Georgia, minute by minute. 2. Kutaisi

Traveling by bus from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, a surprising sight greets and accompanies you along a long stretch of the road. More than half of the 230-kilometer road, Georgia’s most important traffic line, is not yet a highway, but a narrow road winding through villages in the deep valley of the Rikotula and then Dzirula rivers, so it takes about four to five hours to complete it. Now, however, something is changing. Massive highway construction is going on throughout the river valley, with an area laid waste to a width of a several hundred meters, with huge concrete tunnels, highway pillars and other artefacts, and Chinese inscriptions everywhere. Workers’ hostels reminiscent of military barracks every few dozen kilometers, with large red Chinese tatsepaos. Several large Chinese construction companies are working on the nearly one-hundred-kilometer long highway from Rikoti Pass to the Kutaisi bypass. I recall that in 2018, flying from Dali to Kunming, I counted fourteen gigantic highway construction sites from the air only in the middle part of the relatively rural Yunnan province. The road construction in Dzirula Valley is of a lesser scale than them, but in such a small-scale country, this volume is both impressive and frightening.

Road construction at the bend of Dzirula, east of Ubisi. The six pillars to the right were set up back at the end of communism, but they no longer had time to place a highway on top of them. The large white pillars that cut through the bend are already the work of the Chinese construction company.

This giga-building reminds one of the Fudan project in Budapest and other stealthy colonization moves by China. But this is something different. Not a debt trap, like the Montenegro highway, Sri Lanka port, Laos railway and many other projects built from Chinese loans and, after the respective state’s insolvency, taken in Chinese possession. In 2015, the romance between Georgia and China started to be mutually beneficial. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China discovered an alternative transportation route through Georgia bypassing Russia, while Georgia hoped for new markets and new investments from China instead of the short-sighted US governments that have neglected Georgia in the past decade, as well as serious political support to reclaim the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in return for which Georgia strongly supports the One China policy, staying away from Taiwan and never mentioning the repression of human rights in China. In this spirit of mutual benefit, China won a number of construction tenders in Georgia back in 2018 (albeit through a lot of corruption), and they are now implementing them, including the Tbilisi-Kutaisi highway. In the meantime, however, the rosy haze has dispersed. The momentum of the Belt and Road Initiative, launched as a great ideological battle cry in 2013, has by now slowed down, due to the growing difficulties of Chinese economy and the escalating Chinese-US trade war. China cannot now focus on its secondary partners as they thought they could in 2015. And Georgia is dissatisfied with Chinese markets – where they are allowed to export only copper and other raw materials –, as well as Chinese investments and Chinese political support, since the Chinese leadership systematically avoids conflict with Russia over the breakaway territories, and even engages in joint military excercises in the Caucasus with Russian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian troops.

An important difference between the routes of the Soviet and Chinese highway pillars standing next to each other in the bend of Dzirula is that the Soviet highway would have led straight to the millennial Ubisi monastery, perhaps providing an excuse for its demolition, while the Chinese highway bypasses the whole village with a tunnel. Ubisi Monastery was founded in the 9th century by St Gregory of Khandzta (759-861). He was an abbot in Tao-Clarjeti province, now part of Turkey, the only Georgian province that did not come under Arab rule in the 7th century. This was also the cradle of the Bagrati royal dynasty, who gradually reconquered Georgia and Armenia from the Muslims in the following centuries. Gregory supported their policies on an ecclesiastical level. In the recaptured provinces, he erected monasteries to re-Christianize the countryside. Ubisi was one among them. On the outer wall of the sanctuary, you can still read his founding inscription, with the Bagrati lion beneath it.

We also know the painter of the beautiful frescoes of the church. He was called Damiane, and he followed the most elegant style of the 14th century, the Palaiologos Renaissance of Byzantium. The same style which his Western contemporaries, Giotto and Duccio, used to create the Italian Renaissance. I will write a separate post about these frescoes, so I only show a few of them now.

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The wall of the church is also adorned with various graffiti, like in medieval churches in general, especially around the gate, where the bored believers spent time waiting for the liturgy. The figures are not really discernible through the many layers, but the inscriptions written in Nuskhuri, the widespread script of the Middle Ages, are still visible.

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The highway from Tbilisi to Gori and even further, to the Rikoti Pass, has existed for many years. It runs on the northern bank of Mtkvari. However, the ancient, historic route follows the south bank of the river. This is the Royal Route, the historic axis of the medieval Georgian kingdom, densely lined with medieval churches, castles, monasteries, cave towns. From this route, additional dirt roads, accessible only by horse or SUV, branch south to the Trialeti Mountains, where small mountain villages hide many more medieval churches and monasteries. I once set out to see them, but most of them are still to be visited. This will be a separate expedition and minute-by-minute report.

