Tbilisi, a city of Art Nouveau and Soviet brutalism

Tbilisi is a city full of surprises. I’d spent a day in the Old Town, I’d wandered through the area surrounding the massive Holy Trinity Cathedral, and explored the youthful area of Rustaveli, but nothing prepared me for the extraordinary legacy of a city that has an abundance of art nouveau buildings. Art nouveau is something I associate with Paris or Prague. Tbilisi? Not so much. Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue is, however, an art nouveau strip that wouldn’t be out of place in either city.

Defying expectations, Georgia had an art nouveau ‘Golden Age’ that has bequeathed Tbilisi some truly magnificent buildings. Today they sit uneasily alongside modern glass and steel statements to the future, and grim Soviet-era reminders of a less graceful, brutalist past. I’d not been prepared for such architectural riches and, even if many of the buildings that survive are in need of urgent care, it’s something that the city should promote more. My guidebook barely mentioned art nouveau.

Wedding group, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Given Georgia’s relative geographic isolation from the whole art nouveau movement, it’s not entirely clear how the style even arrived in the country. Some say from across the Caucasus, others from the Black Sea. However it found its way here, once it had arrived it flourished in Tbilisi in the early years of the 20th century. Proof, if needed, that Georgia looked to the West for cultural connections before the iron fist of Soviet rule snuffed it out in the 1920s.

The neglect of Tbilisi’s art nouveau buildings started in earnest under Soviet rule. It wasn’t a style or philosophy that the Soviets were ever going to embrace. Considered bourgeois, there was no greater insult in the Soviet world, buildings were allowed to deteriorate, some more gracefully than others. Since independence, efforts to restore this cultural heritage has been haphazard at best and hampered by a lack of money and political will. That’s both shortsighted and a shame.

Agmashenebeli Avenue starts close to the Dry Bridge, famous for its flea market where people sell both tourist trinkets and personal possessions dating back from before the Soviets arrived. I was staying nearby and a stroll along the avenue begins with an area filled with restaurants and bars, which is pedestrianised – a welcome change of pace from dodging homicidal drivers. I wandered along until I rejoined the traffic and found myself in Marjanishvili Square.

The area beyond here is filled with the art nouveau, and the neighbourhoods seem to become more upmarket the further you go. I crossed the Queen Tamar Bridge (she’s regarded as perhaps the nations greatest ever independent ruler), and had lunch in the Rustaveli district. It was pretty hot by early afternoon and I didn’t fancy the long walk to my final destination in Tbilisi before heading up into the Caucasus the next day: Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Dry Bridge Market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Taxis in Tbilisi can be a bit of a lottery, but an Uber-like service called Bolt exists to take the difficulty out of getting a cab. Visible from just about everywhere in the city, the immense bulk of the Holy Trinity Cathedral is even more impressive close up. It may be a new building – it was consecrated in 2004 to celebrate 1,500 years of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s independence – but it plays a central role in the life of the city.

The day I was there, there were multiple wedding groups having their photos taken in and around the cathedral, lending the place a festive atmosphere. That was a relief since the whole place has a rather serious and austere air. I was wearing shorts and, in keeping with all the churches in Georgia, I wasn’t allowed to enter the cathedral itself. A shame, but my experience of Georgian churches was that their interiors are very plain. Afterwards I headed for home and an early start into the mountains.

The Same Old Fears, Wish You Were Here … Tbilisi Street Art

According to no less an authority than CNN, in 2015 there were only ten street artists to be found in the entirety of Georgia. During an interview, the street artist Dr. Love (a young Georgian with a mass of facial hair) points out a reason for that: only four years ago street art was still illegal. In the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, who would later inflict decades of communism on his home country, these things don’t seem unrelated. I’m glad to report that in 2019 things have changed, and for the better.

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Last Male Northern White Rhino, Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Not that everyone would agree with me. In the same year as the CNN interview was broadcast, in what can only be described as a chronic overstatement, filmmaker David Lynch said, “So much great architecture is graffitied over, so many great train stations, factories, are graffitied over and it’s a horrible, horrible thing. Trees have gone away and graffiti has taken their place.” The inexplicable claim that graffiti is replacing trees aside, he seems to totally miss the joy that street art can bring to a grey cityscape.

The Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones joined in the condemnation, saying of Lynch’s outburst, “It was high time someone stood up to the vile oppression that is graffiti.” I can’t speak for others, but I’ve just never felt oppressed by paint on a wall. Compared to the actual tyranny of, say, decades of communist rule, this really is laying it on thick. I agree ‘tagging’ isn’t very pleasant to look at, but the feeling of creativity that street art brings to many cities, Tbilisi included, should be celebrated.

Street art is as much about societal dissent and political protest as it is an alternative to blank walls. This struck me forcibly as I walked from my hotel close to the Dry Bridge to the epicentre of Tbilisi street art, Fabrika. Along the way the tragedy of the last male northern white rhino adorned the side of building. A former Soviet sewing factory now transformed, Fabrika sits in the middle of a typical residential neighbourhood. Explore the streets around-about though and you’ll unearth a wealth of Tbilisi street art.

Tbilisi’s blossoming street art scene is part of a much wider boom in creative industries around the city. Whether music, fashion, art or nightlife, the cultural renaissance in the city is in full bloom. Street art is just one of the more visible elements of the forces, mostly driven by a a younger generation, behind this change. This resurgence is one of the reasons I wanted to visit. A decade or more ago, Tbilisi was regarded by many as a cultural backwater. Not so today, and the pace of change seems to be increasing.

One of the interesting things about Georgia’s street art scene is that, while still fairly male dominated, there are a growing number of well-known female artists. Several of whom were amongst the pioneers of street art in the country. I’m not sure if that has any impact on the types of street art you see, but it’s strangely reassuring in the truly macho Georgian culture.

After I’d spotted the ‘Last Male Northern White Rhino’ I wandered into the courtyard of Fabrika where several artists have been at work, and then spent a happy couple of hours walking around the surrounding streets discovering more pieces. You don’t see street art of this scale and skill in most of Tbilisi, it’s a bit of a creative ghetto, but all things must start somewhere and it definitely feels like Tbilisi’s at the start of a very creative journey.

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Likuna, I’m Sorry … Tbilisi Street Art

Of all the many and varied pieces of street art that I saw as I wandered around Tbilisi, it was a simple stencilled artwork that really caught my attention. I don’t know what type of offence had been committed, or the degree of forgiveness that was being requested from the mysterious Likuna, but it was enough to force the person seeking it to paint it on the streets. Like a low-tech version of a proposal of marriage made on the big screen at a baseball game, ‘Likuna, I’m Sorry’ was stencilled on a wall in the Rustaveli area.

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

I just hope Likuna lived nearby so there’s a reasonable chance she saw the message. It was just one example of a booming street art scene in Georgia – at least in Tbilisi and a few other urban centres. I’d not been paying much attention to street art, and hadn’t come across anything that stopped me in my tracks. That is, until I found myself on the Nikoloz Baratashvili Bridge, either side of which are underpasses where the walls are filled with street art from a variety of artists.

Street art is a relatively new phenomenon in Georgia, most people agreeing that it only really became a ‘thing’ after 2005. It now seems embedded in the cityscape and a new generation of artists are giving expression to a world view that often seems at odds with the politics of the country. Street art isn’t yet ubiquitous, but a few selected areas of the city are hotspots for artists. Underpasses, of which Tbilisi has many, are fertile spots for unearthing street art.

Even if still limited in geographic scope, there are some magnificent pieces of street art being showcased in Tbilisi, and there are a growing number of recognisable artists who are gaining in popularity. There’s even a street art festival held at Fabrika, a former Soviet-era sewing factory that has been converted into a hipster paradise of cafes and bars, artist studios, shops, co-working spaces, hip hostel and a courtyard where trendy young things gather to socialise.

