SOME TANGLED VINES IN GEORGIA

George Rush
Jun 12 · 24 min read

Concertos, rivers of wine, an aborted Trump Tower, and a suspicious hunting accident.

Photography by George Rush/Story originally published in Lucire Magazine

I don’t know if the U.S. State Department has ever issued a Travel Advisory about this but, if you’re considering a visit to the Republic of Georgia, be warned: its people will charm the pants off you.

Certainly, they’ll try.

For several years, a gentleman named Giorgi Rtskhiladze — a Georgian-born financier and music producer living in New York — would invite me through mutual friends to visit his homeland. Each time something got in the way and I had to send my regrets. What I didn’t realize, then, was that my trip was inevitable — because, for Georgians, hospitality is non-negotiable.

This time, Giorgi beckoned me to a vineyard that a 19th-century poet-prince had planted on an estate where Georgia’s current president and prime minister would be among the guests at a weekend of classical music and dance.

‘Stop,’ I said. ‘You had me at “vineyard.”’

Beyond being the 8,000-year-old wellspring of man’s winemaking, Georgia promised a dizzying array of landscapes: mountains with year-round snow, Black Sea beaches, subtropical forests, rolling hills — 53 microclimates in all. Just as intriguing was the culture that had congealed at this Eurasian intersection. I’d read that Persians, Mongols, Turks, and Russians had all sought to control the Eden of the Caucasus.

I had not known that this land had also been darkened by the tangerine specter of Donald Trump. Or that a suspicious hunting accident would figure into the trip.

But we’ll get to that.

Flying in through İstanbul, I met up with my old friend, author Tom Teicholz. On our first day, Tom and I toured Tbilisi, driving to the top of Sololaki hill, overlooking the capital. Below, autumn’s tinted trees shone like a coral reef. Around us, feral dogs stood guard on battlements dating to the fourth century.

Sunni and Shia Muslims worship side by side at Tbilisi’s Jumah Mosque

It’s said that Tbilisi (known until 1936 as Tiflis) has been destroyed and rebuilt 26 times. Its latest incarnation included Byzantine, brutalist, beaux-arts, art nouveau, neoclassical, and socialist classical structures, plus a few skyscrapers over 30 storeys tall.

Surveying the city with us was Kartlis Deda, the ‘Mother of Georgia’, a 65 ft tall aluminum woman erected in 1958 to mark Tbilisi’s 1,500th anniversary. The hubcap-breasted lady held a mighty sword (to smote her nation’s enemies) and a welcoming goblet.

Kartlis Deda, ‘Mother of Georgia’, watches over Tbilisi.

We strolled down cobblestone steps toward the city’s old quarter.

Clinging to the hill were 19th-century wooden dwellings, painted like Easter eggs, with terracotta roofs and ornately carved balconies.

The smell of sulphur smudged the air as we neared the hot springs that gave the city its name — tbili, or warm. Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Dumas were among the travellers who’d sweated in the Abanotubani District’s bath-houses — the prettiest being Chreli Abano, a mosaic-encrusted temple where a brawny man with a rough glove will scrub you for about €6.

Entrance to the Chreli Abano bath house.

Forgoing our exfoliation for now, we got back into our car for a spin through town. A statue of Lenin had loomed at Freedom Square until 1991, when protestors, declaring Georgia’s independence from the USSR, pulled it down. Following the bloodless Rose Revolution that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, a granite pillar rose, topped with a gilded statue of St George slaying a dragon. (I was tickled to find that half the men in Georgia share my name — well, until I got tired of turning around every time someone shouted, ‘George!’)

Tooling down Rustaveli Avenue, I thought we’d taken a detour to Paris. The wide, leafy boulevard was lined with such grey eminences as the Georgian National Opera, the former Parliament building, and the Georgian National Museum.

But Tbilisi is not an antique shop. Taking office in 2004, Georgia’s third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, hired cutting-edge architects, mostly Italian, to design daring public structures, including the House of Justice, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I liked them but some griped that futurism was out of place in landmarked districts. Saakashvili brushed off his critics, who still sneer at the Peace Bridge he commissioned — comparing it to a sanitary napkin.

The Peace Bridge spans the Kura River.

