"There is an old legend that God saved Georgia for last. He gave out all the lands of the world to different people, and the Georgians were, of course, late to the party, and there was nothing left for them. But God so enjoyed their toasting and revelry that he gave them a section he had reserved for himself, a fertile valley of vineyards and orchards."
Until a few days ago Georgia had not been on anyone's mind. The Republic of Georgia that is. A country the size of Switzerland, population 4.7 million, Georgia unfortunately is one of the most invaded nations on earth.
It has been dominated by outside forces including Greeks, Romans, Persians, Turks and Russians. None, however, wiped out the feisty Georgian spirit, and the people look to democracy as their fledging new identity.
Bordered by the Caucasus Mountains, this Orthodox Christian country sits between the Black and Caspian Seas, sandwiched between Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. At the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, its cities have served as essential stops on the Silk Road for traders, artisans, tourists, explorers and invaders.
The culture is both ancient and modern, and the food and hospitality are legendary. They truly believe that guests are a gift from God.
Tbilisi - the capital city
Our journey began in early June as my husband and I traveled to visit our daughter, Johanna, who serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia.
We knew something about Georgian State Dancers whose company tours the world, with leaping, clashing swords, glinting daggers and graceful gliding females.
We knew something about Georgian music, the three-part harmony polyphonic chants that have been reported as early as the first century.
We knew that our trek would take us along the same route as Jason and the Argonauts, the Greek hero who sailed to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece. But more adventures were ahead.
3:50 a.m. Our red-eye flight from Italy to Austria to Tbilisi lands on time, and we make our way to the airport and easily through customs with hundreds of other red-eye travelers. The airport "pops" like Las Vegas in the early hours with people, restaurants and shops all open for business.
Our daughter, Johanna, friend Daniel and his Georgian driver Irakly stand out as friendly, but tired, faces in the crowd. We take the Land Rover and head (very fast- the Georgians are not "lane disciplined") down George Bush Avenue. We drive up the cobbled street to Freedom Square, still home to protests because when Georgians want to express opinions, they take to the streets.
Then we hit the thoroughfare of Rustaveli Avenue and see the Parliament building, opera house, theatre and National Museum. Call it the early morning tour. We arrive at our guest house and settle in.
Tbilisi, Georgia's capital for fifteen hundred years, was born from relaxation and warmth. Its churches, cafes, tea houses, and baths have welcomed traders, camel trains, artists, thinkers and tourists. The natural springs and Turkish baths have warmed the likes of Alexander Dumas and Tchaikovsky.
The architecture blends Russian classicism, Art Nouveau, Socialist and Post Modern themes reflecting the nationalities that have made homes in Tbilisi. "Old Town" has hip restaurants such as the "Hangar" a 1940s themed American restaurant, while others feature live music, Georgian dancers and full outdoor screens to watch soccer matches.
The Georgian Feast
Nobody, including us, forgets Georgia's cuisine. One guidebook states that the Georgian table is Aladdin's cave of culinary discovery.
This has evolved into a "table culture" of sorts, and the Georgian feast, known as the "supra," usually takes from 3-4 hours. At the center is wine, with archaeological research providing evidence of wine as far back as 7,000 years; the Georgians are bold to say they invented it.
At the supra both the food and wine keep coming; Khajapuri (traditional cheese bread), sour plum sauces, creamed walnut sauce, egg plant, meat-filled dough pockets, grilled meat, chicken, lamb stew, and Borjomi mineral water, known for its medicinal qualities fill the table.
At our country restaurant supra (you could choose a tree house for your meal), the Supra toastmaster guides the mood of the meal, moving for several toasts at key moments which begin with friendship and connections among people. We were honored to be toasted as Minnesota guests and responded with "Guamarjos" (to our victory).
Before leaving Tbilisi, we take a road trip in "Indiana Jones" style to the southern desert and the mountaintop cave monastery founded in the 6th century by Syrian monk St. David Gareja.
The frescoed caves and monk's cells carved in to sandstone provide a rigorous climb for believers to reach the pool of healing waters called St. David's tears, which appeared after he prayed for several days with all his heart. St. David's grave lies in the Monastery.
Other noteworthy sites in the mountains above the city include the Open Air Museum of Ethnography, with about 70 historical Georgian dwellings, and the Botanical Gardens.
