VA VA BOOM

No other city in Europe is as cu­ri­ous as Tbil­isi right now. On the edge of Asia with a So­viet past, it’s a multi-lay­ered hub with ir­re­sistible en­ergy

Condé Nast Traveller Middle East - - Contents - WRIT­TEN BY TARA IS­ABELLA BUR­TON

On the edge of Asia with a So­viet past, Tbil­isi is a multi-lay­ered hub with ir­re­sistible en­ergy, writes Tara Is­abella Bur­ton

IRECOGNISE THIS UNDERPASS, JUST OFF THE GRAND FAÇADE OF CITY Hall at Free­dom Square. Eight years ago, when I first started com­ing to Tbil­isi, it was a dank sub­ter­ranean foot­path I gen­er­ally tried to avoid, nav­i­gat­ing in­stead the chaotic street above. Nearby un­der­passes off the square, which con­nects the grand Art Nou­veau boule­vards around Rus­taveli Av­enue to the war­ren of Tbil­isi’s Old Town, were gen­er­ally full of ad hoc com­merce: old women in black ker­chiefs sell­ing pow­dered co­rian­der or fenu­greek, can­dles or Or­tho­dox icons, eclec­tic kitchen sup­plies or round pies of khacha­puri; at fold­able ta­bles, en­ter­pris­ing men with kitchen scales of­fer­ing di­et­ing cus­tomers a glimpse of their weight for 30 tetri (40 fils); sell­ers of scarves and un­der­wear. Tbil­isi’s un­der­passes, for many years, dou­bled as its bazaars, as fre­netic and un­ex­pected as the place it­self.

But this one, too nar­row for ven­dors to set up shop in, had al­ways re­mained empty. Now this af­ter­noon – freshly scrubbed, lit and re­painted – it is full at last. A girl with short, blue hair is singing, a boy in skinny jeans play­ing gui­tar, The Cran­ber­ries “Zom­bie” echo­ing across the street.

It’s just an­other way that the city – still, in many ways, my city – has changed. Com­ing back to Tbil­isi is al­ways bit­ter­sweet. The place I fell in love with in 2010, when my mother first moved here, was a sprawl­ing, beau­ti­ful mess. Ge­or­gia, border­ing both the Black Sea and the Cau­ca­sus moun­tains, was still reel­ing from its 2008 war with Rus­sia: a flare-up of ten­sions that have per­sisted since the So­viet days.

The streets near my apart­ment – near the 19th-cen­tury bath­houses whose nat­u­ral sul­phurous heat give Tbil­isi (from tbili, for warm) its name – were uni­formly un­paved. The odd rooster tra­versed my path from home into the Old Town, where un­kempt wooden-bal­conied houses tilted at out­ra­geous an­gles and ivy grew so ri­otously around the pock­marked gar­goyles and an­gels of the wealth­ier homes that all light seemed to be choked out of the win­dows. It was im­pos­si­ble to get break­fast any­where be­fore noon, the elec­tric­ity went out at least weekly (my land­lady would come down with apolo­gies, can­dles and sweet Rus­sian cake). I would take tea in the blue-tiled chaikhana (tea house) just up from the baths, eat­ing baklava in front of a fire the pro­pri­etress lit only for me. There were few ex­pats – mostly work­ers for NGOs, the odd English teacher – and even fewer tourists.

The “cool” bars con­sisted of a slightly glitzy, pla­s­ticky stretch around Chardin Street for Rus­sian busi­ness­men and diplo­mats and a cheaper, more rau­cous se­lec­tion for back­pack­ers along Akhvle­di­ani Street across town. I bought my daily lo­biani (bean bread) from an un­marked base­ment un­der­neath the sem­i­nary op­po­site Sioni Cathe­dral. Ser­vice in shops, ho­tels and res­tau­rants was fa­mously dour. The ex­trav­a­gant Moor­ish-style opera house was peren­ni­ally un­der con­struc­tion.