A view from the side of the highway to the Royal Route, and, beyond it, the Trialeti Mountains

On the Royal Route stands the cave town of Uplistsikhe, the oldest surviving settlement in Georgia. Tsikhe means castle in Georgian, and Uplos is the mythological ancestor to whom, like Nimrod, medieval chroniclers traced back the origin of the nation. The cave dwellings were carved into the soft volcanic rock from the end of the 2nd millennium BC. These homes were once complemented by walls of wood and rubble, but today there remain at most only traces of them. Today, the lunar-like lava plateau is interspersed only by a maze of holes, flats and courtyards, and embraced by the green valley of the river. The most characteristic traces of the former civilization are the pits of the grape presses and amphorae carved into the stone, in such density as though the main activity of the inhabitans had been the production and consumption of wine, which is not so unlikely here in Georgia. At the highest point of the rock there lies the princely palace, also carved into the rock, and the walled 9th-century Christian church, which is still in use today, although the city was depopulated during the 13th-century Mongol invasion. Today it is inhabited only by dwarf dinosaurs, agama lizards, basking, playing and tussling on the rocks, their curiousity allowing visitors, who are a rarity today, a close-up look at them.

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Gori also has a medieval castle, but the city is mainly famous for being the birthplace of the most powerful Georgian ruler ever, Stalin. “We respect Stalin very much”, the manager of a local guest house told me many years ago. “Think about it, if he wasn’t born here and his museum wasn’t here, who would come to Gori? What would we live on?” Crystal clear logic. Luckily, the people of Linz have other sources of livelihood.

Stalin photo on a persimmon desk at the Kutaisi market. Who is the other one?

However, the Georgian cult of Stalin is not as overwhelming as it appears. Georgians, especially young people and intellectuals, are aware of Stalin’s true historical merits, the great terror, the oppression of peoples, including their people, the divide and rule politics whose results they suffer now. It is mainly the elderly and simple folk who remember him with nostalgia, which is more of a nostalgia for their youth. A political movement could not be founded on Stalin in today’s Georgia, unlike in Russia. It is also because of the resurgent and officializing Russian cult of Stalin that it is seen with suspicion in Georgia.

The absolute beneficiaries of the Stalin museum are the stray dogs constantly chilling here

I wrote earlier about the Stalin museum in Gori, illustrating with the reports of Witold Szabłowski’s Tańczące niedźwiedzie (Dancing bears. True stories of people nostalgic for life under tyranny), made with the staff of the museum, concerning what they think about the museum and Stalin today.

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On our most recent visit, in one of the halls, next to Stalin’s table with a small lampshade, a TV interview was taking place with a young local celebrity who certainly had not lived in Stalin’s time. The smashing red plastic shoes of the reporter, dressed in Soviet vaudeville style, matched perfectly the color of the “Stand Here” covid stickers glued to the parquet floor.

The same hall has the exhibition object that is most familiar to the Hungarian visitor. Not only because it represents a domestic landmark, but also because of the enthusiastic, warm devotion to the conqueror flowing from its inscription.

“To the liberating Soviet heroes from the grateful Hungarian people, 1945”. Beneath, on the copper plate: “The Hungarian Peasant Delegation, 1951”. It is difficult to explain why Hungarian peasants chose such a distinctively urban symbol. Perhaps, in addition to cotton and oranges, palm cultivation was also planned, and the only specimen found in the country was in the hands of the Statue of Liberty.

Habent sua fata artefacta, not only books, but works of art also have their own history. Laci Holler looked into the history of the peasant delegation of 1951, which donated the above model of the Statue of Liberty, and sent us the following articles from the Arcanum database for the round anniversary. The 200-member peasant delegation led by Imre Dögei, President of the Hungarian Parliament, visited the Soviet Union exactly 70 years ago, from 5 July to 3 August 1951, to “learn first-hand about the world’s most advanced agriculture, the decisive superiority of socialist large-scale production and the happy and cultured life of the Soviet peasantry”. In Moscow they paid a visit to the Timirazev Agricultural Academy and its experimental plants. They visited the Lenin Mausoleum and the museum where gifts from all over the globe for Stalin’s 70th birthday were exhibited. (The same gifts will be exhibited in the Gori Museum after 1957.) They then divided into five groups and traveled to five Soviet republics to study local agriculture. The group lead by Imre Dögei went to Georgia, where they were received by the President of the republic Mikhail Lelashvili, and they also visited the Stalin Kolkhoz in Gori.

