Updated: Aug 31, 2020
A Fine Reception
Flying in, the first thing you see is the TV mast: a huge, flashing monument which President Saakashvili has, for reasons best kept to himself, decided to light up like Blackpool tower with flashing neon lights, a kitsch 200m symbol of modernity, of the city's reaching for the skies, and yet symbolic of its over-eager attempts to westernise at the same time. A bumpy descent - twenty minutes of being buffeted about - had brought on a bout of silent prayers and chest-crossing among half the passengers. Orthodox. The woman next to me was so glad when we landed I thought she was going to kiss me. As is customary in these parts of Europe (Asia?), furious clapping and cheering followed the landing. Stepping off the plane, the heat hits you; 25 degrees at midnight. Have I landed in India by mistake? Nope, I see the signs, welcoming me to Georgia in English, and there's the stamp to prove it - no need for visas any more. Just a lengthy perusal of my heavily middle-eastern - stamped passport. Through customs in next to no time, whipped into a waiting car by my friendly host for the next three days, Geo (owner of the new Art Hostel Tbilisi) and in bed by 1am, a nice ending to a tiring day of flying which had started at Bristol and ended here, but had involved a lengthy stop-over in Riga while I waited for my Air Baltic connection. Sweaty, restless sleep followed, a fan aimed at any bunk in the dorm other than mine proving annoyingly useless. Next day, I thought about the TV tower and asked Geo about him. "The president is a modernizer, pro-western - sometimes embarrassingly so", he said, over coffee. Especially true in his awkward courting of George Bush, even as recently as last month, when he was invited for the weekend - and has his own vision of modern Georgia, and a garish and incongruous glass bridge (the Bridge of Peace)
across the Mtkvari river in the town centre confirms a certain lack of taste. Still, they are rather fun in a cheesy way. The presidential palace, all glass and concrete, an egg-shaped dome sporting a Georgian Flag (strikingly similar to the English flag) is guarded zealously by police, to the extent that tourists are told to erase their pictures of it if spotted taking them. A whiff of yesteryear, Soviet paranoia all over again? Perhaps. But Georgia 2010 is a place looking bravely towards the future, trying to comprehend one in the EU, a flight of fancy maybe but God knows anything is better than being under the capricious yoke of Russia. The fly in the ointment is, of course, Abkhazia, that sun-soaked, mysterious, tasty morsel in the north west of the country which Russia has aggressively chosen to back in its secession.
Checking out Tbillisi's old town
To a Georgian, this is of course the source of all antipathy to Russia, and rightly so; regardless of the rights and wrongs of Abkhazia's fight for independence, Russia has chosen to play power games, happy to create divisions, confusion, schisms, buffer zones between itself and the west, or the south west. Without this region it is unwhole, incomplete, unsettled, But life goes on. In the meantime, they appear on the Georgian map, as always, despite the borders being firmly closed except to military and aid workers. One day, they say, they will win them back, by hook or by crook. For now, they are lost. The heat during the day is hard to take. First day 40 degrees. It's too hot to do anything. At least until about 3pm, and then not quickly. You have to do it slowly, a bit at a time. Coffee on the patio of the hostel. Vines creeping up the stairs and above my head. The sweet smell of eucalyptus leaves.
Crickets and grasshoppers clicking away, birds chirping. The smells and sounds of the tropics. "No breakfast here though!" a rather curt Italian, a freelance photographer it turns out, informs me. He seems irked by my presence. "You'll have to walk into town if you want that" I guess I annoyed him by late arrival, and, no doubt, heavy snoring. I strolled into town, down the unpaved, uneven, street. Avlabari is the name of the area. A very large church dominates it, the largest in the city and visible from all around. Typically Georgian in its pepper-pot design, it is actually only a few years old. It is very impressive in its size and in its faithfulness to Georgian church design, but some of the icons inside are mystifyingly kitsch and tasteless.
Getting my teeth into Georgia
A short stroll from there down to the palace ("No photos!") and to my first Georgian restaurant, on a side-street down towards the river. No English. I blurted out the only dish I could remember other than Khachapuri, and I didn't fancy a slab of cheesy bread with an egg on right now: "Khinkali pazalste!" and the waitress raised an eyebrow. "Skolka?" she demanded - how many. "Piat" - Five. "Nyet! Nie mozna - deset" she said. Nope. Ten. Reluctantly, I agreed. I ordered a beer and sat alone in this rather small, dark though cool restaurant waiting for my food to come, thankful to be out of the blazing heat. Ten khinkali, for breakfast, is not a very good idea, and even in my novice state, fresh to Georgia, I sensed I had been hoodwinked into ordering too many.
This dish, like Polish pierogi, consists of meat wrapped up in a dough mixture and boiled, served plain and without any accompaniment. I'm not the greatest fan of pierogi if I'm honest, but I know how close they are to Polish hearts, and I had also read how close khinkali are to Georgians'. They arrived and instantly my heart sank. A very large plate sagging under the weight of ten very heavy, pale bags of meat. I knew I wouldn't come close to finishing them. I picked one up, as is the custom. It weighed about half a kilogam. I bit into it, and instantly it exploded, scalding juice spurting all over my front, and burning my tongue. The waitress saw and laughed. She demonstrated how I must eat it - and so I tried to imitate her, picking it up gingerly by its doughy nexus, and then taking seruptitious bites out of it to release some steam, and place it at such an angle that its juices did not escape. By carefully nibbling pieces in the right way, you can eat these cumbersome creations without a) looking too stupid and b) giving yourself first degree burns. However, my first khinkali experience did not encourage me to try them again too soon - which is a shame in a country where they can barely be avoided. Tasty in small amounts but otherwise rather dull. I think the waitress is still laughing at me now. A word on Georgian food in general however: Excellent. Tasty. Imaginative. Fresh. Simple. Actually that's five words, but it's enough to give you an idea.
Unquestionably, it's a heavy cuisine, and meat-dominated; clay pots loaded with lamb, pork, chicken and beef dishes reign, and many are delicious. Yet the coriander-infused flavours hint at something more delicate, and vegetarians are catered for with some wonderful pomegranite, aubergine and walnut dishes. Fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, proiliferate. Cheeses abound, and plenty of it is melted into various dishes, baked roasted and fried. Breads of course are crucial, especially khachapuri, among others. If that has made you want to get your teeth into Georgian cuisine more, you can find a comprehensive article I wrote on the subject here.