For some reason street art seems to work in harmony with Tibilisi’s faded grandeur. I’d guess that in a few years’ time it will be well-known and attract artists from other parts of the world. For now though, it seems like a very local affair. I started by exploring the area around Nikoloz Baratashvili Bridge, but my meanderings through the Rustaveli area also unearthed a multitude of different pieces. It was certainly one way of getting a better understanding of the city’s layout.

There was one piece in an underpass that reminded me of the “very surprised looking whale” that “had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more“, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The thought made me laugh as I wandered through the most artistic underpass I’ve ever visited, filled with alien creatures and more familiar earthbound critters.

Perhaps understandably for a country that endured 70 years of Russian communism, and has suffered more recent blows to the national psyche, a lot of the street art is a commentary on the current state of society and politics. Much more though seems to be of fantastical beings and creatures, the stuff of sci-fi nightmares – although these might also be social commentary. One thing’s for sure, Georgians love to protest and street art is a vibrant new outlet for those tendencies.

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi is in parts an attractive town, but like many former Soviet cities it has plenty of grey, crumbling walls. Street art is slowly turning these into things of beauty, which can only be a good thing. Yet, in Tbilisi censorship of street art exists. Some subjects are too sensitive, particularly to the religious establishment. Themes of gender and sexuality are frowned upon, while anti-government street art regularly disappears after a day or two.

I read about this in an interesting article where one of the leading lights of Georgian street art, Gagosh, was quoted saying, “I prefer to express my feelings or attitudes towards events in this form rather than to write comments on Facebook. My Facebook ‘wall’ is on the streets, not on a social network … I protest on them”. That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

Tbilisi, Georgia’s ancient, warm heart

The Narikala Fortress dominates the ancient Old Town of Tbilisi. Some 1,700 years old, the historic heart of the city is a magical place to wander, retaining a sense of the past at almost every turn. The best, possibly only, way of exploring the Old Town is on foot, but that involves plenty of steep hills and stairways that climb ever upwards between pretty houses with wooden balconies. Trudging uphill in 36ºC was unpleasant, but the views over the valley that is home to this rough and ready city are magnificent.

There are pleasant walking routes taking in the most interesting streets and ancient buildings. Explored slowly, with stops for lunch and wine tasting, I spent a very happy day wandering winding, narrow lanes lined with traditional houses with wooden balconies. There are several historic churches hidden away in the warren of streets, as well as mosques and a synagogue, testament to the diverse cultural mix that Tbilisi has inherited as an ancient crossroads between Europe and Asia close to the Silk Road.

Narikala Fortress, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Church of the Assumption, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Rezo Gabriadze Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia

Mother Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

Sulphur baths and Narikala Fortress, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

This history was obvious when I stopped for lunch at one of the city’s best restaurants, Cafe Leila. I snagged an outside table opposite the entrance to the Anchiskhati Basilica, a 6th century Orthodox church with a steady stream of worshippers and tourists, and watched the world go by while enjoying a bowl of lobio, a thick and rich baked red bean stew flavoured with herbs, and a tomato and cucumber salad with a crushed walnut topping. All washed down with a cold beer to combat the heat and humidity.

By the time I reached Cafe Leila it was mid-afternoon and I’d definitely earned a rest. The day had started with a walk along the banks of the Kura river to reach the famed hot sulphur baths in the Abanotubani district. It was way too hot for a sulphur bath, so I wandered around the area of Tbilisi’s central mosque and then up to Narikala Fortress. Dating from the 4th century there’s not a lot to see, but the Narikala Church is worth a visit before heading to the massive statue of Mother Georgia along the ridge.

Standing on the edge of the ridge you get sweeping views over the entirety of Tbilisi, but even more exciting than the views is the way of getting down the hill: a cable car. The descent over the city and across the river gives you a close up of the streets you’re flying above before being deposited in Rike Park – a trip that takes you from the 4th century to the 21st century in around 4 minutes. Only on my way down did it occur to me that I’d have saved myself a hot climb if I’d done this journey the other way around.

