Showing posts with label Tbilisi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tbilisi. Show all posts

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bologna and Tbilisi; Two very fine restaurants

I do realise that I have a very fortunate life, and my ability to wander and experience the world is one that I don’t take for granted.

There is, for those who wonder, a downside. My friend Cameron once said that I was “hyper-stimulated”, and thus unable to settle to routines any more, and constantly craving excitement. New colours, unseen mountains, interesting people and simply the need to see what is around the next corner. This is, of course, true, and while not exactly a curse, it does have its negative moments. However, in the quest for new and exciting places and experiences, I have found many wonderful places and people; and restaurants.

I have, in the past three days, been to two of the most wonderful restaurants it has been my privilege to experience. And I say this from many decades of hard trying; I have eaten at fine restaurants on each continent; I have had Michelin meals, eye popping fish and chips, spectacular Icelandic lobster and some of the finest meat that South America can provide. I have also had scorpions, sheep’s eye balls and the pride and joy of some lascivious horse, but those meals fade quickly.

This week’s two prizes are Barbarestan in Tbilisi and Trattoria di via Serra in Bologna.

Now both cities are renowned for food, Bologna possibly more simply due to its location, but for foodies seeking new and exciting tastes, Tbilisi offers some dramatic dining.

Neither are Michelin starred, and neither are expensive; neither are fancy and nor are they conceited. They are both family run, in Bologna by Flavio and Tommaso and in Tbilisi by the massive Kurasbediani family with their ten children. They both offer an exquisite balance between bewitching flavours and a completely unpretentious atmosphere. This self-assurance is the key to their success.
Georgian food is exciting; it is a riot of flavour and colour that both delights and amazes. Barbarestan takes this to a new level by fusing the unexpected together. 

Polyphonic singing at Barbarestan

Their use of traditional herbs is masterful, and in fact, the entire menu is drawn from a cookbook written in the 19th century by a Georgian duchess (Barbara Jorjadze if you must know) found in the Tbilisi flea market; these are recipes unknown to the contemporary kitchen, and most certainly unfamiliar to the modern palate. Balanced with their substantial offering of Georgian wines, their encyclopaedic knowledge of Georgian customs and music and the polyphonic singing that can accompany some mealtimes, this family has got it right.

And so to Bologna I flew; two years ago I had written that the Trattoria di via Serra was “worth stopping over in Europe simply to eat there”. I wanted to see if this was true.

The menu at Trattoria di via Serra

Flavio was, as usual, at the door, letting diners in only after they had rung a bell. One can dine pretty well only by reservation, and the small location is usually full. Its popularity comes, I think, from its attention to detail and the presentation of local, countryside food. Once again, the dishes are not fancy, but drawn from the inspirations of fresh produce artfully combined. Tommaso is a wizard in the kitchen; his skills are evident with every mouthful. His ability to draw the strength of flavour from such simple combinations of ingredients is an inspiration.

Meatballs are not, in fact, a terribly attractive dining options; however, Tommaso's wizardry in combining the apparently basic ingredients is awe inspiring, and takes this simple dish to dizzy heights. 

Two such different restaurants in two such different cities. Their similarities, however, are at the root of their success and attraction. Both run by families, one small and one large, but the intimacy offered by the close collaboration of the owners is evident in their food. The cuisine is simple, artful, thoughtful and utterly delicious.

This is fine dining, and not “Fine Dining”.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Classic Georgian Tour: Food, Wine and Culture

The Classic Georgia: Food Wine and Culture

Well, this time I am going to use my blog to announce two unique tour programs that will be offered by the Tbilisi-based travel company Living Roots and escorted by MaxGlobetrotter! Needless to say, I am very excited by the opportunity to work with Living Roots once again, and to return to Georgia in September.

We will be offering two programs: our Classic Georgia: Food, Wine and Culture, and a brand new tour, "Georgia's Soviet Legacy". Each will be quite fascinating, and will dig deep into the life, history and culture of Georgia. As regular followers of my blog will know, I am passionate about Georgia, and love working with the folks at Living Roots to offer a unique perspective on this unique country. Our tours will be limited to eighteen people, nine couples; early booking is essential.

This will be the fourth time that we have offered this program, and we look forward to introducing you to the fascinating and surprising country of Georgia this September. Recognised by National Geographic as one of the tours that one must take in a lifetime, we are pretty proud of the itinerary.

Our groups are small and our aim is to take you away from the major tourist destinations to meet and experience the unique culture of this wonderful country located in the heart of The Caucasus. 

September 10:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to our accommodation confirmed for three nights at the Citrus Hotel. Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 10th, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

Vino Underground
September 11:  There will be an optional walking tour at 10.00 am for those who are up and ready that will explore the quirky center of Old Tbilisi; we will see the city from each side of the River and have an introduction to the remarkable stories of the early days of this strategically important town. Lunch will be at 1.00 pm, and later in the afternoon we shall wander over to the iconic wine bar, Vino Underground for our first introduction to the glories of Georgian wine.

September 12:  The morning will be free to rest and adjust to the time zone, or explore the surrounding areas on your own. In the afternoon we will head out to Tbilisi to explore the Old Capital of Mtskheta and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. This cathedral, founded in 1010, is one of the most sacred places in the country and is a fine introduction to the importance of the Georgian Orthodox church in the Georgian soul.

September 13:  Today we will leave the capital behind and head west. First to the unremarkable town of Gori, made famous only because of its native son, Stalin. We shall visit the extraordinary, and rather chilling museum to his life before continuing over the Likhi mountains to Kutaisi and finally to Tskutalbo, our overnight stop. This resort was built in the 1970s as a resort exclusively for high-ranking Soviet Naval offices, and is makes a delightful and unique place to stay.

September 14:  Today we climb the mountains. After a coffee stop in Zugdidi, we will drive up the Svaneti Valley to Mestia. This region is special, even by Georgian standards! The communities that populate this valley are distinct and historically fiercely independent. We will see some dramatic scenery, gorgeous mountains and villages that have been here since the dawn of time. Finally, we will reach Mestia, the regional capital and now a center for hiking, skiing and a variety of other mountain-based activities.

September 15:  Ushguli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it is extremely remote and life here is redolent of the middle ages. It has a collection of dramatic medieval towers, and lying as it does at 2,300m, it is the highest populated community in Europe. We will have time to explore the village in some detail, and if the weather is clear, have a dramatic view of Georgia’s highest mountain, Shkhara which towers some 5,100m over the landscape.
Ushguli - High in the Great Caucasus

September 16:  Today we head back down the mountain to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, and an important provincial capital. It is blessed with a two UNESCO sites, and we will visit one, the Gelati Monastery, built in the early 1100s by King David. It is not only an architectural masterpiece, but also an important center of learning for centuries, and one of the first schools in the region.

