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GEORGIA'S FIRST CLASSIC CAR RALLY : Peter Baker


Georgia on my mind  Words and images by Peter Baker


Georgia celebrates 100 years since declared Independence
Two hours into the five-hour flight heading east to Tbilisi and I’m thinking: What have I let myself in for? Georgia, after all, not only borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also enjoys a bit of a reputation in itself. Would I, for example, as with the Liege-Istanbul-Liege rally back in 1997, be driving through a countryside (Bosnia and Herzegovina) littered with abandoned military hardware, be stopped every half-hour by cash-hungry policemen on trumped up speeding charges, and be expected to stay in hotels where even the cats take indigestion tablets?

Well, I’m pleased to report yours truly was proved wrong on all counts. In Georgia, its three million citizens go about their honest business in a country (smaller even than Switzerland), which lies snug between the snow-capped Caucasian Mountains and the Black Sea, blissfully unaware they are home to a classic driver’s paradise.

Indeed, as proof, I have now returned safe and well, after taking part in Georgia’s first ever classic car rally ‘Driving With Zoe’ organised by Zoe Whitaker in conjunction with the Georgian National Tourism Administration, and held between 27th May-1st June 2018. Not only safe and well, but also with a greatly enhanced sense of humour, thanks to five days either behind the wheel of, or underneath, a late ‘60s Russian-built Gaz-21 Volga, a car whose extra wide windscreen, slippery slab seats, abundance of unwanted chrome and sticky column gear-change, brings forth instant memories of a once owned similar vintage Vauxhall Victor. Of course, to the average Georgian, the Volga was always an unobtainable object of desire, though after a short test drive, they may have changed their minds.

Back to the story. It’s Saturday 26th May, the day before the rally, and Tbilisi is in party mood, celebrating along with the rest of the country, 100 years of declared independence from ‘Mother Russia’ so any ideas of an early night are zilch. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them and after more than a few glasses of Georgian wine I’m walking down Shota Rustaveli Avenue towards Liberty Square waving my flag along with the best of them. Already I love this place, and I’ve only been here twenty-four hours.


The first classic car rally of Georgia gets underway
Nine o’clock Sunday morning. While the city is still sleeping off its hangover, the pre-rally ceremony, think mayor, brass band and local radio/tv, is getting underway. Then, at precisely twelve o’clock, give or take a few minutes, well this is Georgia after all and some partipants have yet to arrive, a hush falls over the square. The mayor raises the start flag, except someone has left it at home, the Tbilisi Big Band Orchestra breaks into ‘Is this the way to Amarillo’, much appreciated by those attracted to the thought of another street party, then, suddenly the twelve vehicles taking part in Georgia’s first ever classic car rally follow each other over the line towards the first petrol station, just ten kilometres away.

Already our Gaz-21 Volga, now nicknamed ‘Roubles’, has mis-fired its way to the back of the line (we were second) and, with five days still to survive, the enormity of the task ahead begins to sink in. Back seat passenger, Greg, our Woody Allen lookalike, leans forward: “Hey guys, I just saw a fly hit the windshield, then get up and walk away.”

At the gas station I add three litres of engine oil, twenty pounds of air to the rear left tyre, five litres of water to the radiator, and top up the tank (although the gauge already reads full) – it needs thirty-four litres of fuel before overflowing. What else could possibly go wrong?

Day one is relatively easy, some 150 kilometres heading due east to Kvareli, not far in rallying terms, but still far enough to take us to within 20 kilometres of the Russian border. Lunch is an introduction to one of Georgia’s best kept secrets, the beautiful Alexandre Chavchavadze Tsinandali Estate. Stunning in all respects, this recognised centre of Georgian culture, with its museum and astonishing landscaped gardens, also prides itself on being the first vintner in the country to bottle wine. Just for the record, Georgia itself lays claim to being the world’s first wine producer, with a history going back at least 8,000 years. And here on the protected slopes of Transcaucasia are produced the best wines in the country. It’s a wrench to leave. As the sun dips below the horizon the rally arrives at the luxury Kvareli Eden Spa Hotel and memories of unhelpful Russian cars soon evaporate.

Day two and after adding more water, air and oil, Roubles is coaxed into life. But all is not well; the engine, shaking like a man stricken with jungle fever, has almost broken free of its mounts. Woody Allen walks away, shaking his head, but not the service crew; five minutes later, with one bolt replaced, the other tightened, we get the thumbs up and head after the pack. Next stop, Sighnaghi for open-air refreshments in the town square, overlooking the Alazani Valley (think Napa County, California). After lunch, and with the snow-capped Caucasian Mountains now fading from the rear-view mirror, the happy band heads back to Tbilisi.


