Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Guardian's Jessica Hynes: Tbilisi or bust

by Jessica Hynes

27.01.2013. The last time I travelled with my sister Zoe was a trip to Turkey 17 years ago. She beat all the men off the backgammon table, I tried to hire a moped without a licence and nearly crashed it, and my mother got so badly sunburned she had to stay in her hotel room. This trip was infinitely more sophisticated – not, as you might think, because we are old bags, but because Tbilisi is heaven on Earth. Not just because you can still smoke, or because the food you eat in every restaurant is fresh, seasonal and unlike anything you've ever eaten, or because you can drink usakhelauri, a wonderful light semi-sweet red wine (I am cradling a bottle to open on my sister's birthday). But also because, despite relentless onslaughts over centuries from unfriendly neighbours, the Georgian culture and spirit remain undimmed.

It was the Georgians I met while filming the BBC show World's Most Dangerous Roads whose enthusiasm, kindness and pride in their country inspired me to return. My sister is a fashion designer and jumped at the chance to join me. She and I travelled a lot as children, to stay with relatives in Canada and America in the summer holidays. As adults, we have both been all over the world for work, but rarely for pleasure. With five children between us and the busy, erratic schedules of self-employed mums, a weekend away from it all felt well overdue.

My intention was to push life's stresses from my sister's head by filling it with the wonders of the city (ie, waffle on at her) – something she let me do, a wry smile at the corner of her mouth.

First up was the Kashveti Church on Rustaveli Avenue. An eclectic array of framed religious paintings climb the walls, but beneath is a grey wash, all the original religious murals gone – the Communist contribution to this beautiful place. My sister and I refrained from whipping out our cameras and capturing a rather handsome portrait of Jesus because it felt disrespectful, but trust me, he really did look a bit like James Franco.

Next door was the National Gallery of Georgia. The gallery space is huge and grand, with comfortable benches for sitting and looking, which is what we did with great pleasure, this trip being a rare chance to evade childcare. We both loved Imeretia – My Mother, a stunning portrait of painter David Kakabadze's mother doing needlework. It made me feel desperately inadequate that I have not, as yet, ever crocheted a pair of socks.

Another Georgian artist, Lado Gudiashvili, never painted ears as he felt them to be ugly, and I couldn't help thinking that he would have loved the cafe companion we met later that day – poet Kote Kubaneishvili, who has only one ear. The other was sliced off in a fight. He is famous for posting guerrilla-style poetry across Tbilisi during the dark days of the Russian occupation. The impact of his slogans is somewhat lost in translation, but he told me he once broke into the parliamentary offices and wrote inside the toilet doors something along the lines of, "You're shit."

If you are prone to craft-skills envy, don't come to Georgia: at practically every street corner handmade socks are lovingly laid out. Churchkhela is also sold in abundance – walnuts coated in grape juice, otherwise known as Georgian Snickers – and a healthier, more tasty snack I have not found.

The streets in central Tbilisi are broad and leafy – piazza-like pavements stepping up or down into grand classical buildings, while huge trees usher you into wide squares and balconied side streets. Although the dynamic modern architecture is largely disliked by discerning Tbilisians, I happen to love it and, standing on the other side of the Narikala fortress, you get the full range of styles: old Tbilisi, Communist, classical and new Tbilisi.

If all the excitement of the city gets too much for you – as it certainly did for my sister and me after a night watching Georgian dancers bounce off their knees, drinking Bagrationi sparkling wine and smoking like chimneys – there are many trips you can take from Tbilisi. We visited Davit Gareja monastery, a collection of churches and chapels carved into caves on the hillside facing Azerbaijan, about a 90-minute drive away, and headed up the craggy hillside. My sister was excited when her phone read "Welcome to Azerbaijan", as were we all when a young girl walking ahead of us decided we needed some music for our ascent and started to play Pink's Try loudly on her phone. As we reached the summit, we gazed out across the lunar-like landscape to Rihanna's Diamonds.

At the second summit there was more music, as one young man began to sing a Georgian song into the warm, billowing wind. His companion held her scarf above her head in appreciation. Then he broke into a rendition of Nina Simone's Feeling Good that wasn't quite so effortless, and we shuffled away to begin our descent.

By now we were beginning to experience retail withdrawal. So, after freshening up at our sumptuous hotel, we ventured out to a flea market. My sister displayed her sophisticated taste and homemaking skills by buying antique children's books in English, a gorgeous rug and tin teapots, while I bought knives, maps and a pack of cards. I have always envied Zoe three things: her figure, her taste and her eye for a good bit of schmutter.

Our last night was spent in the Pur Pur restaurant on a crumbling Tbilisi square and with floor-to-ceiling windows and enormous lampshades. We drank usakhelauri like it was berry juice and ate fresh mackerel in pomegranate sauce. It was poignant, not just because it was the end of our holiday, but also because we learned that this old square is soon to be demolished. We were there on its very last night, serenaded by a string quartet.

On our final morning, we went to the sulphur baths, housed in ancient brick domes on the edge of Old Tbilisi. The last of our stresses were scrubbed from our skin, and we left Tbilisi renewed in mind, body and soul.

Jessica and I have always laughed, with each other, but mainly at each other. Humour is the glue that holds our family together. And as we set off, I was struck by how sad I was that we didn't do this more often.

We awoke the first morning to glorious sunshine and the prospect of the kind of idle meander for which Tbilisi is made. There were the obligatory church visits, so Jess could enlighten me with the historical nuggets of which she is so fond. I, however, was imagining how good the antique pews would look in my kitchen. We ate some of the most delicious food I've ever tasted, and smoked like teenagers between courses because we could, and because there were no minors present to wrinkle their tiny noses and tell us not to die.

Mother Georgia is a spectacular monument that looks down over the city. She symbolises the national character: in her left hand is a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends, in her right a sword for those who come as enemies. We left with plenty of usakhelauri, flea market penknives and some unforgettable memories.


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