Updated: Aug 31
A Fine Reception
Flying in, the first thing you see is the TV mast: a huge, flashing monument which President Saakashvili has, for reasons best kept to himself, decided to light up like Blackpool tower with flashing neon lights, a kitsch 200m symbol of modernity, of the city's reaching for the skies, and yet symbolic of its over-eager attempts to westernise at the same time. A bumpy descent - twenty minutes of being buffeted about - had brought on a bout of silent prayers and chest-crossing among half the passengers. Orthodox. The woman next to me was so glad when we landed I thought she was going to kiss me. As is customary in these parts of Europe (Asia?), furious clapping and cheering followed the landing. Stepping off the plane, the heat hits you; 25 degrees at midnight. Have I landed in India by mistake? Nope, I see the signs, welcoming me to Georgia in English, and there's the stamp to prove it - no need for visas any more. Just a lengthy perusal of my heavily middle-eastern - stamped passport. Through customs in next to no time, whipped into a waiting car by my friendly host for the next three days, Geo (owner of the new Art Hostel Tbilisi) and in bed by 1am, a nice ending to a tiring day of flying which had started at Bristol and ended here, but had involved a lengthy stop-over in Riga while I waited for my Air Baltic connection. Sweaty, restless sleep followed, a fan aimed at any bunk in the dorm other than mine proving annoyingly useless. Next day, I thought about the TV tower and asked Geo about him. "The president is a modernizer, pro-western - sometimes embarrassingly so", he said, over coffee. Especially true in his awkward courting of George Bush, even as recently as last month, when he was invited for the weekend - and has his own vision of modern Georgia, and a garish and incongruous glass bridge (the Bridge of Peace)
across the Mtkvari river in the town centre confirms a certain lack of taste. Still, they are rather fun in a cheesy way. The presidential palace, all glass and concrete, an egg-shaped dome sporting a Georgian Flag (strikingly similar to the English flag) is guarded zealously by police, to the extent that tourists are told to erase their pictures of it if spotted taking them. A whiff of yesteryear, Soviet paranoia all over again? Perhaps. But Georgia 2010 is a place looking bravely towards the future, trying to comprehend one in the EU, a flight of fancy maybe but God knows anything is better than being under the capricious yoke of Russia. The fly in the ointment is, of course, Abkhazia, that sun-soaked, mysterious, tasty morsel in the north west of the country which Russia has aggressively chosen to back in its secession.
Checking out Tbillisi's old town
To a Georgian, this is of course the source of all antipathy to Russia, and rightly so; regardless of the rights and wrongs of Abkhazia's fight for independence, Russia has chosen to play power games, happy to create divisions, confusion, schisms, buffer zones between itself and the west, or the south west. Without this region it is unwhole, incomplete, unsettled, But life goes on. In the meantime, they appear on the Georgian map, as always, despite the borders being firmly closed except to military and aid workers. One day, they say, they will win them back, by hook or by crook. For now, they are lost. The heat during the day is hard to take. First day 40 degrees. It's too hot to do anything. At least until about 3pm, and then not quickly. You have to do it slowly, a bit at a time. Coffee on the patio of the hostel. Vines creeping up the stairs and above my head. The sweet smell of eucalyptus leaves.
Crickets and grasshoppers clicking away, birds chirping. The smells and sounds of the tropics. "No breakfast here though!" a rather curt Italian, a freelance photographer it turns out, informs me. He seems irked by my presence. "You'll have to walk into town if you want that" I guess I annoyed him by late arrival, and, no doubt, heavy snoring. I strolled into town, down the unpaved, uneven, street. Avlabari is the name of the area. A very large church dominates it, the largest in the city and visible from all around. Typically Georgian in its pepper-pot design, it is actually only a few years old. It is very impressive in its size and in its faithfulness to Georgian church design, but some of the icons inside are mystifyingly kitsch and tasteless.
Getting my teeth into Georgia
A short stroll from there down to the palace ("No photos!") and to my first Georgian restaurant, on a side-street down towards the river. No English. I blurted out the only dish I could remember other than Khachapuri, and I didn't fancy a slab of cheesy bread with an egg on right now: "Khinkali pazalste!" and the waitress raised an eyebrow. "Skolka?" she demanded - how many. "Piat" - Five. "Nyet! Nie mozna - deset" she said. Nope. Ten. Reluctantly, I agreed. I ordered a beer and sat alone in this rather small, dark though cool restaurant waiting for my food to come, thankful to be out of the blazing heat. Ten khinkali, for breakfast, is not a very good idea, and even in my novice state, fresh to Georgia, I sensed I had been hoodwinked into ordering too many.
