There’s an old proverb that underpins Georgia’s beautifully intense culture of hospitality. ‘Every guest is a gift from God’, Adam, our driver to the mountains and a man who drives by horn and windscreen-wiper alone, tells us. Then he says: ‘If anyone says anything about you’ – hands off the wheel for emphasis – ‘I will have to kill him’. He looks at us in the rearview mirror. ‘Ok, ok’, he says. He softens. ‘I’ll just have to beat him up’.
I like Adam. In fact, I love him, and to be fair, our greatest foe is most likely to be the road to Kazbegi and dynamic luxury hotel Rooms Kazbegi – an ascent through mountain passes along kirby-grip curves which whips up into wedding-cake-thick white snow at the highest points – but it’s a drive I’d (get someone else to) do (for me) again in a heartbeat. Somewhat Chaucerian in the strangeness and pilgrimage of it, the long single-track Georgian Military Highway is dotted with persimmon trees and things for sale: sheepskin hats on stilts looking like hardy winter dandelions, tombola stacks of wild honey, and local wine for sale in 5-litre water bottles. All of which Mrs Smith is convinced will fit in our hand luggage. Also, like all self-respecting pilgrims, we’re rewarded with what feels like eternal life when we get to the destination. Welcome to Kazbegi – but more importantly, welcome to Rooms.
Rooms Kazbegi is a former Soviet sanitarium resurrected from the original architectural drawings, then rewritten into an electric take on a mountain hotel, and from the first moment we step inside, it seems to say ‘Ok Switzerland, hold my drink’. Alpine meadows, tick. Nearby ski-lifts, sure. Roaring fires, of course. But everything’s just…better. In between sky-high book shelves, deep leather chairs and bright antique hand-woven rugs, the curves and fist bumps of Georgian script on antique travel posters are a constant reminder that you are magically far from home.
Having been trapped in Adam’s warship of a car for several hours by then, we go straight out onto the terrace. Here the floor-to-ceiling windows make standing in the bright winter sun feel like you’re in a Versailles-esque hall of mountains. The word ‘view’ seems suddenly ridiculous to me. How could just four letters translate to this: peaks, massifs and gorges rise and fall like sound levels dancing into spikes. Mountains that catch the light like suede. It’s like watching a painting live – the islands of passing clouds, and the patches of blue sky that appear between clouds like watercolour.
Upstairs, our room is a slender sea of warm wood surrounding a bright white bed. Like the rest of the interiors it’s a well-shaken cocktail of contemporary and collectible – hand-carved lamps sat next to Soviet-era landlines. On our writing desk, a bottle of Saperavi wine (The Writers Choice™) and an overflowing basket of guava and grapes, and then the main affair: a full-wall picture window that leads out to a private terrace kitted out with two bull’s eye rattan chairs, coupled with matching ottomans for full foot-up view beholding.
I’m not sure if it’s the scale of the surrounding mountains, or the corridors that smell of cedar, but I wonder if it’s possible to de-age at the speed of light, because I feel about 12. We take a walk. Another advantage: however sleek the hotel is inside, Rooms is not a chalet in the chi-chi Swiss mountains. This is prime Back in the USSR territory. Out in the real world, cows wander through town and Bloc-ish Ladas rattle heavy on the exhaust over cobbles. I am not a physicist or a meteorologist, but the altitude makes the air feel thinner, which makes it feel like you can see further to an almost godly degree. Above us, eagles fly slowly enough that it seems as though they’re posing. It’s a place to re-fall in love with the world. And if you are Mrs Smith, it’s the place to fall in love with a stray dog – and, when I am not looking, use extortionately expensive data roaming to look up adoption.
What can you do? They say opposites attract. I see the words ‘mountain retreat’, and I think yes, I could float for hours in the sweeping blue pool that runs the whole length of the building. But Mrs Smith…she sees the word retreat and thinks ‘never!’ I will fight this battle till it’s won!’ So, in the morning after breakfast – golden slabs of whole honeycomb, dumplings in wicker crowns and cheeseboards to put France to shame – she leads me up the sheer and icy slope to Gergeti Trinity church: the 14th-century stone hermitage perched like a cherry on the cake of a sharp summit 2,300 metres above sea level. After that, we ride horses called Ginger and Salman over to a spot where we can drink Borjomi, salty spring water said to have curative powers, direct from the source.
She can get her way today, because Mrs Smith is American and today is Thanksgiving. ‘Thanksgiving in Kazbegi,’ we say again and again, because it sounds so good, and that evening, we fashion our own. We sip dizzying whisky cocktails while perched up at the zinc bar, then order warm shoti bread and bright beads of red caviar at our table. We say all the things we’re thankful for and one of them is definitely this chicken with wild plum sauce that slinks around its pan-crisped skin like a sweet, sharp, technicolour dreamcoat of flavour. Beside it, tashmijabi (whipped potato with a bronzed ocean of melted souvlaki cheese atop it), and a Georgian salad doused in miraculously rich and thick walnut pesto.
We also give ourselves an elaborate self-guided tour of Georgian wine. We share one espresso, then two. Dessert wine, green-apple pie, then more thanks. In the lobby, of all the songs in the world, Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity plays and for some reason – this is the thing that pushes me over the edge from profoundly happy, into the medically-recognised state of bliss. Back in our room, we sleep with our curtains open. The sleepy lights of Kazbegi village look like a fallen constellation, above them a blanket of stars we can see from bed.
This review was first published in 2020 so some hotel details may have changed
After a stint living in Paris, where her first book won the renowned Shakespeare and Company’s literary prize, author Rosa Rankin-Gee returned to the UK, living between London and Kent, where her latest novel, Dreamland, is set. It’s been hailed as ‘a triumph’ by GQ, ‘enthralling’ by The Guardian, and ‘shimmering’ by the Mail on Sunday.