Tag Archives: Georgia

On the Black Sea at Batumi

Batumi: before the roadworks

Batumi: before the roadworks

Ah, I do like to be beside the seaside.

I’ve traveled thousands of miles through deserts, mountains and innumerable disgusting bus stations, and finally I find myself face to face with this charming east-west trending elliptical depression, perhaps more commonly known as the Black Sea.

Not quite the sandy paradise about which I had fantasised – the beach is a mass of huge black rocks on which hundreds of speedo-clad Georgians balance precariously, but at least all the rest of the paraphenalia is present.

That’s right. We’re talking overpriced cafes on the boulevard, ancient volleyball nets, curiously artistic sculptures and dog mess. As an extra added bonus, James Blunt blares out on the speakers wired up and down the ‘beach’, albeit a more chilled-out acoustic version, his heavier stuff clearly risked offending the more sensitive listeners.

So, this is last stop for Georgia, and it appears, last stop for Russian-speaking territory. Shame really – I have managed to acquire a fearsome restaurant vocabulary (thus breaking the stranglehold of shashlik on my diet – hah!) and my idle bus chit chat was becoming first class. How many children do YOU have, sir?

One final reason to press on: this part of Georgia – Adjara – is home to the most ridiculously greasy khachapuri of the lot. It tastes amazing – but you effectively age five years with every one of them you consume.

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borjomi“So what do you think of Georgia?”, I asked the pint-sized hirsute Armenian Lada driver we picked up on the border, who offered to drive us to Tbilisi for a sum so ludicrously small, that even the other taxi drivers laughed at him.
“Hmmmmm” he dithered over the wheezing engine, waving his hands around in a non-commital gesture to indicate that he was pretty non-plussed about the place. “The food is good” was his consolation.

This is true. This we know. This I have learnt, once again, as I sit here nursing an engorged belly stuffed with khachapuri, aubergine with walnut paste and the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad (sadly infiltrated once again with a fragrant parsley which makes the whole dish taste remarkably like soap).

However, the Georgians have certainly missed a trick when it comes to water.

Those of you up to date with the ins and outs of Georgia’s economy would know that the country’s number one export is mineral water, principally the Borjomi brand. (Their cheesy website has a fairly amusing flash intro whizzing you through the mountains of Samtskhe-Javakheti – check it out if you fancy a giggle).

They are fiercely proud of this product. It is the fabled mineral water that achieved legendary status throughout the Russian Empire (and its subsequent reincarnations) that is said to heal the sick, allow the blind to see, the lame to walk etc etc. Lenin was so keen on the stuff that he had it shipped all over the Soviet Union so that a glass of naturally carbonated mineral water from artesian springs was never too far away.

Lenin was clearly a very, very sick man, judging by his taste in beverages.

Regardless of its medicinal properties, Borjomi has a downright offensive taste. Salt, chlorine, silt and general fustiness battle it out among the bubbles, culminating in a taste so foul that it is actually remarkably challenging to keep a straight face.

When served straight out of the fridge it is atrocious, but at room temperature it is unequivocally vile.

Imagine a small basin of tap water that has remained untouched since the Soviet days; a rusty pipe from the soiled sanatorium upstairs has been allowed to drip its dubious contents into the basin for the last decade whilst the whole premises around it decayed. Next, Sergei piled in with a hundredweight of salt, and ran the whole basinful through a 1980s swimming pool filtration device. Throw some bubbles through it, slap it in a bottle and boom!

This is Borjomi. Get stuck in.

Sampling the local produce

Vineyards, churches and tiled rooves: beautiful Sighnaghi

Vineyards, churches and tiled rooves: beautiful Sighnaghi

Crossing from Azerbaijan, the first stop is the Kakheti region, Georgia’s wine country.

I wasn’t expecting great things. My experiences with Azeri wine had been less than enjoyable – a sole bottle of Qiz Qalasi was slightly shy of being quaffable when accompanied with a vast local stew in Baku, but generally speaking, the wines I had managed to get hold of in this nominally Muslim country were positively undrinkable. Incredibly sweet, young wines, raping the palate and dishing out vicious hangovers before you’d even drained your glass.

So I was a little sceptical when Gamra, the owner of the fantastic homestay in Sighnaghi, presented two large carafes of home-made white wine as we sat down to a feast of khachapuri, endless varieties of Russians salads, stews, meats, and a hundredweight of bread.

Fiercely proud of his home brew, Gamra poured gallons of the stuff down our throats with an endless succession of carafes finding their way to our table. The evening was warm, and the wine tremendously cold and fruity. Plate after plate of aubergine, walnut paste and olives appeared, and we soon elapsed into a collective food and wine coma. Gamra was not content on leaving things there, however, and he ‘encouraged’ us to bring the evening to a close with the Georgian rocket fuel Chacha.

By the evening’s conclusion, my tasting notes I had so earnestly filled in hours before were soon lost under a splodges of mayonnaise, khachapuri grease and tea stains.

I sadly cannot provide any faithful report on the quality of Gamra’s home-made plonk: but it’s certainly pretty punchy.

What a cliche. I celebrate my return to the Christian world by partaking in an almighty drinking session with Georgian winemakers.

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Churches! Men wearing shorts! No headscarves! Beer – everywhere!

Yes, I’ve made it back into this small island of Christianity amongst a vast ocean of tiled mosques and gamey lamb stews.

The clapped-out Azeri buses wish you a fond farewell

The clapped-out Azeri buses wish you a fond farewell

Crossing the border was far from straightforward, but of course, you knew that already. This time I was subject to the whims of a young adolescent toting an unfeasibly large automatic weapon, barking at the squadrons of exhausted Georgian Ladas which had jockeyed for position all morning to squeeze through the single entry gate. A thick smell of clutch hung in the air from the enthusiastic attempts to make it next in line.

Basking in this minor position of power, the guard delighted in seeing the crowds of pedestrians pile up for a good hour, unleashing his teenage angst on any foolhardy soul who dared stray across the line, making a break for passport control – before inviting a few lucky souls to set foot in no mans’ land. A few at a time. Just a few.

Eventually, I was selected amongst the seething crowds, and after a brief stroll across a dried-up river bed, I approached the Georgian side with trepidation.

More flicking through embarassing photos on my digital cameras?
Full-length explanations on why I had come to Georgia?
Picking through the pitiful selection of clothes in my backpack in pursuit of some chemical form of entertainment?

Not at all.

“Welcome to Georgia, my friend”. A handshake, a smile, and I was through.

What a tremendous place. I love it already.