Travel Essay: It’s the kind of place you would never know was there. The kind of place you only stumble upon by accident while meandering around back streets and alleyways during the type of late-night exploration one can’t do safely in a North American big city.
But in Tbilisi, whole families—toddlers and babies included—are out and about at 11:00 p.m. when the air is cool and pleasant, chatting with neighbours or just walking, and garbage collectors and construction workers are still working. It feels very safe. And you come upon a park, one of many small green squares on a map of old Tbilisi. A peaceful park with beautiful wave-like iron railings all around, unique street lamps, benches, cobblestones in a swirling pattern, trees, a small playground, and a charming statue of two people embracing under an umbrella. The kind of place you hope you can find again in the light. Another world.
(Photo by Irakli Tsuladze)
This park in what I call “the neighbourhood behind the neighbourhood” is Lado Gudiashvili Square. Typical of the Tbilisi custom to name buildings and monuments after artists and writers, the square is named after a 20th-century Georgian painter known for his perception of the world as a theatre. Gudiashvili also for a time belonged to a famous group of Georgian poets known as “The Blue Horns”, who tried to combine a distinctive Georgian style with French symbolism.
After some controversy, and peaceful “Occupy Gudiashvili” protests about the fate of this little neighborhood in the heart of old Tbilisi, it is now under major reconstruction with an eye to historic preservation. The streets are in various states of accessibility, and the buildings are propped up with steel girders to keep them from literally falling down. There is a mix of large mansions turned into apartments or offices, empty ruins of what must have been magnificent buildings, and classy renovations in progress.
At one corner of the park is an unexpected and lucky find. Not one, but two amazing cafés in one building, a 19th-century former home to Georgian intelligentsia that also once had an underground casino. The Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov lived next door. Presently, the first floor is occupied by the restaurant called Famous, featuring delicious atmosphere and food with that quirky Tbilisi blend of Europe and Turkey. You can even order shisha, a molasses-based tobacco mixture, and a hookah to smoke it in.
Upstairs, Pur Pur Restaurant and Lounge has the busy, colorful décor of an antique store. For anyone with a tendency towards visual stimulus overload this would not be a good place. The long room with aged, uneven wood floors is stuffed with mismatched furniture piled with old china and glassware, and vintage lamps hang from the high ceilings, which have sheets of cloth slung across them. Every table has a different, multicolored tablecloth, and bowls or vases of fresh flowers are everywhere. A whole wall is covered with bunches of dried flowers and other walls are hung with tapestries. Two pianos provide live music some evenings. Tall windows open out onto little balconies covered with climbing roses where locals might go to sit and smoke if they become aware that there are also smoke-phobic North Americans at the café.
The food at Pur Pur is supposed to be excellent, but what caught my eye on the menu was something called simply “Georgian nuts”. I ordered it with coffee and what arrived was a beautiful glass goblet full of the freshest, most flavorful roasted hazelnuts I have ever tasted.
Turns out Georgia is famous not only for its wine but also for its hazelnuts and walnuts. Something about the soil on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. But I like to think there was magic in that square in Tbilisi in the neighborhood behind the neighborhood.
BIO: Meg Freer grew up in Montana and now lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario. She has worked as an editor and currently teaches piano and music history. She enjoys being outdoors year-round, playing the piano and running. Her award-winning poems have been published in various journals and chapbook anthologies, such as NatureWriting, Mothers Always Write and Rat’s Ass Review. In 2017 she won a fellowship and attended the Summer Literary Seminars in Tbilisi.