Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Other Georgia

Having spent my teenage years in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, I always wanted to see what the “Other Georgia” was like, the one in Eastern Europe. It was once again time to expand my horizons, so I decided to visit in very early spring; it would probably still be somewhat chilly in the city, but I was also hoping for some sunshine. Once again, my Expedia search revealed good deals, so I chose a cheap flight to get me there and a touch more expensive one to return. I would take LOT Airlines from Budapest at 1 PM on Thursday, March 30, with an 8½ hour layover in Warsaw (yes, you read that correctly – an eight-and-one-half-hour layover in Warsaw); then I’d leave Warsaw at 10:30 PM the same night and arrive in Tbilisi at 4 AM the following morning, March 31. That was the best deal LOT Airlines had to offer, so what the heck.

Of course, there was no chance at all of a local bus to downtown Tbilisi at that hour, so I arranged for the hotel pick to me up at the airport for a minor charge. Just one concern with this flight, which I realized after I had already booked it: my hotel room booking did not include the morning I arrived, i.e., my room was booked to begin March 31 and check-in didn’t start until 2 PM that day, which meant I wouldn’t have a room for 10 hours after I arrived. I supposed I could nap in the lobby, but that was tacky, so I wrote to the hotel of my predicament, requesting my booking include the night/morning of my arrival.

Well the hotel was amazingly helpful. No problem at all. Not only did they arrange to have a car pick me up at the airport (for 35 GEL, or about $12 US), but they also set me up with a room for the night/morning I was to arrive, for only about $40 US. Piece of cake. It’s always nice to find such cooperative hotels.

And the surprises just kept on coming. When I told several friends about my upcoming trip, it turned out that my young Brazilian friend Raphael had also booked a European trip which would put him in Tbilisi the same weekend as I was there. Cool – I’d have a friend with whom to visit the bars. Then my Canadian friend Dean chimed in with his vote to come along; he could stay with a friend in the area so would save on a hotel.

And – as if that wasn’t enough, when our Russian friend Daria found out about our travels, she mentioned how much she had always wanted to visit Tbilisi and, since at least two of us would be there for a long weekend, she decided to book her trip for the same time. Damn! From always traveling alone to having several friends along. And a real international group: Brazil, Canada and Russia. Excellent. And Daria even speaks the language of the area, so could smooth over any rough spots for us all.

My flights came off as anticipated – fortunately, as such is not always the case. But flying a red-eye special means there are few if any other planes going and coming, so no other flight traffic. Anyway, I spent my Warsaw layover reading and having dinner and napping, then a 3-hour-plus flight to Tbilisi and there I was, at 4:45 in the dark morning, staggering out of Passport Control and looking for my hotel pickup. Who, of course, since my flight was late, was nowhere to be seen. Well, Scheisse!

I hustled over to the Information Desk, amazingly open at that hour, and told them my tale of woe. They asked for the hotel’s phone number and I reached for my shoulder bag to get it and…..no shoulder bag! Oh, Double Scheisse! I’d left it on the plane! With my glasses and my meds and my Kindle. I raced over to the LOT Desk, which was also, amazingly, open at that hour, and told my new tale of woe to the young lady there. Sweat was pouring off my forehead. She immediately called down to the people working on/near the plane and they said they’d found my bag and would bring it to the LOT desk within 30 minutes. Whew! Saved again by Lady Luck. I wonder how much longer she’ll put up with me?

Anyway, I got my bag back and took a regular taxi to the hotel; the charge was only 50 Lari, just a small increase in my original price. The airport is only about 12 km SE from the city center and, as my hotel was in the southeastern part of the city, it only took around 15 minutes to get there. I was able to check in quickly and easily and, without even unpacking (a first for me), I tumbled into bed by 6 AM for a few more hours sleep.

