Well we finally got out of Russia (sans a few extra rubles) though the biggest annoyance for us was the fact that our Europe to Melbourne overland trip has now been thwarted. Mother Nature and a ten kilometre stretch of road got the better of us resulting in a visa overstay followed by a very much unwanted flight to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi via Moscow, 1,500km back the way we already came. We’d be lying if we said the free bottle of wine handed to us as a welcome gift by Georgian Customs didn’t cheer us up, it did, a lot!
Getting in after the sun had well and truly diminished for the evening, we confirm with the airport Tourist Information desk that the #37 bus to town is still running and head out into the cold to wait. After shooing away several taxi drivers who try to convince us their offer is a bargain, one taxi driver continues to try in vain to gain our Georigan lari with cries of
‘The bus has finished for the day, you must take a taxi’
‘Yeah right, haven’t heard that one before’
we laugh in his window as we point to the bus arriving behind him. Peering in the rearview mirror he gives us a laugh and a wave and heads on his way. On the bus we’re greeted by our friendly crew from the Georgian Airlines flight and upon realising we can’t pay cash for our fare, they happily use their travel card to pay for us. Finally arriving at the Pomegranate Hostel in Freedom Square we’re in dire need of sleep and crash out straight away.
For a small country packed tightly between so many big names (and a few small ones) Georgia packs a big punch. Wedged between the Black Sea to the west, the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north and the Lesser Caucausus to the south the country bridges Europe and Asia and shares borders with Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Given all this it’s amazing that Georgia has managed to hold onto it’s identity, still boasting it’s own language, alphabet and customs. Georgia’s biggest claim to fame is the fact that they created wine making (and have also perfected the art of drinking it) over 6,000 years ago. Not to mention they have some of the best home made bread and cheese on the planet.
The Georgian alphabet consists of 33 letters and is one of only 14 existing unique alphabets in the world. It’s believed by British linquists that the first common language for humanity came from the Caucasus and the Georgian language may have connections with ancient Egyptian civilization which makes it a pretty fascinating language indeed. It’s not hard to learn a few words and you should start with
Gamarjoba! which means hello
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for us…and we’re feeling good
So with a bit of Nina Simone running through our heads we head out on the town to celebrate a new country with a little sightseeing mixed in with a Glintwein tour (Gluhwein to you Euro-yuppies).
After a wee little lie in and a hearty breakfast it’s off to the mother of all shabby chic joints, Pur Pur. Located in a crumbling corner of Tbilisi the tattered flags by the door are almost indecipherable though with careful translation we ascend the, thankfully, stable staircase to the first floor. The interior is an eclectic mix of wooden furniture, lampshades, floral covered old sofas and a wall covered in hanging dried flowers. The music is soothing and with Glintwein in hand the potent mixture, with an added infusion of spirits, has our heads a little a spin.
The Mother Georgia, or Kartvlis Deda, statue is within easy reach from Pur Pur so we head in that direction, passing through crumbling streets where workmen are desperately trying to brace the slanting facades of the old town with rows of steel beams. It’s cold outside though the walk which eventually takes you up the stairs past Betlemi Church is easily manageable. Mother Georgia watches over the town of Tbilisi with a sword in her right hand for her enemies and a bowl of grapes (of course) in her left to welcome her friends. A friendly Indian chap is at the top ready to pour us our second Glintwein for the day and we sit and chat with him about how he has immigrated to Georgia on the recommendations of his friends. It turns out Georgia is one of the easiest countries for Indians to get a visa and we ended up meeting quite a few of them during our time here, both visiting and immigrating.
Along the ridge the friendly market stall holders are also up for a chat leaving us wondering if everyone is this friendly in Georgia. The view from along here is the best on the right bank of the snaking Kura River with the shambolic old town, Bridge of Peace, numerous churches including the dominating Sambeba Cathedral, the Government Palace, City Services building and the New Theatre all laid out along the valley as it winds up to the residential suburbs with their towering housing blocks.
As we continue walking to the right soon enough the Narikala Fortress juts out from the cliff top as the path winds down past the Tbilisi Mosque and into the sulphur bath area of Abastumani. Here there are several bathing options from the old and cheap (Bathhouse No. 5, the oldest at over 300 years) to the luxurious and expensive (Royal Baths). We’ll fill you in on our experience a little later.
Getting back to our Glintwein tour Café Le Toit is our next destination located on the restaurant filled Abkhazi Street. With another shabby chic interior it’s fantastically cozy and the perfect place to enjoy a respite from the cold. Back out on the street we’ve never seen a city with so many buildings propped up or collapsing, many on the verge of spilling into the streets below. Not on the list of our original glintwein tour we nevertheless find ourselves in the basement bar of Amqari. Being daylight hours all these places are pretty much dead although the Amqari is known as a live music venue and looks like it’d be pretty good fun. That evening we shiver our way through a night at the unheated Dive Bar, an expat hang out where we meet some really interesting people who’ve been and done all sorts of things around the world. From EU members of staff to people who’ve recently come through Central Asia and others studying Persian who give us a bit of an Iranian insight.
