If we had to leave the Tusheti it was a perfect day for it with clear far reaching views and a few clouds scudding across a high sky. The two 4 x 4s set off in convoy bumping down the track through the village. As they meandered in turn round the puddles and tried to climb out of the ruts created by the storms earlier in the week, a young man rushed across the grass and waved down the lead car. He presented a bunch of wild flowers through the window to Sarah, the most cheerful extrovert of the ride, at least twenty years older than he:
“From the Tusheti” Khatuna translated “we won’t forget you!” We all waved enthusiastically until we had dropped off the edge of the plateau, out of sight. None of us would forget the friendly, generous Tush either.
We stopped on the Abano pass for a last look. In a month’s time sacks of potatoes and cheeses would have replaced the solar panels and lavatory pans tied to the roofs of cars; the mewling raptors and sounds of tumbling water would be drowned out by the calls of concerned lambs shouting to ewes; mares would neigh and cows low and the road would be covered with the flocks and herds being driven back to Kakheti for the winter. Standing on the top, leaning into the wind to keep my balance, and looking at what lay before them twice a year, year after year, made the thought of even toying with the idea of such a migration difficult to imagine.
The road down was more alarming than it had been coming up as we had vertical drops, unavoidably visible, in front of us. The tyres’ rims flirted with the road’s edge and the front bumper was over the brink each time we snaked round a swish-back. It was obvious the reason this is described as one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
When we hit the tree line knuckles relaxed. At least there was a visual barrier even if any slip would have been just as terminal. Talk became less staccato. Eventually the surface improved, the smell of walnuts started to waft from the trees and bird song from the water meadows. We hit tarmac.
We were being lulled by gentle, open countryside when the vehicles pulled off the road and stopped. In the middle of vines, set back from the road with its gleamingly new bus shelter, was the Alaverdi Monastary. It sits in a great loop of the Alzani River on flat, rich land and is surrounded by an imposingly defensive castellated wall. Buttresses with rounded tops cascade down from the red-tiled roofs of the living quarters that are perched on one corner of the walls.
The monastery dates from the early 6th century and was founded by Joseph Alaverdeli, originally from Antioch. Walking across the cobbles to the gatehouse felt more like approaching a castle than a church. Its defences looked impregnable.
Behind the wall is Alaverdi Cathedral now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built by King Kvirike of Kkheti in the early 11th century it towers over the surrounding plain and until the new cathedral was built in Tbilisi at the beginning of the 21st Century, it was the tallest church in Georgia at 55 metres. Despite being covered in scaffolding it still managed to look elegant. Inside it was cool and peaceful; sun streamed through the cupola’s sixteen windows. An old lady told us how the Russians had tried to destroy the paintings and artefacts but the locals had hid as many as they could, burying some. These were now coming back. A 16th century St George fought a dragon over the west door and the monks were returning from the fields where they had been tending their vines. Their wine, made in large clay amphorae – quevri – since 1011, is enjoyed across the world.
We lunched in Telavi in what appeared to be a wedding venue for hundreds of people. Besides the owners, there was no evidence of life having been in the place other than a tableau of moth-eaten fauna apparently representing everyday Tusheti, artfully arranged under the sweeping marble stair against a primitive mural of Omalo. We realized that the only thing we’d missed in the Tusheti had been any sign of wildlife.
With only limited time to explore Tbilisi, Khatuna took us to Narikala Fortress, from which we had the perfect panorama of the city. It was built on a site occupied since the 4th century BC but founded by King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli after a hunting trip when a pheasant fell into the sulphur baths and was fished out ready cooked. He turfed out the Persians but the Arabs took it in 645 and stayed for 200 years. In 1122 King David the Builder made it the capital and the population prospered and grew until the Mongols swept in in 1235. Plague, Tamerlane and the Persians followed. In 1795 Agha Mohamed Khan razed the city and killed most of the population. The Imperial Russians annexed Georgia five years later and with a clean slate laid out a new town, the bones of which we saw from above. Rising out of the trees and roofs from Freedom Square, the Freedom Monument glinted in the sun. Created by Zurab Tseretelli and given by him to his home city in 2006, an 18ft gilded bronze St George slays the dragon on top of a 100ft column of granite. Beyond the city, all around, one could see the hills. To our right the Mtkvari River cut through the cliffs. I tried to imagine what it must have been like when the ships came up from the Caspian having negotiated the 370 odd miles from Neftcala, and moored below the Persian citadel. The pedestrian Bridge of Peace now connects old and new Tbilisi. Shipped from Italy in 200 trucks, it was opened in 2010. It comes into its own at night when over 1200 LED lights respond to four different programmes. What we saw in sunshine was a glass and steel construction that reminded me of Samurai shoulder-pads. It is meant to represent a marine animal but is known locally as ‘Always Ultra’ after the brand of women’s panti-liners. Khatuna said that a sensor switches the lights when a person sets foot on it, creating the illusion that it is being especially lit. That would be fun.
On the other bank, sitting behind tiered lawns on top of the bush-covered cliffs, was the bright white Presidential Palace. Designed by Michele de Luchi who was responsible for The Bridge of Peace, it had been completed the year before. It would have held its own in on Capitol Hill. Six pillars rose through three floors and supported an imposing pediment behind which a glass dome rises nearly as high again. We peered through our camera lenses to try to get a handle on the monument designed by Gabriella von Hapbsburg, granddaughter of the last Austrian Emperor. A few blocks behind houses gave way to open hillside. It all looked a bit unreal. To its right, slightly above it, stands the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Consecrated on St George’s Day 2004 having taken 9 years to build it is one of the largest religious buildings in the world. It covers almost one and a quarter acres, is nearly 350 feet high and unsurprisingly dominates the surrounding buildings. People either love it or loathe it and its building on an ancient Armenian graveyard was nothing if not contentious.
With light and time running out we left the Sokolaki Ridge and imposing walls of the Narikala Fortress and wound down into the old Armenian quarter. Higeldy houses painted in different colours with precarious timber balconies were collected in little streets and squares near the synagogue and mosque. The honeycomb brick domes of the sulphur baths, where Pushkin and Dumas are reputed to have bathed, looked warm in the sun. We enjoyed a short tour of the 17th century bath-houses and rather wished we had time to enjoy 5 Lari’s worth of massage but we’d expressed a wish to buy maps of the Tusheti and we needed to get to the map shop before closing.
That evening we enjoyed our final Georgian meal on the first floor of a restaurant near the river. Pouring over our maps we revisited the gorges along which we’d ridden. We savoured the last spoonfuls of delicious food, sipped the last wine. When we flew out early the next morning we looked down wistfully at Tbilisi and wished it a less bloodthirsty future. They say that the Georgians were over-run so many times that they developed the habit of welcoming people with generosity to avoid being killed. It seemed time to let them enjoy their country. We had.