I crossed over the Peace Bridge back into the Old Town to continue my explorations. I came across one of Tbilisi’s most famous sights, the Rezo Gabriadze Theatre, a puppet theatre of high renown and easily identified by the tilting tower that stands over the narrow street and performs a marionette show at midday. It stands at one end of a pedestrianised street that runs past the Sioni Cathedral and the Little Synagogue, not to mention a section lined with restaurants serving Georgian cuisine.

Cable car over Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Piano player, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

I eventually ended up in Liberty Square, where the chaotic traffic choked the streets and polluted the air, a constant problem in Tbilisi, before diving back into the cobbled lanes of the Old Town towards Vinoteka, and some wine tasting. I figured this would be good research for when I headed into the eastern wine producing area of Kakheti, and I was keen to taste some of Georgia’s famed natural wines made by a process that is around 8,000 years old.

It’s a bit touristy, but I left armed with vital information and a thirst to expand my wine knowledge further, for which I’d pay the price of a serious hangover the following day.

Tiblisi, city of the Revolution of Roses

Georgian history is fascinating. For much of that history the country didn’t exist as an independent nation, yet against the odds has managed to maintain its unique language, culture and a fierce sense of national identity. Ever since the collapse of the Kingdom of Georgia in the 1460s, there have been only brief interludes of independence when not absorbed into the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. It even found itself under British ‘protection’ after the First World War.

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Traditional housing, Tbilisi, Georgia

Traditional housing, Tbilisi, Georgia

That didn’t last long either. In 1921 the Bolshevik Red Army marched into Georgia and didn’t leave until the fall of the USSR in 1991. There are still Russian troops stationed on Georgian soil thanks to a disastrous war fought against Russia in 2008. Georgia, it seems, has been unlucky in its neighbours. Its independence in 1991 was shattered by a series of bitter conflicts before, bizarrely, the former Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was elected president in 1995 with a promise of peace and stability.

Mired in poverty and corruption, the Shevardnadze government was deposed during the Rose Revolution in 2003, a series of popular protests that ended when protesters stormed the Tbilisi Parliament building with red roses in their hands. It re-established democracy and ushered in a period of progress. Although if my Georgian colleague at work is right, it hasn’t solved rampant corruption, a dependence on political strong men, or the fact that an oligarch now runs the country through a puppet Prime Minster.

Tbilisi is the stage upon which these frictions occasionally boil over into protest. The week after I left, mass demonstrations were greeted with a violent police response. There is some way to go before the young people I met in Tbilisi, who have rejected Russian for English, and look to the West and the European Union as the future of the country, see the type of progress they want for Georgia. This is a city with one foot in the past and an eye firmly fixed on the future. It’s a beguiling mix.

Not unlike its occasionally riotous politics and turbulent history, Tbilisi is a disorderly city of contradictions. The bohemian and traditional, the grotesque and beautiful all rub shoulders. The traffic is a nightmare, whether you’re driving in it (from experience, an ill-advised pastime) or just trying to cross the road. It’s a miracle that fatalities aren’t much higher. Yet, in response to an estimated 50,000 stray dogs and a rabies problem, all the dogs have been vaccinated for rabies and have tags in their ears to prove it.

Then there is the discordant mix of old and new, which somehow manages to be both picturesque and a bit depressing. Many of the neighbourhoods I wandered through felt utterly dilapidated, with many houses seemingly defying neglect and gravity. Contrast this with Rike Park, a vanity project of former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Slap-bang in the heart of the city, with a series of architectural statement pieces that redefine the phrase, ‘white elephant’.

Its crowning ‘glory’, The Peace Bridge, is likened to a disused sanitary pad by locals disgruntled by the massive cost and utterly unsympathetic way it doesn’t blend into its historic surroundings. Nearby sit the two metal tubes of the Concert and Exhibition Hall, which weren’t even completed before being abandoned. It’s an object lesson in what can go wrong when a corrupt oligarch with poor architectural taste gets hold of the reins of power.

