Journey to Georgia
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
It’s 5am at Tbilisi airport, and the air is laced with the syrupy smell of cherry cleaning products. After eight hours of travel, it helps situate my new location: the orchard and citrus scents of Europe are behind me. I’ve arrived at the point where eastern Europe meets western Asia – across the Black Sea from Ukraine, and the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, touching Russia to the north and Turkey to the south.
Seeing, smelling and tasting these coordinates is a recurring pleasure in Georgia: the acerbic tang of sour plum sauce with roast chicken; rice-flecked beef broth fragrant with parsley and tarragon; the alpine comfort of salty cheese-stuffed breads; pomegranates pressed into ruby-coloured juice by street vendors; the ornate Persian wooden balconies that float above the cobbled streets of Tbilisi’s old town and the turreted spire of the Armenian cathedral.
This concoction is the bittersweet result of centuries of occupation by the Ottomans, Persians and Russians. Visitors start to perceive what might have been there but is no longer. Through the maze of streets in the old town, past the rickety clock tower designed by a puppeteer, is the city’s oldest surviving church, the sixth-century Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary. Rumour has it that it only survived the 18th-century Persian invasion because it was so misty on the day the troops arrived that the soldiers believed it was a mosque. The custard-yellow neo-Moorish opera house built by the ruling Russians in 1851 – to try to curry favour with Georgian nobility – and the stacked concrete cuboids of the national bank, opened in 1975 under Soviet rule, are more of the discomfitingly beautiful marks left on the city by their primary and most recent invader. The end of Soviet rule in the early ’90s left fresh scars, as Georgia became “engulfed by wars, economic crisis and poverty”, says Mariam Natroshvili, half of the duo that represented Georgia at last year’s Venice Biennale. “Long lines for bread, empty shops, no electricity, robbery, crime and civil war, wars in Abkhazia and Samachablo – this was the everyday life of our childhood.”
As the country has repaired itself, there’s been a surge of cultural renewal: clubs, restaurants and hotels have opened and travellers have returned, with tourist spending multiplying seven times in the decade between 2009 and 2019. There has been some political progress too. When the billionaire prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had damaged the country’s fledgling democracy through what the FT described as “eight years of political string-pulling”, retired from the ruling Georgian Dream party in 2021, many hoped the country’s application to join the EU would progress. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 came as a blow; many Georgians feared their government would fall to their powerful neighbour. Last June, the EU refused to grant Georgia candidate status as it did Ukraine, citing the need for “de-oligarchisation”.
But a sense of hope remains, and the country is speaking for itself. Slurs against Russia and Putin cover Soviet-era buildings. The Ukrainian flag is emblazoned across the city: painted on steps, flown from wooden balconies, tied around wrists on ribbons. Tbilisi’s inaugural Culture Week, a five-day programme dedicated to Georgian and Ukrainian art, music and dance held last November in solidarity against their common aggressor, was designed “to support not just culture but creativity”, says Ukrainian curator Serge Kerbitskyi, one of the festival’s three co-founders. “If citizens have creativity in their lives, they tend not to choose a future tyrant.”
The programme also illuminated fears around social freedoms (Georgia was the second country to adopt Christianity in the fourth century, and it remains deeply Orthodox; gay marriage was banned in 2018) and cultural suppression. There is no permanent national museum for contemporary art; instead there is the government-run Georgian National Museum.
We go to Bassiani, an eerily beautiful techno club housed in an old Soviet swimming pool underneath the cantilevered supports of Tbilisi football stadium. Opened in 2014, it is now considered by many to be the best club in the world, often compared to Berlin’s Berghain in its early days. This status is attributed by some to the fact that the country had barely any electricity 20 years ago. “The crises that appeared in the ’90s taught my generation a lot,” says Natroshvili. “Perhaps the most important thing we learned then was creative ways of dealing with reality.”
Descending into the club’s concrete underbelly, you enter a cavernous space lit in a wash of electric blue (an ode to its former life). For Culture Week, instead of a DJ, a pianist and cellist are seated on the ledge above the deep end of the pool for a performance by Quatro ballet – two male and two female dancers. The club has become an advocacy locus for the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights: it holds a much-mythologised queer night on Saturdays, exotically named Horoom Nights. Toes pointed to the ceiling, arms snaking hypnotically through the blue air, the dancers move through different configurations of coupledom, each body responding to the other, occasionally holding each other in place. It is a subtle, supremely elegant articulation of the freedom the club has come to stand for.
Food is given equal weight to the cultural programme. When he visited the Soviet region with Robert Capa in 1947 on the travels that produced the book A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck observed that the people’s “secret weapon, towards guests at least, is food”. At Alubali, an old-town restaurant, the courtyard is lined with jasmine, orange, lemon and pomegranate trees; there’s a wood- burning stove for winter. A little pot of sour Sulguni cheese arrives with fleshy, skinless tomatoes and a steak knife to cut into the elastic curds; aubergines and tomatoes collapse into oil, and veal is stewed in a rich walnut sauce.
Keto and Kote, housed in an old mansion high on a hill above the city, opened in 2016 and is now the culinary highpoint of the city. It was recently added to the “discovery” list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. We sit in the low light of a November afternoon under candlelit chandeliers for a lunch of tender beef cooked with vine leaves and sour cream, buttery oyster mushrooms, cucumber and tomato dressed with parsley, walnuts and sunflower oil, and khachapuri, a flatbread filled with a secret layer of melting cheese and brushed with butter.
