They say that Tbilisi has been razed to the ground a dozen times in its two thousand year history. The Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Persians again: many have laid waste to this extraordinary city on the crossroads, the Capital of the Caucasus, but they’ve never been able wipe it out completely. Like the hot sulphur springs beneath the city, Tbilisi always keeps bubbling back up.
Today, the enemies are at the gate again: a mixture of fast money, neglect and bad government. In Gudiashvili Garden, the finest square in the city, a forest of massive steel girders prevent the crumbling, elegant houses falling into each other. In the glorious art nouveau neighbourhood of Sololaki venal developers bulldoze the mansion blocks of the Georgian nobility and the villas of the German industrialists to make way for shoddy, cookie cutter condos. In Kala, the oldest part of the old town, buildings collapse every time there is a rainstorm. City Hall, incompetent and in hock to tasteless oligarchs, shuffles its feet as the city crumbles.
As well as threats to the fabric of the city, there are threats to its spirit of openness. In 2013, the authorities did nothing when an anti-homophobia protest was attacked by a ten thousand strong anti-gay militia. Outside nightclubs, police force young people to have their urine tested for any traces of drugs. But City Hall, the bigots and the police are rapidly finding themselves on the wrong side of history.
For at least the last century and a half Tbilisi has offered a heady blend of good living, tolerance and creative energy. After more than a decade in the doldrums following the collapse of the USSR and the chaos that followed, that seductive blend is finally on offer again.
It’s past closing at the restaurant Azarpesha, and proprietor Luarsab Togonidze wants to go out on the town. He has a deep love for history, and is often to be seen in a chokha, the tight waisted frock coats, always worn with a dagger, which are the traditional garments of the Caucasus. Such is his devotion to traditional costumes that in 2010 he opened a fashion label and shop specialising in them, it’s now one of the most popular boutiques in the city.
All evening he’s been a living embodiment of Tbilisi’s reflex for hospitality, treating us to meandering, poetic toasts to the city’s spirit of acceptance as well as its love for its past. Glass after glass of natural wine, matured in giant underground clay amphorae is set before us. It feels like we’ve drunk our way through half of the country’s 526 varieties.
Luarsab loves to sing the extraordinary and ancient folk songs Georgia is famous for, but tonight he wants to do karaoke: the weapons grade Tbilisi karaoke that is basically a contact sport. We head to a sweltering basement, opaque with tobacco smoke and student rockers making out. Everyone knows everyone, and Luarsab gets up with the compare to belt out an Under Pressure that could raise Freddy and David from the dead.
It’s still early (it’s way past two), so there are various options. A late night feast of still more Georgian food, fried aubergine with walnut, pork grilled over grapevines and mountains of pink, fist sized tomatoes—hands down the best in the world—or maybe to Khidi, an impossibly dark techno club inside the concrete catacombs of a Soviet bridge across the Mtkvari (if you can’t handle the consonants you can call it the Kura). This being Tbilisi, it’s run by Luarsab’s sister Nino. A folk singing, chokha-wearing brother and a techno-entrepreneur sister: the traditional and the cutting edge. They should probably be on the Tbilisi coat of arms.
Haphazard hedonism until the wee hours has always been a big part of Tbilisi. Today it’s the clubs, languid cafes and no-sign bars; in the 19th century it was tipsy street musicians playing the duduk at dawn after all-night binges in the sulphur baths—just ask Pushkin and Dumas. But there is more to life in this city than that.
First the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union made the mistake of underestimating Tbilisi. The colonial power saw it as part holiday destination, part ethnographic study. Generations of Russian artists and intellectuals rhapsodised about the mountains, the food, and the exotic characters with their strange costumes and acrobatic dances, but only a few really took it seriously. Some modern-day tourists and expats are the same.
Tbilisi is a melting pot, a polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-faith place. It might be hackneyed to say so, but it has always been a city where east met west and old met new. Around a hundred years ago it was the leading contender for much coveted title of Paris of the South. Alfred Nobel and the Siemens brothers walked the streets of Sololaki on their way to inventing the contemporary world. Artists like Niko Pirosmani, a self taught villager whose passion for drink led him to mainly paint pub signs, forged a distinct Georgian modern art that lives to this day. When Georgia briefly regained its independence in 1918, Tbilisi was a capital city bursting with political activists, poets, artists and musicians.
Even Bolshevik annexation and Stalinist terror couldn’t suppress Tbilisi’s creative sprit, or its flair for the good life. While the rest of the Soviet Union languished under the liver-spotted hand of Brezhnev, Tbilisi produced subversive films and crazy PoMo buildings, all served with lashings of black market fruit and wine. While bread shortages, militias and blackouts rocked the city in the early 90s, musicians sung haunting post-punk songs played with homemade guitar pedals (one would go on to become one of London’s biggest grime producers). Now, it’s the turn of a new generation, born after communism, to tend the flame.
It’s the middle of the day and reports effervesce through Facebook that a park’s worth of mature trees has been felled to make way for a hotel. By evening the “Gardening Partisans” and their allies from Tbilisi preservation societies have assembled a protest. People are outraged. The mayor, who has by now become a figure of ridicule, is forced to call an investigation. It won’t come to anything, but once again there is an inescapable sense that the power ebbs towards the people. Not in a socialist utopia way, but in a way that demands transparency, accountability, a city for everyone.
When the Bolsheviks conquered Tbilisi in 1921 Stalin’s henchman Sergo Orjonikidze sent his boss a telegram reading, “Tbilisi is ours!” He didn’t mean it like that but, 75 years later, it’s a pretty good motto for the city.