We are on the midnight plane to Georgia. In various stages of inebriation, me and Dave WhatsApp this to our grown-up children. It’s not our fault. Nothing ever is. Our Georgian Airways flight, the last one out of Gatwick, is delayed. What else is there to do but dutiful duty free?
Dave is my compadre, the finest travelling companion a woman could wish for. The best thing about her is that she will go absolutely anywhere but also has no idea where anywhere is. Except France – which she has taken against to such an extent that even French people speaking French near her makes her extremely annoyed. She can sniff out pretension at 100km, not that she knows what a kilometre is. And God help anyone she calls “piss-elegant”.
Suffice to say, when we arrive in Tbilisi, I have to prod her awake and try to enthuse her, though I feel very rough myself. “All airports are the same. Why are we even here?” she asks.
We are in Georgia mostly, I remind her, because she loves post-Soviet places and last year when I was in Armenia to do a story, everyone kept saying: “Don’t go to Georgia. There are big men with swords there who will kill you.” So it’s a must.
We arrive at Rooms Hotel in Tbilisi, a former Soviet-era publishing and printing house. I should say we partake of the city’s immense cultural riches, but we go to bed and order burgers and chips on room service because we know how to live. When we come to, we realise we are actually in a completely fantastic place.
Stylewise, this hotel is the business. Outside, it has kept its industrial facade, all steel and wood. Inside, however, it is a gorgeous mixture of styles put together by someone with an incredible eye. There are Georgian antiques mixed with contemporary paintings, chandeliers, 1970s sofas, beautiful parquet flooring, original tiling and strange oversized ceramics. It shouldn’t work but it does, partly because the staff are so easygoing.
All this overlooks a courtyard with garden and bar. Or you can sit outside on a deck overlooking the street as cars go by blasting their music. All around, people are having “liaisons” and meetings. It feels like Shoreditch House without the twats – and with much more inventive design.
This hotel, with its melange of styles and periods, mirrors Tbilisi itself. It’s a happening place which combines so many influences that every time you think you have a handle on it, there is something new to see. Alex from the hotel takes us on a walking tour. There are brutalist Soviet buildings next to Orthodox churches. We go down alleyways to find ancient communal courtyards with rickety wooden stairs that look like film sets. Then there are super-modern, strange empty buildings. When Björk stayed at Rooms, they tell us, they put lots of plants on her balcony so she wouldn’t see all the metal and scaffolding. But we love this industrial look and it’s amazing to see buildings used this way, to remake the Soviet past.
We walk past houses that could be in Barcelona or Italy, over a bridge where people sell tat and through parks until we end up in another unexpectedly groovy place all leather sofas, fusion food and graphic designers. This is not at all what I was expecting.
The next day, we make the 60-mile “pilgrimage” to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace. It’s all very odd, to be frank, a massive but grand whitewashing effort. There is an entire museum dedicated to Uncle Joe, full of paintings and tapestries of him holding small girls (weird) and photographs of him with Churchill and Roosevelt, and even his death mask. As none of it is in English, we perve over pictures of him when he was young – murderous dictator and all that, but great hair. There is one small room roped off, with some blurry pictures of conflict. This is the only nod to the fact that perhaps he did not deliver heaven on Earth. The gift shop is pretty crap, so we buy some fridge magnets off a street vendor outside. (When I get home, however, there is some resistance to me covering our fridge in pictures of Stalin.)
Back in Tbilisi we seek out good food. This is not difficult. Georgians love to eat and drink. We follow some of the late Anthony Bourdain’s recommendations. In his Parts Unknown programme on Georgia, Bourdain was clearly impressed by the cuisine but exhausted by the drinking, the endless toasts with chacha (pomace brandy). Cafe Littera, which he loved, is hard to find – a beautiful garden behind what looks like a garage. Here, a hot young chef, Tekuna Gachechiladze, is ramping up traditional Georgian food with lighter and vegetarian options. We eat plates of amazing mushrooms and have also discovered that Georgian wine, which is “natural”, is irresistible and also good on the hangover front.
Lots of people come to Georgia for wine tasting, the posh person’s version of a pub crawl. But we haven’t. For some reason we are heading off to Batumi on the Black Sea, 250 miles away. Dave wants to go there because she thinks it will be weird. And she is right. All the way there, the driver keeps crossing himself.
