Chaotically beautiful, brimming with optimism and inhabited by friendly, fun-loving people, the capital of Georgia is a lesson in transformation.
There is no rulebook for how long a city should take to throw off the cloak of misery following occupation or civil war. But the Georgian capital of Tbilisi is a lesson in how quickly wounds can heal. In the two decades since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it’s suffered civil war, the far-from-peaceful secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, rampant mafia corruption and the frequent goading by its neighbour Russia – “the dragon on our shoulder” as one city official puts it. In the heart of the Caucasus, bordered between its secessionist states and Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia, the small country of Georgia sits in an unhappy geopolitical pressure cooker.
Ten years ago electricity was a luxury in Tbilisi but today the city is unnervingly, extraordinarily attractive. It’s unnerving because there’s so little evidence of its tumultuous past and fragile present. Life here has been transformed almost overnight thanks to Georgia’s ingénue president, Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili. Following the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003, when Saakashvili replaced Eduard Shevardnadze, the mafia was extinguished in a matter of weeks and Tbilisi’s crime rate plunged.
In the winding streets of Old Tbilisi, bars and restaurants pulse with a generation of Tbiliselebi who play as hard as they work. Georgians claim to have invented wine and there’s certainly enough of the stuff: the country has over 500 varieties of grape. Thankfully, Georgia also has a very good hangover cure: khachapuri is a doughy flatbread, stuffed with cheese and baked, served day and night.
Rue Chardin 12 is the oldest restaurant on its stretch, founded seven years ago by Nick Manjgaladze’s father. Nick’s story is typical of this generation. He studied in London then worked in New York before moving back and “getting stuck”. After a stint as general manager at Tbilisi Airport he took over Rue Chardin 12 with his sister and together they’ve just opened their fourth restaurant in the city. “Georgians always had taste compared with other Soviet-occupied territories,” he says. “It’s written in the city and the way we live.”
He’s right. Tbilisi has a chaotic beauty that only comes from good taste. It’s a mess of urban planning: gracefully classical in places, brutally communist in others, atrociously dense, charmingly ramshackle and boringly modern elsewhere. It’s also surprisingly green. Giant sycamores line wide avenues and create a leafy canopy over the smaller cobbled lanes. There are courtyards, parks, benches, fountains, brass clocks and street sculptures – public space is prized and always full. Bits of it feel like Paris – but cleaner and less prissy.
Tbilisi smells better than Paris too, of fresh bread, cigarette smoke and the earthy, metallic dust of building sites. Rampant construction is everywhere – roads, hotels, public buildings; it’s as if the city is preparing for a global sporting event. “You can build something big here in eight months,” explains Devi Kituashvili, one of three partners at Architects of Invention. “Planning permission is granted online in as little as 20 days.” Thank goodness then for the taste and appreciation of old buildings. Architects of Invention was behind the conversion of the Escher-like Soviet Roads Ministry, now the Bank of Georgia’s HQ – it would have been a crime to pull it down.
Saakashvili and his government are indeed preparing for something: foreign investment. And Tbilisi needs to look and operate as a sound business and tourist destination for this to happen. His raison d’être has been to make Georgia a success story, part of Europe, part of Nato even. Though nominally democratic, his means of rule have at times been questionably heavy handed. On becoming president he sacked the majority of the existing public workforce and started from scratch. He’s since rebuilt Georgia’s institutional scaffold from the nation’s youth. His many, vocal, detractors only half joke when they say the country is run by a bunch of kids.
But it depends who you talk to. Eka Japaridze, interior designer and wife of the deputy prime minister, says, “Breaking the spine of communism, the terror of corruption, the misery of socialism – of course it’s a dramatic, painful process. It’s a psychological revolution. What do we do? Wait for things to get better or try and make things better ourselves?”
Boutiques, restaurants and bars are sprouting everywhere. There’s a Buddha Bar nightclub that’s just arrived but the local youth aren’t impressed – another mark of their inbuilt good taste. They’d rather drink and eat in their friend’s new restaurant and dance the night away somewhere less showy. Keti Bakradze is a regular host of such evenings in her restaurant Dining Room. Over dinner with her effervescent friends she talks about the optimism that brims in the city. “Fifteen years ago we sat around the fire with no electricity or water but we still had wine. We laugh about it now – it’s the only way to move on.”
It’s the Georgian spirit that really lights this city up. They’re an almost perversely friendly, funny, fun-loving and enterprising bunch – accept an invitation to lunch and chances are you’ll see the sunrise with the same crowd.
As with so many cities that throb on the brink of past, present and future, there’s poignancy here too. Georgians will go to the polls in October for parliamentary elections and vote for a new president in October 2013. There’s never been a peaceful governmental or presidential transition in Georgia’s short history of post-Soviet independence. Despite the fun and the laughter, do Tbiliselebis worry that things could unravel as quickly as they improved? “Yes I worry,” Keti says quietly. “I don’t want my children to see what I saw in these streets. But that’s what drives us. We’ve too much to lose.” And with that, more wine is ordered and the party continues.
- Meals in Tbilisi can last for days with feasts of aubergines, walnuts and slow-cooked meat.
- Crime has all but vanished – residents don’t even lock their cars at night.
- The city is full of charm, awash with rich patinas and elegant vignettes.
- The younger generations that studied abroad are returning, armed with experience.
- There are no meters in the taxis – fares are done on trust.
- A dust-down of the airport and more direct international flights.
- Better public transport – gridlocked traffic is not fun.
- The riverbank is prime for redevelopment.
- A clever tourism campaign aimed further afield than the neighbours.
- Development of the wine industry – it should be Georgia’s world class export.