Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Tbilisi: romantic, but not dangerous!

The historian, Simon Sebag Montifiore, once described Georgia as “the most romantic and dangerous land in the world”.  He was reviewing Wendell Steavenson’s book, Stories I Stole, a quirky account of the author’s years living in Tbilisi, which I took with me to the Caucasus. 

It described the chaotic 90s and early 2000s when the majority of Georgians’ homes received only a few hours of electricity each day, members of the public frequently carried guns and some areas of the country were notorious for robberies and kidnappings.

With Tbilisi’s streets now completely unthreatening and everything from bridges to Ferris wheels illuminated showily after dark, it was difficult to believe that I was in the same city which Steavenson described.  Georgia, like many other post-Soviet states, has clearly changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

The country’s capital is now a vibrant, modern place, centred around its atmospheric Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue - a busy artery, flanked by museums, public buildings and fashionable shops.

Tbilisi is overlooked by an imposing fortress, called Narikala, and Mount Mtatsminda, which offers spectacular views, fresh air and a retreat from heat and exhaust fumes.  A funicular railway runs from a station not far from Rustaveli to a massive restaurant complex and a viewing platform, beside gardens and an amusement park.  It’s definitely worth a trip and the funfair didn’t open until lunchtime on the day we visited, so we had the place more or less to ourselves.

Georgia is particularly famous for its food and drink.  Georgians and Armenians both claim their ancestors were the first people to cultivate grapes for wine-making and the oldest winery ever discovered by archaeologists was in Armenia.  You can try good red and white wines in Tbilisi’s restaurants, particularly in wine-bars like g.Vino where knowledgeable staff will help you navigate local varieties, like the unusually named Pheasant’s Tears (which I consistently misheard as Peasant’s Tears).

These are perfect to accompany a plate of cold meats and local cheeses.  On the other hand, Tkemali, a sour sauce made from wild, green plums and herbs, improves any type of grilled meat.  Another Georgian speciality, Khinkali, is a spicy, filled dumpling, which can be eaten on its own or as a side dish.

Away from the dinner table, Tbilisi has some interesting museums.  The Dmitry Shevernadze National Gallery is a manageable size and it houses well-presented exhibitions of photographs from World War 1’s Caucasus Front and Niko Pirosami’s paintings. 

Pirosami may be Georgia’s most celebrated painter.  His portrait appears on the 1 lari banknote and he painted distinctive, atmospheric scenes from the region, in a primitivist style.  On a short visit to an art gallery, in my view it’s much better to see a couple of good exhibitions properly, rather than tramping for miles past endless floors of paintings, spanning century after century (then probably being too tired to appreciate the good stuff).
A few hundred metres along Rustaveli, the Georgian National Museum displayed an impressive collection of Colchian gold.  This was a fascinating window on Greco-Roman cultural connections which cast Georgia as the backdrop for classical myths like Jason and the Argonauts and Prometheus.

The upper floor was taken up with the more tendentious Museum of Soviet Occupation.  It set out the modern Georgian government’s interpretation of the Soviet period as a struggle for national liberation from Russian oppression.  It formed an interesting counterpoint to an exhibition on the ground floor, which emphasised Georgia’s contribution to World War 2, as part of the USSR. 

There was little mention of Georgian involvement in Bolshevism or the Soviet Union’s elite and the exhibition finished with the assertion that ‘the occupation continues’ in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  It was a reminder that debates about the past in the Caucasus are still felt keenly and inform current politics.

Georgia is a romantic destination, whose recent past and mix of cultural influences gives it a frisson for visitors.  Nearly every tourist will be introduced to the country through its capital, which is a great place to start, as well as a hub to travel on into the countryside.

Some practical tips, if you're going to Tbilisi:

Erekle II is a pedestrianised street of bars and restaurants in the Old Town.  If you’re confused about where to eat, the easiest thing is to go here.

The metro is a convenient way to travel around some areas of the city, but you’ll need a MetroMoney card to get on board.  This requires a deposit of 2 Lari (about 60p) and each journey is a further 15p.  There is Latin script in metro stations and the announcements are given out in English, so, if you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t get lost.

Tbilisi train station is on the third floor of a shopping centre.  A number of internet sources say that a particular kiosk is manned by an English speaker.  However, we were sent from one kiosk to another, so you might need to be patient.  If you want to book an international train ticket to Yerevan or Baku, remember to bring your passport.

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