Each year for my birthday, I like to travel to a new country, preferably alone. In July 2017, I treated myself to a trip to the Caucasus (and ended up celebrating my 42nd birthday with the former president of Azerbaijan).
The Georgian capital of Tbilisi impressed me so much that it has earned a particularly detailed article. As I know that you are short of time, I have divided it into 52 chapters, allowing you to stop and resume reading at any time (or to find back into the article after your boss interrupted your reading pleasure at the office). It also allows you to skip the chapters which may be of less interest to you.
My first stop in Georgia was actually in Kutaisi, if only because that’s where the cheapest flight went to. There, I had stayed just a few houses from the Georgian Society for Artists, Writers and Scientists. In Tbilisi, I live on the other side of the street from the House of the Writers’ Association. This might be coincidence. It might also be a reflection of the country’s intellectuality.
The Littera restaurant in the palace of the writers’ union has been praised as an example of the “new Georgian cuisine”, but with my meager blogging income, I cannot afford to dine there. I am going for khachapuri instead.
In the same street, named after Ivane Machabeli, a writer who mysteriously disappeared in 1898, there is Kiwi Café. A while ago, this vegan restaurant became the target of an attack by anti-vegetarians who threw sausages at the patrons. The barrage of bacon came with reproachful questions why the guests didn’t eat meat, “like normal people”. Those were probably the elder and more rural traditionalists, the people who make three crosses each time the marshrutka passes by a church, and who beam with pride when they tell everyone in the village that their son or daughter got an Erasmus scholarship to study abroad, but who then regard all the ideas brought home by young people from the big cities, from universities and from the EU as a threat to the Georgianness of the country.
Having said that, I should add that in general, I don’t hear, see or feel many doubts regarding the country’s orientation towards Europe. The balancing act between the EU and Russia, seen in other countries in Eastern Europe, is not an option for Georgia, which fought a war with Russia as recently as 2008.
Tbilisi is so hot this summer that the landlady suggests to leave the apartment door, which leads into a large courtyard at ground level, open and to put up only the mosquito net instead. But I fear that some of the neighbors may be too nosy about the new temporary tenant. In the end, someone may deem me a worthy object of protest and throw a bratwurst into the living room.
I postpone the first evening stroll until 17:45, but it is still oppressively hot outside.
Tamuna describes the neighborhood, in which she rents out the comfortable apartment: “Sololaki is a charming, historical district of old Tbilisi, mainly characterized by the architecture of the late 19th and early 20th century. The style was called Caucasian art nouveau. At the time, Tbilisi wanted to compete with the two capitals of the Russian Empire, Moscow and Saint Petersburg.”
Not without success, I would say.
The iron balconies are relatively modern. Under the Russian tsar, in a mood of misguided modernization, homeowners were ordered to replace the wooden balconies with ones made of iron.
The Georgians obeyed, but at the same time moved the wooden balconies to the back of their houses, creating cozy courtyards. Thus, some houses show a European facade at the front, but an oriental soul inside.
As Andrei Bitov writes in “Georgisches Album”:
The town reminds me of a single house with rampant floors, extensions and balconies, just as each of its houses is its own town in a way. Each of its branches is uncompleted like a living branch, budding and growing. You can never be sure if there won’t be another little balcony added to this house, or a staircase, or another attic to the attic – be it because you didn’t notice it yesterday, or be it because it will be added on tomorrow.
Quite some sense of humor is demonstrated by the Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation, which welcomes visitors in a particularly well preserved heritage site.
Braggarts they are certainly not.
A place that is all spruced up, by contrast, is Liberty Square, just a few blocks from the apartment and a point of orientation on my long walks. Until 1990, you could have seen Lenin here, now the square is guarded by the Georgian patron saint George.
One of the beautiful buildings in Liberty Square houses the “Information Center on NATO and EU”, maybe a somewhat unlucky flat-share agreement, because Georgia might well want to become a member of one, but not of the other. That way, what was dreamed up by penny pinchers in Brussels feeds into the Russian narrative, painting both the EU and NATO as aggressive-expansionist anti-Russian organizations (which neither of them are).
Ironically – or is it a sign of protest? -, directly in front of the building, a flee market offers mostly Russian or Soviet literature, including the “Atlas of the USSR”. I can’t think of a more poignant demonstration of history.
A house built on top of the old city walls is adorned with wooden balconies all around and with chimneys that make it look like a paddle steamer on the Mississippi river. Freshly painted in optimistic azure, it is ready to sail west, as are so many in this country.
I am curious if it will still be here tonight.
Meanwhile, travel agencies offer flights to Astana, Aktau and Kharkiv. One generation later, the ties with the former Soviet brothers and sisters don’t want to be cut either.
Georgian soldiers are walking through the city in US uniforms, making a fashion statement for NATO aspiration. Good that the USA are not as childish as Greece, or they would block Georgia’s western efforts because it is homonymous with the US state.
For dinner, I had arranged to meet with Eka, but because she is a dentist, I have been having a bad feeling all day long. Passing Gabriadze Theater, I see that they only show “Stalingrad” tonight at 8 o’clock and make a spontaneous decision. World War II is better than a root canal.
As if to emphasize my statements about Georgian westward orientation, the girl at the box office is reading Kafka’s “America”, and she is not at all happy about being interrupted. Out of revenge, she charges me the maximum price of 30 lari for one ticket, that’s about 10 euros (= 11.30 USD).
There are still a few hours until the show will begin, allowing us, that is me and you, the esteemed reader, to aimlessly walk around town, trying to remember the way back. The theater is ornamented by a funny tower, so it should be easy to find.
Near Gabriadze Theater, I spot some Soviet children’s books. They have neither a price tag, nor a visible owner, so maybe they are there to be taken home by children, nostalgics or students of Russian, for free in either case.
Briefly, I have to walk through one of those annoying streets packed with tourist restaurants on both sides, where young women and men shove menus into your face. If the food was good, it wouldn’t be necessary to advertise it that way.
Fleeing from the exaggeratedly cheerful tourist hunters, I escape into the somberness of Anchiskhati Basilica. It looks more like a small chapel than a basilica, but it’s the history that matters. And this is the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi, from the 6th century.
One of the paintings – no idea which one – is an icon painted by Jesus himself and thus super important and holy. Somehow, the story is about the King of Osroene, a pen pal of Jesus. The king suffered from gouty arthritis and asked the miracle man for a visit. Jesus didn’t have time or didn’t feel like traveling, so he pressed his face into a towel and sent it to the king. Miraculously and as expected, if those two aren’t contradictory, the king convalesced. This self-portrait has been the origin of all images of Jesus since.
You can learn a lot from old ladies in chapels, churches, cathedrals and cloisters, although as a history student, I dare to register some doubt as to the veracity of that tale. But maybe I simply didn’t understand everything correctly. After all, I don’t really speak Georgian. In any case, the nun or whatever she was, urgently warned me that nobody was allowed to pray in front of that icon.
“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” I sought to reassure her, “I am an atheist.” Contrary to my expectation, she was not the least delighted to hear that, instead placing a curse on me. Ever since, I am forced to wander the vast widths of Wikipedia, from the Abgar legend to the mandylion of Edessa, from the archeiropoieton to Eusebius of Caesarea, from Manichaeism to the Zoroastrians (with whom we will have another encounter in chapter 22).
Around a few corners, hidden between cafés – some ice cream must suffice as dinner in that heat – and clubs for electronic music, there is a synagogue. An old lady, sitting on a chair in front of the heavy metal gate, notices my curiosity (maybe this is the place to learn more about the Artist formerly known as Messiah?) and signals that the door is open. A few men are sitting in the courtyard, greeting me friendly. I ask for a kippah, the head covering, and the gentleman who stands up to get me one lets me feel that he regards this as unnecessary pietism and punctiliousness. This seems to be a relaxed place.
Inside, three young guys are sitting around a table with Exodus, Leviticus and bottles of Coca Cola. I would love to talk to them to learn more about the few Jews remaining in Georgia, but time is short. I am expected in Stalingrad. There is “no admittance for people arriving late”, the ticket warns. That’s an option that the men of the 6th German and the 21st Soviet Armies would have loved to have had in 1942/43.
The theater is filled to capacity, no seat remains empty. One practical piece of advice: you can purchase the tickets on the same day until 7 pm, but if you are in Tbilisi for several days, play it safe and take care of the tickets on the first day.
Gabriadze Theater is a puppet theater. Usually not my kind of entertainment, but this is no regular puppet theater with Punch and Judy, more an art form sui generis. For example, I have never seen such a creative, simple, yet haunting depiction of the advance of the Wehrmacht. I could try to describe it to you, but just go and see it for yourselves.
How do you illustrate a battle with 700,000 victims? It’s a stroke of genius to put the humans aside and to focus on the animals’ perspective instead.
But it is sad. The play is actually not so much about Stalingrad, but about disappointed love, about death and life in general, about how the Soviet Union lied to its own people, about Stalin. Because it’s in Russian, everything sounds even more melancholic. (The English text is shown above the stage.) As the ant delivers the final monologue, I cannot hold back my tears any longer. The boy sitting next to me suddenly has a very runny nose, too. We both applaud and clap all the more.
The steamship house has already turned on the lights, ready to cross the Black Sea, which, by the way, isn’t all that bleak as the name suggests.
“This is the Presidential Palace,” the guide explains the recent changes to the constitution, “but the main guy is now the Prime Minister.” The architecture along the Mtkvari river however, is still from the time of former President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013), who thought that a modern country needs lots of steel and glass, commissioning ugly bridges and buildings.
The two metal tubes looking like drainpipes are part of the concert hall. The dome of the presidential palace is obviously a copy of the Reichstag building in Berlin.
Well, at least there is Rike Park in front of everything, so that one day it will hopefully be overgrown with trees, pianos and chess pieces.
Meanwhile, Saakashvili fell from grace, not only because of his terrible taste in architecture, and was chased out of the country. Remembering Napoleon, Georgia also withdrew his citizenship, probably an unprecedented act for a former president.
Georgia is generally quite relaxed when it comes to presidents and citizenship: the current president Salome Surabishvili was actually the French ambassador to Georgia, when she was asked if she didn’t want to become Georgian foreign minister and then president. I better keep a low profile here, because I really don’t want anyone to offer me a job.
By the way, nowhere else have I seen or heard so many grouching children. It’s about time that school will start again.
For me, the most beautiful thing about Tbilisi is that just two blocks from trendy Freedom Square, it looks like this:
With some of the houses, I am not sure if they are still inhabited. Some of them need support against falling over. Here, it is completely calm and peaceful even in the middle of the day. A car from Soviet times dreams of being a BMW.
The next day begins with religion.
First, I go to the Grand Synagogue, after I saw on the map that the one which I visited yesterday was just a smaller one. This one is not guarded by an old woman, but by a white cat, probably the one from which we can learn modesty, according to Eruvin 100b.
They are just having a group of visitors from Israel, which is good because I understand some Hebrew, but wouldn’t have understood any Kivruli, the Judaeo-Georgian. Ashdod and Ashkelon seem to be the towns in Israel with the largest immigration from Georgia. The local representative still presents the Jewish community of Tbilisi as an active one, with two kosher restaurants and two yeshivot.
Next stop on my religious tour are the Muslim colleagues. At Juma Mosque, I am the only visitor. A lady in a Soviet-style dress with flower pattern grants me access. Before entering the prayer room, I take off my shoes, but here too, everything else is quite relaxed. If the Arab tourists, of whom some women are wearing the hijab even in Georgia, will find the way to the mosque, they are in for a surprise.
The mosque is built with red bricks, just like the Grand Synagogue, which reminds me more of British industrial towns or Hanseatic cities, rather than of the orient. In the corner, there is a tiled stove, like in a cozy living room.
There is no separate room for women, everyone prays together. But, and this is something I haven’t seen in any other mosque, there are two prayer niches, apparently for two imams. Only from Navid Kermani will I learn the reason: one half of the room is for Shiites, the other for Sunnis. A nice and simple solution. No reason for battles at Kerbala or elsewhere.
If you find synagogues (chapters 13 and 20), mosques (chapter 21) and churches (chapter 12) too mainstream, you can visit the oldest religious building in Tbilisi, which is near Bethlehem Church: the Zoroastrian temple, probably built between the 5th and the 7th century.
As I still haven’t stomached the crazy story about Jesus, the apprentice painter, I don’t even dare to enter this place of worship. Here, I would probably learn that Christianity is an idea from the Avesta that reached Israel via the detour of the Babylonian captivity. If I were to keep investigating this, I might end up finding the Holy Grail, which is the last thing I need right now. I’ll take another sundae instead.
If Dan Brown is ever going to write a book about these tangled theories, please remember where you read it first. Come to think of it, this article is getting out of hand already and I might as well tackle the book myself.
That evening, I have no reason not to meet with the dentist lady, which turns out to be a huge waste of time. During dinner, she answers her phone 8 times, makes 3 calls and plays with the phone 22 times while I try to ask her about life in Georgia.
The next evening, I am going to meet two Iranian girls (more about them in chapter 41), neither of whom will undertake any of these incivilities, not once.
People think that technology means progress. But technology is just a tool, like a hammer or a machine gun or a drone. Progress should be measured in how we interact, how we treat each other, in sociological rather than technical terms.
The only useful thing about the evening with Eka is that she shows me a valley with a waterfall, not far to walk to from the old town. At night, the frogs are quacking so loudly that I wish the muezzin from nearby Juma Mosque would call more often and more loudly to dispel the biblical plague (Exodus 8:1-4).
The next morning, I return to enjoy the valley without phone calls and frogs. The high rocks not only provide much-coveted shade, they also offer a solution to those wishing to untie the knot, of which they previously hoped that it would remain tied forever, a naive wish demonstrated a hundredfold by the love locks on the bridge at the entrance to the valley.
Like the waterfall, sweat pours down in streams, although it’s only 10:15 in the morning. I am dreaming of the cool apartment in Machabeli Street. If it wasn’t my birthday, I wouldn’t even go traveling at the height of summer. Somehow, I need to do this differently next year. Maybe go to Iceland. Or Canada.
That’s when I spot the Botanical Garden on the map, which sounds tantalizingly like shady trees, cooling creeks and time to read a book. What seems to be the shortest way on the map leads me across some hills, and suddenly I find myself within the Botanical Garden without having bought a ticket. Some helpful gardeners point me in the direction of the ticket booth, where I pay 2 lari (0.65 euros).
What is now the Botanical Garden used to be the Royal Garden from the 17th century. High up on a rock, you can still make out remnants of Narikala Fortress.
This looks like a steep climb, so I better begin the hike at the botanical café. It’s one of those modern buildings with lots of glass, as it used to be popular in Saakashvili’s time. But practical it is not. It stores the heat like an oven. The old wooden and brick houses are smarter and more beautiful. Another example of something sold as progress which is really regress. On the way from the kitchen to the table, half of the ice cream has already melted.
The Botanical Garden is a beautiful place for a walk up the valley of the Tsavkisistskali river, rather dry now in summer. By the way, are you memorizing all these names?
Somehow, despite the heat, I am drawn to the highest point (one reason why I usually travel alone, I assume), where Mother Georgia overlooks Tbilisi with her sword and a cup of wine.
Father Georgia is not to be seen. He is probably working somewhere in Central Europe. Or he died in the war for South Ossetia.
There would be many more hills to be climbed, with churches, castles and views as rewards. But I will come back to do that when it will have less than 40 degrees.
Another place to hide from the heat is the Georgian National Museum. In the entrance hall, there is an exhibition about Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden” walk, which led him through the Caucasus. I hope for him that he was smarter and didn’t walk here in July.
The museum is open from 10 to 18 hours, except on Mondays. The entrance costs 7 lari (2.30 euros), and there are guided tours in English, too. For students, it only costs 1 lari (0.30 euros), but I am only going to take up my studies in autumn and don’t have a student ID yet.
The basement houses and supposedly protects the gold treasure of the Argonauts. Somehow, I know that all of this is connected to Jason and the Golden Fleece, to Medea and Colchis, but wandering around the Georgian Fort Knox, I fail to gain any real understanding.
Exhibitions of gold coins, skulls, axes, skirts and jewelry don’t capture my curiosity, which is a general problem I have with museums that are organized like storage facilities. Maybe it’s because my interest is more focused on 20th century history than on the Paleozoic era. Or because I am more interested in context and explanations, rather than in objects. A clay pot doesn’t tell me anything about family structures, a sword conveys nothing about the crusades, and even a pile of gold coins won’t make me understand how early trade was globalized. When I go to a museum, I want it to be a Fort Know, not a Fort Knox. Too often, I am disappointed.
And so I walk up to the fourth floor, bypassing the Middle Ages and the Battle of Didgori, where a permanent exhibition about the Soviet occupation from 1921 to 1991, as it is called here, will capture my attention for a few hours. (Yet another reason why I usually travel alone.)
Don’t worry, I am not going to roll out every detail here like a Soviet tank rolling over protesters. But I have to tell you a little bit. If you are not interested in history, you may jump ahead to chapter 37.
The history of each country that neighbored Russia or the Soviet Union in the 20th century is dominated by that sometimes overbearing neighbor. Some countries might even feel that this extends well into the 21st century.
After the February and October Revolutions in Russia in 1917, there was, as you know, a bit of a back and forth, which may have appeared like chaos from the outside, but which was really carefully choreographed by Boris Pasternak in a manner worthy of an Oscar. In any case, first there was the Transcaucasian Federation, which didn’t last very long (April – May 1918). The Georgian National Assembly found the situation too insecure and looked for a friend in the West. The choice was simply made by picking the country listed immediately after Georgia in the telephone directory: Germany. A big mistake, because, as many Georgians should find out, going to bed with Germany is the mistake of a lifetime. (At least in the first half of the 20th century. By now, we have become quite nice.)
Germany, always ready to play the big guy anywhere in the world, promised to protect an independent Georgia from the Ottoman Empire. In exchange for stationing 3,000 soldiers in Georgia, Germany was allowed to extract manganese, copper and oil. Kaiser Wilhelm II, megalomaniac as ever, propagated a “South-East Federation” between Ukraine and the Caspian See, from where one would join up with the Aryan brothers in Persia to fight the British in India. All this would occur under German leadership, naturally.
Georgia, starry-eyed from the prospect of independence (or maybe from wine and chacha) thought that this was all about Georgia and proclaimed independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia in May 1918. It seems that the Germans were involved in this, too, because the museum thanks the German consul at the time for his contribution to the declaration of independence.
Interestingly, the westward orientation of Georgia was already evident back then. Prime Minister Noe Zhordania said in 1918: “Soviet Russia has offered us a military alliance, which we have refused. We are on different paths. They go east, we go west.”
The German troops then had to be withdrawn because all the meticulous planning had overlooked the fact that Germany would lose World War I.
The following years, Georgia was suffering from post-war back and forth, always threatened by Russia which had by now become communist. The thing that makes Georgians particularly cranky is that Russia recognized Georgia’s independence in May 1920, but already invaded the country in February 1921. That was unfair.
The museum illustrates all this with documents and videos from the time, but also explains the context. That’s much better than the golden space travelers. But maybe I just understand it better because I am well versed in the global context of the last century, and those of you who have other interests have long fallen asleep, like on a long rain journey to Siberia.
And there were plenty of trains to Siberia at the time, let me tell you. Even more people were simply executed, though. From 1921 to 1926, the Georgian elite was eliminated: the nobility, the clerics, the landowners and the intelligentsia. After that, there came wave after wave of executions and expulsion. The displays in the museum go from one oppression to the next deportation, and one has a hard time understanding the difference between the specific periods of the Soviet Union. There was always oppression.
The total number of victims were 80,000 shot, 400,000 deported and 400,000 killed in World War II. Regarding the latter number, I do however doubt if all of them would have regarded themselves as “victims of Soviet occupation”.
Sovietization was also reflected in the image of the city. Art nouveau, so much appreciated by me, was suddenly too bourgeois and thus passé, as one says in Russian.
In its place came modern Soviet architecture, paradoxically also appreciated by me, although I am ready to admit that it is not beautiful in the classical sense. The best known example in Tbilisi is probably the former Ministry of Road Construction.
You have to admit, it was brave. The experiment hasn’t collapsed yet, unlike the underlying social model. Currently, the National Bank lives in the upended labyrinth.
And you have to give credit to the Soviets, they also delighted regular workers with motivating art at the workplace.
With the beginning of World War II, some people in Georgia had the hope of withdrawing from the Soviet Union (or, as the museum calls it in slightly falsifying manner, “from the Russian-Bolshevist Empire”). Not having learned anything from history – the intellectuals, who could have warned about it, had all been killed – about 30,000 Georgians sought their salvation with the Germans again, applying for jobs with the Wehrmacht, which happened to have staffing problems and was thus willing to accept Caucasians.
The Georgians were promised that their country would become independent, of course, and because Hitler wanted to top the megalomania of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Nazis immediately began planning for a Reich Commissariat Caucasia (which was of course diametrically opposed to the independence promised), in which Tbilisi should become capital city and the Autobahn should go all the way to Baku. With all that planning, the Wehrmacht overlooked the fact that the Caucasus is protected by a high mountain range in the north and could not really be conquered. But at least the Wehrmacht got some units with non-Aryan names like “King David Bagrationi Agamashenebli” (Battalion 799).
All of this I don’t learn at the museum, by the way, where everything is about Georgia’s heroic resistance against the Soviet Union. I have to do a lot of reading after the visit to fill in the gaps. This is also sad because thus, the visitors to the museum don’t learn about the story of the Georgian uprising on the island of Texel:
This Dutch island in the North Sea was occupied by the German Wehrmacht, including the Georgian Infantry Battalion 822 “Queen Tamar”. On 6 April 1945, the Georgian soldiers rebelled against the Germans and killed at least 800 Wehrmacht soldiers. For a short time, they took control of the island, but the Germans reconquered it in the following weeks.
If you have paid attention to the date, you will have noticed that all of these fights and battles were completely senseless. But senselessness never stopped the Nazis, and so they kept on fighting even after the surrender on 8 May 1945. The island of Texel entered the history books as the last active battlefield in Europe. Only on 20 May 1945, Canadian troops landed and put an end to the charade.
But the overwhelming majority of Georgians, about 700,000 soldiers, fought in the Red Army. Thus, Georgians were fighting Georgians, often the same person on two different sides at different times, because signing up to fight was a way to leave the POW camp. As far as I remember, this is not mentioned in the museum either.
Here, the story continues only in 1956, with protests for Georgian independence (thus the information at the museum), which had ironically begun as protests against de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union (thus the information read later; more about Stalin in chapter 42). A typical example for a protest that changes its goals in the course of a week. The brutal crackdown by the Soviet power probably did much to strengthen Georgians’ wish for their own independent way.
The next protests occurred only in 1978, when Russian was supposed to become an official language besides Georgian. That time, the protests were successful and Georgia kept the incomprehensible curly loops. If you dare, try to learn at least the alphabet.
By comparison, even Cyrillic seems easy.
By now, not only the Georgian people are revolting, the readers are too, because they expected an article about Tbilisi, not about the history of the Soviet Union. Hence just a quick rundown: protests in April 1989, another violent crackdown, dissolution of the Soviet Union, independence in April 1991 after a referendum.
In front of the museum, there is Rustaveli Boulevard, so wide and impractical that it’s impossible to cross on foot. You have to walk for several kilometers to reach an underpass to reach your friends on the other side. Crossing the Berlin Wall was easier.
Maybe this kind of city planning is supposed to be the last line of defense against a Russian invasion.
Forced to remain on the northern side, I walk past Rustaveli Theater. That’s for those who prefer classical theater over the puppet theater from chapter 14.
I notice that many cafés offer cigars on the menu or in glass cabinets. Here, one can still live in style and combine public smoking with discussions of new theater plays or recently published books. We just have to hope that the meat mongers from chapter 2 won’t find out that cigars are 100% vegan.
And there are more than enough books to be talked about. This was internationally recognized in 2018, when Georgia was the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Walking around Tbilisi, you don’t need international acclaim to notice the love for literature. Rustaveli Boulevard is lined with booksellers. If you aren’t careful, you won’t lose any weight while going for a walk here, but return home with a few kilos more. My only protection against such folly is the return flight, already booked and with a strict baggage limit. Next time, I am going to come by ship.
I am however unsettled by the repeated display of “Mein Kampf”. What did grandma and grandpa fight in the Great Patriotic War for, if now there is fascist smut being sold in the streets?
The book dealers with a chess board, ready to play, are probably Armenians. They show up more for an interest in a good match rather than to make a lot of business, and if you win a game, you can pick a book.
If you still don’t have enough of books (and would one ever have that?), you can visit the Parliamentary Library
or the Book Museum,
of which I unfortunately read too late, or you can look forward to chapter 45.
Don’t confuse the Book Museum with the Museum of Georgian Literature, though, which is just around the corner in Gia Chanturia Street, fittingly right across from a leafy park, where you can enjoy drama, prose and poetry with a cigar.
The intellectual mood in this part of the city is only disturbed, and this shouldn’t come as a great surprise, by the Brazilian Embassy, which runs the salsa bar “Calypso” downstairs. I doubt there will be much of an overlap with the audience of the literary institutes.
As I come home in the evening, a former classmate tweets this advice: “When you are in Tbilisi, go to the Botanical Garden. Last time I was there, I saw a giant snake.”
Good that I only read that now, for otherwise I would never have gone there, or I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the walk, being in constant fear. Dozing off after having walked a half marathon, I wonder why a classmate from Amberg seems to travel to the Caucasus on a regular basis. He must be a spy. I should have spotted that back then, because already in gymnasium, he was always reading “Mort & Phil”.
Speaking of spies: the next day, I meet two sisters from Iran, who are suspiciously fluent in German. They also have quite a sunburn, not because there is no sun in Iran, but because they always have to wear the damn headscarf and a long coat there.
Freedom has made the Caucasus a popular holiday destination for Iranians. In Tbilisi, they also see Persian architecture and signs of past greatness, when Persia stretched from the Caucasus to India.
In 1795, the Persians came for the last time with evil intent to destroy the city, prompting the Georgians to call the Russians to help. A decision which they then regretted for two centuries.
Contemporary visitors from Iran don’t want to burn anything down, they are just happy to have some wine with dinner.
Pooyandeh and Payandeh, which sounds so much like the Iranian version of Dupond and Dupont that they must be cover names, just came back from Gori and, somewhat distraughtly, tell me about a town under the spell of Stalin. There is still a Stalin Square, a Stalin monument and a Stalin Museum, selling all kinds of Stalin souvenirs. I am relieved that they didn’t bring me a present, but only invite me to dinner.
Our conversation reaches the National Museum (see chapter 28 et seq.) at one point, and I believe that in the whole exhibition about the crimes of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t mentioned a single time, at least not explicitly, that comrade Stalin was from Georgia – and attended a theological college and worked as a bank robber in Tbilisi.
Walking around Tbilisi at night, I notice that even the haircut of young Stalin seems to be fashionable again. These are worrying signs.
The concept which I criticized in the National Museum doesn’t bother me two blocks further on: the mere collection of objects. What else is the National Gallery supposed to do, if not hang up paintings?
After acquiring a ticket for 7 lari (2.30 euros), I realize that it’s the same ticket as the one for the National Museum. Well, it seems like I have financed Georgian culture and arts once more than necessary. I’ll have to save that at dinner.
The paintings show scenes of fishing, hunting, feasts in the garden, shashlik and wine. Full of life and full of colors.
A painting by Niko Pirosmanashvili shows the funicular train to Mtastminda. It has to be rather old then, because the artist died in 1918. I can’t really be expected to put any faith in such old technology, can I? Another hill which I have to climb on foot. (Any excuse is valid to skimp on the fare of 2 lari [0.65 euros].)
Contrary to the stereotype, the young museum guard is reading a book, while her older colleague, from her parents’ generation, is watching YouTube videos on her cell phone (with headphones, of course, so as not to disturb anyone).
And that’s it, after three rooms I am done with the National Gallery. Sad, because I really like the style of the paintings here.
Besides the funicular, there is also a cable car, creating a nice contrast between the old and the modern.
The different styles of architecture sometimes stand opposite from each other as if they were ready for a duel. The newer one always loses, in my mind.
That I am coming to Tbilisi twice on this trip should illustrate how happy I feel here. Or maybe the route simply reflects the complicated border situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which forces me to a detour via Georgia.
Because I am only spending a short night in Tbilisi this time, I have booked a room in a hostel, Guesthouse Irina. As I arrive, the über-planning German traveler is met by shocking news: “We are sorry, Sir, the room that you booked is already occupied.” But luckily, the solution follows instantaneously: “We have got another room for you.”
It’s the library, and I couldn’t be any happier. I can’t read any of the Russian or Georgian works, but the mere presence of books fills me with joy. I always find it rather suspicious when I come to someone’s house and they don’t have any books at home.
The way the hostel looks on the outside would probably make many people walk by without giving it a second look, or a glance of disdain at best. I like such houses that got painted the last time when it was still a different country and century, where the plaster falls off, but where inside, books are being read in three of four languages. Probably because I like such people, too.
I also like the whole district: Marjanishvili. Old houses, a bit crumbling, a bit neglected, but all the more character for it. Opposite the hostel, there is an abandoned castle, maybe King Vakhtang’s or Queen Tamar’s.
Twice I came to Tbilisi, twice I was lucky with the parts of town where I stayed. If I was asked to develop a rule based on this experience, it would go like that: look for the cheapest room. That way, you almost always end up in the most interesting part of town.
I would also be interested in staying in Rustavi, a suburb or maybe a town in its own right, that I passed by today. It’s a typical example for a city planned and constructed in the Soviet Union. Its lack of character and the objective unattractiveness is exactly what I find charming. At least if I don’t have to spend my whole life there. Temporarily, for example when you have to focus on university or write a book, the drabness may enhance productivity. It’s no coincidence that Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Zoshchenko, Ilf and Petrov lived and wrote in prefab estates. In Tonga and Tuvalu, on the other hand, it’s always sunny, but nobody has ever won a Nobel Prize for Literature there.
Not far from Marjanishvili, there is Agmashenebili Street, in which I walk up and down, admiring the houses in full ignorance, at the time, of the fact that some of them came from Germany like me.
Too much has been renovated here already, but with some houses you can still admire their youthful style. The best known are probably Apollo Cinema (or as it was originally known: Apollo Electrical Theater)
and Marjanishvili Theater.
German settlers, most of them from Swabia and Pietists (fundamentalists, we would call them nowadays), began moving into the southern Caucasus in 1817. Where there is Agmashenebili Street today, the (economic) migrants established the village of Marienfeld, separated from the old town by the river. They were however unable to separate their fate from Russian and Soviet history, but I sense that the readers are no longer receptive to further historical digressions.
On my journey through the Caucasus, I met descendants of German settlers in Sukhumi and visited the former Helenendorf in Göygöl. If anybody is interested, I will have to write another article about these encounters.
In this street, I discover a bookstore that looks like it much rather purchases books than selling them.
And then there is this mosaic facade.
A tourist asks me whether this is the Museum for Modern Art. “It looks like it,” I reply, absolutely certain that it can’t be anything else. Only later, when writing this article, I find out that the building now houses mundane offices. The mosaic is still from Soviet times. In 1970, the building was opened as the House for Political Education, whatever that may have meant in practice.
