The Georgian capital of Tbilisi has been all over the travel news today, and for all the wrong reasons. A post on CNN’s travel page, “Redeeming sights in the world’s ‘worst cities’“, offered a promising article showcasing “pleasant” images from the World’s supposed “worst cities”. It was an interesting idea, in theory, but in addition to the article’s questionable writing, its inclusion of Tbilisi, Georgia has inspired a lot of anger and annoyance out there, not only among Georgians, but foreigners too – myself included.
In 2012, I lived in Tbilisi. In fact, I almost moved there permanently, but my job at the newspaper didn’t work out, plus I was homesick for my friends back in Madrid. However, it wouldn’t be honest of me to say the city is perfect: it isn’t. My electricity cut out for 12 hours a day at least once a week, my kitchen flooded twice, on occasion I didn’t have working water and I even got poisoned by drinking the tap water during my first two days in Georgia. And, don’t get me started about being a pedestrian in the city, that’ll just branch out into another rant. Yet, in spite of the above, Tbilisi will always hold a special place for me. Here are some reasons why Tbilisi should not be on CNN’s worst cities list.
1. The Architecture
I love Tbilisi’s architecture, I could write pages and pages about it. It is a city with a long and complex history, and this shows in the eclectic mix of buildings that draw from European and Asian elements. I adore the contrast of the lapis lazuli coloured tiles of the Orbeliani baths, which sweep me away into ancient Samarkand and Persia, against the galleried houses taken straight out of New Orleans’ French Quarter (or is it the other way round?). Tbilisi also has its own brand of art nouveau architecture.
Even in the dilapidated backstreets of the Sololaki neighbourhood, each building, especially those being consumed by hungry vines, has its own story to tell. Up in Mtatsminda, the paint flakes from formerly decadent apartment blocks, whose dusty hallways invite me in to explore.
2. The Food
I still have dreams about khinkhali, slippery boiled dumplings stuffed with a spicy meat filling and its juices. I used to pay 2.50€ for five pieces at a hole-in-the-wall near my house, which satisfied both my taste buds and my hunger. Khachapuri, a Georgian cheese bread filled with a local tangy cheese, it’s rich, it’s delicious and it’s a heart attack on a plate, especially the Adjaran Khachapuri – which comes topped with a whole egg and slivers of butter. It’s a symphony in the mouth, but you can feel your arteries clogging up as you eat it, and it’s best left for the days you plan to climb a mountain or two. You can also find a bean stew known as lobio, which is perfumed with coriander and fenugreek, and shashlik, a marinated Georgian kebab. Each meal is a feast in itself and must be washed down with a healthy portion of Georgian wine, which brings me to…
3. The Wine
Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with a history of vini and viti-culture going back to at least 6000 years, if not more. Wine is an integral part of Georgian culture, and it’s still produced to this day using the ancient method of fermenting grapes in Qvevri, amphora-type terracotta pots that are buried in the ground for 6 months. White wines are made by using white grapes, but without removing their skin the way Western wine making practices do, giving them a tannic quality and a full body. Georgian wine is unique, and I sorely miss it now I’m back in the land of Rioja and Ribera.
4. The People
Georgians are some of the kindest people I’ve met in my travels and they’re willing to go without if it means helping a guest. My landlady came to the airport at 5 a.m. when I flew in from Spain to take me to the apartment, and when I left Georgia, an art historian, whom I interviewed for an article, paid for my taxi to the airport. In Georgia, people are always there to help you, they smile at you and say “gamarjobat,” hello, when you pass them in the street. My friends broke down in their rental car in the Caucasus Mountains and within minutes they were helped out by passing locals.
I’m an art columnist based in Madrid, Spain, so you can imagine I have high standards when it comes to cultural expectations. After researching Tbilisi’s art history, my fascination with the country grew. In the early 20th century, Tbilisi was the “third city of culture” after Paris and Moscow. Artistic circles sprung up around the city with a collective of artists, poets, writers and actors. Artists from Georgia’s avant-garde went to Paris and hung out with the likes of Picasso and Duchamp. You can see paintings by Pirosmani and Kakabadze, or visit the golden treasures from ancient Colchis at the archaeological museum. Tbilisi has a brilliant classical music scene, along with jazz, and not to mention the film, theatre, music and folk festivals.
As a single Western woman, before I went to Georgia I was concerned about getting harassed and hassled. Plus the fact Georgia was only at war with Russia a few years back had also unnerved me. During my stay though, not once did I feel unsafe, even when I was out alone at night. In Tbilisi, people leave their doors unlocked, trusting that people won’t rob them. Tbilisi’s crime rate is very low, and while the risk of getting run over by a car or a marshrutka, a local minibus, is high, in general the city is incredibly safe.
