|First Time In Tbilisi|
Get the best out of Georgia’s charming capital
WORDS | MATTHEW LEE
POPULATION: 4,385, 000 VISITORS PER YEAR: 785,000 (2008) LANGUAGE: Georgian CURRENCY: Georgian lari (GEL)
LOCAL BEER: £0.80 ONE-BED APARTMENT: Around £40,000 ONE NIGHT IN A FIVE-STAR HOTEL: From £120
MOST FIRST-TIME VISITORS TO GEORGIA are pleasantly surprised by its charming capital. The country, after all, has been through some turbulent times. In 1991, Georgia secured its independence after 70 years of Soviet rule, but fighting broke out soon afterwards. And only two years ago, there was a military conflict with Russia over the disputed province of South Ossetia.
Yet the beautiful city of Tbilisi has emerged from all these troubles almost unscathed. It’s blessed with a spectacular setting: a green, hilly landscape with the River Mtkvari cutting the town in two. On the left bank of the river, the Old Town is Tbilisi’s most picturesque spot. On its narrow streets and small squares, you’ll find charming shops selling arts, crafts and carpets, as well as Tbilisi’s most popular bars and clubs such as KGB and Café Kala (see right).
From almost any spot in Tbilisi you can see its three landmark structures. There’s the TV Tower, lit up like a Christmas tree; the Mother of Georgia statue, holding a bowl of wine (for Georgia’s friends) and a sword (for its enemies): and the fourth-century Narikala Fortress, which offers excellent views over the city.
The new city isn’t lacking in charm either. A stroll down Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, reveals the National Theatre, the Opera House and some grand government buildings, as well as excellent cafés and bars. It’s hard to go wrong with restaurants in Tbilisi. The national cuisine is a rich and varied fusion of Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Russian food, and the quality of food in even basic restaurants is excellent. The staple dish is khachapuri, a cheese pie eaten with every meal. Georgia is also the birthplace of wine and the local bottles are cheap and of a high quality.
COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT TBILISI Occupying a historic building in Freedom Square, right at the heart of the city, this solid, substantial and well-located hotel is suited to business travellers.
Freedom Square, +995 32 779 100, www.marriott.co.uk
SHERATON METECHI PALACE HOTEL The Metechi Palace boasts spacious rooms, a swimming pool and gym, a good Georgian restaurant and great views of the city. 20 Telavi Street, +995 32 772 020, www.starwoodhotels.com
RADISSON BLU IVERIA HOTEL Easily Tbilisi’s most stylish hotel, it has one of its best Italian restaurants, an 18th-floor bar and one of the city’s finest spas.
Rose Revolution Square, +995 32 402 200, www.radissonblu.com
BISTROS & BARS
TAGHLAURA Taghlaura is a Georgian mini-chain of restaurants serving excellent local food and home-brewed beer. Don’t miss the khinkali – dumplings filled with meat and gravy. 1 Gulias Street, +995 32 364 302, www.taglaura.ge
KGB A super-kitsch bar and restaurant with a tongue-in-cheek Soviet theme (motto: Still watching you). The Ossetian khachapuri (cheese pie with potato) is excellent. 10 King Erekle Street, +995 99 674 488
CAFÉ KALA Right next door to KGB, Café Kala is the place to go for local jazz bands as well as excellent Georgian food. 8 King Erekle Street, +995 99 799 737
Always agree on a fare with the driver before you get into a cab. Drivers don’t tend to speak much English and Georgian pronunciations can be difficult to get right, so if it’s possible to get somebody at your hotel to write down the name of your destination it will help. A trip across central Tbilisi shouldn’t cost more than £5.
A day trip to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, makes for a fascinating day out. The Stalin Museum (+995 27 075 215) celebrates the Soviet leader’s life in an entirely uncritical way – don’t expect exhibits on the purges or the gulags. On the way back to Tbilisi, stop off at Mtskheta, where the country’s holiest site, the Jvari Monastery, sits atop a mountain.
At weekends, Tbilisi hosts a fantastic flea market by the banks of the river. You can find almost anything at the Dry Bridge Market (March Park, Sat-Sun, 8am-2pm), but the most interesting stalls are the ones selling Soviet memorabilia. For a few pounds you can pick up medals the Soviet state once awarded Georgian citizens for their bravery, industriousness and loyalty.
1921: The Soviet Red Army invades Georgia and it becomes part of the Soviet Union. 1989: Soviet troops kill 20 Georgians in demonstrations in Tbilisi. The independence movement is strengthened. 1990: Formal independence from the Soviet Union is declared 2003: Disputed parliamentary elections result in widespread protests. Mikheil Saakashvili becomes president. 2008: Russia and Georgia clash over the disputed region of South Ossetia. The conflict lasts 10 days.
BUSINESS TIPS FOR TBILISI
Mako Abashidze, the director of the British-Georgian Chamber of Commerce, offers advice
Georgians are fond of socialising while they’re doing business. Deals are often done at a supra – a traditional feast. It is important to establish good personal and informal relationships with Georgians.
Tbilisi used to be a bilingual city with the population speaking Russian as well as their native Georgian. But over the past two decades things have changed and an increasing number of Georgians, especially business people, speak good English. Now, English is considered the language of business in the city.
Since the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia has become a much easier place to do business. It brought to power a group of young, dynamic reformers, who have been able to curb corruption at every level. According to the World Bank, Georgia is now the 11th best place in the world to do business.
Georgia is a very family-orientated society and it’s normal for members of the same family to work for the same business. But entrepreneurs understand the value of good management and are usually keen to invite foreigners with expertise to work for their companies. www.bgcc.org.uk