A few years ago I was struck by the urge to visit Georgia - the highest mountains in Europe, isolated communities, ethnic groups that speak poetry to each other as a matter of course - it sounded intriguing.
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, wasn't as I expected. There were certainly a fair few dour looking Soviet style apartment blocks, but the city is a mishmash of architectural styles, reflecting the influences of Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires that at various times in history have all played a part in Georgia. Surprisingly cosmopolitan, Tbilisi contains some of the best restaurants I've eaten in - meals washed down with a glass of two of superb Georgian wine.
From Tbilisi we headed west into the semi-desert area of David Gareja, a barren area home to a monastery populated by extremely orthodox monks, eking a living far away from the corrupting influence of humanity. We climbed up to the top of a ridge to discover rock cut chapels and frescoes reminiscent of Cappadocia in Turkey. Beyond and below us was Azerbaijan, just a stone's throw away and without a border guard in sight. We ended up in a homestay in the small town of Telavi where we were treated to Georgian hospitality and a landlady who seemed determined to make us pile on a few pounds in the short time that we were there, the table laden with home-made cheeses and tantalisingly fresh produce that had never seen a supermarket shelf.
For me, the highlight of Georgia has to be the High Caucasus mountain range. We climbed through clouds in a trusty four wheel drive until we reached the pass, with the region of Tusheti in the distance. Tusheti is mostly untouched by modernity, hidden in the mountains where villagers still protect their livestock against bears and wolves. The isolation of some villages is so intense that mutually unintelligible dialects can be spoken from one village to the next. Traditions linger long here - on one track I got out of the car to walk the long way around with my wife; villagers considered it extremely bad luck for a woman to walk too close to a shrine placed next to the road.
Staying in local homes allowed us to really get under the skin of the region; we ate meals with the families, sampled their home-made wine and I became rather too familiar with the local spirit chacha - tradition dictates that Georgian meals are full of lengthy toasts to Georgia, to the family, to guests, to women, and it's considered bad form not to take three glasses of chacha for each toast. Hic...
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