Tbilisi insider Q&A: Nina Andjaparidze

To walk around central Tbilisi with Nina Andjaparidze is to feel as if you’ve been invited into the exciting beating heart of the local social scene. Andjaparidze, the Director of the Tbilisi International Film Festival, seems to know everyone in town; moreover, she seems to know everything there is to know about the artistic heritage as well as the contemporary state of culture in Tbilisi. An afternoon wandering with Andjaparidze was one of the highlights of my Tbilisi visit.

Q: Define your occupation.
A: I started working for the Tbilisi International Film Festival in 2000 and became Director in 2002. I love my job. The festival aims to introduce the general public to new, highly artistic cinema production. It is one of the most significant events in Tbilisi’s cultural life and is highly regarded by both Georgian and foreign cinema experts. I’m very proud that festival has hosted world-famous stars as well as Georgian film directors and actors currently working abroad.

Q: What are the most magnificent things about Tbilisi in your view?
A: The medieval town has been preserved in the very structure of the streets in the Old Town. There’s also the ancient fortress and the city’s religious architecture. I can feel the Old Town when I walk in its streets, and each time I wander through familiar places look new to me. This, I think, is the most remarkable feature of this town.

Q: What would you most want to share with visitors about Tbilisi?
A: Visitors should find the way of life in Tbilisi very attractive. Tbilisi represents a mix of eastern and western traditions. Folklore, various traditions, songs and dances all embody this mixture. Taking a steam bath is one of the traditional attractions and should also be interesting for visitors.Q: Tell us about your neighborhood, Vere. It’s known for being home to artists and intellectuals.
A: Many visitors comment on the relationships between neighbors in Tbilisi. Houses in Tbilisi are structured around balconies and galleries facing a patio. This provides an open environment for communication between neighbors, an opportunity to share common joys and sorrows. This social atmosphere is what I like best about Vere.

Q: Where do you like to travel within Georgia?
A: Within Tbilisi, there are many places with beautiful views of the Old Town, like Narikhala Fortress. One of the best views is from the plateau of Mount Mtatsminda, the highest point in Tbilisi. Beyond, I like the mountain districts with their old villages. Some regions like Svaneti and Khevsureti haven’t changed much in centuries.

Q: How do you see tourism in Georgia developing?
A: I think that our numerous pre-Christian and Christian monuments should be at the core of the development of cultural tourism in Georgia.

Q: Lastly, how about a Tbilisi secret?
A: There are some strange places in Tbilisi, like the city’s underground tunnels. The tunnels were used to drain storm waters and also to serve as secret passageways leading away from the city’s fortresses. Reportedly there were also some secret tunnels connecting the state agencies during Communist rule. It is possible to walk the full length of the neighborhood of Sololaki underground, though this activity is more or less inaccessible for visitors.

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Georgian cuisine: Adjarian khachapuri and other delicious things

Georgian cuisine has not really received its international due, and this is a shame. It is an exciting cuisine that takes its cues from points east and west, relying on an extraordinarily fresh local bounty.

Part of what renders Georgian food so insanely good is this very freshness. Shops and stalls in Tbilisi groan with local fruit and vegetables in mesmerizing variety. One example was the finger grape, a variety more elongated than any grape I’d ever seen before. While the meats are seasoned wonderfully in Georgian cuisine, it is the local vegetables, fruit, and cheese that really stand out. A happy byproduct of this focus on vegetables and fruit: Georgian cuisine is strikingly vegetarian-friendly.

One of my Tbilisi restaurant discoveries was Shavi Lomi, at Amalglebis 23 in Sololaki. Everything I samples at Shavi Lomi was delicious, but what brought me back three times, frankly, was the sunflower oil on their tomato and cucumber salads, which were tossed with herbs and tiny rings of very hot pepper. Never had I tasted such fresh and delicate sunflower oil; for that matter, every last thing in the salad tasted as if it had just been picked or rescued from the soil.

But for all of its healthy hallmarks, some of the most exciting culinary things on offer in Georgia aren’t exactly heart-smart. One of the star local dishes, a juicy dumpling called khinkali that requires a quick tutorial before being devoured, is typically stuffed with meat. Cheese- and mushroom-filled khinkali are also available, but the meat-stuffed variety predominates.

And then there’s khachapuri, specifically the Adjarian khachapuri, pictured above.
Shavi Lomi’s astonishingly good salad.

