There’s one thing any traveller should know before they consider venturing to Georgia: you’ll spend the rest of your life explaining yourself.
As the meat in an Old World empire sandwich, the country of Georgia is all too oft forgotten, especially because it shares its name with a state in Southern America. This is where you’ll run into trouble. ‘It’s a country? Where is it?’ people inevitably ask. ‘Why did you go there?’ The answer is, of course, why not?
I knew I’d made a good travelling decision when, after an overnight bus ride from a port city in north-east Turkey, the sun finally started to throw light on the border villages of Georgia.
Winter was still clinging to the trees as we drove through the sun-drained villages on our way to the capital Tbilisi and, rubbing my eyes with tiredness, I tried to take as many mental photographs as possible. Rolling past the window were twisted, snake-like letters of Georgian on rusted, once pastel-blue signs, dirt roads cutting past front yards infested with chickens, rotting cars hiding in bushes just shy of non-existent gutters. Georgia was unlike any place I’d ever seen – like an abandoned town that had life suddenly and unsuspectingly pumped into it, with short, stout women greeting their friends as they took their bags from the bus, even at this sunrise hour.
Bordering Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia with its entire northern edge skirting the tips of former motherland Russia, there’s a reason why Georgia remains proudly fastened to the past. Georgia only gained independence in 1993 from the sprawl of the Soviets and after its collapse, border clashes became a constant source of conflict. It’s only in recent years that Georgia has begun to peek its cautious head above the roadblock of its own tumultuous history. Like a wonderful secret on the precipice of disclosure, so much of Georgia is ready for discovery and I started with the wine cellars.
The thing is, despite its reclusive nature, Georgia has offered its fair share of gifts to the world: One of which being the proof that Georgia is indeed the birthplace of wine. It’s not the discovery of grape seeds dating back to the 6th century BC that gives this fact away – it’s the knowledge that the culture of both making and drinking wine is so closely linked to the heritage of Georgian people, it’s almost impossible to separate one from the other. Even the most prominent symbol in the Georgian Orthodox Church, Saint Nino’s Cross, marks not only the beginning of Christianity in the country (from the 4th century) but is an actual grapevine, showing just how strongly wine is embedded in every aspect of Georgian life. Nearly every family, even in small villages where nut farming rules the roost, has their own small winery and now, some families are opening their doors to those who are willing to make the journey.
It’s often true that so much of a culture can be understood by its interpretation of time. In our own urban understanding, time is something only to be kept, something to tell us when the train arrives, or how long it will be until the next one. In Georgia, it’s not that there’s no understanding of time. It’s just that there are more important things namely: friends, food and wine.
Put simply, you’ll never be on time in Georgia but it’s always for the most glorious reason. Having guests in your home is considered to be a gift from God and the Georgians take every opportunity to show you their gratitude for showing up on their doorstep. I’ve emerged from backyard cellars with pockets overflowing with hazelnuts, a belly full of home cooked food and my arms wrapped in those of new friends. This means it's completely impossible to leave a Georgian table ‘early’. “It’s all about company,” a new Georgian friend tells me, “When company is great, it’s a never-ending story.”
The supra, or feast (in the truest sense of the word), is a sacred thing in Georgia. Every supra is attended by a tamada, someone who is responsible for making a series of thoughtful toasts and keeping your glass eternally full to the brim. You’re also expected to immediately empty the just-freshened glass of wine in one go – it is, after all, tradition. Consider this then: if a standard supra last for hours and there are countless toasts, all of which are to be followed by a sculling session, it’s inevitable that you’ll be at least a little bit drunk for most of your time in Georgia. That is, if your hosts are doing their job right. And they always do.