September 17:  Today is a “Driving Day”; we shall start the morning in the local market before driving east. We will stop for lunch at Iago’s Winery, a charming family wine producer in the Kartli region. Iago’s wine is remarkable, and his was the first winery in the country to receive a bio-certificate for his vineyard and production. Skirting Tbilisi, we will enjoy the three-hour drive toward the Azeri border, and our next stop, this time for three nights, at Sighnaghi,

September 18:  There are many opportunities for sightseeing in this quirky town; we will spend time in the morning exploring the town itself before driving a few kilometers away to visit the 9th century monastery of Bodbe. It now functions as a nunnery, and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia.
Following a short rest, we will have our dinner, a traditional Georgian Supra, at PheasantsTears. This restaurant and winery is one of the most vibrant in the country, and an exciting place to meet some of the finest Georgian wine, cuisine and be introduced to the unique polyphonic music.

September 19:  We will spend today exploring the region of Kakheti; we will see the main town of Telavi, and later visit the unusual and quite remarkable winery of Alaverdi. Here, wine has been made by the monks continuously since the year 1011, and they have got it right! We will enjoy a tasting here before returning to our hotel in Sighnaghi for our final evening in the Georgian countryside. Dinner will be at a local restaurant.

September 20:  We will drive back to Tbilisi today and have time in the afternoon for some independent sightseeing before our farewell dinner at Azarpesha, a unique cultural restaurant in the center of Tbilisi’s Old City.

September 21:  Your departure from Georgia. Once again your flight may have an early departure time, but your room will be available to rest in prior to your airport transfer. Please note that for those joining our Soviet Legacy tour, this will begin on September 23, giving you a day to relax and enjoy Tbilisi on your own. 

The Price:           US$ 2,940 per person (single supplement: $650)

This includes:             
  • Airport transfers
  • 4 nights in Tbilisi at the Hotel Citrus
  • 3 nights in Sighnaghi at the Hotel Kabadoni
  • 1 night in Tskaltubo
  • 2 nights in Mestia and the Hotel Tetnuldi
  • 1 night at the Hotel Begrati in Kutaisi
  • Daily breakfast, lunch and 10 dinners
  • Five wine tastings and two folkloric performances
  • All entrance fees and excursions as detailed on the itinerary
  • Transportation by coach throughout, with 4WD vehicles for the day excursion to Ushguli
  • Fully escorted by Tamara Natenadze and “MaxGlobetrotter”

The price excludes the following:  
  • Items not specifically mentioned in the itinerary
  • Items of a personal nature

The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of eighteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at:

The Alaverdi Monastery

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Georgia: An escorted tour in September 2015

I rarely, if ever, escort groups; however, Georgia is a country designed for group tours, and it is probably my favourite destination in the world, so this September I am leading a small group to explore the Wine, Food and Culture of this remarkable country.

We will start, as always, with our arrival in Tbilisi, the country's capital, and following a chance to sleep for a few hours, throw ourselves into the fray. From our hotel we will wander up to the marvellous Vino Underground restaurant where we will have our introduction to the myriad complexities that make up the Georgian wine mosaic.

A leisurely walk through Old Town, and dinner at the spectacularly located Kopala Restaurant will round out the day.

We head out of Tbilisi the next day to visit the ancient capital of Mtskheta, the undeniably chilling Stalin Museum, the wonderful vineyard run by my friend Iago and finally to the Tskaltubo Spa. This spa, formerly the recreation facility for high Soviet military folk, is being refurbished and gradually brought back to life; it houses some truly remarkable historical legacies, and is a fascinating stop.

We continue through the Svaneti Valley to Mestia, the commercial hub of this remote mountain district, and the home of a truly remarkable collection of early Christian artefacts and icons in the national museum. We spend a day travelling by 4WD to Ushguli, a UNESCO heritage site, and a destination recently featured by National Geographic 

Following two remarkable days in the highlands, we will return to Kutaisi, the second city of the country, and enjoy time wandering in the Old Town before dinner and our overnight stay.

From Kutaisi, we follow the ancient path of the Silk Road, as we travel past Tbilisi to the rich agricultural lands of Kakheti in Georgia's east. We cross the Likhi Range en route, the mountains that separate the watershed to the Black or Caspian Seas. We will stop along the way, before reaching our overnight stop at Chateau Mere.

The monastery at Alaverdi has to be one of my favourite places in the country, and we will enjoy both the remarkable atmosphere of the monastery and their wine. Having been making wine pretty much continuously since the year 1011, they have become extremely good at their craft, and you will be able to enjoy their unique creation in the splendour of the 6th century monastery.

Our overnight accommodation will be at the Kabadoni hotel in Sighnaghi, and dinner at Pheasants Tears, a restaurant that I love, and is run by two great friends, John Wurderman and Gia Rokashvili. 

We have a gentle day around this gorgeous town before returning to Tbilisi for the final two nights, and some more sightseeing, wandering, a chance to visit the ancient bath-houses and certainly to shop for some memories of this extraordinary trip.

So, enough of the commercial! The tour is limited to eighteen passengers, the weather will be fantastic, the company convivial and our local colleagues at Living Roots are the most brilliant travel company in Georgia.

It will be an ideal journey, and I look forward to having you join! For more information, please feel free to email me at

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tbilisi, Georgia; "Now for Something Completely Different"

There are dozens of different reasons for travelling, and like the industry itself, can be divided into “pushing” and “pulling”, tourism to Georgia can certainly be counted on for both. 

Tonight, I find myself in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the beginning of the International Wine Tourism Conference. Now this might sound like a bit of a wheeze, and one has to admit that wandering the planet searching for new and exciting places to operate tours based on eating and drinking might not sound like “real” work, but let me assure you that it is serious business.

It may seem like fun to have to identify new wine-growing regions, techniques and the relationship that they have with the local food industry; to identify those areas in the world that tourists, particularly those with an interest in the culinary arts may enjoy, would enjoy and find suitable accommodation, translation and collateral services that will make their trip memorable. But let me tell you, that is is tiring.

“Gruelling Business Travel”, I say.