The next night, we have dinner at Veris Duqani, in an old house with wooden windows on a steep hill, and eat homemade chicken liver parfait and steamed beetroot dumplings stuffed with crumbling sheep’s cheese and drizzled with treacly Georgian honey. Afterwards, we walk a few blocks to Success, just off Shota Rustaveli Avenue, a tiny red-lit bar playing Georgian techno. The next morning I’m woken by the crystal-clear hum of a choir singing early-morning hymns in the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi opposite the hotel.
Twenty-four hours later we’re in a car speeding onto the Military Highway, a 19th-century road connecting Caucasia with Russia that was travelled by Tolstoy and Pushkin. It used to take eight hours to drive from Tbilisi to the snow-dusted Mount Kazbegi; today, thanks to road improvements, it takes three. The route was described by Baedeker’s 1914 travel guide as “one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world”. Falling in and out of sleep, I remember only glimpses of a curving road and steep-sided mountains.
After the peacefulness of the journey, entering Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi, perched above the village of Stepantsminda, feels like entering a party. Disco plays through the sound system, and families and couples lounge on the squashy leather sofas looking out through the room‑height windows at Kazbegi mountain, with the two spires of Gergeti Church, on its own smaller peak, silhouetted against it.
The wood-clad hotel, which opened in 2012, used to be one of the many old Soviet sanatoriums to which workers were sent for at least two weeks a year for rest and relaxation. Each room, leading off a long monastic corridor, has a balcony overlooking either the mountain or the forest; Steinbeck described how the infirm would be wheeled onto them to take in the view. A huge Ukrainian flag now greets visitors: the Russian border is just 12km away.
Kazbek is a dormant volcano and, at over 5,000m, also one of the highest peaks in Georgia. It is the subject of much ancient folklore: the Cave of Bethlehem, at around 4,000m, is said to have held Christ’s manger, Abraham’s tent and a golden cradle rocked by a dove that will blind any human who sees it. It’s also said to be the place where an ancient hero named Amirani was chained up as punishment for stealing fire from the gods – a Georgian Prometheus. Today, many people attempt the four-day expedition to the summit, but it’s a serious undertaking, with the final 150m involving rope-scaling near-vertical sheets of ice. From the comfort of the hotel, however, it has an almost quaint beauty, its snowcapped peak reminiscent of the icing sugar-dusted custard-filled buns on Rooms’ breakfast table.
You soon realise that admiring the mountain from various sumptuous spots is all there is to do: from under a blanket in the powdery cold of the long deck that runs the length of the hotel; from the cool water of the indoor swimming pool, or the reclining chairs that are pushed up to its tall windows, the autumn sunlight pouring in; through the glass door of the wood dry sauna; and – the best – from the steaming water of the wooden hot tub on the deck, so deliciously scalding that you have to occasionally retreat up into the cold air for relief. Afterwards, a glass of orange wine from the Kakheti region, grilled pork with sour plum sauce, another tomato- cucumber-parsley-walnut salad and 12 hours of deep sleep.
Opening the curtains the next morning is like turning on the TV, so immediate, close and bright is the mountain, already basking in the morning sun. We decide to visit the church that sits on a small (2,200m) mountain beside Kazbegi, a good walk down through the town and up the other side of the valley. Stepantsminda is charismatic in its own way, all alpine wood-clad restaurants, mini markets selling tomatoes and persimmons, and taxis rolling around offering rides to the church.
The track winds out of the town, past the derelict cable-car line built by the Russians in 1988, and which the Stepantsmindians, maintaining that it defiled a sacred place, later destroyed, and up a nearly too-steep slope leading to the back of the mountain. There are stone huts, goats and streams along the way, and mountains in every direction. An hour and a half later, we see the carved-stone back of the 14th-century chapel looming above us.
There is something sublime in the church’s extremes: so impractical to build, so laborious to visit, but so very beautiful. (I can see why the cable car missed the point.) Eagles sweep through the milky blue sky and a mewling cat scampers around the stone platform, purring when it comes near us. Through the intricately engraved archway and inside the church, the walls are hung with gilded icons, lit from below by thin candles grounded in silver platters of sand. Sunlight slants in through the narrow windows, illuminating tunnels of dust and candle smoke; the icons glimmer. The air smells of melting beeswax, dusty stone and oiled wood. We can hear only the soft murmur of the two men who collect alms and politely make sure no one photographs the icons. It must all be seen to be believed, anyway.
Back outside, the eagles circle; the cat scampers. Suddenly a loud, steady beat fills the air. A car in the church car park is blasting Georgian pop music: a low rhythmic thump, a weaving string melody, a mournful voice singing in the looping, guttural sounds of Georgian. A new sound in an old place. Like the thud of the dancers’ feet on the floor of Bassiani, it might be the beat of change, for a fledgling democracy facing a crossroads.
Baya Simons and Louis Rogers travelled as guests of Culture Week Tbilisi and Cox & Kings which offers a six-night Spotlight On Georgia trip from £1,899pp based on two sharing, including flights, transfers, accommodation and guiding