Far Europe and Beyond: Introducing Yerevan

It took around five hours to get from Tbilisi to Yerevan, in a taxi organized along a rather mysterious logic. I made it first to Ortachala bus station, the appointed place in Tbilisi for hiring long-distance taxis for Yerevan, and was introduced to a portly gentleman who moved like a head honcho. He ushered me into his minivan to wait. He paced, smoking furiously, occasionally asking question of the other idle drivers. Everything seemed to move in slow motion for a few minutes. I looked around his vehicle. A single syringe rested on his dashboard. Diabetic or addict? I wasn’t crazy to find out.

After about ten minutes the macher of Ortachala found me a driver, a sullen one-legged fellow wearing an ill-fitting suit. He didn’t talk to me at all at first, and never smiled. He did shout “money money money” as we were approaching the Georgia-Armenia border. I was charmed, but if he thought I was turning over a single lari before he dropped me off in Yerevan he was sorely mistaken.

Still, it was a beautiful drive. After crossing from Georgia into Armenia, we skirted the border with Azerbaijan and motored through the densely forested mountains of Tavush Province, already in an autumnal state in early October. It was a cinematic few hours. The skies were full of dramatic clouds and it rained intermittently.

At the end of what seemed like a never-ending journey was Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. London’s Georgian establishment paved the way for me in Tbilisi; in Yerevan, by way of contrast, I knew nobody at all. I’d received no tips and neither was I furnished with the email addresses of friends of friends. I would be forced to revert to old school urban exploration, as if Twitter had never happened.Yerevan is ordered and calm. There are no twisting alleyways or hilly warrens in the city’s center. The city was established on a true Soviet blueprint, with one central ring road more or less encircling the city and a few outer roads following this arch around the city’s inner core. Yerevan feels Soviet in lots of ways. There are ambitious monuments commemorating the Ottoman genocide of ethnic Armenians and the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia, both massive and dramatically modern. Leading up to the latter is a broad stairway called the Cascade, with neatly tended shrubs and flowers.

These features of central Yerevan are impressive for their sheer ambition. They make dramatic modernist marks on the urban setting and fit the post-Soviet context perfectly. Planned Soviet cities are often good for parks and pedestrian zones as well as monuments, and Yerevan doesn’t disappoint here, either. Areas for strolling and relaxing are plentiful. Yerevan is so pleasant that one wonders why post-Soviet cities have such uniformly bad reputations and why the planned Soviet cities are so seldom positively catalogued.

Though the charms of Yerevan might not be immediately obvious to attraction-focused visitors, there are lots of interesting things to do and see. A very appealing chaos (along with many delicious things) can be found in the city’s covered food market, and there are other surprises nestled here and there, too: the explosively baroque aesthetic of filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, which reigns at his former house, now a museum; the National Gallery of Armenia, packed with an outstanding and wide-ranging collection; and amazing Syrian-Armenian cuisine, which can be sampled at Lagonid Bistro-Cafe. Many of the city’s churches are worth a visit, as well. Other sites of interest include the ornately tiled Blue Mosque and the central Republic Square.

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Mtskheta: Easy day trip from Tbilisi

Mtskheta is Georgia‘s ancient capital, a little village about 15 miles to the north of Tbilisi. It is home to a number of very important Georgian religious sites and functions to this day as a kind of spiritual heart of Georgia. It was in Mtskheta that Georgia adopted Christianity in the 4th century. Today the town receives a steady stream of domestic and foreign religious tourists and hosts various official Georgian Orthodox Church ceremonies. To be clear, Mtskheta is no garden variety tour bus pit stop; its historical sites form a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are several places in Mtskheta that should be included on a day trip from Tbilisi. One, Jvari Church, is actually located far above the town on a hill, above the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers. (For the view from Jvari Church over Mtskheta, see above). On Sundays, the 6th-Century church fills up with throngs of worshipers and tourists and feels quite intimate.

A second site of great interest is Antioki Church, located along the riverbank in Mtskheta. The church, rather incredibly, dates to the 4th century. It is a diminutive chapel, simple and beautiful, surrounded by a flowers and lawn. The church’s caretaking nuns can often be seen on the grounds, tidying things up. The interior walls are decorated with bright new murals.

The star attraction in Mtskheta is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, an enormous church originally built in the 4th century and rebuilt in the 11th century. The throne of the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church sits in the center of the church. Georgian kings are buried here, though the cathedral’s most incredible claim extends to Jesus Christ, whose robe, ostensibly brought to Mtskheta from Jerusalem following his crucifixion, is said to be buried underneath the cathedral.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral interior.

Mtskheta can be a very inexpensive day trip from Tbilisi. Admission to all of the above sites is free. A guide is not required at any stop along the way, though multilingual guides materialize to offer their services for a fee at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

Transportation to Mtskheta is also inexpensive. A marshrutka (group minibus) from Tbilisi’s Didube bus station (adjacent to the Didube Metro station) to Mtskheta costs one lari (60 cents). A taxi from Tbilisi to Jvari Church and then on to Mtskheta (with the taxi driver waiting at Jvari Church for a half hour or so) should cost no more than 30 lari ($18). A taxi doing a full Tbilisi-Jvari-Mtskheta-Tbilisi loop should run no more than 50 lari ($30). You may be able to arrange less expensive taxi fares if you’re traveling with a local. Here’s a general Tbilisi taxi tip: Always bargain down to your desired price before entering the taxi. If a driver is unwilling to drive you for your requested fare, wait it out. Another taxi driver will come along soon enough.

Be sure to check out other Far Europe and Beyond series articles.

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.