You haven't seen my holiday snaps yet, have you?
I took my holiday back in August. For work reasons my sister C. had to go to the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia) and Zadar in Croatia and asked me to join her. She wanted us to travel overland between Georgia and Croatia, preferably via Russia. I had a look at the map and saw that if we went north of the Black Sea we would end up in Ossetia - and hadn't there been a war there recently? If we went south, it would mean going across Turkey. I love Turkey but have been there several times, and we both wanted to see something of Eastern Europe. I did research via the Lonely Planet, and it said that going north of Georgia was a no-no as it was occupied by Russian forces. If we went to the western side of Georgia on the Black Sea there were infrequent and unscheduled ferries that ran to Odessa and it would take 48 hours. An hour in a boat is enough for me, so I chucked that idea, but figured we could fly to Odessa, take a train to Kiev and then carry on westwards. C. agreed to this and I got out the Lonely Planet guide for the Ukraine, which stressed that to do anything at all there you had better speak fluent Russian.
C. then emailed the Ukrainian embassy in Australia about visas, and got back a snotty reply, saying that as Australia and New Zealand didn't hand out visas to Ukrainians why should they reciprocate? It would cost her $500NZ, so she told me to spike the Ukraine and find another route. More maps, and Lonely Planet, and Romania looked like the best option - neither of us has been there. So I then spent my time working out with the help of the Seat61 site how to get trains from Bucharest to Croatia via Hungary - God! the end of the Cold War. Thirty years ago this would have been a mission for a John Le Carre character.
The cheapest flight I could get had me leaving my Edinburgh flat at 5:30 am, a wait in Gatwick, a wait in Kiev and arriving at Tbilisi at about midnight. I was very much taken with the city which appeared as brightly lit domes and bridges in the darkness, and then the taxi went through narrow, ramshackle, slightly worrying streets and stopped at a boutique hotel (the Villa Mtiebi).
C had booked it for a couple of nights (paid for by her work). It was elegant with an art deco interior and an air of declassing - on the sofas the upholstery was torn and there were not many guests, so we would be the only ones in the dining room to be offered a huge spread at breakfast.
All around the hotel were houses with cracked walls and distorted roofs. Some were deserted and covered with creepers. There had been an earthquake in Tbilisi a few years ago, and this part of their Old Town had been badly damaged. Georgia is not a rich country and houses had been slow to be repaired. Some of them had been rebuilt, but others were broken and crumbling, and people would come out of twisted doorways and sit on slanting balconies. Our reaction was to find it highly photogenic. We walked around for hours, our lenses poised.
Some places had been rebuilt, so you would get a battered facade next to a smart facade:-
Tbilisi is a charming, quirky city. Much was decorated - new things like water fountains and park benches as well the older buildings.
There were French-looking streets with elegant balconies and a grand boulevard of arched and facaded public architecture, but the old town is Ottoman, with wooden verandahs and lacework. To us they looked like the villas in the old parts of New Zealand cities - Kelburn in Wellington, Ponsonby and Mount Eden in Auckland. The area which had been flashed up and chicified was like Auckland's Parnell. A city with flair.
The Georgian Parnell
The main boulevard is Rustaveli Avenue, which has a set of handsome public buildings - Opera House, Parliament, National Museum and so on. It is very wide, with heavy, fast traffic, which converges across Freedom Square - not much freedom for pedestrians as you have to descend into subways to cross the roads. Some of the subways are lined with little stalls and were lively places where I bought tacky earrings but others were dark and stank of urine.
I had the impression of official patriotism. Topping the plinth in Freedom Square was a gold statue of St George that had replaced one of Lenin. Georgian flags were used to curtain off a building site.
The guide book pointed out where demonstrators had gathered for the gaining of Georgian independence, and for the Rose Revolution. I took a photo of a plaque, assuming it commemorated events in the 1989 - 1991 period when the tanks rolled in and protesters were killed. I have only noticed the date and wording now.
"This monument commemorates the participants of a peaceful demonstration rally gunned down by the Soviet regime on March 9 1956."
