Monday, April 28, 2014

Things Eaten & Things Seen: Tbilisi Day 2

Tbilisi day two has been just as enjoyable as day one. I went out early for breakfast at a place on a square in the old town called Qalari Samiktao, which was filled with locals (all men). It is not at all charming, but has a wonderful view of the square and the river and has a big, open kitchen with a large wood burning oven for cooking. Everything on the menu was Georgian. I had a coffee and a khachapuri (ხაჭაპური) which is basically a bread boat filled with some combination of cheese and butter and sometimes an egg or meat. I had the cheese variety. These are a staple in Georgian cuisine. The bread here is remarkable and when filled with cheese and fresh from the oven, it is delicious. That being said, i could only bring myself to eat a small amount of this heart attack on a plate, which seemed to concern the waiter, who asked, "it is not good?" I assured him it was, but i said "if i eat more i will die", which he thought was funny. Oh, and can i just say how wonderful it is to smoke inside, to have ashtrays on every table. It is the best.

Bread and cheese in various forms are sold everywhere, including kisoks for take away seem to be constantly baking everything fresh, producing delious aromas, from even the most uninspiring looking places, like this place in an underground passageway.

Most people here speak Georgian and Russian, although it seems that most people working in the hospitality industry speak some English as well. So far in Georgian the most i can manage is please, thank you, hello, good bye, yes, and no. But i'll always try new words, with varying degrees of success.

After breakfast i walked across the bridge to the Metekhi Church, which sits on a cliff over the river. No services were happening but there were women inside, praying.

I then left the old city and walked down Rustavelis street, which is main thoroughfare through the city, lined with the national museum, gallery, opera house and other large impressive buildings, as well as many well known, European stores. I didn't find it as interesting as the old city for visiting, but it was a nice walk and one church had a service underway which had the same beautiful singing as i heard elsewhere on Sunday. I also stopped by and had a coffee in the leafy courtyard of an english language bookstore and coffee roaster.

I then went down to the dry bridge market, which is really a flea market of mostly paintings, dishes, felted objects, ceramics, daggars, drinking horns, soviet collectibles, and other odds and ends. Nothing really caught my fancy but it was fun to look. 

I made it back to the old city just before noon, in time to catch the show at the whimsical clock tower. At noon, the top door opened and an angel came out and hit the bell with a hammer 12 times, then a second door opened and music played as figures rotated, showing a man and woman getting married, then with a baby, then showing them old, then their tombstones.

For lunch i went to another Georgian restaurant, and had two dishes i had wanted to try: badrijani nigvizit (ბადრიჯანი), which is eggplant slices topped with a garlicy walnut paste and garnished with slices of onion and pomegranate seeds; and khinkali (ხინკალი), boiled soup dumplings often containing meat, but in this case, mushroom. If there is one quintessential Georgian food, it is khinkali which is served everywhere. They were both delicious and bursting with flavor. I sat outside and had a cigar, on the narrow, pedestrian street, watching the passersby.

One other Georgian food i have tried is Churchkela or ჩურჩხელა, which is nuts (walnuts or hazelnuts) strung on strings and dipped in grape juice until it forms a chewy, slightly sweet coating. These are for sale at markets and on the street, hanging and looking like sausages or candles. The different colors apparently come from the different grapes used and is made as a byproduct of Georgian wine making (which itself is a big deal - Georgia is, according to archeologial evidnece, the first wine producing country and it is a big product today). The churchkela is tasty - kind of a nut and dried fruit combination.

One thing i saw on my walks that amused me was one of those machines that you put money into to operate a claw so you can pick up a toy or prize, it had teddy bears inside, and plastic eggs with prizes inside. Normal enough, but this machine also had packs of cigarettes in addition to the toys. No wonder everyone here smokes. I guess they start young.