Khachapuri is one of Georgian cuisine’s most dependable mainstays, a delicious savory cheese bread that comes in a range of forms. The Adjarian khachapuri, shaped a bit like an illustration of an eye, is a particularly delicious variety. The center of the Adjarian khachapuri is filled with butter and a raw egg; the egg cooks in the hot cheese and butter of the savory pastry as it is being served. It is filling and very good, the sort of thing that the diet-conscious will necessarily experience as a guilty pleasure.

There are plenty of places to sample Adjarian khachapuri in Tbilisi. My first morning in Tbilisi I was taken to Mitrofane Lagidze at Kostava 19 to sample one of the most beloved specimens. Named after a soft drink inventor of the late 19th Century, this cafe also serves a range of quite sweet Georgian soft drinks, including a distinctive bright green tarragon soda. The cafe may blast dance music at midday under unflattering lights but it is a fantastic place to sample khachapuri. A very filling large Adjarian khachapuri here costs 8 lari (about $4.75).

Visitors should by all means strike out beyond Mitrofane Lagidze’s fluorescent khachapuri palace to try local food. Two choices popular among locals in celebratory mode are Shemoikhede Genatsvale (more than one location; I sampled the branch at Marjanishvili 5) and Restaurant Begheli (Tamarashvili Street). Begheli is a particularly grand place for a fancy dinner. I joined a feast there where I was introduced me to the deeply Georgian tradition of toasting. Kebabi in flat bread, two porridges, lobio, kinkhali, fish, cheese, soft drinks, two bottles of vodka, coffees, and some nondescript desserts worked out to around 17 lari ($10.25) per person.

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Tbilisi: Orbeliani Baths

Some cities have an isolated public bathhouse here or there, in a remote corner; others, like Budapest, have public baths strewn throughout. Tbilisi has its own bathhouse district called Abanotubani, with several bathing venues on offer. I’d been looking forward to experiencing one of these baths for weeks. I went with the bathhouse with the most beautiful exterior, Orbeliani Baths, both because it’s fun to judge a book by its cover and because I’d been told that it was particularly worthwhile.

The ornate blue-tiled exterior mosaic of the Orbeliani Baths (see above) is hard to miss. As I approached, a group of backpackers were exiting. “Well, maybe tonight we’ll come back,” one said, something just shy of anxiety behind his careful intonations. Coward, I thought. You won’t be back. You’ll do it now or you won’t ever do it. I handed over a measly three lari ($1.80) to the cashier and walked upstairs to the men’s baths.

What follows is a description of the men’s side of the bathhouse. I can’t speak with authority as to what transpires on the women’s side. I’ve heard rumors, though, and I think it’s safe to say that the female masseurs, like their male counterparts, don’t believe in coddling their charges. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Visitors first enter a locker room. The three lari covers admission plus a sheet-like towel. Your possessions go in a locker, which the attendant shuts with a key. You’ll be naked except for a pair of flip-flops and your towel. (Some guests also brought in little scraping devices and razors for skin care.)

Entering the enormous bathing room, a masseur will approach and ask if you’d like to book a bath (5 lari; $3) and/or massage (also 5 lari). The masseurs are built like tanks, something I found reassuring. At least I’ll get clean, I thought. I opted for both a bath and a massage. My masseur gestured toward the showers, two different pools, and a sauna. I was off.

Twenty minutes of bathing bliss followed. I showered, sweated in the sauna, cooled off in a pool, and repeated. Just as I was starting to feel clean and incredibly relaxed, my masseur bellowed my way. I’d almost forgotten. Almost.The washing and massaging session started off pleasantly enough. My attendant dragged me to the edge of a slippery tiled surface and began to wash me. Then came a massage, firm and intense. At first, his method was unobjectionable. Then he upped the intensity level with broad and very firm strokes, his hands moving outward from my spine to the edges of my back. Still fine, though I felt fear for the first time.

He motioned for me to turn around. He repeated the action on my chest and belly, long horizontal movements. Um, ouch. Were there knives attached to his hands? Was he reaching into my torso and rearranging my organs?

Christ on a tricycle it hurt.

The pressure was unlike any other I’ve experienced in my many years of receiving massages. I began to reason with myself. On the one hand, this sort of thing had to be good for my lymphatic system; on the other, it was easy to suspect that I was in the process of being murdered. Still, I was loathe to request a lighter touch, thinking that the pressure was simply part of the experience. Then, suddenly, he deposited an enormous bubble of soap in my lap and gestured toward the showers. It was over, and I was alive. Was it worth it? Actually yes, absolutely, even with the shockingly intense pain.

