|Raise a glass to life's simple pleasures|
|November 01, 2008|
As the dust settles on Georgia's recent conflict with Russia, Kate Eshelby heads for the peaceful mountain region of Svaneti where she finds the harvest in full swing and the time-honoured tradition of feasting - and drinking - alive and well
Kate Eshelby, The Observer
Jena raises a glass of rich red wine. 'Saqartvelos Gaumarjos [Victory to Georgia],' he says. The table is heaving with food, a banquet is laid out, yet the women are still preparing extra on the wood-burning cooker. An endless stream of toasts follow - to the gods, to saints, to love, and friendship - each delivered with exuberant passion. My face has a warm glow from the fire. The drinking and toasting continue. It's late, and I attempt to slope off to bed. 'Ah no,' Jena, says. 'You must have one more.' Welcome to Georgia, where the feasting never ends and the hospitality is unsurpassed.
Drinking toasts has been part of Georgian culture for centuries. I have come here to sample the traditional supra, or feast - literally 'tablecloth', because of the huge spread of dishes, covering the entire table. I am sitting in the kitchen of Jena Ghvitziani's house in the mountain village of Becho, in the northern province of Svaneti, high in the Caucasus mountains, where medieval towers protrude from the valleys. This area was previously unsafe for travellers, with armed muggings a regular hazard, but regular security patrols have improved the situation and the Svans could not welcome tourists with wider arms.
Tourism is important to Georgia, but was hit badly in August when long-simmering tension over the breakaway region of South Ossetia escalated into a full-scale conflict between Georgia and Russia. Things have quietened down now and the country is currently safe for visitors, except for the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The last of the Russian soldiers have finally left, replaced by unarmed EU observers - much to the Georgians' delight. 'We will not be beaten,' Dato, my guide, says triumphantly. Because of Georgia's strategic position on the world map, on the Silk Route at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it has been attacked for centuries - by Mongols, Byzantines, Persians and Arabs. But Georgians are immensely proud of their resistance, and their country.
The road to Svaneti from Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, is pot-holed and bumpy; we pass horse-drawn carts and Soviet-style apartment blocks before arriving 10 hours later in Becho. Jena's old stone farmhouse has dahlias and apple trees in the garden, a rickety truck in the yard, and onions hanging from the verandah. Lela, Jena's wife, in apron and black headscarf, knocks apples from a tree with a long stick.
I'm staying at Jena's house, having arranged with Wild Frontiers, the adventure travel company, to do a 10-day walk in Svaneti, sleeping each night in family homes in villages along the way. Our driver, Gia, transports our bags, so they are waiting for us each evening. At each house, I am the only guest and the rooms, though simple, are clean and cosy. The nights are cold and I try to avoid night-time visits to the bathroom because usually they are in outbuildings.
Georgia is the land of milk and honey, where orchards burst with fruit and people still have an attachment to the land - their food is all home-grown. In Svaneti semi-wild pigs root for acorns in the forest, making their meat taste divine, the honey is infused with the scent of wild flowers and families make cheese from the milk supplied by their cows. Svan cooking is dictated by its mountain terrain: there are no shops or markets, so food is produced seasonally. Autumn, when I visit, is a time to gather, store and dry, in preparation for the cold winter.
Next morning Dato and I wake early and after a hearty breakfast of blinis, homemade apple jam, khachapuri (bread with baked cheese inside), yoghurt, pear muraba (slow-cooked fruit) and fresh peach juice, we head off to visit the glacier on Mount Ushba. This magnificent two-pronged mountain watches over the village, snowy peaks glinting white against the azure sky. All around is a parade of autumnal trees, a dazzling blanket of colours - buttercup yellow, tantalizing greens and toffee-apple red - creeping up the mountainsides. Along the way we feast on wild blueberries, raspberries and hazelnuts and scoop up water from rushing mountain streams.
The climb is steep but at the top, high in the clouds, it is ethereal and moody - the distant valley below peek-a-boos through the drifting mist and the waterfalls drop torrentially fast. The cows wear big bells and the tinkling gives the place an Arcadian feel. That evening we have another feast of kubdari (stewed beef in bread), shusha (cream of potatoes and cheese), home-made sausages, plum sauce and aubergines spread with walnut paste. Jena's six-year-old daughter starts reciting Georgian poetry, with such vivacity it nearly moves me to tears. Shots of delicious, sweet-tasting raki, home-made from bread and stored in a glass bottle with tarragon, are handed round with gusto.
Our next destination is Mestia, a long day's climb away; crickets chirp and the sun is shining. 'Ketevan [my name in Georgian], we are so lucky with the weather,' says Dato. 'Autumn is unpredictable, often with rain, but if the sun is here it is one of the most beautiful times, with the mountains covered in snow.'