Overall, Georgia has 31 national parks and protected areas with nearly 400 recorded species of birds. In Georgia's 67,000 square kilometers, you can find 5,000 meter peaks, glaciers, alpine meadows, sub-tropical coastline, high desert, semi-desert, fertile valleys, wetlands and virgin forest.
Adventure tours include walking and trekking, mountaineering, mountain biking, rafting, caving, paragliding and skiing.
Next we drove two hours to Kutaisi, the city of King Aetes and Medea, possessors of the Golden Fleece. We also stopped briefly in the city of Gori, Stalin's birthplace.
Remnants of abandoned Soviet factories ring the city, but the downtown shows signs of redevelopment. The main square features a statue of Stalin, his birthplace and the Stalin Museum (including his death mask) stated by some guidebooks as the best museum in Georgia.
We drove on to Kutaisi and spent time walking the streets and buying produce and fresh cut flowers at the center market. We took a twisting road up to the twelfth-century Gelati Monastery, a branch of the Kutaisi Museum of History and Ethnography and a significant monument of the Renaissance.
This period marks the rule of David the Builder, who unified a country devastated by invasions. Georgians look back to this as a glorious time in their history as Gelati, compared with Athens and Jerusalem, became a center of both religious and secular education and the hearth of philosophical thoughts. It contains a mosaic of the Virgin and child created in the 1130s that has 2.5 million stones.
South of the main church, we viewed David the Builder's tomb where the gravestone inscription reads, "This is my eternal place. I only own this at present."
To the Black Sea - once a playground for nobles
On to the balmy Black Sea and Batumi, near the Turkish border and the end of our cross-country adventure.
A stylized Greek colonnade, erected in 1934, serves as the gateway to Batumi Boulevard and Maritime Park stretching along the sea. Dancing French fountains jump to music, while chess and backgammon players gather in a specially built pavilion. Sports bars, disco clubs, restaurants and Magnolia trees line the boulevard along with a tennis complex which hosts the annual "Batumi Ladies Open."
The coastline has mostly "stone beaches" but some have black magnetic sand said to restore health.
In "Old Batumi," buildings are decorated with chimeras, lions and other mythical creatures with a giant statue of Medea in the town square. Not only did Medea possess the Golden Fleece, but she is said to have mysterious healing powers, hence the word "medicine."
We stayed across from Maritime Park at the Hotel Intourist Palace, a former KGB hotel, and now a prime spot for diplomatic conferences. The original five-story palace was built in 1939 to house heads of state and has been renovated twice, most recently in 2006. Features include two pools, a spa, a Turkish bath, a casino, conference rooms, a night club, a bar and three restaurants.
Back to the beginning
Few nations offer such a rich timeline and stretch back to the beginnings of Christianity in the 4th century. St. George the Dragon Slayer, the enemy of evil, remains the patron saint of Georgia. Georgian's language, one of the oldest in the world, has a distinctive "curly" alphabet. As one Georgian says, "No one knows from where we came; we have always been here and always will be."
We found the legend of Georgian hospitality and generosity to be true. As their famous poet Rustaveli writes, "Everything you give away remains yours and everything you keep is lost forever."
Editor's Note: The writer, Merrie Sue Holtan, has been published in numerous regional and national periodicals. She has also been an instructor at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. She and her husband, Rev. Phil Holtan, Calvary Lutheran Church, live in the Big Pine Lake area.
How can I help displaced persons in Georgia?
Charity Humanitarian Center "Abkhazeti" (CHCA)
Funds to CHCA will fund beds, mattresses, and hygiene kits to collective centers in the capital, Tbilisi. CHCA assists 60,000 internally-displaced persons (IDP) that have sought refuge in collective centers throughout Tbilisi.
Charity Humanitarian Center "Abkhazeti", established in 1995, is the Georgian, non-Governmental, non-profit organization, striving to increase the role of individuals and communities in building civil society and strengthening democracy, to improve the social and economic conditions of internally displaced and other vulnerable populations through building capacity and increasing self-reliance.
The activities of the organization are carried out transparently, and are based on the principles of professionalism, equality, long-term partnership and sustainable development.
Funds to AIC will fund beds and mattresses to collective centers in Western Georgia. AIC serves 13,225 internally-displaced persons (IDP) in Western Georgia.
AIC is located in West Georgia and serves Imereti, Guria, Samegrelo, Racha-Lechkhumi, and Lower Svaneti regions. AIC started its activities in 1997 and was registered at the Ministry of Justice of Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia on May 5, 1998.