|Dynamic Tbilisi, Surviving and Then Some|
|May 08, 2009|
By LIONEL BEEHNER
IN a smoky, red-brick basement tucked beneath Tbilisi’s Old Town, a roomful of men in military fatigues sounded jubilant. Leaning over long tables of half-eaten sulguni cheese, they clinked their wineglasses and toasted to “Georgia!” and “Victory!”
The warbling voices of a band of Ossetian folk musicians in peasant-style black robes could be heard in an adjacent room, their songs striking a similarly triumphant theme.
To strangers, such a rah-rah mood might seem odd. This was, after all, Georgia, which just six months earlier had fought a costly war with Russia, losing two prized territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But this speck of Caucasian turf has survived through centuries of invasions — by Mongols, Persians, Turks and Russians — while keeping its unique language, culture and cuisine intact, something that gives its four million citizens great pride. That may explain why Georgians greet one another with “Victory to you.”
And their capital stands as a monument to this nationwide braggadocio. Spectacularly frenetic and stylishly gritty, Tbilisi was left essentially untouched by the recent war, and it’s easy to see why. Built along the steep banks of the Kura River (also called the Mtkvari), the city is encircled by snowcapped mountains, and has narrow cobblestone streets barely wide enough for a Mini Cooper to squeeze through.
But with the war in its rear-view mirror and a pro-Western — if wobbly — government in place, Tbilisi is slowly becoming more tourist-friendly.
“All my guests say it doesn’t feel like there was a war here,” said Steve Johnson, an American who owns Betsy’s Hotel. “People here are doing what normal people do. It’s safe, calm. Georgians are survivors. That’s all they’ve ever done and they’re good at it.”
Since the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003, which ousted the former president, Eduard Shevardnadze, new and refurbished hilltop churches and glassy skyscrapers have risen confidently out of Soviet architectural rubble.
Neo-Classical and Art Nouveau buildings have been slapped with fresh coats of colorful paint. One ugly pile of concrete from Communist days has been converted into a five-star hotel; others have been torn down or are wrapped in cloth-covered scaffolding, like a public artwork by Christo.
Although some development projects have been slowed or suspended by the war and the current world economic crisis, the city still feels like a scene of dynamic renewal. At night, the candy-colored facades along Tbilisi’s main drags are lit up like Christmas trees. Even the 901-foot TV tower that twinkles above town looks jarringly out of place in a part of the world known for its power outages.
“Rumor has it that Misha saw the Eiffel Tower and said, ‘I want that,’ ” Timothy Blauvelt, director of the American Councils for International Education in Georgia, an educational exchange program, said in a gentle poke at the flamboyant Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. It was the president who prodded much of the renewal before the recent waning of his popularity.
A Radisson being refashioned from an old Intourist hotel that housed refugees during the 1990s is to open this August. A new riverside Park Hyatt hotel is scheduled for 2013, and a Kempinski is on the drawing board, to be carved out of a Stalinist-era building downtown.
The president, meanwhile, is building himself a swanky new palace with river views. It is virtually impossible to walk two blocks without passing some billboard advertising a modern-looking high-rise yet to be built.
And why not? Economic crisis or not, it seems only a matter of time before this city of 1.2 million — a place known for its pungent cheeses, flavorful wine and pro-American people — becomes a tourist draw on par if not with Paris or Prague, then St. Petersburg or Moscow.
Tbilisi is just a short hop away from the beautiful shoreline of the Black Sea, not to mention some of the best open-bowl skiing this side of Chamonix. No wonder this region of the Caucasus was the preferred vacation spot for czars and Soviet apparatchiks.
Though tourism screeched to a halt after last summer’s war, officials are optimistic that Western tour buses, rather than vans from the United Nations and human-rights organizations, will soon cram hotel parking lots. English has supplanted Russian as the next generation’s second language of choice. And Georgia has received pledges of $4 billion in foreign aid to rebuild itself after the war.
On a warm day in February, a babushka with a weathered face filled up her bottle with sulfuric (and supposedly therapeutic) water from one of the city’s many public faucets. Above her hung a huge billboard announcing “The Face of Old Town Is Changing,” as Georgians in black-leather jackets scurried about the crowded sidewalk, oblivious to the drivers of taxis and marshrutkas (minivan buses) leaning on their horns.
Yet, despite pretenses of normality, the war still dominates conversations there, something that makes officials nervous. After all, just as Georgia shook off an exaggerated reputation as a post-Soviet backwater overrun with gangsters, it now must erase its image as a dangerous war zone dotted with Russian tanks.
“Six months later, we’re still speaking as if it were World War II,” said Fady Asly, who is chairman of the Georgian chapter of the International Chamber of Commerce and uses “Amigo” as a universal greeting. “This place is not Hiroshima.”
The war last August was both a curse and a strange kind of blessing. For all the wrong reasons, it put Georgia on the map.