It is, however, a very important segment of the travel industry, and tourism that devotes at least 50% of the focus of the trip that includes food and/or wine experiences is a $750 million industry; and that, is a lot of wine, accommodation, flights, transfers, guides, sightseeing and food.

So once in a while, actually, annually, the International association of folks who do this for a living get together and discuss the industry’s trends, developments and issues for a few days, and this year, the meeting happens to be in one of my favourite destinations in the world, Tbilisi, Georgia.

And so, awaiting the conference (including a paper that I have been invited to present), here I am in Georgia, my twelfth visit in eight years, simply fascinated by the development that I can see in front of my eyes.

There are four or five new global-brand hotels being developed, road and rail infrastructure growing, and most importantly, a three-year degree course at the major national university..

It is this, the recognition that tourism is a vital segment of the economy, and the resulting investment in the development of the segment by creating strong post-secondary educational programs that will ensure the success of the industry. Concurrently, of course, tourism will never develop into a vibrant economic sector in jurisdictions that do not offer such academic support.

And so, one has to take one for the team, and head out to taste heaven-knows how many wines for the long-term benefit of our clients. 

I shall report!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Omalo to Paramaribo via Las Vegas

While my journey from Winnipeg to Omalo was an epic of endurance, the return journey, and its continuation into the next two business expeditions, was an epic of intellectual endurance,

Georgia is, as you know, a favourite country of mine; after spending a few delightful and fruitful days in Tusheti we clambered back over the pass and down to the lowlands. Sighanagi, a delightful little town, picturesque and adjacent to some wonderful wine country, was our stop for the next couple of days. Work was discussed, plans made and projects launched - all in the most agreeable surroundings possible.

Among other programs are a Food, Wine and Culture tour and a specialist Wine program to be operated next summer. We are just waiting for the final details to be set in place and then we will start taking reservations.

Then to Tbilisi, and a couple of days in the Big City, and a bizarre day out to Borjomi; Borjomi, the town that has given its name to Georgia’s most famous mineral water has seen better days. It is a remarkable confluence of Soviet kitsch, modern and somewhat opulent construction and some really rather elderly buildings slowly collapsing from decay. The town bustles, however, with apparently happy holidaymakers and others coming to the spa for A Cure.

Among others, we learned, were hundreds of folks from Atkau, a particularly horrible town in Turkmenistan; it is so polluted that the employers arrange for workers to be flown to Georgia to spend ten days having their bowels scoured by some sort of cleansing mud, their lungs puffed clear and their skins brightly polished before sending them back to the inferno for another year.  Very peculiar.

And so with a heavy heart I boarded the plane back to Canada, and a few days of debriefing before I headed to Las Vegas.

Now Las Vegas is about as distant from Tusheti as one can get, and I have to say that it is not my cup of tea. It was far drearier than I had imagined, less Dubai and more Branson, I felt; acres of slot machines with rather melancholy patrons pressing buttons, and empty card table waiting for a victim. I was there, curiously, at the behest of Visit Britain who held their annual North American beano there. There were, I must add, some very interesting UK products on display, and I will get around shortly to designing a comprehensive UK tour program that highlights some of the more obscure and charming parts of my home country.

And so, fortified with tales of Wales, images of the Outer Hebrides and some rather interesting day trips in and around London I flew home for a few days of debriefing; before I headed to Suriname.

Now the trip to Suriname was fascinating, and I headed south with Dick Griffith, our Chicago-based PR agent. The three Guyanas are most interesting and to our clients, who thrive on alternative destinations, the Guyanas match Georgia and the Hebrides in interest, product and hospitality.

Two days in Paramaribo, a day on a canoe in Warrappa Kreek  exploring the abandoned plantations and marvelling at the speed that the jungle can reclaim land were the opening gambit, and lead up to flying deep into the rainforest, and two nights at the Kabalebo resort.

One of the hardships of my work is the requirement to visit distant facilities to ensure that they do indeed match the “picture on the packet” and that clients who we send to them will not be disappointed. Kabalebo is not disappointing in any manner at all.

Thirty years ago or so, the Surinamese government built several airstrips in strategically located part of the jungle to aid exploration for minerals, the construction of dams and other such major infrastructural projects. Kabalebo is one such airstrip, and as no industrial development was warranted, the resort has been built adjacent to the convenient runway.

It is the most pleasant airport motel I have ever stayed in.
While the rooms in the main lodge are really a little small, subsequent developments have created some absolutely delightful accommodation in the jungle and adjacent to the river. Walks in the jungle are fine for a the first little while, but suddenly one realises that the walk is not in a botanical garden, and that there are real jaguars, ocelots, monkeys and other jungle-dwellers watching our every move. A rain forest is, it has to be said, natures answer to a teenager’s bedroom; it is a messy place, unfathomable to any but a resident yet full of absolutely fascinating creatures and stories. It seemed to me that the major scenario of the jungle was a long, slow-motion murder/suicide scenario. Massive trees grow; parasitic tubers gradually squeeze the life out of the trees that then die, soon to be followed by the demise of the parasite that has killed its source of refreshment. And so on, and so on …..

Two days at the resort were not enough, but needs must, and business beckoned from Georgetown, so we climbed on board the small Cessna aircraft dispatched to pick us up and we flew back to the Zorg & Hoop airport in Paramaribo, another fine dinner and then the short hop to Georgetown.

Of which more will follow.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Georgian Supra

I am a survivor; only just, I will admit, but tomorrow I will be able to stumble onto an aeroplane and leave the extraordinary Georgian hospitality behind.

Let me explain.

Georgia is all about hospitality; now I realise that may countries make this announcement, but in Georgia it is true. The ordinary, average Georgian is delighted that one is visiting, and will spare no effort to display this.

The differently-enhanced Georgian simply goes all out, and not in a Russian manner to simply impress, but in a Georgian manner, simply to host.

One way to show one’s respect and affection is to host a Supra, the Georgian name for a feast. Now at this point, set aside images of medieval “feasts” held at the drearier type of motorway motel, and think hospitality.

Timing is important; apparently, but not in principle. Tables are laid, the initial offerings are put down and at some juncture within thirty or forty minutes of the “scheduled” start, folks wander to the table. Plates of salad, cheeses, pate, eggplant laced with piquant sauces of the most perfect tomatoes and rich chilies, walnut sauces, cilantro, hummus (with rocket if you are lucky), preserves and bread are served. Then come the katchapouri, leavened bread with cheese and (if one is lucky), beet leaves baked into it; lamb, fish and veal dishes arrives, and the table starts  under the weight of the food. Wine flows in delightful rivers, and he laughter measured both in delights chuckles and heartfelt guffaws is heard everywhere.

