Georgia is a gift to a novelist: it seems to change every 10 miles.
Tbilisi and the mountains in the north-east – the places I use in my new book – are particularly rich. It was important to me to pick a location as alien to most readers as it is to my main character, who finds himself a long way from home and utterly out of his depth. And it has Russia to the north – a long-term enemy/rival/meddler in Georgian affairs – to add tension.
Chris Morgan Jones. Photograph: Alexander James
Tbilisi feels European, medieval and completely foreign all at once. Two things make it unique: its geography and
the dilapidated beauty of the old city. It’s on the banks of the Kura river, and to the south the old town climbs up a high ridge, on top of which sit Narikala fortress, the television tower and the cable car station. Within minutes of arriving there you know exactly how the place is put together. In the old town, every building seems to house a dozen storeys, and every third one seems to be crumbling. Vines grow up the walls and flowers from every crack.
The city has been sacked and burned to the ground countless times. The history of Georgia is all invasions, yet the country has survived with its own language, alphabet, religion and culture. You feel this every step you take in Tbilisi, not least because it looks both familiar and like nowhere else. It’s like a European city that’s grown up over centuries in a slightly different universe.
The word Soviet often comes up when you talk to people about Tbilisi. It was part of the USSR, but aside from some Communist-era apartment buildings in the suburbs it doesn’t feel like any other former USSR city. It’s 2,000 years old and very much its own place. Its years under Soviet rule have left a far lighter impression than many other cities.
Signs on church doors around the city say “no guns inside”. And another surprising thing is the bold modern architecture around every corner (especially the police stations, which have been deliberately designed to be transparent).
View of Tbilisi’s old town with Narikala Fortress, St Nicholas church and cable cars visible. Photograph: Alamy
The view from the fortress takes some beating. The easiest way to get there is by cable car from Rike Park, by the river. It will cost you all of 60p, and you can see the entire city stretching up and down the river, dotted all over with the country’s distinctive conical church towers.
The unpronounceable old capital, Mtskheta, offers another spectacular view. From the sixth-century Jvari monastery, 12 miles from Tbilisi, you can see two rivers in their deep gorges converge at what you can readily imagine was the centre of an ancient world.
Chacha being poured at a bar in Tbilisi. Photograph: Alamy
We had the best night out at a winery in Tsinandali, an hour from Tbilisi. It’s the house of Georgian poet Alexander Chavchavadze. Georgians make amazing wine, and they like to drink lots of it. We had a traditional Georgian feast called a supra, with lots of toasts (to God, Georgia, women, great poets, mountains) and after each one a tumbler of white Kakheti wine. I lasted about an hour and a half and woke up the next day on the bathroom floor in my hotel room. Not dignified, but fun.
Apart from wine, Georgians drink chacha, which is basically grappa. People distil it at home or know someone who does. It always seems to come in old water bottles and it’s much better than you think it’s going to be.
‘Sort of’ Georgian pizza … khachapuri. Photograph: Alamy PurPur must be the most beautiful restaurant in Tbilisi. It’s in a quiet corner of the old town, and every inch is covered in fabrics, antiques and murals. It does good drinks and food, but the main reason to go is the atmosphere. After a couple of Manhattans it’s possible to think you’ve dropped out of time. I also like Pastorali, especially in the evenings, when you can sit outside and watch the city at play. It does great khachapuri (Georgian pizza, sort of) and salads with walnut dressing. Stalin’s personal railway carriage, at the Stalin Museum, Gori. Photograph: Alamy
The natural sulphur spring baths in the old city are not to be missed. Only five now remain, but somehow they’re at the heart of the place. The one I went to has private rooms and a legendary proprietress called Gulo. Sip Turkish tea and soak yourself where Alexandre Dumas and Mongol invader Tamerlane once did.
Gori, Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, is not far from Tbilisi. Its museum, with the house where he was born and his personal railway carriage, was founded by Lavrentiy Beria, a fellow Georgian who was the hugely feared head of the secret police in the second world war. When I visited, there were plans to turn it into a more critical testament to Stalin’s legacy – but it had a great deal of sinister, fading power.
The dangerous road to Tusheti. Photograph: Alamy Tusheti, in the far north-east of Georgia is only accessible by a quite terrifying road.The BBC featured it in its World’s Most Dangerous Road series in 2013. It’s a remote, almost forgotten paradise of towering mountains, clear rivers, wild horses, wolves, bears and – if you happen to be there for the summer festival – prodigious feats of drinking. SOURCE: The Guardian