On the cusp of Europe and Asia, Tbilisi offers a fascinating glimpse into a rapidly changing post-Soviet city, with echoes of a grand past. Stuart Wadsworth takes a midnight flight to Georgia…
Flying in the first thing you see is the TV mast: a huge, flashing monument which President Sakashvili has, for reasons best known to himself, decided to light up like Blackpool tower with garish neon lights – a kitsch 200m symbol of modernity, of reaching for the skies, and of the city’s eager attempts to embrace the West. Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, it must be said, is a crumbling, dilapidated city, crying out for several face-lifts; a hang-over from Soviet neglect and more recent economic woes.
But it is also an extraordinarily charming city, and its ramshackle, tumble-down buildings give it a character that is increasingly unique, redolent of a bygone era. Just walking around any of the central neighbourhoods with their 19th century two-storey wooden houses and verandahs, you start to get a feel for how beautiful this city must once have looked. It’s a bit like Miss Havisham’s room on a vast scale – you know that it’s seen better days, and it’s let itself go a bit, but you will probably forgive it, and then fall in love with its charms. Come, before it slaps on the foundation…
Best of the Beaten Track
Georgians, it seems, like space to live in. Traditional Georgian houses are huge – about six rooms on one level, and they often seem to be on two or more. They have massive, wide balconies and verandahs all around, vines creeping up and around them, and the stairwells and entrances are often works of art in themselves. Casually popping your head in, well, pretty much anywhere in the Old Town for example, you might find yourself in an art-nouveau or fin-de-siecle stairwell with winding wooden staircase and musty portraits hanging up.
The Old Town grew up below the walls of the Narikala Fortress, which stands on the Sololaki ridge above the west side of the Mtkvari gorge – and from which you can stroll to the huge aluminium statue to ‘Kartlis Deda’ (Mother Georgia) which stands sentinel over the city. This is a great way of getting your bearings and it is also the best place for a panoramic view of Tbilisi. The twisting alleys of the Old Town, known locally as ‘Kala’, are still full of hidden courtyards and carved wooden balconies leaning at rakish angles. There are atmospheric old churches aplenty – the Armenian Cathedral of St. George, just above the rocky river bank, and the huge Metekhi Church in Avlabari, are worth checking out.
Pop into the vast Botanical Gardens (dating from 1845), with its spectacular waterfall and shambling gardens, to while away an afternoon, and round it all off with a visit to one of the sulphur bathhouses (‘Abanotubani’) near the exit. Alexander Dumas and Pushkin both bathed here, and the latter described it as the best bath he’d ever had. Tbilisi means ‘warm spring’ in Georgian is famous for its natural spas. Most bathhouses here date from the 17th century, with the most impressive (at least from the outside) being the Orbeliani Baths with its blue-tiled mosaic façade. A bath and scrub-down is most invigorating after a sweaty day of sightseeing (and dirt-cheap) – but be aware that these public baths are single-sex, and it is normal here to bathe naked!
Tbilisi is like a bathhouse itself during the summer months, as temperatures can soar to 40 degrees or more, and it’s humid with it. A good place to cool off is up in the hills above Vake, where you can swim or boat in ‘Kus Tba’ (Turtle Lake) and have a stroll in the surrounding wooded hills. Nearby, the open-air Ethnographical museum is well worth a look. Again, commanding great views of the city, this collection of nearly 70 traditional, mostly wooden houses from around Georgia gives a great insight into traditional life here, and makes a nice alternative to sightseeing in the city.
If you fancy getting out of the city altogether, why not take a trip to Mtskheta? Only 30km away, this small town, standing strategically at the confluence of two rivers, is the spiritual heart of Georgia, and contains more holy sites than you could shake a thurible at. An ancient capital of Georgia and containing some of the oldest and most important churches in the country, Mtskheta is a big pilgrimage destination. A little bit further afield, about 70km away from Tbilisi, is Gori – known chiefly as Stalin’s home town. Not unattractive in itself and with a modest fortress to explore, the main reason to come here is to see the museum to the man of steel himself. Probably the most interesting museum in Georgia, although it’s not the most interactive experience in the world (and the labeling is mostly not in English), it’s highly atmospheric, and includes a visit to his parents’ old cottage which has been preserved, and to his bullet-proof train carriage. You even get to sit in his armchair; where he plotted the fate of all you see around you.
Experience & Events
Georgians are an incredibly expressive and creative people – and they don’t need an excuse to party. Music, song, dance and poetry all play big parts in their lives – and if you’re ever invited to a Georgian family meal, you are likely see all of the above. Live rock music in Tbilisi seems to revolve mainly around the ex-pat, cover-band scene, but there is a strong tradition of folk and jazz music in the city, which culminates in the Tbilisi International Jazz Festival each October.
