DAY 2423 to DAY 2517
17.12.2019 - 20.01.2020 10 °C
I’m half asleep when our flight lands at 5AM in Tbilisi (pronounced tuh-blee-see). We disembark in a daze. Never sure if it’s because I’ve stuffed my swollen feet back into shoes or just an uneven surface, but it’s not the first time I stumble on the jet bridge leading to the terminal. Silently, I prompt myself, “Pick up your feet!”
Long corridors with unintelligible signs lead to the Immigration window of our choice. No lines, hardly any people; unlike arriving in any other country capital (pre-coronavirus that is). The officer smiles and says, “Good morning.” I stare at her in disbelief while she scans my passport. Almost immediately, she stamps a page, hands it back to me with an enthusiastic, “Welcome to Georgia,” simultaneously placing a small bottle on the counter. As I turn away, she calls after me, “For you take! [sic]” I fumble a thank you then pass through the gate, still processing the most hospitable welcome I have ever received from an immigration officer, when I realize that I am holding a 250 ml/8 oz bottle of red wine! The kicker is the label:
At baggage claim, a woman in a smart suit, carrying an iPad, rushes forth and in perfect English asks if we need a taxi. Not at all prepared for such assertive behavior, I wave her off while we collect our bags. She takes no offense and says, “When you’re ready, I will be happy to direct you to an official airport taxi. If you are going to the center, the fixed price is 40 Gel,” (about 13 euros for the 30 minute ride). We are used to being accosted for transportation, but never has it been so polite and precise. In the Arrivals hall, while we get our bearings and some local cash (Georgian Lari), several men offer rides, none of which seem legit, and the language barrier is just too taxing at this hour. I hail the woman who happens to be in my line of sight and in a flash we’re on our way. In the following days, we discover Bolt, Georgia’s version of Uber. Although we paid a fair price for the airport taxi, nothing rivals Bolt, and they accept cash. Despite ridiculously cheap fares anywhere in the city, we end up using the service only a couple of times as Tbilisi, though hilly, is quite walkable and the activity tracker on my wrist has successfully brainwashed me with 10,000-step guilt.
Home for the next few weeks is a sparsely furnished but well-equipped one-bedroom apartment in the center near Rustaveli metro station. Our early arrival instructions are to pick up the keys at the small hotel next door except, there is no envelope with my name and the night receptionist doesn’t know anything about keys! Trying to contain my impatient, exhausted tourist tone, I’m about to phone and likely wake up the Airbnb host when the woman says, “Wait! Try this one, it doesn’t look like one of ours.” Thankfully, the key works.
There’s a really nice welcome note with essential information and helpful tips. The bedroom has large windows and a beautiful wood floor, the bathroom is modern with a washing machine and there’s a combination kitchen/dining/living area in the back that faces an interior courtyard and probably doesn’t get much sunlight, but for $22/night, we cannot believe our luck.
Our quiet street is very old and very steep. I figure, the craggy stones that penetrate my soles must have been placed purposefully to give horses/carts/cars traction and maybe even to drain rainwater. Whatever the reason, forget anything but comfortable shoes in this city.
We are about 100 meters from Shota Rustaveli, the central avenue of Tbilisi, named after a Georgian poet. The National Opera Theater, Museum of Fine Arts, upscale hotels and government buildings sit on either side of this elegant, lively avenue that descends to Freedom (aka Liberty) Square. The architecture is a mix of Renaissance Baroque, Neo-Moorish, Socialist Classicism, Art Nouveau... People selling everything from jewelry, books, Soviet memorabilia and crappy souvenirs line the street above and below ground. Peaceful protestors are camped out in tents in front of the Parliament building as a reminder that conflict with Russia and other civil issues persist, but for the most part, the atmosphere seems rather joyous. There are street musicians everywhere and people seem to really enjoy stopping to listen and socialize.
Not nearly as bad as Delhi or Beijing, the air quality is certainly questionable. Car exhaust, a gritty residue on the pavement and people smoking everywhere are negative points, but we are loving Tbilisi from day one!
The city has a long, complicated history; Arab, Mongol, Persian, Russian. Every invader destroyed, built, and left their style. Old Town is a squeeze of cobblestone streets and tightly stacked, balconied buildings, holding one another up. As the world takes notice of Georgia as a destination, Tbilisi is getting a facelift and within the next couple of years, construction debris will give way to beautifully restored historic neighborhoods with tasteful modern accents.
Tbilisi is built over natural hot springs rich in sulphur, purported to have many health benefits. There are at least six bath houses to choose from. Having done no research, and dulled by the recent experience in Budapest, I walk into the two most famous places. Pretty much put off by the atmosphere and the smell of cigarette smoke, I walk out thinking I’ll have to research this more given so many favorable reviews, but I keep postponing and ultimately never get around to it. It will be a priority when we come back, and we will be back.
Forget any attempt to understand Georgian. It has a unique alphabet. Even Google Translate is at a loss. Fortunately, many restaurants and cafes display the English translation and people are so friendly, it is never a problem. There is always someone who speaks enough English, sometimes even French. While we have a full kitchen and several supermarkets nearby, plentiful food is so cheap in restaurants, we end up only making breakfast in the apartment. Within a week we have a list of favorite cafes and restaurants on both sides of the Mtkvari (Kura) River and have settled into a routine: Late morning cappuccinos (and sometimes a delicious pastry) at Puri Giuliani or Gala, “work” for a few hours, then order or walk over to Strada or Radio Cafe for lunch, “work” a bit more or take a walk to discover other parts of the city before heading to another restaurant to “work” some more before dinner.
For a fancier dinner (36 euros including wine and service), we head to Republic Restaurant overlooking Revolution Square. It’s not quite as copious as most restaurants in Tbilisi, but the food is delicious and the views...
