The Visit to Georgia by Rosemary & Derek Butler and Caroline MacLachlan 2nd – 12th June 2015

This event resulted from the visit to Tbilisi by NKTA members in 2014 when we were invited to attend the UK Embassy’s Queen’s Birthday Party as part of the twinning’s 25th anniversary celebrations.  During the planning stage held in the National Assembly with the UK’s Ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and others present, Rosemary asked the Welsh Rugby Union’s President, Dennis Gethin, if he would look at the possibility of a Welsh rugby tour of Georgia.  Dennis was interested as few Welsh teams have played there and it was a rugby playing country he had long wanted to visit and he offered to investigate the possibility of a tour in 2015. At an Assembly lunch Rosemary organised for the Ambassador in March, to which Dennis was also invited, he confirmed that arrangements for the tour were underway and that the team would consist of a selection of Wales’ best Under 21 players.  Dennis’s information was that that they would be travelling as a `Crawshay’s XV` and that the travelling party would consist of around 25 players and 40 Crawshay `Vice Presidents` (largely ex-Welsh International players), together with him and his wife Jan.  As the tour was taking place as a result of a request from Rosemary, Dennis suggested that Rosemary and I accompany the visitors and the Ambassador asked Rosemary if she would be willing to talk to political and civic groups while in Georgia.  Martin Jardine and Paul Roberts from the Wales Food Technology Centre and four Welsh military bandsmen joined the visiting party later. Caroline was intending to visit Kutaisi this year for important talks with the Rector of Akaki Tsereteli State University on developing closer co-operation between ATSU and the University of South Wales and she, too, was invited to join the group.

The rugby players and officials flew to Tbilisi on 1st June and we, together with Dennis & Jan, travelled a day later. We were met at the airport by senior Embassy officer John Geddes and our friends Dr Mamuka Melkadze and his wife Eka and driven to the Holiday Inn. The following morning around forty KNIA members travelled the 150 miles to Tbilisi by coach to greet us.  But before their arrival we were met by the Ambassador and Senior Embassy Officer Sophiko Katsarava  and taken to  a gathering of political and civic representatives (mostly women) at the Radisson.  Rosemary was introduced by the Ambassador and she gave a talk on `Women’s Participation on Politics in Wales`.  The discussion that followed centred on the opportunities for women in politics in contemporary Georgia.

Madlen, Rosemary, Jan and Gethin at the reunion lunch.

Madlen, Rosemary, Jan and Gethin at the reunion lunch.

We left for a restaurant in central Tbilisi where, together with Dennis and Jan, we met many of our Georgian friends headed by the marvellous KNIA Chair Madonna Megrelishvili and enjoyed a joyful reunion lunch. It was a highly animated party with hugs, socialising and many informal speeches. Dennis and Jan were amazed by their first experience of a truly Georgian welcome.

Welsh supporters at the first ruby match.

Welsh supporters at the first ruby match.

Later we were taken to Rustavi, a small town outside Tbilisi, for the first of the
international rugby matches,.  It was a big event for Rustavi and the stadium was full.  The teams were well matched but the Welsh team won by a narrow margin.  This was the first time we had met the Welsh team and officials since our arrival and they were full of praise for the hospitality they were receiving from the Georgian Rugby Union.  The evening ended with a splendid meal back in Tbilisi hosted by GRU President George Nijaradze and the many speeches of friendship were accompanied by a dramatic thunderstorm and exceptionally heavy rain – a prelude to the floods that devastated Tbilisi ten days later On Thursday morning we, together with one of our dearest Georgian friends Madona Tkeshelashvili, attended an enjoyable event organised by the UK Embassy entitled `A Taste of Britain` where Martin and Paul presented a tempting display of Welsh produce. It was held in a pavilion similar to the traditional bandstands found in British parks. Throughout their visit Martin and Paul did a magnificent job promoting Welsh food products and as we tasted welsh lamb and Welsh whisky accompanied by welsh airs from the military band, we could have easily imagined ourselves back home – except for the soaring temperature.

