Blink and Georgia Changes
What’s new today will be old tomorrow. What’s here today will be upgraded the time you come back. So much is changing so quickly – a bit like Dubai. There the change over the last decade or so has been astonishing. Georgia may be the same. The places I have seen now will probably be replaced on my next visit. And yes I will re-visit because Georgia is a country that offers scenery, heritage, skiing, trekking, Black Sea beach resorts, wine, food and a feature missing in lots of places, – hospitality.
Some background first for those who don’t know the country. Back in 2008, I was in Miami airport when the news broke that confrontation had broken out between Russia and Georgia. Americans flocked to their TV’s to see why Russia was taking on the Deep South. Up until then how many knew of the other Georgia, the Georgia that has been under the influence of Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Russians. You see the remnants in the architecture of the buildings. An Arab looking building one minute, then a Russian communist influenced tower block standing next to a modern looking hotel that could be just as easily seen in Paris or Los Angeles or Tokyo. Just when you think you understand how Georgia has evolved another influence muddies your thinking. And maybe that’s why ethnic Georgians – the constant strand for thousands of years – are so staunch in the nationalism. After all, for much of the last two hundred years and often before that, they have been dominated by other nations. Did you know, for example, that for two years from 1918-1920 Georgia was under British protection?
In many ways Georgia isn’t even a teenager yet. Born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has just celebrated 10 years of independence. And like a child, as it grows up and sees all the things that other countries have, it wants them too. So Georgia is in constant change. The capital, Tbilisi, is being replaced next year by Kutaisi; (the birthplace of Katy Melua) completely new skiing and tourist resorts are springing up; roads are being developed and where else in the world would you build an airport in just three months?
Too often your hear tourists say that they’ve “done” a country. You’re not going to be able to say that about Georgia because of the speed of development and change. But that adds to the appeal and, in many ways, a sad appeal because some parts of Georgian life may change. See them now could be the mantra of the tourist board because Georgia will never be the same again.
Largely the country has a capital city, a mountainous area an obviously cooler climate ideal for walkers and skiers, the Black Sea coastline has beaches and casinos and the east has pasture. What all of it has is wine.
Under the Soviet Union, Georgian wine was shipped by the barrel to Russia so much so that inferior Russian wine was rebranded as Georgian by unscrupulous businessmen to get greater sales. As wine production became automated so that more was produced fewer grape varieties were used. Those that cropped better were used; others which could tastier but gave small harvests were forgotten. Except by the families. They preserved the less well-known; the small croppers and the unusual. One legacy of 2008 was that Russia blocked sales of Georgian wine to its residents so now Georgia looks for new markets. But other countries want the individuality of the wines that was left to the family to preserve. Almost every family has its own vines. They create them from 500 different grape varieties and will serve it to you in a jug. Where you can buy it in bottles, the most expensive one will cost you 45 lari which is about £15 And wherever you go there are vines. So much so that there are about sixty different types of commercial wine most being semi-sweet or dry and have a strength of between 10-12%.
With wine comes food. Georgians are hospitable so expect up to twelve courses to be served to you. It doesn’t come in regulated sittings; often it all comes at once so you can pick and choose but it always seemed to me that a plate of chips was served last. Just when you’d got the point where you couldn’t eat any more. After the third of fourth of these feasts, I began to just peck at things rather than try to show my hosts that I could clean my plate each time.
The food varies from meat cooked in what they call pancakes but which look a bit like dim sums or in pies. There are salads of tomatoes and tarragon, cucumber and tarragon, aubergines and herbs (yes more tarragon) and you can wash it down with an incredibly popular tarragon lemonade. Or whatever wine has been lain before you. There will be barbecued chicken and pork, maybe some fish from the local lake or rivers and cheese.
Cheese is a key ingredient and three types crop up fairly regularly; a cheddar type, a delicately smoked one and a salted, sheep’s one that is by far the tastiest (cheese is a personal taste so thousands would disagree with me.) It also profoundly alters the taste of the wine that you might be drinking with it. And that’s not just my view either. Wherever you go to a wine tasting, there will be water, cheese and bread to accompany it. Up until now I would never have believed that cheese could alter the taste that much!
Whatever you have it will be fresh and organic. If it’s not in season, it won’t be on the table. But here I am talking of the restaurants that you will come across as you drive around. You can still find “western” or “American” food if you want it. But then you can eat that anywhere so where’s the fun in that?
The food will vary slightly as you explore the different regions. In the Black Sea area for example, one popular dish that I didn’t see elsewhere was one comprising butter and cheese. The butter is melted and cooked till it browns. Then, cheese is added and cooked in it. Served in a bowl you eat the cheese and dip the bread in the butter. It’s rich and good but too much and the heart surgeons will be awaiting you.
The hospitality doesn’t just end with food and wine. Book a Georgian meal from your tour operator and you’ll also end up with singers. Some will be professional, most won’t be. Over lunch or dinner you will have a number of short songs accompanied by frequent toasts. The first is to the land from which all life and food springs. Then there is a toast to the ladies, to the patron saint (St George) and the church or whatever takes their fancy. The songs are sung is polyphonic harmony (yes, I had to ask as well) which consists of at least a couple of voices blending together but so that you can hear each voice distinctively. To some ears it seems plaintive; to others evocative. Whatever people thought, it just accentuated that Georgian life was different. No wonder meals can last hours. Drink sparingly or you’ll remember little in the morning. And toast them in return. When we did it, the reaction seemed to be one of appreciation mingled with a little surprise.
Finally a word about money. The currency is the lari and there are about 2.75 to £1. It’s not that easy to get the currency here. Those that supply it will want you to book it well in advance. But when you get to Georgia, there are plenty of banks and bureaux de change that will convert it for you and the rate should be no worse and more likely, a good deal better.
With thanks to Mako, Sophie, Lado, Tamara, Aliona, Kristina, Irakli and Sopho for all their help
I flew to Georgia with British Midland International. bmi flies between London Heathrow and Tbilisi three times per week, with fares starting from £526 return. For more information and to book, visitflybmi.com.