Once a Soviet fiefdom, now a neophyte democracy, the richly endowed republic of Georgia isn't primed for visitors. But come anyway, for the mountains, the Black Sea, the open-armed welcome—and the chance to take part in a cultural awakening

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?"

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."

Another Georgian friend seemed more abashed, but confirmed the girl-stealing. And yet, two of the most celebrated Georgian figures are strong young women. In the fourth century Nino brought Christianity to Georgia, fashioning a cross out of grapevines and strands of her own hair. Eight hundred years later, Queen Tamara, known for her arts patronage, ruled over Georgia's golden age while most of Europe was mucking around in the Dark Ages.

Like many Georgians, Inga takes history personally. In the churches we visit, the frescoes are often missing, the walls simply blank. "The Soviets whitewashed them," Inga saysrepeatedly. "Here in Georgia, everything is 'if'—if the Persians hadn't burned our cities, if the Bolsheviks hadn't taken over, if we had money to fix things. Then what could our country be?"

If Joseph Stalin had never been born, the town of Gori would be an unremarkable outpost along Georgia's east west highway. Instead, the dictator's aptly named hometown holds the distinction of housing what many say is his last remaining giant-size statue.

The son of a cobbler, Stalin grew up in a working-class neighborhood razed long ago, save for the family hut, which is now dwarfed by a palatial Stalin museum where a single souvenir—a plastic Stalin key chain—is sold. Inside, we follow a burly woman who, devoid of irony, steers a school group toward the dictator's early report cards, cracked-leather armchair, and photos (some retouched to eliminate purge victims). Inga looks embarrassed. "In Tbilisi we know the truth," she whispers. "But people in Gori still love Stalin. Personally, I wouldn't let my children set foot in this place."

These days, the Georgian government has an ally in the United States. Hoping to cultivate a stable partner in the Caucasus, it is lobbying for Georgian pipelines to transport Caspian Sea oil, and is sending over Americans to advise on banking and law reform. In Tbilisi's parliament building, I spot a vaguely familiar face in the elevator. "Gary Hart?" I say tentatively, and he swings around with a practiced smile and handshake. Marriott International reportedly is taking part in the restoration of the war-damaged Hotel Tbilisi; the U.S. National Park Service is helping to create nature preserves.

But outside the capital, the mood is less optimistic. "Ten years ago the popular slogan was 'I can chew grass as long as I'm independent,'" recalls the editor of the English-language daily Georgian Times. "Now people are tired of chewing grass." Most Georgians oppose Communism, but many, especially struggling pensioners, can't help feeling nostalgic for the security it once offered. Meanwhile, every so often on the highway we pass military trucks with red, blue, and white flags. "Russians," Inga grumbles. A by-product of the separatist wars of the early 1990's, they're supposed to be pulling out but haven't quite gotten around to it.

Interestingly, it's not Stalin's hometown or the Russian soldiers that make Brian and me uneasy, but rather the popular Georgian summer enclave of Batumi on the Black Sea. "Oooh, it's too good!" Inga squeals, and Dato grins as the water comes into view.

Only 12 miles from the Turkish border, Batumi feels less Georgian than other cities. With its palm trees, tea plantations, and ornate 19th-century cafés, it looks something like a Nice or a Monaco of days gone by. Jade-colored water laps against moored paddleboats as pensioners do morning calisthenics on the pebbly beach. Dated Eurodisco blares at waterfront restaurants where Georgians with cell phones sit across from Pacific Island sailors.

But beneath the holiday atmosphere, a seediness pervades. Late-model BMW's and Hondas roar past casinos, reminding me of a rumor I heard about Western European stolen cars that end up in Georgia. Inga introduces us to her brother-in-law, a tall, brooding guy in his twenties who, she tells us, has recently decided upon a girl to steal. And Inga herself becomes uncharacteristically coy as she describes the local governor, who has butted heads with the central government over his mafioso tactics.

"Whatever people say about him, he's brought money to the city," she says defensively. "See how clean the buildings are?See all the nice cars?" But that evening, as we stroll through town, she's jumpy. "Don't walk too fast or too slow," she hisses as we pass a nondescript building guarded by black-clad men with Kalashnikovs. "This is the governor's house."

We stay at the Intourist, built in anticipation of the 1945 Stalin-Churchill-Roosevelt summit that ended up taking place in Yalta. The lobby and restaurant still have the theatrical, imposing aura of that era; the staff, too, seems determinedly Soviet. When I lurch out of our room at 3 a.m. to investigate a loud party, the culprits turn out to be Russian-speaking hall matrons on the night shift. They apologize profusely, genuinely surprised that their raucous coffee klatch might disturb a guest. But I am left unmoved by Batumi—a strange cocktail of aggressively Western ornaments masking the most obvious Communist clichés.