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When traveling from east to west, the westernmost junction of the Georgian road network is signed everywhere along the highway and national roads: Sukhumi, like Mosonmagyaróvár in my native Hungary. With the difference that Sukhumi has been the seat of the breakaway Abkhazia since the Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, where Georgian citizens have been forbidden to enter for almost thirty years. If they took the road sign seriously, they would, at the Inguri bridge, crash into the Russian army of occupation checking the passports. So the road sign is, in fact, not information, but a political statement, an irredenta manifesto, a stand for the country’s internationally recognized unity – Abkhazia’s independence is recognized, apart from Russia, only by such great powers as Venezuela and Nauru – and a reminder and call for an effective restoration of that unity.

Georgian soldiers in Sukhumi, 1992. Photo by Giorgi Tsagareli

Sukhumi and Batumi were still referred to together in elementary school Russian classes as the Black Sea twin resorts. The difference today, in self-ironic Russian memes: To the left: “We saved Sukhumi! / Batumi we could not save…” To the right: “Adjarian resort [Batumi], that we failed to liberate from Georgian fascists / Abkhaz resort [Sukhumi] that we managed to liberate from Georgian fascists”

At the Abkhaz border. From George Ovashvili’s The Other Bank / L’Autre Rive / გაღმა ნაპირი, Franco-Georgian co-production (2009)

The center of Kutaisi is the market, or as they say, the bazaar. In fact, the whole lower town on the left bank of the Rioni was created for and serves the bazaar. In the fifteenth to nineteenth century, during the fragmentation of Georgia, Kutaisi was the trade link between the Ottoman and Persian empires, the meeting of worlds where all kinds of peoples could be found, including their quite unlikely subspecies, like Catholic Georgians, Orthodox Tatars and Old Believer Ruthenians. For the same reason, it was also the largest Jewish city in Georgia, even today with three large synagogues in operation, a significant Jewish population, and an even more significant double-dwelling Jewry commuting between Georgia and Israel but celebrating the holidays in Kutaisi.

On the wall of the bazaar overlooking the river, a Soviet ceramic composition made in the 80s sums up the history of Kutaisi. According to archaeological finds, Kutaisi is one of the oldest cities in the world, but in comparison the depth of its past, very few historical facts are known. So legends play an important role in the composition, such as the Golden Fleece, that the Argonauts carried away from Kolkhis, the ancient Kutaisi. The large surfaces between the legends and the historical figures, such as King David the Builder, are filled with happy rural families, allegories of the beautiful new world, and the all-encompassing tendrils of vine. And the bottom of the composition, following the usual historical dichotomy of Soviet monuments – that is, that the age of wars is over, and the abundance of eternal peace now rules – is filled with a pile of weapons from every millennium of Kutaisi, with a special emphasis on the overthrown eagle of the Tsars.

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This eschatological character of he Soviet view of history is particularly strong in World War II monuments, which paraphrase a traditional Christian theme, the victory of good and light over evil and darkness. As in the WWII memorial in Khoni near Kutaisi, whose five relief fields provide a surprisingly articulated myth of 20th-century Soviet history. This history, as recognizable from the clothes and weapons, begins with the October Revolution, as the jahilliya, the age of darkness preceding it does not deserve representation. It is followed by the first era of the peaceful building of socialism, which, looking back from the time of the erection of the memorial, is already a nostalgic past, an emblematic era of the union of the working class, peasantry and army. Then comes World War II, the victory of the five-pointed star and the suppression of the swastika. Then the present, swaying ears of corn, and finally the future that feeds on it, with the New Men rejoicing in traditional Christian orans posture, but, in place of obsolete deities and saints, they gaze upon rockets, doves of peace and – obviously peaceful – atoms in the sky (these latter, judging from their two orbitals, are helium atoms). In front of the pillars separating the reliefs, like the statues on the pillars of a cathedral, stand the busts of local heroes of WWII. On the wall of the nearby house, like the Holy Word in the church, a bilingual inscription proclaims: “No one and nothing is forgotten.” Except, in fact, the whole country.

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However, the most expressive monument of the new approach to history is this Akhalshen specimen from which all the frills have been removed together with the marble cladding, likely re-used somewhere else, and what remains is the abstract concrete expression itself, the archetypal representation of the affirmation of the present and the fulfillment of history. From a humpbacked substructure sinking into the past, the menhir of the YES rises into the sky like a rocket, with a horizontal side dolmen for commentary. It is impossible to say more with fewer tools about the essence of history.

