I left Georgia full-bellied, sun kissed and wholeheartedly cleansed. The food, weather and people in and around Tbilisi had treated me most favourably on my long weekend. Georgia is an ancient nation, located in the Caucasus mountains, wedged between Europe and the Middle East. For centuries, Georgia has experienced the peaks and troughs of conflict: long eras of rule and prosperity followed by invasions and occupation. Perhaps scarred by the continual presence of unwanted visitors, Georgians could be forgiven for being a little hostile. However, an ingrained sense of hospitality seeps through this country, from helpful stranger to restaurant host, tour guide to masseur. Read on and you will see what I mean.
I must begin with the food. After all, anyone who knows me will know that I am no stranger to tucking in. Georgian cuisine is quite simply, spectacular. Skewered meat, cooked to tender perfection, creamy walnut sauce lathered over grilled aubergine, delicately spiced green pxali, topped with the odd pomegranate seed, khinkhali dumplings, oozing with flavour, the list goes on and on. My personal favourite is the khachapuri, best described as a boat of bread, containing melted sulguni cheese, a nob of butter and topped with an egg. Swirl these contents around and you have the most glorious dip, and in large quantities, a heart attack’s best friend.
A traditional accompaniment to any meal is wine. Locally made, a glass of the Saperavi or Tsinandali is always on hand. The conditions are perfect, with hot summers, mild winters and rivers from the Caucasus feeding the soil with mineral-rich water. Wine shops have sprung up in Tbilisi in the last five years as tourism to Georgia has swelled. The choice is vast, but wine bars and tastings are similarly plentiful, so any visitor can conduct all manner of important research. An off shoot of wine is Chacha, a grape-based spirit, which was traditionally home brewed, lethally strong, and sadly not to my personal taste.
Perhaps the best way to experience this combination of food, wine and Georgian hospitality is on a wine tour. A visit to the Kakheti region took me past old fortresses, monasteries and churches, now the product of a bygone era of wealth. Through hilly and glorious scenery, I was taken to three wineries and a restaurant that served ‘the best shashlik in all the land’; or at least that is what my Russian-speaking guide, Zura assured me.
Zura was an enormous man, resembling a fully-grown oxen, terrifying upon first glance. With fingers as large as my forearms and a neck almost as wide as his remarkably broad shoulders, his handshake was predictably bone-crushing, but the smile that crept out from beneath a bushy moustache was warm and welcoming. In fairness to him, the shashlik was delicious, confirming my already strong suspicions that nobody cooks meat better than the Georgians.
The evening was a hazy affair as Zura insisted on making toast after toast with homemade wine and insisting that each glass be finished and refilled. We drank to family, to friends, to peace, to fine wine, to Georgian hospitality, to our shared sense of enjoyment, to ‘the best shashlik in all the land’. Attempting to drink at Zura’s alarming speed was no doubt naive, especially with a winding journey back to the capital to come. The driver of the minivan remained, mercifully, sober.
What better way to clear one’s head after a night of heavy eating and drinking, than with a trip to Tbilisi’s famous sulphur baths? Regular readers may begin to feel like the hours I spend with naked men are becoming incessantly regular, but I assure you that they are necessary. The baths in Tbilisi differ slightly from those in Moscow, primarily in that they rely on the natural sulphur springs. I also discovered that the plunge pool, so reliably freezing in Russia, was close to boiling point in Tbilisi. Had I known, I may not have leapt in so readily and enthusiastically.
A run-down changing room, where men sat smoking and sipping tea, led onto the main bath area, where marble benches lined the walls under the characteristic arched ceilings. Several men stood under the showers, carefully scrubbing every nook and cranny of their bodies. One man was still working away at his nether regions with a flannel when I returned from two trips to the sauna and a sweltering dip in the plunge pool. To this day, he may still be going.
I had been instructed to pay a little extra for a massage, although entirely unaware of what this might entail. A balding and slightly plump man approached, and using a combination of Russian and sign language instructed me to lie face down on one of the marble benches. I surrendered my dignity to him. With what looked like a coarse oven glove, he vigorously attacked my back, arms, legs and bottom, removing many pieces of dead skin I never knew I had, before repeating the process on my front.
Unbeknownst to me, this man must have purchased an access-all-areas pass to my body because his gloved hand did not hold back in its unabashed exploration, happily batting things aside in its quest to find every piece of offending skin. Once this was complete, he moved on to the massage. I had accepted his offer of a ‘real’ massage and felt the brute force of his work. There was a back and forth nature to proceedings: a grimace and a groan from me, followed by a grunt of effort from him. He then filled a bag with soap and proceeded to wash me all over. Rather stupidly, I chose to take a deep breath just as he smothered my face with the bag, forcing me to swallow a large gulp of soapy water and struggle to breathe for the remainder of the cleanse.
Needless to say, I felt extraordinarily refreshed as I emerged into the bright Tbilisi sunshine. My skin was smoother than it had been in years. Georgia had fed me, wined me and given me an experience I will never forget. I have every intention of returning.