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Published: July 27th 2014
Originally a Fifth-Century shrine. This picture is my Tbilisi keeper.
The Soviet-built, clattle-trap subway car is just flat-out flying down the track; I mean this sucker is really moving out and I can feel the wheels coming off the rails on every pitch black fun-house curve and Karen and I monkey-hang from handrails as best we can while our mystery engineer accelerates and decelerates on a depraved whim, whip-sawing us down to our toes. The car is 'standing room only' full of people; lacy black-bra'd, thick ankled women in see-through blouses, young, skinny, green-garbed soldiers playing grab ass while small covens of raven-banged death metal wannabe's in ripped black jeans and goopy India-ink eye-liner are standing so impossibly still they look as if they're hanging out on the street corners that are whizzing by 200-feet over our heads. We're in Tbilisi and it is wonderful.
We rolled out of Batumi on the 8 AM train. Nice train. New, A/C cars with electrical outlets and fold down tables big enough to handle my movie-loaded laptop. We cruise across the Black Sea coastal plain as forest-draped mountains advance on the track from left and right till we're tracing the fast-moving Kura River eastward through a narrow valley. At first it's like we're
Georgian Soldiers On The Subway
Change them into any uniform and all soldiers will look the same. Young kids that old men send into harm's way. God bless em' all.
cruising through the Appalachians. Later the terrain turns dry and we see arid bluffs like the ones in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. Bizarre. We make short stops at cities with names like Ude, Borjomi, Koshori, and Gori. Big rusty apartment blocks and abandoned factories. I notice bright-red thyroidectomy scars on a few of the women on the train. This part of Georgia suffered severe fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. We meet an American soldier who is in-country on assignment to train Georgian troops. The valley widens into a broad, flat expanse farmed wall-to-wall with corn and wheat. Six hours after we started out we find ourselves in the Tbilisi train station. A drab affair. The food court upstairs holds but a single vendor who dispenses square and triangular shaped puff-pastry sandwiches stuffed with mystery meat.
We grab a taxi. Our elderly driver asks where we're from. 'America!' He exclaims when we tell him. 'America is good friend to Georgia!'. His stubby finger stabs the air with every syllable. We get that a lot here. For the first time in months we've found a place where Americans are genuinely welcomed. They are surprised and enthused when
Connie and Karen
Peace Corps Bon Vivant and spontaneous tourist info center.
they learn of our Stateside origins. They always want to guess what city we're from. Chicago seems to be their favored first shot. Outside the train station the driver swings west up a broad boulevard shaded by the biggest Maple trees I have ever seen. The bottom 5-feet of their massive trunks brushed in white-wash. The old buildings that line the avenue remind me of the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Business appears to be good in Tbilisi. Lots of busy shops and office services as well as the ubiquitous currency exchange operations. People here are relatively well-dressed and fed.
We get a room at the Nika Guesthouse. Small room with a double bed. TV which we don't use. Private bath with a dripping toilet. Window overlooking a grape-arbored garden. $28 a night. The place is run by a big happy woman who reminds me of the South-side Chicago Poles I grew up with. Clammy-skinned women who would scoop small children up in their huge arms and cover their wincing faces with wet, sloppy kisses. She directs us to the nearby Metro station and we're off to see the town. Expecting little.
Subway fare is half a Gel (about 30-cents).
View From Cable Car
Something to see everywhere you look.
It's a Soviet-built system. The fourth one they ever constructed and the first outside Russia. Deep planted, ornate stations with vertigo-inducing escalators. Big gray-marble platforms with no place to sit while you wait for your train to rumble in. In the station we meet a fellow American. Her name is Connie. Short-haired, trim blond who is close to our age. Peace Corps consultant. Speaks Georgian. Tbilisi resident for the past three years. She loves the place. She gives us a crash course on how to use the subway. Where it goes. Where to get off. What to see. Her love of the city gets me all giddy. I'm feeling better about Georgia. Maybe this is going to be OK.
We emerge from the subway in the heart of the town. Same wide, shaded avenues lined by big, blocky government buildings undergoing renovation and/ or demolition. Libraries and theaters. Souvenir vendors selling motel-art paintings and Matryoshka dolls. Book stands selling old tomes in Georgian and Russian. Touts passing out flyers for one-day tours of Armenia. No visa required for visitors from EU countries. Above us, along a high ridge reached by funicular railway sits a crenelated line of red-brick Catholic
basilicas, old fortresses, amusement parks, restaurants and a giant silver statue of a bodacious woman holding a sword. The 'Mother' of Georgia. The streets are clean. The people exceptionally friendly and the food is outstanding. Finally!
We walk down to the section of Tbilisi known as the 'Old City'. There isn't much of the old left. This area is known for seismic activity. In 2002 a sizable quake killed six and damaged hundreds of the old structures here. Sections of the city's original defensive walls are barely visible; Buried under hotels, cafes and private homes. We find an ancient candle-lit church. Originally built as a shrine in the 5th century it has been added to over the centuries. It is small, dark and intimate. A place to pray or to just sit and dwell on those who have passed under its apse over the years. Next door is a convent with a deep-shade garden surrounded by ivy-covered wall. Kitschy cafes dot the streets selling Georgian wine and teas. Grape arbors cool the cobblestone lanes. Automobile free, the paths are quiet and park-like.
