Did you know that Josef Stalin was born in Georgia? A cobbler’s son from Gori, he has, of course, gone down in history as one of the most brutal, most totalitarian politicians to ever have lived. It is estimated that almost 10 million people died in executions, in the Gulags or in persecutions, not to mention many more millions who died as victims of famines during his long regime. He also initially entered into a pact with Hitler’s Nazis in Germany with the intent to divvy up all of Eastern Europe into German and Russian rule respectively, although later, after Hitler had broken the pact and invaded Russian territory, the Soviets as part of the Allied Forces defeated Germany. Not a nice man, to put it mildly. Strangely, despite his horrendous human rights record, Stalin was twice nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize, in 1945 and 1948. These days, even more bizarrely, his likeness on pictures, as busts or small statues, is peddled successfully at the Tbilisi fleamarket. Weird! Can you imagine busts of Hitler for sale in Germany? It would cause an outcry! Make no mistake, Georgians hold no political truck with this monstrous son of their country and any large statues were removed years ago but I guess, selling him off as a tongue in cheek souvenir is called making the most of a bad situation. And this the Georgians are good at. They take what they’ve got, put an original twist on it and make it work in their own very confident style.
Georgia has a sizeable hydroelectric capacity and exports electricity but it is not a rich country and its main source of income, I am told, comes from the export of European second hand cars. They are imported by ship to this gateway to the East and are then sold on to those countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan which, unlike Georgia, are not accessible by water from the West. I did not encounter any Arthur Daleys (British retro TV series ‘Minder’) in camel coats trying to sell me ‘a nice little runner’, nor did I, at any point, feel that I was being ripped off in any way at all, but there’s no doubt that Tbilisi does second hand chic very well indeed. The flea market by the ‘Dry Bridge’ on the banks of the river Mtkvari was brimming over with pretty, almost baronial type multi piece dinner sets, large canteens of antique cutlery, ornate glassware, old typewriters, wind up gramophones, musical instruments, old tools and spare parts, book antiquariats featuring publications in many languages, antique and second hand furniture, lace table cloths, a real treasure trove and a rather splendid and stylish way of recycling.
Where Baku is brash, cosmetically enhanced to impress, predictable and thoroughly nouveau riche, Tbilisi is pregnant with history, slightly dilapidated, partly sympathetically restored, kooky, original, with an intellectual air and has that sort of street cred that comes with being confident in its own self. It’s a sort of Katie Price versus Alexa Chung situation (if you’re American, read that as the Kardashians versus Christina Ricci). Some of the architecture is so enchanting that you wonder why location scouts aren’t queuing around the block. Perhaps they are. The beautiful churches, mostly Georgian orthodox, the cobbled streets, the impromptu book stalls, the excellent street sculptures, the many mature trees, a certain all over higgledipiggledyness, all draw you in. Despite the lack of abundant funds, there’s a sophistication about Tbilisi. In an inexplicable way, it reminds me of certain areas in Berlin or East London where the young have put their very own witty arty spin on backyard tenement buildings and made them unapologetically avant-garde.
Surprisingly, many people in Tbilisi speak good English with a similar fluency, albeit a different accent, of course, to the Dutch and Scandinavians. Impressive. Conversely, their own language sounds quite mysterious and its script in pretty rounded daisy chain characters, looks quite inpenetrable! Not so their demeanor, they are smiley, lively, friendly and open. There’s none of the Ex Soviet type dourness or greyness in sight, not in the city and not in the people.
The attractively restored Old Town boasts innumerable bars and restaurants, a proper party central, in fact, and once again, each one is different, very well presented, thought through and consistent in its approach, young, modern, buzzing and offering up very good fare.
Georgian food is heavy on the carbs, fat and meat but quite naughtily delicious. Khachapuri, a traditional cheese pie or rather a cheese filled bread may be a heart attack in the making but I defy you to resist it. Fresh trout is a joy and there’s a whole spectrum of different meat stews with plenty of pork options too as this, unlike some of its neighbours, is not a Muslim country. Churchkhela, sausage like items hanging from fruit stalls are, in fact, made of a kind of grape juice fudge with nuts in the centre. Homegrown Georgian wine, particularly the red, is legendary and some sources even claim that wine was invented in Georgia. Grape juice is filled into earthenware pots, buried and left to ferment. When it is drawn off, it is certainly most quaffable! And then there is an abundance of flowers everywhere, roses in every colour imaginable, including very long-stemmed dark red velvet blooms, the height of floral romance.
