Wednesday 15 April 2020

2015 Tbilisi


Sitting in Gatwick.  Rather appropriate that the previous entry in this notebook was for Latvia, where I went to the Georgian restaurant, and I wrote: "felt like I was in the Caucusus – if only…".  And here I am, waiting for a flight to Istanbul where, if I'm lucky, I will connect to a flight to Tbilisi.  My only fear is that fog here will delay my flight – but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.


Sitting outside Sion cathedral, Georgian polyphony pouring over me.  Church full to overflowing.  Glorious sunny day – for now.  Rain promised later.  Tbilisi beautiful, as I knew it would be.  Old Metekhi Hotel great – fine view over river to the fortress.  Breakfast, er, simple – instant coffee, nice Georgian porridge.  Almost without exception, the women wear scarves for the church.  Gives a very middle eastern feel to the scene.  Quite a few young people here too.  An old geezer cam up to me, shook my hand.  Only spoke Georgian, so I don't know what he said…rugged, weatherbeaten face.  As I walk away, the bell tolls slowly…

Sitting in Café Tbilisi in Rustaveli, maybe not a wonderful choice, but I'm tired and thirsty…  Been walking for two hours.  Up Rustaveli, past all the landmarks – theatre, museums, parliament, up to Rose Revolution Square – where there is a wine festival.  Then to the concert hall, where TV are recording a load of children.  Lots of pet shops around here – weird.  As I went down Rustaveli, heard incredible Georgian singing everywhere – came from Georgian Day of Wine.  Deafening, amazing.  Wine not bad too – pity I couldn't get one of the t-shirts.  Now in Khinkhali House nearby – strange to see fags on menu, and people smoking in the restaurant.  Bare, but looks pretty popular with locals – a good sign.  

Now sitting in Prospero's Books – or rather, Caliban's Café.  I have been weak, bought two Georgian language books – but they look good, and the pound is very strong, so prices low.  Very nice here, good atmosphere – not sure about Caliban's coffee…  Down Rustaveli, then across to the National Gallery.  Into Pirosmani gallery.  I vaguely know these, but to see them together, up close, is weird.  A kind of darker Rousseau – almost bonkers.  For example, his "Donkey Bridge" is just bizarre… There's a small group of Germans having a tour here – there were several on the plane from Istanbul.  I got the impression they are one of the main tourist groups here.  In the other side of the gallery, mostly a painter called Gudiashvili.  Rather depressing, but certainly has his own style.  Another painter, David Kakabadze.  Rather more humane.  Nice portraits and landscapes.

Back to the hotel using the metro.  Which is incredibly deep: 100/150 metres perhaps?  The escalator is like a trip down to hell.  Trains look Soviet style, old but functional.  Easy trip back, though.  Then showered, logged on – wifi very good, makes Google Hangouts work really well.  Finally, the clouds have come, rain falls in big drops, lightning in the hills.  So I decide to take the easy option, go to Old Metekhi restaurant next to the hotel.  Got last table – full of groups, mostly tourists.  But food is supposed to be good.  Ordered cold soup, and chicken in blackberry sauce, plus red Georgian wine.  Nice – strong, with marsala-like aftertaste.  Very dark ghvino… Judging by the soaked people coming in, I made a good decision not to walk… Lots of old people here. 

It feels good making these trips, plunging into the unknown.  I certainly want to travel around this region – Iran may be possible now things are opening up there.  Plus Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan… 

Cold soup – yoghurt, dill, cucumber, garlic – yum.  And...people are smoking in here….


Slept very well considering the three-hour time difference – amazing how walking tires you out.  Today, as feared, rather damp and fresh.  Still, yesterday was perfect.  Two things I noticed.  First, Georgian women look very typical for the region – Armenian/Iranian.  Dark, heavy brows, rather bulging features.  The other is how few fat people there are.  Yes, quite a few men have booze bellies, but few really fat.  Poverty maybe a factor: there are a lot of old people begging in the streets.

Out into the rain, which is more a drizzle – not unpleasant.  Over to the hot baths, smell of sulphur in the air.  Found a couple of restaurants for dinner.  Then up to the fortress – to the top, with very dodgy steps, no handrail.  Now sitting inside the church within the fortress.  Very simple iconostasis in on the east side, frescoes and icons everywhere.  Faint smell of incense.  Priest/guardian here, doing stuff.  Distant car horns – the Georgians love them some car horns.  One interesting fact: of the million cars here, 250,000 use right-hand drive – because they are cheaper, imported from Japan, mostly.  Strange to see this mixture of left-hand and right-hand drive.

On the way down from the fortress, I stopped off at the Armenian church.  To the right, the tomb of Sayat Nova, killed in 1795 by the Persians.  Amazing that he's here – emphasises Tbilisi's key cultural role.  Church being restored.  Then back to the old city, to here, the Anchiskhati Basilica.  Truly ancient – small, old frescoes, older stone.  Goes back to the sixth century.  Sitting in a café by the church (Gabriadze).  Sadly there are some noisy USians, but otherwise rather beautiful here.  Church was fantastic, took many photos.