And then, they sing; there will be a choir of perhaps six singers who punctuate the evening with the haunting and captivating songs of Georgia. The exquisite and haunting polyphonic music of the region is immediately discordant to western ears, but it takes little time to become aware of a different and exciting musical genre. The songs are old; older than most of our countries and tell of love (requited and unrequited), peace, harmony, life and its interrelationships with the land and God. They are truly delightful, and add yet another dimension to the evening. However, this is not really the point.

The issue and history of the Supra is interaction; between families, business colleagues, warring parties or even sparring government departments (one imagines). It is a meeting place; it is the venue to allow ones feelings to be aired, and hear others by means of toasts, speeches and open emotion. It is a wonderful social leveller, and an environment that has been a key point that has allowed so many disparate, divisive and independent groups to co-exist.

Georgia’s many families, tribes, kingdoms, religious groups and interlopers could have evolved so differently. It could have mirrored the cauldrons that are the Middle East and the Balkans; it could have been pasteurised out of ethnographical existence as we seem to be trying to do in “The West”.

Not for Georgia is a future of lowest common denominators and a drive toward mediocrity; it is a country that takes challenge head on, and then resolves conflict through feast.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Home in Tbilisi

There are cities one wants to revisit, cities one wants spend time in, cities that one would never want to set foot in again and then there is Tbilisi.

I have visited hundreds of places over the years, and feel comfortable in many places around the world. I am often asked which my favourite country is, and that is a difficult one to answer. Answering which my favourite city is is far easier, it is Tbilisi.

My definition of urban comfort is being able to step on public transport without question, to remember a short cut and to have a favourite restaurant. Even if it has transmogrified from a magnificent Indian joint to a Fusion Afghan specialist place; it is the memories.

It is having a little money left over from the last visit on a transit card or a nearly complete loyalty card from a coffee chain; it is the feeling of being allowed to avoid the major tourist sights because you have already seen them, and a morning spent wandering through a back-water is much more fun.

It is also in one’s mind; the sensation one gets in recognising a minor landmark, perhaps a tyre store on the way from the airport, perhaps anticipating a turn in the road, or perhaps the allure of a particularly garish building. The feeling of security and comfort in a distant land is embracing and unusual.

Tbilisi does it for me. From the road from the airport, past familiar landmarks, the first glimpse of an Orthodox Church stand proudly on the skyline, the first glance of the city’s magnificent river banks and the first wander through the old and crumbling Old Town

Tbilisi is fabulous, and really should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is a bustling centre, flanking the banks of the Kura River, with a cornucopia of designs. Visions of the 19th century are visible throughout the Old Centre, some restored, some flaking slowly into dust; the patina of these old buildings, with magnificent, faded artwork in their lobbies and cracks reminiscent of earthquake damage. Now, earthquakes do hit the Caucuses, most recently in 2012, but the cracks look more due to inattention and gradual slippage; lovely, nonetheless.

Then there are rings of Soviet Concretism, heroic metalwork and apartment blocks so precarious and ugly, one wonders who could possibly have designed them. Interspersed are some of the most delightful contemporary buildings one could wish for.

Miss Haversham meets Renzo Piano.

Wandering, today, through the city was wonderful. The weather bright and warm, the streets bustling, 22 Bestiki Street still forbidding, and the restoration work of the city centre coming along delightfully. Walk back a block from the main drags and you are among crumbling buildings, small parks filled with laughing children, old buildings taken over by modern art and photography galleries, delightful little restaurants, very private offices and many residential apartments; truly a mosaic of people and function that seems to work so well.

No I don’t have such rose-tinted glasses that I can’t see the poverty that some people live in, but I am sure that there is a difference between being poor and living in poverty. There are terrible issues, of course; unemployment, pensions insufficient to provide even a basic living, the growing gulf between the wealthy who have been involved in development and those who have not.

However, there is also a burgeoning middle class; there are shops and other services clearly catering to their needs, and one huge change that I have seen in the eight years since I first visited, is the growth in infrastructure. From roads to railways, the country has invested in the backbone that will support growth, and allow the money in the country to flow more comprehensively than in most post-Soviet economies.

It is also worth remembering that as recently as the mid-1990s Tbilisi residents were burning furniture to provide some heat and some cooking fuel; there was little if any electricity and the country had submerged under the weight of endemic corruption. There was simply nothing here. Their growth has stemmed from a revolution in 2003 (only ten years ago) that brought post-Soviet power to an end. With ample assistance from both the USA and Europe, both to attempt to create a western state on Russia’s southern border, and a government committed to eliminating corruption and building wealth, the country has changed beyond recognition in many, many ways.

However, it is still Georgia, and it is still Tbilisi; coming back feels warm, welcoming and makes me wish that I had visited earlier in my life. I am sure that I would have moved here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Georgian wine - a study in red.

The Republic of Georgia is truly one of my favourite countries. It is quirky, not well-known, reasonably distant and interesting; it is a country of deep spiritual and cultural roots, and a country that offers visitors surprise, comfort and a truly warm welcome.
I am heading to Tbilisi again on this next weekend, this for my fifth visit.

I have arrived there in a few different manners. Once on a rather squalid overnight train from Yerevan in Armenia, being hounded by a pair of rather dubious pomegranate salesmen; once on a fascinating ship that had sailed from Illichivs’k in the Ukraine transporting railway carriages and large trucks full of staples for distribution throughout the Caucuses; another time by train, although considerably more comfortably, on an overnight train from Baku in Azerbaijan.
This trip, however, will see me arrive a touch more conventionally on board a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul. And this time, it is as the guest of The II International Qvevri Wine Symposium.

The Georgian wine industry is extremely interesting. From the end of the Soviet times, not long ago at all in terms of wine making, the industry has blossomed from producing some rather robust and inconclusive wines to the production of some extremely interesting and unique varieties, including a marvellous traditional wine made in Qvevris.
These are earthenware pots, coated inside with beeswax, and used for the fermentation and storage of wine. This process in Georgia dates back to 8,000BC, and for the intervening 10,000 years, one can say that the techniques have probably modified, but ancient vintners would quickly recognise the approach.

Grapes are fermented in the Qvevri and once fermentation is complete, the pot is sealed and left undisturbed for two years. Makers claim that wine made in this manner is stable, rich in tannins and of long life. We will see.