This isn’t to say that the city of nearly 1·5 million people doesn’t appreciate new ideas. Tbilisi buzzes with homegrown fashion boutiques, art galleries, and clubs (see article sidebar). Driving north along the Kura River, which bisects Tbilisi, we reached a banquet hall whose rambling grounds included scenic water features. Our guide — named George, of course — recalled once fishing a drunken Russian client out of the restaurant’s babbling brook. (The birthplace of Josef Stalin, Georgia had been the USSR’s playground and, despite an official chill, Russian tourists still flock here.)

George-the-guide took the liberty of ordering. We started with some khachapuri, a pillowy flatbread topped and stuffed with cheese. Naturally, we needed some khinkali, fist-sized steamed dumplings.

George advised trying ‘city khinkali,’ filled with chopped beef, as well as ‘mountain khinkali,’ stuffed with mutton. The proper way to eat a khinkali, he explained, was to grab its pinwheel tuft, take a small bite to release its steam, and then gobble the rest whole. Leave the pinwheel, so you can keep track of how many you’ve had. Next came some obscenely long kebabs — served with a plum sauce and a savoury green pepper sauce. A bright plate of chopped greens was our nod to vegetables.

We ordered some wine — a crisp white, which George said went well with toasts. And God forbid you eat without toasting. Illustrating, George volunteered to be the tamada, or toastmaster. ‘We have 82 toasts,’ he explained. ‘Allow me the to make the first — to our ancestors.’ A veteran of many supras (or feasts), George admitted that an evening of toasting can take its toll — especially if you’re using a traditional kantsi, or drinking horn, which forces you to finish your wine, lest it spill.

‘You learn some tricks for not getting too drunk,’ he said. ‘Like eating continually — particularly radishes.’

We concluded lunch with a snifter of Georgia’s other favourite spirit — chacha — a clear brandy distilled from grape skins and stems. Homemade chacha can burn like the devil’s aftershave. But this glassful was smooth, like aged grappa.

Stuffed and fuelled, we set out to plumb more of Georgia’s history in Mtskheta, 20 km north of Tbilisi. The capital of Georgia from the third century BC to AD the fifth century, Mtskheta boasts a number of UNESCO World Heritage monuments. Chief among them is the cross-domed Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, one of the holiest Georgian Orthodox sites.

As a former Catholic altar boy, I’ve long been a student of the lives of the saints — especially their grisly relics. The cathedral did not disappoint.

There was the icon of St Nino, who’d brought Christianity to Georgia and, to this very town, a cross made of grapevines, bound with her own hair.

There was the sculpture of an arm holding a chisel — modelled after the church’s architect, Arsukidze, whose limb a jealous king had lopped off. Most stunningly, the cathedral was said to house the robe torn from Jesus before his Crucifixion. According to legend, a Georgian Jew named Elias bought the garment from a Roman soldier and showed it to his sister, Sidonia, who died from emotion upon touching it. Sidonia’s skeleton is said to lie beneath the cathedral’s floor, still clutching Christ’s robe.

Having paid our respects to Sidonia and the ten Georgian kings who also rest at the cathedral, we drove back at dusk to our Tbilisi hotel, the Radisson Blu Iveria. Having started life in 1967 as a luxe lodge for Soviet bigwigs, the building became a vertical camp for 800 refugees fleeing the civil war in the region of Abkhazia. In 2004, President Saakashvili’s new government asked the refugees to check out (offering them US$7,000 per room). Radisson, and Georgia’s Silk Road Group reopened the refurbished hotel in 2009, installing Asian and Italian restaurants, an oxygen bar, and a casino.

I was just about to nap-test one of the hotel’s beds when my friend Tom called to say we’d been summoned to eat again. Dinner was across the street at Andropov’s Ears. The restaurant’s name was a wink at a monument erected on the site in 1983 to honour visiting Soviet dignitaries. At the time, people wondered what the monument’s curious concrete arches were supposed to represent. One Georgian wag suggested (probably not too loudly) that they must be the ever-eavesdropping ears of Communist General Secretary Uri Andropov. President Saakashvili ordered the monument destroyed in 2005. The Silk Road Group had replaced it with a glimmering building, topped with Tbilisi’s premier seafood restaurant.

Silk Road’s founder, George Ramishvili, a handsome, smooth-headed man, greeted us there. The son of two college professors, George, 51, started building his fortune by transporting commodities by rail through Central Asia during the chaotic days after the fall of the USSR. Silk Road, which supplied fuel to Joint Forces in Afghanistan, later ventured into real estate development, telecommunications, financial services, and energy. In 2005, George took an interest in the former estate of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze (1786–1846).

