Tbilisi: We Got There in the End

Posted by in Culture, Travel

Can you guess where the metro is from? And if Depeche Mode have an anti-Russia song, this might just be the art they’re looking for.

4AM ARRIVAL

In the middle ages Tbilisi was known as the city of joy which is interesting because all I’m getting at four in the morning is a grumpy immigration officer and a long wait at the baggage carousel. For a moment I imagine my bag is somewhere in Athens where I’ve transited to get here (even Heathrow has no direct flight to Georgia at the time of writing). 

There’s one hell of a draught coming through the baggage bay flaps and after a while my worries are soon laid to rest as the trusty backpack appears in tact. Next is to find my driver. The good news is there is one, the bad is that he looks like some sort of gangster who has kidnapped my real driver (I read the horror story in Lonely Planet’s book of things gone horribly wrong. I’m nervous in taxi’s at the best of times so it’s a tense ride). 

Again all ends well as at that time of morning the drive is a breeze through the city to my residence. There’s also a metro station close by which is fortunate because there are only two lines in the whole of the city. *TIP You may need ear plugs, it’s loud! 

300*252

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The Metro is similar to Kiev (glass doors to enter stations but I don’t know if you need to pay extra for a bag). Rolling stock at the mo is the old corrugated carriages again like Kiev and some of Warsaw’s older stock. Likewise some stations are tricky to navigate – this ain’t London. Tbilisi is humid and it takes a while to acclimatise, cue mid-noon siesta. 

Also worth noting is the city is set on many levels and valleys so if you’re a walker expect to walk uphill and downhill quite a bit. It’s twinned with Bristol and while some parts recall the Avon Gorge not much of it will remind you of the western wonder and the station is no Temple Meads. 

There is some fantastic urban art but also a lot of graffiti notably F**k Russia, F**k Putin – the latter understandable. The Russians I met in the hostel were friendly enough. As for the Georgians they are sometimes friendly, sometimes a bit dour and don’t expect a thankyou if you’re letting one pass you on a narrow street for example. I wouldn’t say they are being rude it’s just how they are. 

In keeping with other Eastern European capitals there is also a lot of dog shit to navigate, tricky after sunset as some streets have modest street lighting and the buildings can be a mix of luxury and works in progress. So let’s go round and have a look at some of the better known districts.

The Uni of Georgia and some of the fare at Sugar Free.

SABURTALO STUDENT LAND

The immediate neighbourhood Saburtalo is bolstered by two universities and as such it’s a hot spot for the usual fast food outlets (Subway, McD’s, Dominoes and City Chicken). Further up on Kazbagi Ave are a few noted cafes; Degusto and Coffee Lab. 

The latter is set in a small park. It’s smart but I can’t even understand their menu, it seems you need a degree in barista to figure it out so for now I pass and go in search of Sugar Free a touch further up the same road.

I’m not sure what they are using but it didn’t taste sugar free to me – this is not a negative. No English in store other than the words Sugar Free, but with the aid of my notes and pictures we got there. Still not sure what the red dusting the top of my creamy eclair was but the other item was a cherry almond slice. The berry tea however was a bit bland but if nothing else was different.

Saburtalo is one of the bigger districts and stretches some way to the north west. Eventually you land at the City Mall oddly plonked in the midst of stores selling industrial pipes. The mall itself is pleasant, modern and features a tried and true layout; food court, multi screen cinema and usual suspects H&M, ZARA, McD’s, KFC, Burger King but also somewhere to get a Turkish Pide if you so desired. 

CHUGURETI

Across the green River Kura I come across a hole in the wall bakery on David Aghmashenebeli Ave. No English name but it has yellow typography. The plus point is they at least have English text for the items e.g Guruli, Calzone. Most bakeries just have Georgian so it’s a good find. Great pastries and super cheap! About 5GEL for a pastry and water, that’s about £1.40. 

I first heard of Tbilisi in 1982 and that’s only because Wales had played the then USSR in the qualification bid for the World Cup which we of course missed out on. Now I don’t know if it’s the same football stadium but it stands in oppressive communist grey just around the corner from the bakery. 

So too does the Mushthaidi Garden (which has a kid’s fun fair and train track within). On the same street in the opposite direction (down from the bakery) is a cocktail bar called POLITIKA, next door to the Georgian Film Archive and an IBIS hotel.