My compatriots were all arriving at different times and even different days. Dean would be in later that afternoon, around 5 o’clock, and his local friend Leo, with whom he’d be staying, had arranged for the three of us to meet at The Breadhouse Restaurant, right on the Mtkvari River, just below where the sulfur baths are located, at Friday around 7:30 PM; an easy walk for me as my hotel was just across the river from the restaurant. Raphael and Daria would fly into Kutaisi (about 180 km from Tbilisi) the following day, Saturday, arriving around 5 AM, and would then have to take a bus into Tbilisi, about three hours away. They would get to Tbilisi sometime before noon on Saturday. We arranged to meet them for lunch at one PM at the famous Clock Tower, next to the Marionette Theater on the edge of Old Town. (NB: The world-famous marionette troop was out of the country, so I wouldn’t get to see them this visit. Damn!)

Anyway, for my first day in Tbilisi I was on my own. I had found a good introductory walking tour on the Internet so decided to strike out and see the city. I was up and about by 9 AM, breakfasted and dressed and ready to hit the trail. I was a beautiful early spring day, temp around 18C/65F. Just before crossing the bridge near my hotel, I checked out the Metekhi Church on a high cliff and its accompanying statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali.
I walked much of the tour, omitting only the climb up to the Narikala Fortress, a trek much too steep and long for my tired old legs. But I saw the famous sulfur baths, the waterfall behind the baths, the Peace Bridge (really interesting), the Old Town and the Clock Tower. I saw the various famous churches (Sioni and Anchiskhati). I found Freedom Square and the Tourist Information center, where I got some information about sights and other things to do.
I went back to Erekle Street and had lunch at the KGB restaurant (“KGB: Still Watching You”). A local Argo beer, some lovely lamb shashlik, accompanied by rice and veggies.
Afterwards, I strolled over to the aerial tramway to take me up to the fortress, but there was a long after-lunch line, so, after a brief nap, I headed up to see the Sameba Cathedral, behind my hotel. It wasn’t far, but it was steep, so I was sweating again when I finally got to the top of the hill. It was worth the climb, however, a beautiful old “wedding cake” style cathedral in soft-tan stone. I turned around and walked downhill (Whew!) and back across the river for a cooling beer at Machakhela restaurant and bar, overlooking the River Mtkvari. I met Dean and Leo at the Breadhouse around 8 PM, but it was fully reserved, so we came back to the area of the baths and found another classy place, attached to the baths, called Gorgasali. Leo ordered for us all, a selection of favorite Georgian dishes, along with the house red wine.
Well, it was simply amazing. In a life filled with travels and samples of wonderful foods around the world, I must say Georgian food ranks well up there among the top five types of food ever. We had shashlik (veal, lamb and chicken), mushrooms covered with cheese, veggies, hachapuri almuri (?), kinkhali and stuffed artichokes. One sip of the red wine – the House red wine, mind you – and I was ready to move to Tbilisi. Best red wine I have ever had anywhere, anywhen, anyhow. Wow! We even had a band and Georgian dancers to liven up the evening.

It was all amazing, but the real treat was the kinkhali. Previous internet research revealed one is not supposed to eat more than five kinkhali at a sitting, so Leo ordered us three each; they’re sort of like dumpling, filled with beef. Eating kinkhali is not like what you're used to doing with dumplings, however. First of all, you use only your hands. (There's a real reason for this: cutting the large dumpling would spill the juice and ruin the taste.) Locals will begin by seasoning the dumplings with pepper. Then grab the dumpling from the top "handle", turn it upside down and take a small bite out of the side to slurp up the juice (Georgians call this the “soup”). Don't let any juice fall on your plate, or the Georgians watching you will start chuckling, and you'll get your chin messy.

Then, still holding the kinkhali upside down, eat around the top. Once you finish the dumpling, you place the remaining twisted top on your plate— in Georgia it's considered an extreme mark of poverty in finances and taste to eat the doughy top. (Plus it helps keep count of how many kinkhali have been consumed). It's also nice to look with pride upon all your tops once, with practice, you get into the double digits with these delicious dumplings. Washed down with that astonishing Georgian red wine, it was a feast fit for kings.

