Pre-Post-Pandemic Travel - Part III - Tbilisi, Georgia
For our final travel stop, we headed further east and south of the Caucasus Mountains to Georgia, the birthplace of wine and home of many, many cute doggos.
We've wanted to visit Georgia for a long time and we were both anxious about making it there without any hiccoughs. It was tricky to find flights that were both direct and not mind-bendingly expensive, yet we very fortunately found during planning that Wizz Air does these direct flights a couple of times a week to Kutaisi. This is pretty common for a bunch of budget European carriers to fly to secondary cities rather than into more expensive capital cities and we were happy to transit from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. I banked that we were technically saving money on accommodation via this route and there's nothing like an overnight transit for building up the arsenal of travel stories, so away we went.
Flying forward in time was a bit of a trip in itself and it was exciting to feel like we were venturing further afield again, but this time south-east to where Europe meets Central Asia. When we realised mid-flight that we were literally catching the midnight plane to Georgia, it caused some seriously underslept, catatonic cackles. Thankfully, we had our own row courtesy of the lovely Wizz Air check-in man and were free to find it far funnier than it really was without disturbing anyone. You can imagine. You can also probably tell based on this anecdote alone that it was one of those fairly short flights that wound up feeling a bit like a long haul based on loopiness alone. The most memorable part was seeing a cool lightning storm mid-flight and, start to finish, the experience with Wizz Air was perfectly fine. Safe to say, we'd heard some horror stories and were bracing for trouble. Luck was on our side!
Landing in Kutaisi at 4:30am after a red-eye flight made for an inadequate first impression of the place. The airport was quite small and we really only saw the arrivals, departure area and carpark. Our main goal at that point of being awake for 24 hours was simply to safely enter Georgia then travel on to Tbilisi. From what we've read since, Kutaisi is very cool and definitely somewhere we'll aim to experience properly in the future.
Georgia isn't part of the EU so we brought extra documentation to err on the side of caution for safe entry. With sweaty palms as the customs queue was shuffled forward, Simon and I were separated by police who clearly had the border well and truly controlled. The biggest scrutiny we had was Simon being met with a, "OoooOOOoo, Australian!" and we were waved through with zero questioning of our documents. No wuckas mate! After fretting for days about being put into forced quarantine and that we'd be too tired to properly realise what was happening, we'd made it past the first and biggest hurdle for making our way to Tbilisi, our final destination. I know it all sounds a bit ominous, but we were tired, grouchy toddlers trying to juggle epic sheaths of paper while sorting out transit and manage luggage. Extreme highs and lows, this is the travel you don't take pictures of.
From customs, being able to buy a local phone sim from a kiosk in the airport, at 5:30am, was nothing short of a game changer. We also bought bus tickets and loaded up for heading onwards. Kutaisi is about 3 1/2 hrs drive north west of the capital Tbilisi, where we were staying and basing ourselves. We were so close to the end of the journey but also so far.
Onboard the bus, we parked up and more or less dozed nonstop all the way to Tbilisi. Our impressions of the drive, when we weren't asleep, were of a Total Recall landscape (the original Arnie movie, not the newer one) and gargantuan architecture set amid valley after valley. Vast concrete structures, pillars, iron statues...all leftovers from the Soviet era combined with new construction. Georgia is its own culture plus Arabic, Levantine, Slavic, Russian but also e) none of the above specifically. It was a strange and dreamy bus trip that we're still talking about because it was such an otherworldly landscape.
Our arrival in Tbilisi (previously known as Tiflis) was exhilarating despite our delirium. Wide, sweeping streets interspersed with leafy trees and imposing buildings from all eras. A truly unfamiliar and unique culture and urban environment that defies description of anywhere else we'd been before.
Our lovely Airbnb host Avtandil was kind enough to let us check in early and we had breakfast near Freedom Square before heading across the river to settle in. The appropriate montage here is simply 'Sleeping It Off' and we gave it a red hot Van Gogh to properly get on Tbilisi time. The apartment was super comfortable and had a sweet little balcony to hang out on whenever we were in between gallivants.
