Postcard from Tbilisi 2003

I am presently at Istanbul airport awaiting my connecting flight to Tirana, Albania, so I thought I would pass the time and spend several million Lira logging on and recounting the last four days in Tbilisi, Georgia.

At first, we were not sure the match would proceed. Baghdad is only 500 miles from Tbilisi and there were pessimistic fears that planes flying in and out of the city, could be hit by a stray missile (American as well as Iraqi). Thankfully, common sense prevailed and our travel plans went ahead as scheduled.

curious city

Tbilisi is a curious city. It’s austere, drab buildings give an impression of what Moscow must have been like during communism. Many of them are crumbling, so much so I wonder if missiles have not already hit them. Yet, the people seem hospitable and only, too happy to help confused tourists.

Traffic is almost as bad as in Athens, crossing the wide roads is almost impossible. The only way to do so is to wait until a local is crossing and follow in his slipstream. Either that or use the subways, all of which seem to contain a mini mall selling shoes. Almost all cars on the road are old Ladas and the like, pumping thick fumes into the air; not that the locals would notice. Cigarettes are extremely cheap and just about everyone smokes. The drink is deadly too, 12.5% proof at about 50p a bottle. Consequently, you can guess that Georgia has been a hit with Irish fans, and yes, there is an Irish bar here. There are two in fact.

We went down Melikishvili, the main street in Tbilisi, where many of the shops sell pirate movies. ‘Gangs of New York’ or ‘Catch Me If You Can’ on DVD anyone?’ There are also a lot of casinos and slot machine arcades, indicative of a big gambling culture here.

frequent blackouts

On this occasion, I am unable to comment on the public transport system. There is a metro and tram-bus system here, but it is a big risk to use them due to the frequent blackouts. In addition, the indecipherable (and unique) Cyrillic script means none of us know where anything is going.

In its’ own way, Tbilisi must have a late night culture to rival that of Madrid. All the shops are open until 8 or 9pm, the bars until 2 or 3 in the morning, and the many vendor carts selling chocolates, cigarettes etc. are still out there in the freezing cold at 5am and beyond.

For reasons too long and boring to go into here, we did not stay in the Sheraton after all. Instead, we were billeted in the Metro Hotel in the centre of town. The rooms were clean, if somewhat dull. Hot water is intermittent. The bed is too small and I have to sleep diagonally. There is a curious mirror on the headboard. My theory is that it is some sort of Georgian superstition to ward off evil spirits. Either that or it is so you can check yourself out whilst in the missionary position…

freedom toast

There are no complaints about the food though. The usual continental breakfast is supplemented by rolled pancakes filled with melted cheese or sausage meat, or French toast (or is it now “freedom toast”?)

I have gotten on remarkably well with the spoken language. Georgians really appreciate visitors who make an effort to say a few phrases in their language. Even managed to try out a bit of German too when the guard outside the Georgian Parliament building stopped me from taking pictures of the place. He did not know any English but I found the old Deutsche unexpectedly coming in handy.

The actual match was played at the new Lokomotive Stadium, an impressive sight that would shame many a Premiership team. Ireland scraped a lucky 2-1 win on a freezing Saturday night. Georgians are passionate supporters and they easily out-sung us 200 or so travelling fans. Their national anthem has no lyrics, and everyone, but everyone, wore black.

dilapidated Dinamo Stadium
Georgia V Romania rugby international

The next day, we went to see Georgia take on Romania in a rugby international at the dilapidated Dinamo Stadium. It is very run down, with heavily splintered wooden benches for seats. We can however have no complaints since we got in free when officials thought it quaint that some foreigners would come to support Georgia. It was all in vain though, as Romania romped to an easy 20-6 win. The less said about Ireland v England the better…

As fascinating as Tbilisi is, there is not a lot to do. At one point, we actually contemplated holding a picket outside the US Embassy for a laugh, but instead we took in a day trip to the countryside. In, much the same way that most people do not know Hitler was from Austria rather than Germany, Josef Stalin was not from Russia but Georgia. Gori to be exact, which is about a one hour drive north of Tbilisi. So yesterday, accompanied by some hotel staff, we hired a minibus and hit the road.

Gori is a small university town of about 17,000 people. A bit dull actually, but it does have in the main square the only statute of Stalin in the whole of the old USSR that has not been either knocked down or moved. A museum dedicated to his life is there also. It is normally, closed on Mondays, but it was opened up especially for us, which was very decent of them. The tour guide took us around and gave us (in English) the life story of ‘Uncle Joe’, which was the very definition of Stalinist revisionism.

traditional local cuisine

Afterwards, the hotel folk took us to a Georgian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, way off the tourist track. The traditional local cuisine was great, like Lobeo (bean stew) or the Khadjapori (potato pastries with egg and cheese fillings) or dumplings, very similar to Chinese ones, only bigger and eaten messily with hands. Afterwards, they regaled us with some Georgian folk tunes, naturally we replied with a couple of Irish songs, as if we needed an excuse to sing…

Also went to Mtskleta, the original capital of Georgia, its best known for the 11th century Patriarchal Cathedral of ‘Sveti-Tskhoveli’ (Life giving pillar) due to the holy water that dripped down from one of the pillars, which supposedly healed the sick etc. No sign of any water now sadly, who knows what it could do for my gammy knee…

My apprehension prior to my trip to Georgia was unfounded, Tbilisi and Georgia in general has been a pleasant surprise. Sure, the infrastructure needs a lot of work, and the frequent blackouts (so common that locals do not bat an eyelid and just accept it as part of daily life) are a drag. Once the investment is there and these problems are resolved, Georgia will make a great tourist destination. The snow capped mountain views are a wonder to behold and I would not mind returning if Ireland was drawn to play here again.


(photos by Andre)

next article – part 2 of this trip – Tirana, Albania