Prince Alexander Chavchavadze and his villa in Tsinandali

Located in the village of Tsinandali, about 100 km northeast of Tbilisi, the nobleman’s summer mansion had once been a salon for artists and aristocrats but, in recent years, had fallen to ruin. George believed it should be revived as a cultural heritage site. Securing a 49-year-lease to the property from the government, Silk Road restored the prince’s Italianate villa and his English gardens.

Oh, and his vineyards — for, besides being an acclaimed poet and conquering general (his godmother was Catherine the Great), Prince Chavchavadze had founded Georgia’s largest winery, the first to incorporate European technology.

By 2016, 100,000 people a year were visiting Tsinandali. George Ramishvili wanted to build a hotel to accommodate them. He also wanted to give them classical music to listen to. For the hotel, he turned to his partners at Radisson. For the music, he enlisted Martin Engstroem and Avi Shoshani, co-founders of Switzerland’s Verbier Festival. The two men, who were dining with us, have been luring classical giants to the Alpine village for the past 25 years.

You’d think that a classical music festival would be an easy sell. But George, who needed government approval, ran into resistance. Part of the rub was his partner — Yerkin Tatishev, a doctor’s son who’d also capitalized on the rupture of the USSR by buying stakes in de-nationalized mines and factories in his native Kazakhstan.

Yerkin, who also was at our table, recalled, ‘Some Georgians were asking, “Why is this Kazakh guy involved?”’

A muscular man with a newsboy cap and a tireless smile, he recalled the day George first brought him to Tsinandali.

‘The place needed a lot of work,’ he told me. ‘But its energy was so great. From that day, we started dreaming. We just wanted to save the place. But some people didn’t believe a private enterprise should operate a national treasure.’

George and Yerkin decided to go to church. But they didn’t just pray for approval. They sought the opinion of Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II. After listening to their pitch, the Patriarch found their motives pure and, in a televised statement, blessed their Tsinandali dream. In short order, the government pledged US$5 million to the project.

‘It took one year to convince the government that we are good guys — that we weren’t interested in making money,’ said Yerkin. ‘Once we had the Patriarch on our side, good people started to join us.’

Listening to the stories of these guys, I liked them. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, they didn’t look like oligarchs. Their commitment to Tsinandali seemed sincere.

But then, after we’d all said good night, I headed back to our hotel. I figured I’d catch up on some articles on Georgia. One was a long New Yorker story titled, ‘Trump’s Business of Corruption’. In it, journalist Adam Davidson told how George Ramishvili, my dinner host, and Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the New York guy who’d invited me to Georgia, had wooed Donald Trump to come in on a deal to build a 47-storey condo tower in Batumi, a resort city on the Black Sea. The Georgians had to hondle for a while with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen but, in 2011, Trump finally accepted the Silk Road Group’s offer of US$1 million — just for bestowing his name on the tower. Courted by President Saakashvili, Trump had come to Georgia in 2012, claiming he would invest millions in the country. But after he’d won the US presidency in 2016, he’d bailed out of the project, saying it would pose conflicts of interest.

Having reported on Trump since the 1980s, I’ll confess I’m not a fan. It troubled me that my hosts had been in bed with him. Then again, Trump had gulled many decent people — Trump University students, contractors he’d stiffed, millions of American voters. Foreign developers had long been susceptible to his brassy conception of ‘classy’. Georgian billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili told The Atlantic that, contrary to reports. ‘Not a single cent has been invested by Trump [in Georgia]. It’s a complete lie.’ So I allowed that Silk Road wasn’t alone in falling for Trump’s spiel. More concerning was The New Yorker’s contention that they may have been in league with a world-class embezzler.

It’s a Gordian story. But, briefly, in 2005, Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank loaned about US$300 million dollars to the Silk Road Group. By 2009, faced with nationalization of his bank, bta chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov fled Kazakhstan for the UK. A Kazakh court later convicted Ablyazov in absentia of stealing US$7,500 million — via un-recouped BTA loans to specious projects. In his story, Adam Davidson attempts to make the case that the BTA loan to Silk Road were part of the boondoggle. And that Trump must have known about it. Among the culprits, in Davidson’s mind, was my dinner companion, Yerkin Tatishev. He’d once been deputy chairman of BTA — at the same time, Davidson alleged, that he was a “secret partner” in the Silk Road Group.

