Picture of a traditional sword dance at a restaurant in Tbilisi, Georgia

Performers show off a traditional sword dance at Tbilisi restaurant Phaetoni.

Photograph by Massimo Bassano

By Tara Isabella Burton

Photographs by Massimo Bassano

From the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler

THE TABLE IS SET for the supra, the traditional feast around which all Georgian life revolves. A pig’s head—pickled and stewed—stares up at us from the splintering wood. Bottles of pinecone-infused moonshine outnumber our plates.

Here in Ushguli, a community of 200 said to be the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe, tradition is paramount. While the rest of Georgia has been shaped by centuries of invasion—Russian, Turkish, and Persian neighbors have all left their marks—the remote, insular mountain province of Svaneti holds a mythical place in the national imagination as the real Georgia: untouched by time.

Our geriatric hosts, husband-and-wife proprietors of Ushguli’s Chajashi Guesthouse, are mid-maelstrom: shouting at each other in a dialect so obscure even my Svan friend Giorgi Naveriani struggles to understand. I ask him what they’re fighting about. “They’re not fighting,” he shrugs. “They’re just Svan.”

Giorgi has been entrusted with the toast. This is no mean honor. The orations of the tamada—equal parts best man and high priest—are the linchpin of the supra. Their order and content, fixed as a liturgy, connect each supra to the centuries of supras that have come before.

The guesthouse owners, Yaroslav Jincharadze and his wife, Rezi—“Wicked Rezi,” her husband calls her—have never met us before. It doesn’t matter. Giorgi is Svan; tradition is in his blood.

Giorgi swallows nervously before asking the Virgin Mary to bless us all. Wicked Rezi wails in horror. The Virgin only blesses women, she cries. St. George blesses men. What has he been doing at university in Tbilisi, so far from home, that he has forgotten this basic tenet of tamada lore? She goes on chopping tomatoes with extravagant fury.

Giorgi rolls his eyes. “It’s always like this in Svaneti.” Sometimes, he says, it’s easier to pretend to be a tourist than to bear the burden of the prodigal son.

Yaroslav takes over the toast. His voice is resonant, rhythmic, oracular. Giorgi translates. We are drinking to roots, to families, to the pasts that bind us, to Giorgi’s Svan heritage and my own American lineage. We are toasting tradition and blood. We are toasting Georgia: eternal and unchanged.

Picture of a baker making bread
A baker in Mestia makes tonis puri bread with the help of his son.

 

THINGS MAY NOT CHANGE in Yaroslav’s Georgia, but everything is changing in Giorgi’s.

When I first encounter Giorgi in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, he is sporting skinny jeans and tie-dyed T-shirt, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. He is the quintessential Tbilisi hipster: more at home deejaying in the city’s dive bars than presiding over pigs’ heads in Ushguli. “When I was growing up in Svaneti,” he tells me, “people said I was a Satan worshipper because I liked rock music.” Neighbors locked up their cats. “I couldn’t wait to leave.”

In Tbilisi—artistic, chaotic, dynamic—Giorgi is not bound by tradition’s rules. He can be himself. The city embraces change—maybe too much so.

I’d spent three years off and on as an expat in Tbilisi, freelancing from a garden flat in the city’s old town. I only reluctantly left to attend grad school in England. But there’s a saying here: Those who get Georgia in the blood never truly leave. And so I’ve found myself back here, trying to uncover the source of Georgia’s hold over me. The city I first fell in love with—a labyrinth of crumbling art nouveau palaces and decaying, overgrown balconies—is now a pulsating metropolis of about 1.2 million, transformed virtually overnight by a wave of foreign investment and the aggressive building projects of former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his rival, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. A new funicular carries tourists up to the ruins of the ancient Narikala Fortress. A glass-walled casino hulks over the Kura River, its LCD screens casting an uncanny glow on the water. Meidan Square—once home to silversmiths and iconmakers—now overflows with the city’s sleekest bars.

After years in Tbilisi, I thought I’d grown used to the constant change: the pop-up art galleries and underground cafés that open, become habit, and close; the streets rerouted for construction so often that I forget where they originally led. But after almost a year away, the city’s glittering chaos shocks me.

At first I wonder if Georgia is changing too quickly for my liking. The places in fashion a year ago are now overrun with what Giorgi calls “those Georgians”—traditional, nationalist, homophobic; the artists and activists have decamped elsewhere.

Giorgi takes me to a self-proclaimed “ethnic” (read: international) bar called Canudos, dubiously located next to a strip club in the shadow of the Radisson hotel. The front garden, curved around a Soviet-era fountain, brims with Buddhist prayer flags, frayed hammocks, and what looks suspiciously like a Star Wars droid. A Georgian electro-punk band called Kung Fu Junkie—“my friends,” Giorgi grins—is playing on the radio. The crowd is a mixture of expats and artsy locals—tattooed, uniformly in black. A teenage girl cradles a stray kitten.