Hotel City, Abesadze Street 7, Tbilisi . Tel.: +995 322 923871 www.hotelcity.ge This was our first stop in Tbilisi. In a very convenient central location, this so called boutique hotel turned out to be very basic and not particularly in line with its website depiction. A little tired around the edges but clean and functional, it serves its purpose, however, the basic standard was not reflected in its room rate of GEL340 (incl. VAT approx.€154) per night for a ‘suite with panoramic view’. On the sixth floor, this suite was of a generous size with a small ensuite shower room. The bedroom which is half surrounded by floor to ceiling windows, one of which had a rather worrying eight foot vertical crack in it, offers, as advertised, great views over the city but also makes you feel as though you are sleeping in a conservatory. For the two of us, there was one hand towel and one guest towel, both thin as paper, and one pair of slippers. There was a kettle and two cups but no coffee or tea. Breakfast too was rudimentary: Nescafe, cold hard boiled eggs, cold sliced meat, cold cheese pie, coleslaw salad, basic bread with honey or jam and cornflakes. All this would have been perfectly fine had it cost half the price it was billed at but, on balance, we felt that we could get better value for money and more comfort elsewhere, so we moved after one night.
Hotel Courtyard Marriott, 13 Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi Tel.: +995 322 779100 www.marriott.com Here we have the pret-a-porter version of the Marriott in Tbilisi, the couture version is slightly further down the road, but it’s a nice, comfortable serviceable hotel. Again, this is very well located. Our room overlooked the brightly gilt statue of St. George, patron saint of Georgia, slaying the dragon high up on it’s column at the centre of Freedom Square. Yes, you read correctly, St. George, saint of courage and bravery, is a very busy saint indeed, patronizing (?) as he does not only Georgia and, of course, England, but also Portugal, Egypt, Bulgaria, Greece, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Lithuania, Palestine, Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Malta and Gozo, not to mention a long list of cities, the scout movement as well as leprosy, herpes, syphilis and other ailments. Slaying the dragon was the easy part!
Our room was attractive and well equipped, the bathroom with tub and shower small but with everything in place. This time there were enough towels but once again, they were small and not exactly what one might call fluffy. There weren’t, however, any robes. Service was very helpful and friendly. The breakfast buffet and snacks were okay, not outstanding but better than adequate. Their chocolate biscuits, however, were exceedingly good! It’s a shame that the two round marble tables in the foyer are completely bare. Pretty flower or fruit arrangements or even some magazines would make this area look so much more elegant and welcoming and considering that flowers in Tbilisi are so readily available and not expensive, one wonders why the Marriott doesn’t bother with these easy little extra touches. At a room rate of GEL487 (incl. VAT approx. €220) per night for a ‘superior’ room, this hotel offered immeasurably more comfort and better value than Hotel City and was well worth the difference in price.
Pur Pur, 1 Abo Tbileli Street, Gudiashveli Garden, 2nd Floor, Tbilisi Tel.: (995 32) 2477 776 www.purpur.ge
Ah, what a pretty little gem this restaurant is! You enter what appears to be a vast high ceilinged apartment, beautifully presented in charming granny style, lightly distressed big shuttered windows, bare floorboards and many floral cloth covered tables with artfully mismatched chairs, quirky lamps, candlesticks and eye catching fresh flower arrangements. Absolutely stunning, atmospheric and very inviting, the perfect place to settle down on a rainy night in Georgia! It was certainly buzzing and full to the last seat. The menu was enticing too. My trout tartar with ginger was excellent, the ravioli with mushroom and truffle oil was nice but perhaps just a bit boring, taste and presentationwise. The lovely husband had a crispy goats cheese salad which was a very delicious salad but seemed to lack all goats’ cheese, crispy or otherwise. Maybe they got the order wrong. His trout with vanilla and citrus emulsion was alright but again, a tad bland. Still, they could have served us gruel, we just loved the place so much and the wine, a dry white Chateau Mukhrani, was outstanding. The cheese cake for dessert was light, fluffy and wonderful. All this for GEL137.70 including the bottle of wine which works out at about €30 a head. Fabuloso!
Hilariously, on the opposite side of the square where Pur Pur is located, there is a small open air cinema which, on the evening we went to the restaurant was, of all things, showing ‘Top Gear’, the well-known BBC car magazine show. It seems there’s no getting away from Jeremy Clarkson wherever you go! Chardin, 12 Chardin Street, Tbilisi Old Town Tel.: +995 577 480460
Right there on one of the main streets of the old town, this small, typically Georgian dining room has a collection of interesting knick knacks adorning the walls, old musical instruments, a stuffed pheasant, old sepia photographs, which all make for a very cosy atmosphere. Its menu is Georgian/European. We had Chanaki khachapuri, a super delicious cheesepie, baked trout with vegetables which was unadulterated and very good and a tasty lamb hotpot, followed by a delectable shared apple strudel. The portions were huge and satisfying, the service charming and friendly. It’s the sort of place where you leave feeling loved and taken care of. As for the left over khachapuri in the doggie bag we took with us, well, that didn’t stay in the bag for long! We paid GEL103, approx. €46.50, for a shared starter, two main courses, a shared dessert, two glasses of wine, water and a coffee.