The rocket, cosmos and space travel have played an important role in the public decoration of socialism as a symbol and promise of a future already realized in the present, as is well analyzed in the studies of the volume Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. In the Soviet Union, the mosaic decoration of rural bus stops were important mediators of current ideological themes. Many of them have survived in Georgia. On the way from Kutaisi to the sanatorium town Tskaltubo, there is a largely untouched one, with all the obligatory attributes of the subject, stars, rockets, planetary orbits, and the spacesuited head of the New Man. It certainly must have been of great moral support to the passengers, as they waited in vain for hours for buses which did not come due to a lack of petrol and spare parts.

Теперь нам не надо по улицам мыкаться ощупью.
Машины нас ждут, и ракеты уносят нас вдаль…
А все-таки жаль — иногда над победами нашими
встают пьедесталы, которые выше побед.

Today we no longer have to stumble down the street:
Cars wait for us, and spaceships take us far…
But it is still a pity that under our victories sometimes
there stand pedestals that are higher than the victory.

Bulat Okudzhava: Былое нельзя воротить (The past cannot be brought back)

At the bus stop before Tskaltubo we met the future, but then the future turned off elsewhere. In Tskaltubo we are received by the most miserable past. Due to its radon-carbonate sources, the town was the most popular spa in Soviet Georgia. Its large central park was surrounded by thirty sanatoriums, most of them from 1950 and 1951, and they were visited by 120 thousand guests per year. Then came the change of regime and then the Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, and a part of the Georgians expelled from Abkhazia received accommodation in the spa hotels. I remember well those times, when the grand hotels of Tbilisi were also full of Mingrelian – Abkhazian Georgian – refugees, mostly peasants who kept their most valuable items, their goats and pigs, on the balconies of the hotels. Thirty years have passed since then. The refugees in Tbilisi have been integrated in the local society, they live in normal flats, the men are mostly taxi drivers who, during a longer journey, give a nostalgic description of their homes left in Abkhazia, and the hotels receive guests again. But Tskaltubo is a little town, and the population of the nearby Kutaisi is also only twentieth of that of Tbilisi. In addition, the spa hotels housed mainly broken families, where the head of the family was massacred in Abkhazia, and the women with young children had no chance of finding work and breaking out of the refugee shelter. The former spa hotels are still home to three thousand refugees, mostly old women, middle-aged alcoholics and young unemployed couples, who have never experienced any other way of life. The buildings, full of makeshift additions that have seen no maintenance for thirty years, are utterly dilapidated, and in the former botanical gardens, between the noble cedars and sycamores, corn fields fenced with tin sheets and goat sheds and hen houses, are empty, decomposing, since the first generation that still understood animal husbandry has disappeared. There were once statues in front of the spa hotels, but today only pedestals without figures and inscriptions remain, as if the heroes of Soviet times were ashamed to give their name to this post-Soviet reality.

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Grand Hotel Sakartvelo (Georgia), which was an emblematic building of the heyday, is now also an emblematic building of the decay. Its white building shines far from the cedar groves, and as you get closer, the rusty but still complete name in Georgian and Cyrillic rises above the trees. A once prestigious, but now, after the loss of its marble facings, silent WWII monument stands in front of it. Its ground floor is already overgrown with blackberries and wild pomegranate bushes. Most of the hotel rooms, with boarded-up balconies, are still inhabited, except for a few, which are burned out. In the basement, the thick plumbing has cracked, and water or sewage pours from it with a splash reminiscent of the waterfalls of the Abkhaz mountains, encircling the hotel base with a lake full of algae and garbage. Children play on the shores of the lake and among the ruins, the third generation of Mingrelians who will grow up here, in the past conserved in Tskaltubo.

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But what still works in Tskaltubo is no less a conserved past. Two sanatoriums, out of the previous thirty, still serve their original purpose. One of them is “Bath No. 6”, once officially, now only commonly called the Stalin Bath, where Stalin’s private pool is still on display, and on its façade relief, the Leader himself receives the gestures of love and gifts of his people. Under the watchful eyes of the Leader, in the shade of the colonnade, grateful stray dogs cool off, just as under the colonnade of the Stalin Museum in Gori. A fountain stands in front of the bath with a statue on it, which at first glance we consider to be a relative of the Tiger Slayer of Berlin, and only later, on the Tbilisi flea market we are taught by the cover of a blackgammon game that it was the Knight in the Panther’s Skin, as illustrated by Mihály Zichy. In the magnificent foyer of the spa, porcelan pigeons sit on porcelan fountains, and in the middle of the hall there stands a huge porcelain vase with the pictures of the former thirty sanatoriums in Tskaltubo. And the sight of a Central Asian family in festive dress going around and respectfully inspecting the Soviet vase in the Stalin Baroque foyer would go in any Soviet textbook as an illustration of the friendship between peoples and of “What did the Party give us?”

