Many people are familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Yet, how many know Colchis, Jason's destination in his quest for the Golden Fleece, is actually situated in present-day Georgia, a country steeped in legend and myth, ruggedly beautiful, rarely visited by outsiders, and one of the unique destinations offered on our voyage Circumnavigation of the Black Sea?
As an expedition leader for Zegrahm, I had the good luck to be called upon to lead our own Black Sea odyssey, beginning and ending in Istanbul. For two weeks, favorable currents carried us along the coast to explore the countries bordering this vast sea. At the onset of our voyage, we discovered that not one of our intrepid travelers had ever set foot in Georgia. There was an air of curious anticipation onboard as we made our way along the northern coast of Turkey toward Georgia, the mysterious unknown land.
Approaching Georgia's dark-sand beaches near the industrial port of Poti, the view is one of verdant lowland plains sweeping up into the foothills of two stunning Caucasus mountain ranges, snowcapped at the skyline. We struck out from Poti for our inland foray to Kutaisi. Our exploration included a visit to the impressive ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral with an adjoining, partially excavated fortress and royal palace. Next we viewed 16th-century Georgian frescoes housed in the original academy building of the Gelati Monastery and then continued on for what we thought would be a quiet, pleasant lunch of local specialties at a nearby restaurant.
As it turned out, we had underestimated greatly the art, culture, and cuisine of Georgia, and we were in for a surprise, which would prove to be one of the trip's highlights.
During our ride, our local guides hinted at certain Georgian traditions. It became apparent that feasting and folk dance were not just national pastimes, but taken very seriously. When we arrived at the local restaurant in Kutaisi, we found our tables spread with cheeses, fresh vegetables, and fried fish. Once we were seated, the wine began to flow and our hosts brought out courses of shashlik (lamb shish kebab), badrijani (eggplant stuffed with hazelnuts), and the famous Georgian fresh-baked cheese bread, khachapuri, served piping hot.
All of a sudden the doors to the dining room burst open and the sounds of the doli (a two headed Caucasian drum) heralded the arrival of a local dance troupe. We watched entranced as the young men climbed on each others' shoulders to lock forearms and circle wildly for the khorumi, a traditional dance depicting victory in battle. Next, beautifully costumed girls glided gracefully and in perfect unison for the dance of the ajarian. After several more dances and a music performance, the finale amounted to a "dance-off" with each boy demonstrating his particular prowess of leaps and slides, Cossack style, and the ability to dance en pointe (on the tips of their toes)—without the aid of toe shoes.
The dances and music were truly breathtaking. Though there were great rounds of applause as the young troupe took their final bow and left the hall, we found ourselves strangely silent as we gathered our belongings for the ride home. We will remember always the dancers of Georgia, who so surprised us with their passion for their art and who offered us a small window into the myriad cultures and strong traditions of the countries of the Black Sea.