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Georgia: Sword in one hand, velvety red in other

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Outside my bedroom window in Tblisi, Georgia, a gilded St George is slaying his dragon in the morning sunlight.

St George is the patron saint of this Caucasian country and since the collapse of the USSR has been enjoying something of a revival. He's not the only facet of Georgian life to be doing so.

The distinctive cruciform Georgian churches with their circular towers are once again alive with the flicker of votive candles and black-robed monks, many sporting pony tails and luxuriant beards lurk in the shadows.

The renaissance of Georgia's Christian heritage is taking an interesting path.

Two years ago when I was here there were no dress restrictions for visiting the churches and monastery courtyards. But now women must cover their hair, and in some case don shapeless wrap-around skirts to cover up their trousers.

My Georgian friend Anna tells me that the rules appear to be getting stricter every week. And don't even think about gazing at the monks - even looking is out of bounds.

Surprisingly perhaps, a significant proportion of the Georgians returning to the church are young - the churches are certainly not the sole preserves of the ancient, bent women who never-the-less till seem to spend most of their day in the church precincts.

But although Georgia might be enjoying a religious revival it is certainly not giving up on its love of wine. The fertile lands between the Azeri-Georgia border I crossed yesterday are crammed with vineyards, this land is awash with wine.

I tasted my first Georgian red of this trip in a winery which has a cellar containing a collection of vintages dating back to the early 19th century. While the jugs of wine kept coming and the plates of Georgian food began piling up on the table, six Georgian men serenaded us.

They too were seated at our table - each song punctuated by a small break while they joined in the traditional toasts and feasted on pork, fish, aubergines, fresh tomatoes, bread straight from the oven and mountains of fruit.

Rich harmonies, lubricated by the velvety wine filled the old wine cellar where we sat. They sang with passion about welcoming travellers, the power of women and their love for Georgia. They sang wearing belted red jackets studded with bullets.

Those rather mixed messages are repeated on the statue of the Mother of Georgia which stands on a ridge overlooking the city.

She has a wine cup in one hand and a sword in the other. She symbolises the Georgian philosophy of offering generous hospitality to her friends - the wine - and a somewhat different approach to her enemies.

And at present Georgia does have some bones to pick with some of its neighbours, especially Russia. But thankfully, being a Kiwi, I anticipate seeing rather more of the grapes and a lot less of the sword over the next day.

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