The best place to watch the sun go down in Tbilisi is at the feet of Mother Georgia. A colossal aluminum woman warrior who stands guard on one of the hills above the city, she holds a sword and a chalice—a warning and a welcome. On our first day in Georgia, my boyfriend, Brian, and I hike up to Mother Georgia's skirt hem and gaze down at the clay-colored Mtkvari River and the terraced houses nearly buried in foliage. The sky fades from pink to periwinkle, the city lights flicker on, and we begin to feel our wayalong the narrow, unlighted trail back to the city. Suddenly, a few yards down, we notice an eerie orange glow. We take a few more steps, and then our path is barred by fire.
Seven men sit in a circle. Eyes glittering, shirts unbuttoned, they hold raw meat on sticks over a bonfire. One of them sees us and gets to his feet unsteadily, his burly silhouette blocking our way. He picks up a plastic gas container and waves it over his head. Squinting and yelling something, he stumbles toward us.
My hand instinctively goes to my camera.
"Georgia," he says in accented English, pointing at his chest.
"America," I say warily, wondering if it's okay to admit this to a drunken stranger in the hills.
But he nods. "Hebraeli," he says, pointing to a skinny man who smiles, looking up from the cucumbers he is slicing. "Muslimi," he says, indicating another man. "Georgia . . . Armenia . . . Azerbaijan . . ." Going around the circle, he clasps a couple of the men warmly. He lifts the gas can, pours a gold liquid into plastic cups, and holds them out to us. Then he raises his own cup.
"To America!" he says. We take a swig of warm, dusky white wine. "To Georgia!" We drink again. By the time we have toasted all our nationalities and religions, the stars are out, the gas tank is empty, and my nervousness has dissipated into the beet-scented night.
This is the first of many such scenes we will encounter in our wanderings through this multiethnic, mountainous republic that was once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Georgia reappeared on the map of the Western world when, after seven decades of Soviet rule and a brief, bloody struggle, the superpower loosened its grip, giving way to the first viable Georgian state in almost 200 years. But even before the Communist era, this fertile land the size of West Virginia was a Holy Grail for expansionist empires. Lying in the northern Caucasus Mountains between the Black and the Caspian seas, it was an eastern outpost of early Christianity, and a key crossroads of the Silk Road's European and Asian veins. As such, it was an irresistible object of desire for the Greeks, Persians, Turks, Arabs, Mongols, and Russians, to name a few marauders. And yet, despite constant sieges, the Georgians developed a reputation for meeting fate with a grin and a glass of wine. Traveling here in 1858, when the country was under the rule of the Russian czars, Alexandre Dumas wrote: "Russia is a gloomy monarch: all her grandeur cannot make her gay. Georgia, a merry-hearted slave; her subjugation cannot make her sad."
Georgia is a slave no more. When we arrive in the spring, the country is gearing up to celebrate the anniversary of its 1991 independence. Though the annual military parade has been canceled for lack of funds, a festive atmosphere permeates the warm air. Tbiliselebi in pressed suits and silk dresses flock to Independence Day operas and dance performances. Teenagers converge at an open-air pop concert. You'd never guess that in recent months President Eduard Shevardnadze's neophyte democracy has survived a couple of bombings and thwarted an attempted military coup. But that is present-day Georgia—surrounded by spectacular examples of how badly a post-Communist state can implode, courted by Western countries eager for a foothold, and faced with the singular task of recasting its identity without losing itself in the process.
Tbilisi is like an old patchwork Quilt, torn and mended so many times that it's hard to tell which sections were part of the original fabric. One of the worst blows came in 1795, after the Persian eunuch king Agha Mohammad Khan made a pilgrimage to the city's underground hot springs, famous for their healing powers. According to one legend, he hoped the sulfurous baths would regenerate his lost parts. They didn't, and the furious king razed the city. Ironically, the bathhouses survived, and Brian and I quickly come to appreciate their evil-smelling waters, especially after nights of drinking the world-class local wines that have been the pride of Georgia for millennia.
One morning I leave Brian to steep and go meet Rusudan Gorgiladze, the friend of a Georgian friend in Boston. A dark-eyed, husky-voicedwoman, Rusiko (as friends call her) is one of Shevardnadze's chief advisers, and speaks fluent English after a year as a fellow at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She strides down a cobblestonedstreet and into a stately, dilapidated maze of alleyways. Her shiny black hair and full-skirted red dress stand out like daubs of brilliant paint, an exotic butterfly flitting between crumbling walls.
In the Old Town, Georgia's characteristic carved wooden balconies lean against Italianate colonnades and Moroccan-style arches—not to mention a few glaring Soviet-era poured-concrete atrocities. Cranes and scaffolding are here and there, but the new construction doesn't look like the frenzied sprawl so often imposed on developing countries. "We may not have money," Rusiko says, "but we still have taste."
All over Georgia neglected and abused churches are being restored. Long-haired monks who lay low during Soviet times have returned to monasteries, and Georgians of all ages fill the cathedrals on holidays, publicly affirming the faith they kept under wraps for so long. But what Tbilisi natives love to point out is the proximity of diverse places of worship, a testament to a history of religious tolerance. "Look across the street," Rusiko says as we stand outside a 13th-century Georgian Orthodox cathedral. "Right here is a synagogue. That dome down there is an Armenian church. The minaret is a mosque, and a Zoroastrian temple is beside it. See how close together they were built?"