31 December 2011

The Traditional Balconies of Tbilisi

On our first night in Georgia, literally minutes after disembarking our flight into Tbilisi, we were taken on a whirlwind tour of the city. Our energetic taxi driver, keen on practicing his English and his steering in the right-side seat of his newly acquired British car, took us around to all the main sights. Saint George atop his horse in the square, Mother Georgia with her sword atop the city on her hill. He circled back, “I will show you my favorite house in Tbilisi!” and brought us to a spotlit row of buildings. I can’t say I know exactly which one he pointed to, but they all made an impression on me. “Typical Georgia architecture,” he noted. Each house was sweetly elegant, with multiple balconies supported by diagonally beams beneath. They reminded me of the underside of a paper parasol. The simple beauty of the houses endeared me to the city and to Irakli.
When we revisited the row in the daytime, I could see just how weathered some were. “I would like to renovate it,” he had said. “Renovate” seemed too light of a term. In fact, all through the city, we came across balconied houses that had crossed the line between diamond in the rough and crushed diamond dust. The most amazing part was that so many of them showed signs of life inside. We’d walk beneath a balcony, marvel at the age and deterioration of the wood beams and then hear laughter emanate from inside. Apparently, many people refrain from making any renovations on their houses if they are considered historic monuments, preferring to hold out for an investor who’d like to come in and fix it all at once. Unfortunately, these investors rarely set their eye on these buildings for restoration purposes.
For the past few years, there’s been a fight to protect traditional balconied houses that are at risk of being demolished. An article written in 2008 by BBC, which cited facts that I would wager are little changed today, spoke about the fight for “Tbilisi’s soul.” A deputy mayor at the time (still in office now) said that he wanted to reduce the number of protected ‘historical monuments’ from 1,700 to 500. Too many of them were simply beyond repair, he explained. I have to say - in my opinion – there’s some validity to this. Poverty, two hundred plus years of life and the earthquake off 2002 have all taken their toll on these 19th century houses. It’s difficult to blame anyone living in almost unlivable conditions to turn down an offer from the city or a private company. Even if it is easy to hate the soulless apartment block put up in its place.
At least in the Old Town, restoration seems to be taking place. Tourist brochures map out a “Traditional Balconied Houses of Tbilisi” walking tour and quote poets who have written about the multigalleried city. New buildings at the base of Narikala fortress, nearby the historic sulfur baths, have been built in a similar style. New, fresh wood balconies have replaced crumbling ones or have been added a little anachronistically to modern buildings.
When I googled “Tbilisi balconies,” I found a press release issued by an energy credit company that cited all the benefits of putting more traditional balconies on buildings. Complete with graphs and charts, they explained how they were designed with precise relation to the sun, in order to cool a room in the summer and facilitate heating in the winter. Even the decorative fretwork hanging down had a noted benefit. Hey, there’s gotta be a reason so many were built this way.
The balconies of Tbilisi, wooden, glass, wraparound, open, closed, old, new, are truly unique and absolutely beautiful. As the city moves into its new phase of high-gloss modernity, I honestly feel that they will try to keep this charm intact. Call me naïve, but I think that conservationists' fears that Tbilisi will lose all its character through demolition is unfounded. You walk around this city and feel like they know what they have going for it – even if they don’t have the time or money to really get around to polishing it all.
Not everything can be saved, but the beauty of these balconies is simply too obvious to overlook. I mean, they’ve gotta know that this stuff is a tourism gold mine, right? Irakli’s favorite house may or may not make the final cut. I’m not sure if he’d rather see it fall further and further into ruin or simply torn down. This is a city in transition and it will be interesting to see where all the chips fall in ten years or so.