The Mtkvari River runs through the city center. A narrow waterway cross-hatched with bridges new and
First Class Car On Train To Tbilisi
WIFI and electrical outlets help the time pass.
old. The river bank is lined with churches, museums, statues and at least one casino. Landscaped parks, climbing walls and trendy cafes perched atop riverside cliffs. A modern, enclosed cable car runs from the riverside up to an old fortress. 65-cents round trip. Breshnev uni-browed, Georgian country bumpkins who look as if they've just arrived via painted gypsy-wagon caravan, eye the cable cars warily, anxiously fingering their tarnished coin necklaces, calculating how to best leap from the loading platform into the slow-moving pods. From the top of the hill we see that the city is loosely festooned along the milky-yellow river. There are so many Catholic churches here sprinkled amongst the old buildings and the ambitious new organic structures; shaped of hammered stainless steel and Coke-bottle glass. Tbilisi is so much like Prague but far more exciting for its proclivity to mix the new with the old; avoiding the nostalgia trap that Prague has jumped into with both feet.
We stop by the riverside Shangri-La Casino to escape the heat. A plush European-style operation with the cheapest slots we have ever encountered. A half cent to spin the wheels. Upstairs are the card and roulette tables. Odd games like
New cafe that replaced quake destroyed building that was on that site.
'Russian Poker' attract crowds of shabby Georgians who chain smoke Marlboros while they lose their shirts. Security is provided by Spetsnaz-beefy, bullet-headed Russian men packed into cheap suits like 7-pounds of mean in 5-pound sacks. We spend a couple of hours playing slots in the air conditioned rooms, break dead even and skedaddle back into the cooling evening air.
The restaurants here are excellent. Everything from French to Persian to Azerbaijani food. All of it delicious and all of it most reasonably priced. We eat at riverside cafes and along the winding lanes of the old city. Last evening we took the funicular train up the mountain. Two Gel each way. On top we discovered a beautiful park and an amusement area with flume rides, bumper cars, kiddie pools, roller coasters and the slowest moving Ferris wheel I have ever encountered. Moms tended to laughing offspring while their men sat on shaded benches reading newspapers. We took a happy look around. We walk so much in Tbilisi. About 5 to 6 miles a day as we cruise from spot to spot taking it all in. Hiking up steep, thigh burning cobblestone streets and zig-zagging across wide boulevards where you
KJ On The River
Our first day in town and it was a hot one.
take your life into your hands every time you cross because the fast-moving, inept Georgian drivers do not slow down for anybody or anything. Seriously.
We eat at the funicular cafe atop the ridge. An outside table overlooking the city as the sun sets. Fresh made pastries and sandwiches. Inside the cafe we watch chefs kneading dough and mixing batter and tending to a huge, open-hearth oven where a white-toque'd baker shuffles goods around the brick interior with a long wooden paddle. Honey and Walnut cakes, fresh fruit in pastry cream, Begneits, eclairs, and home-made ice creams. All of it for a fifth of what we would pay in the States if we could even find it. Scrub-faced Georgian girls take our orders with big smiles. Tbilisi understands customer service unlike Batumi. Everyone we have met in Tbilisi has been very helpful and friendly. No request is too absurd. No eye rolling or smirking or even, dare I admit it, refusal of service to foreigners which happened to us twice in Batumi. We drank Georgian lemonade which really isn't lemonade unless you order the lemon flavored lemonade. The best we can figure is that the Georgians call any carbonated
Coquettish Pose On The New Bridge
Green bottle-glass covered pedestrian bridge. A real stunner.
fruit juice; lemonade. They have peach lemonade and pear and even Tarragon lemonade. Georgians love Tarragon. They'll consume big bunches of it with their meals, nibbling at it like rabbits. Never seen anything like it.
We watch the sun set. The buildings below us are turning to burnished gold. Darkness sweeps across the city and fairy lights start to appear like fireflies combed through a cool summer lawn. The landscape becomes a map of repose as women prepare meals. Children squeeze a final game of soccer out of the dwindling light while men share a last glass of tea with their Cafe' chums before joining their families at the dinner table. We take in the marvelous expanse of it all, counting ourselves lucky to have discovered yet another memorable place; 'Out Here'.
We're back in Turkey having an amazing experience in a Black Sea coastal village which will take me many thoughtful hours to write-up. We fly to Istanbul on 28 July, 2014 and then back to Canakkale and our apartment there for some rest, exercise and deep sleep. Shouts to everyone on our mail list. To Peggy Christ who claims that she could never travel
Photo By Soldiers
Apparently; In Georgia turnabout is fair play.
like we do but in fact; she can. To Lisa Tucker; Hope all is well with the kids wherever they are. To Noah; See you in the Autumn and to family and friends in Texas with new babies and Houston houses. To Claus and Ulf; Hope to see you in Tunisia soon and congrats on that World Cup to all our hosts in Deutschland. Sehr Gut! To Joe and Mona Ostrowski; Thought of you the other day. Don't know why; Just did. To my family in Chicago and KJ's in Seattle, Frisco and Hooterville, Maine; Hey! To Dr. Hasan; You will love Tbilisi. To Chris Smith; Hope you and the family are well and staying cool during these wonderful Florida summer months.....
Tips to travelers. Tbilisi has as much to do with Georgia as Izmir has to do with Turkey. Both cities stand distinctly apart from their Nations. Tbilisi has a very cultured European feel as does Izmir. The natives are delightful as is the food. A marvelous place for epicureans of all sorts. Lots of English speakers who are delighted to have you visiting their town. Taxi's are very reasonable and the Metro system is a
Steeply pitched wind tunnels that, in Karen's case, induced vertigo.
breeze to use. Try to stay near the old city as that is where you will be spending most of your time.
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