We were standing in the doorway of Marleta’s cafe in the city of Telavi, ready to leave: me, my husband Tim, his aunt Carolyn, our guide Sopho, and cafe owner Sophia (Marleta is the name of Sophia’s first cow). We had just enjoyed some of the best food and wine I’ve ever tasted, prepared by Sophia and her husband. Carolyn was telling Sophia how she tries to explain Georgia’s magnetism to people back in the U.S., but how impossible it is to describe. The appeal of Georgia, she said, isn’t due to any one thing.
Sophia agreed. “Yes, it’s everything put together, isn’t it?”
“No, it really is about just about one thing,” I piped up. “Khachapuri.” Everyone chuckled. Khachapuri (put a throaty rasp on that “kh”) is one of Georgia’s famous national dishes: usually a warm, buttered layer of soft bread surrounding a gooey, salty, cheesy middle, although there are different variations of the dish in each region of the country.
I was joking, of course. Georgia’s appeal isn’t just about the khachapuri or the ancient cave cities or the amber-colored qvevri wine like liquid sunlight, or the views across the Alazani Valley to the snowcapped Caucasus mountains that turn purple and silver in the evening, or the warmth of some of the most astoundingly hospitable people on the planet. It is everything put together.
Georgia is a country in the middle. It is situated between East and West, between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam. It used to be crossed by the Silk Road and now is crossed by oil pipelines. The people of Georgia call their country “Sakartvelo,” a name which suits it so much better, and clears up the annoying confusion with Georgia the American state (can we just all agree to call it Sakartvelo?). Somehow, this small country has survived millennia of invasion, annexation, betrayal, war, Communism, linguistic suppression and religious oppression. It is a bright, strong boat tossed in the seas of vast empires.
I wish I could write out every detail of our trip–every taste, sight, and smell (even the sheep)–but that would be a book. Instead, I’ve chosen five events that I hope will help explain how it was, after spending only 8 days in this country, that Tim and I both fell under Georgia’s spell.
1. The Academy at Ikalto. There are few sights in the world I love as much as untouched ruins. I’m not a big fan of reconstructions with guardrails, neat paths, and finished edges. I like crumbling stone, with grass and flowers growing up from the floor, quiet and unspoiled sites that leave travelers free to imagine life there centuries ago. Ikalto is one of those perfect places. The 11th and 12th centuries were the Golden Age of Georgia, and Ikalto was one of two academies established during that period. The Georgians revived the study of philosophy, astronomy, theology, and other subjects that had flourished in ancient Greece. Artwork began to change, as the faces of saints and angels moved away from the highly stylized iconography of the Middle Ages and took on greater dimension and human emotion. Note the dates: the 11th and 12th centuries. Long before there was a Renaissance in Italy, one had begun in Georgia. A century prior to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shota Rustaveli penned the epic poem Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Before there was an Oxford or a Cambridge university in England, there was an academy in Ikalto. Telavi, rather than Florence, might have become known as the center of the Renaissance, but Georgia’s Golden Age was cut short by Mongolian invaders. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan and his army swept across half the world, extinguishing the fire of learning newly ignited in Georgia, and forcing the country to focus on defense and survival rather than art and education. Tim, Carolyn, Sopho, and I were the only visitors at Ikalto that afternoon, so all you could hear was birdsong and the soft rustling of leaves in a place where students had diligently pored over their lessons centuries ago. Stepping through grass and flowers inside the ruins, with the late afternoon sun warming the twelfth century stones, I felt the sadness of Ikalto’s lost potential.
Side note: we almost missed Ikalto. We were supposed to do a wine tasting, but we felt we’d have more than enough wine already that day, so we went to Ikalto instead. Thank goodness.
2. Lunch at Okro’s. The town of Signaghi is perched high on a hill, with a view across the Alazani Valley toward the Greater Caucasus mountains, topped with swirling white clouds and shifting in colors of green, gold, purple, and silver throughout the day. Every time you peer down one of the town’s narrow, winding streets, you catch glimpses of this glorious view. But you can take in the whole sweeping landscape at once by climbing a tower of the town’s defensive walls, built as a refuge for people in the Alazani Valley to escape the clutches of kidnappers who ran raids over the Caucasus from nearby Daghestan. Another way to take in the view is to have lunch at Okro’s, a restaurant and winery perched high on a hill overlooking the valley. The people at Okro’s welcomed us with blankets so that we could sit on the deck and stay warm while we enjoyed the view, and we chose some delicious food.
