Saturday, August 18, 2012

Grapes for God

Georgia was love at first bite.  I'd passed through Tbilisi already, but the first act on entering with the group was to stop for lunch with a local family.  At the risk of hyperbole, by the time I was in the midst of this meal, I thought I'd died and gone to culinary heaven: plate after little plate of handmade delicacies just kept coming, along with bottles of vin de maison in the literal sense, and eventually a sweet, fruity, apricot-colored brandy.  Almost as an afterthought, the owner came around and pushed hunks of barbecued pork off swords onto our plates.  This was French food as it ought to be: vegetables and herbs at the peak of freshness, prepared so as to get out of the way of their inherent flavors and textures.  As we chomped on luscious watermelon, the owner's daughter sang folk songs.  It all took place under a vast grape arbor, the leaves and fruit dappling the sun on an afternoon so warm we hardly needed wine to become inebriate.

Grapes have become a de facto theme for Georgia: practically every spare inch of space is planted with them, from the fronts of houses to window-boxes to arched trellises over tables to gutter downspouts.  They're carved into the ancient stone walls of churches, where monks cultivate them and congregants make offerings of wine.  The leaves are stuffed, tightly rolled, and served as dolmas (Persian word), or arranged as a decorative bed for cheese or other appetizers.  Locals boast that some 500 varieties of wine grapes are cultivated in Georgia--out of 5000 worldwide but only a handful even in such wine powerhouses as France.  The vast majority of the world's wine, after all, is made from only six different grapes.  I can't say I can taste all the different grapes in Georgian wine, but it is distinctly delicious (as described in a previous post).  

Grape vines are ineffably beautiful, a beauty we never see in the US, because the fruit comes pre-harvested from California or Chile.  Leaves and vines interweave to form the most soothing of screens, while the fruits hang half clandestine, like ornate ornaments too heavy to be hung anywhere but deep within a Christmas tree.  The shade provided by a grape arbor is a godsend in the heat of a Georgian summer afternoon, but there's a psychological cooling effect too to know that you're surrounded by living plants, and at any moment you can reach up and grab a little pearl of sweet refreshment. 

Women in the market
As in Azerbaijan, the people of Georgia were perhaps the greatest highlight: sprawling, chaotic fruit markets provide abundant opportunities to greet and photograph curious children, exuberant men, and bashful women.  Free samples are often proffered as thanks; before long I had more peaches, plums, and apples than I really wanted to carry. 

The other major feature of Georgia is churches, many of which are nearly 2000 years old, dating to when the very first missionaries set out to spread the gospel.  The Assyrian fathers got some seriously choice real estate on which to erect their elegantly simple sandstone sanctuaries and retreats.  It's said that you can tell the age of a Georgian church from its location: the more spectacular, the older.
Church with a view
Inside you go dizzy trying to take in all the iconostasis and stone carving.  Some in the group grew grumpy over what became a daily routine of two or three churches, but even as a non-religious person, I found them unflaggingly magical.  The clich√© "if these walls could speak" doesn't seem so hollow when you can actually see the pockmarks slowly chewing their way into the stone, and feel the smoothness worn by thousands of devotional kisses.  And with so few windows, and no stained glass, sunlight plays tricks, casting what really look like beams of heaven onto patches of the dark, cool floor. 

Icon orgy
Lux aeterna?

Churches aside, it's hard to pinpoint many specific "draws" to Georgia, yet it gets under your skin somehow.  It's very poor, struggling desperately to squeeze out from under the thumb of the USSR (and Russia), stuck in something of an identity crisis between nouveau-riche Azerbaijan and famous-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Armenia.  Tooling around the slow, winding roads, the houses pushed right up onto the shoulders, grotesquely overloaded hay trucks as common as mounted donkeys, you feel as if you've stepped back in time to when things were gentler, quieter, purer.  Life is very relaxed, and while people work hard and enjoy few obvious comforts, they've really mastered the simple pleasures: good food, good wine, good company, good views.
Woman selling woolens by the roadside

Horsing around in the street


  1. The commanding viewpoints of those churches remind me of the stupas in Nepal and Tibet.

  2. You don't get dramatic about it, which is good, but your point about the beauty and compelling sense of history in churches is a good and curious one, for those of us who don't attend. In traveling, it's possible that I'd as soon see or be in a church (or, as you know, a university), as a good museum. Shame on me??? Mind you, that only MIGHT be true, but I'm surprised it's even a contest. As your pics show, some of this . . . syndrome? . . . might arise simply from the way a church rules its landscape, whether big or little, urban or rural. Also, maybe it's some kind of comfort to think that churches have given us all that beauty in exchange for all the evil they've been responsible for. The evil's been done, and might continue, so we might as well accept the beauty? That won't float for long, but it's the best I can do.