The story lacked a gun that truly smoked, relying on undated emails and speculation by money-laundering experts. In the article, George and Yerkin and Giorgi vigorously denied any self-dealing or wrongdoing. But why then had Silk Road agreed to a US$50 million settlement with the Kazakh government?

The next morning, I headed out on an early run around Tbilisi. The bars, casinos, and strip clubs looked exhausted after another night of dutiful abandon. But, in the shallot-domed church of the Lurji Monastery, the prayerful were already lighting candles.

Dealers at the Dry Bridge flea market, near the river, were laying out their dusty treasures. Lining the sidewalks were scimitars, gas masks, forceps, holy icons, military medals, antlers, chandeliers, bearskins, typewriters, and busts of Stalin and Lenin. Intriguing contemporary paintings hung under the bridge. Some dealers used their venerable Soviet-made cars as mobile shops — stacking the squat Ladas with Victrolas, Smith–Coronas, samovars, and nesting dolls. I bought a fistful of yellowed Soviet rubles and Georgian lari, then jogged back to the Radisson.

After a quick shower, I joined the assembled delegation of music, wine, and human rights’ activists climbing into a convoy of sedans bound for Tsinandali. My pal Tom and I shared a car. Tom still cherished the memory of the Israeli Symphony Orchestra performance Zubin Mehta had conducted the year before at a soft opening of Tsinandali’s theatres. Together, we made our way on twisty route 383 as it climbed through tawny meadows and saffron forests.

Past the Gombori Pass, the snowy Caucasus came into sight.

Our 90-minute drive ended at the Tsinandali Estate. Its centrepiece was Prince Alexander’s country house, built in 1835.

Anti-tsarist followers of Imam Shamil had nearly destroyed the mansion in 1854. Meticulously restored, the house now featured furniture and heirlooms donated by the prince’s descendants.

Surrounding the villa were 18 hectares of landscaped gardens.

A short distance from the villa stood a 141-room Radisson Blu hotel that, with our arrival, had officially opened. Designed by Septiembre Arquitectura and Ingo Maurer, the five-storey building’s boxiness was softened by trellises dripping with ivy. The hotel looked like a giant Chia pet.

Descending its grand outdoor stairway, I found a courtyard where guests had gathered around a whimsical fountain whose two oscillating cast iron heads spit water at each other. I assumed it was water. Based on the number of glasses of wine lined up, the fountain might have been filled with chardonnay.

The crisp air was flecked with the tongues of Britain, France, Japan, America, Russia, and assorted former Soviet republics. A trio of Georgian Orthodox prelates sported black vestments, gold crosses, white beards, and sunglasses. They looked like an ecclesiastical ZZ Top.

Georgia’s prime minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and president Giorgi Margvelashvili stepped up to the microphone to salute the public-private partnership that made the complex possible. Bakhtadze and Sharon Prince, president of the US non-profit Grace Farms, signed a resolution against human trafficking. Then a trio of young musicians demonstrated the superb acoustics of the new Chamber Concert Hall with a lovely Mendelssohn recital.

Afterward, we migrated to a building that had once been part of the estate’s winery. Laid before us was a buffet of kuchmachi (chicken livers with pomegranate), badrijani nigvzit (roasted eggplant stuffed with walnut and garlic paste), pkhali

(minced wild greens), mtsvadi (brochettes), and satsivi (a version of stroganoff), to name a few of the entrées.

Tom and I foraged through it all. We were still grazing when a waiter’s bell summoned us to an outdoor amphitheatre. We were supplied with blankets and small bottles of chacha to ward off the cold. On stage was another heat source: the Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet company. Sparks flew from the clashing swords of gyrating Cossacks. Tiaraed ballerinas stepped so quickly beneath their gowns that they appeared to be gliding on wheels.

All this would have been enough for me. But it was time to eat again. We were ushered into a ballroom, where circling waiters strafed us with plates. A troupe of folk singers launched into Georgia’s unique style of polyphony, built on a harmonic structure of parallel fifths and calculated dissonances.

I spotted Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the New York-based Georgian who’d invited me.

Giorgi Rtskhiladze

‘I’m glad you could finally see my country!’ said the dashing former pop singer (once known to his fans as King George). He administered a bracing Georgian hug.

Such an occasion naturally demanded toasts.

Lifting his glass, Yerkin declared, ‘We have a saying in Kazakhstan: “Grief becomes one thousand times less when we are together. And joy becomes one thousand times greater!”’

