As we sped northwards from Tbilisi up the Georgian Military Highway, I was glad that we’d hired a driver. The roads are every bit as scary as I’d been told. Vehicles on both sides overtake constantly, swerving into safety only at the last second. Add in the little problem of livestock on the road and you need nerves of steel.
Soso Ninoshvili had come recommended. A bulky, deep-voiced 40-year- old, he had a Mitsubishi 4x4 and good English. After an initial stand-off, our two little girls, aged two and four, adopted him as a friendly uncle. He ate with us, stayed with us and translated for us – very useful in a country where nobody speaks English and the alphabet looks otherworldly. And it was soon apparent that he knew more than just the obvious tourist sites. Ten kilometres out of the capital, he pulled into an unpromising lay-by that turned out to house a bubbling spring.
In Tbilisi the temperature had been nudging 40C, so we were glad to be sipping fresh water as we climbed towards the cooler air of the Caucasus. Soso’s next stop was the sixth-century Jvari church, perched high on the hill above the picturesque confluence of rivers at Mtskheta. A stern sign warned against wearing shorts but the black-robed monk on duty had fallen asleep over his souvenirs, so we were left in peace for 10 minutes with the candles, icons and ancient walls; even our girls were awed into silence. Just as we left a French tour party appeared and the monk woke. “Shorty, shorty!” he cried, chasing me and the rest of the men out the door.
We drove on north, skirting the shimmering turquoise waters of the Zhinvali reservoir, then on up hairpin bends to the Jvari Pass, where the road deteriorated badly. We were more bothered by this than the girls. “Ninky Nonk!” they cried delightedly, referring to a juddering driverless vehicle in the BBC children’s programme In The Night Garden.
I did my best to explain to Soso.
“Ninky Nonk,” he chuckled to himself, as his brawny arms swerved us round potholes and landslides.
In the Tergi Valley beyond, a scattering of villages lies beneath towering mountains, slopes of smooth green rising to mighty rocky summits. At the far end, capped with snow even in August, is Mt Kazbek, 5,047m high, one of 12 Caucasus peaks higher than Mont Blanc. Stepantsminda, just below in the valley, is packed with guest houses and hotels. But with the girls in mind we’d opted for a home stay in the nearby village of Arsha.
I had imagined something picturesque and rural but our chosen “country house” turned out to be on the main road. A large satellite dish stood by the cow tethered in the grassy front yard. Our bed was two wobbly singles pushed together. The village itself was scarred with derelict buildings and rusting pylons, a sorry contrast to the magnificence above. But initial disappointment was soon overtaken, as Mary, 15, fussed delightedly over our youngest. She then volunteered to lead us up the valley to a spectacular waterfall.
“As you wish,” said Soso (a phrase we were to become used to). But he came along with us, stopping for cigarette breaks as he puffed red-faced up grassy slopes awash with wildflowers, before stripping to his jeans and plunging in. Perhaps he felt the need to put on a show: also at the little pool with his family was a rugby player who had once played for France.
Supper that evening, on the terrace of the main farmhouse, was equally uplifting: meatballs in a fresh tomato sauce, stuffed peppers, a delicious cauliflower and walnut dish, fresh bread and curd cheese.
Without the little ones (or our driver) we would have stayed days and gone hiking. As it was, we didn’t even attempt the four-hour trek through the woods to Tsminda Sameba, the lovely 14th-century church standing alone on a hilltop surrounded by mountains; instead Soso powered us up a dirt track to within 200 yards of the top. Today I had been careful to wear long trousers; and a further ban (on photographs) made for a genuinely sacred atmosphere inside. In one corner a dark-bearded priest in crimson-and-gold vestments bestowed advice and blessings on the queueing supplicants.
Back in Arsha, we lunched on the Georgian speciality khinkhali, a cross between Chinese dumplings and giant ravioli. You bite through the pasta-like shell, Soso explained, and suck out the juice before scoffing the meat within. Our girls found them too spicy, preferring khachapuri, a type of cheese pie. Afterwards, Mary was on hand to lead us to another treat we’d never have found on our own: an open-air pool fed by a mineral water spring. On Sunday afternoon, the locals were out in force, enjoying the warm sun until it slipped behind the mountains at 5pm.
A mighty drive the next day took us back down to the heat of central Georgia and along a poplar-strewn brown plain to western Georgia, where the steep wooded slopes around the Kvirila river reminded us of the Wye Valley. Here the road was at its craziest yet, the double-banked traffic racing past stalls selling baskets, pottery, hammocks and hunting horns.