After the laid-back style of Rooms, we are now in some Russian-owned hotel called Intourist Palace. Batumi is a mini Vegas where all sorts go to gamble. It is full of casinos and Russian girls selling themselves. Russian hospitality seems to be about mainly being ignored. We wander around looking at strange modern buildings and a not very impressive beach. There is a fake Venetian Square. Of course there is. There may be nice restaurants but we don’t find one. Instead, we sit drinking gin and tonics, even though gin makes Dave cry and she ends up weeping about the fact that everyone will die. I demand some food from a grumpy man in the hotel bar and we just get bread and cheese.
I hear there are better places up the coast and I see families enjoying themselves, but I can’t wait to get back to Tbilisi. The capital’s Stamba hotel is more luxurious than Rooms: it has gold baths and showers and a casino and they are building a rooftop pool. But it’s a little too American Psycho shag pad for me. Everyone raves about the sulphur baths in Tbilisi, so we go to one called Orbeliani, a pretty tiled one that looks like a mosque. It’s not hot enough to be steamy and I don’t enjoy it much. There is a menu where you can get a beer and “sausage assortment”, but it all feels a bit touristy. A large women comes in and scrubs us with a loofah. I find this deeply unpleasant and several layers of dirt and skin that I’d prefer to keep appear to have been removed. Dave likes it. Some people do. Masochists. We go for khinkali after, the big, warm, soupy dumplings.
The highlight of the trip is a drive on the Georgian Military Highway from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda (formerly Kazbegi), a route into the High Caucasus established in the first century. Green velvet mountains, azure lakes, fresh figs and honey sold by the roadside – totally stunning. I have been in the Himalayas and the Andes, but this is mind-blowingly gorgeous. ‘f’
We stop at the huge semi-circular Russo-Georgian Friendship monument, and gaze in awe. Then it’s on to Rooms Hotel Kazbegi in Stepantsminda, another wood-and-glass brutalist structure that was once a Soviet spa. My God, it is fantastic, with decks all around so everywhere you look there are the mountains, one with Gergeti Trinity Church on top. Some big wedding is going on and Georgian aristocracy is being helicoptered in. The men are in traditional dress with swords (and none makes any attempt to kill us). Swoon. We lie on the deck and staff bring us blankets and anything else we desire.
Downstairs there is a pool spa but all I want to do is lie on that deck and look at the mountains. It is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever stayed in, and the nearest I have ever got to meditation. With wine. I would go back tomorrow. Why is Georgia so special? It’s not about gold taps and bellhops. It’s about warmth and hospitality, and feeling you can do what you like. That is what luxury travel is. That and, of course, having someone to travel with who will take a chance with you, wherever you end up.
• Accommodation was provided by Design Hotels in Rooms Tbilisi (doubles from £175 B&B), Rooms Kazbegi (from £144 B&B) and Stamba Hotel (from £242 B&B). Georgian Airways flies from Gatwick to Tbilisi from £165 return
Local’s Tbilisi, by Jondo ‘Jay’ Japaridze, barber and DJ
This former Soviet sewing factory has been transformed into a multifunctional space with cafes and bars, artists’ studios and shops, a hostel, and a courtyard that hosts one-off events. It’s a great place to meet up with friends for the evening.
One of the first clubs in Georgia was established in 2012 in this 1950s fish restaurant by pioneer DJ Bero. The club is on the left bank of the Mtkvari River, and when you get tired of dancing to house and techno, you can head to the balcony and watch the river.
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A newcomer that has quickly established itself as the coolest place to eat in town, Pepperboy looks like a cosy izakaya [Japanese dining pub] with cyberpunk wall art and neon lights. The food is pan-Asian: pho, kimchi and ramen served with sake, soju or tea.
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Another new spot, Kikliko, serves brunch from 8am to 3pm. It’s named after the traditional Georgian breakfast that’s a piquant version of french toast using spicy ajika sauce, but it also serves other staples such as sulguni (semi-soft cheese). It’s the perfect place to start the day.
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This bar has a huge terrace with amazing views over the city. In a big house with period furniture on Narikhala Hill, it’s the perfect place to catch some live music while eating traditional food such as beef stew with pomegranate sauce, fried potatoes and Georgian hummus.
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