I was later told by a Georgian friend that masseurs offer massages in a range of intensities and that what happened to me was not typical. I could have just asked the masseur to modulate the pressure; that’s what my friend would have done. But I didn’t, and huge bruises materialized two days later. But at least I hadn’t been a coward.

Beware of a requoting of massage and bathing combination price at the exit. You should pay no more than 10 lari ($6) for both.

Be sure to check out previous installments of Far Europe and Beyond.

Far Europe and Beyond: Introducing Tbilisi

“The Soviets always had a difficult time with Georgia. They were never able to turn Tbilisi into a Soviet city,” says Revi. I’ve just met Revi, the cousin of a friend, and he’s introducing me to Tbilisi. He’s just picked me up at the airport and is giving an impromptu nighttime tour. We’re driving down the major artery of Shota Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi. The city is sparkling. Revi points to the national Parliament, to hotels, theaters, and cafes. The street is bright and shiny and looks terribly prosperous. For a second I think I could be in any European city.

Over the next several days, Revi’s words would ring in my ears. The knots of unruly, twisting streets in Tbilisi’s Old Town are enchanting, and unlike Shota Rustaveli Avenue, they are delightfully hardscrabble. There’s no Soviet triumphalism there; nor is there much modern Soviet architectural bombast in the center of the city. Granted, there are plenty of large anonymous apartment blocks in Tbilisi, and a smattering of Soviet architectural masterpieces as well–the Roads Ministry Building is perhaps the most obvious example–but Tbilisi is a city that has resisted bulldozing and reprogramming.

I came into Tbilisi with a huge advantage: I knew some Georgians. For the last several months, I’d had the good fortune to be exposed to Georgian food and culture at Little Georgia, a restaurant in my London neighborhood. I’d enjoyed Georgian food previously, but Little Georgia’s inexpensive lunches and dinners made me a fan.

And when it came time to take off for Tbilisi, the staff of Little Georgia kindly provided direction. Tiko Tuskadze, the owner of Little Georgia, gave me the phone numbers of her friends. A waiter at Little Georgia, the increasingly well-known photographer Beso Uznadze, overlapped with me in Tbilisi. His friends really extended themselves to me. One rescued me from a grubby hostel by offering me his reasonably priced, beautiful apartment. Two gave me informal tours of various parts of Tbilisi. I was invited to drinks, dinner, and get-togethers. And I was toasted over vodka by people I’d just met–and perceptively and kindly, I might add.

As lovely as these overtures were, it’s not at all clear to me that I wouldn’t have made friends along the way on my own. Tourism may be picking up in Tbilisi but outsiders are not all that common and are consequently of genuine interest. At Shavi Lomi, a delightful restaurant in the neighborhood of Sololaki–don’t worry, I’ll return to Shavi Lomi later this week–the waitress told me she was very happy to see me return. People asked questions: taxi drivers, waitresses, shopkeepers. Given language barriers, communication was often quite superficial and partial, but it was always a pleasure.

Georgia is developing at breakneck speed. Among the major recent improvements mentioned by locals are road quality and police behavior: The roads in and around Tbilisi are quite good, and corrupt cops no longer pull cars over to shake down drivers for a few lari. More evidence: Many cafes and restaurants offer free wi-fi to their customers; this feature is considerably more prevalent than it is in most big cities across Europe.

The tourism infrastructure is also improving rapidly, and costs are generally low. Restaurants, public transportation and taxis are all very reasonable. On the downside, hotels in Tbilisi are overpriced for the quality on offer. This is a legacy in part, no doubt, of the fact that previous visitors have come from the worlds of business and NGOs.

Tbilisi is a default base for people traveling around Georgia, but it’s also a place that should justify a visit by itself. Culinary pursuits alone could form the basis of a week’s stay. Beyond the range of restaurants on offer, highlights include the Old Town’s gravity-defying old houses and narrow streets, museums, churches that date to the 6th Century, striking Neoclassical buildings, public baths, parks, and grand neighborhoods like Vere, Sololaki, and Vake. My bet is that Tbilisi, atmospheric and enchanting at so many turns, will develop far more deeply as a tourist destinations in the coming years.

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]