At first it looked very much like home, 12 hours drive away in the South of Armenia. Our Old Town Tbilisi accommodation was on a dilapidated street, unevenly paved and steep. Cars blocked every entrance. Roofs were patched with rusting corrugated iron. Old women swept cracked concrete in front of battered doors.
“Odd neighborhood” said my brother
“But only steps from the action” I justified.
We took the dog leg past the Art Hostel and turned left at the synagogue, picking our way across cobbles to an attractive street lined with restaurants and bars. I’d had an excellent potato khachapuri atCafe Kala the night before– and an odd experience watching a young woman work at the wine bar opposite.
“Wine tasting. Wine tasting” the young woman said to each passing group of tourists.
She was pretty and animated so some of her targets acknowledged her and smiled as they said “No thanks” or Not right now”.
Between entreaties she smoked a cigarette in the company of a skinny man with long, lank hair sitting at an empty table in front of dark steps leading down to the wine bar. He wasn’t a customer. There weren’t any customers.
Across the way, Cafe Kala–all painted furniture, faded print fabric, bright flowerpots, and jazz–was roaring with trade.
I beckoned the girl to come over to the success-filled side of the street. This is what happens when I have no one to keep me in check.
” I can’t do it” she said “your place won’t like it”.
She gestured to a waiter behind me and apparently got the go ahead.
“Just for a minute” she said.
“Why don’t you ask them Are you ready for a glass of wine?” I suggested. “And maybe have a bottle or two and some glasses on the table?” I didn’t say to ditch the boyfriend.
“The owner wouldn’t like it” she said. “I like it. It’s a good idea, but I have to follow a script”
“But the script isn’t working– you aren’t getting people in”
“We get people” she said looking doubtful. She stepped back to her lonely station.
A group did come. Five people, perhaps German, accompanied by a tour guide. The gangly young man smoked his last cigarette, kissed the girl and left. Now she looked at her phone in between stillborn solicitations.
I finished my glass of wine and paid my bill. Cafe Kala needed my table. I walked over to the girl and asked her name
“Tell me what is so great about your wine– why should I come and taste it?” I asked
“It’s free, it’s natural, it’s Georgian” she said and shrugged with a smile.
“Maybe say that as part of your pitch?” I suggested.
She was a little annoyed by now.
“The guy inside talks to them about the wine” she said.
“But they aren’t going inside” I said
“Some of them do”. She turned away. I moved on.
I don’t expect Nina will be there when you have a drink or a snack at Cafe Kala.
We walked down to Sioni Cathedral. Zion. But Sioni is pronounced See-oh-knee which you will need to know when you ask a taxi to drop you off there. (By the way, use Taxify– or be sure to proffer only 2 or 3 lari as a fare. We did not do this and were consistently and irritatingly ripped off.) The church has been rather overshadowed by the more showy Holy Trinity high above the city, but it is a beautiful, peaceful place. The courtyard has park benches for the weary, and a row of taps dispensing holy water. Georgian churches have taller, slimmer spires than those in Armenia which made them all look strangely out of scale to me.
To the left of Sioni as you walk down towards the river there is a goods store run by the church, presumably to help the poor. The scent of beeswax mingles with the smell of dried peppers, wooden boxes of onions, and fermenting fruit. We sampled cream cheese topped with a trickle of chestnut syrup and then felt guilty about the plastic cup and spoon
It was time for coffee. I can highly recommend Entree, just beside the synagogue. They do a marvelous almond croissant too.
The Royal Bath House is the most ornate of the sulphur baths that are the main attraction of old town. We booked a bath and steam room for two– an hour for 40 GEL and a little extra for towels. A brisk splashdown and massage cost 20 GEL each. The bathrooms are covered with tiny tiles and ours was spotlessly clean. The salt in the water makes your legs float like barrage balloons and the water is very warm. We spent more time sitting on the stone bench by the shower than we did submerged. A woman gave me my personal massage–a bracing treatment during which she sloshed buckets of hot water at me and then scrubbed me sternly with a scouring pad. A quick wipe down with a wet cloth and an instruction to have both a hot and cold shower. A man provided Peter with the same. If they’d offered facials I would have had one. Exfoliated from shoulder bone to big toe, it feels odd to be left with a dirty face.
Tbilisi differs from Yerevan in that there are arty crafty things everywhere that you really might be tempted to buy. Modem cloisonné jewelry. Tablecloths with bold geometric traditional patterns and eccentric hats made from felt. The Old Caravanserai building seemed to be best for this sort of stuff.
There are also some shockingly bad things. No one wants those ugly felt slippers and all should ignore the miniature drinking horns. I bought nothing as I am now a bona fide minimalist world traveler more into the experience than the expense.
Dinner was at Culinarium Khasheria where we both toyed with warm salads featuring herbs we’d barely heard of. The restaurant was quiet and studiedly chic. We would have ordered the pudding featuring figs but no on quite got round to taking our order. Nice set up though, and very near the baths. We repaired to the Radio Bar where a young woman with a throaty gurgle in her voice sang 21st century classics and made them completely her own.