Take a couple of days out to tread the cobblestones of Tbilisi, and discover a different world that is not nearly a world away.
In less than the duration of a “Lord of the Rings” movie, Dubai-based holiday hopefuls can board a flight and alight in a lush, ancient land that refreshingly juxtaposes the Gulf, especially as our summer hits boiling point. The Eurasian republic of Georgia tips the thermometer to 30ºC on July’s hottest days, combined with the breeze of three nearby mountain ranges acting as nature’s own air-conditioning system.
Let us talk about the capital Tbilisi in particular, the most populous city, where more than a million inhabitants spill daily through a maze of cobbled streets along the Kura River and a collection of foothills.
A bird’s eye view (also known as Google Maps) reveals a patchwork of terracotta roof tiles across the heart of the city, a view rivalled by Kartvlis Deda, “Mother of the Georgians,” an epic statue raised to mark the city’s 1500th anniversary in 1958.
Freedom Square is the capital’s beating heart, and Rustaveli Avenue is its coronary artery. Spanning a kilometer and a half, the thoroughfare carves a wide line of independent stores, boutiques and businesses. The low-rise erections and spacious main streets allow for an invigorating open feel, while the meandering side streets allow you to get lost – if that is your thing.
Its architecture is akin to southern Europe, but the streets tell a different story. The tree-lined lanes are often rugged and rustic. It is a city with defiance and character, as well as an endearing warmth and charm.
Comparisons vary wildly – the city itself is so multifaceted – but perhaps the most poignant and flattering verdict is that of a sleepy New York City suburb. Redacting the Big Apple’s swarming pedestrians, the urban ambience of Tbilisi’s modest urban sprawl certainly resembles Brooklyn’s most rustic avenues.
Explore the city as a pedestrian if you can, though public transport is as affordable as it is available. A 20-minute taxi ride from the airport could set you back around 30 Georgian lari ($13), but make sure to flag down some legitimate transport. You will find no shortage of unlicensed taxis throughout the center of town, but expect negotiations – and no receipts.
Western food is ubiquitous and not too steep price-wise, but the local cuisine is a must. Georgia’s own brews are a veritable bargain, and perfectly complement a bowl of savoury khinkali (meat dumplings).
Just a 10-minute amble from the main square – and adjacent to the bow-shaped, space-age “Bridge of Peace” over the Kura – there are scores of taverns, jazz bars and other rustic-looking refectories. The evening buzz might not endure quite as late into the night as a bustling metropolis, but Georgia holds its own with plenty of live music and a solid range of watering holes.
It is a diverse and non-threatening vibe. Do take precautions – as you would anywhere – but most importantly, think twice about donning a pair of stilettos on the uneven cobbled streets.
In short, the city is a calm and verdant idyll with some stoic Balkan sensibilities, and an absolute must for any Gulf-dwellers in need of a change of scenery.
For surprisingly affordable and intriguing accommodation options, search through the listings on Airbnb. Otherwise, Tbilisi recently welcomed two new hotels. The four-star Hotel Laerton is located in one of the oldest parts of the city, Avlabari, where Old Tbilisi and other highlights are just a 10-minute stroll. There is also the 28-room Urban Hotel located at Mtatsminda, one of the highest points of the city, where almost all rooms and suites boast a balcony and view.