7. Public Transport
Tbilisi has an efficient, modern and clean metro line, which is more than I can say about Rome. While there are only a couple of lines, it’s fairly easy to negotiate about the city with the metro network, and there is a wide range of buses too.
Tbilisi might have its flaws, but I definitely would not lump it in with the likes of Khartoum and the other Sub-Saharan cities on the list. The article on CNN is misleading and gravely wrong in many ways. Tbilisi is NOT one of the worst cities in the world, and it definitely has more redeeming features than its Abanotubani, bath, district.
*I'm undertaking a course in travel writing with MatadorU, and this was one of the assignments we had to do on travel narratives - where you have to immerse yourself in the story.*
My heels click down the abandoned Calle Echegaray, only a few blocks from Madrid’s chaotic Puerta del Sol. Houses line the narrow street with flaking façades illuminated by hanging streetlamps. The road curves in at the centre, channelling the rainwater into a thin stream between the tiles.
The panelled wooden doors of La Venencia are open and I catch a whiff of musty, damp barrels and cold cuts of meat.
The walls are yellowed from the decades of cigarette smoke, even though today’s smokers are forced outside into the rain. Stripped bits of white plaster show through the brown ceiling, and dogged-eared vintage posters advertising sherry are pinned up around the walls.
It seems to me that La Venencia has hardly changed since the Spanish Civil War, with the mahogany bar, tables and chairs fading into uneven patches of brown. It’s cold inside and minutes after opening time on a Sunday night, we’re only five: three locals, the bartender and me.
I’ve been coming here for years, but I’m still self-conscious about my “guiri,” the Castilian word for foreigner, status, with my pale skin, blue eyes and hybrid British-Eastern European accent. Even with my correct use of the Spanish subjunctive it’s obvious I’m not local.
“One palo cortado, please,” I ask.
The bartender places a glass of “palo cortado,” a caramel coloured sherry on the wooden counter. I sip from the tulip shaped glass, the heavy legs trickle down the sides and the sticky fluid leaves my mouth with the sharp taste of dried fruits. Lubricated with alcohol, I attempt conversation, resorting to the icebreaker us Brits always fall back on.
“Que hace frío, no?” I say, “It’s cold.”
“Sí, the problem is the damp,” he replies with a deep, gruff voice and scribbles down the price of my sherry in chalk on the wooden counter. He avoids making eye contact with me and turns towards to a local and I’m thinking about how to get in on the conversation.
Voices echo around the bar, highlighted by the emptiness of a place which is usually packed full.
“It’s very quiet tonight,” I say. My eyes stare up behind the bar to the endless rows of sherry bottles of varying brands, shapes and sizes. They’re all covered in dust, fitting in with the flaking décor of the bar itself.
“Sí,” grunts the bartender and raises his shoulders. He taps chalk dust on his dark green apron that he’s wearing over red and white checked shirt that suits his leathery complexion. “It’s Sunday and Spain is in a crisis, what do you expect?”
The first time I came into the bar he yelled “no photos,” at me; returned my change, and gesticulated to the piece of paper stuck on the wall that says “no tips.”
La Venencia hasn’t shaken off its habits from the Civil War and its memory of Franco. When Hemingway hung out in this bar gathering information as a war correspondent, anonymity and proletarian solidarity were matters of survival.
A woman taps me on the shoulder and says, “Your scarf is on the floor”.
She sides up to the bar and brushes her dripping black hair from her face.
“Antonio, give me an amontillado,” she says, “It’s raining ‘cats and dogs’ out there.”
I glance up to the tables in the upper part of the bar as they fill up. A mangy, longhaired black cat struts down the tiled steps. On my first visit, I mistook her for someone’s fluffy handbag until the golden eyes flashed back at me. Tonight, she comes to my table and jumps onto my lap.
“She likes you,” says the woman, “she’s normally not that friendly, she only sits on the laps of a couple of locals.”
She’s clean, however her fur is slightly matted. She’s curled on my lap with no sign of budging.
“What’s her name?” I ask and cautiously stroke the cat.
“Lola,” says the woman, “She’s quite old, she’s been living here at the bar for years.”
A young man walks in and shakes his umbrella, the water droplets land on my notebook and me. Lola the cat jumps up and scuttles off to the other side of the bar, and curls up next to an empty sherry bottle.
I get up and go to the bar.
“Can I get a manzanilla please, and a tapa of cheese and salchichón.” I ask the bartender.
“Do you want some olives too?” he asks. His tone is softer than before.
I look up and smile, “Yes, please,” I say.
“OK,” he scribbles the amount down on my tab at the bar, the corner of his mouth curls up — do I detect the hint of a smile?
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.