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Great journeys: touchdown in Tbilisi

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on 18/04/2017

I'm stark naked and lying face down while a man in shorts attacks me in a manner that, under normal circumstances, I would regard as outright physical assault.

But, just before I scream in pain, the masseur stops to dump a huge bucket of hot water over me on my marble slap. It's my first evening in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and I'm finding out how the local guys like to relax - in the beautiful tiled surroundings of one of the city's ancient bath houses, wreathed in the smell of sulphur from one of the hot springs beneath the city.

I had struggled to find other tourists on the flight from London earlier that day. The country's brief war with Russia over South Ossetia last August has done enormous damage to its tourist industry, and I was keen to find out who was still prepared to come here in its wake.

On my flight the only tourists I find are a party of 13 pensioners on a nature tour in the Caucasus with independent operator, Greentours. "The Foreign Office website said Georgia was fine so, as far as I'm concerned, it's fine," says one of them, John. I also meet Jennifer, a retired Brit living in America, who is spending three weeks at archaeological sites in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (and whose no-nonsense demeanour suggests she is not going to let a trifling war put her off).

But they are the exceptions. According to the Georgian government, before the conflict with Russia, tourism from Europe was growing at nearly 25% a year. Provisional figures for the first quarter of this year show a 6% drop. But the country is determined to convince us to come back. According to one senior Georgian tourism official: "The first thing is to convince people Georgia is safe. After that, we have to create a high level of hospitality, and market it as a quality destination." Luke Harding, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, meanwhile, says that, although the government is fairly stable, another conflict with Russia cannot be completely ruled out.

Entry to Georgia, however, is an absolute breeze (no visa required; not even an immigration form) and I'm met at arrivals in the gleaming new metal-and-glass airport by Nini, a diminutive former painter in her late 20s, now a full-time tourist guide, who, with the help of enigmatic and taciturn driver Roma, has a week to convince me that her country is very much open for tourism.

As we head into Tbilisi on a modern busy highway, jostling for position on the packed roads with a mixture of gleaming BMWs, Toyota 4x4s and decrepit Soviet-era Zhigulis, I ask her a question that has been on my mind: "Are we in Europe or Asia?"

"I don't know," she says. "We're stuck in the middle. This is a strange place."

Opposition protests in Tblisi, Georgia
 Opposition protests in Tbilisi, Georgia Photograph: Maxton Walker

Tbilisi is built across the river Mtkvari. On the left bank, the picturesque old town (the ugly Stalinist high-rises are tucked away on the other side) is home to ancient churches, mosques, synagogues. But as we drive around some of the sights - the vast main cathedral (the orthodox church is still huge in Georgia), St Nino's church outside the city and the flea market - I am, I have to confess, not instantly overwhelmed by what Tbilisi has to offer; it feels as much a functional city as a tourist destination.

The strangeness, however, doesn't take long to manifest. Opposition protesters against the charismatic young president, Mikheil Saakashvili, have closed off three of Tbiisi's main streets by filling them up with dozens of polythene covered "cells" in which they have been living for about the last six weeks. (They are, they say, symbolically imprisoned by the government); it is a surreal experience, walking slowly amongst the grumpy middle-aged men sitting smoking quietly in their cells; like walking through a colossal avant garde art installation. It is also by far the most memorable event of my first day.

"I don't see what's anti-democratic about keeping the streets clear," I tell Nini later. "In Britain, the police would just drag them away."

"We're a young democracy," she says. "The opposition has to be seen to be respected. People are watching."

And so to dinner, at a restaurant near the river. Georgian meals are about celebrating the fact that this has always been a land of plenty, and we tuck into a vast table of Mediterranean-style food (the country is on the same latitude as Italy): freshly baked and delicious local bread, tomato salad, shashliks, sausages, nuts, cheese and aubergines. The food doesn't stop coming, with the plates ending up piled on top of each other.

And, of course, there's the local wine; most Georgians have a taste for the country's distinctive slightly sweet variety; although there is plenty that is familiar to European palates. As I set off to the bath-house for my after-dinner massage, I reflect that, whatever else, nobody is ever going to starve here.

 

SOURCE: The Guardian

 

Last modified on Thursday, 11 May 2017 13:15

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