I am looking forward to heading back to Georgia; it is a fine and intriguing place indeed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Georgetown, Guyana and Tbilisi, Georgia

At first glance, there is little in common between these two wonderful, yet disparate places. Each location offers tourists and visitors a unique and memorable experience; each conjures up quizzical looks when announced as destinations, and each if often confused with a better known, but eponymous location.

The Georgia to which I refer lies in the western end of the Caucuses; a spit of land separating Russia to the north from Turkey and Iran in the south; it is land that has seen its fair share and more of conquest, invasion and occupation, but now revels in its independence, and shift to the mainstream of nations in both and economic and political sense.

It does, however, get terribly confused with the American state of the same name.

Georgetown, for this piece, refers to the capital of Guyana; the most western of the three Guyanas, and a most delightful and interesting city. It is a city of intrigue, wonderful architecture, rather obscure and enchanting museums and a hotbed of social and political activity.

It is neither a suburb of Washington DC, nor the capital of the Malay island of Penang.

I make this rather obtuse point because each country manufactures and exports, and it is perhaps the relative unfamiliarity of each place that places a distinct and rather iniquitous burden upon manufacturers, and makes selling their products in a broader market so difficult.

ALthough this will come as a ssurprise to many, rice is exported from Guyana. Its rice industry is interesting, operates below capacity and offers tremendous growth opportunities; the main commercial variety grown in Guyana is the Rustic, an extra-long grain product that has found much favour in its traditional markets. As tastes change, so do rice fashions, and the newly emerging markets are seeking shorter varieties of rice, and research continues. It is interesting to note that for the newer markets, particularly in Latin America, paddy (unprocessed rice) is exported, thus denying the Georgetown economy the benefits of the value-added conversion of paddy into other rice products.

There is, it must be said, an almost complete lack of awareness of Guyanese rice. Consumers do not demand it and nor does it command high prices, although justified, in the boutique world of Fashion Groceries. It is perhaps this invisibility that prevents the investment required to bring the industry to its next level; consumer-driven demand with the concomitant raising of prices for the industry.

Eerily similarly, Georgia’s wine industry languishes in almost complete obscurity; although producing wine now for 8,000 years, and believe me, during that period they have learned a thing or two, it is remarkably difficult to find Georgian wine outside Georgia, and the former Soviet countries. It is true that they export over 11 million bottles, but as 10 million of them go to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, it is improbable that you will have run into one.

Some are, of course, exported to the US, Canada and western Europe, but nowhere close to the quantity that its quality deserves.

Which is a great shame; the wine, while its pedigree is long, it is not unbroken, has only recently come to include some marvellous and delicate varieties. The primary varieties are Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white), each producing some fine wines. Winemakers are both artisanal small-holders and modern wineries, and production is most certainly geared to serving a broader western market.

In concert with Guyana, without public knowledge of and demand for Georgian wines, building the next step to becoming a recognised source of fine wines will remain difficult; and for no other reason than the geographical ineptitude of the market.

Georgia and Georgetown are indeed delightful places for tourists, but more that that; each sits on a product and industry that offers increasing demand; its ever more complex distribution systems offering ever more opportunity should make Georgian vintners and Guyanese rice farmers smile.

The market, however, needs more geography lessons.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tbilisi; An Interesting Week

Tbilisi is always interesting, and my all-too-brief stay there last week once more conjured up some surprises and ideas. It always does, and suffice it to say that were I to decamp and move to Georgia, a thought that has crossed my mind more than once, I would collapse under the deluge of potential.

Georgia is, you see, a remarkable country. In many ways similar to many post-Soviet lands, it has a vibrancy and excitement that I have not seen in others. The exceptions, of course, are the Baltics, Poland and possibly the Czech Republic, but they have had the EU to assist and boost. No, Georgia has had less structural support; it has, of course, had significant financial support from both the US and from the EU, but nevertheless there is a fascinating evolution going on. Young Georgians, and by that I mean those under about thirty-five in mind or body are so competent and alive; they leave the young whippersnappers that Deloitte and other “Global Consultancies” send to Georgia to help them mend their ways and reach the future.

So the Big Idea now was to run charter flights to Tbilisi for three and four-day escapes. A great idea, and one that warmed the cockles of a tour operator’s heart; there is good accommodation in Tbilisi, sufficient rooms for this kind of operation and a local nightlife that would sell. The idea was mooted in December during my previous visit, and I and a couple of others have been doing a little sleuthing since then.

The key, of course, to a successful tour operation is to be able to buy each component for a significant discount; the hotel rooms must be reasonable and the cost of the aircraft acceptable. It is, whichever way you slice it, a significant risk to charter twenty flights on spec. An operation to Georgia must logically be operated by an airline with the rights to fly on the route, and also an aircraft available with the minimum of deadheading; operating an empty flight to come an pick up the passengers.

The first quote, from a Georgian carrier was for €32,000 per rotation, which seemed pricey to us. Following a series of meetings in London our second quote came from a rather obscure South African airline, of whom I had never heard before Monday. Their offer was US$19,500 per rotation, a significant discount to the original benchmark.

The third meeting was the best; I am yet to get a price, but am assured that it will arrive by Friday (tomorrow at this point).

And so it will come to pass; we will offer holidays in Tbilisi to the denizens of Baghdad; oddly, we now think that 50% of our market will be Iraqis, rather than a complete market of ex-patriots. The market remains to be seen, as do a number of other issues. Georgian visas for Iraqis for example, and the roughly $500,000 financial commitment, but the project seems very sound.

Interesting too, which is important; I have a fairly short attention span. Concentrated and sharp it may be, but it is short.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tbilisi Airport

There really are few places whose daily peak is at about 0400; in fact, I can’t think of another off hand. However, Tbilisi airport is one of those, and it was my pleasure to have landed there this morning at that God Awful time.

Worth it, though, I have to say, as the drive into town was speedy, and really rather beautiful; slightly misty, and the wonderfully illuminated castles, old buildings and streets were a picture.

The airport, however, wasn’t. One of the perils of being a, shall we delicately say, second division destination is that airlines tend to determine when they get served. Major European airports, and even their minor strips, have landing restrictions that theoretically allow those who chose to purchase dwellings near an airport to sleep. This leaves aircraft sitting on the ground all night, unless they are able to squeeze in a round trip journey of nine hours or so to allow a plane to make some money at night.

