In search of the golden fleece

We indulge in feasting and spas in the former Soviet Georgia.

By Judith Baker, August 25, 2011
The townlet of Mestia nestling in the Caucasus Mountains is known for its deluge of stone defence towers

The townlet of Mestia nestling in the Caucasus Mountains is known for its deluge of stone defence towers

Stretching from The Black Sea to the Caucasus Mountains and lying on the cusp of Christian Europe and Islamic Asia, Georgia is an enchanting mix of old and new, with a pretty landscape that combines mountains and a pretty coastline.

In the space of just a few days you can ski in the mountains, swim in the Black Sea and embrace an amazing culture in the churches, castles and cave-towns, enjoying delicious cuisine, fabulous wines and overwhelming Georgian hospitality.

This tiny, developing country has remained largely unexplored by western travellers, yet it is no stranger to visitors. During a long and fascinating history there have been influences from all over the world and has been traversed by many routes including the Silk Road.

In ancient mythology, this is where Jason and the Argonauts sought The Golden Fleece that would enable him to become king.

There is no denying Georgia's turbulent past - in 1991, Georgia secured its independence after 70 years of Soviet rule: more recently there was conflict with Russia over the disputed province of South Ossetia. But there is no evidence of danger in the quaint streets and cafes of Tbilisi, the peaceful mountains of Kakheti or the semitropical seaside resort of Batumi.

Legend has it that at the beginning of time when God was giving out land to the 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 because they were drinking to His health and this took some time. God was pleased by their answer and so gave them the tiny bit of land he had been keeping for himself.

After enjoying a Georgian style lunch at Lake Kvareli the fable is almost believable. The meal or 'Supra' as the Georgian banquet is called, is preceded by endless toasts. The head of Supra, the Tamada, conducts highly philosophical toasts, making sure that everyone is enjoying themselves.

The meal goes on for hours as a seemingly endless procession of regional foods spreads over the table. Lunch on this occasion included Asian influenced aubergines stuffed with walnut, cheese bread, tarragon salad, barbecued trout and flat crescent shaped breads made while we watched in a traditional outdoor oven.

Getting there

Flights: British Midland International. Bmi, flies between London Heathrow and Tbilisi three times per week. Fares from £526 return.
Canadian-based Kenn Borek Air flies Tbilisi to Mestia and Tbilisi to Batumi. Prices start from around £30 per flight
Where to stay: Holiday Inn, Tbilisi. £105 approx for king sized room (not including Breakfast)
InTourist Palace, Batumi. £109 approx for standard Room (including Breakfast)

I had started my tour in the capital Tbilisi. Architecture in the city is a mix of Georgian, with strong influences of Byzantine, neo-classical European/Russian and Middle Eastern styles.

The Old Town on the left bank of the River Mtkvari is picturesque with charming shops and cafes and a walking tour takes in the medieval Narikala Fortress, Mtatsminda Pantheon and the National Gallery.

Looking to immerse ourselves in Georgian traditions we headed for Tbilisi's therapeutic sulphur springs and 17th century bathhouses, located in the city's Abanotubani district.

The poet Pushkin said he had enjoyed "the best bath of his life" in the blue-tiled Byzantine style baths.

The bad-egg smell is overwhelming, but proved worth it. We hired a private room with bath for about £20 for three and for an extra £4 each enjoyed the skills of a local bathhouse attendant who obligingly beat us with a brush.

Invigorated, and to shake off the smell, we took a short drive from Tbilisi to the fresh country air of the Kakheti region of East Georgia, stopping at the 9th century Bodbe Monastery, resting place of St. Nino and the site of healing springs.

Signaghi, called The City of Love, is home to a 24-hour wedding chapel. But this is no Las Vegas; the town is a recognized UNESCO world heritage site, with cobble stone streets and terracotta tile-roofed homes with colourful carved balconies and views of the Alazani Valley and the Great Caucasus Mountains

We stopped at Pheasant's Tears winery to sample a range of local wines. Kakheti is one of the main areas associated with kvevri winemaking, an ancient technique in which clay containers are buried in the earth to store and mature wine. Grapevine has been cultivated in the fertile valleys of Georgia for about 8000 years

Georgia, although compact, is best explored using inexpensive internal flights as the roads into the mountains can be treacherous.

The Queen Tamar airport at Svaneti, Mestia opened less than a year ago to attract skiers and stands out like a shiny new pin among the village hamlets of the region with their watchtowers dating back to medieval times.

The Grand Caucasus Mountains that stretch all the way from the Black Sea coast to the shores of the Caspian have snowy peaks and lush green valleys that bloom in spring. Georgia has some of the world's most spectacular mountains and finest powder, and with a ski season that lasts from November to April, it is one of Europe's best-kept ski secrets.

Enjoying lunch at Tetnuldi Hotel, Svaneti, overlooking the snowy mountains, it was difficult to imagine that the next day we would be dipping our toes in the warm waves of the coastal resort of Batumi, twelve miles from the Turkish border.

Batumi, says Georgia's President, will soon "have better public spaces, cultural centres, transportation system and comfort than Nice or Cannes."

With its wide Mediterranean style boulevards and handful of smart new hotels and shops, the resort is developing, but thankfully at a slow pace.

It retains old world charm with crumbling townhouses and statues of writer Ilia Chavchava, one of its famous sons, sitting alongside fashionable restaurants and bars.

The town jumps to life annually with its Black Sea Jazz festival, this year with stars such as Macy Grey heading the bill and belting out music across the boutiques and beaches.

We lunch at the nostalgic Privet café, where waiters wear old fashioned sailor suits and walls are graced with sepia prints of old Batumi, including one of the Russian Orthodox church which was formerly on the site of the elegant InTourist Palace hotel which has been welcoming tourists for 75 years.

Although reluctant to leave the seaside, we are enticed into the magical forests south of Batumi, where a dip in the Waterfall of Makhunceti is hard to resist.

Last updated: 11:57am, August 25 2011