On nearly being eaten by a bear in Georgia

Financial Times 5 May 2017

I don’t believe in adventure. Real life, for the overimaginative, is scary enough. Yet greed can overcome fear, even indolence, and having once tried Georgian food, I couldn’t forget it: hazelnuts and pomegranates, tarragon lemonade, pickled tree-buds, soupy mountain-dumplings.

Unlike the capitals of some of the shaggier former Soviet republics, Tbilisi sounded virtually European. Surely they had duvets, baths? I pictured Constantinopolitan faded grandeur, cake and dusty velvet, like a Buddenbrooks-style spa in an unfashionable Italian port, with extra walnuts.

But the signs were there. The first time I planned a visit, the zoo flooded and tigers and lions roamed the streets until, devouring a man, they were shot. No matter. This spring, I decided to try again. Was it a success? Well, yes, except I was nearly eaten by a bear.

***

I didn’t have the faintest idea of what Georgia entailed. Without time to research, fuelled by only the vaguest banqueting dreams, the guidebook I began on the plane was a revelation. The country’s history made London look stagnant, English simplistic. Soon I’d experience ululation, curly writing, ram sacrifice, fundamentalist monks, ox sleds and, best of all, the Georgians’ fabled hospitality, entailing multi-course toasts to Mrs Thatcher.

The fun began as I left the airport. In Georgia, overtaking is an invigorating hobby, involving elements of chicken, dodgems and freestyle jazz-dance. Two lanes can so easily become three if, while phoning one’s nephew, one zooms, beeping, right up to other cars and forces them to give way.

The terror was worth it for Tbilisi’s balconies alone. It is a filigree city; every stairway, gate and balustrade is a lacy entanglement of fretwork, ironwork, stained glass and stucco, usually crumbling, often actively ruined. Vast girders brace buildings against each other across rubble-strewn streets. In the Old Town, families live Soviet-style in once-grand houses, central yards strung with drying bras and satellite dishes and imaginative wiring and vines for household wine-production. So, what with marvelling at verandas and not being run over, traversing the city works up quite an appetite.

This was fortunate. Old women sit on every pavement selling bunches of mustard leaves; muddy eggs; fresh cheese; smokily addictive dried persimmons, like crystallised hand grenades, and, best of all, rows of churchkhela or “Georgian Snickers”, knobbly strings of grape-juice-dipped walnuts in a Pantone chart of autumn shades. An ordinary lunch might feature deeply spiced beef soup, fried aubergine, pickled tree-blossom, tiny fried fish, pink Caucasian tomato and cucumber salad with garlicky walnut dressing and spicy liver grilled in caul, all served with khachapuri (head-sized pools of molten salty cheese barely contained by a boat-shaped crust), spicy plum sauce, metallic mineral water, cloudy Qvevri natural wine and cigarettes galore. In Georgia one can, indeed should, smoke at all times.

Understandably, there was little time for culture. I managed only six or seven thousand ancient churches, some Pirosmani feast-scenes and the flea market where, resisting the tempting gas masks, earrings, axes and Georgian vinyl, I succumbed to a ’60s Soviet coffee-grinder. Even a day-trip along the Military Highway in an extremely jiggly marshrutka, past grandmothers butchering sheep by the road and a squashed colossal Lenin statue, to the bread oven-shaped dome of the Trinity church in Kazbegi, wasn’t quite enough, despite the fun of concealing my irreligious trousers with a brown nylon overskirt, my bare head with a woolly hat, so I looked like a demented Alpine baker.

***

However, I am not a Philistine; one proper excursion was essential. My Russian-speaking companions suggested taking a minuscule plane to Svaneti, the barely accessible northern stronghold of the faintly Mesopotamian Svans, where winters last eight months and the wheel arrived in 1935.

I know.

Imagine the Alps, untrammelled. At every window, beneath colossal snowy peaks, meltwater surges down intensely wooded ravines, landslides spew shale, pigs roam dung-caked streets, all overlooked by stone defensive towers, dozens of them, built over a millennium ago.

And one of them was ours. Generations of the Margiani family, our hosts, have tended it; Keti, their beautiful brainy daughter, said: “I used to read on the roof. Want to see?”

How could I refuse? We’d already eaten the yoghurt “from our cow” milked twice daily by Keti’s mother when not working for the border police and tending her five children and making cheese, bread, cake. We had toured Keti’s extraordinary family museum: the blackly medieval-looking wooden room in which her extended family and livestock lived, slept, prayed for centuries, then preserved for centuries more.

Svaneti is littered with ancient family buildings guarded from blizzards, communists and orthodoxy, such as the tiny glorious chapel, frescoed with warrior-saints, restored by a master artist whose forebears were its keyholders for a thousand years. Georgians are used to terror. Ceaselessly invaded, by Assyrians, Byzantines, Persians, Mongols and Russians, wanton destruction doesn’t worry them. So I couldn’t balk at standing on a wobbly 25-metre-high roof or, later, wading through a jauntily diagonal pine forest, then snow, then: “Those,” someone said, “are bear-prints. Five toes. Claws.”

“Don’t be a silly — ”

“Anyone hear a trumpeting sound?” And it was based on this undeniable evidence that the Margianis, laughing charmingly, conceded there were definitely local bears.

See? Adventure is inadvisable. But I had survived and, flying home, nibbling my last churchkhela, the world seemed bigger. If good PR can transform the reputation of breadmaking, squirrels, Farage, think what it might do for Georgia.

I’ve now visited four of the 15 former Soviet republics and the food gets better, while my trousers grow tighter. It’s definitely Kyrgyzstan next.