As this timing requirement needs a landing strip about four hours away that is open in the middle of the night, the choices are fewer than one might imagine. Tbilisi is one; as are such attractive destinations as Yerevan, Yekaterinburg, Perm and so on.

I have left Tbilisi on the return journey, and although an 0430 departure fails to warm the cockles of this jaded traveller’s heart, it is a vast improvement on arriving at that time; getting to the hotel by 0530, asleep at 0600 and sort of awake by noon, clinging to the hope that one’s body will eventually synchronise with the day’s cycle of food smells.

It was a long journey; actually, I almost spent longer in airport lounges (13 hours) than actually flying (14 hours) due to the peculiar schedules, and a well-placed respect for the idiocy of a tight connection in Chicago.

In Munich at one point, I did find myself staring at the departure board wondering where I was actually going. All of the destinations looked pretty appealing, but it was only by reference to my boarding pass that I got myself back on track.

And here I am, back in the Georgian capital for a series of meetings that will hopefully nudge another couple of projects forward. On Wednesday I hope to fly up to Mestia on “my plane”; the aircraft that I worked on leasing to the Georgians is operating a service up to the mountains, and it would be fun to be able to go for a ride. We will see.

In the meantime it is time to again enjoy Tbilisi for a few days, and not think about airlines, airports, schedules or moving again for a few days.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A week in Tbilisi

This is Day 5 of a rather fascinating week in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

I am here principally for business, although sneaking in a few minutes of dinner and a child’s portion of the remarkably good Georgian wine has been quite possible. It is, of course, quite different from the summer both climatically and in the sense of the city.

Cities live and breathe, have seasons and moods just as their individual inhabitants. They have characters and idiosyncrasies and change with the relentless passage of the year.

Late autumn in Tbilisi is very pleasant. The weather has been good, the last leaves fluttering around, the traffic as disobedient and manic as ever and the local populous hurrying around in that special way of the underemployed. The metro, deep and mostly Soviet, is full all of the time; full of folks dressed in the apparent national colour of black. Now and again someone dressed in brilliant beige or olive green illuminates like a Christmas decoration. Otherwise there is a sombre tone of dress, possibly reflective of the mood or possibly because they like black.

I decided to go for a ride; having figured out how to buy my ticket (one buys a card at any station and then, in the nstyle of most city transit systems, loads it up with money), and head off. A single ride costs 40t (25 cents) for the first of the day, the second is 30t and the third and subsequent ones 20t.

I headed out to the end, remembering to note where I got on. It was at თავისუფლების მოედანი, and I made careful note so I would be able to find my way home. The end of a metro line is often odd; built originally at the distant end of a city, they now lie in suburbs of little consequence, the city having grown up and beyond them many years since. In this case, the line was built in 1967, and Tbilisi has expanded considerably. It is a 'hood of scruffy shops, sidewalks, apartments and many people wandering around; it is a place of bingo parlours, money changers (US$1 = 1.1752 or thereabouts), flower sellers and shops peddling a motley assortment of things. Worth an hour of anyone's time, but having exhusted avery opportunity for interest or humour, I headed back into the station at ახმეტელის თეატრი and headed back to თავისუფლების მოედანი for a restorative.

Georgia is an astonishing country. For all of its difficulties, it remains a nation with heart, drive and an infectiously positive outlook; barriers rarely exist, development is on track and those willing to join in are welcome. Everything is being reviewed and renewed; the road and transportation infrastructure, agriculture, energy, manufacturing and every sector of business that one can imagine.

I am here for a couple of reasons; we are looking at significantly developing our promotion of the region in the US and Canada, and secondly because we worked over the past couple of months to broker a six-month lease of a Canadian aircraft to come to Georgia.

The plane will be used principally on a route between Tbilisi and Mestia, the major centre of Svaneti. The project began in August, really, when I was visiting Svaneti with my family; having met the folks who had built a new ski resort and spent time discussing access, we were approached in October to help advise on a suitable aircraft.

The result was the delivery on Thursday of a Twin Otter from the Calgary-based Kenn Borek. It is a fine aircraft, and perfectly suited to the difficult mountain terrain; the pilots are resting today after the long ferry-flight, and tomorrow will start exploring the routes across the mountains into Mestia.

I am pretty excited by this whole development; a modest domestic aviation industry, and although a single Twin Otter won’t get the Star Alliance excited, it is a start. Routes between the capital Tbilisi and Batumi on the Black Sea, neighbouring Yerevan and some other regional towns will assist both tourism and local development.

And that, according to many folks here, is the sort of catalyst that they need.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Svaneti; the magical ceiling of Georgia

Every time I finish an overland journey, I decide that it was the last one that I would make. It comes as a complete surprise every so often to realise that I am neither getting younger, nor is my age staying still. Not, I have to emphasise that I am ancient, but simply that the virtues of Marriott Hotels and airlines are more pronounced than they used to be.

But then I look at an atlas, spot a curious journey and start thinking about it. I have two or three on the go at the moment actually, fomenting in my somewhat overactive brain.

And a combination my trusty National Geographic atlas and my Georgian friend Ia’s urging led us to book passage to Svaneti. Well, to be fairer, I booked it and then let my wife and two daughters know where we would be going for a summer vacation. They smiled, much in the sympathetic fashion of the nice, young men in crisp, white shirts who work in a rather specific type of hospital.

However, we went; back now in Tbilisi, I am once again drawing a moratorium on this kind of travel, but I am sure to break it when I finally get to go to the Guianas, one of the three current ideas. The journey is not easy, from Tbilisi it is an eleven-hour drive, and the last four (or first four on the return) are taken up traversing an extraordinary 160km road through gob-smacking scenery over a surface of loosely graded boulders deep into the high valleys of this remote region.

The scenery, it must be said, and has been by many others, is astonishing. This is a land that has never been invaded successfully and has a vibrant history, so well exhibited in the national museum in Mestia, for many, many centuries. The region is defined by its towers; these towers, defensive for both protection against aggressors, usually neighbours, and nature, in the form of avalanches punctuate the landscape. A traditional Svanetian house is large and capable of housing an extended family of people and animals - the winters are long and the snow too deep for the cows, sheep and horses. Attached to the house, but accessible often only to those who know the secret passage is a tower, some three or four stories tall.

And they are truly magnificent; statuesque and proud, they dominate the landscape of each of the villages that line the river valleys as the road climbed ever deeper toward the peaks of the Caucuses Mountains.