Rosemary and the Ambassador then departed for the Georgian Parliament where they had formal discussions with the Speaker.

The Embassy’s annual Queen’s Birthday Party was held that evening and amongst the many guests the large contingent of rugby players and officials were especially noticeable in their smart red outfits while the military bandsmen again provided a musical background.   As at last year’s QBP, Welsh flags were prominent and this was much remarked upon – a sign of the growing links between Wales and Georgia.  Many of our KNIA friends had also been invited and the evening soon turned into a genuine `party`.

A  break on the journey to Telavi.

A break on the journey to Telavi.

On Friday, we, together with the Ambassador and Embassy staff, Dennis & Jan and Martin & Paul were driven to Telavi in the Khakheti region of Eastern Georgia.  We travelled through idyllic and largely unpopulated countryside in the Embassy’s mini-bus, a vehicle smothered with large images of the Union Flag.  No occupants of the few cars we met en route could have doubted our nationality.  The purpose of the visit was the second talk by Rosemary, this time to the region’s civic leaders on `Welsh Political Identity – Wales in the UK and the EU` while Martin & Paul again organised an exhibition promoting Welsh produce.  It was a long day but we had time to chat with the Embassy staff, see parts of Georgia we hadn’t visited before and try a few `samples` at one of Khakheti’s vineyards.

Saturday morning and afternoon was largely free and we were hosted by Dr Mamuka Melkadze, Nick Okreshidze and their families in one of Tbilisi’s finest restaurants.

The Welsh rugby team enjoying Georgian cuisine.

The Welsh rugby team enjoying Georgian cuisine.

But before lunch we had time for a quick visit to the National Museum to see the paintings by the country’s best known artist Niko Pirosmani, works dating from the turn of the 20th century that convey the essence of Georgian life and culture. That evening we attended the second match between the young rugby players from Wales and Georgia and at the end if the game the RU Presidents Dennis Gethin and George Nijaradze, the Ambassador & Embassy staff, both teams, both sets of officials, all 40 Crawshay Vice Presidents  Martin & Paul, Jan Gethin, the bandsmen and Rosemary, Caroline and I, were taken to one of Tbilisi’s largest restaurants  to celebrate the outstanding success of the rugby tour.  Many of the Welsh sportsmen visiting Georgia for the first time told us they would never forget the hospitality they had received and several Vice Presidents claimed it was “the best Crawshay tour ever”. In scenes recalling a Pirosmani painting, there was much carousing and speechmaking and many remarked that the Welsh sportsmen, like the Georgian youngsters, had been a credit to their country.  It was a fitting end to an unforgettable five days.   On the following day, Sunday, Rosemary, Jan and Dennis and the rugby contingent flew back to the UK while the ever obliging Dr Mamuka Melkadze drove Caroline and me to Kutaisi.

On arrival we were taken to the Bagrati Hotel where we were met by close friends Maia Alavadze and Maia Abdeladze and shown to our rooms which were modern and extremely large. We were then taken to a nearby restaurant for an early dinner where we had ample time to catch up with the news of the many people we know and recent events in Kutaisi.

Caroline and Derek meeting Mayor Shota Murghulia at City Hall.

Caroline and Derek meeting Mayor Shota Murghulia at City Hall.

A full programme for our short visit had been prepared enabling us to meet a variety of different people and discuss future developments and collaborative activity. The meeting with Mayor Shota Murghulia focussed very much on the plans for the celebration in 2016 of the 25th anniversary of the twinning. The Mayor expressed his commitment to making this an occasion to remember and pledged his full support to publicising the wealth of activity that has taken place between the two cities since 1989. An interesting thread which emerged during this meeting was that one of the children, Timouraz Murgulia, who came to Newport more than twenty years ago with a group of children and their two teachers is a relative of the Mayor. Over the years, and prior to his election as Mayor, Shota Murghulia had heard about Newport through his family connections.