After dessert, some of the polyphonic singers gathered around the piano of jazz prodigy Beka Gochiashvili for some saloon-style improvisation. Those of us who could still stand waddled back to the old winery. A DJ from Berlin was rewiring the mood, pumping electronica into the now-off-duty ballerinas, who came alive like Fritz Lang’s beguiling robot in Metropolis.

Nearby, a pane of Plexiglas in the floor let you glimpse the cellar oenothèque of Prince Alexander. Its 1,800 bottles, dating to 1814, included vintages from Chateau Lafitte, Chateau d’Yquem, and other fabled domaines.

I found it amazing that such a trove had survived almost two centuries — including the period when the estate was a retreat for Soviet officers.

‘During all these years, the people who lived here watched over it,’ George Ramishvili told me. ‘Old women took care of the bottles. But more than that, I think, everyone, even in the Soviet era, respected that this was our national patrimony.’

I’d been looking at George and Yerkin differently since reading that New Yorker story. I felt conflicted. It was hard to reconcile the article’s sinister portrait with these men who supported the arts, who opposed human trafficking, and who’d paid my passage. With techno throbbing in our ears, this wasn’t the ideal place to delve into the allegations. But, having had a few glasses of chacha, I felt compelled to tell George that he was better off without Trump.

Trump is such a politicized word that you don’t really want it attached to your property,’ I shouted. I also declaimed that, since Trump had pulled out of the luxury tower deal, he should return the US$1 million Silk Road had paid him.

Ramishvili listened to my gratuitous advice and kept his comments brief. He said the Trump-free property, now known as the Silk Tower, ‘is starting construction in February [2019]. All is going well.’ Then he smiled and politely took his leave.

Tom and I joined some other guests on a jitney tour of the area the next morning. Rolling past groves of walnut trees, we crossed the Alazani River. At the ruins of Gremi, the former capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti, I climbed the steps of king Levan’s 16th-century citadel. It afforded a magnificent view — not only of the countryside, but of the king’s clammy-looking stone toilet.

We moved on to the 11th-century Alaverdi Monastery, which remains an active fortress of faith. Its towering cathedral cast a shadow over acres of vines that still filled priests’ chalices.

Winemaking in Georgia goes way back. Shards of pottery, embellished with grapes, time-stamp man’s first stab at viticulture here around 5980 BC. Since then, Georgians have remained pretty happy with natural distillation — letting grapes and skins ferment without added yeast in clay jars, called qvevris, that are stored underground. I saw some of these hulking vessels strewn on the front lawn of the Tsinandali Estate vineyards, where we pulled up at the end of our jaunt. The Tsinandali wine-works produces qvevri vintages.

But being the place where Prince Alexander introduced European methods in 1841, the revitalized estate also sported gleaming presses, filters, and copper distillation stills.

Over 500 varieties of grapes are native to Georgia. The Soviets squelched most of them, ordering growers to churn out cheap wine for the masses. But many varieties are back. About 40 are commercially grown, and blended into roughly 45 cuvées. The Tsinandali Estate uses 11 grape varieties. Idling on the porch of its warehouse, we sampled Nino Veuve Griboyedoff, an elegant semi-dry rosé extracted from Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli grapes. Saperavi, plumy red, came semi-sweet and dry. Khikhvi, an amber qvevri wine, had an earthy whisper of its terracotta incubation.

In between sips, we took bites of salty cheese and warm bread fresh from a stone kiln. Though most of us had just met the day before, we were feeling quite jovial in the afternoon sun. George Ramishvili and Yerkin Tatishev stopped by.

George Ramishvili and Yerkin Tatishev

The festival’s two founders, who’d grown to be like brothers, had met a dozen years before — around the time that Yerkin had lost his brother Yerzhan.

‘My brother died,’ Yerkin confided. ‘Actually, he was murdered.’

Taken aback, we expressed our condolences. Yerkin gave us the basic details of a story that had made local headlines. Yerzhan had been the chairman of Kazakhstan’s BTA bank in its glory days, when its western partners had included Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse. In 2004, on a hunting trip, a businessman named Muratkhan Tokmadi had shot Yerzhan in what was initially ruled an accident. Within months, Yerzhan’s ambitious partner, Mukhtar Ablyazov, became BTA’s chairman. Ablyazov brought Yerzhan’s heir, Yerkin, into the bank’s management. But Yerkin grew suspicious of Ablyazov. He hired American forensic experts to look at the shooting. They concluded it was deliberate. After Ablyazov’s embezzlement scheme came to light in 2009, Tokmadi testified in a new proceeding that Ablyazov had recruited him to kill Yerzhan because Yerzhan wouldn’t cooperate with Ablyazov. Tokmadi was later sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison.