A young man rushes in, waving a pistol in the air.

For a moment, we are silent. The memory of Georgia a decade ago, with its bandits, its lawlessness, is palpable.

Then everyone bursts into laughter. “Bang!” His friends mime death with varying degrees of melodrama.

“Bang!”

“Of course it’s fake,” Giorgi says, incredulous at my fear. “They’re playing a game.”

The music gets louder. The kitten continues to make the rounds. “This place has gotten so mainstream,” Giorgi says with a sigh.

Picture of mountain peaks over the town of Mestia
Snowcapped Caucasus peaks loom over the town of Mestia.

 

GIORGI’S TBILISI IS relentlessly modern. But as I wander through the backstreets of the 19th-century Sololaki district, I discover the beauty—and history—that first inspired me about this place. Some of the buildings I have loved, such as the famous blue house on Gudiashvili Square that was once home to Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, have been razed to make way for new projects. But others remain, touchstones of memory: The brick “mermaid house” in the Jewish Quarter, its wrought iron balconies molded into fishtails; the yellow Ottoman-style palace on Lado Asatiani Street, girdled by pomegranate trees; the brick bathhouses in the largely Azeri Muslim district of Abanotubani. Each house is a testament to a city shaped by centuries of foreigners who have, like me, come to make this place their own.

Across from the Ottoman house, an elderly man supervises the renovation of an art nouveau mansion. He tells me that he is transforming the ground floor into a high-end coffee shop, to sell “the good stuff” to discerning Tbilisians.

The location has a special meaning for him, he says; he had an apartment here while at university, rare in a culture where most young people live at home until marriage. It made him very popular, he says, winking. He has lived in Germany for years, but now it’s time to return. The lure of this country is too strong to resist.

I tell him I understand.

Picture of woman scraping wax from candle
A woman scrapes wax from a votive candle stand at the Georgian Orthodox Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

 

BUT EVEN FOR GIORGI, Tbilisi is hardly the “real” Georgia. The essence of Georgian culture instead lies in the mountains, in the savage peaks of the Caucasus immortalized by 19th-century poets such as Alexander Kazbegi, who left a life of leisure in Tbilisi and St. Petersburg to become a shepherd in the mountain town of Stepantsminda.

Svaneti’s legacy of danger has only added to its mystique. Until the late ’90s, visiting the province was a foolish proposition. Those who survived the precarious 12-hour drive from Tbilisi risked robbery or worse from local bandit gangs. Even locals weren’t safe: The defensive stone towers abutting most Svan houses have weathered centuries of clan vendettas and blood debts. Svaneti might be celebrated in song, but it was rarely visited in person.

Giorgi offers to take me there.

Halfway on the daylong drive between Tbilisi and Svaneti’s cultural hub, Mestia, we stop at the 12th-century Gelati Monastery, nestled among fig trees just outside the historic city of Kutaisi. Known as Georgia’s “New Jerusalem,” Gelati was the nexus of the country’s golden age, when the country’s best poets, painters, and philosophers lived and worked here under the auspices of the great King David Agmashenebeli. Even today, it is among Georgia’s most sacred places.

A service is beginning. Around us, women are lighting candles, whispering prayers. A priest sings the liturgy, his voice haunting, discordant. The Byzantine frescoes shimmer through a haze of incense. It surprises me to see Giorgi drop to his knees before an icon of the Virgin Mary and kiss the frame.

Later, I try to find a tactful way of asking Giorgi about his faith. He evades the question. “It’s my country,” he says softly. “My history.”

Picture of a man shaving outdoors
Some alfresco grooming takes place on Tbilisi's Lado Asatiani Street, in the Jewish Quarter.

 

AS WE ARRIVE IN MESTIA, I learn that even Svaneti is changing. A steel-and-glass airport welcomes daily flights from Tbilisi; a new ski resort markets itself as a playground for the Georgian elite. The mountain views from Mestia’s central square are obscured by a new chalet-style hotel. A combination of aid money, foreign investment, and an ambitious governmental push to transform Svaneti into the “Georgian Switzerland” has given Mestia the uncanny aura of a Hollywood back lot. Giorgi grimaces. “I hate it.”

Even his childhood toys are behind glass. Giorgi used to spend his boyhood afternoons playing at the home of his best friend, the son of the director of the local ethnographic museum. Back then, the museum languished in disrepair, and the collection of historic Svan weaponry was piled up in boxes in his friend’s attic, haphazard and uncataloged. Together they would sneak on the armor, spend their summers mock-fighting with real medieval swords.

Recently the museum reopened after years of renovation. Now the chain mail, the Circassian swords, the golden shield emblazoned with miniature wine jugs—all these are immaculately preserved in climate-controlled display cases, signposted in English, hawked over by guards.