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The most romantic part of Kutaisi is perhaps the Rioni River, which, running down from the mountains of Lower Svaneti – the provinces of Racha and Lechkumi – runs down with forceful waves even here in its spectacular rock bed. Turn-of-the-century wooden houses with balconies rise up along the two steep sides of the riverbed, as if the twentieth century, which battered the built heritage on the two banks, had somehow blew over the deep riverbed without leaving a trace. Only home maintenance indicates the passage of time, but it makes them look even more romantic. As if Egon Schiele’s turn-of-the-century Vltava views in Český Krumlov came to life in the Rioni valley.

Above the bazaar, two churches face one other on the two banks, looking, respectively up and down, like the Basilica and Matthias Church in my native Budapest, only of course the distances are much smaller. On the “Pest” side, not far above the bazaar, a large-domed Neo-Baroque church, like a Roman basilica, rises on the riverside rocks. An unusual sight here in the Orthodox East. And even more unusual, the inscription on the arches of its vestibule is written in Latin: IN HONOREM IMMACULATAE CONCEPTIONIS B[EATAE] MARIAE S[EMPER] V[IRGINIS] – In honor of the Immaculate Conception of the always Virgin Blessed Mary. If Latin alone were not enough, this concept makes clear that it was a Catholic church. The idea of the Immaculate Conception – which does not mean that Mary conceived Jesus directly by the word of God, without any male participant, which is how most people understand this term, but that Mary herself was conceived without the “macula” (stain) of the original sin passed on from Adam and Eve, so she would be a pure source of Christ’s human nature – has been a specifically Catholic outcome since the late Middle Ages, which would become an official teaching of the church in 1854. Soon thereafter, in 1861 the Georgian Catholics in Constantinople founded their society of the Immaculate Conception to support Catholics in Georgia.

Georgian Catholics? Yes. The Catholic confession was established in Georgia in the 12th century, when Georgians and Frankish crusaders fought together against the Saracens and Turks. Sometimes the Georgian king sent auxiliary troops to the Holy Land, and sometimes the king of Jerusalem sent Frankish knights to Georgia, such as during the reconquest of Tbilisi from the Arabs in 1121. Tbilisi had a Catholic bishopric for Georgians who returned from the Holy Land as Catholics and for Franks who settled in Georgia. And the Georgian kings took the Catholic church under their patronage just as they did with the Orthodox church. After the 15th century, when Georgia broke up into a number of smaller principalities, the Catholic confession strengthened especially in the eastern part of the country, under Ottoman rule, partly because the Georgian Catholic diocese of Constantinople was able to reach this point, and partly because the center of the Georgian Orthodox church was in Mtskheta/Tbilisi, in the hostile Persian empire, from where Turks were reluctant to receive priests. Around today’s south-western border, Akhaltsikhe (Rabati in Ottoman times), a significant number of Georgian Catholics still live in many villages, spiritually taken care of by Polish priests who have learned Georgian. And the Catholic population of Kutaisi, which had belonged to the Turks, was also significant until the October Revolution.

Since the advent of independence in 1990, the former balance and good relations between the two confessions have been upset. As we saw in Tbilisi, in connection with the former Armenian churches of the Bethlehem quarter, the Orthodox Church, which had become the established church of the country, feels victorious, and is waging a full-scale offensive against all other denominations. Since 1990, the Catholich church has also filed for reclamation on their five former churches, but they have received only the one in Tbilisi. The rest were seized by the Orthodox, including the one in Kutaisi, which is now an Orthodox church. Latin inscriptions, papal coats of arms and characteristic Catholic statues and images have not been destroyed, as was the case with Armenian churches, but the church was renamed from Immaculate Conception to Annunciation, and everything is covered with Georgian icons. True, this also happened ambiguously. On the one hand, the side altars – which do not exist in an Orthodox church – were left with their Catholic altarpieces, circled with icons, just as the Neo-Baroque main altarpiece is only counterbalanced with an icon barrier in the sanctuary. On the other hand, a number of characteristic Catholic devotional images which do not exist in the Orthodox icon canon have developed here Orthodox icon variants, apparently based on formulas previously used by Catholic beleivers, such as the Baroque devotional image of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, perfectly transcribed here as an icon. Nevertheless, the Orthodox priests openly detest Catholic believers coming to the church, just like elsewhere in the country. Just as an example, they tried to persuade Georgian girlfriend of my perfectly Georgian-speaking Italian Catholic friend, loud enough for everyone to overhear, to break with her “heretical” boyfriend lest she burn in hell.