The peaceful demonstration rally was a protest against deStalinisation. Google finds:-
Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinization was a blow to Georgian pride if only because he cast aspersions on the Georgians themselves. Georgian youth, bred on the panegyrics and permanent praise of the “genius” of Stalin, was proud to consider him being a Georgian that ruled over great Russia, and, as believed widely, dominated the world. Now sudden shock of denigration of Stalin was considered as a révanche taken by Khrushchev over the dead giant of history, and as national humiliation.
Several days in advance of the third anniversary of Stalin’s death, groups of students participated in spontaneous demonstrations and meetings by the huge monument of the ‘Great Leader’ near the Kura embankment. The demonstrations in the capital triggered similar protests in other parts of the republic. The situation had become uncontrollable by March 5, when thousands of protesters accompanied by the cacophony of car sirens were chanting the slogan “Long Live Great Stalin, Long Live the Party of Lenin and Stalin, Long Live Soviet Georgia” near the Government House on Rustaveli Avenue. By 8 March, the protest had become apparently anti-Soviet. The most radical group of students demanded restoration of Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union. Finally the officials allowed the celebration of the anniversary to be held, but when crowds of students moved through the streets towards the monuments, frightened Vasil Mzhavanadze, the local communist leader, lost control and passed on the responsibility to the army. Suddenly the shooting started from several buildings, and the army soldiers and tanks pursued the escaping students. Although no precise numbers of casualties is known, at least 80 (and maybe over 150) young people were killed and several hundreds wounded and arrested.
The plaque is in Georgian and English, and that, and its references to the massacre by the Soviet regime, suggest it must have been placed post independence. But presumably the army that did the shooting was Georgian, and this has been glossed as "Soviet." Nor are the pro-Stalin reasons for the demonstrations mentioned. The plaque gave information without context or meaning, to a foreigner anyway.
I don't know how patriotic Georgians are but they are certainly religious. On passing their churches many people would cross themselves twice. In the churches I went into there were young women in short skirts and scarves kissing icons and young hip looking blokes in jeans lighting candles. Religion is part of every day life, as it must have been in most of Europe until very recently. The street near our hotel had several shops selling religious bric-a-brac such as Maltese crosses (the policewoman in immigration had been wearing an enamelled one and I thought it very pretty and wanted to buy one but never saw another nice one for sale). Popular were pictures which I would call "Byzantine" i.e. the faces of the saints and Virgin Mary were surrounded by gold plate.
Shopping was very local. In residential streets there would be grocer's shops in basements every fifty yards or so. People sold produce in the streets as well - an old woman might have a few watermelon for sale. We bought very large, very red tomatoes and peaches that would not have been allowed by their looks into Tesco's, and they were delicious. I could have gorged on those golden juicy peaches but it's a sad fact of tourism that you have to ration yourself to one item of fantastic ambrosial fruit per day for the health and safety of your stomach.
The bread was delicious - like nan bread, only a little thicker.
At restaurants they try to make you eat enormous amounts of heavy, filling dumplings, or several large courses when one would be enough. At one restaurant the woman who ran it was so keen for me to sample something that I hadn't ordered - some kind of dahl - that she was trying to spoon it in to my mouth. At another, rather flash place, I requested "accompanying greens" - and got a great heap of raw vegetables and some bunches of herbs which I think the waitress found amusing to serve me. The best meal I had was beans in a crock, which were kidney beans cooked in rich stock and lightly spiced.
People were friendly, and the younger ones spoke some English. We were stared at a bit - obvious foreigners and a head taller than the women there Quite a few of the young women were very good-looking and went in for stilettos and short skirts. The receptionist at our smart little hotel looked like Katie Melua, with a Georgian style of beauty - blue black wavy hair, long, oval eyes, slender nose, olive skin, and a pretty slim shape. We went to a doll's museum and the dolls in in folk costume had the same kind of looks - one of the original doll makers had set out to make Georgian looking dolls.
A generic Georgian woman for looks if not clothes
There was no tourist information centre. The spot where the map said it stood was under construction. I had a map in my guide book but as the street signs were in the Georgian alphabet which is totally strange, I took a while to get my bearings. Also, the recommended route through the Old Town was blocked by a building site. However we oriented ourselves by the shiny gold St George in Freedom Square and the river and otherwise got about by taxi. There was one obvious tourist area of cafes and pricey coffee, with a few hostels.