The famed Fabrika is a little trickier to find as it sits in a maze of streets with no direct way to it, so if on foot you’ll have to dance around the houses a bit. It’s a luvvie hot spot with remote workers, a hostel and I’ve not been there at night but I imagine, boisterous like the pubs in the old town.

Breakfast at Stamba – if you only go out for one breakfast in Tbilisi, this is it!

CAFE STAMBA 

It’s on a Saturday I get my first taster of the more touristy districts and that begins with a visit to Cafe Stamba (also part of a hotel but you don’t need to stay there to utilise the much lauded cafe). I nearly chicken out of it but I end up ordering a Bicher muesli with blueberries and… pancakes with bacon and blackcurrant and an all important Flat White. 

All of which comes to nearly 40GEL with a tax on top. That’s about £11 which when you consider a couple of chocolate croissants and a coffee at Pret will cost about £8 is pretty impressive. Staff a bit slow but we got there in the end. 

Another oddity is the groovy soul they are pumping out, I can’t say I was familiar with Jimmy Jones but as I was finishing up his Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Makin’ Love the First Night came on louder than a 70’s shirt. Love the idea but chance would be a bloody fine thing Jimmy.

Stamba is not just a cafe and hotel it’s adjoined by a photography and multimedia museum which I go in search of only to find an open courtyard not dissimilar to Shenzhen’s The Loft. Nothing appears to be happening so instead I turn my attention to the main boulevard Rustaveli Avenue. 

If art is music to your ears then you can art til your heart’s delight here.

RUSTAVELI MUSEUMS

My first point of call is MOMA TBILISI which has only been around 10 years and is 15GEL to enter (just over £4). There are two exhibitions showing, it’s not bad but it’s peanuts to what is further down the street and that is the mammoth Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. 

This one is 18GEL to enter (about £5) but well worth it, the amount of art over three of the five floors is staggering and more or less a who’s who of anyone that studied at the Tbilisi Academy of Fine Arts. But it’s a wonderful roster nonetheless. 

As I’m paying the woman on the desk asks which country I’m from. ‘Wales’ I say. What country? ‘Wales’ I repeat. Where? Wales (I have to explain England/Wales border on each other). ‘Oh,’ she nods. ‘How do you say it in Georgian? I ask. ‘Wales’ she says. So how could she not understand?

Also unique is the ticket which you need to scan in order to check in and out. But beware the glass stairs throw up lots of reflections so I’d recommend taking the lift! Onto the art itself… Natela Iankoshvili’s landscapes are dark and interesting. The best way I can describe Jibson Knundadze is if you like The Cure’s All Mixed Up album imagery you’ll probably like it. Givi Vashakidze has some brilliant surrealist imagery.

Temo Japaridze is a man of many styles; some like Lowry, some like Kandinsky. His District in Tbilisi (1976) is his most affectionate and arresting piece for me. On the fourth floor some of Koki Makharadze’s expressionist travelogues are evocative. India from 1982, Venice from 1980, Alexandria from 1972, Istanbul from 1977, Nice from ‘78 and so on. 

There are so many galleries on each floor you begin to wonder if you’ve seen it before or you’ve missed something. It’s easy to get lost in art here. The second floor has toilets and nothing else although these would be better placed mid-way. Say the third floor as the ground (first floor already has toilets, two cafes and a shop – the tee’s are rather neat).

What’s Georgian for H&M? Wonder no more at the Galleria.

GALLERIA AND MUSEUM OF BOOKS

It’s almost a relief to get outside but there’s more – the Georgian National Museum. I know I should go in but it’s another 15GEL and by this time I need a break so decide to keep walking. Opposite is the modern Galleria shopping mall featuring another H&M and while it’s great to see the logo in Georgian, as far as men’s clothes go it’s a bit of a let down, so much for creature comforts. 

Also of note here is although the mall is modern and ‘western’ the supermarket Good Will on the basement floor only has items showing in Georgian (no English) tricky if you want a pastry and don’t know what’s what. Staff don’t speak much English either. Outside Galleria are a lot of mostly elder folk holding out paper cups for spare change, and Freedom Square aka Liberty Square. 

Tucked away behind the National Museum is the Museum of Books which from the outside looks pretty extensive but this too is a bit of a smoke screen as part of it is a library. The museum itself is really an L shaped hall with rare and antiquarian books like an Italian Georgian dictionary should you need to see one. 

