Georgia On My Mind: Tbilisi

Georgia On My Mind: Tbilisi

This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 16: The
Spirit Issue

touchdown in Tbilisi (Tuh-bil-ee-see – say it with confidence
and you’ll be okay) I was greeted with a swig of wine and a
real-life black bear. The former was thrust upon me by relatives of
a girl I’d sat next to on the plane, the latter stared out at me
menacingly from a large glass box labelled “confiscated items”. My
unpredictable arrival more or less set the tone for a trip full of

The city where experimental electronic artist Nicolas Jaar chose
to film the music video for his hit Mi Mujer, I’d heard that
Tbilisi was on track to be “the new Berlin” – a label which seems
to be rolled out every time an ex-communist city has a creative
element to its progression (Budapest was also a beneficiary). It’s
a comparison I find both unimaginative and irritating. So here I
was, fuelled by booze and determined not to discover the new
Berlin, but instead hopefully explore a cool city carving out its
own trajectory, having thrown off around 70 years of Soviet rule in

The first thing that struck me was how different the Georgian
language sounds from anything I’ve ever heard before, which was
momentarily disconcerting when, upon greeting my driver, I
discovered a simple hello is something like “gah-mahr-joh-baht”.
The word was simultaneously melodic and jarring, and aptly
reflected the continued debate over whether Georgia belongs in
Europe or in Asia.

Most Georgians pin their colours to Europe, and this is
certainly where Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and his
centre-Left “Georgian Dream” government position themselves, given
their aspirations regarding European integration and NATO. My
driver also informed me that Georgians actually refer to their
country as Sakartvelo, although, as I was to discover, the link
with St George (allegedly dating back to the Crusades) could hardly
be less subtle, embodied in a gleaming golden statue of the
dragon-slaying patron saint in Freedom Square, as well as no fewer
than five red crosses adorning the medieval-looking national

There’s no doubt that Georgia has had a difficult run, but time
heals and over the past five years the country has started to
attract foreign investment and tourism – as its inhabitants slowly
distance themselves from their Soviet past. Georgia’s chequered
history was played out over the 30-minute drive from the airport,
which took us from intimidating Communist apartment blocks in
bleakest suburbia to the historic town centre. Old versus new was
never more apparent than when crossing the River Kura: to the left
was the old town, with an ancient fortress clinging to the
hillside; while the right-hand side was dominated by the dramatic
space-age architecture of brand-new public service buildings, built
completely from glass which (as we were proudly told on many
occasions) represents the government’s dedication to democratic
transparency – a noble move no doubt occasionally regretted during
the blisteringly hot summers.

Although we arrived at our hotel past midnight, my initial
impression was that someone had got the brief for the “new Berlin”
and really nailed it. Part of the Design Hotels group, Rooms Hotel
Tbilisi – which opened in 2014 – was a publishing house during
Soviet times, and is now spearheading development in a residential
area where trendy bars such as Lolita and Ketti’s are springing up
and attracting a cool and arty crowd.

Tbilisi has always been a hub for creatives – even during
Communist rule and the economic fallout following the collapse of
the Union, locals are quick to assure us that a bohemian spirit
endured. As Oto Berishvili – the hotel’s immaculately dressed
marketing director – tells us as we sidestep around deflating
balloons, tangled streamers and cake smeared across the pavement
(debris from a recent lottery win celebration) “Georgians love a
party!” And it is artists and intellectuals who are paving the way
for this ‘new’ Georgia today. The hotel’s eclectically furnished
lounge feels like a laid-back co-working space by day, while the
city’s cool cats sink into battered leather sofas to sip old
fashioneds (the whisky trend has hit Georgia) on the shady terrace
by night. This is a snapshot of Tbilisi’s new rapidly expanding
middle classes. Indeed, while the multiple construction sites of
global hotel brands along the glitzy Rustaveli Avenue are evidence
that Georgia is now firmly on the map for foreign visitors (a lack
of natural resources means the government is investing heavily in
tourism) as Oto solemnly predicts, “Tbilisi will not become a
luxury destination for a while”. The change is homegrown and
organic, and still very much in its infancy.

But the renaissance is palpable throughout Tbilisi. Robbie and I
explored on foot for a solid eight hours on our first day, getting
lost in leafy boulevards in the city’s old town, where peeling
pastel-coloured mansions are reminiscent of Paris or Buenos Aires,
their open doors beckoning you past faded fresco walls to
vine-strung courtyards beneath wrought-iron balconies. But many of
these historic buildings now play host to modern initiatives
including the Centre for Contemporary Art, alongside various other
galleries, museums and cultural centres.