"Now you will see our Sicily," Inga says. Dato's Lada isn't up to the trip into Georgia's most remote mountains, so we reluctantly wave good-bye and squeeze into a creaky Soviet military jeep driven by a silent young man called Zaza. The region of Svaneti represents the inaccessible, the untamed, the last link between modern-day Georgians and the tribes of bandits who fought one another here until Soviet times. It's billed as the only part of Georgia that never fell to conquerors, which explains the distinctive light features and large, almond-shaped eyes of the Svans, whose 4,000-year-old spoken language is incomprehensible to other Georgians.

The route to Mestia, the largest town, is not for the weak of stomach. Zaza stoically negotiates hairpin turns and spine-shattering potholes on a road where a few feet—at times, a few inches—separate us from a 1,000-foot plunge into a frothing slate-gray river. As Brian massages a part of my wrist he says is a carsickness pressure point, I cradle my stomach and wonder how any destination can be worth this.

Four hours up, the dense pine forest and Lada-sized rocks give way to meadows where long-haired pigs graze. Yellow rhododendronsin the hills fill the car with a delicate perfume. Rounding a bend, we come upon Svaneti's guardian angel—a wall of mountains that literally makes me gasp. I ask to stop so I can get out to stare, and take in the thin air.

Svanetian towns showcase Georgia's most dramatic architecture: 92-foot-tall stone watchtowers with square windows at the top that look out over the valleys. Dating back as far as the 11th century, these towers were built to protect villagers from avalanches and enemies. Each family owned one, and together they rise in a silhouette that reflects the mountain skyline.

In recent years Mestia has built a new hospital, a high school, and a sports academy. But Nana Nijharadze, our Svan guide, worries that there's still not enough to keep people from leaving. As a director of culture and tourism in Svaneti, she's thrown herself into full-time promotion of the region, even bringing in aid money from Europe.

On our second day, she crams us back into Zaza's jeep and we spend the day tooling around in even more remote villages. Coming back, we stop at a concrete-block building—a tiny auditorium. The house is packed, but the children in the front row scoot aside and, in sign language, urge us to take pictures of the plywood stage. People of all ages are singing and doingdances that depict battles and love conquests. The performances are intimate and spirited, but the real concert comes when we're invited backstage for a celebratory dinner.

At a long, candlelit wooden table, sunburned men and a few women loudly pass around meat pies and pickled tomatoes as a boy makes sure everyone's glass is filled with homemade vodka. A tipsy man in a gray felt cap gets up. "To our concerts," he cries, and everyone cheers.

Another man stands: "To the great powers of St. Mariam and all women!"

"To those who have left us in earthquakes, floods, and war!"

"To peace in Svaneti—if there is peace here, there is peace in all of Georgia!"

The drunken toasts and cheers run into one another; then, over the cacophony, an open, flat voice rises. Down the table another starts to sing, and gradually everyone joins in a dissonant harmony that changes subtly with the introduction of each voice. The music quickens, and an old man beckons to a girl in a long black skirt. The girl demurs, but he insists, and the two begin a stomping, whirling duet that brings the group to its feet, dancing and clapping.

We stay for hours, and finally hug everyone good-bye. A few locals squeeze into our jeep, and as they launch into another folk song, I forget to feel carsick. I'm too taken with these people who have continued to sing throughout all the wars and invasions and avalanches. Gazing at the velvet sky, I settle into the rattling that has become a familiar, even elemental part of travel here. I kind of hope they don't fix the roads.

Get one through the Georgian embassy (phone and fax 202/393-6060; www.georgiaemb.org) in Washington, D.C., or at the airport in Tbilisi.

A tour company is almost essential for arranging transportation and reservations. These offer private and group trips with English-speaking guides:

Caucasus Travel
5-7 Shavteli St., Tbilisi; 995-32/987-400, fax 995-32/987-399; www.caucasus_travel.com.ge. The premier Georgian outfitter, Caucasus organized our trip, and collaborates with the American companies listed below. Their basic 10-day tour starts at $1,400, including transportation, food, and lodging. They also arrange treks, horseback and ski trips, and tours of Georgia's wine country.

Geographic Expeditions
2627 Lombard St., San Francisco; 800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448, fax 415/346-5535; www.geoex.com. The company's 17-day Georgian adventure, in July and August, hits most major points. Next year, a Svaneti trek will be added.

Distant Horizons
350 Elm Ave., Long Beach, Calif.; 800/333-1240 or 562/983-8828, fax 562/983-8833. Leads a group of 15 (plus a guest scholar) each fall—this year, Sept. 9—on a 20-day cultural tour of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus (Odyssey Guides) by Roger Rosen. Covers history, culture, geography. The only Georgian guide out there.

Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry (St. Martin's Press) by Peter Nasmyth. An engaging travelogue by a Tbilisi-based Brit.

The American-based Georgian Association's site has useful links, including one to the English newspaper, the Georgian Times.