We stayed in Mestia which was, I have to say, a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a pastoral, gentle town (population 2,500) with a traditional feel, and a slow pace. What we found was a town transforming itself rapidly from such an idyllic spot into, and I hope I am wrong here, a parody of itself. Construction was everywhere; from the road, which I would welcome a smooth surface and a reduction of a couple of hours in the drive, the main square, new hotels, ski resorts and the whole nine yards of tourism development.

They, those whose jobs it is to make such decisions, must take care.

There is a terrific new hotel, The Tetnuldi, as well as the rather dreadful Hotel Svaneti where we stayed, whose owners are developing into a ski resort. I spent a couple of hours discussing the project with them, and can see how torn they are between the necessity for a commercial enterprise to have a certain business volume with the desire to retain the characteristics of the place that make it desirable in the first place.

The views, however, were outstanding, and almost impossibly beautiful. In the evening the towers in the town were lit (a balance between authenticity and tourists’ interests), the surrounding mountains were always dramatic and the community braced for change.

And so, in search of an even more difficult drive to an even more remote place we headed off to Ushguli, reputed to be the highest permanently populated village in Europe, lying up at 2,700 metres, and only 45 kms (two and a half hours for heaven’s sake) of a bouldery and lumpy drive further from Mestia.

It was really pretty interesting though, and certainly came closer to my expectation of Svaneti. I had forgotten, of course, that part of living a life that shares flakes of a medieval existence involves “roads” and “paths” that are ill graded, and more animal waste than my urban sensibilities enjoyed. I was very happy that I wasn’t spending a week here, although I would love to have spent at least one night, rather than only a few hours.

Without a car it is tough to get two; as over 90% of the folks who live there have a car, there are only two marshrutkas (small, tight communal taxis) go each week, and the journey is rough.

It is, however, a paradise for experienced hikers, and there are two-day and longer treks marked through these mountains from Mestia, an expedition that would be a highlight of any seasoned walkers’ bucket-list.

As the day wore on, I became increasingly consumed by a simple but important question. In this remote destination, with appalling access and a very limited local market, do they deliver actual toilets? Who would do this? Would the community’s facilities have moved noticeably forward from the fourteenth century? Do they have bath tubs? I didn’t actually need a bath, but once the mind starts off on a track like this, it is difficult to rein it in.

Oddly, and to my great relief, there has been at least one delivery of solid porcelain toilets, installed well and perfectly functional. It is a minor point, but I have to say and important one. Whether this was the only one in Ushguli, or if the sales rep that made the trip there had a bonanza day I can’t say, but the pricey but very welcome cafe in town came as a welcome relief.

So intestinally fortified, it was sadly time to retrace our footsteps; Ushguli is lovely in a slightly ruined sort of way. Ruined enough to excite UNESCO who have designated it as a world heritage site, and isolated and quirky enough to satisfy the needs of most, if not all, travellers who actually make it to the end of this road.

The ride back seemed, as is always the way, faster than the way up. The bumps seemed smoother, the bends in the road less vigorous and the scenery now lying under the soft light of evening was possibly the most dramatic that I have ever seen.

I fear that Svaneti will change, but then again, I am not a Svan, and have no say in their ideas of development. With the bulk of the building out of the way, and the extraordinary detritus of heavy construction removed, though who knows to where, it will be lovely. More accessible, but still hard enough to deter many and keep the region’s unique balance of dramatic scenery, ancient tradition and fresh, fresh air firmly together.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Baku to Tbilisi: The Overnight Train to Georgia

Robust is a word that springs to mind when one ponders the rolling-stock of the Azerbaijan State railway.

It comprises of good solid East German stock of a mid 1960s vintage; good in its day, no doubt, even attractive in its Prussian way, but today it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. The train is an exercise in functionality, offering overnight passage between these two Caucasian capitals in either 1st or 2nd class. Each carriage is completely identical, but the 1st Class offering has only two lower berths, while four passengers prise themselves into two layers of bunks in 2nd Class.

First Class Sleeper

The compartments are actually spacious enough, particularly if one actually lifts up the bed to reveal a large luggage locker underneath; travelling as we, and many other westerners do, with far too much luggage makes a bit of a squeeze, but it was the carpet that really did it. I knew when it was bought up in the mountains that(a) it was a fabulous carpet at a terrific price and (b) it would be a pain to lug around for the next two weeks.

I was correct on both counts.

Boarding the train is a ritual. Only passengers are allowed on, so there would be no help with luggage from anyone else, and this was when I was advised that carpets had to have their own ticket. Or something like that. A draconian Azeri conductor was determined to prevent access to the train without some additional payment that turned out to be 2½ Manat (about $3) to carry carpets. Without the assistance of our guide, this could have proved to be a show stopper as I had no clue what was going on.

Departure from Baku

So a word of warning to those of you planning to take a carpet on the overnight express from Baku to Tbilisi: remember the 2½ Manat fee.

Once on board, the conductor, in a slightly more approachable manner, dispensed sets of clean sheets to each passenger, and then we all made up our beds. At 2200 on the dot, the train pulled out of the station, and away we went. There were only the sleeping cars, no other facilities, but it mattered not. We swayed and creaked our way west at a reasonable tick, and before I knew it we had arrived at the border at The Red Bridge.

Now here’s the thing; I might have a peculiar sense of fun, but I actually like crossing land borders. Not the antiseptic borders that define European nations or the US / Canada border, but real borders that separate distinct countries. I like the drama that is always played out, although one imagines that life as an Azeri border guard, posted to The Red Bridge cannot be full of excitement. And so the pantomime begins. First the passport brigade, scrutinising passports with an intense scrut; ensuring that one hasn’t overstayed one’s visa, or silently crept across the Armenian border. Once stamped, then the customs guys follow, the final arm of the Azeri government, and one dedicated to saving the export of prohibited items. Like antique carpets.

The Azeri border station

Now the carpet that I had bought was not antique, but was exciting for them because it might have been. Regardless of the certificate that proved its age as about nine months, this could be the tip of an Antique Carpet Export Ring. Why else would four Canadians seek to leave the country by this backdoor?

The carpet specialist duly arrived and prodded, poked and rubbed bits of it between his sensitive and knowing fingers. Another opinion was sought, and finally someone said (although as they said it in Azeri, I can’t be sure of the actual words), “Leave it alone, it’s only nine months old you idiots!”

And so we slid out of Azerbaijan and into Georgia.

A fine overnight run, and worth every penny; passage on the train costs €23, and €46 if you want the privacy of a two-berth cabin. Admittedly one can fly in about an hour, and the train takes fourteen, but who wants to fly when the romance of the rails is on offer?