This afternoon was more aimless wandering, followed by a nap, and then i sat inside one of the many many hookah lounges (the Cairo bar) enjoying some shisha and tea. Certainly there are tourists at these places, but judging by the languages spoken, it seems that it is mostly locals partaking in the hookahs, backgammon and dominos. 

It is raining. Nothing else planned for the evening. Tomorrow i will make a day trip to the towns of Mtskheta (the former capital of Georgia from 3rd century BCE to to the 5th century) and Gori (famous for being Stalin's hometown and where a number of people were killed during the Russian/Georgian war of 2008). I will also visit Uplistsikhe, a cave city and former silk road trading stop dating back to about 5th century BCE. These are all places i had wanted to visit, but couldn't do it all in 1 day, as i was going to travel by marshrutka. Fortuantely, two guys (whom i haven't yet met) staying at the hostel have hired a driver and were looking for a third to share the cost, so i will join them. It should be fun.

Back at the hostel now, calling it a day. I am very happy with my hostel choice. My room is cozy, and it is nice to have my own kitchen for making tea. The staff here speak perfect English, and the shared bathrooms are clean (they also have signs on them advising that sex is not allowed in the washrooms - good to know).
ძილი ნებისა (good night)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tbilisi Loves You: First impressions

My flight from Warsaw landed in Tbilisi at 4:00am, a time i am well acquainted with but after almost two days of plane travel i was bleary eyed. The sign that greets you at customs says, "Tbilisi: the city that loves you." And i felt the love, or at least, i felt welcomed. It was too dark and early to do anything, so i settled into a comfortable cafe in the airport terminal and drank coffee and smoked (inside the cafe) until the sky lightened. I haggled briefly and successfully with a man who said "i have car. I drive you," and we drove to the city. (The price: 25 lari) i wasn't able to gain access to my hostel until 9:00 so i spent 3 hours walking around the old city part of Tbilisi and around the river. 

Wow. This place is awesome. Seriously, from the sleepy early morning until now, the lively evening, it is beautiful and and so incredibly interesting. My pulse quickened as i walked down the winding streets with their beautiful, dilapidated buildings, medieval-looking churches, pocket sized squares, cafes, and shops, all nestled beneath mountains dotted with more churches and imposing fortresses, along a rushing river. There are also a handful of crazy super modern architecture structures, which add to the old world charm by way of their juxtaposition.

I know what you are thinking:"your pulse quickened? Cut the hyperbole already." But it did. On first glance the whole place was just that exciting. It is that unique: not quite European, a bit middle eastern, a bit Central Asian...but wholly enchanting. And none of it feels precious or artificial. It's just...great.

First impressions aside, i was exhausted and must have looked it, bedraggled as i was, with my pack on my back, that as i stood looking up at a synagogue, a man, the caretaker, invited me in to sit. I hung out there for about an hour, chatting with the man, drinking his coffee. 

After that relaxing interlude, i went to my hostel to drop off my bag. I am staying at the Old Town Hostel. I have a private room with a kitchen on the 4th floor. Shared bathroom, shared, living room area, on one of the particularly ramshackle side streets, which is, as far as i can tell, walking distance to everything.

Dropped off my bag and set off again. The day was beautiful - sunny and warm. I walked all around, stopping to have breakfast and a cigar in one of the squares. Happily the rumours are true: everyone here smokes and there are no restrictions on where they do it.

I went to so many churches today. All simple, medievally looking ones, beautifully painted on the inside and decorated with candles, urns, and gilded pictures of saints. Unfortunately, i haven't any pictures from inside the churches, as they were filled, crammed, and overflowing with worshippers. This is a religious culture. People cross themselves, just when walking past a church. Women cover their heads to enter, and everyone seemed to be going. They lit candles and incense, prayed, took communion from dramatically dressed and dramatically bearded orthodox priests, and they kissed everything: pictures of saints, the floor, the interior and exterior walls, crosses, each other... And the singing was some of the loveliest i have heard in church. Each stop was wonderful, although in some cases the best i could do was stand outside and listen, as the church was so full, that worshippers stood outside doors and windows to participate.