No official information in the church is left to remind us of its Catholic past. At the same time, next to the church stands the memorial house of Zakaria Paliashvili, the founder of the Georgian Academy of Music, whose information notes that the master received his basic musical education in the choir of the local Catholic church. But as to where this church was, even though it is nearby, is not mentioned.

The Kutaisi Catholics today gather in this same Newport Street, No. 10, in the communal space and apartment church established on the ground floor and courtyard of a house. In the same kind of fear from the threatening Orthodox majority as was visited on the pre-emancipation Jews and their hidden house-synagogues. Three years ago there was a modest inscription on the street façade of the apartment, it has since been removed.

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To be continued.

Georgia, minute by minute. 1. Tbilisi

In the morning I get a call in Berlin from an unknown Georgian number. Before I know who it is, she first asks, in Russian: “Do you speak Russian?” After a year of painful absence, this whiff of another large cultural world strikes me nostalgically, where it is so natural to speak Russian on the phone, even if you called a German number, like for us it would be to ascertain that they understand English at the other end of the line. Russian is the mediating language of that world, used by everyone, even if we aren’t much aware of it here, and learning English there so that one could connect to another, distant cultural world is almost as much a curiosity as, say, learning Russian here.

I am called from the Tbilisi guest house where I booked our stay for the weekend before next week’s big mountain tour. We discuss sending a shuttle car to the early morning flight, “my sister will come for you, send me a selfie so she will recognize you”. Once we get into a family relationship like this, she switches to the familiar, as is typical in Georgia, and she says, “Would you mind canceling your reservation at Booking? Now that we’ve talked, I’ll keep the room and send the transfer, but why pay them a commission, right?” Yes, I recognize, this is that culture.

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One gradually diagnoses which neural pathways of the world have been restored after the great shock. Wizzair flights have already started from Budapest to Kutaisi, we book for the first flight, but then the enterprise seems to be too early, and the flights in June get canceled. After some searching, we instead fly LOT from Prague via Warsaw to Tbilisi.

From Berlin to Prague I go by train, in the gentlemanly way. I no longer have to cross the green border on foot or connect the border towns of the two countries with a workers’ local train. Incredibly, the train runs directly, without any border control, to Prague, and then even further east, to Budapest or wherever. Passengers are not accustomed to such long journeys. In the beginning, the children still exercise on the armrests of the seats, but after Dresden, everyone is already sleeping. The sandstone cliffs along the Elbe – the farthest excursion site under covid times – finds only me awake.

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In the early afternoon I arrive in Prague, an important scene for my previous months. It is a strange feeling how many hours I have traveled so far, and what a great change this is, compared to Berlin. However, it is only a trampoline: tomorrow at this time I will be in a completely different world, one that I could not have dreamed of last year.

The confluence of Vltava (left) and Berounka (right) at the southern border of Prague

Foreigners are free to enter Georgia from June 1, for the time being only by air, with a 72-hour PCR test. The Hungarian immunity certificate, provided after the first shot, is accepted by the Georgians even without a test, but the Czech and Polish authorities do not accept it, so a test must be presented in any case to take off on Polish planes. At the Georgian border, however, they look understandingly at my lizard-skinned refuge pass, and I’m at once in the country. Lloyd, whose Czech authorities did not make such sly, advantageous agreements with the Georgians, must present the certificate, plus repeat the test in Georgia on the third day. And its outcome is doubtful, because the night before the test, Lloyd notices in himself his sixth and hitherto gravest covid infection of the year [The author exaggerates. –ed. Lloyd]. Its symptoms probably do not reach the level of detectability, but Lloyd is infallible in these things [Idem. –ed.]. In any case, I ask him not to mention them at the test.

The sister is in fact waiting for us. She holds high my selfie on her phone, asking me whether I can identify myself. I would prefer a better portrait, but for the sake of the transfer, I take this one. We proceed outside, in front of the airport, surrounded by the hypermodern buildings of the Saakashvili era fifteen years ago. The last time I was at this airport was almost thirty years ago. Back then, you had to walk from the flight to the wire fence around the airport across the grassy field surrounding the runway, where, at the small gate opening onto the street, a single armed soldier stood there, on the rare occasion when a foreign flight arrived and passports had to be checked.

Shortly after sunrise, we reach the old town. Crossing the Metekhi Bridge, the quartier under the castle hovers in a fairytale light. After we unload at the hotel, we walk back to photograph it.

We stand under Metekhi Church when, at six minutes after five, the show is over, the lights go out in one fell swoop. I loook up at the still steel-gray sky, where eight dignified snow-white egrets fly over the river and our heads. A good omen for the next month to be spent in Georgia. King Vakhtang Gorgasali, whose equestrian statue next to the church watches the flight of the birds, also founded the city of Tbilisi following a sign from a bird, a falcon felling a pheasant.

