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Since we are only seven for lunch, our hosts have laid out a modest table beneath the vine arbour that runs along one side of their house outside the village of Gavazi, in Georgia's eastern Kakheti region. Tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, spinach, fried potatoes, bread, pork rissoles made with onion, garlic, coriander and egg fried in corn oil and two kinds of cheese. To drink, we have four bottles of homemade red wine, "I hope this will be enough," says my guide, Mariam Khukhunaishvil, of the one bottle of chacha, a clear firewater that tastes like grappa, and a bottle of local cognac.
It's not quite ready. Pork skewers are sizzling on the barbecue so I wander among the beehives and under the apple, blood orange and fig trees in the family's garden. Extending from the eastern shores of the Black Sea, at about the same latitude as northern Spain, Georgia is a land of milk and honey, once the balmy southern rump of the Soviet empire, the source of walnuts, cheeses, stone fruit and, before the fragmentation of that empire, most of its wine. On the drive here, through the flatlands east of Tbilisi, the capital, we pass through villages with roadside stalls selling strawberries, cherries and white peaches.
The hospitable traditions of the Georgian table are rich and inescapable. At the far end from me, the moustachioed man wearing a traditional long tunic has been appointed tamada, the toastmaster. It begins with a long and elaborate toast to one another, moves on to the enduring fellowship of all people regardless of language, colour or creed. We drink to the mothers who gave birth and nurtured us, to love and I forget what else. The traditional Georgian drinking vessel is the horn of a mountain goat and the idea is that you down the contents in one go, since it's impossible to put the horn down without spilling it. The glasses are smaller these days, but the all-embracing tendrils of the Georgian feast, the supra, ensure that you rarely leave a table without swaying.
With the debris of lunch all around us, the singing begins. Including the tamada, four of our party are polyphonic singers, a Georgian specialty. Deep and sonorous, their baritone voices pick up the chant that comes from deep in the belly, a powerful sound that makes you think of mountains and wild places and a time before history. A sound that is emblematic of Georgia itself, and it demands an audience.
Stubborn, tenacious and stridently independent, Georgia might be small but cuts a fiercely individual presence on the world stage. Georgia's religion – its own brand of Orthodox Christianity – sets it apart from the Islamic countries to the south and east and from Russia to the north. Its Kartvelian language is unrelated to any other language family, and rarely heard outside its borders. Its people are Caucasian, and racially distinct from the Turkic and Slavic people that surround it, and it sits in a messy part of the world's geopolitical map. Georgia is surrounded by names that spell trouble – Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Chechnya, Abkhazia and Russia, ever a looming shadow – and these truculent neighbours nibble at its borders.
When I climb to the heights of the hill above the cave monastery of David Gareja there are four soldiers cradling AK-47s, looking furtive and slightly spivvy. I am reminded of ferrets. "Rossiya?" I ask, knowing they're not. "No, no" they say, "Azerbaijani", pointing to the shoulder flashes on their camouflage. This is a disputed border, the heights of the monastery complex claimed both by Georgia and Azerbaijan. "Ah, Eurovision," I say, and we share a laugh, recalling the pop-fest that took place in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, in 2012. We're getting along but when I point to my camera and raise an eyebrow, "Nyet," they say.
Christianity came early to Georgia, and it stuck. At the beginning of the fourth century, a woman later to be canonised as Saint Nino began preaching the faith and converted Nana, the queen of the eastern province of Iberia, and later her husband, King Mirian III, who made Christianity the state religion.
In the sixth century, David Garejeli arrived on the scene at the head of a company of Assyrian monks and established a monastery in a harsh and remote part of the Kakheti region that suited their ascetic tastes. Over the next few centuries, the complex grew to incorporate hundreds of monk's cells, chapels and living quarters hollowed from the rock face. Despite damage inflicted by Islamic invaders and during the Soviet era when the hills around the caves were used as a military training ground, the monastery remains the crowning achievement of Georgia's early Christian period.
At the bottom of the hill, Lavra Monastery consists of a walled compound with a church and monks' cells above, but the real treasure here is the Udabno Monastery, the caves cut into the brow of the hill. A snaking path along the edge of the cliff links caves where monks once prayed, slept and ate. Inside, these rough stone chambers and the frescoes that cover the walls and ceiling convey a palpable sense of the rigour but also the exultation of early monastic life, with a few surprises along the way, such as the image of wild deer being milked, a reference to the deer of this region that gave the monks sustenance when they were wandering in the wilderness.
The road to David Gareja monastery doglegs at the village of Udabno, established in the Soviet era to provide work and homes for Svan people, from Georgia's mountainous north-west, a tough and unproductive part of the country. It's a social experiment that failed the test of time. Today, the town is a wreck. Most of its houses and factories are hollow shells left to the weeds, a monument to the soulless, blighted aesthetics of Soviet communism that is repeated countless times throughout the Georgian countryside.
The landscape around the town is unusual for Georgia. Udabno means "desert", yet this blonde grassland is far from the bleached aridity that the word conjures to an Australian ear. However, relative to the rest of their luscious landscape, Georgians might be forgiven for thinking that this prairie is truly desert.
Kakheti, in the east, is the breadbasket, a patchwork of farms, orchards, forest and vineyards, and its wine cellars are the place to try Georgian wines. As early as 6000 BC, farmers in the South Caucasus region discovered the happy process of fermentation that takes place when grape juice is buried in a shallow pit over winter, and Georgians have been enthusiastic consumers ever since. Georgia uses more than 500 indigenous grape varieties to make red and white wines, and not one of them familiar to the average Western consumer.
