Tbilisi – The Fading Beauty of a Courtesan
When BOGG (Big Old Grumpy Git) first told me he had work out in Tbilisi, Georgia, I sucked air through my teeth. I was running on wild speculation and ignorance. First things first – where the bloody hell was Georgia and what did the Foreign Office website have to say about it!
‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and against all but essential travel to areas near the Administrative Boundary Lines with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.’
Hmmm … nothing about Tbilisi, the capital … I guess he was going to be ok.
Well to cut a long story short, Tbilisi is safe place to visit and BOGG was full of praise for the city. People are friendly and helpful; the food so-so, meat can be tough but the breads are excellent. The Georgians’ diet (in restaurants at least) seems to be carb, cheese and protein rich. We will come onto this later.
After his third visit, I decided to go with him. That was in September last year. Unfortunately second day in I was hit by gastroenteritis. I know exactly what caused it – an iced coffee that wasn’t cold and the cream on top was at room temperature. My own stupidity and thoughtlessness, made me ill! Shame on me. I drank it and I shouldn’t have. I knew … I knew … I knew!
Most of that trip was spent in bed, but what little glimpse I got of Tbilisi, just made me want to discover more. So rather than being put off by my experience, I was excited to return and discover the secrets that hide in this old, faded city.
Georgia has had a turbulent life and Tbilisi has the fading beauty of a courtesan. It is a country that has been invaded by so many countries and civilisations – from the Romans and Persians, Turks, Byzantines and Arabs; then recently, the Russians and Soviets.
Amid all this conflict, she remains resilient. There is a statue of Mother Georgia standing above the city offering food for her friends and the sword for her enemies. Bold and proud, like her people.
Persian influences can be seen throughout Tbilisi, in words, names and architecture. The people are stoic, good humoured even if they look a tad dour.
Anyway, this has been a long introduction to this post and as you discover through my words and photos, I hope to pique your curiosity about this intriguing ex-Soviet province. It isn’t the scary place my misconceived brain first thought.
The Old Town
On both occasions, I’ve stayed in the old part of the city. It’s the most diverse, with narrow alleyways, crumbling facades, restaurants, bars, cafes, nightclubs, churches and – stray cats.
You, my dear readers, will understand why I’ve said Tbilisi has a fading beauty of a courtesan; look beyond the decay and let your imagination guide you. Comfortable shoes are de rigour and be prepared for the hills; Tbilisi is set within a deep ravine of the Mtkvari River and, sometimes, you will gasp at the way buildings cling precariously to the steep cliffs as if they are sticking two fingers up to gravity!
Buildings, Doors, Balconies, Steps and Other Features
At first you may be shocked by the state of the building and streets in Tbilisi, I was. But I became transfixed by the beauty the narrow road and alleys presented to me. Imagination is a wonderful thing and, eventually looking beyond the degradation and I saw what must have been.
Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of peoples’ lives behind these gates and doors. From washing drying in the winter sun; a courtyard garden (so rare in Tbilisi) tendered with love, or a gapping hole of a building site. The latter more likely. They may look as if they are empty, but nine times out of ten, there will be someone who calls it home. Georgians are inventive and ingenious to keep their homes habitable. So many buildings are held up by wooden poles supporting lintels or door frames. Why do they do it? They have no choice but hopefully things are changing.
As you can see, at every turn there is either a balcony jutting out above the street or a building precariously clinging to a rockface – it makes you hold your breath but only briefly. The funicular tracks (that takes you to Mtatsminda Plateau) show how steep the hillsides are.
It’s not only people’s homes that are prone to being squiffy, the café up the road from my hotel had stairs that sloped jauntily; not an easy descent after a skinful of chacha – the local hootch similar to grappa.
You may think that the people who live in these houses are poor. No doubt some are, but many have expensive cars parked on the chewed up roads (if you think Edinburgh has a plague of pot holes, they are nothing compared to the ones in Tbilisi, you could loose a bus down a couple of them!) and some of the renovated houses are cheek-by-jowl to what look like ramshackle shanty towns.
This video shows you what some of the alleyways are like. Where people have improved their home and in the same street there are still properties that look impoverished and ramshackle.
There is so much to cover and far too many photos to put all in one post, I decided to split my visit into sections and I’ll set up a Tbilisi dropbox if you fancy seeing more images of this fascinating city. The next post, Tbilisi – All About Food, will cover the Georgian Culinary Academy, Dezerter Bazaar (not for the faint hearted) as well as cakes, cafés and the heart-stopping, addictive khachapuri.
PS And, before I forget, all my photos were taken on my Samsung Galaxy4 Zoom, which was sent to me by Samsung PR company, Red Consultancy. I love this phone with its amazing camera and fantastic array of features – I’m not just saying that because it was given to me to trial; I was already thinking about buying it.
(C) Lea Harris, Off the Eaten Track, 2014.