This dish, like Polish pierogi, consists of meat wrapped up in a dough mixture and boiled, served plain and without any accompaniment. I'm not the greatest fan of pierogi if I'm honest, but I know how close they are to Polish hearts, and I had also read how close khinkali are to Georgians'. They arrived and instantly my heart sank. A very large plate sagging under the weight of ten very heavy, pale bags of meat. I knew I wouldn't come close to finishing them. I picked one up, as is the custom. It weighed about half a kilogam. I bit into it, and instantly it exploded, scalding juice spurting all over my front, and burning my tongue. The waitress saw and laughed. She demonstrated how I must eat it - and so I tried to imitate her, picking it up gingerly by its doughy nexus, and then taking seruptitious bites out of it to release some steam, and place it at such an angle that its juices did not escape. By carefully nibbling pieces in the right way, you can eat these cumbersome creations without a) looking too stupid and b) giving yourself first degree burns. However, my first khinkali experience did not encourage me to try them again too soon - which is a shame in a country where they can barely be avoided. Tasty in small amounts but otherwise rather dull. I think the waitress is still laughing at me now. A word on Georgian food in general however: Excellent. Tasty. Imaginative. Fresh. Simple. Actually that's five words, but it's enough to give you an idea.
Unquestionably, it's a heavy cuisine, and meat-dominated; clay pots loaded with lamb, pork, chicken and beef dishes reign, and many are delicious. Yet the coriander-infused flavours hint at something more delicate, and vegetarians are catered for with some wonderful pomegranite, aubergine and walnut dishes. Fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, proiliferate. Cheeses abound, and plenty of it is melted into various dishes, baked roasted and fried. Breads of course are crucial, especially khachapuri, among others. If that has made you want to get your teeth into Georgian cuisine more, you can find a comprehensive article I wrote on the subject here.
Tbilisi, it has to be said, is a crumbling, delapidated city, crying out for several face-lifts. But it is also an extraordinarily charming city, and its ramshackle, tumble-down buildings give it a character that is utterly unique, and redolent of a bygone era. Just walking around any neighbourhood near the centre with it's 19th century two-story wooden houses and verandahs, you start get a feel for how beautiful - stunning in fact - this city must once have looked. It's a bit like Miss Havisham's room on a large scale - you know that it's seen better days, and it's let itself go a bit, but you forgive it nonetheless because you love it, instantly. 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, you might find yourself in an art-nouveau or fin-de-siecle stairwell with winding wooden staircase and musty portraits hanging up. This is a city to linger in, to savour; its back streets just as much fun as its touristy sights - which are in themselves well worth seeing. Little water fountains dot the city, gushing clear, fresh, safe drinking water - a middle eastern trait which is incredibly nice on a hot day of traipsing the streets.
The city in fact feels quite middle eastern in general, a bit higgledy-piggledy, easy to get lost in but fun at the same time. Some of the best discoveries I made were serendipitous, and I found just chucking the map away was the best option anyway - you have no chance of understanding Georgian script, and street names are rarely written in the Latin alphabet. Asking a Georgian the way invariably causes consternation and confusion; a crowd might gather, lots of head-scratching and arguments canensue, and after several minutes deliberation, you are generally non the wiser. Helpful though they undoubtedly are, I've rarely met a nationality so useless at giving directions.
Up to the Fortress..and down to the Baths
I walked up to the fortress above the city, a sweaty,steep, climb which only took twenty minutes but had me puffing and panting like I'd just climbed the north side of the Eiger. Fantastic, beautiful views down over the river, Mtkavari. Another pepper-pot church, and another one on a hill behind that. Despite only being here a few hours, I had sussed that Georgians know how to situate their churches and monastries - they have an uncanny knack for picking the spots with the greatest views, and which allow them to be seen for miles around, and which also usually involve an exhausting hike to get to.
