The Tbilisi cultural scene is equally all-encompassing—from contemporary Shakespeare adaptations to pulsating Casio keyboard concerts. I meet one artisan who carves cameos out of what he cheerfully claims are mammoth tusks. "It's okay," he says of the waist-high specimens. "They have very many in Siberia." At the Beatles Club, we make it past a menacing doorman with a handheld metal detector and join a crowd twisting and shouting to a surprisingly convincing Fab Four cover band. In one of the cavernous rooms filled with Beatles paraphernalia, the club's owner, Valery Kacharov, casts an appreciative eye over the band. "I taught them to do that," says Kacharov, who sports a familiar-looking mop of dark hair. "I founded the band in 1981. I was Paul—I used to really look like him!"
Though Westerners are only now discovering Georgia, tourism is hardly new here. Russian nobility built villas around the mountain mineral spas. Soviet party bosses sent their kids to summer camp onthe Black Sea. These days, brochures tout subtropical forests, unrivaled wineries, Alp-like skiing, and unesco World Heritage archaeological sites. And yet, it's as though none of this has quite opened to the public. Transportation is slow, electricity is sporadic, and roadside toilets can be medieval. For now, the infrastructure isn't able to support major tourist traffic—meaning that outsiders have a rare chance to peek behind the curtain. Just be prepared for a few inconveniences.
If Georgia had freeways, driving across it would be a breeze. Instead, the trip takes several days. Our route is prescribed by the availability of accommodationsor, rather, theplaces Caucasus Travel, our Tbilisi tour agency, could reach by phone. We plan to loop through the lush hills of the south, over the flatlands leading to the Black Sea, and into the peaks of the northern Caucasus. Four of us travel in a Lada, the rattly but reliable Soviet-era sedan that can be seen dodging potholes all over the country.
Our guide, Inga, is a petite, dark-haired linguistics scholar whose witticisms are expressed in slightly archaic British English (for which we are grateful; the 2,500-year-old Georgian language sounds like a string of consonants and looks like a squiggly secret code.) Dato, 25, our stocky driver, has a thing for red polo shirts and aviator sunglasses. Shy about his English, he entertains us with war ballads as he swerves around cows or crawls to avoid being stopped for speeding. It generally doesn't work. "The police can't live on their salaries," Inga explains as Dato pulls over for the third time in an hourto reason with a cop wielding a pocket speedometer. Usually the issue is resolved with a few lari, the Georgian currency. It's like a road tax, except that it's clearly not going into the roads.
But the lack of an extensive tourist industry doesn't stop Georgians from offering their own tours. When I mention to a friend in Tbilisi that I'm interested in folk dancing, she makes a call and we get to watch a rehearsal of the world-class Erisioni ensemble. At a museum in the northern mountain town of Mestia, the docent hands me intricate gold and silver daggers that anywhere else would be locked in a case. When we happen upon the site of an ancient fortified Black Sea town, we're greeted by an archaeologist emerging from a half-revealed room. "Look at what we found today," he says, holding out a corroded first-century bronze oil lamp. Taking it into my hands, I can almost feel the heft of this land's history pushing up through the soil. Even as visitors, we're part of Georgia's reawakening, and the country is thrilled to have someone to share it with.
Part of the thrill is economic: a foreigner can spend more here in two weeks than most Georgians see in a year. In many ways, independence was a shock. Accustomed to centralized control and local inefficiency, the government descended into violent infighting, followed by the secession of a northwestern province called Abkhazia, which political analysts believe was abetted by Moscow. The conflict forced 300,000 ethnic Georgians who had lived there to flee to Georgia. Today, most Georgian hotels are home to refugees who sleep several to a room, but are blessed with some of the best views in town from balconies aflutter with laundry.
This situation has created a lucrative niche for the many homeowners who have turned their quarters into guesthouses. As we cross the country, we stay with a pediatrician, an architect, and a ski instructor—all of whom are making exponentially more money as hosts than they ever did at their original professions.
With her unruly shock of gray hair and her stubborn chin, our Tbilisi hostess, Manana Skhirtladze, is a cross between stern matron and mischievous girl. Her four-bedroom guesthouse is a family business—her husband, Alexei, a former engineer, buys Caspian Sea caviar for our breakfast and challenges us to mystifying games of Russian billiards (the balls are all white and seemingly interchangeable); her sister Irma, an ex-journalist, whips up pillowy apple fritters; and her 12-year-old daughter, Anna, translates our American slang.
Manana's clientele often spills over into the bedrooms of neighbors. "I've had more than a thousand guests," she says. "You know, it was very hard for me the first time I had guests. It seemed wrong to take money for something Georgians do naturally. But it was necessary for my family, so I did it."
At meals served by our various hosts, I learn to eat only a few spoonfuls of potato and dill soup, saving room for chicken stewed in pungent herbs and tomatoes, lemon-marinated fish, grilled eggplant with crushed walnuts, meat dumplings, and warm chocolate éclairs (often the cow that supplied the cream is out in the barn). Even the cucumbers burst with flavor. "It's all—what do you call it?—organic," says Inga. "Georgians can't afford chemicals anymore."
Like her country, our guide is a fascinating embodiment of old ways and new. Eager to convince Brian and me of Georgia's modernity, she cites her country's high education levels, polylingualism, and democratic bent. But then she tells us matter-of-factly about girl-stealing, which she insists is common.
"Of course it's true," she says. "It's happened to a lot of girls I know. If a boy wants a girl, he and some friends steal her off the street. The boy drives her to a house—maybe his uncle's—and keeps her overnight. By morning it's too late; her reputation is ruined, and even if she hates the boy, she must marry him."