My grandfather used to tell me stories of the time he visited Tbilisi on business in the early 90’s. Georgia was newly independent and exploring ways to develop its post-Communist economy. The shadow of the Soviet Union still lingered. From my grandfather’s depictions, I imagined a rather dreary place. He talked about the poverty and about the butchers who set up shop in makeshift stalls on the street. He recalled the envelope of money he was given by his company to, um, expedite things, and the old hotel cleaning lady who sat in the hallway collecting a service fee only to pocket the money without so much as mopping the floor. These were the images on my mind as the train rolled in to the capital of Georgia on a beautiful Tuesday morning, and I was curious to see how this city compared to the Tbilisi my grandfather had visited.
Of course, I knew it would be different – after all, nearly three decades have passed since Georgia declared its independence and opened itself up to the global economy. Since then, the country has undergone significant political change (including the peaceful, so-called “Rose Revolution” in 2003), as well as a war in 2008 to hold back an invasion by its former Russian overlords. Even earlier this year, protesters filled the main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, in opposition to Russian interference in their government. Tourism has exploded, in part from Russia but especially from Europe. As a tourist myself, I started my visit where all where you might expect.
In the historic center of Tbilisi (თბილისი, in Georgian), the gilded Church of the Assumption sits atop a high cliff guarded by a statue of the city’s founder on horseback and brandishing a sword. The cliff plunges into the left bank of the Mtkvari river. On the right bank a steep hill rises up to an even higher peak ringed with an ancient fortress under the benevolent gaze of Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia statue. She holds a bowl of wine in one hand and a drawn sword in the other, simultaneously welcoming her guests and admonishing her enemies. In between the two sword-bearing sentries above either riverbank is just enough room for a small neighborhood to cascade down from the fort to the waterfront.
The hillside neighborhood forms the heart of old Tbilisi. Several religious structures line the steep cobbled alleyways, including a Zoroastrian fire temple, a mosque with a towering minaret, and numerous Georgian Orthodox churches wafting out clouds of incense mixed with the solemn chants of the priests within. The old quarter is especially known for its therapeutic sulfur baths, which are housed under brick domes built in a style resembling the Turkish hammam. One of the bathhouses has a facade of such ornate tilework that it is often mistaken for a mosque. Walking around this area and admiring the sights, I often had to make awkward detours to avoid crashing a bridal photoshoot.
It took me a couple of visits through the old quarter before I discovered its hidden section. Behind one of the bathhouses, a series of bridges zig-zags back and forth across a stream at the bottom of a narrow gorge that stretches around to the backside of the hill. Having successfully crossed these bridges, ducked out of a few more bridal photos, and dodged the hawkers selling photo ops with colorful peacocks, I made it to the end of the gorge and enjoyed the surprising sight of a lush waterfall in the middle of the capital. Also here, though, I had to move around carefully, as yet another pair of happy newlyweds adjusted their pose in the spray.
Outside the idyllic and ancient atmosphere of the old town, Tbilisi is a curious mix of run-down Soviet apartment blocks, stately European architecture, imposing brutalist facades of concrete, and elegant modern structures of glass. Many of the beautiful European buildings on Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, a wide thoroughfare on the left bank, are recently renovated and house some of the city’s more upscale establishments. Go just a few blocks away, though, and there is such a variation in the architectural styles and level of renovation that you can feel like you are in a completely different city.
There are not enough resources in Georgia to fund the maintenance and restoration of all of the buildings and artwork that deserve preservation, so such work is often left to private entrepreneurs. A place called Fabrika, for example, was formerly a sewing factory that produced uniforms for Soviet civil servants. Nowadays, it is a happening evening hangout with bars, restaurants, street art, several shops including a record store, and even a hostel, yet it all remains under the watchful eye of the original propaganda mosaic that kept the factory workers in line.
Aside from architectural revival, entire communities in Tbilisi have come back to life since the end of the Soviet Union. My tour guide took our group to a Lutheran church. There was nothing particularly striking about it – Lutheran churches by design tend not to be very extravagant – but it is notable for its simple existence. The church was established by a community of German settlers in the early nineteenth century. Joseph Stalin suppressed the community and demolished the church, but it has since been rebuilt to become a multicultural and modern house of worship for the renewed community of Georgian Lutherans.
As I made my way back from the marshrutka station after returning from a few days in the Caucasus mountains, I lost track of how many European Union flags I saw. It was so many that I began to second-guess what I already knew, and had to consult all-knowing Google to confirm that Georgia was simply displaying its hopes and dreams rather than its reality. In my distraction, I got lost in a tangle of highway interchanges, dead-end sidewalks, and damp underground walkways. Upon finally emerging onto a street I thought would take me back to my hostel, I found myself suddenly very hungry (jetlag does strange things to your appetite), but the Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, and Wendy’s that I was passing didn’t interest me. I was craving a plate of khinkali – Georgian dumplings taking the form of twisted sacks of boiled dough filled with meat and broth.
The first restaurant I passed, off a side street and hidden behind a construction site, was being promoted enthusiastically out on the sidewalk by the waitstaff. They handed me a flyer and invited me to try their new restaurant. I told them I was looking for khinkali, and they assured me they served them, so I decided it was as good a place as any to have a mid-afternoon meal. This restaurant, it turned out, was no ordinary Georgian khinkali house, but rather a culinary experiment fusing Georgian cuisine with Indian. I was definitely interested, and looked through the entire iPad picture menu before ordering the Georgian-Indian khinkali plate. The traditional beef, of course, was out, and chicken was in. Rather than the savory, herbed flavor of regular khinkali, these were served with an Indian-inspired chutney for dipping. A steaming, elaborately-presented Georgian take on the Indian street snack pani puri was served as an appetizer on the house, and dessert was topped with a chocolate Dharma wheel. It was not the traditional Georgian meal I had expected, but I was thoroughly satisfied. A surprising and unique fusion cuisine is certainly authentic in its own way!
Satisfied despite my unusual eating schedule, I finally made my way onto the grand Rustaveli Avenue, which would take me back to Liberty Square and my hostel. Before I got far, though, I was met with a barricade guarded by police. They indicated that the avenue ahead was closed, and directed me up an alley to reach a parallel street. I didn’t think anything of it and proceeded to take the detour.
A few blocks down, I decided to check if I had reached the end of the barricaded area and turned down another connecting alley. Still closed, still guarded by police, and here, there was an armored tank in the street! Recalling the news articles about protests in Tbilisi that I had read a few months prior, I made the connection – it must be the military keeping the peace until the public temper subsides. Not wanting to be around if a demonstration broke out, I continued along the detour, passing around the backside of several government buildings.
Emerging onto Liberty Square at the end of Rustaveli Avenue, I looked back down the avenue and sure enough, it was guarded its entire length. And there was another tank. A small crowd had gathered and was leaning on the barricades, while the guards scolded would-be photographers. These people didn’t seem to have protesting on their minds – they looked excited and thoroughly non-confrontational, so I approached the barricade for a closer look.
What I found was not soldiers and riot police, but a fleet of sporty convertibles parked next to the tank. What kind of military does this country have?, I wondered, as I looked around for further clues as to what in the world was going on. The guards along the barricade no longer seemed so threatening, so I approached one and asked what the occasion was. She smiled proudly – “they’re filming Fast & Furious in Tbilisi!”
Grabbing a drink in a trendy Soviet sewing factory, dining on creative Indian fusion cuisine, and watching a Hollywood film set – those are things my grandfather never reported experiencing in early 90’s Tbilisi!