That, of course, was then. Over the past decade, Tbil­isi has be­come all but un­recog­nis­able. A se­ries of ini­tia­tives – first un­der the Western-lean­ing par­lia­ment of Mikheil Saakashvili, then un­der the more con­tro­ver­sial, right-wing na­tion­al­ists of the Ge­or­gian Dream party (over­seen by mys­te­ri­ous proRus­sian bil­lion­aire Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili), along­side home-grown en­trepreneurs – have trans­formed the city. Gov­ern­ment projects have re­built and elec­tri­fied many of the most de­crepit build­ings, in­clud­ing my cur­rent apart­ment. Streets have been repaved.

The en­try halls and stair­cases of the most stun­ning, most flak­ing palaces have all been re­stored, al­beit with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. The area around the bath­houses is now so full of vis­i­tors – Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans, as well as a num­ber of Saudis and Ira­ni­ans who come for the coun­try’s rel­a­tive lib­er­al­ism – that sev­eral smaller shops have been re­pur­posed as sou­venir out­lets.

Some more tra­di­tional bars and cafés have closed down, in­clud­ing my beloved chaikhana, as a dizzy­ing crop of new places, de­signed for a fash­ion­able, more ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined crowd, have opened up. Each time I’ve come back – once or twice a year – I’ve had to ask friends to help me get up to speed. Res­tau­rants such as Café Lit­tera, the brain­child of star chef Tekuna Gachechi­ladze, set in the court­yard of the old Writ­ers’ House of Ge­or­gia, have reimag­ined the coun­try’s di­verse, herba­ceous cook­ing, which draws in­flu­ences from Cen­tral Asia, Rus­sia and Tur­key, but – in So­viet days – was all too often re­duced to heavy starch. (A high­light at Lit­tera is the mus­sels chaka­puli, re­cast­ing the wild plum and tar­ragon sauce usu­ally served with meat).

And peo­ple have changed with it. “Ge­or­gian girls used to just wear black,” says my friend Lika Barabadze, a ther­a­pist and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor (and, for the past decade, my per­sonal guide to what’s go­ing on in town). And men wore a post-So­viet uni­form of leather jack­ets and beer bel­lies. But now, she points out, Rus­taveli Av­enue is filled with teens and 20-some­things in glee­fully out­landish street style – among those I spot, my favourite is a T-shirt dress hemmed with orange os­trich feath­ers.

Part of the new en­ergy of the city, of course, is con­sciously counter-cul­tural. The Ge­or­gian Dream gov­ern­ment, more na­tion­al­ist than its pre­de­ces­sor, has come to power in part through ex­tremely con­ser­va­tive rhetoric. Lib­eral Ge­or­gians, Barabadze says, are thus in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble, the cul­ture clash in­spir­ing fre­netic cre­ativ­ity. Just look, she adds, at Bas­siani, a night­club housed in a for­mer So­viet swim­ming pool that’s drawn com­par­isons to those of Ber­lin. “Some peo­ple go to dance or smoke,” she says, “but oth­ers go just to be them­selves – to be free.” It’s one of the few con­sid­er­ably lib­eral venues in Tbil­isi. (Days after my visit, Bas­siani was raided by armed po­lice, launch­ing a se­ries of protests and right-wing counter-protests; it has since re­opened.)

Per­haps most vis­i­ble in this trans­for­ma­tion, par­tic­u­larly to trav­ellers, are the prop­er­ties of Ad­jara Group. Spear­headed by en­tre­pre­neur Te­mur Ugulava, it has bought sprawl­ing So­viet-era build­ings, then clev­erly del­e­gated the de­sign and im­ple­men­ta­tion to vi­sion­ary young Ge­or­gians. In the leafy

Vera dis­trict – a mid­dle-class res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood that’s in­creas­ingly the epi­cen­tre of Tbil­isi’s bo­hemia – Rooms