Organique Josper Bar, Bambis Rigi and Shardeni Corner, Tbilisi Old Town Tel.: +995 593 735083 www.restorganique.com
Another evening, another lovely meal in Old Town! As the name suggests, the food here is all organic and they pride themselves on their top quality meat. It’s a busy little place carefully designed to look as though it has been put together from orange crates and it has an open kitchen where you can watch the chefs at work. The lovely husband had a very good lamb burger and I had a really tip top goats cheese salad. Once again, service was efficient and came with a smile. Including coffee, water, a beer and a glass of wine, we paid GEL68, approx. €31 for the two of us.
Also in Old Town is Shakespeare’s which looks like an old library, KGB, which obviously plays on Georgia’s Soviet past and the Hangar Café opposite a clock tower that sends out revolving wooden figures to gong the hour. They were great fun places to sit, watch the world go by and chat over a bevvy or two or three. They all also serve food and, if you fancy, shisha pipes. In contrast to Baku, most of the waiting staff are young females, many dressed in a very funky, cool and individualized street style; they might have just stepped out of an art gallery in Hoxton or the Meatpacking district. I mention this not because I am focussed on appearances but because, to me, it seemed so indicative of Tbilisi’s confident and progressive self expression. Tbilisi may not be rolling in money and it may have a slightly dilapidated faded splendour about it but it’s definitely got grit and personality.
Chateau Mere, 15 Vardisubani Street, Stantsiya, Telavi Tel.: +995 595 990399
Our last night was spent in the countryside, a good hour’s drive from Tbilisi, at Chateau Mere near Telavi. The vineyard has been here for some time but the hotel itself is only three years old although, despite it’s azure blue swimming pool, it has the air of an old hunting lodge. The drive there from Tbilisi, steeply winding up and then back down the mountain, was spectacular, the mountains aflame with autumn colours. The property is filled with antique furniture, bric a brac , antlers on walls and many horse photographs and feels like a rustic private house. Our bedroom, right at the top of one of the stone towers, was huge with a wonderful view over the valley towards Telavi . The bathroom has a double sized shower and very welcome underfloor heating and, oh bliss, a proper professional hairdryer but sadly, again, no robes! Best of all, it has its own private roof terrace with a small Jacuzzi. There we sat under the starlight, fairy lights gently twinkling in the crenellations, contemplating our great good fortune while wallowing in the bubbling hot water. Georgia is home to bears, wolves, lynx and leopard and although we were presumably far too close to civilisation for them to be nearby, it was still quite an exciting thought that possibly somewhere in those mountains we were overlooking, these creatures of fairy stories and legends roamed free.
For an extra GEL30 per head, the bed and breakfast deal at Chateau Mere can be extended to full board, including one glass of wine each. The food, to be honest, wasn’t quite my kind of thing as I’m not a fan of heavy stodgy country fare but it was entirely appropriate for the environment. The breakfast was basic but adequate and the service was thoroughly charming. The enormous and attractively presented dining/sitting room was inviting and cosy with a big crackling log fire, ideal to curl up by, relax and read. Wine from their vineyard is available to purchase.
One of the most ancient stories of Greek Mythology is that of Jason and the Argonauts who set off from Greece in their ship ‘The Argo’ to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the Kingdom of Colchis, now western Georgia bordering the Black Sea. Their travels were arduous and dangerous but eventually, and with the help of the gods and Jason’s wife Medea, Jason succeeded in bringing the Golden Fleece home, securing his claim to the throne. This story, assumed to be a good 2500 years old, is based on some fact; sheep’s fleeces were used to prospect for gold in the rivers leading to the Black Sea. Water would strain through them, leaving tiny particles of the precious metal in the fleece. Jason and his fellow heroes faced up to the murderous smelly women of Lemnos, slew giants and dragons, killed the evil Harpies, negotiated clashing rocks and underwent many other hair raising adventures just to fulfil their quest to get to Georgia. Having myself experienced a weekend in Georgia, I can quite understand his unwavering will to get there, though these days, it’s easier to get on the plane and, after an hour’s flight from Baku, land in Tbilisi, ‘The city that loves you’. Chances are that you’ll love it right back!