The Georgian Version Of A Skansen

On a gloomy day on a hillside overlooking Tbilisi, we stood on an old wooden porch with George, a man not particularly happy about anything. “This country does everything backwards,” he said, in perfect English. “They have beautiful museums like this, but they do nothing for them, so that criminals and politicians can get rich.”
George works as a guide at the Giorgi Chitaia Open Air Museum of Ethnography, which is comprised of one hundred acres of old and traditional buildings from around Georgia. The buildings are all original - disassembled, brought together and painstakingly re-erected, piece by piece, on an unused plot of land… and then, sadly, left to sit.
Of the seventy buildings in the museum, we counted only four that were open that afternoon. The reason, George explained, is that no one is willing to work there. “It’s crazy,” he said. “They pay me two hundred lari a month (about $120), and they pay people eight hundred lari to pick up garbage. I speak four languages. This is why all the brains have left Georgia.”
“I don’t mind, because I’m an artist” he said, as we were shown around the cottage he’s charged with keeping up and showing to rare visitors. Old shepherd implements and cooking pots mingled with his canvases in the small space, a half dozen cats meowled and ate from a bowl set on a bench.
After a long climb up to the ethnographic museum, we were greeted by a group of four policemen, who were smoking as they stood around the entrance. They looked unhappy about our arrival, and surprised. Their stances and scowls were heavy with boredom. A large, well-dressed man stood with them - some type of government employee, most likely, with a position in museums. Groupings of this type are extremely common in Tbilisi, where so much of the population is employed by the police or by some agency.
The mood was even darker inside the gates, and the air was very still. We counted only five other visitors. The buildings were padlocked and blank-windowed. The exteriors were somewhat interesting, but there were hardly any signs and almost no information given. Walking through these relics, the extent of disuse and decay was disheartening.
It’s especially sad because the Georgian Museum of Ethnography has quite a remarkable collection. We’ve visited a number of “skansens” on our trip, and few have been this extensive or have had buildings this interesting.
One structure in particular fascinated us. Among the few staffed buildings, this “darbazi” style house was kept beautifully, with immaculate furnishings and a hard, much-swept earthen floor. The precisely laid beams in the conical chimney were mesmerizing, and we marveled at the ancient craftsmanship.
Old artifacts and pieces of art lay scattered in the brushy woods – millwheels, earthen wine containers, gravestones, milemarkers. A roofless stone temple lay with leaves covering its floor, broken pillars jutting up like snapped tree trunks.
We were amazed by this collection of stones, laid out in a row. We took them to be tomb markers, but it was difficult to tell – there was no placard, and they may have been religious symbols. In addition to this horse, there were a few rams and a smattering of penis shaped things. Also, flatter stones with hand-print shaped hollows carved into them and lichen growing up the sides.
Quite high up the hillside, we came across a semi-destroyed, soviet era building on a little plateau strewn with shards of glass. It was unlikely part of the collection, but seemed fitting nonetheless, a somber reminder about rubble and the effects of time.
There was a funny little grouping of old buses on the grounds, which were also probably not officially part of the museum, but were interesting anyway. It's possible that, at one time, someone had thought it would be interesting to preserve them. No one took much interest in them afterwards, apparently.
On our way out, we passed the policemen again and wished them a happy new year. As we trudged down the long road back to Tbilisi, a shiny, green Mercedes pulled up alongside us and honked. The tall government man was inside, smiling and waving for us to get in, which we did. He spoke no English, but said, pointing to the stereo, "Bob Marley," which was correct. He turned the volume up and smiled at me, and then said nothing more the rest of the ride down the hill.

30 December 2011

For Sale

Most cities are defined by their offerings in two areas: dining and shopping. The word “MARKET” Sharpied onto a map posted up in our hostel brought us to this woman and about a dozen other sellers set up on a nearby bridge. The flea market is bigger on the weekends, we were told. But I didn’t mind it this way. Her items for sale included two fishing poles and a camouflage jacket. It was our first morning in Tbilisi and the rest of the city greeted us from over her shoulder.In Tbilisi, everything you can spare, you can try to sell. Empty storefronts, outdoor plumbing, a drive across town, used batteries, turns on a scale. A pack of cigarettes, sold one at a time can seem desperate or ingenious, depending on the vendor’s disposition. Handmade prayer candles are scooped up by the dozen. Shot glass measures of sunflower seeds could sit around all day. Outside the entrance to Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, one of the brightest stars in Tbilisi’s nightscape, was a shuttered restaurant. A faded mural covered the front and a sign pointed toward toilets out back - the only part of the business still up and running. We walked around, into a family’s backyard. A young boy set down his plastic tricycle and explained the process in high-pitched Georgian and grand hand gestures. After we left, the collection plate, which had been easy to miss, was dragged out to the front of the restaurant. That way, it’d be clearer to the next visitors in need.