First thoughts on our neighbourhood were pretty mixed and I think a large part of that is due to visiting Milan and Budapest back to back. Tbilisi is certainly a modern city yet it's a melting pot of the kind we'd never experienced before. We were on the left bank of Old Tbilisi near the river and a commercial area with countless restaurants, shops, and bars was just around the corner. With everything nearby, it was still a surprise how residential central Tbilisi felt and people's homes, particularly the older ones, had their own internal courtyards that called to mind both French and Moroccan architecture. It meant we didn't see the same life on the streets once we walked away from the main drag but that made it all the more special to spot cats in windows and kids playing when the main street doors were open.
We set out for dinner after the marathon nap and stumbled upon a gorgeous Georgian oasis, Ninia's Garden. This was one of those restaurants that feel like they've naturally bloomed (inadvertent nature metaphor) out of the existing buildings so you might walk past and assume it's just a beautiful home or gallery rather than a spot for food—and wine. Just the sort of place you dream of for your local and somewhere you can stop for a drink or bite with loved ones or by yourself. We decided to give it a crack, and ohhh sweet baby Jesus it was one of the best meals of our lives. Truly a meal we'll always remember.
The wine glasses are in the way because this is what happens when you're half cut and attempting to be artsy. But the wine was incredible, so perhaps it deserved showcasing in the photo? The flavours and combinations blew our tiny minds and as our gateway to Georgian cuisine, it's not remotely hyperbolic for me to say it was one of the most delicious meals I've ever had. Also our waiter was Jaqen H'Ghar.
Walking at night through the dim lights of Tbilisi's streets was a trippy, dreamlike experience. Obviously a country that is recovering from nearly a century of occupation and war, but one now being permitted to grow through the rubble, ruins and oppression. Everything is crooked and overgrown in this meeting of South-Eastern Europe-West Asia and the old Silk Road. It's also beautiful in a raw, classical way that's entirely its own. After dinner on this first night, we made it to the main drag of our neighbourhood and found some baklava from a little Turkish bakery. Walking around people watching, we felt more of the influence of the Arabian Peninsula as well as Turkey and Central Asia, as we slowly adjusted to being somewhere entirely new again.
Over the week in Tbilisi, we realised we wanted to dip our toes in this time then return to spend longer in the future to gain the fullest sense of the city. It's not that we didn't get to know our neighbourhood or experience a lot, it's more that there is just so much to Georgian culture and things to see. The seasonal aspect is a big one, too, and it did rain a fair bit while we were there. It forced us to go at a slower pace which I can't complain about. Coffee, wandering and eating lots is immensely enjoyable no matter where you are.
We rambled extensively and namely prioritised experiencing as much Georgian food as we could. We never had a bad Georgian meal served by Georgians. Other cuisines...not so much which is ok because this is just part of life. But don't worry, if you like bread, cheese, and wine, you've come to the right place. Since being back in Cork, we've started researching some Georgian recipes to try at home and I've been immersed in this excellent blog Wander-Lush where the Aussie writer is from Brisbane. Definitely check it out for more information and articles on Georgia including swoon-worthy food writing!
One particularly rainy morning, we ducked over to a place that Eoin and Sarah recommended called Retro and sampled one of the most iconic dishes of Georgia, katchapuri. One sign I saw said, 'Katchapuri or gym...always katchapuri' and I think that sums just how gloriously rib-sticking this cheesy, buttery, eggy wood-fired bread is. Maybe not, so here's Simon...
After katchapuri and mucho cheese, we gingerly walked it off with a visit to CarreFour but got sidetracked by fireworks...