Nino, Madonna, Caroline, Lyalya, Eka, Maia, Tamriko & Elise .

Nino, Madonna, Caroline, Lyalya, Eka, Maia, Tamriko & Elise.

Our time spent at Akaki Tsereteli State University was extremely positive and we were able to see many friends who teach in the English Language Department and to participate in selected student seminars. A particularly interesting project, being led by Elise Pantshava and Natia Kvachakhidze, involves the translation of `The Mabinogian` from an English translation into Georgian. This is clearly a challenging venture and at the meeting attended by Derek it was suggested that Welsh speakers here could provide guidance as the translation work moves forward.

Issues impacting on effective Quality Assurance procedures are being addressed through an involvement with a TACIS project with a number of European partners. Whilst Derek met with those working on the Mabinogian project, I had the opportunity to meet Professor Irma Grdzelidze, Head of Quality Assurance, to learn more and consider any possible opportunities for future collaboration. Of particular interest was that of Peer Review as an evaluative tool for both staff and students and the importance of CPD to bring about an attitudinal change.

Our meeting with Rector Giorgi Gavtadze proved very fruitful as we learnt that there is a heightened interest in the development of inclusive practice and in the positive support of those with special educational needs. Very recently the Rector had received a government directive highlighting the role of universities in promoting this approach. This fitted in very well with a proposal from the Course Director of MA Creative Therapies in Education (Music), University of South Wales, that one or two students could join ATSU for a certain length of time and carry out a placement in an appropriate organisation in Kutaisi.

This potential for collaboration was further enhanced by the involvement by Professor Nino Nijaradze, Head of the English Language Department, who arranged for me to visit a centre for children with special educational needs entitled `First Step Georgia, Every Child is Special`. This is an NGO run by a psychologist who has introduced a range of inclusive practices for both children and their parents. There is considerable enthusiasm for the student placement to take place at this centre and discussions will continue with the psychologist through e-mail and at meetings with the MA course team at the USW.

A visit to Kutaisi would not be complete without a visit to the English Language Centre led by Professor Madonna Megrelishvili. On this occasion we heard presentations from the Executive Director of the International Centre for Caucasus Tourism, Marina Metreveli and also the Dean of the Agrarian Faculty, Professor Ketevan Kintsurashvili, about the need to promote Georgia as a centre for tourism. Much debate ensued with Kote Charkhalashvili, Head of Tourism in Imereti, keen to highlight the many strengths of the Imereti region.

One particularly heartwarming experience was our visit to the Kutaisi Botanical Gardens, firstly to enjoy the Gardens themselves and secondly to attend a concert for pensioners. We weren’t quite sure if we constituted the pensioners or if there were others of similar age attending! It transpired that there were a group of Kutaisi pensioners who lived nearby and they joined us in the audience for the concert. However when the pre-booked choir failed to turn up, they took to the stage and entertained us with music, recitations and songs. The whole experience was extremely moving and one which neither Derek nor I will forget.

Manana Karkashadze’s school has undergone considerable restoration work using natural materials and provides an interesting and creative environment for those children who attend. It was interesting for us to view all the recent developments which have taken place since our last visit. A visit to School No 9, arranged by Madlen Giorgadze, enabled us to reinforce the existing link between this school and St Mary’s School, Newport.

Throughout our four day stay in Kutaisi we experienced a wealth of hospitality in the Georgian tradition from our many friends. Special thanks must be given to Zaza & Tamriko and David & Manana who kindly invited us into their homes. The kindness, warmth and generosity extended to us was truly outstanding. Didi didi madloba! Rosemary, Derek, I, and indeed all NKTA members, believe it’s a huge privilege to have such a wealth of longstanding friendships lasting over so many years.

Madonna leads our friends as they prepare to wave us goodbye!

Madonna leads our friends as they prepare to wave us goodbye!

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