We waddled out of there without even thinking about dessert. I took a taxi back to my hotel, but wasn’t quite ready for bed, so I visited the nearby Sky Bar for a caipiroska and a nighttime view of the city. And damn glad I did, too, as it was worth the time. It had been a great day; perfect weather, new city, incredible food and drink, friendly people, beautiful architecture and sights. I was a very happy camper.
Saturday dawned cloudy and blustery, although the sun did come out later. The temperature hovered around 12C/53F most of the day. The previous night I had arranged to meet Dean at the flea market around 10 AM, to do some shopping for local goodies for family and friends. I left my hotel and flagged down a taxi. The driver was a middle-aged Georgian who spoke no English or other languages than Georgian and Russian. I told him I wanted to go to the Dry Bridge Flea Market. He gave me back a blank look. OK, I was ready for that. I whipped out my Tourinform city map of Tbilisi and showed him where it was, less than ten minutes away. Another blank look. I then mentioned the name of the park next to the flea market area; more blank looks. Sigh. How hard could it be for a native Georgian to find a major bridge in his own city? Apparently, damn near impossible. He exited the taxi and conversed with a nearby buddy, then got back in and away we went. He was obviously still not 100% certain where we were going, but he was giving it the old college try. I kept repeating “market” and “Dry Bridge” and pointing to the place on the map, but nothing. I could see him pondering as he drove.

Suddenly his eyes flew open wide. I could have sworn I also saw a tiny light bulb flash on over his head. He looked back at me (taking his eyes off the traffic) and said, “Antiquo!” YES! The Antique Market! We had a common word. I responded with “Da, da,” nodding my head furiously. His smile rivaled the sunshine (of which there wasn’t any yet). He was a happy taxi driver. We found the flea market, visible to anyone from 100 meters away, on the major street leading to the Dry Bridge and I paid him and got out to see what I could find. I arrived early, but Dean didn’t make it until 11, which was the time he thought we’d agreed upon. We wandered through the flea market for a while, picked up a few gifts and then headed out for our meeting with our compatriots, about a 10-15-minute walk. We got there around 12:45 or so, took more clock tower photos and decided to see if we could find a nearby café for snacks.
Immediately next to the Clock Tower is the Hangar Bar, a cozy little Irish sports pub owned by Rebecca, originally from Virginia and now living part-time in Ireland and Tbilisi. She greeted us with a big smile and recommended her craft beers (very good!) and hamburgers (per Raphael later, also very good). Dean was very happy in Tbilisi as the Georgian government has not yet outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants, so he could stay at our table and smoke cigarettes without going outside. At least the Hangar Bar was well-ventilated.

Anyway, we chatted and watched some rugby (Rebecca is a huge fan) and had a few more beers and some really tasty homemade nacho chips with salsa (just like I used to get in New Mexico) and the time slipped by and then it was after 3 PM and still no Raphael and Daria. No phone calls or Facebook either; I don’t have an iphone and Dean had switched to a local sim card, so nothing was incoming. Dean and I decided they’d get in touch with us eventually, so we took off and headed for the aerial tramway to take us up to the Narikala Fortress across the river.
We got lucky – no waiting line. We shuffled right in, no problem, and were whisked away over the river and up the nearby mountain to the fortress. It was a brief but nice stay. We checked out the statue of Kartlis Deda, or Mother Georgia, a gigantic metallic statue of a woman holding a sword. From certain angles she also looks somewhat hermaphroditic, with the sword she is holding looking more like a dangling phallus. Interesting. A brief walk around the ruined fortress and a short stop at a mountain-top juice bar for refreshments and view-admiring and we took the aerial tramway gondola back to the other side of the river. We could have walked down the 7,349 steps to the bottom of the cliff, but decided, “nah,” not for us.
We checked out the bar streets – Erekle and Shardeni, took a few photos, just relaxing along the way. It was getting to be dinner time, so we stopped in at the Stelzen Haus for some Weiss beer and dinner of meat for me and hachapuri for Dean – his first. Dean had left a message somewhere in the cloud for Raphael and Daria to meet us at the Hangar Bar at 9 PM, and by Georgia, they showed up! We had more of that great craft beer and some food, listened to a local guitar-player/singer and generally caught up.
Turned out Daria’s Air BnB renter drove all the way from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, about three hours away, where their WizzAir flight landed them at 5 AM that morning, to pick her up. He then proceeded to turn Tour Guide on them and, while driving back to Tbilisi, stopped at all the interesting sights along the way, finally getting to Tbilisi around 4 PM. Nice of him to do it and they did get to see a lot more of the country, but we were a touch worried about them, so glad it was all OK.
We walked back down the bar streets to the main bar area near Meidan Square and found a place called BlackBerry, which was furnished in high-backed, soft, red-velvet chairs and large heavy tables and had dark red flocking on the walls. Looked like a French bordello. But they made a mean caipirinha and had some good chacha on hand, the Georgian fruit brandy, so we sipped and relaxed into the night.