Eggplant with an herb and walnut paste is a famous dish in Georgia, and my favorite version of the dish was at Okro’s. And then there was the wine. We tasted four different wines, each one bright and complex and a perfect accompaniment to the view. Our sommelier was also a winemaker, one of Georgia’s very few winemaking women. She told us that the Alazani Valley was once covered by ocean, and that in the Saperavi Budeshuri, a bold and dry red wine, there was a slight saltiness and mineral quality, which that particular soil had acquired from the saltwater. There are always a few times on an overseas trip that feel a little surreal and out-of-body, and this was one of those moments. I thought, “I’m sitting in front of one of the most beautiful vistas on the planet, sipping wine that tastes like an ancient ocean.”
3. Vanis Qvabebi and Chachkari. We visited southern Georgia for the express purpose of touring the medieval cave city of Vardzia, which was spectacular. But I love surprises–those unexpectedly enchanting places on the way to your destination–and Vanis Qvabebi and Chachkari were two delightful surprises we encountered in southern Georgia (I know, I hear it too. Can we please call it Sakartvelo now?). The road from Tbilisi to Vardzia goes up through cold, windy, tree-less mountain passes and then settles down into a valley surrounded by cliffs, and it goes all the way to Asia Minor. You follow a musical river, and you begin to see terraces cut into the hillside for farming. Some terraces, marked with clear rows of volcanic black basalt, date to medieval times; others, just ripples in the hillside, are much older–thousands of years old. This is the home of Queen Tamar, often called King Tamar because she was just as brilliant and capable as the country’s kings. She consolidated territories within her kingdom, set up a fair and just multiethnic society, defeated her gay, alcoholic ex-husband Yuri in battle, suppressed Turkish invasions, and finished construction of the massive cave city Vardzia, a honeycomb of secret rooms and tunnels hidden beneath a gigantic cliff face, a city that could hold as many as 50,000 people. Queen Tamar was canonized as a saint, and she is celebrated in feasts to this day. The Armenians even have an ice cream named after her. As with all rulers, what Queen Tamar built didn’t last. Her death was followed by Turkish and Mongol invasions, as well as a massive earthquake that brought down the cliff face that covered Vardzia, destroying over 80% of the city and exposing the network of remaining rooms and tunnels. Our journey to Vardzia began with a stop at Vanis Qvabebi, a 9th century church and monastery built into the side of a cliff. We followed a steep, switchbacked path and then finally climbed a series of ladders and rock tunnels to the top. The reward was a view of a 1,200 year old church clinging to a rock face, abandoned monastic caves, and the mountains and valleys beyond. Then we went to the village of Chachkari, which means “grape-skin door.” Tucked beside Vardzia, Chachkari is three centuries older than the cave city (9th century rather than 12th) and has been continuously inhabited since then. As its name implies, Chachkari was a place of wine production, part of the farming efforts that supported Vardzia in its heyday. The village is quiet, with cows significantly
outnumbering residents. We climbed up through the ancient terraces, beneath a canopy of white-flowering fruit trees that were humming with bees. The grass was bright green and dotted with tiny blue flowers, and we crossed a babbling, stone-filled brook several times. I felt like we had passed some secret threshold and found ourselves in a fairy tale. We arrived at one of the oldest vines in the world–over 400 years old. People used to cultivate vines by allowing them to grow up trees, and then they’d harvest the grapes by climbing. This vine was intricately entwined with a yellow-flowering tree, and it was thick near the base, but tapered into curvy, twisty threads. I loved this vine. (Can you love a vine?) I loved the old stone winepress that stood not far from it. I loved the evening hush that had settled over this place that seemed separated from the normal flow of time.
