Tbilisi or not Tbilisi?

In a city that could be from Game of Thrones, Georgians dance, drink and refuse to let you pay the bill

A few nights into my Tbilisi adventure, I’m walking from my ‘local’, through beautiful 9th April park, up to Rustavelli Avenue, with two new mates I’ve just met; Dato and Georgi, en route to some divine, late-night Georgian restaurant which gazes over this city of fantasy and wonder.

Georgi is a dancer, Dato informs me. Would I like to see him dance? It’s an unusual request, certainly not the type you’d get from an everyday English lad, but by this point, I’m just rolling with waves of this magical city. “Go on then, yes please.”

Georgi’s eyes light up like fire, his tongue pokes out one side of his mouth, and he starts to dance, to move in ways I’ve never seen a human move before, limbs going in directions they’re surely not intended to. I watch agog, mouth agape and instead of running away, which maybe I should, at the sight of something so inexplicable, so other-worldly, I laugh, clap and hug him. Did someone drop some acid in my drink?

Narikala Fortress looks out over Tbilisi – Shutterstock
Narikala Fortress looks out over Tbilisi – Shutterstock

The next night I’m at my favourite bar/workspace, Generator 98 (Atoneli str. 29) just below the park, where I have been finishing my book and immersing myself in Georgian life. Me and one lovely Armenian guy are the only non-Georgians here, but they’ve accepted me into their world and me likewise. I’m falling in love with Georgia. The night, fuelled by Georgia’s insane national spirit cha-cha (see side bar) is becoming more fun and frenzied by the minute. And then someone drops a tune, I can’t recall which, and the place erupts. The melee is going wild and they’re all dancing like Georgi, my own dancing is changing, I’m finding a voice, when I sing, which I never had or heard before. “WTF?,” I ask the Armenian guy. He laughs. “They’re beyond human,” he tells me. He’s joking. I think.

Tbilisi doesn’t just look like it’s been lifted from the Game of Thrones. It’s the real deal, and I’m seeing and experiencing things I never thought possible. There’s something incredibly strange, light, and dark about this many millennial old culture. I’m overwhelmed, but my creativity is turned up. This is the most intoxicating joyride of my life.

On my first night in town I meet a lovely, Georgian rugby player, also called Georgi (pretty much every other bloke in Georgia is called Georgi), and he takes me under his brawny wing and out for a tour of Tbilisi’s underground club scene. We’re in one venue, again fortified with cha-cha, where the music is a sublime mix of hip-hop and funk, and we order, astonishingly, glasses of water. As I’m dancing next to him, a beautiful, but thirsty, six foot Georgian girl, passes by and picks the glass of water out of my hands, takes a gulp, then hands it back politely. “What was that?” I ask my friend. “You are in Georgia now,” he tells me, laughing. “Everybody shares.” It’s weird, that this country, which somehow managed to produce the evil aberration that was Stalin, should have such a unique take on society. They didn’t need brutal, enforced Russian so-called socialism. Everybody just shares here.

It’s something I discover the next day, in a little Georgian restaurant around the corner from my hotel. There are glitzy affairs, all around Tbilisi, but this is a local spot, simple, adorned with Georgian Orthodox icons and staffed by old ladies in pinnies and floral headscarves. I order another plate of the heavenly Georgian dumplings, kinkhali, some cheese bread, and a carafe of glorious Georgian red, drawn out of a barrel out the back. It’s divine. When I ask these ladies for the bill, they wag their fingers at me. “No, no,” they tell me. “You do not pay.” I beg them, but they are having none of it. The meal would have barely set me back a fiver anyway.

