I just returned from a lovely weekend spent in Tbilisi with American and European friends of mine who had come to visit from their current home in Cairo. Taylor, Pablo, and Kavita were not particularly interested in “touring” the city, per se. “We want to eat, drink, and sit,” Taylor had told me matter-of-factly when I asked what kind of vacation they had in mind.
While hopping from coffee house to street stand to sidewalk café to market to pastry shop while abroad is my idea of heaven, most people who have traveled more than 24 hours to reach a country they will likely never visit again feel obligated to throw in at least a museum here, a monument or two there. Not these three.
Instead, we lingered over coffee and pastries in the mornings, admired pomegranates, persimmons, and tangerines (all in season here now) at streetside markets, and enjoyed cheese bread (the national specialty) prepared at least three ways. We inadvertently enlisted the help of an entire neighborhood while seeking out a quirky café hidden in the back streets of the old town, sucked boiling broth from platefuls of steaming dumplings with our Georgian friend/self-appointed cultural guide Giorgi, and devoured enough garlic to disperse a small army of vampires.
In the short pauses between meals, we happened upon a few other Tbilisi gems. The flea market on the Dry Bridge where locals sell off their Soviet kitsch to the delight of mostly foreign tourists provided a good hour’s entertainment. If the asking price (even when bargained down) hadn’t been so exorbitant, I would have come away with a baffling, delightful collection of supposedly pre-Revolutionary Christmas and New Year postcards decorated with pictures of dancing piglets, alien cats drowning their dolls, and pudgy coquettes burying their noses bridge-deep in champagne flutes. The friendly staff of a nearby veterinary clinic and animal shelter let us cuddle with the abandoned Caucasian sheepdog they’d just taken in. And Taylor and Kavita were able to practice their Arabic with the Azeri man who was drinking tea at the local mosque when we visited. (He had learned it in Baghdad: Azeris typically speak Azerbaijani, which is closely related to Turkish.)
For dinner on Friday, we snagged the last available table at a restaurant called Old House (Dzveli Sakhli) situated along the Mtkvari riverbank. Waiters in national costume serve Georgian cuisine in a sturdy wooden building designed to resemble a dwelling of yore. The main attraction, though, is the live musical entertainment and folk dancers who perform throughout the evening. Sounds like the perfect tourist trap, right? Perhaps. But Georgians themselves enjoy this type of spectacle as much as foreigners do, and they were the ones packing the restaurant the night we visited.
While we feasted on eggplants and prunes stuffed with walnut paste, kiln-baked bread, fried corn cakes with cheese melted in the middle, and a bottle of “black” Saperavi wine, costumed dancers leaped through the air just meters from our table, swords clashing (and throwing real sparks)! It might seem contrived if it weren’t so similar to the dances I’d watched relatives, friends, and neighbors toss off at my host sister’s wedding a month ago. The instruments the musical quartet was playing, including handheld drums and a small stringed panduri, are traditional, but not in the dead sense that word so often implies. We have both of these instruments kicking around at home, and my host father uses them to teach his grandkids the old Georgian songs that everybody knows. “Folk” culture remains very much alive here, and a trip centered around eating turns out to be one of the best ways to experience it firsthand.
I’ve sent my guests on a day-long excursion to the heart of Georgian wine country for a tasting and tour at Pheasant’s Tears Winery in Sighnaghi today, and they will be joining me in Batumi tomorrow for a taste of western Georgia. On the menu: Adzharian khachapuri, persimmons so soft you can eat them with a spoon like pudding, and the White Iris caramel cake at Literaturuli Café that I just can’t get enough of.