admiring the place that gave birth to the myth, the next morning I decide to walk to the glacier of Shkhara. I follow the course of the river and soon I see myself walking on a thick carpet of flowers. Past the place where river and valley diverge, I ascend to the ice cave from which the stream emerges, and further beyond by the slope of the glacier, until the ice makes the climb too dangerous. Exhausted, I stop atop a hillock where I take in the wonderful wilderness of Svaneti. I have climbed just a small part of the glacier, which extends majestically to the summit shrouded in clouds. As far as my eye can see there is nothing more than an imposing wall made out of ice and rock. “The Caucasus ...”, I think.
A lively group of friends beckons me to join them
On the way back, the feeling of familiarity with which the already trodden path is traveled accompanies me, the vague illusion of belonging to the place. Suddenly, a voice summons me with that amusing Georgian authority that I have learned to distinguish: that of a hospitality that cannot be refused. A lively group of friends beckons me to join them. They offer me khinkali (meat-filled Georgian dumplings) and several kinds of cheese and grilled meat... To the food, of course, follow the wine and toasts. As in the supra, the Georgian ritual feast, a toastmaster, the tamada, improvises rather poetic or philosophical short speeches on God, friends, guests... And following each one, everyone drinks in one gulp.
In between toasts and speeches, my hosts sing Svan polyphonic songs with deep and pompous voices. If eating everything they offered me proved a challenge, drinking at their pace is no easier task. Suddenly, the cheerful and relaxed atmosphere turns serious and respectful, and the youngest drinker informs me, in his willful English, that the tamada is now toasting to the memory of his young wife, recently deceased. Honored, I join them and realize that behind these toasts that they like to share with strangers lies so much more than mere folklore...
When the tamada decides, the supra is terminated, and squeezed into a beaten four-wheel drive we head back to Ushguli, among songs and laughter. We stop by Giya’s house and, trembling and tired but jubilant, I get out of the vehicle. One by one my fellow travelers hug me strongly before getting back on the tortuous track that surrounds the village. Their voices linger for a while in the air, crisp and cold. Behind me, the house is already lit, but I feel I do not want to go in just yet. “Dinner should be ready,” I recall. “How to tell Maia that I have no room for a single Khatchapuri more?” On the horizon, the last rays of sun paint orange the snowy crags of Shkhara, emerging majestically among the clouds, and I remember the legend of the land distribution, the smile of Ilia. I zip my jacket right up to my neck and, shivering, I light a cigarette. I feel that I love this place.