The Georgians have a saying… at the beginning of time when God was giving out land to the various nations of the world the Georgians were too busy drinking to attend. Arriving late, God was angry and asked why they had dishonoured Him so; there was now no land left to give them.
But the Georgians replied that far from dishonouring God they were late simply because they were drinking to His health and this had taken quite some time. God was pleased by their answer and so gave them the tiny bit of land he had been keeping for himself…
The road to political independence has not been an easy one for the Georgians. Eager to look west, towards Europe and the States, rather than north to the Russian Bear that dominated the region for so long, Georgia upset the Kremlin to such a degree that in 2008 Putin ordered an invasion into parts of the country. Although a humiliating defeat for the Harvard-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili ensued – both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were lost to Russia – it did not stop this proud country from finally stepping out of the shadow of its powerful northern neighbour to become a self-sustaining and confident nation.
Georgia’s history is fascinating. From the time of Jason and the Argonauts, it spans the heyday of the Silk Road, the Crusades, wars with Persia, Arabia and the Ottomans and more local squabbles than a season of parliamentary sessions – its capital, Tbilisi is said to have been sacked 27 times. It is also one of the most beautiful counties you are ever likely to visit. The Grand Caucasus Mountains that stretch all the way from the Black Sea coast to the shores of the Caspian, from Chechnya through to Armenia, are high and untamed with snowy peaks and lush green valleys that bloom in spring with a multitude of wild flowers. Eagles soar above glaciers while wolves and bears stalk forest floors. And among them live the Georgians, an independent race whose creed of hospitality is giving and living with their delicious food and wine.
And nowhere is this more evident than Tusheti, a dramatically beautiful region in northeast Georgia, high in the Caucasus Mountains, bordering Chechnya and Dagistan. With a culture undiluted by westernised city living, this is where the heart of the Georgian character lives: shepherds, horseman and wild mountain ways.
I first came here leading a horse trek in 2008 – just before the Russians invaded – and was immediately seduced. We had arrived into Dartlo, a small village, just after six in the evening. Having dealt with the horses, I decided to go for a wander. Dartlo is a real-life throwback to some long-forgotten fairytale. Nestled in a narrow valley, facing a tumbling river and forest of vaulting pines, it is a perfect example of an old Caucasus settlement. A motley collection of homes, with slate tiled roofs – speckled with bright yellow lichen – dry-stone walls and ornately carved balconies climb precariously up the northern slope; these surround a roofless church and the ubiquitous tapered tower. It should really be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
True, most of the houses have seen better days; wild flowers run amok in the gardens (if that’s what they ever were), half the homes are boarded up and long since abandoned, and finding a path between them takes patience, but this merely adds to the charm of a place that is far beyond any tourist trail and seems cast in a perpetual time warp.
I had not been able to get a satisfying photograph of the village from horseback as we approached so aimed to walk beyond its limits to get a good view just as the sun fell behind the distant hills. ‘Hey…’ I heard from the balcony of one of the houses, ‘Gambojorma!’ My Georgian only stretched to two words, but luckily this was one of them, so I returned the greeting and followed the beckoning hand onto a veranda. Here, two young women welcomed me with great enthusiasm and invited me to sit next to a man with an accordion around his neck. ‘Drink… drink,’ the two women cried in unison – at least that’s what I took the command to be – as a beaker of chacha (Georgia’s famed national fire-water) was thrust towards me. Knowing it would be rude to refuse, I accepted and understanding the form in this most sensible part of the world, threw it back in one.
A rash move.
To great whoops of delight from the women, a second beaker was immediately passed my way with the same cry, ‘Drink… drink!’ Again I drank (well, what’s a man to do?) The third time the cup came back it was twice as full as the previous occasions. On seeing my questioning eyes, one of the girls held up three fingers and explained that it was only lucky if I drank three cups otherwise a great calamity would befall us all. How was I to refuse? Gingerly I sipped the spirit before deciding ‘in for a penny…’ and downed it to the drop.
I was immediately hugged by all present and kissed happily on the cheek. At once the man struck up a song on the accordion and we all started to sing and dance. I never did get my picture, but Georgia and its people got under my skin – I return as often as I can…