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~]