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
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
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