Sunday morning Dean had some work to catch up on and Raphael and Daria had signed on for a local three-hour walking tour of the city and environs, so it was definitely time for my thermal bath and hammam visit.

Tbilisi was founded as a city during the 5th century CE, at the epicenter of the Old Silk Road. The name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word "Tpili", meaning warm. The name Tbili or Tbilisi ("warm location") therefore was given to the city because of the area's numerous sulfuric hot springs, which are still heavily exploited in the public baths. It was here I was headed at 10 AM on a rainy Sunday. The bath area is just across the river from where I was staying and I was able to find the Gulos Baths pretty easily, although they are unmarked. Gulos is one of the most highly recommended of the five or six baths in the area.

A first-class bath in Tbilisi starts with a long soak in a very hot tub in your own private room, followed by a rigorous massage on a slab of marble. For interested parties, this is performed with the client au naturel. The masseur (or masseuse; it was just my luck to get a middle-aged bearded masseur in swimming trunks) then uses a coarse woolen mitten to remove layers of old, dirty skin off the body. Next, he rubs a soothing coat of satiny suds into the exfoliated skin and then pours buckets of hot water over the body to rinse it.

As a point of information for an appreciate audience, two of Tbilisi’s most renowned bathers were Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and the French writer Alexandre Dumas, who praised the baths as “luxurious,” and described a bathing ritual not unlike that of today. Why, I could have been in the very bath that Dumas frequented! How about that?!

One bath tradition that has all but disappeared is the “bride check.” It used to be common for potential brides to be met at the baths by a prospective mother-in-law and aunt-in-law who, under the cover of the steamy baths, would examine the girl’s body for defects. It was all very hush-hush and isn’t done any longer. Apparently, young people today have other ways of achieving their goals, like using the Internet.

Anyway, my soak and scrub were as good as always in the hammam I’ve visited around the world. Except for the masseuse, of course. The only better one I ever had was in Moscow, when a lovely young Russian woman barely out of her teens, was able to…..well, that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say, my Tbilisi experience in the baths was nearly everything I enjoy from these visits. The hot tub soak was in water so hot I could barely stand it, and resulted in rivers of sweat running off me. And my Master Masseur scrubbed me down to the point that there was no dead skin left on me at all – I was all shiny and pink and new. And it only cost me 40 lari (around $13US/15 euro). Great!

I made my way back to the hotel for a much-needed nap, then around 2 PM roused myself to get out again. I did some last-day shopping at the local bazaars and went looking for lunch at the Machakhela restaurant. And whom should I run into in front of the restaurant but Raphael and Daria, just finishing their Tbilisi walking tour. Great timing, so we all had lunch together. Daria bought us a round of chacha to warm her down, as they’d been outdoors all morning in the 8C/43F rainy, cloudy, windy weather. I drank my chacha, but gave them my Cheshire Cat smile; after my bath, I would be warm for at least a week.
Everyone was hungry, so we each ordered enough food for all of us to share. I had the Taster Plate of nine Georgian goodies, including chicken, lamb, beef, and other tasty dishes. Raphael ordered some kinkhali and a meat hachapuri, and Daria had veggies and salad stuff. We all shared each other’s dishes, dipping into the various plates. And generally slurping up all the food at hand. Accompanied by a bottle of that amazing Georgian red wine, it settled us all down nicely.