The most unusual thing is waiting for the vault like door to open from the inside to let me in – and out once finished which doesn’t take too long but hey it’s free and if you like the smell of old books and unusual museums – this one should fit the bill.

The very distinctive Public Service Hall and the mother of Georgia gracious but guarded.

OLD TOWN and SOLOLAKI

One thing you don’t get from watching You Tube videos on a place is the sense of scale. Tbilisi is bigger than you think and if it’s humid can take a lot out of you. The curvy Baratashvili Bridge (aka the bridge of peace) is further than I imagined as is the glass domed presidential palace which sits on a hill in front of the golden spired cathedral. 

Note the hostel under the bridge is no longer operational which is a pity as I had eyed it as a potential to stay but instead used Air Bnb and the Soul Kitchen. From Rike Park you can take the cable car in the opposite direction up to the Botanical Garden and metallic Mother of Georgia (the woman with the sword). 

Unfortunately she doesn’t have much of a vantage point before her as she’s more or less perched on the edge of a cliff, so photographers take note to bring a very good zoom lens or one of the newer iPhones may do the trick. 

It’s also worth having a stroll around the Sololaki district which has many old and in some cases dilapidated houses with crumbling masonry and peeling paint, secret squares and lanes. Just be wary of the dog mess, especially at night when its difficult to see (the street lighting does not cover all areas).

From modernity to the rustic, Vake and Turtle Lake offer both.

VAKE

It takes a while to get there but eventually the door to the promised land of luxury is unlocked and at the end of some pretty extensive road works lay the tree lined Chavchavadze Avenue; gateway to Vake (pr. Varkay). This finger of land runs parallel with Saburtalo which is the next suburb to the north.

The grand white building of Tbilisi State University lies on the right hand side as does the swanky Coffeesta – just a pity I call in the morning when the outside chairs are still tied to the table (I find this out after I order) and the coffee machine is apparently devoid of hot water but again we get there in the end. 

Further up the long avenue are more expensive cafes, the Hilton, the Pullman, Axis Towers (buildings with a twist towards each other), the best of the Carrefour supermarkets I’ve come across so far, and an old fashioned cable car to Turtle Lake and a park named after its salubrious surroundings. 

While this is grand and manicured, my favourite park in Vake is Mziuri – the entrance of which is easy to miss but it heads down a slope and is embellished by an eco-cafe. Overall Vake is kind of what Levent is to Istanbul. The pavement is ok when dry but if you’re about when it’s raining wear shoes with a good grip!

City views from the Old Town and Turtle Lake.

Turtle lake itself turns out to be a big disappointment but the views over the city are impressive (even in 42 degree heat) where the arid hills look like Afghanistan but the city is probably nothing like Kabul (I am guessing as I’ve not been). There’s even a patch that looks like a mini-Tuscany.

Likewise the vista from Mtatsminda Park is even more impressive. Tbilisi stretches further than imagined and there is a lot more to explore but for now, my introduction to the Georgian capital takes a hiatus as I head south on the overnight train to a morning meeting with Armenia and its capital, Yerevan. 

**TIP If returning from Armenia, don’t change your notes at Bank of Georgia who apparently have their own rates i.e nothing like the XE app is showing – this is quite simply a con and you should check out the numerous exchange places on the street instead.

**TIP 2 Don’t expect to be served in a hurry.

I flew AEGEAN via Athens and in Georgia all the costs were at my own expense. Other airlines currently flying to Tbilisi include: Air France, Lufthansa and LOT from Europe, Turkish and Pegasus to Turkey, Air Astana to Kazakhstan. The Mid-East is serviced by Gulf Air (Bahrain), Qatar (Doha) but strangely no Emirates, instead Fly Dubai to said city and Air Arabia (to Sharjah). No direct service to London or the far east at the time of writing. The bus to Tbilisi airport looks like a regular bus and there is also a more coach like bus to Kutaisi airport should you need it.

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos.

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PLAYLIST

A little about this playlist, as it’s different from the norm. Some of it is culled from the taxi (Alphaville), some from cafe (Jimmy Jones) and some from my hostel (Rihanna).

Twilight World – Swing Out Sister
Something About You – Level 42
Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
Driving Around – Strawpeople
Forever Young – Alphaville
Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Makin’ Love the First Night – Jimmy Jones
Rapture – Anita Baker
What’s My Name? – Rihanna
Move on Up – Curtis Mayfield
Staircase – Radiohead

Photos: KH, summer 2022