Up-market cafe, post Soviet irony. At the flea market you could buy Soviet knick-knacks, badges and posters.
We stayed two nights in the Villa Mbieti, then went off to the Kazbegi in the mountains. On our return we stayed at a hostel called the Nest for which we had found a leaflet in the national museum. I climbed the stairs to find a converted town-house with balconies around a courtyard - all charmingly ramshackle - and a beautiful half dressed young man called George (a common name) who was exactly like the chaps I used to pine for in the 1970s - tanned, bearded and green-eyed. He just needed to be listening to Pink Floyd. They had no twin room but he offered to empty a bunk room. Well, they had a washing machine which we needed but otherwise a bunk room to yourselves is pretty miserable - preferable to one shared with strangers, but that's all. There are no reading lights. If you're in a top bunk you have to clamber down to go to the bathroom, if you're in the bottom bunk it's too dark to read. The room was huge and bleak. Through the walls we could hear the young back-packers partying. We were basically too old for this sort of caper so the next morning I went to the hang-out part of the hostel to tell George we were leaving. He pushed aside the young woman lying next to him, got up and said that was fine and we said goodbye. However if you are a young cool backpacker I could recommend the Nest as lively, well situated and with a gorgeous bloke in charge who speaks excellent English.
We moved into an apartment we had seen advertised in a cafe and had a room each. It was just off Freedom Square, on the ground floor of a tenement and very much shaded by trees, and we could sit and watch the woman in the balcony across the street water her plants. We picked up a map there which showed the location of museums in Tbilisi so one day we used it to visit a puppet museum which looked like it was round the corner, then a few streets along. I am the map-reader when we holiday so I took us a fair distance until the map and streets diverged. C. is the direction-asker. I am shy and inhibited about asking foreign strangers how to find the way, she has no compunction at all. So at the Metro, I fumble with the map, read the timetables, stare at the signs, try to work out how to pronounce our destination, she approaches a young man, says, "Excuse me Sir," and of course he speaks excellent English and tells us where we're going is within walking distance, and we part with warm hand shakes. So here she pounced on someone, who said a few things and "ecclesia" which I took to mean "church" and we carried on, still unable to find the museum. She dived into an upmarket hotel to find an English speaker - I fidgetted outside for a while, and then eventually slunk in self-consciously, and she and the receptionist were in front of a computer, looking at a picture of the receptionist's uncle who is a referee in the rugby world cup, due to be played in New Zealand. Her holiday anecdotes are far more full of people and encounters than mine, and she leaves more good will behind her. But no puppet museum, so we walked back towards our apartment.
When we get back to our street, we saw a notice saying "Museum" and entered. It was semi-dark, but the attendants, who seemed surprised at seeing visitors, switched on the lights, and the guide, a young woman, took us around, pointing out the portrait of Stalin in the foyer. It was an excellent folk art musuem, with little dioramas of the crafts, so a display of pottery would have a diorama next to it of tiny figures using potter's wheels and the wooden objects would have scenes from carpentry. The guide was a nice, serious young woman with careful English, and showed us ceramics from Gori, pretty filagree and costumes, and it was a highly enjoyable visit. When we left we looked at the sign which was visible from one direction only and highly discreet. I'm fond of serendipity however I really think the Museum of Folk and Applied Art should be seen, and the pleasant guide listened to, by a reasonable amount of people, so could the tourist board and the city authorities publicise it a little e.g. by settiing up a larger sign, viewable on two or even three sides.
At our apartment building the concierge locked the heavy ornamental main door late at night and opened it at 7am. We had to catch an early flight and the landlord told us to call a number and say, "Open the door". Natasha, he said, would understand those words but no others as she didn't speak English. That of course made us nervous, and so that bad night's sleep you have before catching an early flight was even more fitful. But Natasha and her friend banged on our window at 5:30 am and let us out into a wet morning - it's a humid city and when it rains, it rains hard - and we drove through the rundown looking outskirts of Tbilisi to the airport for the flight to Kiev and then Bucharest.