Georgia has beautiful countryside. In spring rolling green fields lead to the still snowcapped Caucasian Mountains. Flowers and flowering trees are in bloom. Between towns there are citadels and castles in varying degrees of decay and on hilltops monasteries and churches. In contract to the countryside Georgian towns can be less than picturesque, with abandoned Soviet factories, an industrial wasteland, on town outskirts oddly punctuated with massive works of Socialist Realism art, including a huge mural of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Georgian towns, like many former Soviet towns, have utilities above ground, including the pipes that bring natural gas into homes and businesses. The pipes create odd geometric patterns with electric wires along the streets where the gas lines run like a fence that jogs into the air to allow for driveways and building entrances. The gas pipes serve as trellises for roses. Each town has a few new or restored buildings, the Orthodox Church, a civic building, some of them of strikingly daring design (in Kutaisi it is the new Parliament, moved there from Tbilisi by the former government, the newly elected government wants Parliament to sit in Tbilisi.), and a police station. President Saakashvili ordered police stations to have large glass windows to symbolize transparency. There is a police station next to the Public Broadcaster and one friend working there said what while he appreciated the symbolism he wished they could draw the blinds so he didn’t have to see cops sleeping on the job. With all the plate glass and streamlined design I could easily mistake a modern Georgian police station for a new car showroom. On this road trip I noticed that many of the police stations had installed venetian blinds. I joked to Nino that perhaps the new government wasn’t as into transparency as the old government. She said it was more likely that the air conditioning in the police stations doesn’t work so well and summer is coming on. “Anyway, all the police stations have basements.”
Each town has its own specialty, displayed on the roadside as you drive through. Going west Kashuri seems to specialize in things made from rope, hammocks and giant macramé hangings that hold clay pots, the specialty of the next town over. Another town specializes in wood work and wicker. Towns also have their own foods. Surami sells bread made with sweet dough (as opposed to the “sweetbreads” that the Brits eat.) People wave loves at passing motorists. Gala says they are trying to demonstrate that the bread is hot and they are waving it to cool it off. Some towns specialize in barbeque with roadside stands and smoking fires. Going east there are towns with cheeses, wines, and other good things to eat.
I joked with Gala that I wanted to have a coffee with Joseph Dzhugashvili, (Stalin) in his home town of Gori. Gori, until recently, had a huge statue of Stalin in its main square, which, after the recent war with Russia, the government wanted to tear down. The town’s people protested. The government had to shut off power in the night and take Stalin down under cover of darkness. I could not have coffee with Stalin in a café in the town square. But Gala said that the best coffee was in Gori, at a truck stop. He was right.
Outside Gori you can see rows of new houses, identical. They are houses built for refugees from the latest struggle with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops entered Gori, cutting the road, and in Gala points to where Russian troops watch traffic on our highway as we head west.
On the way back from Kutaisi we stopped at a different town for Khachapuri. Going east one town was famous for its chorchkheka, “Georgian Snickers.” It is dried fruit and nuts threaded on a string, dipped in wine mash, rolled in corn flour, re-dipped, re-rolled and then hung out to dry. You can get chewy or dry versions. The chewy tastes better but the dry would be better to carry into the fields. We sampled both.
Sometimes it seemed like we were eating our way across Georgia. Perhaps the most delightful meal was on our way back from Loghedeti on Saturday. Gala knows where to stop. We stopped at a roadside bakery where a woman makes unique curved Georgian bread. The oven is a large wooden barrel lined with brick that is covered with cement. A hot charcoal fire burns at the bottom of the barrel. The baker rolls the dough into a tube shape, wets one side of the dough and sticks it onto the side of the “oven” where it bakes. The lady has to use a large fork to pop it off of the side of the oven at just the right time, when the bread is done but before it falls off into the fire. I ask her how she knows when. “I am a baker.” We also sample several cheeses made by the baker’s neighbor. We try a very salty goat cheese and some cows’ milk cheese. The salty goat cheese is the local specialty, but while the first slice is good, it does not wear well on the palate but taken with some fresh tomato it is fine. With the cheese the tomato doesn’t need salting. We took a cutting board of cheese, three loaves of bread and two tomatoes, spread them out on a Georgian newspaper and sat in the farmyard with a dozen chickens, two roosters strutting for dominance, and one puppy to enjoy our lunch.
In Kutaisi we visited Bagreti Cathedral. It was built in 1003 and blown up by the Turks in 1692. There is restoration underway, but some of it incorporates modern architecture and this has caused UNESCO to list it as a world heritage site in danger. Nino does not like the restoration which has metal pillars extending from the broken stone pillars. They hold up a metal and glass extension on one side that creates a gallery inside the cathedral and may allow for an elevator (which the government wants to install but the patriarch didn’t). I do like the contrast in styles. Around the cathedral are the ruins of the citadel built in the 6th century, made ruins in the bombarded in 1789 by king named Solomon 1.
In Lagodekhi there is a nature reserve, part of the largest national park in Georgia. It runs from the town at 400 meters (1,300 feet) above sea level to more than 3,000 meters (just shy of 10,000 feet.) The shortest hike we could take was 6 hours round trip so we settled for a shorter walk through the woods.