Also in October the most expansive, ten-day festival that is the Tbilisoba takes place. Since 1979, this festival has celebrated all things Georgian, ranging from ancient Tbilisi map displays to national martial arts, auto shows and performances from local bands. For ten days, the city is alive with colourful carnivals and pageants, people dressing up in costume, drinking and generally having fun.
In the last five years, with Sakishvili’s pro-western policies, have come plenty of western investors, and so Tbilisi is now endowed with several top-notch hotels like The Ambassador and The Marriott, the latter charging upwards of $300 a room. Slightly down the scale, Hotel Charm and Hotel Dzveli Ubani both weigh in at around $50 and offer comfort, hospitality and a central location, with character in spades. Charm even boasts a billiard table for homesick Brits. For the backpacker fraternity, Tbilisi is blessed with a range of homestay-style hostels, most of which are around Marjanishivili metro, near the Turkish quarter. The pick of these are Dodo’s Homestay and Irine Japaridze’s Boarding House, both of which will set you back a mere $10 to $20 a night, and guarantee fascinating chats with like-minded intrepid backpackers. Dodo’s is a bit more laid-back while Irine’s is a bit more characterful.
Georgia would not be Georgia without its food, and you will probably spend a great deal of time eating out as it’s so inexpensive. Traditional staples like ‘kinkhali’ (meat dumplings) are ubiquitous, as are ‘kachapuri’ (cheese breads). Don’t leave Tbilisi without sampling ‘badrijani’ – fried aubergine with walnut and garlic paste – and ‘chakapuli’ – lamb with tarragon and plums. Be warned – your food will come in mountainous portions, so don’t order too much, even if it is cheap; and never attempt to eat more than five kinkhali at one sitting. A great place to sample Georgian food in typical surrounds (ie, with large, boisterous groups and loud music) is Puris Sakhli (Bread House), near the Baths. Other similarly reasonable but good quality establishments are Dzveli Sakhli (Old House) and Shemoikhede Genatsvale (Drop in, Love). All of the above sell excellent draft beers ($1) and Georgian house wines ($2-5 a litre). If your stomach can handle it after the battering it will have taken, try Chocolate on Rustaveli for great sweets and cakes including Turkish baklava, and a fine espresso.
Tbilisi’s nightlife scene is still pretty nascent, and it’s centred on two areas: in and and around the Old Town – especially Shardenis, Rkinis and Sionis Streets – and in a couple of streets just near Rustaveli Metro, which contain a plethora of ex-pat English and Irish-style bars, some of which are good, some of which are not. Most of the Old Town options are modern, trendy bars by night, but Kafe Literaturuli is a great place for a coffee, smoothie or snack in cultural surrounds – the bookcases all around attract an arty crowd. A nice option for a beer is the Beatles Club, a cellar with three halls, fifteen tables and as much Fab Four memorabilia as you can twist and shout to. Expect a free Beatles T-Shirt if your bill exceeds 100 lari ($50). The pick of the expat bars is Hangar Bar, where you can catch all your live sports and be served a reasonable array of Tex-Mex snacks. For some live music, check out Blues Brothers, which is dedicated to live jazz and blues in a smoky basement. Expect locals to engage you in conversation wherever you go – and buy you drinks.
If you are fortunate enough to live in Poland, you have a LOT route direct to Tbilisi from Warsaw, which opened up in the summer of 2010. Tbilisi airport also connects with many other major European destinations. Overland, the only ways in are from Turkey, Armenia or Azerbaijan. The land border with Russia is closed to all foreigners and most Georgians. Which means that practically speaking, most westerners have to fly in. There is a Black Sea ferry operating from Poti to Illichevsk in Ukraine – a cargo ferry which takes passengers – but you have to have buckets of patience and time for this option – there is virtually no reliable information on times or prices, and no guarantee that it will actually go at all.
The usually-reliable Lonely Planet for this region has been heavily criticized by some backpackers for inaccuracies and lack of information; but it’s still the default guide for most backpackers, if only for the fact that there is very little else written. Local newspapers Georgian Times and Georgia Today give info on current affairs and have what’s on listings. Info-tbilisi.comappears to be the most reliable web-based guide.
Polish journalist and reportage writer extraordinaire Ryszard Kapuscinski (recently in the news for not actually going to some destinations he wrote about) did definitely travel to the Caucasus and wrote about it with some style, amongst other ex-soviet states, in Imperium. British Georgia-phile Peter Naysmyth wrote his Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry around the same time, during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gives an exhaustive and informative if rose-tinted view of the country. For a bit of background on Georgia most famous son, you can’t beat Simon Montefiore’s Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar.