WHERE TO STAY IN TBILISI
To experience the best of Tbilisi’s hipster revolution, sister hotels Rooms and Stamba (both technically at 14 Kostava Street) are unmissable. They represent the best of the city’s modern design. Rooms has a more vintage aesthetic, with a lobby that resembles a library, while the more pared-back Stamba, newly opened this summer, has an Art Deco-inspired casino. The restaurants and bars at both are a scene in themselves and offer a Georgian spin on New American and European dishes. Try the delicious cold herring salad at Stamba.
Address: Rooms Hotel, 14, 0108 Merab Kostava St, Tbilisi, Georgia
Telephone: +995 322 02 00 99
Prices: Doubles from about £135, Stamba from about £200
WHERE TO EAT IN TBILISI
Georgian food – characterised by an abundance of coriander, garlic and walnuts – is uniformly good, but many traditional restaurants offer basic menus. For a truly extraordinary experience and smart, modern dishes, head to Keto and Kote (down an alleyway off Mikheil Zandukeli Street): feast on elarji (cornmeal with sulguni cheese), baje (walnut sauce with spices) either in the wood-panelled interior or beneath carved balconies and grapevines in the garden, which looks out all the way to the Caucasus. For a more unusual dinner, try Barbarestan, inspired by the recipe book of a 19th-century duchess, or Café Littera, which turns local ingredients into innovative creations. While many of Tbilisi’s best restaurants are relatively new, there are some old standbys. My favourite, Pur Pur, on the top floor of a mansion, looks like something out of a Lewis Carroll fever-dream, with plants on the walls, Victorian lampshades and whimsically mismatched tablecloths.
Address: Barbarestan, 132 D Aghmashenebeli Avenue, 132, Tbilisi 0112, Georgia
Telephone: +995 322 94 37 79
Address: Café Littera, 13 Ivane Machabeli Street, Tbilisi, Georgia
Telephone: +995 595 75 13 13
Address: Pur Pur, 1 Abo Tbileli Street, Tbilisi 0155, Georgia
Telephone: +995 322 47 77 76
WHERE TO SHOP IN TBILISI
You can buy anything from Soviet medallions to Dagestani jewellery and Russian silver at Dry Bridge flea market off Saarbrucken Square (open daily, but best on weekends). The rise of Demna Gvasalia, the Georgian Vetements and Balenciaga designer, has shone a spotlight on Tbilisi’s fashion scene, and the city is full of modern ateliers. The best-known, Chaos Concept Store, a minimalist clothing shop that also has a skateboard ramp and a bed in the middle of the floor, is in the Rooms/Stamba complex, but there are a number of cutting-edge design houses, including Atelier Kikala and Atelier Maturelli, on Chovelidze and Leselidze Streets.
WHERE TO DRINK AND DANCE IN TBILISI
The city’s cocktail scene is burgeoning. Avoid the soulless bars around Chardini Street, and head instead to the bohemian Café Gallery. One of the few LGBTQ-friendly spaces in Tbilisi (alongside Bassiani nightclub), it’s where young Georgian creatives meet to party until lunchtime the next day.
Va Va Boom: Tbilisi’s new mood
I recognise this underpass, just off the grand façade of city hall at Freedom Square. Eight years ago, when I first started coming to Tbilisi, it was a dank subterranean footpath I generally tried to avoid, navigating instead the chaotic street above. Nearby underpasses off the square, which connects the grand Art Nouveau boulevards around Rustaveli Avenue to the warren of Tbilisi’s Old Town, were generally full of ad hoc commerce: old women in black kerchiefs selling powdered coriander or fenugreek, candles or Orthodox icons, eclectic kitchen supplies or round pies of khachapuri; at foldable tables, enterprising men with kitchen scales offering dieting customers a glimpse of their weight for 30 tetri; sellers of scarves and underwear. Tbilisi’s underpasses, for many years, doubled as its bazaars, as frenetic and unexpected as the place itself.
But this one, too narrow for vendors to set up shop in, had always remained empty. Now this afternoon – freshly scrubbed, lit and repainted – it is full at last. A girl with short, blue hair is singing, a boy in skinny jeans playing guitar, The Cranberries ‘Zombie’ echoing across the street.
It’s just another way that the city – still, in many ways, my city – has changed. Coming back to Tbilisi is always bittersweet. The place I fell in love with in 2010, when my mother first moved here, was a sprawling, beautiful mess. Georgia, bordering both the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains, was still reeling from its 2008 war with Russia: a flare-up of tensions that have persisted since the Soviet days.
The streets near my apartment – near the 19th-century bathhouses whose natural sulphurous heat give Tbilisi (from tbili, for warm) its name – were uniformly unpaved. The odd rooster traversed my path from home into the Old Town, where unkempt wooden-balconied houses tilted at outrageous angles and ivy grew so riotously around the pockmarked gargoyles and angels of the wealthier homes that all light seemed to be choked out of the windows. It was impossible to get breakfast anywhere before noon, the electricity went out at least weekly (my landlady would come down with apologies, candles and sweet Russian cake). I would take tea in the blue-tiled chaikhana just up from the baths, eating baklava in front of a fire the proprietress lit only for me. There were few expats – mostly workers for NGOs, the odd English teacher – and even fewer tourists. The ‘cool’ bars consisted of a slightly glitzy, plasticky stretch around Chardini Street for Russian businessmen and diplomats and a cheaper, more raucous selection for backpackers along Akhvlediani Street across town. I bought my daily lobiani (bean bread) from an unmarked basement underneath the seminary opposite Sioni Cathedral. Service in shops, hotels and restaurants was famously dour. The extravagant Moorish-style opera house was perennially under construction.
That, of course, was then. Over the past decade, Tbilisi has become all but unrecognisable. A series of initiatives – first under the Western-leaning parliament of Mikheil Saakashvili, then under the more controversial, right-wing nationalists of the Georgian Dream party (overseen by mysterious pro-Russian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili), alongside home-grown entrepreneurs – have transformed the city. Government projects have rebuilt and electrified many of the most decrepit buildings, including my current apartment. Streets have been repaved. The entry halls and staircases of the most stunning, most flaking palaces have all been restored, albeit with varying degrees of success. The area around the bathhouses is now so full of visitors – Americans and Europeans, as well as a number of Saudis and Iranians who come for the country’s relative liberalism — that several smaller shops have been repurposed as souvenir outlets.
Some more traditional bars and cafés have closed down, including my beloved chaikhana, as a dizzying crop of new places, designed for a fashionable, more artistically inclined crowd, have opened up. Each time I’ve come back – once or twice a year – I’ve had to ask friends to help me get up to speed. Restaurants such as Café Littera, the brainchild of star chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, set in the courtyard of the old Writers’ House of Georgia, have reimagined the country’s diverse, herbaceous cooking, which draws influences from Central Asia, Russia and Turkey, but – in Soviet days – was all too often reduced to heavy starch. (A highlight at Littera is the mussels chakapuli, recasting the wild plum and tarragon sauce usually served with meat).
And people have changed with it. ‘Georgian girls used to just wear black,’ says my friend Lika Barabadze, a therapist and literary translator (and, for the past decade, my personal guide to what’s going on in town). And men wore a post-Soviet uniform of leather jackets and beer bellies. But now, she points out, Rustaveli Avenue is filled with teens and twenty-somethings in gleefully outlandish street style – among those I spot, my favourite is a T-shirt dress hemmed with orange ostrich feathers.
Part of the new energy of the city, of course, is consciously counter-cultural. The Georgian Dream government, more nationalist than its predecessor, has come to power in part through extremely conservative, Orthodox Christian and homophobic rhetoric. Liberal Georgians, Barabadze says, are thus increasingly visible, the culture clash inspiring frenetic creativity. Just look, she adds, at Bassiani, a nightclub housed in a former Soviet swimming pool that’s drawn comparisons to those of Berlin. ‘Some people go to dance or smoke pot,’ she says, ‘but others go just to be themselves – to be free.’ It’s one of the few LGBTQ-friendly venues in Tbilisi. (Days after my visit, Bassiani was raided by armed police, ostensibly on drug charges, launching a series of protests and right-wing counter-protests; it has since reopened.)
Perhaps most visible in this transformation, particularly to travellers, are the properties of Adjara Group. Spearheaded by entrepreneur Temur Ugulava, who made his fortune in casinos, it has bought sprawling Soviet-era buildings, then cleverly delegated the design and implementation to visionary young Georgians. In the leafy Vera district – a middle-class residential neighbourhood that’s increasingly the epicentre of Tbilisi’s bohemia – Rooms Hotel and its minimalist-chic new sister property Stamba, both in former publishing houses, are staggeringly beautiful, wonderfully inventive examples of contemporary architecture. Blending whimsy with a slightly old-fashioned elegance (Rooms’ staff dress like turn-of-the-century bellhops), they are where everyone who’s anybody comes to see and be seen. And while a few Georgians I spoke to roll their eyes at Rooms’ ubiquity, nearly all admit they still go regularly. Across the river, another Adjara property, Fabrika, which is set in an old sewing factory, operates on similar lines. The multifunctional hub appeals to a younger and more thrifty crowd by leasing space to design types at preferential rents: Ceramic Studio 1300 for plates and bowls, graphic prints from Black Dog Shop, fashion stitched with hidden political messages at the Flying Painter. Friday night in the courtyards at Fabrika is an intersection of shoppers, drinkers at the Dive Bar, young travellers staying at the hostel/hotel hybrid, and vigorous creatives from the co-working spaces. The energy is infectious; the drinks flow until dawn.
One morning I head to my local tailor, tucked away near the Rustaveli cinema, only to discover that he has gone: the whole block has been demolished for another round of renovations. Disappointed, I walk through the flower market: a maze of petals and stems and thorns in the compact Orbeliani park. One old man stops me to give me a rose. Another, hearing my plight in demotic Georgian (I know only the slightly archaic words for ‘garment’ and ‘renovation’), smiles. He guides me through the construction site, to an unmarked façade leading to fruit stalls piled with pomegranates. In the back room of the shop is another room; in that room, another tailor.
The Tbilisi I loved will never be the Tbilisi I come home to. The city always changes; I change. The cafés I love most change name and shape and ownership or move halfway across town; I move with them. It does not matter. The city’s heart is there – it is in the turquoise house behind the funicular station at Rustaveli Square, which I was unreliably told belonged to a great painter of icons. It is in the kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows on Betelmi Street in the Old Town. It is in the view from new restaurants such as Keto and Kote, hidden in a palace that once belonged to Bagrationi princes, accessible only by stepping over stray cats and broken glass. But when I turn the corner and enter the garden, which looks out onto so many star-like lights, and recognise old friends (an avant-garde writer, an Orthodox nun who designs jewellery), I think that this city, in all its iterations, will never not be home.
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