Not I.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Crossing the Black Sea: som ereflections

All travel must come to an end, and it is now over a week since I returned from my journey from Odessa to Tbilisi and Baku.

I have missed posting, and have not done so for a couple of reasons; firstly, of course, is the requirement to work when one returns after a two-week absence, and secondly posting shifts from a daily report to a more reflective commentary, and I have been reflecting.

I love to travel to unusual places, and like so many other wanderers pretend to substitute observation with understanding. Observation is simple; it is a matter of watching and reporting. Understanding takes time and needs context, a commodity in very short supply. For myself, it was the enforced stay on the ship that allowed me to meet people whose acquaintance I would never otherwise have made, other than fleetingly, without our unscheduled respite on the Black Sea.

The countries of the former Soviet Union are unique, and their development has taken many different forms; from the Eurocentric evolution of the Baltic States to the inward pose of Belarus; from the resource-driven economies of Central Asia to the rather individualistic and quirky countries of the Caucuses and Black Sea, they are all different. There are, however, similarities; all have some legacy of the Soviet central planning in which a single country became a centre of production of a few items required by the Soviet block as a whole. By extension, other than a country's assigned product, everything else was imported from another specialised region. While one may argue the logic of such a system, when the block breaks up it leaves a lot of independent countries with some degree of singular skill and no breadth of expertise.

Of course, many of these specialisations were illusory, with industrial plants that were outdated fifty years ago, and little strength in a modern economy; today, the mantra of all is the absolute need for jobs to bring each region or country out from their malaise. There are vast differences between the major cities and the balance of each country, and the gulf between those who have money and power in and within the emerging economies and those who do not is striking.

Which leads me to the conversation on the boat, and the difficulty that my travelling companions had in seeing a future. "Without jobs", they said, "there is no possibility of development; and as long as we allow the Chinese to make everything we will not have jobs." It was instructive to hear how often China came into the conversation. From comments about China's manufacturing juggernaut and its effect on local business to their on-going quest to control the resources of Africa, China was on everyone's mind.

How developing economies, fragile at best, will be able to forge a path between the corresponding desires of the Chinese manufacturers and the West's desire to control the global levers of economic power remains to be seen. The issue is, however, noted by all, and that is a good sign. A high level of public education is a very strong legacy of the Soviet system, and in many cases of a level that is considerably higher that one might expect; this legacy also bodes well as people struggle to find their country's place in the global firmament.

As a destination to travel to, I think that the Caucuses are tremendous; they offer visitors stunning scenery, fascinating rural life, interesting cities, wonderful food, pleasant wines and above all some of the most hospitable people in the world. And they are accessible; frequent flyer point redemption puts Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan on the same level as Southern Europe; those travelling on mileage redemption to, say Rome, would use no more points to extend their trip to include one of the Caucasian capitals, and I would highly recommend doing so.

I loved both Baku and Tbilisi, Yerevan too from a previous trip, and am already booked to return in August for a longer look, and a journey that does not include a ferry.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

UKR Ferries in Poti: Off and Away

In the end, it was a bit of an anticlimax, as we slid slowly and very neatly into the small port of Poti. Small the port maybe, but it is a hive of activity, with a miscellany of the world’s tramp steamers here loading and unloading a cornucopia of loads.

Ships from Antigua, Majuro in the Marshall Islands, Panama and more were being emptied by a forest of rusty cranes onto a crumbling dockside; were I not in a hurry to move on, I would have loved to explore this scene of intimate internationalism. Each of these ships spend weeks and even months at sea, seeking cargoes, shifting cargoes and then seeking new ones, and only rarely come together for few brief hours in port.

Poti Harbour

And to them Poti’s inefficiency must have been glorious; actually time to get off the ship, head to eh seaman’s mission and chat to a wider audience than their own crew of ten or so. I have heard it said that seamen grumble about the inefficiencies of modern ports where they can be in and out in a few hours, and the historic, and possibly romantic, vision of seeing the world is now limited to expanses of water, and no longer the delights of exotic ports

We, on the other hand, felt bewildered at this inefficiency, and while I should have been used to endless and apparently pointless waiting, I certainly wasn’t. We docked and waited; Waited some more, retired to our cabins and waited. After about three hours of intermittent waiting and shuffling we congregated by the reception area and waited a little more. Finally, a Georgian officer started calling names at random handing back passports; one after the other and the “Johnson” came the cry. As mine was one of only two non-regional documents it stood out and as he handed it to me he paused, smiled and said “Welcome to Georgia, Mr. Johnson”. A completely unnecessary but generous comment and it made me smile.

Off the ship; and now what?

So now we were free; we, the Tbilisians Archi and Tony, had arranged for a ride from friends that we had made, but after disembarking and waiting for a couple of hours, and there being no sign of any vehicles disembarking we decided to get a bus or a taxi.

From the ship to the harbour gate is about a kilometre across a rough, wet and grimy path, but fortunately there was a shuttle; at the dock gates Tony negotiated a taxi for the three of us, $120 for the five hour ride to the capital; a bus might have been $15 each, but it was late, we were hungry and anxious to move, so we climbed into a geriatric, red Opel and clunked off along the most appalling road that I have seen in my life.

First, however would be dinner, and we pulled up outside a non-descript that the driver knew and went into to a smoky, dark, cavern-like and utterly wonderful restaurant. This region of the country is not wealthy, and it shows, but at each table groups were eating, drinking and toasting with abandon, and so we followed suit.

Georgian cuisine is not exactly light-weight or possibly uber-nutritious, but is it delicious, and an hour later, after a splendid meal of kebabs, katchapouri (a sort of stuffed cheese pie) and khinkale (like perogies, but large filled with meat and a broth, to be eaten with care), a flagon of wine, and toasts to our families, countries (even Russia), peace, long-life, our new friendship and the wisdom of voters we headed out into the night, and headed East.

At about 2,00am, we slide into Tbilisi, still surprisingly awake, and drove through the old town, utterly gorgeous in pastel lights highlighting its absorbing architecture and to the Marriott where I now sit in a degree of comfort well removed from the Greifswald. An East German ship will remain an East German ship regardless of falling walls or reunified countries. Until she heads to the knackers’ yard, she will remain resolutely East German.

I Love Tbilisi !
And so Baku is back on the agenda. I shall fly there this afternoon, cheating, I know, and be at the Caspian shore for my dinner tonight. I can hardly wait.