Supra for the Scots - Tartan Army Guide to Tbilisi

The people of Tbilisi should be preparing themselves for an invasion…

Fear not though Tbiliselebo, the boots on the ground will largely be Timberland, and the only assaults will be on your eardrums as this is not the Red Army, but a far gentler, affable though seldom sober unit known as the Tartan Army.

For those of you still oblivious, the Tartan Army refers to the supporters of the Scottish national football team which plays a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier in Tbilisi against Georgia on September 4.

It will be the first visit to Georgia for the Scots since 2007 where a humbling 2-0 defeat played a significant part in destroying Scotland’s hopes of reaching the European Championships. Eight years on and the scenario is similar.

Georgia have nothing but pride to play for while Scotland, rejuvenated under former Aberdeen and Leeds United legend Gordon Strachan, have realistic aspirations of making France 2016.

Doing so would see the Scots qualify for a major tournament for the first time in almost two decades. And with the huge importance of the match for the Scots, combined with fond yet hazy, booze-fueled memories of the previous visit to Georgia, the Tartan Army are mobilizing in their thousands, set to make landfall from the beginning of next week.

As a Scot myself, with a Georgian wife and Scottish-Georgian son (or Georgian-Scottish, depending on who you ask), who has lived in Tbilisi since 2010, I feel it my duty to offer the Tartan Army, of which I was once a loyal servant, a handful of tips for “The City that Loves You”….

Having experienced a few Tartan Army missions myself, I know how futile it would be to list museums, galleries and theaters (of which Tbilisi has many fine examples). Instead, I’ll cut to the chase. The Tartan Army survives, almost entirely, on one thing – ‘bevy’. Or ‘alcohol’ to the layman.

The good news for the visiting Scots is that Georgia is rich in this area, both in terms of production and consumption. However, while the beer in Georgia is perfectly acceptable (and I recommend a trip to the Ossetian restaurant Alani near the sulfur baths for, in my view, the best beer in town) if you truly want to soak up the national way of life, opt for wine.

I’ll spare you details of wine’s centuries-old history in Georgia, as there are countless articles written by far more qualified connoisseurs than I. However, if you have the good fortune to get friendly with a group of Georgians, and with their devotion to hospitality and your kilt and replica top giving away your identity as a foreigner there is every chance you will, then you may encounter a supra.

A supra is one of the most celebrated Georgian traditions. It is essentially a feast accompanied by an endless supply of Georgian fayre and a similarly bountiful helping of alcohol – more often than not, Georgian wine. And not any kind of Georgian wine. It tends to be white wine, but not as most Westerners will know it, largely because the color is amber and the strength, if it is proper Kakheti (region of east Georgia renowned for winemaking) wine, is of Buckfast proportions.

Once the table is almost entirely covered in dishes and jugs of aforesaid vino, the toasting may commence. A tamada (toastmaster) will then lead the table through a number of toasts, after which everyone drinks and, if you hear the word “bolomde” you drink to the end. That’s right, you down a glass of Buckfast-strength wine. What’s more, the toasts, much like the food and wine supply, are vast in quantity.

One of my first nights in Georgia involved such a supra, and led to dancing on tables at an erstwhile quiet restaurant. No Georgian experience is complete without the supra (and the hangover that inevitably follows).

The deplorable phrase “eating’s cheating”, a moronic slogan thrown around by gallus young Scottish (and English) drinkers suggesting that a marathon drinking session is not sufficiently dangerous on its own and that one should also abstain from nourishment of any kind, is thankfully a soundbite never heard in Georgia.

And the Scots are encouraged to eat well here, as the food is hearty and delicious. Your staple diet for your time in Georgia will be khachapuri (a pizza-shaped cheese bread), khinkali (dumplings of pork, beef, lamb, mushroom, cheese or potato), mtsvadi (better known internationally by the name ‘shashlik’, basically barbecued pork) and badrajani nigvzit (eggplants with walnut sauce). This quartet of the nation’s cuisine will keep your stomach lined for the ubiquitous refreshments of a Scotland trip abroad.

When travelling in the city, particularly after a supra, it may be wise to hail a taxi. This normally takes approximately 10 seconds almost anywhere in the center of the city, which is saturated by cabs. In-keeping with the rest of the city’s drivers, the taxi custodians motor along at pace with scant concern for anything else in their vicinity. Indeed, it may be worth necking a bevy or two beforehand.

If you opt to walk, keep an eye out for said drivers and never assume that a car will stop for you. In Scotland, flashing of the lights translates as “after you sir/madam”. Here, it means “get out the f#####g way!”

Curiously, there are zebra crossings in Tbilisi but these are purely decorative. The safest thing to do is to pretend they aren’t there.

But roads aside, Tbilisi is a very safe city – far more so than any of Scotland’s major cities on a weekend night. The kilts will be met with bewilderment by some, laughter by others and infatuation by many.

I have been incredibly warmly welcomed here, not least by my wife and her generous family. Although Scottish fans probably won’t end up tying the knot, I hope every one of them gets a real taste of this mysterious, hospitable land and its endearing people.

I confess also that this time I dearly hope that, unlike 2007, the Scots have three points to declare on their journey home…

Alastair Watt

27 August 2015 21:19