This article was originally published in Kunstpedia in August 2012
The curving lines of wrought iron and delicate motifs of Tbilisi’s art nouveau have been forgotten. The “Great Art Nouveau Cities of Europe” conjure up images of Paris, Barcelona, Nancy, Riga and Budapest, with iconic impressions left by Gaudi’s curves or even Paris’s Metropolitan entrances. Tbilisi on the other hand deserves its name on that list, and while the obscure South Caucasian capital is slowly gaining recognition for its Stil Modern architecture – it may be too late to save it.
Georgia has always been a country of crossroads. Its location and history has turned it into a melting point of unique art and architecture that still burns bright today. However, as a former southern colony of the Russian Empire, Tbilisi is a city as European as Paris or Budapest, and in turn, has an architectural history that runs in parallel to the cities of Continental Europe.
The decorative motifs of European art nouveau penetrated Russia and made its way down through the Caucasus into Tbilisi. The integration of modernist architectural design was simply a natural part of the city’s evolution, entering Georgia not only from the north, but also via the Black Sea.
Art nouveau in Georgia flourished, and not only due to Tbilisi’s status as the cultural, political and administrative centre of Transcaucasia, but also from a general interest and disposition towards the style from local professionals and craftsmen. This resulted in numerous buildings springing up around the city that display rare and complex examples of the style. Georgian Stil Modern is eclectic, and perhaps even chaotic in parts. In the Georgian style, standard forms and repeated samples are rejected in favour of creative improvisation.
While the movement’s innovation gave birth to Georgia’s modern architecture, it has become considered an “unimportant” part of the country’s art and architectural history. We have the imposed values of the Soviet Union to thank for that.
This “bourgeois” art form was considered a “crime of ornamentation” and until the end of the Soviet Union these beautiful buildings were left to fall into disrepair and decay.
After the modernist renaissance in Georgia, it wasn’t only the new houses that sprung up around the city that carried the aesthetic, but also cinemas, theatres, shops and even factories integrated the style. Renovations round Tbilisi opted to incorporate these flowing curves into their designs, and the various doors, staircases, balconies and façades with art nouveau details are a testament to its popularity.
Tbilisi’s tragedy lies in the lack of protection and conservation of these monuments, many of which were damaged due to neglect, air and water pollution, and not to mention inadequate maintenance.
A part of this conservation issue is both political and economical. Private houses predating the Bolshevik revolution became state-owned under the Soviet Union. The change of their function as private offices affected the buildings’ looks. Yet even with privatisation of these properties, many owners cannot afford the maintenance and rehabilitation of these buildings.
Some of Tbilisi’s finest examples of art nouveau can still be seen if you take a walk round either the Mtatsminda neighbourhood or the streets surrounding Aghmashenebeli Avenue. This way, you’ll stumble upon beautiful, but overlooked examples.
Their beauty still gazes out through flaking façades, but you have to stop to really look at them. Some of the buildings still retain their original interiors, sporting frescoes, gilded ironwork and small art nouveau details. Many of these buildings are hidden in Tbilisi’s back streets and to see some of the interiors may require some breaking and entering.
The earliest examples of art nouveau in Tbilisi can be found just around Aghmashenebeli Avenue, such as number 4 Vartsikhe Street (renamed Rome street), which was built by architect Simon Kldiashvili. Since academic recognition of the art form arrived late in Georgia, the studies around art nouveau in the city’s architectural history are superficial. It is possible that there may be earlier examples of the style, but this residential house in Vartsikhe Street is perhaps the oldest existing example in the Stil Modern in Tbilisi – dating back to 1902. Its façade is decorated with omega shaped iron-wrought balconies and elaborated with detailed plasterwork. It serves as a unique example and impression of Georgian art nouveau.
Close by on 36 Aghmashenebeli Avenue is a building dating back to 1903. It has original features on both its interior and exterior. I slipped through the back door of a second hand clothes store that offered forbidden entry into the hallway. Here you can see frescoes with scenes from Shota Rustaveli’s “Knight in Panther Skin” – a medieval Georgian poem that is a key to decoding Georgian culture.
The old house on 3a Ia Karagereli Street dates back to 1903, and is an apartment by an unknown architect. It’s a beautiful example lined with coloured tiles and elegant motifs. The brickwork shows through the flaked exterior and this house is a certified example as to why the city needs to restore these buildings.
Up in Mtatsminda, you can find other examples of fading grandeur. Number 12 Daniel Chonkadze Street, designed by architect M. Ohajanov, is a good example. The interior shows some beautiful, fragmented stained glass work that looks down onto an abandoned staircase.
