Arriving in Georgia is as smooth as silk. And there am I thinking that we’re flying into the wilds. Tbilisi airport is brand new and our Turkish Airlines is the only plane at the gates – like the huge International white elephant airport structure built by the Chinese in Mandalay in Burma. One day the tourists will come!
No visa is required (at the moment) but my Australian Passport attracts unusual scrutiny for the plastic seal over the photo page. The friendly Immigration guys touch and feel and discuss at length thinking I’m travelling on a forged document!
Our local guide for the week is an eager 22 year-old student named Levan. He’s doing Politics and International Relations at University – Ken’s already in heaven travelling with an intelligent local. I’m sure I’ll know the name of every Russian General from times of the first occupation by the time we leave.
The Marriott is a good hotel on the broad main tree-lined street, Rustaveli Avenue. After checkin-in, we go for a walk down to Freedom Square and see wonderful turn of the 20th century buildings and theatres along this main boulevard. Many are being gutted and re-fitted. Scratch behind the surface though, look inside, and we see years of deprivation and neglect, a bit like Moscow in the early Nineties. We stop for an Illy coffee at a modern pavement café but eat too many hazelnut meringues as we sit and sip, watching the passing parade.
The people look very poor, except perhaps for the young lady in longish, see-through white dress (with g-string clearly showing) walking tall and carrying a bunch of white flowers – like on her way to a wedding. I’d say she was an ‘angel’ of the night. Sadly, there’s lots of old people begging, cup in hand, and dressed so bleakly. Even the young don’t have that spring in their step as we witnessed in Turkey. Turkey is light years ahead.
Our first real surprise comes with an outing away from the downtown area. The hotel car drives us through old Tbilisi as the daylight is disappearing. Old Tbilisi, with its wooden buildings and distinctive balconies of different colours, holds much promise for further exploring. We’re going to dinner at a Georgian restaurant on the hillside overlooking the river snaking through the valley below. As good as the restaurant might be, it’s a trial trying to get the waiter to get us what we want. The old habits of the Communist era are obviously still present. All is forgiven though when he brings the clay pot of brains and mushrooms hot from the oven. Delicious. Ken’s trout with pomegranate sauce wasn’t so hot.
Come nightfall, the scene is quite spectacular with old churches and fortress walls on the hillsides springing to life with golden flood-lights, below and around us. In fact, driving back to the hotel we see all the buildings along the main avenues of the city floodlit.