“he knows it well, from a series of visits both on his own (including a sabbatical period of residence in 1995) and with his wife Julia and has led pilgrim groups there before and has been told that all greatly enjoyed the experience. The visit will largely coincide with the Orthodox celebration of Holy Week and Easter which will add an even richer dimension. Georgia is a profoundly religious country and its churches and monasteries vie with its natural scenery in interest and often splendour. Georgian food and hospitality are legendary and copious. The people are exceptionally hospitable”.
So, did it match up?
By a stroke of misfortune I was the only one whose pick up arrangements from the airport fell through so got to taste Georgian hospitality straight off, from the taxi driver whose limited English did not stop him showing great friendliness in discussion. One point to blurb: good hospitality. He also kept crossing himself on the way into town and I kept wondering what near miss I had failed to witness, until I realised that it was every time we passed a church that he did it. Blurb correct, two points: a profoundly religious country.
Having seen a large scale map I knew that Georgia was all rugged mountains, after all it’s just along from Afghanistan and I’d seen news reports of there…ahem. Blurb scores again. It’s an amazingly beautiful country and so green (I’m coming from the desert and notice these little things) and at the time we were there all the Spring flowers were out: buttercups, daisies, clover – beyond that I name them as red, pink, yellow etc, lots of them. All of Holy week they were selling candles everywhere but after Easter Day they were selling flowers on every street corner. Wonderful. As for food being legendary and copious – there was always much more served than we could eat and the home made Kakhetian cognac and other concoctions we had one night were really something special (not to mention the fireworks on the birthday cake and children’s songs for one of our group). They don’t export the home made stuff so you’ll have to visit to see what I mean.
For me the trip was a bit pricey (£1,200 plus air fare) but my chaplaincy helped out (for which I am very grateful indeed) so I could go, but that said, everything was SO easy! Comfortable beds, transport laid on everywhere, good food, no hidden extras and the supermarkets had everything you’d want for the stuff you’d left at home, though of course the labels were all in Georgian writing so there were some adventures to be had when you opened up later perhaps. Actually, not everything was available: toilets were very occasionally a bit bush. Well more, behind a bush if there were any, needing a tally ho attitude, ladies on one side of the road, gents on the other. Oh, and Bishop Michael forgot his electric shaver so we discovered that Georgian men must think that electric shavers are for other nations, because they do not sell them anywhere. He began to look more and more Orthodox, shall we say, as the trip went on ;-).
It will be a close shave if +Michael allows those last sentences and this remains on the diocese website, but…
Whilst on the subject of the Orthodox
The visit largely coincided with the Orthodox celebration of Holy Week and Easter, which although the blurb said it would add a richer dimension, I’m not sure it did, except in as much as it meant that the churches were often crowded inside, with priests singing prayers and bible readings whatever time we visited which perhaps wouldn’t have been happening at other times, but it limited the ability of the guide sometimes to explain what we were seeing. We had an excellent guide (his name was Nick) of course, who was well versed in Georgian history, but I think more could have been done to teach that ‘richer dimension’ to us as we toured, to help us get inside the Georgian religious consciousness (perhaps with a ‘Quiz the Bishop’ session at the end of some days so we could in a common forum hear each other’s input and questions).
Bishop Michael of course had a constant small cloud of hangers on trying to keep within earshot of both him and the guide to catch his tales and teaching as we toured. Sometimes though choices had to be made – do you follow the crowd, or do you run off to explore unfenced-off battlements, holes in the hillside, or dark rooms and stairways only partially blocked by fallen masonry hoping you’ll be back before the coach goes. I’m sorry but I couldn’t help myself.
The Kazbegi Pass (2395m)
Two nights in Tbilisi, two nights in Kutaisi, two nights in Gudauri, two nights in Kvareli, two nights in Tbilisi again. Central hills and suburbia with Western façade, cattle country; steep ravines, rapids and rivers with wooded hills; snow capped mountains, rough crushed boulder roads and avalanche barriers; open plains with fertile fields and vineyards evolving to a huge Telly Tubbie like landscape in turn evolving to rocky steppe. Ancient churches brought to life, ancient history part of the consciousness, an ancient cathedral housing fragments of the gambled-for robe of Christ, the ghostly face of Jesus in an icon painted 1500 years ago, the Stalin museum (that gave a lot of food for thought on how we should think of such leaders, though it seems a bit incongruous in this list), monasteries embedded in hillsides, and last but certainly not least Saint Nino and her story and involvement in the conversion of a nation, and thinking of my own desires to walk with God.