Topped up my Geocell SIM, asked where post office is: no one knows… weird.  Now back in Caliban's Café – all galleries closed today, so choice limited for cafés (assuming they have any).  Will go out to station after – I like stations.  Also, the main market is supposed to be there. On meeting, people kiss once – left cheeks touching… Surprised how few Russians around – only heard it spoken a couple of times.  I suppose they don't get on well, now…

Took metro to station, wandered around market there – very middle eastern/Turkish.  Big jewellery hall.  Then tried to find post office.  There's one at the station, but they didn't sell stamps.  Told to go to next metro stop.  Did so, failed to find anything.  Then took metro down to my "home" stop, Avlabari.  Didn't go to hotel, but turned towards huge Holy Trinity Cathedral.  Very impressive – soars upwards in beautiful stone.  Inside, very clean, very tall.  Georgian orthodox wedding taking place – bride and groom wearing crowns.  Surrounding local area strikingly - poor rundown houses, etc.

Along to Puris Sakhli – House of Bread, opposite my hotel, on the other river bank.  Ordered a bottle of Teliani red – 20 lari – not much more than a glass of something else.  Also ordered khachapuri to mop things up, plus pig's heart and liver.  For some reason, the twinkling radio mast up on the hills ahead of me reminds when I was taken to, that was a while ago.  Kupati – a kind of sausage, it seems.  Rather rich.  Might try the churchkhela, seen them everywhere…


Another glorious day.  Sitting on seats in alcoves opposite Sioni cathedral.  Earlier, I went in Old Metekhi church – rather nice.  Then, finally found someone to sell me a stamp.  Looked in the church next to the dilapidated Armenian church, but there was a service.  To Sioni, hit by a wall of incense as I entered.  Sun now really hot.  Surprising number of nuns around, in their pillbox black hat and veil.

Out to the station by metro (again).  Really hard to find the platforms – hidden away behind a huge shopping centre.  Very bare and forbidding – looks very Soviet, even if later.  Then back to Rustaveli; along to Museum of Modern Art.  Mainly Zurab Tsereteli – very vigorous, a bit monotonous.  But what strikes me most are the photos.   Tsereteli with Clinton,  Tsereteli with Deneuve,  Tsereteli with Richard Gere…  The constant grin on everyone's face – so false.

Now sitting in the sepulchral Alani restaurant – Ossetian fare, and nearby.  Another fab day.  Lunch at Prospero's Books – conveniently placed, and I wanted wifi to check on something.  Very pleasant idling time there – maps on to lots of other places – Dublin, New Zealand, etc., those moments of tranquillity.  Also, I wanted to buy Harry Potter 1 in Georgian, which I did.  I also bought another, bigger dictionary from one of the dozens of people selling books in the street – especially Russian books.  Very tempting, but carrying them back a problem.

Then to the National Museum.  One of the impressive things there is the 1.4 million-year-old skulls, found in Georgia, some of the oldest hominids.  One touching fact: one skull has no teeth – and worn down gums.  Clearly quite old, and looked after by the tribe.  This is the basis of our success.  Also impressive the Colchis gold – amazingly able goldsmiths and quite unknown to the rest of the world.  All those civilisations…

Eating Alani salad – meat, mushrooms, etc. – meat rather fatty; lobiani – bread with bean paste – nice; and lamb stew – again, meat not wonderful.  A glass of rather perfumed wine, plus Borjomi water.  Upstairs in the museum, a display about the "Russian occupation" – which Georgians clearly feel bad about.  Strange to see pix of Saakashvili, with music by Michael Nyman in the background.  Oh no, the music show has started in the restaurant – very bass heavy, mournful soprano singing of her woes.  Too loud…

After the museum, walked down to the old town – feels like middle east/turkey/Samarkand.  Popped in to the church I saw briefly this morning – completely painted inside, very small.  As well as the music here in the restaurant, place is full of smoke – very authentic.  A table is full of baldy men who periodically rise to toast.  Food interesting, but not great – lots of fat, but probably reflecting cooking reality when times are hard.  Talking of which, lots of beggars around – old ladies, just lying in the street, wrapped up, with begging bowl for money.  On the metro, a lone clarinet player today; yesterday, a blind man led by a young man with some genetic disease… On the metro, felt again how deep we were: and if there were an earthquake?  The distance between stations great – one kilometre?  A long way to walk…

Afterwards, in my room, plunging into Twitter discussions.  Connectivity very good – video calls pretty clear.  Shows one could live/work here…  Finally trying chacha – identical to grappa..  On Mekhiti bridge – amazing atmosphere – balmy, calm, everyone out.  Pity about the beggar girl that grabbed on to my legs as I moved off…


Rain when I woke up, but cleared to a hot and humid day.  Given that I have to get to the airport by 3, I went up to Holy Trinity Cathedral – seems a quintessential combination of ancient and modern, of Georgia's religiosity, its ambitions.  Three monks singing in three parts to accompany the service.  Pretty empty otherwise.  Sun really hot, so I've taken refuge in the main restaurant overlooking Vakhtang Gorgasali Square.  Again, they seem to think I'm Russian – gave me the Russian menu… Weird seeing cable cars passing overhead out of the corner of my eye.  Nice pix of Old Tbilisi including Metekhi church, where my hotel now is.  

To the airport.  Driven by a crazy old geezer, answering his mobile, steering with one hand, and doing 120 km/hour where the limit is 40 km/hour.  Oh, and no seat belts in the back…  But I made it, through security, looking at the fine Georgian wines.  Hope I can get them through security in Istanbul, where they've added it for transit.  At least this time I have longer to get to my plane.  And anyway, staying over in Istanbul would not be the end of the world...

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