4. Saro. From down in the valley, we could see a stone building perched high on a cliff. “That’s the village of Saro, where we’re going next,” our guide Sopho said, pointing straight up. One slightly terrifying drive later (I’m not a big fan of heights), we were on top of the world. We could see sheer cliffs and farming terraces, we could see caves carved into hillsides, we could see the Lesser Caucasus mountains. The sky was bright blue and dotted with white clouds, and Sopho directed us to heaps of giant black rocks that formed walls and rooms. This was the oldest part of the village of Saro, a place that has been inhabited continuously since the Bronze Age, and these were the ruins of buildings that were constructed nearly 3,500 years ago. The stones were black basalt and monstrously huge, weighing up to six tons. To this day, archaeologists have no idea how the people managed to put those stones into place, and nearby ancient burial sites provide no clues. The people of ancient Saro were not giants; they were under 5 feet tall! In their stomachs were traces of wine as well as pkhali, a dish made of herbs and walnuts, still eaten today in Georgia (in fact, we ate it at a restaurant one of our first nights in Tbilisi). Saro is Georgia’s Stonehenge: a mystery and marvel of the ancient world. Unlike Stonehenge, it is not crawling with tourists armed with selfie sticks. We were the only visitors to the site that morning, so it felt like we had stepped back in time.
5. Church in Tbilisi. There were so many wonderful things about the city of Tbilisi, some of which I’ll cover in future posts about Georgia’s food, wine, and people. But one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip was going to Carolyn’s church. Carolyn’s Georgian family (Valeri, Maya, and their three sons, whom you’ll hear more about in future posts) attend this church as well. I love visiting churches in other countries and hearing worship in languages I don’t understand, because it reminds me that the church of God is global, consisting of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The church leadership had graciously asked Tim to give the sermon, and it was his first time preaching with a translator. He did an excellent job, delivering a clear, gospel-centered message from Psalm 41. One of the best parts of the sermon was that he included an illustration from Georgian culture. At Georgian feasts, people make a series of toasts: the first is to peace, the second is to those who have died, and the third is to the next generation. In this way, they bless the present, honor the past, and look toward the future with hope. Tim pointed out that David’s enemies in Psalm 41 want to see him so completely destroyed that his name would not even be mentioned in the toast to the dead. I thought it was a brilliant way to include a meaningful cultural reference. The only noticeable misunderstanding in translation was that Tim opened with a story about a man driving a cart to sell produce at market. The translator (also the church’s pastor) thought Tim said “car” instead of “cart,” so when it came to the part of the story where Tim said, “Then the man whipped his oxen,” the translator looked at Tim in great surprise (the man was driving his car and whipping his oxen??). It was such a funny mistake. After the sermon, the most deeply touching part of the service came in the form of a song. The young women who led worship had prepared “El-Shaddai” in English, and Carolyn said she had never heard them sing in English before. This song had been prepared especially for our visit. Can you imagine how honored we felt? Can you imagine how emotional it was for us to sing a song in English in a Georgian-speaking church? Can you imagine if two people from a foreign country visited your church, and you prepared a song for them in their language? I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of these lovely people, and I cried throughout the song.
I was expecting Georgia to be a great trip, with lots of fresh, unconventional experiences, but I wasn’t expecting the country to weave a spell over me the way Azeri carpet weavers tie one knot at a time, hands working lightning-fast to create a gorgeous pattern in the dyed wool. You cannot point to any one knot in a carpet and say “That is what makes this carpet so beautiful.” All the knots together create lines and movement and color and images: a picture that tells a story. The Georgian story (as perceived by an outsider newly acquainted with the country) is one of tenacity, beauty, resilience, warmth, and an unconquerable national identity. Over the years, invaders have killed and enslaved their people, whitewashed their religious murals, burned their books, destroyed their sacred grapevines, and outlawed their language, but they have never managed to break Georgian spirit.
Maybe that spirit, fiercely indomitable and yet miraculously hospitable, is the one thing that can account for the magnetic appeal of Sakartvelo. Maybe more than the delicious food or gorgeous views or fascinating history, the people’s spirit is the one thing that makes this country so special. But it’s not something that can be described with words or captured with photographs.
You just have to go there yourself.