Off-the-shelf pyrotechnics and cheesy bread and wine turn out to be a divine combination for a Friday morning. We walked around some more and then slowly made our way back to the left bank. At this point, we were chatting with some locals and finally deduced something that had confused us until then: night-time restaurant and bar curfews were still in place from 10pm every night (they're still in place at the time of writing).
With language barriers we hadn't figured it out prior to then and it was definitely having a direct impact on our experience of Tbilisi, a city renowned for its vibrant and quirky nightlife. The first few nights, we'd actually been desperately walking and walking for meals only to be told when we got to the place that they were closed. It was bewildering to say the least and we wondered how Google could be so wrong with times. Little did we know...obviously!
As a sidenote here, the curfews due to Covid-19 are still in place like restrictions are in many places that we visited and in fact we're still restricted in Ireland, too. In reality, sometimes it's hard to find the precise restriction information here in Ireland even without a language barrier and these are just the times we're travelling in and living in. The takeaway? Going with the flow was essential on this trip and we did hang at our Airbnb a lot in the nighttimes which we wholeheartedly embraced.
On our Friday night, we went for a little bar crawl and sampled more delicious Georgian wine. First at a jazz bar with some not-so-chatty company...
...then on to a spot called Politika that was like Ric's—the music, the lads running it, all the staff in raincoats to deal with the evening showers, and yummy wine made by someone's grandad. It was nostalgic and fun and we had a few different bites of Georgian food mixed with some German-style pizza to soak up the drinks.
On our final full day, we prioritised covering as much ground of the north side of Old Tbilisi as we could. We started with lunch—Georgians are pretty late risers and so are we—at Puri Giuliani and had some fresh salads with traditional cheese that was similar to burrata. The restaurant fit-out was more contemporary and we had a great time chatting with their team. We liked it so much we went back for an early breakfast the following morning before flying out to Düsseldorf.
The northern part of Old Tbilisi is all alleyways up and along hills mixed with the global chains you see in all major cities now (H&M, et al). Street art abounds, picturesque benches offer you the chance to take it all in, and there are little markets everywhere. Some snapshots below.
Unsurprisingly, we wore our shoes out some more then made the call to watch sunset over Tbilisi National Park from a rooftop bar. Margaritas + mountains is always a good idea.
From here, we headed for a rustic BBQ restaurant we'd spotted on our travels run by a Greek and Georgian couple. Please just let this picture of our Greek-Georgian BBQ board do the recapping. Please also note the generous glasses of homemade wine. If only I could conjure that meal right now. We couldn't have asked for a more pleasant and satisfying meal for our last night in Tbilisi. It was the kind of meal that if we'd been with any of you, we would have had infinite wines and sung songs. Just that kind of atmosphere, you know, the best kind.
After dinner we walked to find a printing place for our various travel documents because airport administration never sleeps. On our way we discovered April 9th Park, with its pretty maze of lights and benches to commemorate the namesake uprising. It imprinted itself in my memory instantly and I imagine it's a very romantic spot. It just felt cinematic and ripe for happenstance.
On our last morning, we went for breakfast and then made our way north for a final excursion to walk over the Bridge Of Peace. This bridge lights up at night and on this sunny, crisp morning, we were really glad we'd gotten our act together to properly make the most of our last few hours in Tbilisi to see some more of the city. After the walk, we got a cab back to our Airbnb—our Bolt driver, the Georgian Uber service, was watching Sliders in between jobs—then headed to the airport to begin the long journey home.
Here's Simon leaning into the last of our Tbilisi pavement pounding on the Bridge Of Peace:
We adored Tbilisi and cannot wait to get back to see more of Georgia. We know how fortunate we are to have travelled and spent time here, not least considering how things are right now for Georgia with their pandemic recovery plus how things are for the entire world. Our time in Tbilisi is something we'll always treasure and then some.
We still have a couple more blog posts to write from this trip away including talking about what it's like to travel in the EU and on the European continent right now with Covid-19 still around, planning logistics, and also, a little bit more about food!
All our love, always, Aoife & Simon xx