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Tbilisi – When people heard I was going to Georgia, the response was invariably: “Where’s that?” Some thought I was off to the US. One exclaimed: “Give my regards to Papa Joe.”
He was on track. Georgia was the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, sometimes called Papa Joe.
Gori, the town of his birth, is unprepossessing, and the Stalin Museum is the only claim to fame in this somewhat dreary bit of the countryside.
In the grand communist tradition, the museum contains vast rooms given over to Stalin’s achievements. Tactfully, the guides avoid mentioning his more murderous side.
The spartan, bullet-proof railway carriage in which he travelled to the Potsdam Conference in 1945 (where he met Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman), as well as the tiny house where the family lived, stand in the museum’s grounds. Incidentally, many Georgians still hold Stalin in great esteem.
On leaving the capital of Tbilisi, the traveller journeys northward along the Georgian Military Highway, which was used by the Russians to transport troops. Although Georgia declared its independence from Russia in 1918, it was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and remained there until the break-up of the USSR at the end of 1991.
The military highway passes through the Caucasus mountains, which form the spine of the country and, climbing ever higher, reaches the alpine region – home to Mount Kazbek, soaring 5 047m.
During our visit, the mountain remained swathed in clouds, but the village of Gergeti is said to have glorious views, especially from the landmark Holy Trinity church, high on a hill – where it crouches, tiny against the bastion of the surrounding mountains.
Traditionally, many people take a jeep ride up to the church, then walk down to Gergeti. Or you can use a jeep both ways.
Some of our group chose this last option, giving us time to visit the Alexander Kazbegi Museum in the town. Kazbegi was the great-grandson of a local feudal magnate who was in charge of collecting tolls on the Georgian Military Highway. He spent his childhood in the family home in Gergeti, then studied in Tbilisi, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, before returning to his roots, where he decided to become a shepherd to experience the lives of the locals.
No doubt tiring of the simple pastoral life, he turned to journalism, and then became a novelist and playwright.
After his death in Tbilisi, his coffin was carried home over a mountain pass.
Kasbegi’s famous novel, The Patricide, features a Caucasian bandit named Koba who, like Robin Hood, was a champion of the poor. Stalin was to take the name Koba as a revolutionary pseudonym.
Cathedrals and monasteries abound in Georgia. Most are highly ornate. For me, though, the beautiful, peaceful gardens of the Jvari Church, overlooking the town of Mtskheta, the former capital of Georgia, spoke the most eloquently. Here St Nino (the country’s most famous saint) set up her cross in the 4th century, and converted the town from paganism.
A walk in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, full of magnificent trees, was another highlight. You need a certain level of fitness as even the easiest trail involves quite a bit of walking, but it’s worth it.
The nearby spa town of Borjomi was popular with the tsarist Romanov family, while Tchaikovsky often holidayed there.
Tourists seem to adore the cuddly, long-haired stray Georgian Shepherd dogs and their cute puppies which frequent the car parks of some of the monasteries.
Uplistsikhe cave town, which pre-dates Christianity in Georgia, is interesting. Here, during sieges, the dead were temporarily put in jars until they could be re-buried.
An enormous underground tunnel leads to the river; inhabitants used it to collect water or make their escape. You can still walk through this tunnel.
The recently renovated town of old Signagi is worth a visit. So is the stately home of aristocrat Alexander Chavchavadze, a poet and talented general in the Imperial Russian service.
Any visitor to Georgia will frequently come across the name of King David the Builder, who built many beautiful monasteries in wonderful settings, throughout the country.
A drive over the mountains back to Tbilisi, through forests cloaked in their autumn finery, is splendid.
Emirates (emirates.com) flies from Durban to Dubai. FlyDubai (flydubai.com) has flights from Dubai to Tbilisi.
The writer joined Exodus Tours (exodus.co.uk)
Legends and history
Religion has special place in history of Georgia. While much of the country’s history is steeped in blood, it is a fascinating, beautiful place.
* Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have given her personal icon to St Andrew, when he took the gospel to Georgia.
* A monk who made a journey to Jerusalem apparently bought Jesus’s robe (worn on the way to his crucifixion) from a Roman soldier. On his return home, the monk’s sister touched the robe, and died of religious fervour. She was buried in a tomb along with the robe, which could not be prised from her fingers. A church was erected above her tomb.
* Queen Tamar was often referred to as King Tamar because she was so powerful. When she died, legend has it 11 monks – each said to be carrying her body – set off in a different direction. Nobody knew who had the genuine remains and all committed suicide at the end of their journey. So Tamar’s burial place is unknown, but many believe it is Jerusalem because she was a Christian.
* At one stage Shah Abbas of Persia planned to sack one of the cathedrals but when he entered, a ray of sunshine struck a blue stone on the church’s cupola, temporarily blinding him. In fear, he spared the cathedral.
* Many of the legends are gruesome, such as one about 40 Christian Roman soldiers who froze to death in a river – having been thrown in by the Turks – rather than convert to Islam. If they had recanted, they would have been plunged into a hot spring nearby, to save them, but they remained true to their faith.
On another occasion the Turks are said to have placed Georgian religious icons on a bridge and tried to force people to walk over them. Thousands were beheaded when they refused to desecrate the icons.