Georgia a country on the fringe of Europe
PUBLISHED: 17:00 18 September 2017
Imagine a town studded with watchtowers like San Gimignano in Tuscany, but set high on a plateau, 100 miles from the nearest centre of population.
Towering above it are virtually impenetrable snow-capped mountains. The only access is either by small plane or a road which snakes high above a river, fed by 200 metre waterfalls. Cattle and pigs graze on the verges and, where there are no verges, lie down in the middle of the road giving new meaning to free-range meat.
This is Mestia in Svaneti, southern Georgia, 20 miles from the border with Russia, 1,400m up in the Caucasian mountains. Until ten years ago, those tourists who made it up there were protected by armed police from the bandits who roamed the mountains after the fall of communism. Now, it is being developed as a skiing and walking resort and feels completely safe – though the Georgians themselves feel constantly threatened by Russia politically. But this it is still a long way from mass tourism.
As a country, Georgia is investing heavily in tourism but outside the main towns it is still very undeveloped. And that is its charm. On the cusp of the continents of Europe and Asia, in some ways it feels European – teenagers wear the same fashions as kids in London, and the European flag often flies alongside the red cross of Georgia. But culturally it is very different.
The Georgian Orthodox Church emerged from 70 years of suppression under communism re-invigorated. There are cupola-capped churches everywhere which, since devout drivers cross themselves every time they see a crucifix, can – along with the stray animals and narrow roads – make driving alarming. The church here is independent of the Russian Orthodox Church in that it is has its own hierarchy. But, like all orthodox churches, they are in communion together and share the same socially conservative attitudes.
To a western European this makes Georgia feel more Russian than elsewhere in Europe, as does the widespread knowledge of the Russian language and the frequent references to the oligarchs who seem to be regarded as a class unto themselves. The billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is still suspected by many observers as being the real power behind the scenes – though he denies this. But whoever is in the driving seat, the Georgian government still sees the European Union and Nato as the best counterweight to Russia’s territorial ambitions, which, high up in the Caucuses near North Ossetia, still seem very real. Only last month, Georgians formed a human chain along the border with Russia to commemorate the loss of South Ossetia to Russia.
There were signs a few years ago that support for joining Europe had waned since the late chair of Georgia’s parliament told MEPs in l999: “I am a Georgian and therefore I am European.” Opinion polls suggested Georgians were increasingly keen on keeping their own identity. At the same time, they resented what they saw as the EU’s reluctance to honour its word about eventual membership – resentment stoked by Moscow, which presents itself as having more in common with Georgia’s moral values than gay-friendly Europe.
But more recently, public support for the EU has increased thanks to a lifting of visa requirements for Georgian citizens at the start of this year and an associate trade agreement which, with its access to the single market, almost looks like the kind of deal Theresa May would like to negotiate for Britain after Brexit. Georgia, though, sees this as a step along the road to closer ties with Europe, rather than the other way round, so there is no need for May to change her holiday next year and go walking in the Caucuses.
But in Svaneti, European politics seem a long way away – though, like Georgia as a whole, it has been the beneficiary of European aid and now has a tiny airport. Of all the regions, it is the most remote, with its own language and cuisine. Centuries ago, communities in the plains below sent their most valuable icons up the mountains to hide them from invaders like the Ottomans. But once they got them, the clans who controlled Svaneti held on to them. Today many of them are still kept in tiny, locked churches, like jewellery boxes: plain grey on the outside but full of glittering treasures inside. Eleventh century Madonnas with doleful eyes jostle for space on the walls with tin-framed modern reproductions of saints. Until ten or so years ago, tourists had to be protected by the police from armed bandits, though now, walking alone up to the ski lift high above the town, I was more worried about bears than bandits.
Cultural and walking tourism are two growth areas in Georgia. My trip was a very niche cultural tour. It was specifically designed by an American musicologist, John Graham, to explore Georgia’s unique form of polyphonic singing in the context of the churches where it has been sung over the ages. So, rather than just taking an extra tour guide to shepherd the group, he takes with him two professional chanters – Soso, a big-bellied baritone, and Poti, a tenor, like John. Together they would sing everywhere – in churches, in museums, and, more boisterously, after dinner, when the close harmonies of the chanting would give way to folk music, different in every area we visited.
Mestia was the high point of the trip in every sense of the word. We had hoped to go even further up the mountain to Ushguli, the highest inhabited settlement in Europe, but the weather changed dramatically, and we were forced back down to the coastal plain by driving rain and landslides. We took refuge in Batumi, a Black Sea resort which is an eclectic mixture of a quite attractive, renovated old town – which looks a bit like New Orleans – and a front which is more like Las Vagas – a tower the shape of the London Shard, for example, has a Ferris wheel attached to it.
Former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, or Misha as he is universally known, wanted Batumi to perform the same role in the Black Sea and the Caucuses that Beirut did in the Middle East in the 1970s. Hotels and casinos dominate the front. It is no surprise that Donald Trump, a friend of Misha’s, had been planning to put up another Trump tower here. Misha was subsequently ousted by Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party he founded. But the two of them are immortalised in the startling glass architecture centre of the capital Tbilisi. Towering over the city, opposite its fourth century fort, is Ivanishvili’s glass palace, complete with its own heliport. On another hill, is a vast new Cathedral designed, in more traditional style, as a physical manifestation of the break with Georgia’s secular Soviet past, and its defiantly Christian nationalism. In the centre are gleaming multi storey office blocks, meant to represent the transparency of modern Georgia, and a glass bridge, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to a piece of female personal protection, and is therefore nicknamed the “Always bridge”.
Climbing up from the river is the magnificent Old City, showing the influences of Ottoman and Russian rule; the elegant balconied 18th century houses perched above the gorge, and the narrow streets full of shops and restaurants immediately below. There seem to be churches on every corner and many are full for Mass. On the horizon are grim, Soviet-era tower blocks, and new suburbs which have sprung up as the economy has grown. I also got a train to the third city of Kutaisi where I had I had my first experience of the Georgian tradition of toasting. After any feast – and every meal we ate in Georgia was a feast, with at least 12 different dishes – there are toasts, where you are expected not just to raise your glass but to speak from the heart. They can get a bit maudlin: on one occasion, we toasted friendship, absent friends, the deceased, Svaneti, mountains (mine), political prisoners and toasts themselves. And I think we toasted Europe too.
We drove back to Tbilisi along the old silk road, stopping at ever more beautiful churches to admire the icons. Beside the river were fields which appeared very fertile, where the farmers tilled the soil with Ukrainian style-tractors, and I wondered whether, post-Brexit, some of Britain’s vegetable farmers would switch production there. But then there was a road sign which was a reminder that in Georgia you really are on the fringes of Europe. It read: “Iran, 1,000km.”
Elinor Goodman is the former political editor of Channel Four news; to find out more about tours to Georgia, visit www.johngrahamtours.com