While the issue of the restoration of these buildings has been raised, this brings us to another problem – inappropriate construction and reshaping.
Another concern, which is just as tragic as the disappearance of Tbilisi’s art nouveau monuments, are the examples of their poor renovation. In these cases original features and elements have disappeared under a layer of plaster and paint. Interiors are forgotten and modern inauthentic materials are used in the buildings’ reconstruction.
The Apollo on Aghmashenebeli Avenue is an example of poor restoration. For years this endangered building was a knockdown waiting to happen, but even so, its recent restoration is not the saviour it should have been. Many of its original details and features have been erased rendering the Apollo almost unrecognisable, and easy to just bypass it without knowing it was once something special.
Other such restorations include the TBC Bank on Marjanishvili Street and the National Bank on 3 Giorgi Leonidze Street.
The fight to preserve Tbilisi’s art nouveau heritage continues, in 1997 the “Art Nouveau Preservation Group” and “The Open Society – Georgia” foundations were established, only a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their aim is to raise awareness of the importance of these buildings as well as their protection.
For the moment, damaged buildings that are in critical condition from this era are being destroyed in favour of replacing them with modern structures. Other buildings of the same time period are being subjected to careless and destructive restoration. These monuments are in desperate need of specialists who’ll care for the details and the décor with the respect they deserve.
The art nouveau of Tbilisi is part of our global and cultural heritage. Even the World Monuments Fund has listed Georgia’s modernist buildings as some of the most important and endangered monuments in the world.
One of Europe’s great art nouveau cities is on the brink of extinction, and the tragedy is no one knows it exists.
I would like to give special thanks to Maia Mania for her knowledge and help in my research on Georgian art nouveau.
1. Nestan Tatarashvili, Art Nouveau in Tbilisi: Guidebook, map and routes (2008)
In the modern age of low cost flights and workaholic hours, more and more people are getting their travel fix through weekend escapes. Flying out on Friday and coming back on Sunday means that you'll only get one full day at the destination of your choice, which isn't enough to truly experience the city and country at its best. However, some of my most memorable travel experiences have been through flying visits, whether in the form of a 9 hour stop over or a weekend escape. Here are my top 5 mini-breaks from the past couple of years.
This was literally a flying visit to the Ukrainian capital, since I had 9 hours to kill in Kiev airport on a stopover from Tbilisi (Tbilisi-Kiev-Rome-Madrid). I landed at 9 a.m. and I was determined not to spend the entire day imprisoned in Boryspil airport. After pleading my case to the airport staff for my release, I received a satisfying stamp in my passport and was free to go.
Even a few hours in Kiev's centre was worth all the hassle. It's a city that combines elegance with the exotic, where its brightly coloured buildings and the golden churches livened up the sour grey skies. The elegant boulevards are characteristic of central and eastern Europe, bringing back nostalgic feelings of my childhood in Budapest.
The few hours I spent in Kiev was just a teaser introducing me to the city's sites and character and left me hungry to consume more. Fortunately, my brisk walk took me past the principal sites like the gold-domed churches of St. Sophia and St. Michael's Monastery, taking me back to Maidan Square and along Khreschatyk Street. I swept the streets as a manic tourist, but I found time to sit down some very cheap and quality Ukrainian food before continuing my long journey home.
This one is perhaps a bit of a cheat. I grew up in Budapest, so I know the city very well. Last year, Ryanair opened a new route between Madrid and the Hungarian capital with tickets costing 20€ return. This was an offer too good to miss, even if it was with Ryanair, so we impulsively booked flights that would arrive in Budapest Friday night and left Sunday morning. This meant that we only had one day to explore the city. A couple of my friends in our group had been before, but the others had not. This inspired me to draw up a concrete itinerary to guide them through the city's most important sites. The apartment we rented (if you're going to Budapest in a large group, I'd recommend renting an apartment over a hotel - it's much cheaper and far more fun) was right in the centre, making it easy to get around on foot.
Budapest is a fairly small city, as capital cities go, and you can explore most of it on foot. An unmissable Budapest experience is a visit to one of the classic, historic cafés. My personal favourite is the New York Café on the Körút, but the of the proximity of the Café Gerbeaud to our apartment and our planned itinerary meant we started our day there.
We strolled along the Danube banks and ambled across to the Chain Bridge over to Buda Castle. Instead of contending with the steep hill we opted for the funicular, which is a fun and easy way to get to the top, not to mention the wonderful views you're treated to on your ascent. Castle Hill has so much for the discerning tourist, with walks around the palace grounds and the Fisherman's Bastion. Here you can enjoy incredible riverside views through the cloisters and down to the Parliament.
