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Georgia in the Time of Misha

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

Right beside it, the once-neglected aerial-tram pavilion, now being renovated, espouses the international Casino Royale vernacular. Swivel your head a few degrees and another peak shows an emerging airport terminal-style fantasy adorned with a helipad and arcing glass façade. It's being built for an oligarch. Then, way below, a mile or two downriver, you see a vertical bunker occupied by a different oligarch. The overall effect of these preposterous forms is both grand and quaint—and entirely glamorous, suggesting a city with splendid, eccentric dreams.

The XX Century hotel sits plumb in the middle of an area called Sololaki, a decaying warren of mostly wooden villas from the late 1800's with enclosed gardens. It honeycombs up from the town center until it hits the sheer bluff. The hotel—two stories of cinderblock and brick—aims for a kind of ironic Soviet-era chic, and succeeds rather well. Thick cloth wires thread up from old-style clunky switches. Bulky ceiling fans whir away. Industrial carpeting spreads out underfoot. When I stayed there, Zaza Tsitsishvili, the architect, apparently a descendant of the old Georgian royal family, had just finished it. He said to me, "We all lived in the last century, and now it's history. But we feel nostalgic and familiar in it. That's how I wanted to make the hotel." The exhilarating view encompasses Persian-style bosky courtyards and distant cliffs where myriad Byzantine churches seem to float on air.

One night, I decided to explore Sololaki and quickly got lost in the dark, narrow streets. Honeysuckle blossoms and overhanging mulberry trees brushed my face. I could watch people eating and drinking en famille in bright indoor bulb-light. Around 11 p.m., I crested a hill and stumbled on a bricked-up Byzantine church atop a rubble-strewn mini-plateau. A forgotten spot; the city twinkled below. This, I realized, encapsulates Tbilisi's charm—the city seems, still, so undiscovered, even by the locals. You can make it your own and craft a personal, improvised chain of unheralded experiences. Which is not to say that Tbilisi lacks conventional commercial entertainment—but even in those places, as with Rome or Florence, ancient stones in shadows murmur of their history while you eat or dance. Sidewalk bars and cafés aplenty have opened in the last couple of years, especially on Chavchavadze Street, alongside the boutiques and galleries near the town center. In Tbilisi, life can turn happily picaresque at any moment.

In the morning, I went antiquing along the elegantly fin-de-siècle Marjanishvili Street, across the river. The area itself glimmers with Belle Époque touches on theater façades and storefronts. Inside the shops, among the objets d'art, I felt again the presence of Tbilisi's last flush of European classicism: bronze statuettes, Impressionist mountain views, old photographs, aristocratic swords and uniforms. I looked at lampshades and small chandeliers, numerous and beautifully shaped, thanks to Tbilisi's Art Nouveau heritage. For between $200 and $300 you can get a really fine sculpted lamp. I also sought out 19th-century shooting paraphernalia: Georgia once thrived as a center of haute hunting culture, always conducted in grand style at far-flung mountain lodges and pavilions, with fabulous outfits and antiquated weapons. I saw lots of lovely inlaid 19th-century rifles and flintlocks—all very expensive. So I went to a cheaper locale: the Dry River Bridge weekend flea market, which stretches along the river through a little park and down some steps into a proper bazaar full of jewelry, silver cutlery, Soviet medals, and, yes, old guns—which are mostly fakes. Walking in the nearby park, I spotted a wolfskin and a bearskin negligently tacked up to a tree, and almost bought those instead. But I balked at the prospect, uncertain of the ethical (and hygienic) issues involved.

Some days before I leave, I get a call from President Saakashvili's people, responding to my request for an interview. He wants to take me along on a visit to the Black Sea resort of Batumi, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, on the Turkish border. Adjara was one of the secessionist provinces, a black hole of corruption and warlordism, and was backed by Russia until two years ago, when Saakashvili simply people-powered his way in after various military face-offs. The despot of 10 years (1994-2004), Aslan Aba-shidze, fled to Russia. One might call him the paradigm of a warlord, a wondrous magical-realist character who closed all the parks in Batumi and imposed a multiyear evening curfew because he loathed the sight of people having fun. This in a town that before Georgia's independence was the Soviet Union's tourist hub along its Black Sea Riviera.


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