As December unfolds, large crews work day and night setting up stages around the city. A full schedule of DJs, concerts and holiday festivities lead up to an extravagant live television broadcast on New Years Eve just a few blocks from the apartment. After an unbelievable display of fireworks, we stand in the street among thousands of spectators to watch the show. While we don’t understand the banter between the elegant hosts, who change costume in between every act, the impersonations of stars like Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan are hyperrealistic and beautifully executed.
Celebrations continue well into January. Every day at dusk, somewhere, someone flips a switch bathing Rustaveli Avenue in a cosmic theme made of a million tiny lights. Crowds stroll along the avenue and partake in a host of seasonal activities.
Georgians love to eat and drink. There are restaurants and cafes every few feet serving delectable, carb-heavy dishes. The bread, alone or filled with eggs and cheese (Kachapuri) or beans (Lobiani) is divine. Walnuts are a staple ingredient often combined with eggplant, spinach or beets (Pkhali), and thick creamy soups of mushroom or pumpkin will warm your soul. Pomegranate seeds decorate virtually every dish.
And then there is the wine. Georgians have been making it since 6000 BC! Supermarket shelves seem to stock more alcohol than food and there are always tasting stands. Locals favor the many varieties of sweet and semi-sweet wines, but we quickly develop a liking for the dry reds made from Saperavi grapes. At 8000 Vintages, you can shop for and taste wines in the front of the store, or sit down and enjoy one of several platters featuring local cheeses, cured meats, exceptional olives and creamy spreads to accompany a bottle.
Over 80% of Georgians are Orthodox Christians, and they celebrate Christmas on (or around) January 7th according to the Julian calendar. The principal event in Tbilisi on this day is Alilo, a traditional procession led by children that descends Rustaveli Avenue to Freedom Square crosses the Baratashvili Bridge and makes its way uphill, culminating at the massive Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral. Along the route, children collect gifts and candy to be distributed to orphanages and communities in need.
Throughout the city center, tour operators and freelance drivers hawk day trips and packages, restaurants and cafes place people out front to entice you in, etc. It is slightly annoying, because we walk by the same people often and the pitch never varies, but it’s always delivered with a smile and rather than insist, they usually wish us a pleasant stay. One day, a nice looking man standing next to a van mumbles in French as we pass by. Something about his gentle demeanor catches our attention. We’ve decided to check out Gudauri, the country’s largest ski resort two hours away, and he’s the man to take us there.
With a ride and an Airbnb booked, we need ski clothes! The sporting goods shops at Galleria Mall on Rustaveli are expensive (especially since we will leave most of our purchases behind). A search brings up Snowy Mountains ski shop, not far from Dinamo Arena (stadium) and Dezerter Bazaar, Tbilisi’s largest market.
For $35 dollars, we get ski pants and gloves but their jackets are ugly and I hold out for something that I can wear off the slopes as well. We take a Bolt (10 Gel, about $4 for the 20-minute drive) to East Point Mall where we find jackets and winter boots for peanuts. And that is the only positive aspect of that mall especially when I realize that all the stores there have branches on Rustaveli Avenue near our apartment!
Gudauri sits on a south-facing plateau, perpetually bathed in sun, in the Caucasus Mountains. The town is divided in 2 parts, old and new; new being the cluster of condos and hotels that has sprouted around the main gondola. It is entirely possible to stay down valley or at hotels and developments along the road in, but why bother when you can ski in/out of your lodging and walk no more than 5 minutes to a variety of bars, restaurants, shops and spas. The resort itself (2196m/7205 ft.) lacks charm but the surrounding mountains and views are stupendous.
Our spacious, fully-equipped studio is bright and comfortable and comes with an extremely convenient ski locker on the ground floor. Equipment rental is about 11 euros/day and the lift ticket is a mere 15 euros/day.
There is just one small problem, there isn’t much snow! The bottom half of the mountain Is rocky but fortunately, the top (3279 m/10,757 ft.) is fine and all the lifts are open. Over our two-week stay, we get a few inches of fresh powder here and there, and the quality of the snow is fantastic. The runs are blissful for beginners and intermediate skiers and they are empty! Weekends get a little more crowded, but not much. The gondolas and lifts are brand new. Some chair lifts even have an optional, transparent shield that you can pull down for extra protection on windy or cold days.
Tip: Bring basic first aid items as (for the moment) there is no pharmacy (or doctor) in New Gudauri. Medics and ambulances are on standby at all times, but for non-emergencies, you’ll need to taxi or Bolt down the mountain.
There are some black runs and heliskiing options for expert skiers and paragliding is also hugely popular. For 4 euros roundtrip, non-skiers are welcome to ride the gondola up and hang out at the restaurants and bars on the mountain. Though infrastructure is rudimentary at the top (only a couple of outhouses) and food outlets are pretty basic structures, there are tables, chairs, loungers, beanbags and the most incredible vibe. People are dancing in their boots, waiters are extremely friendly, food is good and the sun shines endlessly.
There are plenty of good restaurants in the resort and they are so reasonable, we eat out every night. One night after dinner, we wander into a bar/restaurant called The Drunken Cherry. What a find! There is a Georgian woman belting out, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, you name it, interspersed with a DJ mixing everything from rock to disco and hip-hop. There are families with kids, young adults and older people like us. Bartenders and waiters dance as they mix and serve, and everyone is just having a fantastic time.
After two weeks in Gudauri, it’s time to leave, but we are already planning to come back next winter, relishing the thought of how great the skiing will be with more snow.
Dragging our feet, we head back to Tbilisi for a couple of nights before flying out, We’ve spent a month in Georgia and only visited two places. There is so much more to discover the next time around. Can’t wait!