Mercifully we made it in one piece to Kutaisi, where President Mikheil Saakashvili has moved Georgia’s parliament to and built new premises for its legislature. In our guest house in Bagrati, a hilltop area of the city, the supper laid out by our landlady Lali was spectacular. Among other unusual dishes: aubergines with walnut paste, fried chicken with jam sauce, cabbage with tarragon.
Enjoying a beer after his long day, Soso took the role of tamada, or toastmaster, a key concept in Georgia, where traditional supras, or feasts, are punctuated by endless speeches. Soso seemed almost bashful as he raised his glass to our “lovely family”. I reciprocated with a toast to his bold and skilful driving.
There was more of that the next day en route to the extraordinary Prometheus Caves at Tskaltubo, a kilometre’s walk through an extravaganza of stalagmites and stalactites. Then on to the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati, its interior rich with magnificent frescoes, some dating to the 12th century, and happily free of monks worried about dress codes.
By mid-afternoon, we were heading north to Svaneti, the region often described as the soul of Georgia, a refuge from both Mongols and Russians where the most precious icons were taken in times of trouble. The landscape didn’t disappoint: swaths of mist shrouding the fir-clad mountains. Until recently, this road was unmade and treacherous, lined with shrines to those who had driven over the cliff. Each of these (the story goes) was stocked with bottles of chacha, the local firewater, so that a toast could be given before driving on – a custom that hardly helped the statistics.
Fortunately or not, Saakashvili has swept all that away, with a new tarmac road that gets you to Mestia, the regional capital, in three hours. As we drove down into the surrounding green valley, dotted with traditional Svan watchtowers, it became apparent that the road was only half the plan. Bulldozers chugged back and forth across the muddy main street against a din of sawing and hammering and drilling. The entire place, it seemed, was being rebuilt.
Our landlady came running down the street, her face wreathed in apologetic smiles. The road to her guest house was being dug up. We would have to walk. Luckily, dinner made up for the hassle. Larisa was our best cook yet. Replete with wild trout, beef goulash, creamy mash and tomato salad, it didn’t seem to matter that we were sharing a shower and loo with the family, or that you got to it down a spiral staircase in the pitch dark.
The next morning, after a breakfast of home-cooked pancakes, doughnuts, fresh cheesecake and other delights, we escaped to the mountains above the building site. The Ninky Nonk’s engine boiled over (twice) to get us there and we ended up pushing our buggy up the terrible vertiginous track, but this was a hiker’s paradise, grander even than the Alps.
The next day we headed to Ushguli, the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (at 2,100 metres), a further two hours up another shocking dirt road. This was Mestia as it must have been: remote, rundown, but eerily beautiful with its clusters of ochre-stone watchtowers against the glaciered slopes of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest mountain. Leaving Soso by the car, we headed towards it into meadows strewn with wild delphiniums, phlox, ladies’ mantle and forget-me-nots, just to name some of the flowers we recognised.
“We won’t be long,” we cried – but the lure of the glacier proved too strong, and it was five hours before we returned, rather guiltily, tired children on shoulders, to our guide. “Next time I call the police,” Soso said.
This was about as far northeast as we could go, with Russia just over the mountain. Two days later, we were at the southeastern edge of the country, to spend our last days in Kakheti, the sunny district famed for its wines, not least because Georgia is the birthplace of viticulture. Containing skin and stem as well as fruit, Georgian wine has an earthier taste than most European wines but it soon grew on me.
“I think you have seen enough churches,” Soso laughed, as we opted to spend the afternoon sampling vintages in the lovely “English garden” of the manor house once owned by Alexander Chavchavadze, godson of Catherine the Great.
We spent the night in Signaghi, a hilltop town so pretty it bordered on twee. With its cobbled streets, red-tiled roofs and touristy signs, this was Mestia as it will be. Our landlady had Georgian wine in bottles, but Soso insisted that we try the local stuff, which came in a two-litre plastic container siphoned from a vat. Cloudy, fruity and slightly bitter, it was more like scrumpy than wine.
The tamada hat was passed around the table and lengthy toasts given to everything from “children” to “our brilliant guide”. This last was sincere, because there was no way we could have done this trip in a hire car and without Soso we would have missed so much. As he handed us back through the door of our hotel in Tbilisi, he clasped my hands firmly between his. “I’m just glad I got you all back safely,” he said, crossing himself.
Mark McCrum’s most recent book is ‘Walking with the Wounded: The Incredible Story of Britain’s Bravest Heroes and the Challenge of a Lifetime’ (Sphere)
Home and farm stays in Georgia can be booked via Elkana, the Georgian Biological Farming Association (www.ruraltourism.ge).
Mark McCrum paid around £20 per adult per night, including dinner and breakfast; £10 each for children.
Soso Ninoshvili can be contacted at email@example.com. He charges around $50 per day. Drivers can also be arranged through Elkana