Tblisi and its atmosphere is often compared to Berlin after the fall of the Wall, when bars and clubs opened in empty buildings. Even though the city counts only 1.1 million inhabitants, you won’t be able to finish discovering it in a few days’ stay. For example, if you want to visit the infamous “Drama Bar”, you have to ring the bell on the third floor of a residential building and you’ll find yourself in a 19th century apartment in an old building. Where in Berlin gentrification and order have now moved in, Tbilisi is said to be young, affordable and to have room for creative people.
However, unlike in Germany at the beginning of the 1990s, Russian troops are still standing by on the Georgian border, which has led to criticism from the younger generation and has often driven them to demonstrations on the streets in recent months. For although EU flags can be found everywhere in Tbilisi, Georgia is not part of the European Union. The inhabitants hope for a different future, which they celebrate at night and take to the streets during the day.
Because the economy is still not doing well, unemployment is high, but the joy of life is undiminished. Since the “Forbes” magazine wrote “Berlin is out, Tbilisi is in” and Nino Haratishvili’s novel “The Eighth Life” was sold many times a few months ago, many Georgians are looking forward to the burgeoning tourism. The country will become even more famous when the ninth part of the “The Fast and the Furious” film series, which is currently being filmed in Georgia, comes to the cinemas. Until then, undiscovered hotels, galleries and restaurants will lure the curious travellers.
And since the travel restrictions to Georgia are quite moderate – especially vaccinated travelers have an easy entry – now it’s the best time to travel to this vibrant country.
On the way from the airport to the city you have to overtake carriages or avoid free-running cows that unexpectedly cross the motorway. As I approached the city centre, I was overwhelmed by the concrete bunkers and brutalist buildings from the Soviet era.
It takes a moment to see the contemporary facets of the city. Graffiti, mostly from local master Mishiko Sulakauri (called “Lamb”), meets oversized banners with luxury fashion advertising and behind the impressive facades of once abandoned buildings you can now find boutique hotels, coworking offices and restaurants that can easily compete with New York and Berlin in design and international flair.
Such as on the noisy main street, where the Wilhelminian style houses are crumbling and next to them the new “Stamba” hotel shines, which has perfected its industrial chic with heavy concrete columns alongside design classics.
If you want to dive directly into the hip Tbilisi, your search begins at this place. “It’s fair to say that we are the pioneers who started the hype around the city,” says Tina Kavadze, who does PR for the hotel. “Before, there was nothing in this neighbourhood that appealed to people. Today the former publishing house is a place that attracts locals and newcomers alike.” Unlike in Berlin, where luxury hotels like the “Soho House” follow a “members only” strategy, the “Stamba” is an open meeting place for the creative scene with many events and exhibitions.
COFFEE SHOPS, RESTAURANTS AND SUSTAINABILITY
In addition to the chic epicenter, the hotel bar, there is also a “vertical farming” zone where home-grown plants and herbs for the kitchen are grown. Following the example of the Berlin scene, which has also implemented the concept in the “Good Bank” or the “Beba” in the Gropius Bau. In the German capital, it is currently chic to focus on sustainable and home-made products from the local environment – but in Tbilisi it has never been any different.
“In the ‘Stamba’ hotel, we also worked exclusively with local designers and architects,” explains Kavadze, explaining that the concept has been extended to the entire city. In the Chugureti quarter, for example, the Adjara Group behind the hotel invested in the multicultural “Fabrika” project, a hostel with design shops, coffee shop and ramen restaurant, the first in Georgia. In addition to supporting the Architecture Biennale and the Tbilisi Film Festival, the investors behind the transformation in Tbilisi are also passionate supporters of the local fashion scene.
The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tibilisi has been taking place since 2015. “In the beginning it was really hard because Georgia was not known as a fashion destination and the fashion world knew nothing about Georgian designers,” explains Sofia Tchkonia, Creative Director of MBFW Tbilisi, who is the driving force and heart of the Fashion Week in Tbilisi. She seeks and promotes designers, initially supporting the fashion scene with her private money, before buyers from Paris, London and New York became aware of their potential. The advancement of Fashion Week was facilitated by the international success of the Georgian-born designer Demna Gvasalia, who founded the Vetements label and is now the creative director of Balenciaga, and his Georgian colleague David Koma, who was creative director at Mugler until 2017.
“Since there were no fashion stores in Soviet times, everything was lacking. You couldn’t buy anything and fashion didn’t exist, women copied the clothes of French or Italian film stars like Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimee, Sofia Loren,” says Tchkonia. She also speaks openly about the grievances in the country, but she sees them today as an opportunity. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia experienced difficult times, politically, economically, especially in the 1990s, and the aesthetic was very different, darker and more depressive. Now the young generation is focusing on freshness and the Georgian style is more colourful and young. They have the freedom to create something new.”
MUSIC AND LGBTQ
Some of the Fashion Week shows took place in Tbilisi’s coolest club. Fashion and music are closely linked, Tbilisi is considered the new metropolis of techno. If you want to feel the attitude towards life of the young Georgians, you should let yourself fall in the mountain grove of Georgia, deep in the catacombs of the local football stadium of “Dinamo Tbilisi”. Not only is the quality of the music system comparable to that of the Berlin institution, the look is also reminiscent of local electro clubs.
In a former swimming pool they celebrate what is known in Berlin from Prince Charles and the now closed Stadtbad Wedding. Drug trafficking and drug consumption, however, are more strongly pursued in Georgia. The fact that the “Bassiani” was allowed to reopen its doors after a raid last year was due to the spontaneous protest of thousands of revellers in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi and the international attention the event received.
In September 2019, the club celebrated its fifth anniversary, and carefree dancing in the dark corridors is once again taking place. By the way, Nia Gvatua is responsible for the interior of the club, who is also behind the opening of Georgia’s first LGBTQ bar, the “Success Bar”. Because many Georgians still miss the openness towards this community, the first CSD in Tbilisi had to be postponed several times in 2019 due to threats from radical groups.
Same sex relationships have been allowed since 2000, but more than 80 percent of Georgians are Orthodox Christians and reject the techno scene and new forms of relationships. Activist Tamaz Sozashvili, however, successfully calls on Twitter for Georgia’s queer community and its problems to receive more international attention. Elections are coming up in 2020 and will show how much activism has been used.
ART & CREATIVITY
Female empowerment”, which is omnipresent in many Western metropolises, also plays a role in Georgia. You become aware of this when you visit one of the numerous galleries, I was in the newly opened Photography and Multimedia Museum in Tbilisi. “Among the most interesting photographers are many women,” says curator Elena Valaite, while showing socio-critical photos by artists such as Dina Ogonova and Anka Gujabidze. “Strong women are typical for Georgia. Back when the men were at war, they had to take charge of everything.”
An exciting meeting place for the art scene, as many in Berlin miss it, is only an hour’s drive from the centre of Tbilisi, hidden among vineyards. The art villa “Garikula” is an independent meeting place where Georgian and international artists work together. It is financed by the state, and for the past thirteen years an art festival has been held in its garden, where artists such as Gregg Fleishman create sculptures that are usually seen on “Burning Man”.
The founder is Karaman Kutateladze, who after many years in France has returned to his home Georgia. Here, through the festival and the training of young artists, he wants to pass on the lightness and the alternative, happy life to the next generation. “Contemporary art means freedom, and freedom means human rights,” he says with conviction.
Credits: Gloria von Bronewski