Fabrika, for example, is a multi-purpose creative space within a
former Soviet textiles factory which is due to open in September.
Its importance lies in its intended role as a place where artists
can gather to share ideas and forge connections (aided in their
pursuits by several bars and restaurants, of course.) It will also
house a 400-bed hostel, which hopes to attract forward-thinking,
free-spirited travellers. With this sense of adventure in mind, we
decided to take the funicular up to a night market in the hilltop
Mtatsminda Amusement Park one evening, where we found young
Georgians selling dreamcatchers and other boho trinkets as they
drank beer and watched the sunset, heady electro beats
reverberating from a makeshift campervan DJ booth.

This initiative was started by Kety Mangoshvili – an ethereal
ex-lawyer with flowing dark hair down to her waist – and is another
example of Georgia’s flourishing creative scene. It is no doubt
these kinds of socio-cultural enterprises that have prompted the
comparisons to Berlin, and I get it. But this is Tbilisi. And all
that you can really glean from that comparison is that if you like
art, music and culture – particularly when it’s stirring in initial
stages of rawness and excitement after having been suppressed –
then you’ll probably think this is a pretty cool place.

But co-existing with this contemporary vibe is a not-so-modern
Tbilisi. Taxis, for example, are terrible. Unregulated and
unlicensed with chain-smoking drivers (everyone in Georgia smokes)
and cars that would certainly fail an MOT, they hurtle down roads
full of potholes and stray cats. Five out of the six taxi rides we
embarked on failed to take us anywhere even remotely near our
intended destination.

“Why did you continue to take taxis then, lazy fools?” I hear
you say. I’ll tell you why. When looking for one of the city’s
famed wine bars (the country has been producing wine since the
Neolithic period and it’s very much entwined with their national
identity). Robbie and I discovered that Google Maps Georgia can’t
keep up with real-time Georgia, and thought taxis might stop us
getting so lost.

Having traipsed up and down the road where our chosen watering
hole was alleged to be about 11 times, Robbie took our failure very
personally and slumped against a wall, while I suggested buying a
bottle from the supermarket and cracking into it roadside. Instead,
we nipped into a nearby shop to ask for directions. On doing so, it
transpired that the shop had once been said wine bar but was now a
glossy travel agent promoting Georgia’s many sights. This irony
could not have better demonstrated Georgia’s rapid progression,
particularly with regards to tourism. And this is what makes
Tbilisi so special – simultaneously worldly yet naive, you’ll find
yourself intermittently bewildered and enchanted. Fortunately, Uber
is said to be arriving soon.

The city’s culinary scene is also evolving. I have to admit I
wasn’t particularly clued up on the local cuisine, being able to
call to mind just one Georgian restaurant in London which, despite
good intentions, I had failed to visit before my trip. A quick
internet search returns images of dishes based primarily on cheese,
eggs, bread and boiled beef. But while this food is common in rural
Georgia, chefs in Tbilisi are turning traditional cooking on its
head with contemporary twists on classics, while maintaining
strongly held values of hospitality and the importance of sharing

We spent a long, balmy evening at Café Littera, a beautiful
courtyard restaurant in what was once the Soviet Writers’ Union
House. Owner and chef Tekuna Gachechiladze has become a local
celebrity, having trained in New York before returning to her
homeland to create “nouveau Georgian” dishes such as trout tartare,
with she sourced nearby and served with fresh Georgian herbs, or
panna cotta drizzled with local honey. A short walk away, Ezo
(meaning “courtyard”) is a more casual affair, pioneering the
organic-food movement and attracting a young crowd who come early
and stay late, snacking on phakli (houmous-like dips made from
spinach or aubergine and blended with walnuts) and making
themselves at home in one of the prettily decorated rooms.

What about Georgian fashion? It’s certainly thriving, with
design-led boutiques and concept stores filling many urban spaces,
and young people clued up on all the latest trends. O, Moda, Moda
is a quirky restaurant-cum-shop where hip 20-somethings in smock
dresses, wide-leg trousers and edgy sunglasses come to take respite
from the heat in the leafy garden. More interesting to Robbie and
I, however, were the flea markets overflowing with quirky
antiquities and vintage clothing which would be devoured by East
London hipsters. But these stalls have a darker side, manned as
they are by the older generation peddling endless amounts of Soviet
memorabilia – knives, badges, helmets and faded portraits of Stalin
or “Uncle Joe” – you name it. I quietly wondered if this was their
way of emancipating themselves from the past, or clinging onto it.
I suspect a bit of both.

Bewildering, bonkers and frankly, pretty brave, I don’t think
Tbilisi is the new Berlin – at least, I hope it isn’t. But like
Berlin, its rapid creative progression will no doubt attract the
cool kids soon. And you’ll want to get there before they do.

Discover More
City Guide: Tbilisi, Georgia