Georgia Rising: A Journey into the Caucasus

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Part I ARRIVAL

 

It was after dark when we reached Tbilisi, the city a pour of shadow streaming past the windows of the car that carried us from the airport. Down Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main drag, building façades appeared like specters in flashes of streetlight: curving Renaissance Revival fronts, the domed and striped neo-Moorish edifice of the czarist-era Georgian National Opera Theater, rows of plane trees bending to an arch.

We turned a corner onto a side street and pulled up to the sleek postindustrial façade of Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, once a Soviet printing press, its steel window casings now juxtaposed with panels of reclaimed oak and brick. A bellhop in Wes Andersonian gloves, cap, and double-breasted brass-button waistcoat escorted us through the front doors. We had wanted to come to Georgia for a while, having heard more than a few breathless endorsements from friends and friends of friends who had visited, especially in the past five or six years, as the country has leapt onto the radars of seasoned travelers.

We knew that Georgia, a small country that sits between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains on the borders of Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, has a remarkably diverse landscape, ranging from the snowy peaks of the Greater Caucasus, to rolling vineyards and semi-desert, to the subtropical Black Sea coast, with its lush palm trees, rainforests, and white sand beaches. We knew that Georgia’s position at the crossroad of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, together with its natural bounty, had made it the site of territorial disputes for millennia—that even in the post-Soviet period, it was embroiled in civil conflicts, secessionist strife, and economic crisis. We knew that less than a decade ago, the country was at war.

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And yet somehow Georgia—and even more so, its enigmatic little capital of Tbilisi—are flourishing like never before, with booming arts, culinary, and fashion scenes, thriving businesses and hotels, and a nightlife often compared to Berlin. Its strategic position at the intersection of major geopolitical interests has made Tbilisi a diplomatic and trade hub, drawing people from across the globe. In the past five years, visitor numbers to the country have more than doubled. Still, whenever I would ask a recent visitor what Georgia was actually like, they would seem to get tongue-tied. “It’s hard to explain,” they might say. “Not quite European, but definitely not Asian either …” Does it feel post-Soviet? “Well yeah, maybe a little. But then also, not at all.” And more than once I was told: “You just have to go there to understand.”

We walked through the hotel, reddish light pooling over rich leathers, vintage midcentury furniture, modernist Georgian artworks, dark wood, and custom tiles. We looked out a glass-walled, atrium-like extension onto the inner garden courtyard, where a crowd was drinking cocktails at a freestanding bar built beneath a lattice of lushly overgrown industrial scaffolding. Finally we reached our room, which, with its handmade wallpaper and lavish, retro furnishings, evoked New York in the 1920s and ‘30s. Steel-frame windows looked out to the surrounding neighborhood, Vera, a central ventricle of Tbilisi’s literary and cultural life. We collapsed onto the vast leather-backed bed and melted into a first delicious sleep.

Part II OLD AND NEW TBILISI

 

The next day we woke up early to meet Alex, the hotel’s “experience guide,” for a tour through Old Tbilisi. He brought us to the ancient bath district, where legend has it the King of Iberia founded the city in the 5th century AD after discovering the area’s many sulfuric hot springs when his falcon fell into one and died (“Tbilisi” is Old Georgian for “warm place”).

To the east, on the opposite side of the Kura River, which cuts through the center of the city on its way from Turkey to the Caspian Sea, traditional houses and a domed medieval stone church jut out from a vertiginous elevated cliff. Newer futuristic glass-and-steel constructions, like the undulating Bridge of Peace, the swooping Rike Park Concert Hall and Exhibition Center, and the 50-million-dollar bond-villain-esque mansion of a Georgian banking oligarch, hover over the city like satellites. After crossing the Dry Bridge, where a kaleidoscopic antique and flea market unfurls daily, we opened a door on Atoneli Street and stepped into darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a vast curving stairwell lined with ornate but crumbling trompe-l’oeil frescoes—illusionist brick-effect wall murals with “windows” looking out onto maritime and pastoral scenes—rising to a single skylight, the only source of illumination.

One of Tbilisi’s famous vintage entrance halls, it belonged to the prestigious 19th-century Hotel London, the first building in the city to have electricity, said Alex. Tchaikovsky was a guest, as was the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. By the middle of the 19th century, Tbilisi had emerged as a major trade and cultural center, attracting artists and intellectuals from across Europe, even as it buckled under czarist repression. But like so many of the city’s historic buildings, the Hotel London fell into disrepair in the Soviet era, and today exists only as a run-down residential building badly in need of restoration.

Some areas of Old Tbilisi are undergoing revitalization, like Aghmashenebeli Avenue, known for its classic 19th-century buildings, which was recently revamped and pedestrianized by the municipality. In other areas, new restaurants, bars, and boutiques are bringing increasing numbers of foreign visitors and capital, leading to waves of gentrification.

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Views of Tbilisi and Bassiani, a cavernous techno club housed in the basement of the city’s national soccer stadium

The fashion scene has seen a particular boost, especially since the meteoric rise of 36-year-old Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, who in 2014 founded the influential Parisian collective Vetements and the following year was named creative director of iconic fashion house Balenciaga. “The past three years have been really successful,” said the designer Tamuna Ingorokva, when we stopped by her showroom and workshop. Known for her brightly colored leather creations, she is part of a wave of young Georgian designers helping to put Tbilisi on the map. After the success of Gvasalia, and the 2015 launch of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi, she said, “it feels that Georgian fashion is growing fast and starting to get a lot of attention.”