As he sipped wine with us, Yerkin said, ‘I promised my mother that no blood would be spilled. I’ve kept my word. All the people who took part in the conspiracy have been convicted. Except one. And we will get him.’

Still a fugitive, Ablyazov has since been convicted in absentia as an accessory to the murder. He maintains his innocence, insisting that all litigation against him is politically motivated. Believe him or not, the killing made me wonder about Yerkin’s supposed involvement in Ablyazov’s embezzlement scheme. Why would Yerkin help a man he suspected of murdering his brother?

The next day, after a soaring evening performance by the Georgian Philharmonic, George Ramishvili was nice enough to chopper us back to Tiblisi. He also hosted a lunch on the patio of Andropov’s Ears and arranged a tour of the National Gallery even though the museum was closed. His largesse was remarkable, but he insisted it was nothing unusual for Georgia. ‘A poor man,’ he said, ‘will sell his last furniture to offer a proper feast to a stranger.’ (Presumably, everyone would have to eat on the floor.)

Further illustration of Georgian generosity came from Dato Magradze. Born in 1962, Dato is a Nobel-nominated poet. He also served as Georgia’s minister of culture and a member of parliament before breaking ranks with Shevardnadze’s government and joining the Rose Revolution. Along the way, he wrote the words for the Georgian National Anthem. My friend Tom, who helped publish the first English collection of Dato’s work, introduced me to him at Tsinandali. Tall, with vigilant eyes, a sly smile, and a spacious personality, Dato promptly issued an ultimatum.

‘Before you leave,’ he told us, ‘I must show you my Tbilisi!’

So, on our last night, we met up with him in the historic Sololaki neighbourhood, where venerable Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian houses of worship coexist with hip cafés and boutiques. Dato escorted us down its streets. Winking and tipping his hat to passers-by, he seemed to know everybody in Tbilisi.

We pulled into Vino Underground, a subterranean wine bar co-owned by local vintners. We sampled a few glasses of Tavkveri, a dry red, as we waded into politics. I’d asked Dato earlier whether he supported anyone in that week’s presidential elections.

‘I prefer to be independent,’ he said. ‘But, when I see the view from my window, I have to get involved. I do state my opinion. I challenge people to vote with their conscience.’

He’d made it known that he favoured former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili, rather than Grigol Vashadze, the candidate backed by former president Saakashvili.

‘I don’t believe in bringing back the Sakashvili style of government,’ Dato went on. ‘I feel the Georgian spirit needs to be revived.’

We popped into a pub for a quick chacha. Then, looking at his watch, Dato said, ‘Oh, we have to get to dinner!’

He led us up a steep lane. Far atop Sololaki hill, the Mother of Georgia statue, bathed in light, seemed to hang like a lantern. Dato’s home was trimmed in gingerbread-moulding and filled with paintings and sculpture made by his friends. In the dining room, Dato’s wife, Lali Andronikashvili, had set the table with one of the patterned blue cloths officially designated as part of Georgia’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Dato uncorked a bottle of white. We dug into plates of assorted cheeses, fresh herbs, tomatoes, radishes, breads, and chicken in walnut sauce. Just when I was ready to burst, Lali blindsided us with ‘the main course’ — a groaning platter of roasted meats and vegetables. Honestly, if this woman ran a police interrogation room, every suspect would talk!

Dato pulled out a guitar and sang several aching ballads. You didn’t need to know Georgian to feel him conjure what, in flamenco, they call duende.

Above: Nobel-nominated poet Dato Magradze.

The doorbell rang. It was George Ramishvili and Giorgi Rtskhiladze, both old friends of Dato. Having come from a government meeting, they loosened their collars and filled their glasses.

I attempted a toast — expressing my admiration for a country where music-loving plutocrats can easily break bread with a revolutionary poet.

‘Hey,’ cracked Giorgi, ‘Trump had Kanye to the White House!’

I can’t say exactly what happened between these guys and Trump. Giorgi was friendly enough with Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen to joke in 2016 about rumours of compromising tapes. According to the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Giorgi texted Cohen: ‘Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else.’ Giorgi later told investigators it was playful banter and that he’d subsequently heard the tapes were fake.