I also wandered around the area where the public baths are: underground, sulphur baths, both public and private where you can enjoy hot and cold pools, brutal massages and exfoliation at the hands of strong and serious men and women on stone slabs, and all the public nudity you can handle. They are fairly ancient and renowned, but i know i won't be partaking, not being comfortable with either public nudity or massages.

I hiked up one of the hills to the fortress and another church to take in the views over the city. By then though, i was beat and all of the travelling and lack of sleep caught up with me and i went back to the hostel for an overdue shower and a nap.

I have just finished a walk around many of the same areas, but now in the evening. The bars and restaurants are busy. There are a few narrow, pedestrian streets lined with cafes, bars, and lounges, all busy and at least half of them hookah lounges filed with men smoking and playing backgammon. 
I'm still a bit tired, so i have opted for a quieter bar/restaurant where i am enjoying a glass of Georgian wine and a cigar, just a fews steps away from the louder, busier places, where they are playing a loud mis of middle eastern music, techno, and hirs of the 1990s.
There is still so much so see and explore. This is only day one. I am already so happy i came here. Tbilisi says it loves me. Is it premature to say i love it back?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Warsaw Whirlwind

I arrived in Warsaw at around noon and zipped through security and immigration and onto a train which got me into the city centre speedily and without incident. I did a bit of reading up before leaving and knew where i planned to roam around. Of course, upon leaving the train station i promptly set off, quite confidently, in the wrong direction. Walked for about a half an hour before i realized something had gone wrong. No matter though, i got to see some of the more ordinary parts of the city, filled with traffic, cafes, milk bars, and  kebab shops.

Once i had my bearings i walked up the lovely Nowy Swiat (street), lined with cafes, churches, palaces, the university, and oodles of inviting cafes and eateries. There were certainly people about but the streets weren't particularly lively as it was pouring rain and windy. A winning combination. First purchase: an umbrella. Nevertheless, the walk was lovely. The churches were filled with worshippers and three of them had weddings underway, so i watched for a bit. In each case, the bride & groom sat on chairs, which led me to believe that these are long ceremonies. I didn't stay long enough to find out how they ended.

One church stood out for the fact that it (allegedly) has Chopin's heart in an urn inside one of the columns in the nave. I was disappointed that it was not on display in a box, like something out of Snow White, but it was cool anyway.

At the end of that street it opens up into a beautiful square in the "Old Town". I am using quotation marks because this part of the city was decimated in WW2 and then later re-built and restored, painstakingly, into an exact replica of what it was before. So it isn't technically old, i guess, or at least not entirely, but it really is beautiful. Wonderfully open squares with outdoor cafes are surrounded by colourful buildings, often ornately decorated with design or paintings of people and animals. Of course there are countless places luring you in with their pastries, vodkas, meats, and dumplings. 

After walking for quite a while (and getting quite soaked in the process) i cozied up inside a warm eatery with wooden...everything, and lots of books lining the walls. (An observation: there are still tons of bookshops here. Awesome.) i had a plate of golden pierogies and a cabbage salad, washed down with a pot of tea. Perfect rainy day fare.
After that, more walking, including poking around in an antique store filled with soviet and WW2 odd and ends, where i picked up an (allegedly)  antique, wood-lined, silver cigarette box with a skull on top of it - with a cigarette in its teeth. There was no way that wasn't coming home with me. 

This really was just a Warsaw sampler. There are so many wonderful looking museums and areas to explore, but i only had 10 hours, and there is still the airport to factor in. I spent the last hour or two in the most perfect cigar lounge, settled into a leather chair with a Bolivar Belicoso Fino and a Punch Limited Edition torpedo, watching the rain and reading. There were some other guys in there, but they were in pairs, talking in hushed, conspiratorial sounding Polish, so i didn't make any new friends.

