14.04.2014. Katie Melua, the singer, reveals her favourite hotels, bars and restaurants in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital and her childhood home
It’s where I spent most of my childhood up to the age of nine, before my family and I moved to Britain. Being the capital of Georgia, it’s the country’s cultural centre. It’s also steeped in history – the Old Town, with its twisting alleys, is particularly fascinating – and has some beautiful churches dating back hundreds of years. Unlike London, it’s a very hilly city with the advantage being you can enjoy the most fabulous views from certain points. It’s a city that’s very much off the beaten track. Not many tourists have been there, which makes it all the more worth visiting.
Anything special I should pack?
Probably headache pills and a hangover cure. The Georgians will treat you like royalty, and the odds are you’ll do a lot of eating, drinking and toasting. Being so hilly, good walking shoes are a must. It’s hot and muggy in the summer but very cold in the winter, so pack accordingly. Late spring is a good time to go.
What’s the first thing you do?
I love to go to one of the old bathhouses, such as Chreli Abano, where you hire private rooms as an individual or a group by the hour. Groups will naturally be either male or female. You’ll be massaged and washed by a woman if you’re in a group of women, or by a man if it’s a group of men. The foam-drenched fabrics and the natural hot springs beneath the bathhouse combine to give you a deep clean. I always come out feeling marvellously rejuvenated.
What’s the best place to stay?
There is a very nice boutique hotel in central Tbilisi called British House, which I highly recommend. It’s nicely decorated in the traditional Georgian style and is run by an expat Brit – very welcoming and hospitable.
Where would you meet friends for a drink?
You could try Café Kala, a popular bar in the Old Town that features live jazz on most nights. There is also a downtown area called Sharden, just a few streets over, which is dotted with trendy coffee houses and bars. Personally, I’m more of a coffee than alcohol person, so I really need my daily coffee fix.
Where is the best place for lunch?
One of my favourite places to go for a bite is Kartuli Sakhli, which simply means Georgian House. It serves all sorts of tasty traditional Georgian dishes, such as khinkali – dumplings the size of your hand with a minced filling. You bite into them, suck out the juices, and then eat the rest of the dumpling. They’re absolutely delicious.
And for dinner?
I’d go to Tsiskvili, where I celebrated my grandfather’s 80th birthday a couple of years ago. The décor is traditional, and they serve the most delicious Georgian food and often have live music.
Where would you send a first-time visitor?
You have to visit some of the city’s churches, such as the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi (below) or the Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary, which dates back to the sixth century. I love them, even though I’m not particularly religious. Try to catch a Georgian vocal group. The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments is also really cool if you’re into music. Lastly, you’ve got to take the cable car from Rike Park to Narikala Fortress (above), which offers wonderful views over the city.
What should I avoid?
Some of Tbilisi’s “hardcore” bathhouses might not be to everyone’s taste. My husband is a Yorkshire lad and quite open-minded, but when he saw the man planning to wash him at the bathhouse (which still has a Soviet-era kind of vibe), he walked out.
What should I bring home?
You’ve got to bring back some tkemali, traditional Georgian plum sauce. It’s lovely with chicken and kebabs. You could also buy a record by Hamlet Gonashvili, one of Georgia’s most popular folk singers.
Anywhere that isn’t your kind of town?
I’m not a huge fan of Las Vegas. It’s a fun place to go to play a bit of poker but it’s so man-made. And being quite environmentally conscious, I couldn’t believe the amount of neon lighting in the city. It’s definitely not a place I’d spend too much time in.