George Ramishvili maintains Silk Road got unfairly sucked into the ‘unprecedented media focus on the Trump organization’s business dealings.’ I will say that The New Yorker story neglected to mention that Big Four accountant KPMG audited the BTA loans to Silk Road and found no malfeasance. The article also did not mention that the Georgian prosecutor’s office investigated money-laundering charges against Silk Road for over a year and found no wrongdoing. And, again, why would Yerkin help a man he blamed for his brother’s death?

As to why Silk Road forked over US$50 million to the Kazakh government, Giorgi contends it was to avoid litigation and ‘to maintain a relationship’ with Kazakhstan, where Silk Road still has interests.

It’s hard to say what goes on in any privately held company, much less one with enough nesting-doll subsidiaries to earn 1,901 references in the Panama Papers.

I do believe George and Yerkin’s patronage of classical music is a good thing. I can corroborate that, if you come to Georgia, you will be hugged and air-kissed and fed till your stomach is declared excess baggage. I will particularly savour one of Dato’s dinner salutations. He recalled how, in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, toast-making Gabriel Conroy declares that Ireland’s tradition of hospitality ‘is unique … among the modern nations.’

Raising his glass, Dato proposed, ‘May each nation believe it is the most hospitable in the world — and may each be right!’

Need to know

Tsinandali Festival
The 2019 Tsinandali Festival runs from September 8 to 22. Directed by US National Symphony Orchestra conductor Gianandrea Noseda, the programme features two performances each day. You can stay nearby. Or travel 90 minutes by car or bus from Tbilisi. (Silk Road Travel can assist.)

The latest from Tbilisi

Sleep
Radisson Blu Iveria is the go-to business-class hotel. Hip boutique options include the Rooms Hotel, its sister, Stamba Hotel, and the Grove Design Hotel. Fabrika Hostel, budget lodging in a former garment factory, puts you in the heart of a hopping market-place and event space.

Shop
Dry Bridge Market is a must stop for remnants of several centuries of Georgian history. The success of Vêtements founder and current Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia, has brought world attention to Georgia’s fashion scene. Even when Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi (launched in 2015) is not in gear, you can see the city’s designers latest at Matériel, Chaos Concept Store, Chardin One, Atelier Kikala, Maturelli, and Diana Kvariani.

Gallery hop
The Tbilisi Art Fair launches this year in May. The Centre for Contemporary Art started as an online gallery, moved into a shipping container that roamed the country, and finally settled into space in the Old Town. Other culture spaces include Gamrekeli Gallery, Nectar, Artarea, and Vitamin Cubes.

Eat
Culinary Backstreets and Taste Georgia show you where to find the good stuff at farmers’ markets and revered restaurants. Or wend your own way through the city’s gastronomic galaxy. Deliciousness awaits at Zakhar Zakharich (famous for khinkali), Culinarium-Khasheria (the latest venture from ‘Queen of Georgian Fusion’ Tekuna Gachechiladze), Café Littera (set in the courtyard of the old Writers’ House), Poliphonia (known for its changing menu of entrées from all over Georgia), Barbarestan (recipes bequeathed by a 19th-century duchess), Andropov’s Ears (exquisite seafood with a view), Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan (hidden in the garden of the Literature Museum), Keto and Kote (tucked in a venerable home in Old Town), Azarphesha (domain of star chef Ketevan Mindorashvili), and Café Gabriadze (darling sibling of a renowned puppet theatre).

Drink
Get a grip on Georgia’s grapes at WinesGeorgia.com. Taste Georgia arranges visits to family-owned vineyards in the nearby Kartli and Kakheti regions. Or stay put in Tbilisi and sample the nation’s natural wines at Vino Underground. Mozaika, Drama, and Meoba are good places for your evening’s first chacha. Success Bar was the first out-and-proud gay club. For a deep dive into the bar scene, consider the Locals Only Nightlife Tour.

Dance
Georgia has become a destination for the techno tribe. The ruling venue is Bassiani, where the empty swimming pool of a former sports arena can accommodate 1,200 dancers. Trances are also induced at Khidi, Café Gallery, Mtkvarze, and Spacehall.

This article was originally published in Lucire: http://lucire.com/2019/0607vo0.shtml#SierxjferPtgyVdP.97

George Rush

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Journo. Media advisor. Fellow traveler.