What makes Georgian wines intriguing is their continuity. Georgian winemakers have never really departed from the natural, preservative-free traditions of their ancestors. Some wines are still fermented in wax-lined clay jars that the Georgians call qvevri, and the result is astonishing. The rest of the world might have a standardised view of what should go into a wine bottle, but along come Georgian wines to waken the taste buds with a world of difference. The red Saperavi wines are the standouts, robust, ruby-coloured wines operatic in scale, with the lighter Tavkveri and Shavkapito varieties as the runners-up. In a profound statement of national identity, the 20-metre aluminium statue of Mother Georgia that overlooks Tbilisi carries a sword in one hand and a wine cup in the other.
Tbilisi is the focal point in the Georgian mosaic, the capital and home to a quarter of the country's population of around five million. The city takes its name from the word for "warm" and there are still hot springs and bathhouses below the ruined Narikala Citadel. Tbilisi teeters between East and West. In the Old Town, an anarchic tangle of shops and houses with teetering balconies, are caravanserais that would once have seen spices, silks, porcelain and glass, the luxuries of the Eastern and Western worlds.
The city's showpiece is Rustaveli Avenue, a cultural promenade and home to the Georgian National Museum, The Tbilisi State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Rustaveli State Academic Theatre, the Georgian Academy of Sciences, the former Parliament building and the Tbilisi Marriott, the city's only five-star hotel.
So Tbilisi might have remained, scruffy and slightly dowdy, but then along came a merry prankster by the name of Mikheil Saakashvili, whose reign as president between 2008 and 2013 was marked by a determination to chart a new, Europe-friendly course for Georgia. In particular his fascination for glassy modern architecture left the old city strewn with surprises. He even plonked a glass dome on top of the neo-classical Presidential Palace, which creates an odd effect, like a chap in a pinstripe suit sporting a pink Mohawk.
Most fetching of all Saakashvili's fantasies is the Peace Bridge. Under a white steel honeycomb, this glass suspension bridge is implanted with thousands of LEDs that blink in unison at night, ushering pedestrians to the other side of the Mtkvari River in a wave-like crescendo of light. Another Saakashvili surprise awaits on the far side in Rike Park, its fountain lit by coloured lights, squirting and spurting in time to music, Ravel's Bolero one night, Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World the next. The effect runs along the border between high camp and hallucinogenic.
The other inescapable fact about Tbilisi is religion. Orthodox churches are everywhere, a staunchly conservative anchor in the Georgian psyche, and if you happen to be in town on a Sunday, you might as well do as the rest of the city does and head to church. There are no pews so everyone stands, but this facilitates the free flow of the congregation. Church attendance is a social occasion, and leaving the service to chat to friends outside, make a phone call or smoke are all permissible. In the Metekhi Church on Sunday morning, I happen to stand near the men's choir, eight mostly bearded young men who are furtively messaging until the very last moment when their voices are called into action and they begin as one, in a harmony that would make the herald angels stop and listen.
Despite its powerful religious streak, Georgia does not take its name from Saint George but from the ancient Persian "Gurg" or "Gorg", meaning wolf, and in the north is where Georgia unsheathes its fangs. Running in a chain from north-west to south-east, the Caucasus Mountains (Europe's highest mountains) rise skyward to form a border with Russia. For anyone who travels in search of wild places in which to walk, climb or observe a unique and intact mountain culture, the Caucasus are an eye-opener.
In Svaneti, in Georgia's rugged and harsh north-west, I'm walking across a sodden alpine meadow dotted with gentians in a wind iced with the snow breath of the peaks around me. A stream wanders through the throat of the valley and into muddy Ushguli just below, one of the highest villages in Europe. A walker approaches, coming down from a stone-ringed chapel where women are forbidden entry. He's Polish, brimming with energy and we exchange enthusiasms. "Wow, Australia," he says, "that's a huge trip." Georgia is a fresh concept for both of us, and we struggle for the words. "But their hospitality," he says, "you have to have a strong stomach. They can kill you with kindness," and I watch him pound away over the tussocky grassland and into the mountains.
Five must dos in Georgia
1. Admire the brilliant frescoes of Georgian saints and kings in the 900-year-old Cathedral of the Virgin at the monastery of Gelati near Kutaisi.
2. Hike to Gergeti Trinity Church, a 90-minute walk from Kazbegi township. The church sits dramatically on a ridge silhouetted against the massive bulk of Mount Kazbek.
3. Sample khachapuri, the national fast food, a kind of flatbread stuffed with cheese, frequently seen on the dinner table.
4. Spend a night at the Tbilisi Mariott Hotel, cosseted in luxury. There are two Mariotts in the capital but on Rustaveli Avenue is the deluxe version.
5. Visit Svaneti, a severe and potent region in Georgia's mountainous north-west where stone towers protect the villagers against avalanches, invaders and one another, since blood feuds have traditionally been a major cause of death.
Emirates has one-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Istanbul, from where Turkish Airlines operates daily flights to Tbilisi. Return airfares to Istanbul with Emirates start at around $1912, from Istanbul to Tbilisi costs about $285
Visit Georgia is the biggest tour operator in the country, with a range of individual tours as well as organised group tours. Special interest tours with themes from adventure to wildlife, mountaineering, culture and archaeology are also available.
In Australia, their tours can be booked through Sydney's Eastern Europe Travel Bureau (eetbtravel.com)
The writer travelled to Georgia as a guest of Emirates and Sydney's Eastern Europe Travel Bureau.