12th century rock village carved into the Erusheti Mountain
Tbilisi, split into old and new by the fast running Kura river, and not much bigger than Oxford and Cambridge combined, is home to 1.5 million people, half the population of Georgia. To the outsider Tbilisi also offers an exciting, if somewhat confusing, mass of political and cultural exchange, born from its association with an early ‘Silk Road’ trading atmosphere. Fading graffiti, some not so faded, tells the story. Russia, always Russia, but also the Middle East, America and now, more recently, the EU, where the entrepreneurial new generation is pinning its future on western democracy. Our hotel goes by the basic name of ‘Rooms’, but this former Soviet print works is all but utilitarian, it’s a top-class establishment exuding character, with high levels of service, and is very good value for money.

Day three and Roubles is on good form, starting first pull and running on at least three-and-a-half cylinders, and for the first time we are not last to leave. Destination? Vardzia, an area to the west of Tbilisi so steeped in religious history it has been registered with UNESCO, and so close to the borders of Turkey and Armenia their languages are interwoven. Central to Vardzia is the spectacular terraced 12th century rock village, church and monastery literally carved into the side of Erusheti Mountain. Some six hundred caves, including the Church of the Dormition which, with its irreplaceable collection of frescos, paintings and statues, is more than ample reward for making the seemingly never-ending, exhaustive climb skyward. This world within a world is truly overwhelming.

Such a dedicated expedition involving considerable personal exercise takes time, so it was with some surprise to learn Roubles had still covered some 250 kilometres by nightfall. But now the rally had literally run out of Georgia, with Turkey being no more than a ten-minute donkey ride away, so we turn around, face north ready for the next day, and surrender to the comforts of the five-star Vardzia Resort Hotel.

You will have gathered by now that Georgia is one heck of a country, full of surprises. And, as if more proof were needed, day four introduces us to the 85,000 hectare Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park which, when combined with the adjacent Borjomi Nature Reserve, represents over one per cent of Georgia’s land area. Guarded by the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, this open wilderness lies just 160 kilometres from Tbilisi and forms the unspoken boundary between Europe and Asia.

As drizzle turns to more persistent rain we stop, not to admire the view, but to repair Roubles’ throttle linkage. During lunch, a change of spark plugs rectifies the misfire and a magic radiator repair potion cures the leak. With the finish almost in sight our Gaz-21 Volga now runs as well as the day it left the Gorky Auto Factory.


Our Gaz-21 Volga makes it to the Gala Dinner
After our final day on the road before returning to the finish in Tbilisi the night is spent in the spa and health resort town of Borjomi where, enjoying a contradiction in terms, we look out from an ultra-modern Crown Plaza Hotel over the classical 1892 Blue Palace ‘Firuza’ and mineral water park, built under the supervision of an enamoured Consul of Iran. Here, I’m afraid, I consume wine instead of the natural spring water and feel slightly sorry for those doing things the other way round.

During the splendid black-tie Gala Dinner held in Tbilisi an art auction was held in support of ‘Temi’ a charitable union. Translated, temi means community. On a farm in the Kakheti region of Georgia, socially vulnerable people live an active, challenging and, most importantly, happy life within their community. To find out more about Temi contact Martin Pope martinpope1@gmail.com or go to their website.

Finally, we would like to thank the Tbilisi Auto Museum for the loan of a classic car, and all their hospitality.


Notes

Driving With Zoe was the first exploratory tour of Georgia, organised by Zoe Whittaker and supported by the Georgian National Tourism Administration. A full classic car tour is being planned for next year.

The third series Gaz-21 Volga was produced between 1962-1970 and featured a 2.45 litre four-cylinder engine of 6.7:1 compression and 75bhp. A special high performance V8 version was produced for the KGB.

Georgian Airways operates international connections to the capital Tbilisi from across Europe, and from London (Gatwick) three times a week.

We recommend the following hotels:
Rooms Hotel, Tbilisi: Situated in the heart of the city. Fantastic atmosphere, great service, good value.
Crown Plaza, Borjomi: Five star hotel situated right in the heart of this popular spa town.
Kvareli Eden Spa Hotel: Peaceful setting surrounded by a wonderful landscape. Elegant, air-conditioned rooms, first class restaurant and spa.
Vardzia Resort: Four star hotel, highly ranked and surrounded by history. Breathtaking views and excellent value for money.