One of the most important mission of our current trip is to map out what is still in operation in Georgia after covid: restaurants, accommodations, shops, anything that fellow travelers might need on a next tour. On arrival, it is immediately clear that the network of large grocery stores has been restructured. On the former Armenian Bazaar Street leading from Metekhi Bridge to Freedom Square, which today bears the name of Prince Kote Abkhazi, who fought against and was executed by the Bolsheviks, several private companies had run five or six large grocery stores. They still exist, but were all bought up and homogenized both externally and internally by Spar.

“ყოველთვის ახალი, q’oveltvis akhali, always new!” Only the clients are the usual ones.

Now they all operate 24/7, with the young salespeople sleeping on the counter when I walk in at half past five to buy breakfast: Caucasian kefir and Borjomi spring water.

The good things produced by Georgia: Caucasian kefir, Sulguni cheese, shotis puri bread baked in tone (a kiln), Borjomi water, Kakheti tomato, beautiful in the upper layer and tender beneath, dried squid and a withered red rose, the latter a gift from the guest house. Borjomi spring water, which has been popular in the whole former and post-Soviet world, was discovered by General Ivan Paskievich during the siege of the fortress of Akhaltsikhe in the 1828-1829 Russian-Turkish war. The whole Russian army was laid low by dysentery, so they had to retreat to the nearby village of Borjomi, where his soldiers perfectly recovered by means of the local water in a matter of days. After the successful siege, the general had the water tested, and it was certified to be excellent for all kinds of stomach complaints. Georgians swear by it, especially in the case of hangover, a national disease.

And then disaster strikes. Lloyd waits out at the entrance to pick up money with his American debit card. However, the ATM displays some error and swallows the card. The salespersons are just shrugging: the ATM belongs not to them, but to Liberty Bank. Try to put yourselves in Lloyd’s mind. It’s half past five on Saturday morning, the bank is closed, and no one picks up the phone at the emergency number. But we obviously can’t guard the ATM here for two days. What would you do? Have the egrets lied? Let’s hang this story at this cliffhanger, and once you will have bitten your nails quite enough, you will se what we did.

The epidemic, like everywhere, has decimated restaurants. Closed is Dzveli Keria, the Old Hut, one of the best Georgian places, an unmissable dinner place for our travel companies. Closed is Puris Moedani, the Bread Square at the former Jewish market, where university students performed polyphonic Georgian folk songs and chansons. I am approaching Racha with trepidation, one of the gems of traditional Georgian cuisine, which in its simplicity was something like the renowned Kádár in Budapest (which also fell victim to covid). Around the corner, an encouraging new graffiti: a mother and her two children are carrying wine jugs from Georgia in the direction of ხინკალი khinkali, the Georgian meaty dumpling, which can only refer to Racha.

And Racha is open. True, it is unusually empty. For the time being, in the otherwise crowded restaurant, only the staff is present, eating lunch at the back table. Slowly, one or two regulars, gourmands, romantic couples, enter. As usual, the trilingual – Georgian, Russian, English – menu is brought to the table, but you must place your order at the counter with the cashier who writes the order into a quadrille-ruled booklet. In turn, the food is then brought out, but one must return to the counter afterward to pay.

Khinkali at Racha Restaurant. Khinkali originates from those most secluded northern mountains or Georgia, which is where we will go in two weeks for a horseback tour: Tusheti and Khevsureti, the land of the Crusaders stuck in Georgia. It was originally stuffed with minced mutton or beef meat with onions, pepper and cumin, but nowadays there are also many varieties; variously spiced or with fillings of mushrooms or vegetables on the menus. Consuming it properly requires some prior knowledge. The western visitor, who first encounters khinkali, will immediately want to fall to it with fork and knife, at which the Georgians even at the next table will feel an irresistible compulsion to correct him. The essence of khinkali is the tasty juice of the meat, which would flow out if you cut it. So it can only be eaten by hand, grabbing its tough “handle” or in Georgian kudi, ʻtail’, where it was pinched together before cooking, biting into it, and immediately sucking out the juice as Lloyd shows here. To be able to do it, you have to let it cool down for a few minutes after serving othervise your fingers, or moreso your palate will be in for a nasty scalding surprise. Perhaps that’s why khinkali are served at the end of the dinner. The hard handle is not eaten, it is piled up on the plate as a trophy, a silent boast about the number of dumplings consumed. A tough Georgian man orders khinkali by the tens, but for people like you and me, I would instead recommend beginning only with three.