Our route descended back down across the river and onto Andrássy Avenue, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This scenic walk took us past the Opera house all the way up to Heroes Square, just in time for sundown. The intensive walking tour ended with a night time stroll through City Park and the atmospheric Vajdahunyad Castle.
From Madrid this is the perfect weekend getaway. You can find tickets for as low as 30€ with Ryanair and the flight is under an hour. Portugal's second city is definitely worth a visit, whether you're a fan of decaying grandeur or you just love Port wine. Oporto is the ideal size for a mini-city break. You can spend one day sightseeing, and if you have another day to spare, you can go Port tasting in the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, or even cram both in the same day if you get up really early.
I went with the misconception that Portugal was going to be like Spain. It's not just in the language and cultures that differ, Oporto is architecturally unique when you pair it against other Spanish cities, even the nearby Santiago de Compostela. The buildings are beautiful, yet half of them are abandoned. Churches with blue and white tiles dot every other street, tucked between small and colourful townhouses and grand neoclassical structures. Top places to visit are the Majestic Café, the Lello & Irmão Bookshop (one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, and apparently inspired J.K. Rowling's Diagonal Alley in the Harry Potter books) and of course, the Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.
While I was living in Tbilisi in neighbouring Georgia, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hop on a marshrutka, a Soviet era minibus, and travel to the capital of Armenia. Yerevan is a city full of surprises and one that surpassed all expectations. Many said that it was a "dump" and a depressing city filled with Soviet era buildings, yet my personal impressions were the complete opposite. I found Yerevan to be a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant night life and some of the friendliest people I've met. Yerevan makes a unique city break, especially since it's the ideal base to visit the surrounding Armenian countryside with regular and cheap tours on offer to Geghard, Garni, Lake Sevan and Khor Virap.
While most of my long weekend in Armenia was spent exploring the historic sites outside of the city, I felt I got a taste a sample of Yerevan as well. The city is very tourist friendly, and unlike Tbilisi, it's easy to cross the roads without fear of getting run over. The streets are marked in both Latin script as well as Armenian and it's easy to navigate.
The Cascade is the place to be at sundown. This modern arts centre merges art with architecture, with stunning views at the top over Yerevan and Mount Ararat.
The square next to the Opera house is surrounded with outdoor pavilions and bustling bars tempting you in for a taste of Armenian brandy or elegant cocktails. At 11 p.m. head over to Republic Square to take in the "singing fountains," a light and fountain show that is both spectacular and wonderfully tacky.
Writing about Venice in this list feels like a cop-out or a cliché. I mean, how many times has Venice come up in a list like this? Saying that, Venice has been one of my favourite mini-breaks, and since it's my blog I'll post what I like.
I was apprehensive about travelling to Venice, scared that the city wouldn't meet my expectations. The city of Venice has appeared in countless movies, artworks and books leaving it with some pretty big shoes to fill. Luckily for Venice, it has the big feet to match. Venice didn't only live up to its image, it swept me away on a gondola with Casanova.
I took my mini-break at the end of March, just after Carnivale, when the flights and hotels were a bargain. The weather was ideal, not too hot nor cold, and the city wasn't crowded at all.
No trip to Venice is complete without visiting the usual suspects, like San Marco, Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, but my personal highlights were the cemetery on Isola San Michele, the towering spiral staircase of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo and drinking Aperol cocktails with local Venetians in Campo di Santa Margherita.
Have you ever had a short stop over some place interesting? What's your favourite city break?
When people think of Spain they picture sun, sea and the costas. In some it evokes thoughts of drinking cheap sangria before hitting dodgy resort nightclubs in complete inebriation. For many, the Iberian Peninsula calls to mind paella and flamenco. In other words, Spain has been typecast into an Andalucian caricature, but if you travel inland to the cities of Castille you'll find an altogether different flavour.
The small town* of Salamanca is situated in the province of Casilla y Leon. It only takes two and a half hours to travel by train from Madrid, making it a fun, easy and interesting destination if you're looking to spend a night away from the manic chaos of the Spanish capital.
Salamanca is home to Spain's oldest university, making it the Iberian equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge. The student presence in the town adds a youthful edge, since there are plenty of bars around the city that are bursting with life. Whether you're looking for the standard "cañas y pinchos," a small beer with a light snack, or a bottle of Asturian cider attached to a guillotine-like machine that pumps cider from the bottle with precision into your glass from a great height: Salamanca has it all.
