The explanation given for most all flights arriving and departing in the middle of the night in Tblisi, Georgia is that the landing fees are so high during the day, that most airlines opt for arrivals and departures at ungodly hours such at 3 a.m., 5:30 a.m. or the like. In any event, the plane glides past the old airport terminal (a typical Soviet-style wedding-cake like building, reminds me of the old Shanghai exhibition center) and stops in front of a glitteringly new glass and steel structure (inaugurated 2007). Formalities are fast and unproblematic (although this is the first time that I have to go through a metal detector upon arrival with my luggage before I go through customs) and I am glad to be greeted by dear friends, even though it is 2 a.m. Our drive into the city at this hour has one major advantage – no traffic. So my hosts immediately give me a quick tour along the Kura River, with its imposing cliffs and even more imposing houses (old and new structures) periliously perched atop them. Over the next few days I am to realize the joy of no traffic: during the day, it is pure chaos, but more about that later.
We keep driving uphill, the paved road turns into a cobblestone pot-hole heaven. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect my hostess to be drunk as she veers from one side of the street to the other, avoiding XXL ruts. Finally, we arrive at their home, perched above the Old Town, looking over the large Botanical Gardens. I get lullabied to sleep by a nightingale on this first night; on subsequent evenings there is an owl doing night duty and as of sunset, a chorus of frogs fills the air. Conversely, dawn is greeted gleefully by the resident bird colony. Love it!
My first day’s excursion is into the Old Town, accessible in 15 minutes by rough, unequal stairs from our eagle’s nest. Round-headed cobblestones bearing the brunt of centuries are not necessarily foot-friendly, so watching one’s step is a must, especially as they alternate with nasty big and little pot-holes. Sidewalks are as good as non-existant; those that exist are in worse shape than the streets. My host tells me that the upkeep of streets and sidewalks was much better during the Soviet Regime. Since its downfall, one of the first signs of change – for the worse – was the neglect of any roadwork to the existing infrastructure. New roads, highways and sidewalks – that falls under a different heading. So far, though, I am enchanted with the faded glory I see everywhere: It is evident that these Old Town buildings were once very beautiful. Ornate ironwork grace the many balconies and portals, plaster décor on columns and window dressings. A typical Georgian feature, are wooden lattice-worked balconies – reminiscent of Oriental designs. Very few houses and buildings are restored in the original style. My heart bleeds for all this beauty that is visibly decaying a little bit each day. What is more often seen are modern concrete and brick buildings, squeezed tight and high into an original space meant for a much smaller structure. And many of these new buildings, still under construction, are currently at a standstill and in the process of becoming modern day ruins themselves, due to the economic crisis and particularly the drying up of speculation funds. I am told that real estate prices had flown off the top in the last few years, spurning a building fever that was totally unrealistic, as we now know.
The center of the Old Town, around the Cathedral and the old Caravanssaray (now the City Museum) has been prettied up. Flat-headed cobblestones and boxed hedges, inviting boutiques and cafes. One such is the Café Literati, owned and run by Ramaz Gemiaschwili & Nino Jwania, on the very hip Bambis Rigi Street. Celadon green walls with cream trim transport the visitor to a calmer space. Comfortable leather chairs invite for a longer stay with an excellent cup of coffee and a delicious piece of home-made cake – you’ll be hard-pressed to make just one choice! Unfortunately, I don’t read Georgian or Russian, otherwise I would have surely browsed the book area. Café Literati, 3 Bambis Rigi str.
Further along the block, the Contemporary Art Gallery presents an ever changing exhibit of local painters, sculptors and photographers. 7 Bambis Rigi str., tel.: +995-32-5058580, open 11 – 23 every day.
Around the corner you will notice the bronze statue of a man “flying” amidst the white rose trellis. This is a tribute to the great Georgian filmmaker and artist Sergej Paradjanov.
Around the next corner, the senses reel at the variety of styles and colors in the Caucasian Carpets Gallery. The owner, Manana Arkania, explains the origin of every carpet, its symbolism and everything else you want to know about these textile works of art. She and her team often travel to remote villages and buy directly from the weavers or find the old ones stowed away in some attic. Sizes range from small squares to almost ball-room dimensions. 8/10 Ereke II str., tel: +955-77-405311, open 10 – 20 every day, and prices seemed very reasonable.
Lots of stray cats and some dogs, but they don’t look emasciated. Georgians seem to be animal friendly.
Traffic: I invariably keep comparing Tblisi traffic in 2009 with Beijing in the mid-nineties. In both cases, the law of the road is a chapter apart – or rather, it doesn’t exist. Few or no traffic markings, wild lane-cutting/overtaking/sudden stopping; traffic lights are guidelines at best, to be adhered to or not as the driver deems fit. So, best to leave the driving to the locals, sit in the back seat, relax and enjoy the scenery. Again, as in Beijing, it looks like there are amazingly few serious accidents.
Many taxi drivers (and others?) make the sign of the cross every time a church is passed. Lots of churches, lots of crossing.