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When Off The Beaten Path Becomes Mainstream: Rediscovering A 'Discovered' City In Tbilisi, Georgia

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A few nights ago, at an Ossetian dive bar in the heart of the Tbilisi's historic district, my long-suffering English boyfriend was forcibly (if amiably) abducted by a table of Georgian men who insisted on testing his Anglo-Saxon constitution with copious amounts of cha cha (essentially gasoline schnapps). They had grown up nearby, on the street on which I now live. Their ringleader had emigrated to Strasbourg; this was his first visit back in 10 years.

Together they toasted and drank and sang along to gloriously kitschy folk songs and celebrated the old coterie come together again; they celebrated wine and women and the street on which they had lived. I -- an expat with a respectable command of Georgian and the ability to hold my cha cha -- was just along for the ride.

Ten years ago, of course, the streets of Tbilisi were off-limits after dark to all but Glock-sporting oligarchs and the odd intrepid journalist. Transport to and from Batumi, a sticky and insalubrious port city on the Black Sea, necessitated a subtle ferrying of bribes to a series of dissolute mercenaries, operating a de facto feudal state over the half-hearted objections of the central government. The remote mountain wilderness of Svaneti, a panoramic outcropping of medieval towers in the furthest reaches of the Greater Caucasus, was plagued by clan violence and banditry; the unwary traveler could easily find himself caught in the crossfire of a centuries-old blood feud.

That was then. Today, Tbilisi's various new "art-cafes" and "gallery-bars" stay open well past midnight, peopled not by minor warlords and sometime prostitutes but by twenty-something members of Georgia's vibrant intelligentsia. Batumi, inundated with investments, has been restored to its former fin de siècle grandeur: a pastel and palm-tree-lined seaside playground for well-heeled Georgians and an increasing number of tourists from Turkey and Iran. Mestia, Svaneti's capital, now boasts an airport and a ski resort. Tourism has boomed, increasing by 40% in 2011, with five million tourists projected by 2015

Not all change is been welcome, of course. The chrome-and-glass and utterly out-of-place "Peace Bridge" linking Tbilisi's fairytale-castle old town with the Presidential Palace across the river has been greeted with no small amount of derision; to its detractors, the bridge is emblematic of the hubris of the Saakashvili regime. Planned reconstruction of one of the city's historic art nouveau squares has spawned an "Occupy Gudiashvili Square" protest movement. And the new glass police stations that dwarf the cows, chickens and creaking farmhouses in villages all across Georgia seem less a fulfillment of Saakashvili's promise of "transparency" than an illustration of Kafkaesque absurdism.

The street on which my friends once lived has been changed in the past few years. Foreigners have bought up many of the houses. Their pastel facades have been stripped; the street itself has been gutted, repaved, rebuilt in its traditional style -- more beautiful, perhaps, than the imploding slums behind the ridge, where tourists do not go -- but empty: a fictive fairyland, the Georgia of story-books and tourist-pamphlets. (Such renovations are not exclusive to Tbilisi. Mestia, Svaneti's once-remote capital, currently resembles the flimsy stage-set of a spaghetti Western)

More authentically moving are the back streets of Sololaki and Mtatsminda, two 19th-century districts populated by at least as many art nouveau stone gargoyles, cherubs, griffins, angels and titans as human beings. There, Tbilisi institutions like the stalwart restaurant-cum-jazz-bar Pur Pur, a phantasmagoric, absinthe-fueled fantasia of artfully mismatched antiques, Victorian lamp-shades and minimalist chandeliers, caters to well-heeled artistic types who have not yet made the exodus to the smart, modern suburb of Vake. There, unfashionable 19th-century tchotchkes -- selling for a handful of lari at the Dry Bridge flea market -- are re-invented as emblems of a new age: fashionable in their very defiance of the sleekly insincere minimalism of the stiletto-and-botox bars that line the traditional tourist trail of Chardini Street. (Pur Pur, like so many of the city's best bars, is unmarked, paying at the very least lip service to the notion that Tbilisi's greatest charms are to be protected from the touristic hordes).

For now, Tbilisi's beauty lies not in its public gentrification but in what is yet hidden: the intricately carved entrance hall in the Moorish revival building at the corner of Machabeli and Asatiani Streets, which appears in no guidebook but which is nevertheless left permanently unlocked for intrepid visitors, the hole-in-the-wall Book Corner café in leafy Vera, cluttered with typewriters and a piano and mismatched chairs, the streets around the Griboedov Conservatory, where Liszt still echoes at around three o'clock. It can be found in icon-shops and car trunks piled high with apricots and the blood-orange-colored flowers that seem to grow exclusively around churches. Further afield, the same holds true: the largely undeveloped mountain region of Khevsureti, with its green peaks and black fortresses, casts the same mysterious spell that Mestia has attempted to commodify, to contain.

Saakashvili's programme of modernization seeks to bring tourists to one of the world's most romantic cities: now, the advertisements plead, is the time to see Georgia!

This much, at least, is true. To visit Georgia is to encounter a country on the brink of change -- change at once exhilarating in its dynamism and, like so much of Georgia's history, tinged with tragedy.