I learn over the ensuing weeks, that it can be extremely hard persuading a Georgian friend to allow you to pay. In the end I found out the trick to allowing them to let me do it; you give ’em full-force puppy dog eyes and say: “Please, it will hurt my heart if you do not let me.” Then they usually, begrudgingly, relent. Sometimes the experience of being here borders on the divine. In Tbilisi, you are a guest in Georgia’s home, and you are treated as such, so long as you behave with the respect you would accord a host. A few nights later, in my favourite bar, trying to concentrate on my work, I am forced to tune in to a red-faced, loud-mouthed Brit, trying, unsuccessfully, to impress an eastern European girl. He’s arranged for his “driver” to take them back to his hotel. “He’s pretty all right considering he’s a Georgian,” he blahs loudly, as if no one can understand him among the beautiful young Georgian crowd gathered on tables around us. It takes me all of my strength of mind not to hit him.

Bridges over the Kura light up at night in Tbilisi – Shutterstock
Bridges over the Kura light up at night – Shutterstock

Georgia may have only one coast, on the Black Sea, facing Bulgaria, but this country is, and always has been, an island. Squeezed between often less, than friendly neighbours, in Turkey, Russia and Iran, plus their warring Caucasian neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan, it’s a miracle that this country has survived. Dreams of joining the EU or NATO seem, well, just that, now that Putin has made clear that he will mess up any more countries who dare to join. Young Georgians struggle to get visas to visit the West, but pine for a place which they imagine is their saviour and historic second home, but Europe and America, cowed by self-interest, bourgeois selfishness and Putin, have turned their backs. There is sadness, but not bitterness about this, among the lovely, liberty-loving Georgians I meet. I fear for this divine country, I really do. Everybody wants to come to London, but isolation, or perhaps national culture, has imbued the Georgians with a gorgeous, childlike innocence and I fear for my friends among the sharks of London, Paris or New York, should they ever make it that far.

There is a cultural, historic, gastronomic, poetic depth to Georgia which renders relative Johnny-come-lately nations; Britain, France and Germany, like Cleveland, Ohio. Georgian cuisine, wine and spirits have their roots as deep in the local soil as even Italy, perhaps deeper. Every town has it’s own menu, it’s own version of katchpuri, for instance, the sublime Georgian cheese bread, a deceptively simple dish which causes furious disagreements, village-to-village, about whose is the finest, such is their subtly different choice of flours, cheeses, shape, construction and baking methods Georgian food should have the same reputation and audience as Italian or Chinese, but its recipes are largely unwritten, passed from grandmother to granddaughter, generation to generation, through words rather than books. A trip through Georgia is gastronomic odyssey, a wine lover’s dream.

Towards the end of my trip, my mate Georgi takes me to the city’s best underground venue, a gigantic club called Dessiani, underneath the  Dinamo Tbilisi stadium, which could surely compete with Berlin’s Berghain as the most dazzling on the continent. I drink water all night, instead getting drunk and high on the atmosphere and camaraderie.

On my last night, my friends in Generator arrange a car to take me to the airport. I sadly pack my bags and throw them into the boot of the car, and as we pass by the bar, the local lads have come outside to serenade me, a Georgian choir, an extraordinary sound; voices that seem to carry within them the mysteries of time. I am so happy that I cry. I vow to return. After a week of itchy feet in London, my will breaks and I head to the cashpoint to withdraw all my savings. I’m back in strange, sacred, supernatural Tbilisi within a week. This is the place I’ve been searching for all my life. Maybe I’ve come home.

Stay:

Radisson Blu, Rustavelli Avenue

This may be a Western chain but the service is pure Georgian kindness. The hotel sits between the nearby Metkavri River and the surrounding mountains. There are nice Italian and Asian restaurants, for the lazy plebs who probably shouldn’t be here in the first place if that’s what they’re searching for here. But walk a couple of blocks and turn off the main streets and you will find little, local Georgian restaurants which are ninety per cent cheaper and one hundred per cent better.

From £150 a night for a double

Envoy Hostel

Central, friendly, warm and snuggled into the bosom of the Old Town (although everything is pretty old here), this lovely hostel sits between the Persian built, ancient Narikala Fortress, and the beautiful historic Armenian Cathedral.

Shared dorms around £10 per night