Magazine article The Spectator

Georgia on My Mind

Magazine article The Spectator

Georgia on My Mind

Article excerpt

Hannah Rothschild discovers lavish hospitality by the Black Sea

'You're mad to go there!' My cousin, a seasoned traveller, wasn't the only person to counsel against a visit to Georgia. Others told stories of ministerial murder, civil war, torture and abduction.

The Foreign Office advises travellers to be aware of the 'potentially high levels of crime, including kidnapping involving foreigners'. But the advice came too late, the ticket was booked.

'There are many similarities between Georgia and the Highlands, ' our ambassador Donald MacLaren said as we narrowly missed a giant pothole in Tbilisi's main drag. It was a wet Remembrance Sunday and earlier that morning, dressed in the family tartan, MacLaren had led a service on his bagpipes to a group of expatriate mourners. The start was marred by the discovery that the Soviets had covered Allied gravestones with a tower block. Luckily Maida, Donald's glamorous and resourceful wife, saved the day and located a neglected British headstone in someone's backyard.

We were on our way to lunch with Badri Patarkatsishvili, a man whose natural humour puts the jolly into oligarch. Formerly Boris Berezovksy's partner and co-exile from Moscow, Badri has returned with a great fortune to his birthplace. His dreams are to win Georgia's bid for the winter Olympics and to create an international tourist attraction on Tbilisi's Holy Mountain. In the meantime, he's commandeered the largest modern building in Georgia, the former palace of weddings, and transformed the dour Soviet-style building into his own personal fantasy. No expense has been spared and every meticulous detail is a testament to Georgian workmanship. The result is quite astonishing. Black and white swans swim on an ornamental lake; a fully stocked bar doubles as a 50ft aquarium teaming with exotic fish; there are two swimming pools, a planetarium, seven saunas and, lest anyone forgets the great man's origins, there's an exact recreation of his birthplace, a small hovel complete with artificial rain dripping through a badly patched roof.

Half of Georgians still live like the young Badri, well under the poverty line. The average wage per head is less than £4,000 a year. Georgia's location is both a blessing and a burden. The country sits at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, between three carnivorous empires - Turkey, Persia and Russia. The arrival of a new westward-leaning president in 2003 has exacerbated problems with Moscow. …

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