I hope that the gentleman, whom I erroneously sent into the building, could still escape in time without being hired as a bookkeeper or some marketing guru.
From the window of the private library, my last view before falling asleep catches sight of Eiffel Tower. During the day, without illumination, I hadn’t even spotted it.
But maybe it was just finished tonight and the lights are turned on for a party. Tbilisi is a city in which a lot is changing, and fast.
That’s why I am worried about some of the areas. In part, there has already been too much gentrification. Navid Kermani, who is in Tbilisi at the same time as me, calls parts of the old town a “Walt Disney orient for tourists”.
Outside the old town, the same ugly concrete, glass and steel constructions are being built as everywhere else in the world. I would much rather keep the skewed wooden balconies, the tilting facades, the trees sprouting from the trusses.
And the scars left by previous earthquakes should serve as a warning against constructional hubris.
Tbilisi is a city, I am afraid, where it does make a difference if you visit now or in ten years. Don’t wait too long! The application to be recognized as a world heritage site, which has been sitting on UNESCO’s desk since 2007, probably won’t be granted anymore.
In the early morning, Tbilisi is at its most beautiful, because it is not a city of early risers. Even at 7 o’clock, you still have the streets to yourself. The facades are glowing in the early sunlight. The cats are filling up with warmth before being chased away by the hullabaloo.
I got up early today because I will continue my journey to Armenia. At 7:30, I am at Avlabari metro station, from where buses are supposed to depart towards the southern neighbor. A friendly taxi driver shows me the way, without claiming that there are no buses and offering his services instead, as taxi drivers usually do. Maybe he is more of a family guy than a businessman and doesn’t want to drive that far, so he can be back home in time for lunch with his wife.
At the bus stop, the buses and their drivers are already there, but the first one won’t get going before 9 am. I woke up early for no reason. The smoking bus drivers signal that I can already drop my backpack in the open trunk. I gladly do so, to show my trust in them. Another institution deserving our trust is the market economy, because by exactly 9 o’clock, Adam Smith’s invisible hands have brought exactly the number of passengers to fill every seat to Yerevan. I am always impressed how that works. Maybe people have internalized central planning so much, that supply and demand now find together, without help from the Committee for the Provision and Management of Inter-Urban Long-Distance Bus Connections (which would have been at the Department of Road Transport from chapter 32), as purposefully as Tariel and Nestan-Darejan in the Georgian national epic “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”.
In case anybody should have been paralyzed by fear of the next wave of Stalinist purges, unable to pay any attention to what I have been saying: Tbilisi is tremendous.
I don’t know any other city offering so much art, culture and architecture, yet bragging about it so little. No other city that is so cool, yet so impressive. No other city that connects so many different cultures in a relaxed, casual way, just letting them coexist. No other city that is a capital city, but feels like a sleepy little town just a few blocks from the main square. No other city in which you want to get lost, because you know that you will discover great, beautiful, absurd and interesting things. Tbilisi couldn’t care less whether UNESCO will recognize it as world heritage, Tbilisi is world heritage.
But please don’t spoil it to unrecognizability!
- The cheapest flights to Georgia are often not to Tbilisi, but to Kutaisi, which is just a few hours and euros away.
- People from a great number of countries don’t require a visa for Georgia. Generally, Georgia is quite liberal when it comes to immigration. With a German passport, I can for example stay in Georgia without a visa for 365 days per year, in other words, endlessly. If only it were that easy to settle everywhere.
- This is the apartment in the old town, really highly recommended. If you use AirBnB for the first time, you can register through this link and you will receive 25 €.
- This is the hostel with the library room. Using Booking, you still get 15 € if you use this link to sign up.
- In Tbilisi, you don’t need a car. Metro and buses go everywhere and regularly and are very inexpensive. You’ll probably have to ask for help to find the right lines at first, but soon you will know where to hop on and off.
- The internet generation may not believe it, but a guidebook is a good investment, particularly for all the public transport information. I used the Lonely Planet for Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan (which also covers Abkhazia) because I didn’t want to carry three or four books. For Georgia alone, I recommend the Bradt Guide by Tim Burford.
- Tbilisi is the transport hub for travel in the Caucasus. From here, there are buses to Baku, Yerevan, Istanbul, Athens, Vladikavkas and Moscow.
- The same is true for the railway with connections within Georgia and to Baku and Yerevan. Because trains go less frequently than buses, I didn’t have any time to check them out on my trip. But I will definitely do so next time!
- More articles about Georgia.
- And while you are in the region, I am sure you also want to pay a visit to Abkhazia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. If you let me know what is of most interest to you, I will get cracking on the next article.
- Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.