We picnic by some shepherds' dwellings. They're empty now, but during the summer the shepherds live here with their herds. Beyond here is the Guli Pass, where the snow is untouched. At the top I feel jubilant, seemingly standing on the roof of the world, with a shawl of mountains, rising defiantly from the valley, surrounding me. As we climb down the other side, the setting sun soaks the trees gold and a glistening auburn.
Mestia is full of medieval stone towers, standing tall and slender. Georgia's centuries-old need to protect its territory led the Svans to build these emblematic towers. Svaneti, however, hidden away in the mountains, managed to escape many of Georgia's invasions: because of this, treasures from other regions were sent here for safe keeping, and a museum was built in Mestia in 1936 to house them. It boasts ornate altar crosses, illuminated manuscripts and icons of gold and silver.
From Mestia we walk to the village of Adishi; Mount Shkhara, Georgia's highest mountain at 16,600 feet, dazzles in the distance and Ushba looks across the valley at Mount Tetnuldi. 'The legend goes that these mountains were lovers whose love was thwarted by their parents so they turned into mountains, meaning they could forever look at each other,' Dato says. It is glorious sunshine and families are out making hay. Helped by his son, one man, gold teeth glinting, places a wooden harness across the necks of hefty oxen and attaches a wooden sleigh, with a haystack perfectly shaped on top. This is then dragged off down the mountainside, looking like Dougal from the Magic Roundabout
Walking around Adishi is like stepping back to medieval times, a tumbledown jumble of houses and towers, many broken and in desperate need of restoration. We are staying with Jora, an unshaven man, who explains: 'Previously there were 34 families living here; now there are only eight. The others left because the road is shut for six months by snow, completely cutting us off to the outside world. We had buses during the Soviet Union, but now they are gone.'
The village is a maze of crooked wooden verandahs and gingerbread lacing. An old lady with a crinkled face collects firewood, and her sister, washing the dishes outside in an old bath, hands me an armful of plump green apples.
Inside Jora's house, most of the windows lack glass and pigs and chickens run around the yard. The main living room is like a cosy Victorian parlour, with women dressed in black baking bread over the fire. The whole family gathers in the enveloping warmth; washing hangs in the corner and there are two beds where the children sleep. That evening, at the big, hand-carved oak table, we eat pork, garlic and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves, fried potatoes, tomatoes stuffed with beef and paprika, and a Svan speciality of cheese and mint. The atmosphere is bacchanalian: the men are smoking and I am embraced in their friendliness, a sea of rugged faces.
Toasts are made to the dead, for which some wine is poured respectfully on to the ground. 'After this we will toast children, who symbolise life,' Dato says. There is a pattern to Georgia's toasting - although late into the night the topics become ever freer and more expressive. 'No one should drink while the toast is being made,' Dato explains. He points to a couple of mountain goat horns on the dresser. 'These are used for the most important toasts, when an entire horn of wine must be downed in one.'
Conversation flows from the war to the fact that the government is planning to start charging for electricity. 'We are very worried about this because all these villages are entirely subsistent. We don't have money,' Jora says. And for peace to remain it is evident that many Georgians are relying on help from Europe. Dato adds: 'We are almost resigned to the fact that we won't get our breakaway regions back, but it is the Russians who caused the troubles between us and the separatists. If Russia left us alone, we could all live together peacefully.'
The following morning we walk to Ushguli, one of the highest inhabited places in Europe. As we approach, hairy pigs snuffle and sniff and the odd satellite dish is the only sign of modernity. Families are digging for potatoes at the foot of towers, men lead oxen up the stony twisting paths and smoke curls from chimneys. Ushguli's towers are all different heights, short and stocky, or thin and tall. In the early evening light their caramel- and nougat-coloured stone smoulders warm against the virgin white mountains.
No gourmet tour of Georgia would be complete without a visit to the flat, fertile wine-producing region of Kakheti, bordering Azerbaijan. Wine is an integral part of life in Georgia. Hundreds of years ago the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to Nino (the woman who first brought Christianity to Georgia) and when she woke she was clutching a cross made from a grapevine - a sign to spread God's word.
Wine and drinking has evolved into an embodiment of their Christian faith. Their wine has a distinctive robust taste. It's made differently from the rest of Europe in that Georgians don't separate the grape juice from the skin, fermenting them together instead for several months under ground. Every family in Kakheti produces its own wine in this way, unchanged for centuries.
Zurico, a local Kakhetian, is picking grapes with family and neighbours, the boot of his battered Lada full to bursting with the fruit. He hands me a bucket of grape bunches and invites me home for dumplings - and, of course, his delicious home-made wine. After all, this is Georgia.
The 60-second guide to ... Georgia
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