“THE GROUP BOUGHT SPRAWL­ING SO­VIET-ERA BUILD­INGS, THEN CLEV­ERLY DEL­E­GATED THE DE­SIGN AND

IM­PLE­MEN­TA­TION TO VI­SION­ARY YOUNG GE­OR­GIANS”

Ho­tel and its min­i­mal­ist-chic new sis­ter prop­erty Stamba, both in for­mer pub­lish­ing houses, are stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful, won­der­fully in­ven­tive ex­am­ples of con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture. Blend­ing whimsy with a slightly old-fash­ioned el­e­gance

(Rooms’ staff dress like turn-of-the-cen­tury bell­hops), they are where ev­ery­one who’s any­body comes to see and be seen. And while a few Ge­or­gians I spoke to roll their eyes at Rooms’ ubiq­uity, nearly all ad­mit they still go reg­u­larly. Across the river, an­other Ad­jara prop­erty, Fabrika, which is set in an old sewing fac­tory, op­er­ates on sim­i­lar lines. The mul­ti­func­tional hub ap­peals to a younger and more thrifty crowd by leas­ing space to de­sign types at pref­er­en­tial rents: Ce­ramic Stu­dio 1300 for plates and bowls, graphic prints from Black Dog Shop, fash­ion stitched with hid­den po­lit­i­cal mes­sages at the Fly­ing Pain­ter. Fri­day night in the court­yards at Fabrika is an in­ter­sec­tion of shop­pers, drinkers at the Dive Bar, young trav­ellers stay­ing at the hos­tel/ ho­tel hy­brid, and vig­or­ous cre­atives from the co-work­ing spa­ces. The en­ergy is in­fec­tious; the drinks flow un­til dawn.

One morn­ing I head to my lo­cal tai­lor, tucked away near the Rus­taveli cin­ema, only to dis­cover that he has gone: the whole block has been de­mol­ished for an­other round of ren­o­va­tions. Dis­ap­pointed, I walk through the flower mar­ket: a maze of pe­tals and stems and thorns in the com­pact Or­be­liani park. One old man stops me to give me a rose. An­other, hear­ing my plight in de­motic Ge­or­gian (I know only the slightly ar­chaic words for “gar­ment” and “ren­o­va­tion”), smiles. He guides me through the con­struc­tion site, to an un­marked façade lead­ing to fruit stalls piled with pomegranates. In the back room of the shop is an­other room; in that room, an­other tai­lor.

The Tbil­isi I loved will never be the Tbil­isi I come home to. The city al­ways changes; I change. The cafés I love most change name and shape and own­er­ship or move half­way across town; I move with them. It does not mat­ter. The city’s heart is there – it is in the turquoise house be­hind the fu­nic­u­lar sta­tion at Rus­taveli Square, which I was un­re­li­ably told be­longed to a great pain­ter of icons. It is in the kalei­do­scopic stained-glass win­dows on Betelmi Street in the Old Town. It is in the view from new res­tau­rants such as Keto and Kote, hid­den in a palace that once be­longed to Ba­gra­tioni princes, ac­ces­si­ble only by step­ping over stray cats and bro­ken glass. But when I turn the cor­ner and en­ter the gar­den, which looks out on to so many star­like lights, and recog­nise old friends (an avant-garde writer, an Or­tho­dox nun who de­signs jew­ellery), I think that this city, in all its it­er­a­tions, will never not be home.

“RUS­TAVELI AV­ENUE IS FILLED WITH YOUNG PEO­PLE IN GLEE­FULLY OUT­LANDISH STREET STYLE – MY FAVOURITE

IS A T-SHIRT DRESS HEMMED WITH ORANGE

OS­TRICH FEATH­ERS”

The Art House swim­ming pool. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Fash­ion de­signer Irakli Ru­sadze; tea at Fabrika; the retro-ag­gres­sive in­te­rior of Rooms Ho­tel; an­tique pieces at the ho­tel

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