A stop for Natakhtari beer - 1 Lari (35p) and I fell into conversation with a couple of travellers, not much older than myself. They seemed pretty mellow, we chatted about where we from, where we were going etc and it turned out they were Belgian judges, here for a drug policy conference. Despite Sakashvilli's forward- thinking policies with regard to policing in some respects (no corruption!), this didn't extend to drug laws, which are punitive here to say the least. Known heroine users are constantly fined when found in possession of a drug, and, if unable to pay the fines, the onus falls onto their families. There are stories of some old women who find themselves living on the streets due to the drug habits of their offspring. Not exactly enlightened. I looked down on the newly-built glass bridge, and along the banks of the Mtkvari, really impressed with what I saw, a city snaking along the river, stretching for miles in each direction. 1.7 million souls here; the next largest town in Georgia? A place called Kutaisi, barely 200,000. 38% of Georgians live in Tbilisi, which is a statistic that may suggest it is more middle eastern or central Asiatic than European. I walked with the cool Belgian judges along a ridge above the town, past a huge aluminium statue to Mother Georgia - a communist-era edifice that has survived.
The huge feminine figure towers above the city. She holds a sword in one hand and a glass of wine in the other - symbolic, they say here, of the Georgian spirit; if you come as a friend, you will be greeted warmly, often with astounding hospitality; come as a foe and you will be fought to the death. I left the Belgians and went for a steam bath. Maybe not the best idea when it's 40 degrees outside, but still, I felt like a wash.
There is actually an area near Avlabari in Tbilisi where the subterranean steam baths are all gathered. Some charge quite a bit for a private room or whatever, but I went for the authentic (cheap) public experience, in an oriental-designed place from the 18th century, blue mosaics tiles on the outside. Named Abanotibani, both Pushkin and Dumas have bathed here, so I was in good company. Handing over my 3 Lari entrance fee (£1), I sauntered in to the changing rooms, and was rather shocked to see all the men marching into the baths naked. I'm not normally one to be bothered about this type of thing, but I suddenly got all British and decided to hide my modesty under my boxers. I walked in, trying not to attract attention, but after about two seconds a wrinkled old prune of about 85, who was being vigorously scrubbed on a bench, started barking something at me in a quite irate fashion. Seeing I didn't understand, he started remonstrating with me and pointing at my pants. Meekly, I peeled them off before submerging myself in a scalding hot pool of water for about 30 seconds. I leaped out in search of a cold bath to dip myself in, but to my chagrin there was only a luke-warm shower.
Laying down, dazed by the side of the pool for a few minutes. I tried trotting off to the sauna, but seeing me, the prune was in front of me again, barking orders - this time pointing at my feet. I gathered that I was obliged to wear flip-flops, so I slipped some foul old rubber thongs on and trudged upstairs. I lasted slightly longer in the 140 degree heat of the sauna - approximately 2 minutes, before leaping out into a (thankfully) cool pool full of startled Georgians. My humiliation didn't last too long, happily; after an hour, the attendant came and pointed his watch at me. Time to go. Like khinkali, a Georgian bath is something I tried, would recommend, with reservations, but which I am in no hurry myself to repeat.
I spent five happy days in Tbilisi, relaxing, soaking it in. Visiting parks, lakes, botanical gardens, churches - endless churches. Greenery everywhere. Humidity. But the word that comes to mind when I think of the city now is 'warm'. It's name actually derives from the word in Georgian, and it is so apt. Not just the weather and the water (which seems to gush out everywhere), but the people; on so many occasions, I was greeted, welcomed, asked for dinner or to join groups when sitting alone in restaurants, stopped on a path and asked where I was from, what I was doing, in a curious, interested, pleased-you're-here kind of way. This is a nation which truly understands the meaning of the word 'hospitality', and it comes from their hearts.
One example: I was on the street and asked a middle aged woman directions to the national museum. She not only takes me there, but introduces me to everyone who works there, organises a guided tour in English, takes me to the adjoining restaurant and pays for my meal, then, seeing I have a hole in my shirt, offers to mend it for me. Not a word of a lie. I'm not saying everyone here would do that, but where in the world would you find anyone who goes out of their way for strangers like that? Nowhere I've been. Tbilisi has it all if you have the patience...come as you are, as a friend, and you will be treated like a king, with the metaphorical cup of wine, by Mother Georgia. And it warmed the cockles of my hard, cynical old heart.
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This blog is the first part of a series. Please see the next part on Kazbegi here:
For a deeper insight into Georgian cuisine, have a look at this blog I wrote on the subject:
To see a city guide I wrote on Tbilisi with loads of tips about what to do and where to go, follow this link: Tbilisi City Guide