I walked back to the Hanger pub where we were all to meet Dean and his friends Leo and his wife Amy for another great dinner. Raphael and Daria returned to their respective accommodations to clean up and maybe take a short nap. I killed the time at the pub with some tea and a brownie, still relaxing from the gigantic lunch. Leo and his wife Amy and Dean all arrived around 7 PM, but Raphael and Daria didn’t make it until 8 PM, when we all trooped next door to the Gabriadzhe Restaurant, next to the clock tower and marionette theater. Luckily for Mr. Wallet, we’d eaten our lunch rather late, so just didn’t have room for too much more food. We did manage a few appetizers and I had some very nice Ukrainian borsch, but that was about it for all of us. It was still a nice evening with old friends and new ones and the atmosphere was congenial and warm. I look forward to re-visiting Tbilisi someday in the not-too-distant future.

Tbilisi is a vibrant city, full of energy and life. Lots of noise and traffic and voices and buzz. The people seem rather intimidating at first, especially the men, large (very large!) and serious-looking and somber – kind of like the older Hungarians. But the young people are always out and about at the pubs and restaurants and clubs, having a great time and loving their city.

We said goodbye to Leo and Amy, who had to leave early as they had to get up early for work; they’re both teachers in a local English-language school. We weren’t quite ready to call it a night yet, so we wandered back down the bar street until we found the Drunk Owl bar, a little hole-in-the-wall, smoke-filled place full of music and young people and chacha and beer and that great Tbilisi buzz. A couple of drinks later I hit my wall and headed back to my hotel for the night. I also had a fairly early (for me, anyway) morning call for my taxi to the airport. My three companions were staying over and taking a road trip through the Georgia countryside, so I’d see them in a week or so back in Budapest. A very good first-time visit to a happy new city; I’ll be back.

And so, Monday, April 3, it was time to go. I’d made arrangements for a taxi to the airport, got there, checked in after a brief wait and we took off on time. This leg I was flying Aeroflot, the Russian airline; I’d fly to Moscow where I’d have a three-hour wait, then back to Budapest, arriving around 7:30 at night. The Tbilisi-to-Moscow flight was OK. Once at Shermetyevo airport I followed the signs at from my arrival at Gate 20 in Terminal D to my departure Gate 58, as posted, in Terminal F. It was a 25-minute walk at normal speed. I was once again leaving from the farthest gate in the airport. A person walking at standard speed can usually walk one mile in 15 minutes. I’ll let you do the math.

So, along the way I found the Irish Bar Moscow at the airport around Gate 47, just a short ten-minute walk from my departure gate, and settled on a barstool for a couple of pints of Harp ($10 USD each), a beef burrito, a tortilla with ham and cheese and lots of water. The final bill was 2070 rubles, or $37 USD. I had last been to this little bar in 2004 when visiting friends in Moscow, and I still have the polo shirt. Great ambiance. Gotta love those airport bars. Anyway, I was strolling toward my gate, shopping and browsing the shops, when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that my flight had been changed to Gate 34. Gate 34?! That’s 10-15 minutes back the way I came! Friggin’ Aeroflot.

I hustled back to Gate 34 and waited and waited and finally the flight was called. I got to share the plane with a Russian sports team of some sort, men and women, very large men who took up two seats each. We lifted off and 3 ½ hours later I was in Budapest. Clearing all those Russian athletes through passport control took forever, and a journey that usually takes me one hour from arrival to my front door took nearly two hours this time. Sigh.

So, home again. Spent the first couple of days unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning my flat, downloading and labeling my photos and writing this blog. Hope you enjoy it. Next up: June 8-19, 12 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway. A major Bucket List item checkoff. Rest up for a Monster Blog! Until then, have a great spring and….try some Georgian wine!