Every traveler seeks authenticity. To discover relatively untouched locales and to establish new encounters. In a constantly connected world, this becomes more challenging with each passing day.
While a few high-profile destinations are confronting the challenge of “over-tourism” and what that means for their citizens and infrastructure, the vast majority of locations enjoy a pleasant medium of sidewalk strolling visitors and locals shuffling past them to conduct their day-to-day.
So, after seven destinations that regularly struck a healthy balance, I blearily disembarked my flight at the Tbilisi airport at 2:15am on a Wednesday morning.
The arrival still seems like mostly a blur. The combination of late arrival and disorderly shocking nature of the preceding fifteen hours working to contribute to the murky nature of my recall.
First point, Russia is a hopelessly large landmass. Upcoming flight itineraries run together when you are traveling for six months. However, when I pulled up the route for Tokyo to Moscow, I realized I had ten and a half hours in store for me in the exceptionally cramped economy section of Aeroflot airlines.
I am not a big guy and Russian men, hell pretty much all Eastern European males, require a wide berth. It was comical watching passengers on the long-haul flight scrunch and contort their limbs in a way to ascertain some level of satisfaction. Then…the seatbelt sign turned off as we hit cruising altitude and everyone resolved to recline. Oh boy.
That was a primer for the chaotic reality of Moscow’s flagship international airport. I have marked a lot of airport time and never has an airport come across as so disorganized and indifferent about the passenger experience as what I turned up here - and I have frequented the New York City trifecta on many occasions. Queues existed in name alone, seating options were non-existent and customer “service” desks were understaffed and aloof. It was a lengthy five-hour layover.
I was ready to decompress when wheels touched down in Tbilisi. The city has been on the edges of my radar for the last two years. A growing murmur from full-time travelers generated enthusiasm in the approachable Eastern European culture that greeted visitors while not sacrificing the grittiness of its history, and the burgeoning appreciation of long-established and stellar wine production in the region.
I was here to prove the genuineness of these claims.
During seven days in Tbilisi, I met no other western English-speaking travelers during my stay. That was a first in roughly three months on the road and, honestly, accounts for any trips taken before this one. I was touring in late March when temperatures are still coming out of hibernation but, still, this was perceptible throughout the extent of my stay.
English, in general, has a low adoption rate or existence at all in this part of the world - not that it need be. But I had not foreseen this bustling city just to the north of the Armenian border to call for the deepest test of my charades skills yet! The residents of Tbilisi are excellent sports about it though, as long as you get up the confidence to look past the general gruffness exuded by practically every local on the street and participate.
Tbilisi marked my first visit to an Eastern European city. I came away enthralled by the in-your-face pride of their culture. These folks make no excuses, nor should they, for not catering to Western tastes and conveniences. Not that I was uncomfortable, just the opposite. Despite the cold temperatures of late March that slipped back into the thirties the second half of my trip, I found the hospitality warmed the spirit.
The country of Georgia draws influence from Romans, Persians, Turks and Arab settlers who pursued claim to this fertile tract along the silk road. Most recently, the state was under Russian control until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Even then, the region struggled to truly break loose and chart their own deserved course - with Russian air strikes as recently as 2008. However, since then the region has experienced relative stability and blossomed.
Visual reminders of the city's long past of culture swapping greet you at every step of the charmingly irregular and uneven sidewalks. One block will reward with magnificent cathedrals in the Eastern Orthodox style while the next block will substitute in neoclassical or, perhaps, bleak and grey Stalinist facades.
The streets present gruff faced Georgian men in a perpetual repose of lingering for some undefined job to show itself and the headscarf-clad babushka women who put forth a stronger “don’t mess with me” vibe than any of the males could hope for. However, as alluded to earlier, this is a front and a cultural carryover of a cold war history. Interactions in the many restaurants, boutiques and markets of the city will reveal these same groups as gracious and welcoming.
Georgians outwardly seem a profoundly religious group. One imagines this society cherishes a hard-fought history of charting their own course. This must produce a profound appreciation for any capacity to function autonomously, even extending to religious exercise. I seldom witnessed a passerby of the many orthodox churches that peppered the city turn down the opportunity to pause in front of the building mid-stride and offer a blessing.
Midway through my stay, I walked roughly twenty minutes across the Kura River that splits the city in two to the Dezerter Market. Expecting a conventional European street market of produce and snacks, what I discovered was something absolutely unique. More an all-encompassing flea market with products varying from finely constructed crafts to what appeared to be local yard sales.