“Things are so strict now,” Giorgi says. “Not like it used to be.” Georgia’s old ways may irk him, I come to learn, but certain kinds of change irritate him even more.

Giorgi’s relatives are everywhere. That night in Mestia we share an overgrown courtyard with his grandmother, mother, aunt, and three sisters, several chickens, two kittens, and a dog. No sooner do we decide to head to the nearby hamlet of Latali than Giorgi remembers a branch of his family he hasn’t seen in years: His grandmother’s sister, Mariko, and her children share a farm just off the main road.

He calls Mariko moments before we leave. By the time we arrive, minutes later, a savory meat pie already sizzles on the stove. This is, Giorgi reminds me, the Georgian way.

It is good that we have come today, Mariko announces. It is the day after St. Mary’s Day, when families all over Georgia visit the churchyard graves of their loved ones, sharing their supras with those they have lost.

Latali has more churchyards than most. As Giorgi leads me up the dirt path to the 12th-century Church of the Archangel, I stop to look at the gravestones. The dead are predominantly male, predominantly young: casualties of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia, of intra-clan conflict, of car accidents on unsurfaced mountain roads.

This hamlet was once a famous center of religious iconography; nearly each of these rickety cottages contains a priceless icon or two, stewarded through generations. Even the director of the local museum has failed to acquire them. “They’ll sell their families,” Giorgi says, “before they’ll ever sell their icons.”

Picture of a pedestrian only bridge
An interactive LED display illuminates the new pedestrian-only Bridge of Peace, designed by an Italian architect, which spans the Kura River in Tbilisi.

 

THE NEXT DAY, WE HEAD deeper into the mountains to Ushguli, where Yaroslav and Wicked Rezi await us with their supra, their toasts. The three-hour drive takes us past carpets of wildflowers, effervescent streams, forested slopes that seem impossibly high until I catch a glimpse of distant Mount Shkhara, forked with snow, dwarfing them all. The grass, glinting golden in the light of early evening, shimmers over wild outcroppings of rock. Storm clouds cast cold shadows along the sides of the valley. We pull up at Yaroslav’s guesthouse and trade in our 4WD for a more traditional mode of transportation: a pair of sleek Ushguli horses that Yaroslav has obtained for us.

Astride, I follow Giorgi through the narrow streets. A group of piglets chase and nip at one another underfoot; dogs bark at our heels.

As we leave the road behind, the horses exult in their freedom, cantering in loping strides across the wildflower fields. Years in Tbilisi have not dulled Giorgi’s instincts; he and the horse glide in unison, barreling headlong into the expanse of the valley. We are the only ones here for miles.

“This is what I love,” Giorgi says. When he was a teenager, he wanted—“like all young Georgians”—to move out, to leave this place behind for good. But now he dreams of one day building a wooden house in rural Svaneti, of settling there in communion with the natural world.

After all, he says, this is home.

BACK IN TBILISI, the night before my departure, Giorgi and I plan one final supra at the restaurant Phaetoni, famous for its nightly performances of folk dance. Giorgi appears, in his trademark tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans. We are soon joined by Ana, an old friend of mine who has returned to Tbilisi after studying abroad.

Ana and Giorgi size each other up—comparing bars they frequent and activist rallies they’ve attended—and determine they are modern Georgians of a “similar mind-set.” They share their ambivalence about supra culture—it’s corny and outdated, they say, its toasts formulaic and insincere. They’d rather drink casually with friends than be chastised for toasting St. Mary instead of St. George.

But as platefuls of food arrive and the wine begins to flow, as the musicians strike up the first notes of the folk song “Lertsamisa Khesao” and the dancers, in their black chokhas, step onto the floor, their cynicism starts to fade. The dancers perform ever more elaborate acrobatic feats, building up to a frenetically choreographed duel with swords and shields: a traditional pas de deux from the mountains.

Families start to clap in time with the music; Ana and Giorgi are clapping too.

“You know,” Giorgi says, as the musicians start up another well-known west Georgian song, “I thought about making a techno version of this one.”

We eat with our fingers; we overfill our drinks. One group of revelers sends our table slices of their birthday cake; an Armenian family nearby sings along to a Soviet pop classic.

This is not Wicked Rezi’s supra, nor the graveside supras the day after St. Mary’s Day. We have no tamada; we make no toasts. We do not appeal to St. Mary or St. George. We speak English. We wear European clothes. We do not pour out sips of wine for the dead. But as we drink, as we sing, as we clink our glasses and cry “Gaumarjos!” we create our own feast. Out of a fractured array of traditions arises something new, something ours: a Georgia that, though untraditional, is no less real.

This is TARA ISABELLA BURTON’s first feature for Traveler. She recently completed a novel set in Georgia, The Snake Eaters. Frequent contributor MASSIMO BASSANO photographed Matera, Italy, for our September 2011 issue.

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