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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Feeling Like Family in Post-War Georgia

As a visitor to Georgia, you're never at a loss for invitations.


Wandering into a church in the capital Tbilisi, we stumbled upon a wedding party who, spying us shyly peeking at the ceremony, eagerly ushered us up to the front row and invited us to the reception afterward.


Dining quietly at a table for two in one of the quaint stone-walled restaurants built into the old`city walls, we caught the eye of a joyful group of celebrants, who, wine bottles raised to lips and arms around each other's shoulders, enthusiastically invited us to their table to drink and share their meal.


After years of civil war, locals are eager to tell you that this former Soviet republic is ready to receive foreign guests again. Tbilisi parks that used to be deserted after dusk are now full of strolling couples and frolicking children; roads formerly peppered with militia checkpoints every few kilometers are now clear, if still a bit bumpy.


Electricity is sporadic and reminders of past conflicts still evident -- the once-proud Hotel Tbilisi lies gutted from street fighting and the former Intourist Hotel Iveria spills over with refugees from the separatist Abkhazia region -- but Georgia's legendary hospitality remains as strong as ever.


We had arranged to stay with a Georgian family in a bed-and-breakfast type arrangement, but our hosts -- a widow and her bouncy 13-year-old daughter -- went well beyond the call of duty in treating us to a lavish display of homespun kindness: a constant flow of steaming rounds of khachapuri warm from the oven, platters of fresh melons and peaches, solicitous clucking over our comfort, and, one hot, lazy afternoon, a delightful impromptu piano concert of soulful Georgian ballads and rousing folk tunes.


According to legend, Tbilisi was founded when fifth-century king Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the forest, and his falcon and a pheasant, struggling wildly, fell into a hot sulphur spring. Pursuing them, the king came upon the spring and decided to create the city near the healing waters. A dip in the sulphur spring baths in the center of town is still recommended to detox your system.


Tbilisi, snaking along either side of the Kura river, boasts leafy, human-scale streets that invite early morning walking before the afternoon heat of up to 30 degrees Celsius renders everything and everyone immobile. A collection of towering Stalinist apartment blocks mars the suburbs, but stone churches, grape arbors and open-air cafes contribute to the city's charms.


For a bird's-eye view of Tbilisi in the valley, gather your nerves and take the shaky-looking funicular up to Mtatsminda, or Holy Mountain. The weed-choked park and crumbling buildings on top have seen better days, but it's worth stopping on the way back down at the Pantheon to visit the graves of Georgian writers and public figures.


Rustaveli Prospekt's tree-lined length of architecturally varied buildings -- the Turkish-looking Opera and Ballet Theater and stately parliament house, among others -- are a good place to begin your acquaintance with the city. The street leads to Freedom Square, from which you can meander to the winding streets of the Old Town, whose maze of streets are filled with colorful row houses, balconies bedecked with plants, and crumbling shacks with hungry-looking dogs and children squatting in the doorways. When it's time to take a break in the afternoon, the remnants of the old city stone walls contain several refreshingly cool, dim cafes, restaurants and galleries.


Be sure to end your wanderings at the dusty Georgian State Art Museum, which houses a fine collection of Niko Pirosmani's paintings depicting more feasting, drinking and farming in the Georgian countryside, as well as an elaborate group of icons, mosaics and jewel-encrusted headdresses, necklaces and bangles.


Despite Tbilisi's many attractions, the city can still seem hot and polluted, and the clean air of the Caucasus beckons. We took a journey north from Tbilisi on the unromantically named Georgian Military Highway, a road that deteriorates into quite un-highway-like conditions at several teeth-jarring, rocky stretches. Watch out for the occasional cow lying placidly in the road or the hapless farmer trying to coax his worried flock of sheep across.


We stopped at the picturesque city of Mtskheta, tucked into in the green valley where the Kura River meets the Aragvi River and the capital of the country until the fifth century, to visit the large stone Sveti Tskhoveli Cathedral. Meaning "life-giving pillar," the church is famed as the site of a miracle by St. Nino, who converted the Georgian king to Christianity in the fourth century. During the building of the church, St. Nino is said to have caused one of its wooden pillars to pour forth holy water with curative powers. Now, however, the only water comes from the buckets of the black-robed priests who toil in the broiling afternoon in the cathedral's gardens.