I first went to Salamanca as part of my PhD course five years ago. My postgraduate program involved a sequence of intensive courses all over Spain within various institutions. It was a fun experience, but excruciatingly hard: Quantum Field Theory and High Energy Physics at postgraduate level are bad enough without having to deal with lectures in a language you've only been "speaking" for six months.
For the duration of the course, we were cooped up for eight hours a day in a cold room in the basement of the modern physics department, after which we were let loose on the sandstone streets with a mission to drink an obscene amount of beer and consume a lot of tapas, with a little sightseeing thrown in for good measure.
One place worth a visit is Casa Lis, it's a beautiful fin de siècle building with amazing stained-glass work. Casa Lis houses the Museum of Art Nouveau and Deco (and the creepiest selection of porcelain dolls ever) and I really wanted to revisit it.
On my second visit back, I discovered they have opened a café in one of the front wings. The café is situated in a room with stunning stained-glass windows and decked out with vintage style furniture, which has kept the café in style with the house. Sipping port (one of my weaknesses) paired roquefort (another weakness) for a good part of an hour was an absolute pleasure, and a visit to Casa Lis should not be missed by anyone paying a visit to the city. The museum is excellent for anyone who loves art nouveau and deco objects, and even if you're not a huge fan, the building itself merits a visit.
An evening stroll took us past Salamanca's monuments, from the two Cathedrals and the Casa de Conchas, the house of shells, and we finally entered the iconic Plaza Mayor, one of the most beautiful squares in Spain. You can find many bars and eateries surrounding the city's main square, with plenty of student haunts found in nearby sidestreets. Eating out in Salamanca is inexpensive and the food quality is high, most notably the meat dishes. This is one city where you'll keep your gastronomic juices flowing while your wallet breathes a sigh of relief. If you're a wine lover, then consider yourself lucky. Unlike the rest of Spain, comparitively speaking that is, high quality wine is inexpensive in Salamanca.
A thick fog shrouded the town in the morning and you could barely glimpse the Cathedral behind the Art Nouveau Museum as before. It was cold, but atmospheric. Salamanca lived up to its reputation for being one of the coldest cities in Spain. This is a far cry from the costas and if you travel inland a little further and you'll end up in Portugal. It's is a city seldom visited by tourists, so the streets are quiet and eerie.
A visit to Salamanca isn't complete without a trip to the old university. You must take a look at the façade and look for the famous frog -- it's supposedly good luck if you see it. The University museum is interesting for the historic library alone, but you should visit the "Salamanca Heavens" fresco, a stunning Renaissance ceiling depicting the zodiac. Take a turn into the cloisers and you'll find a small door leading to the "Salamanca Heavens". Entrance is free.
If you have time to make it down to the river, you can take in stunning views of the old town from the historic Roman bridge.
Salamanca can be easily visited in a day. All the sites are within walking distance, but it's worth staying the night to sample its student night life. It is a small town, but it oozes atmosphere, and has a certain je ne sais quoi that other places just don't have. Whether in the sun or fog (or rain, as I recall from my first trip), it's a city that will always remain beautiful.
Have you visited any of the smaller towns in Spain? Does Spain conjure up images of the beach and parties, or do you think of Cervantes and El Cid? I'd love to hear about your experiences and take on the country.
*Well, Salamanca itself isn't exactly small, but visiting the historic centre it leaves you with that small town feeling.
This article was originally published in Kunstpedia in August 2012
Situated up on a mountainous ridge overlooking the desert plains of Azerbaijan are a group of abandoned caves that shelter one of Georgia’s best art treasures – the frescos of the Davit Gareji school.
Georgia may be considered a part of Europe, albeit one of its most eastern frontiers, but its art history differs significantly from its Western European counterparts like Italy or the Netherlands. Up until the 18th century, easel painting didn’t really exist in Georgia; instead Georgian art mostly took on the form of murals and frescoes that dot the country’s various monasteries and churches.
The artistic renaissance came to Georgia much earlier than in Western Europe, when the great heights of mural painting experienced their golden age between the 11th-13th centuries. Frescos often were inspired by religious themes, but not limited to them since murals of a more secular nature also exist.
In style, the colouring and the iconography of Georgian frescoes display an influence from the Byzantine style, yet they encompass their own individual reimaging of motifs and stylisation distinguishing Georgian art of the middle ages from its Byzantine counterpart.
Various national schools with their own unique styles sprung up around the South Caucasian country, which not only celebrated Georgian hagiography, but also drew influences from the cultural contacts they had with their neighbouring countries.
One of the most important fresco schools of Georgia’s golden age was at the rock-hewn Davit Gareji monastic complex located in the south of the country on today’s border with Azerbaijan.