Happy Birthday to Matt!
After a late breakfast it’s back out to get the birthday celebrations underway. First stop, back to the sulphur baths. Checking out a couple of the baths we settled on one the name of which we’re not entirely sure, but it’s located on the right side of Mirza Fatali Akhudovi as you head up the hill. For just 30GEL we got a private room with a hot sulphur bath, hot and cold showers and a tiled massage bench. Having both experienced the rough and ready techniques of the hammams in Turkey we both knew what we were getting ourselves into and opted to go for a more relaxing Sports massage (25GEL each) rather than the full scrub. After watching Matt get a full soap, scrub and massage from a Georgian Sarah was a little nervous she was going to get the same, but not to worry, as he steps out a lady steps in goes ahead with a relaxing massage.
Feeling relaxed and stinking a little bit like we fart we climb up the nearby Salami Stairs to the OAT Gallery & Art Cafe 144 Stairs for the views. As the sun fades it’s a great place to enjoy the city lights come to life over a bottle or two of cheap homemade wine. Descending back down a great place to get a taste of fine wines from around the country is at Vinoground. In a 17th century wine cellar the knowledgeable staff are happy to take you through a few of the selections as you curl up in a little red brick nook.
Having spotted a traditional Georgian pastry diner, much like a fast food joint from the Western world, Machakhela turns out to be a chain with this one being on Afkhazi Street. It’s busy with both clients and riff raff children who come in and literally take the food off your plate (not our luckily). You should come here just for the scene of it all, the service may be a little slow though this is only due to the fact that the waitresses are preoccupied with chasing out the vagrants. Ordering the lobio (kidney bean) khachapuri we soon discover that we’d made a rookie mistake as the rest of the patrons have gone with the Adjarian style. Basically a boat made out of bread filled with the calorific, heart stopping goodness of a raw egg floating in a sea of melted Georgian cheese garnished with a slab of butter, it sees us hanging our heads in shame at our ‘stupid option’. Who in there half drunken state orders the bean option! (Editors note: Sarah would like to point out this was Matt’s choice, not hers!)
Back at the Pomegranate Hostel Matt is presented with a small cake complete with a firework candle and we drink to merriment before hiting up nearby Pirimze Bar near the 24 hour flower market (you never know when you’re going to need flowers). Part expat, part local hipster hangout the place is down at heel, cheap and fun and Matt spends the rest of the night with a bunch of balloons tied to his dreadlocks. Be warned – the decent down the stairs at the end of the night is a little risky on one’s own. Bring a friend.
As is the way after celebrating your birthday, the following day was a pretty lazy one and we didn’t make it much further than the Dry Bridge Flea Market. With everything from electronic components, old instruments, Soviet cameras (some functioning, some junk), over priced vinyl, antiques and everything in between it’s a great place to wander though prices will start high if you look even slightly unlocal and speak no Georgian.
After a day’s rest it was, unintentionally, back on the booze. Get used to our stories of booze and Georgia. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting this most hospitable of countries wine and celebration go hand in hand. And it only takes a drop of a hat to cause celebration. Having one of the hostel staff’s friend drop in we try to not get involved, though it seems the Georgians have some kind of Jedi mind tricks they possess making it nearly impossible to refuse participation. Well a bottle of cognac and eight litres of beer later we’ve made a great new friend and are running late for our overnight train to Zugdidi.
Never fear, our new Georgian friend helps us negotiate a locals rate for a taxi and we make it with enough time to settle into our private 1st class compartment. Settling in for the night we’re rocked to sleep as we head to the west of the country on our way to the mountain town of Mestia.
Stay tuned for more Georgian adventures including round 2 at the sulphur baths!
You can check out more of our travel pics on our Flickr page here.
Tips for Tbilisi
- The #37 bus runs from the airport to town from 07:00 to 23:00 and costs 0.50 GEL. Don’t let the taxi drivers tell you it’s finished for the night, if you’re unsure check with Tourist Information inside.
- Almost everywhere in Tbilisi, and Georgia, is designated smoking. That includes bars, restaurants and some cafes. Everything you own will soon stink of smoke. Even your minivan drivers are likely to light up mid trip.
- Check out this great website for things to do in Georgia, it’s where our glintwein tour inspiration came from.
- It’s not necessary to learn the Georgian alphabet before coming. Especially in Tbilisi most signs are now in Georgian and English, many restaurants have English menus and a lot of people (especially the younger generations) speak perfect English.