An hour or so outside Tbilisi, the Ananuri castle sits prettily on the roadside. Our guide told us sadly how, years ago, the parking lot used to be full of tour buses lining up to see the fine stone churches and frescoes inside the castle; when we visited, there wasn't even anyone around to let us in.


The castle overlooks the massive Zhinvali Reservoir, created in Soviet times by damming the Aragvi River. Eerily, some rooftops of village homes that were flooded by the damming can be seen peeking up through the water, while the calm water mirrors the blue and white peaks of the Caucasus that can just be seen in the distance.


Back on the road, we stretched our legs at the village of Pasanauri, where the "Black" Aragvi River -- darkly colored, we were told, because of limestone deposits -- meets the "White" Aragvi River. For about 15 meters, the rivers run swiftly side by side in a sharply defined line before mingling.


Stopping at the village of Gudauri, we took an all-day trek that winds up the mountains from the village of Gergeti to the stunning Tsminda Samebo church, a small collection of 14th-century stone buildings that sits serenely on a ridge and is surrounded by stupendous peaks and valleys, careening birds and low, feathery clouds.


The scene's loveliness is marred only by an ugly remnant of a cable car that used to rise from Gergeti to the ridge. The locals insisted that it be taken down, partly because it marred the beauty of the view and partly because they believed the arduous hike up to the church added to its spiritual reward.


Just below the church lies a grassy meadow of dancing butterflies that invites you to spread out your blanket, unload your wine, bread and cheese and gaze at the mountains, still capped with white even in the heat of summer. Try to spot the highest of all nearby peaks, the grand 5,000-meter Mount Kazbek.


History buffs might be interested in a side trip from Tbilisi to Gori, a town best known as the first home of Josef Stalin. Born in an unprepossessing wooden house -- which still stands on its original site, now enclosed by an elaborate temple -- Stalin lived in Gori for his first 14 years.


Next to the house stands the Stalin Museum, which houses all the statues, knicknacks, busts, photographs and letters of Uncle Joe that you might want, including a respectfully hushed, darkened chamber, illuminated only by flickering lights, in which Stalin's death mask regally reposes. Outside the museum, don't forget to take a peek inside Stalin's private railway car, where you can see where he slept, ate and shaved on his road trips. A massive statue of Stalin, reportedly the only surviving statue of him in the former Soviet Union, hulks nearby.


Stalin's memory is clearly cherished here, so don't expect the museum to explore touchy subjects like the dictator's purges and death squads.


A short drive outside Gori took us to the cave town of Uplistike, dating from the sixth century B.C., painstakingly hewn from a rocky ridge. We clambered up the glaringly white, sun-baked rocks to reach the town, a warren of sleeping chambers, lookout towers, cooking areas, drainage ditches, and even a meeting hall, complete with podium and tiered seating carved into the rock.





Getting There, Getting Around


Aeroflot flies to Tbilisi on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings from Sheremetyevo-I for about $217 round trip, and Georgian Airways flies every afternoon except Mondays from Vnukovo for about $385 round trip.


Visas to Georgia can be obtained by taking a letter of invitation to the consular department of the Georgian Embassy at 6/2 Arbatsky Pereulok (291-7527.) It costs $30 for a visa within 10 days or $60 for one-day turnaround. You can also contact a travel agency and have them organize your visa for you.


Day trips from Tbilisi can be done with public transportation, but we hired our own transport and guide, at a cost of about $120 a day. Caucasian Travel, an energetic firm in Tbilisi, sets up tours to the mountains or the wine country, and they can also arrange invitation letters, home stays or hotel bookings. Their phone numbers are (995) 32-987-400 and 32-987-399 or you can fax them at (995) 32-987-399. Their e-mail is saba@comp.ge. In Moscow, Smart Travel Agency (233-1765) can arrange a letter of invitation and set up mid-range hotel stays.


If you want to enjoy Tbilisi in Western-style comfort, the best bet is the Marco Polo-run Metechi Palace Hotel (995-32- 755-556). It costs about $196 for a single and about $230 for a double, plus VAT. The Palace Hotel in Moscow (956-3152) can assist with reservations if you have trouble getting a call through to Tbilisi. At the other end of the price scale, our home stay cost $55 a night for two people, including breakfast.


As for food, we usually ate with our hosts, but there are numerous Georgian restaurants near the old town, with dinner costing about $15 per person for a full meal of appetizers, bread, shashlik, dessert and wine.