“The war gave us much more visibility but also slowed things down a bit,” said Saba Kiknadze, a former tourism minister who is chairman of the Georgian Hospitality Group, a private travel operator. “We’re getting bookings, but people are being careful. Certainty is something people need in this business.”
But what visitors may appreciate most about Tbilisi is precisely its unpredictability — Switzerland or Sweden this country is not.
“This place is more Mediterranean than Soviet, in its mentality, its culture,” Mr. Blauvelt, of the educational council, said. “Georgians hate rules.”
Just take a stroll down Rustaveli Avenue, an elegant thoroughfare lined with trees, expensive perfume shops, and architectural oddities like a Moorish-style opera house. The boulevard empties into Freedom Square, where city hall and its clock tower provided a theatrical backdrop to the Rose Revolution.
Follow the street as it wends its way to Old Town, a ratty cluster of religious iconography shops burning incense, unkempt artisan studios and sloping guesthouses with twisted chimneys and ornate flower-patterned balconies.
Within a few blocks, you can light a candle in an Orthodox basilica, pray in a synagogue or meet an imam at a mosque — a testament to Georgia’s history of multi-faith hospitality. There’s an abundance of cafes where you can sample khinkali, Georgian dumplings embedded with spicy meat.
For nice views of Mother Georgia, the large Oscar-resembling statue overlooking the city as Christ the Redeemer gazes down on Rio de Janeiro, hike up the hill to Narikala, a 17th-century fortress. Not much remains but for a church and some ruins strewn with detritus and private perches where young couples canoodle.
About a half-dozen underground blue-marble-tiled banyas can be found at the base of the hill, identifiable by the sweet smell of sulfur and their beehive domes. They were favorite resting spots of Pushkin and Alexander Dumas.
If you are not invited to a supra — a multi-course meal of endless rounds of drinking, toasting and dancing — with Georgian friends, then make your way along the river to Puris Sakhli (the Bread House), where you can sample authentic if locally expensive Georgian cuisine (three of us ate dinner for just over $100) and watch your cuts of lamb deep-smoked in outdoor pits.
Follow up with a visit to Pur Pur, a mellower alternative to the smoky and music-blaring bars that line Akhvlediani Street, every guidebook’s favorite club row. At this Oriental-themed cafe with the feel of a 19th-century parlor, an artsy crowd wolfs down plates of goatskin-aged cheese while lounging back in antique sofas and listening to Leonard Cohen.
Or head across town to Abashidze Street, a fashionable tree-lined thoroughfare bustling with upscale wine bars, cafes and even an American-style doughnut shop.
Tbilisi remains a work in progress. Service is sluggish and line-cutting is rampant. Old buildings look about as sturdy as a stack of blocks in a Jenga game. The government’s English-language home page is full of dead links.
Still, the progress made in just a few years is remarkable. The police no longer shake down motorists for bribes, potholes have been mostly filled and even the highway into town was renamed — after President George W. Bush, before his visit in 2005.
“Before, the airport looked like a farm, there were no paved roads and electricity failures were frequent,” Mr. Kiknadze, the former tourism minister, said. “Remember, we started at zero but have climbed to one.”
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights from the United States to Georgia require a stopover, usually in Munich or Istanbul. A recent online search found round-trip flights in late May from Kennedy International Airport to Tbilisi on Turkish Airlines starting at $988.
WHERE TO STAY
Tbilisi is cheaper than most European capitals, especially as the dollar gains strength. Hotels near the city center can be pricey, and most cater to diplomats and businessmen more than to tourists.
One that is more tourist friendly is Betsy’s Hotel (32-34 Makashvili Street; 995-32-931-404; www.betsyshotel.com), which is building a new wing, opening this spring or summer, that will double its size to 56 rooms. The hotel offers free breakfast and dinner with its comfortable rooms, sweeping views of Tbilisi, an outdoor pool and a popular Friday happy hour. Rooms start at $165 (rates are given in dollars).
For swankier digs closer to Old Town, try the 42-unit Hotel Ambasadori (13 Shavteli Street; 995-32-439-494; www.ambasadori.ge). Relax outdoors in the ornate chaise longues with river views, and be sure to visit the upstairs restaurant, where you’ll find a secret rooftop pool through its stained-glass window. Double rooms start at 300 lari with breakfast, about $179 at 1.68 lari to the dollar.
WHERE TO EAT
For tasty but cheap Georgian cuisine, a festive atmosphere and live folk music, try Alani (1 Vakhtang Gorgaslis Street; 995-32-72-16-28), a place often referred to as “the Ossetian restaurant.” Generous portions of shish kebab start at around 5 lari. Homemade beer costs 2 lari.
Another popular choice is Puris Sakhli (7 Gorgasali Street; 995-32-30-30-30), which serves large salads for 10 to 12 lari and plates of smoked cheese for about 7 lari.
For lighter fare in a chic, antiques-decorated parlor just off Old Town, visit Pur Pur (1 Abo Tbiteli Street; 995-74-44-12-12). A portion of lamb leg lacquered with coffee costs 25 lari.
|< Prev||Next >|