The main monastery of the Davit Gareji, known as Lavra, originates from the 6th century. This was founded by St. David Garejeli, one of the 13 ascetic Syrian fathers who returned to Georgia from the Middle East to spread the word of Christianity. Over time, the complex grew over the area where separate cave monasteries sprung up in the nearby mountains, including Udabno and its famous frescos.
The Davit Gareji monastery complex soon became Georgia’s sacred spiritual and cultural centre where the translation of manuscripts took place and birthed the once flourishing Davit Gareji fresco school.
The private art school of fresco painting of Udabno became one of the most significant events in the cultural life of Georgia’s middle ages. Where the colourful murals of Udabno chronicle the development of the life within the monasteries. When Davit Gareji reached its zenith in the 11th-13th centuries, the artistic school evolved from its austere style with the limited palette of its 10th century frescoes into the lush, brilliantly coloured and highly stylized murals of its golden age – reflecting the prosperity not only of the monastery, but also of the Kingdom of Georgia itself.
The cave complex of Udabno on the ridge above the original Lavra monastery was founded between the 8th-10th centuries. It spans more than 500m across the mountainside. Carved into the rock face, the now abandoned Udabno monastery consists of over 50 overgrown caves that once housed cells, chapels, churches and even a refectory.
The frescos of Udabno serve as a living chronicle to the progression of Georgian medieval art. Some of the older frescos date back as far as the 9th-10th centuries to the revered 13th century murals.
In some places in the Udabno complex, you can see where the old frescos were over-painted in the 13th century. The school at Davit Gareji did not use the Byzantine technique of applying a plaster basecoat before repainting, but only administered a thin layer of white paint before the new fresco was applied. Nowadays, this allows art historians to investigate the older painting underneath the newer layer, since the flaking of the topcoat causes the fragments from the older murals to show through.
The life of St. David Garejeli is chronicled in an older fresco in one of the chapels at Udabno, underneath the life of St. Nino, a 4th century Georgian female evangelist, that was painted in the 13th century on top of the original. Both frescos are rare, since it is unusual in Byzantine and Eastern Christian art to chronicle the lives of local and national saints.
Visiting the frescos of the Davit Gareji School is more complex than taking a trip to the National Gallery or driving to a monastery or church in a town. The Davit Gareji complex is situated in the middle of nowhere between the southern Georgian steppes and the Azeri desert, with nothing but a bad road and a soviet era taxi to get you there.
Even after a bumpy ride through what is a stunning landscape that feels more like Central Asia than Eastern Europe, the journey hasn’t finished yet. The Lavra monastery is located right next to the car park, but it’s a place of holy residence and not a tourist centre. Visitors are allowed into the courtyard to enjoy the view of the sandstone caves, but no further – since there is still a colony of monks residing on the premises who value a life of tranquillity and peace.
Udabno is accessible from Lavra, but involves an hour-long hike up the mountainside to reach the ridge where the abandoned caves are located. Even at 11am the temperature reached over 35°C, going up by five degrees when you cross into Azerbaijan, and you have to pay attention to the dirt path leading upwards in case you come across the occasional poisonous viper or two.
Natural health hazards aside, the site has been a subject for political debate for some time since it falls right on the Georgian-Azeri border. Back in May this year, the site was closed off to the public by Azerbaijan over territorial disputes with Georgia. Fortunately, after discussions between Baku and Tbilisi, the Davit Gareji monastery was reopened to allow visitors and pilgrims back in. Although getting to the caves of Udabno means you’ll unintentionally cross into Azeri territory, it’s unlikely you’ll come across any border guards until you reach the top of the ridge, and Kalashnikovs aside, they’re very friendly and helpful guys.
Experiencing the frescos of Udabno is unlike any art pilgrimage I’ve had before – this was the Indiana Jones experience of the art world. We were totally alone up on the ridge, with no other tourists in sight walking an uneven dust track that lay between the caves and a steep drop into Azerbaijan. There are no labels telling you who painted the fresco and what it depicts. Neither are there any cordoned off paintings nor gallery security guards to keep you from getting up close and personal with the murals.
Most of the frescoes are in poor condition, since the Soviet army had used the caves around Davit Gareji for artillery practice due to the region’s resemblance to Afghanistan, not to mention the damage caused by the 17th century Persian invaders who defaced some of the paintings. There is also no climate control up here to preserve the frescoes and since the caves are exposed to the elements, only time will tell how long these gems of Georgian art will survive. You may have to brave the desert, the mountain, the Azeri border guards and poisonous snakes to visit them, but the beauty of the Davit Gareji frescoes makes the journey worth it.
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.