Rike Park, Tbilisi, Georgia

Ronald Reagan statue, Tbilisi, Georgia

Bridge of Peace, Tbilisi, Georgia

Traditional housing, Tbilisi, Georgia

Traditional housing, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

This all contrasts sharply with the medieval splendours of Tbilisi’s old town across the river and overshadowed by the Narikala Fortress. I spent my first three days in the city exploring on foot, hot work in the Georgian summer in a town with too many hills, and I loved it. For all the discordance, it’s a vibrant and exciting place, with neighbourhoods like Rustaveli that are filled with trendy galleries, cafes, bars and restaurants. I enjoyed my time so much, I squeezed in an extra day at the end of the trip – it’s that sort of city.

Georgia, a road trip through the Caucasus

Georgia has been on my wish list for a long time. At the start of June, I finally managed to squeeze in a twelve day road trip that took me from the hubbub of its capital Tbilisi, to the soaring mountains of the High Caucasus close to the Russian border; from the vineyards of the world’s oldest wine industry in the eastern region of Kakheti, south to the border with Armenia and Turkey, and astonishing, isolated Orthodox monasteries perched precariously amongst mountainous landscapes.

Along the way I sampled some of the most delicious food of my life, tried wines still made by methods pioneered 8,000 years ago, and risked life and limb driving mountain roads and through Tbilisi’s rush hour – a terrifying and nerve-jangling experience that I don’t wish to repeat. Ever. Wherever I went it was impossible not to marvel at the extraordinary landscapes of a country that defies expectations. Outside tourist hubs not much English is spoken, but people were always friendly.

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Mount Kazbek, Stepantsminda, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

Mother Georgia statue, Tbilisi, Georgia

Ancient defensive tower, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Old Town and Mtkvari River, Tbilisi, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

Georgia is a candidate country for European Union membership, and is desperate to break its traditional dependence on Russia. EU flags can be found everywhere you go, yet Georgia challenged my understanding of what is Europe and who is European. Physically, where Europe begins, in the west at least, is clear. There’s water around it. Where Europe ends is an entirely different question. In Tbilisi you’re only a geopolitical stones throw from Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Chechnya and Azerbaijan.

It’s no surprise that Georgia is looking west. In 2008, its relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia led to a disastrous war. The result is two Russian-occupied ‘breakaway’ regions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. All were part of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991, modern-day Russia is having a hard time letting go. Recently, mass protests broke out in Tbilisi when a Russian politician visited the Georgian parliament. Russia responded with economic pressure, suspending all flights to Georgia.

Not long ago, Georgia could be described as off the beaten track. Although it’s now definitely a destination, tourism is still limited and the infrastructure is still fairly basic. Yet tourism is making an impact, often not in a positive way. Unless there’s another conflict with Russia though, things will only go in one direction. That will open isolated parts of the country to travellers, but local people are already sounding the alarm over the impact on traditional ways of life and the environment.

The country’s location and relative isolation thanks to multiple mountain ranges, have bequeathed it a unique and diverse cultural heritage. Here you’ll find Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, as well as a few people who don’t believe any of that. Religion plays a major role in daily life, and the Orthodox Church is strongly linked to national identity. Perhaps not surprising in a country that suffered seven decades of communist rule. What accounts for epidemic levels of machismo is less clear.

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Ananuri Fortress, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater, Tbilisi, Georgia

Soviet Monument, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Truso Valley, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

David Gareji Monasteri, Georgia

My first day in Tbilisi was dulled by exhaustion from a sleepless night spent in Istanbul airport. This was made worse by temperatures in the mid-30ºC, crushing humidity and world class levels of air pollution. If they introduced a low emissions zone in Tbilisi there’d be no vehicles left on the streets. Which would make crossing the road a whole lot safer. Despite these small inconveniences, I knew from the first meal I ate that I was going to like Georgia.

I combined khinkali dumplings, rich and delicious lobio bean stew and dolmas with one of the many varieties of cheese bread, khachapuri. All washed down with a delicious bottle of red Saperavi wine. I told myself that no one comes to Georgia to lose weight, and so it proved. It was this first introduction to the national cuisine that made me start wondering about Georgia’s true identity. Not quite Europe, the Middle East, or Turkey. In fact, somewhere unlike anywhere else I’ve been.