I got the hard press that my world would be incomplete without an ornate wooden clock that, after ten minutes of one-word banter and hand gestures, I still can not confidently say even worked. Efforts to illustrate that three additional months of travel awaited me largely went misunderstood.
Still, the interaction ended with smiles, a good-natured “I tried” shrug and then an offer for a shot of chacha, or strong Georgian pomace brandy (i.e. grappa). Seemingly every vendor involved in some construct of trade kept a bottle behind their counter or under the bench. Either store bought or homemade, both mixtures were delicious, smooth and delivered a throat-clearing punch.
I imagine the chacha serves two purposes as a conclusion to a commercial transaction. If the result was a purchase, then the pour is to salute a celebratory transaction. If failed, perhaps the chacha serves to procure a vendor more time and loosen the buyer‘s rationale that persuaded you that trinket was not reason enough to reorganize your entire packing situation to bring it home. I drank the chacha, and I did not purchase the timepiece.
Most of the city rests in a valley between sizable foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and remains walkable. There is a sizable community of free roaming stray dogs that look alarming but largely overlook the human population (I watched a few get vocal with people juggling bags outside the grocery store). Apparently the city has gone to considerable lengths to try to corral the situation and each dog bears a small plastic tag on the right ear. This conveys that animal control has administered vaccination shots and the animals have been fixed. However, if one is skittish around medium to large size dogs the city could present a challenge as they are present on every block.
My favorite moments in Tbilisi were regularly the early to mid-mornings. The city is slow to arise and bring to cruising speed. The initial day my nose and attentive eye successfully led me to what I learned later is the oldest bakery in the city.
Nestled under the seminary of the Sioni Cathedral in the ancient quarter of town lies an unnamed cavernous bakeshop. I initially noticed the unmistakable scent of hot bread magically appearing in the air and noted a flow of residents making an abrupt turn down stairs that slipped under the church.
Like a Santa’s workshop but with bread bakers silently churning out delicious stuffed sweet and savory carb-loaded presents, it was a too good to pass up each day. Over the week, purchases of cheese stuffed fried dough, a tarragon stuffed bun and a classical Georgian folded baked good stuffed with beans were the highlights.
Based on the bewildered expression that greeted me the first two mornings, it is a certain bet most visitors to the city never discover this spot. By the third morning, the proprietor knew to bring her calculator out to demonstrate to the foreigner the cost of the items chosen for takeaway.
Most coffee shops open around 8am (some later) and I immediately realized a modest cafe called PinPon down the alley from my Airbnb in the old historic quarter was my spot. Well-crafted espresso and brewed coffee helped warmup and wake up efforts, while mulled wine loitered on the menu as a remnant from winter. An excellent way to punch the blood flow up a few degrees in the afternoon.
Speaking of wine, Georgian wine delivered on the hype that inundated it pre-trip. Blogs on Georgia’s re-emergence as a respected wine region are too many to recite the effort here. Just know this, they have been making it a long time (claimed to be longer than any other culture), many wineries still use the traditional style that ferments via buried clay vessels, and it produces delicious dry reds and sweet whites.
All of this sustenance helped to fuel climbs up the circling hills to really worthwhile viewpoints of the capital. The Kartlis Deda viewpoint was my choice and earned repeated climbs during my stay. Hundreds of precipitous steps reward with a striking view overlooking both sides of the city and the river that divides it in two. The monument atop the hill-climb both welcomes guests with wine in the left hand or wards off enemies with the blade in the right, and the style is straight out of Game of Thrones.
A visit to Tbilisi goes by quicker than you foresee. The initial few days are such sensory overload as one adapts to an area that defies so many creature comforts of travel to other major destinations. It is both refreshing and demanding.
The city itself is confronting the greatest challenge met by all locations that become more popular - how to weigh a historical culture with the creeping comforts of westernization that many travelers desire.
Nowhere was this more evident each day than Freedom Square in the city's heart. What remains an assembling place for Georgians across the country to celebrate achievement and call for revolution, it is encircled by stately buildings and ornate architecture. Also greeting a visitor to the square however, a big-screen monitor showing a perpetual loop of Wendy’s and Dunkin’ Donuts commercials.
Based on my time here, I am confident they will reach the appropriate balance and continue to urge visitors to move their direction and broaden their comfort zone rather than the other way around.