That afternoon we went to meet Irena Popiashvili, an outsize figure in the city’s burgeoning contemporary art scene who, after 20 years in New York, moved back to her native Tbilisi to become the first female director of the State Academy of Arts. In 2013, she opened the Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project, a storefront gallery that is one of the few venues in the city providing a platform for the country’s small but significant current wave of visual artists.

From Window Project, we went around the corner to the former home of Karlo Kacharava, a prolific painter, poet, and theorist who died in 1994 at the age of 30 but left behind hundreds of paintings, drawings, and texts, many of which his sister preserves in the home where they lived. We walked through a puzzle-like matrix of rooms hung wall-to-wall with Kacharava works—dreamy images of strung-out post-Soviet bohemia, laden with text fragments in a distinct, instantly recognizable punk-expressionistic style.

“He really created the story of the Georgian underground art movement that started at the end of the 80s,” said Popiashvili, who staged an exhibition of his work in New York in 2012, part of her wider project of bringing Georgian artists to the world stage. In spring of 2018 this project will reach new heights when she helps launch the Kunsthalle Tbilisi, a roving non-profit art institution that will exhibit the best of the country’s contemporary art together with international works. “I feel that Georgian art needs to be contextualized within contemporary European and American art,” she said. “Fashion and music have been happening here. Now art is really about to launch.”

Part III POST-SOVIET KIDS

 

That evening we headed to Keto & Kote, a restaurant that opened in Vera in 2017 in a lovely traditional townhouse. We were there to have dinner with Valeri Chekheria and Levan Berulava, the CEO and managing director, respectively, of Adjara Group Hospitality, the company behind Rooms Hotels. In the years since the casino magnate Temur Ugulava brought them on to run his ambitious new hospitality venture, few people have been more involved than Chekheria and Berulava—both still in their 30s—with Georgia’s recent resurgence.

In 2012, Adjara Group launched what they hoped would become an international Georgian brand, beginning with Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, housed in a former Soviet workers retreat in the Caucasus Mountains, followed by Rooms Hotel Tbilisi in 2014. Their success was pronounced and immediate, garnering rave reviews across international press and from high-profile visitors like Sting, Sophia Loren, and food guru Anthony Bourdain.

While Ugulava is the company’s creative visionary, involved in nearly every major aesthetic decision, Chekheria and Berulava are its guiding forces. It’s an auspicious undertaking—particularly for two people who grew up, as they did, amid the turbulence and privation of 90s-era Georgia. “We are really these post-Soviet Union kids,” said Chekheria, as our wine glasses were filled with an amber-tinged, deep-red Georgian Saperavi. As a child, Chekheria had to flee his family home on Rustaveli Avenue when it was burned down in street fighting during the Georgian Civil War.

Eventually Chekheria and Berulava went to study at New York’s Columbia University, where they were immersed in a rigorous academic environment. They both worked for the United Nations, where circumstances thrust them into the center of diplomatic efforts at the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Living in New York, they were also exposed to art, culture, and luxury at levels they had only dared imagine. So when Ugulava put them in charge of Adjara, they were determined to return home and do something extraordinary.

After the success of Rooms Kazbegi and Tbilisi, they opened Lolita in 2016, a buzzy bistro and late-night hangout, and Fabrika, a hip 400-bed hostel and arts and retail complex housed in a Soviet-era sewing factory, which includes a skate shop, a vintage boutique, and a ramen bar. There are other projects in the works, from a beachside bungalow complex set amid the lush tropical Black Sea coastline near Georgia’s second city, Batumi, to a just-announced ski resort, Rooms Hotel Kokhta, in the central Borjomi region. In June of 2018 Adjara launched its most ambitious project to date—Stamba Hotel—a five-story property with a rooftop pool, upscale casino, and basement-to-sky atrium built in High Line-esque, wild-urbanist style in the Soviet-era printing press that houses Rooms Tbilisi.

As our evening wore on, our table was laden with a dazzling spread: fresh cucumbers and plump, deep-red tomatoes served in a crushed-walnut vinaigrette. There were hot kidney beans stewed with coriander, walnut, garlic, and onion served in a clay pot, and, of course, khachapuri—Georgia’s most famous culinary export—oven-baked bread with fresh sulguni cheese either cooked into the dough or melted into the center with butter and a sunny-side-up egg. Georgia’s diverse terrain, fertile, mineral-rich agricultural lands, and its position on ancient trade routes like the Silk Road, resulted in a singular national cuisine, rich with spices and aromatic herbs and bearing influences of Persian, Turkish, Russian, East Asian, and Western European culinary traditions. Lately, Georgian food has been making its way to hip enclaves of New York, London, and Berlin.

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The road to Rooms Hotel Kazbegi in Stepantsminda, a sleepy mountain village high up in the Georgian Caucasus.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s dining scene is being reimagined, as new restaurants, like decadent Keto & Kote, refined Alubali, French-inflected Cafe Littera in the historic Writers’ House of Georgia, and Ezo, in a Sololaki courtyard, are taking bold, sophisticated approaches to classic recipes. Many source their products from once-languishing independent growers through the upstart Georgian Farmers Association, a platform partially supported by Adjara Group that connects small farmers with restaurants and hotels and has helped to kick-start the country’s ascendant farm-to-table movement. “Without the development of Georgian products, it’s impossible to develop hospitality,” said Chekheria. A long decadent meal led, as it often seems to, to drinks around the corner at Rooms…

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The preceding is excerpted from an article by Charly Wilder from the 2018 edition of Directions, the magazine by Design Hotels™—more than 200 pages of vividly illustrated travel content by leading writers, photographers, illustrators, and designers. To read the rest, buy Directions here for €10 or get a complimentary copy when you stay in a Design Hotels™ member property or order the 2018 Design Hotels™ Book. 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018