Nearby, along the Left Bank, abandoned restaurants and bars lined both sides of the street. Again, there were murals that hinted at more festive times – or grander plans. Some were more gingerly gutted than others. For Sale signs hung from a few, translated into English. People exited from the apartments above.

Every now and then, someone stops short in front of you on a sidewalk. They turn toward a building, which you then realize has a window stuffed with pastries or candy or lottery tickets. Some such shops have a red (and orange and yellow and green) carpet of fruit leading up to the point of sale. Kiwis, pomegranates, persimmons, pears, apples and one of the tastiest bananas I’ve had in a while.

Underground walkways turn into makeshift marketplaces. Safe from the wind, with a constant flow of potential buyers. Here, old hardcover books flanked one entrance and a popcorn machine wafted salt air from the other. Between sat a few old women and stood a few younger ones, selling nuts, toys, socks, hats and cigarettes.

Aboveground, vaguely Medieval crafts and Soviet era memorabilia were displayed on the steps of a grand building. Artwork and books rounded out the inventory. A few feet away, a boy with nothing to sell but his cuteness, latched onto Merlin’s leg and begged until a trio of women talked/pulled him off. Later that evening, a similarly aged boy went from bar to bar selling fabric flowers.

The most successful entrepreneurs in Tbilisi have to be marshrutka drivers. Buy a van, define a route, display it on the window, fill up with paying customers. Rides are cheaper and routes are more far reaching than the official bus system. So, even though these minibuses have been banned from some of the main avenues, they still do quite well for themselves. (Unfortunately, they say that most "lines" are actually owned by Parliament members, whom the drivers pay for the right to work).

In the market district of Avlabari, there’s a fruit stand every few feet. This cheerful family-run stand set themselves apart with a little bit of Christmas decoration. Next door, containers of pickled vegetables were piled knee high. Not too far away, a shaded table sold cleaned and feathered, but otherwise still intact, chickens.

29 December 2011


Tbilisi (თბილისი, in Georgian script) is a city of roaring generators, flapping tarps, tumbledown buildings, faulty mufflers, ancient balconies, fruitsellers, military police, diceplayers, homemade liquor, endless construction and dozens of churches. This is a city at the crossroads of the Caucasus - at the heart of the borderlands between old Russia, Turkey, Persia, Christianity, Islam, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Here, the end of the Bridge of Peace, brand new and leading from nowhere to nowhere - an incomplete park at one end, a semi-deserted jumble of leaning structures at the other.
Georgia's capital has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. It's an ongoing process, with much to work out and patch up after the 2008 war with Russia and the revolutions and civil conflicts of the 1990's and early 2000's. We landed here after over twenty-four hours of travel from New York, finding ourselves at the eastern extreme of Europe, breathing hard-edged fumes and the excitement of the exotic.
These ramshackle balconies, a Tbilisi fixture, are part Persian and part 18th century Europe, most built in the period after 1795, when the town was razed by the Persian khan Agha Mohammad.
The Georgian tourism bureau will have you believe that the frequent blackouts and electric grid problems are a thing of the past. The many generator vendors and repair shops tell a different story, though, and a lot of buildings seems to be hardwired to puttering power sources. We passed a whole engine district, where lawnmower skeletons sat discarded on the sidewalk, their innards repurposed and for sale in the open-fronted shops.
Georgia was one of the more independent republics of the USSR, and the cement-fisted reach of the central planning department came down lighter here than in other places. There aren't as many blocks of slab in Tbilisi as we expected, but they do exist, with all the soviet signatures. Rubbish and curtain clogged window-ledges, imposing facades, squared shoulders, blank stares.
Tbilisi feels like an outpost more than anything, though it's really the de-facto capital of the region. An outlaw speediness shapes the landscape and the action always seems to be happening at the fringes of your vision. It's the kind of city where one feels watched, and where shadowy figures flit at the periphery of consciousness. The main boulevards are soulless and bland, the alleyways abound in activity.
Like Minsk, St. Petersburg and Chișinău in particular, the city has an extended series of underground passages and arcades, constructed both for pedestrians and to house little shops. Apparently desolate intersections are often crowded with commerce below street level.
Georgia is the oldest Christian country on earth. Converted wholly in the early fourth century, it remains devout and almost uniformly orthodox. Nearly eighty five percent of the country's inhabitants belong to the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church. In Tbilisi, there seems to be a church on nearly every corner - some grand, others in bad disrepair. We wandered into this Armenian church, where every inch of wall and ceiling had been painted and coated with gold leaf.
We were surprised, last night, to find ourselves talking about how hopeful Tbilisi feels. It's amazing, in a city so repeatedly and recently bloodied, to find a sense of progress and communal expectancy. New businesses are sprouting up and fresh paint is being splashed everywhere.
On our trip in from the airport, an enthusiastic taxi driver brought us on a long, unbidden tour of the capital's newer buildings - he was extremely proud of them, even the gargantuan presidential palace and the futuristic central police department. He drove us for more than an hour, in the darkest part of night, talking constantly about what had changed and what was planned.