I then confidently got on a train back to the airport, with just enough time to spare and rode three stops before i realized i was on the wrong train and did not know any words in Polish to assist. After drawing a picture of an airplane and something that was intended to be Chopin (after whom the airport is named) for a foursome on my wrongly chosen train, much to their amusement, they pointed me in the right direction, and, well, here i am back at the airport, waiting to board my flight to Georgia.
I'll be back here for a sequel to this Warsaw whirlwind next Sunday, at which point i should have a better idea of where i am going.
On to Tbilisi!

But first, a few more photos:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Georgia (the country)

In one week I’m off to Georgia – the country, not the American state. I know. Georgia.  Random. This will be a short trip, 10 days in total, so it seems somewhat ludicrous that I am flying to the other side of the globe, but I think I’ll be able to pack a lot in to my time there and I love flying so the long flight is kind of a bonus (all that forced relaxation and guilt free napping…heaven)

It’s not like I discovered Georgia of course, but I really hadn’t given it a thought until about a year or so ago when I was looking at my atlas one lazy day over a cigar (as you do) and I saw it and thought, “What’s the deal with Georgia?” So I started reading about it and became very intrigued. First of all, it looks beautiful in terms of landscape and architecture: snowcapped mountains, bucolically verdant valleys, medieval churches, and glittering modern design. Second, people don’t really go there – not like they do to Italy or Argentina anyway. This appeals to me. The off-the-beaten-track places are always the best. Fewer crowds and a sense (albeit somewhat false) that you are discovering something new makes any place better. Third, Georgia is small enough that I can see enough of it in my time allowed such that I shouldn’t feel deprived. Fourth, I feel an obligation to select travel destinations that will help to improve the geographical knowledge of my friends and family. You’re welcome.

You can read about Georgia on your own if you are so inclined, but here are some basic facts to get you started. Georgia is technically in Western Asia, on the ‘balcony of Europe’. It is nestled between Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, and Turkey, with its West coast on the Black Sea - the Caucasus region. Population: about 4.5 million. It was in the news most prominently in recent memory in 2008 when it fought a war with Russia. It has this awesome looking language – Georgian – which is a Kartvelian language. Seriously, Kartvelian. It's fun to say aloud. It is a family of about 4 languages which are only spoken in that region, so it is entirely dissimilar to neighboring languages like Russian and Turkish. The written language looks like this: ულოცავენ. სად არის უახლოესი სიგარების მაღაზია? (Which means, “Greetings. Where is the nearest cigar store?” I think.)

The flag is this cool looking medieval design that would not look out of place being held high by a knight on horseback.

Apparently, Georgia is the oldest confirmed wine-producing country on the planet, with evidence of winemaking vessels discovered from about 6000 bce. From what I can tell the food looks good, with lots of dumplings, bread, eggplant, walnuts, and tomatoes.

The capital city is called Tbilisi (or T'bilisi), which will be my base for the time that I am there. It looks like a beautiful city with charming crumbly bits and beautifully re-built areas, set along a river lots to explore.

From what I’ve read, the Georgian people are renowned for their hospitality, much of which may be booze inspired, but nevertheless, the stories of friendly and welcoming locals was appealing.

But here’s what sealed the deal for me: you can still smoke everywhere in Georgia: in restaurants and bars, in the backs of busses, etc. The thought of being able to smoke cigars with my meals or beverages – inside – is so appealing, that this alone makes it a winning destination. I plan to smoke constantly and joyfully. I have read in two different books however that in Georgia, although it has very high rates of smoking, that when it comes to women, only prostitutes smoke outside on the streets. This is a theory I will obviously be testing on a daily basis.

One added bonus is that my flying itinerary affords me two lengthy layovers in Warsaw, so I’ll be able to do some exploring there are well.

So that’s what I have planned.  I’m sure it will be terrific and I hope to have lots of interesting adventures to share.

Now, let’s see how many cigars I can cram into my backpack…