06 December 2011

CRF: Vatican City (Part 2)

We spent hours inside the Vatican Museums, as most visitors to the Vatican do. It's simply enormous. I mean, look at this stairwell. Photos were allowed everywhere in the museum except for the Sistine Chapel.
This was our favorite room - the Map Room. Along each side of the hall hung 16th century topographical maps of Italy and the church's land possessions. It's the world's largest pictorial geographical study and was all commissioned by one pope and created by one artist. The ceiling was one, long, vibrant fresco that gave the impression of three dimensional gilding. At the end of the hall, a folding table displayed 3D puzzles and postcards for sale.
Vatican City is indeed its own country, with both a police force and a (de facto) military. Here is one of each, side by side, at the papal audience we attended. The policemen handle security, public order, traffic control, border control and criminal investigation. The Swiss Guards' job is to protect the pope. Swiss Guards have a tradition of acting as bodyguards and palace guards in foreign European courts. The Holy See is its last remaining position and they are a tourist favorite. We wondered what these two guys thought of each other.
After our Vatican Gardens tour, we decided to take a stroll around Vatican City's walls. A true surveying of our country. We stumbled upon this train track, which used to connect Vatican City and Italy. The railway system, the smallest national rail in the world, is now defunt and the elaborately decorated station is a duty free shop. Apparently, two months after we left, the iron gate was rolled back and Pope Benefict XVI road the papal train (a 1930s steam engine) out through the tunnel and toward the Italian countryside. It was a one-time-only thing for charity.
Just another picture for the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica, out toward Saint Peter's Square, which we now can't help but recognize as a circle. Climbing the dome was one of our most favorite things to do in Vatican City.
Between the official tours and the private tours, the Vatican often resembled a pong cluttered with mama ducks and their kids in a row. In order to keep everyone following the correct person, the guide would hold up a stick with a flag or flower or, in this case, a photo of Pope John Paul II. Sometimes, the leader would use an umbrella or broken antennae. Those must have been the discounted tours.
Just some good old interior decorating a la Vatican City. Too much?
One of our best experiences in Vatican City couldn't be shared on the blog, because photos weren't allowed. We took the Excavations Tour down below the Vatican and visited the Roman necropolis on which the basilica was built. It was pretty incredible. This mummy was in the Vatican Museums, not in the catacombs. Hence, the photographic evidence.
Another room in the Museums, featuring dog sculptures. I think a sheep was thrown in for good measure.
Some restoration work was going on inside Saint Peter's Basilica, as well as out in the square. It was fascinating to watch this unique combination of art restoration and construction. Men road hydrolic lifts, wearing hard hats and wielding paint brushes.
We undoubtedly spent more time in Vatican City than most people do. Every day, we would walk out of our door and over to the square. All around us would be visitors seeing it all with fresh eyes. This wonder and awe felt most palpable during gatherings like this -
the weekly papal audience. The weather was beautiful and the excitement turned into jubilation.