Russian-language T-shirt about how to eat khinkali. “Never, you understand, never!!! eat khinkali with FORK AND KNIFE. This would be a FAILURE. And never eat its handle. That would be the culmination of failure [literally, the last nail into the roof of failure]. You only eat khinkali by hand, holding it by the handle. Bite with your teeth its springy wall, and suck out the delicious broth. And the handles are triumphantly placed on the edge of the plate, IN THE WAY OF A TRUE JIGIT*.”

[*jigit: a skillful and brave horse rider, in a broader sense a brave warrior in Caucasian and Central Asian languages]

Khinkali at Agerari Restaurant, Kutaisi

ჩაშუშული chashushuli, or colloquially ოსტრი ostri at Racha Restaurant. The spicy onion-tomato beef stew is the most popular dish in Georgian cuisine, usually one of the two or three items offered by roadside inns. Despite its Russian-sounding name – острый, ʻpungent, hot’ – it is not hot. Here’s a well-illustrated recipe that shows how it is made and what to expect when it is brought out. Although it has plenty of juice, it is usually served with a fork. Georgians sop it up with shoti bread, but you can also ask for an extra spoon.

Ostri in the Kubdari Sakhli roadside inn in Barjashi (Svaneti). When traveling to Svaneti, here I ritually take the first ostri in Georgia

In every restaurant and lodging, I ask locals how they survived the past year. They mostly shrug, and say it was hard, but we are past it, and now, with God’s help, better times are coming. They don’t dwell on their losses, they live in their daily tasks and from their hopes. Nevertheless, in Racha they say that colleagues helped each other with their reserves, and that at the time of the mandatory closure it was good they did not have to come in to work, because all public transport in Tbilisi came to a full stop, and whoever could not afford daily taxi, could only ride on horseback from the outskirts or nearby villages. There were not a few of them.

An outline map of the old town of Tbilisi. On the two sides of Kote Abkhazi – formerly Armenian Bazaar – Street, which starts to the NW from Metekhi Bridge, lays the former bazaar merchant quarter of Kala: the Lower Kala in red to the west, and the Upper Kala in dark yellow to the east

Not only tourism, but also the old houses in the old town of Tbilisi suffered greatly from covid. Not as if they caught the infection, and as many diseases as they have anyway, it would not have touched them further. Yet they perished well above the Hungarian mortality rate.

Since I have been coming back to Tbilisi – as early as 1997, but yearly since 2014 – I have been constantly monitoring the extent to which old town, and especially the houses of the bazaar neighborhood Kala around Armenian Bazaar Street have been decaying, already since the beginning of communism. The beautiful houses with stone pedestals and wooden galleries around their courtyards, mixing 19th-century Ottoman style with the Art Nouveau that defined Tbilisi at the turn of the century, are now crumbling, distorted, leaning out over the street, and in need of added structural supports both inside and out, with so many ad hoc buttresses that the oblique support beam, the common visual element of today’s Tbilisi, was already used as a design element in the tower of the postmodern puppet theater of 2010 by the ingenius Rezo Gabriadze.

Year after year, I think about how the houses don’t collapse onto the heads of their inhabitants, and where the money will come from to authentically restore these buildings, so that this unparalleled historical and visual heritage is not lost. Also, I always have the ominous premonition that it will be easier for the city administration to demolish them and sell the valuable plots for the purpose of new buildings. During the Year of Covid, when attention was diverted, here, like in many other places and cases, the latter premonition has been confirmed. Walking through the streets of Tbilisi, you can see a striking number of newly created empty plots where back in 2019 still beautiful old houses were decaying.

The old Tiflis of the avant-garde painter Elene Akhvlediani is increasingly lost. I just bought an old album by her at the Tbilisi flea market. I will publish more of it soon

Furthermore, there are many new modern installations and hybrid solutions such as in Lado Gudiashvili Square, the center of Lower Kala. The city administration has repeatedly tried to sell the valuable place to real estate speculators, but the people of Tbilisi has protested against it with demonstrations and a chain of life. Finally, in 2018 the city government launched a rehabilitation program called “New Tiflis” that would restore 28 beautiful and historically important houses in and around the square. The result of the restoration, which took place last year without any protest, is a kind of disneyland, as I have just seen. The new façades are pretty and cozy, but they do not necessarily render the original look. In many places, they are obviously just sterile showcases combined from the usual atmospheric elements of old Tbilisi. And the buildings behind them were mostly completely demolished and newly rebuilt. The result will probably be convincing for most tourists, but my Tbilisi acquaintances who have complained about this, and I myself, will miss the former historical appearance of the square and of the houses, the little details full of life like the traditional bakery on the corner of Tbileli Street, where you could observe the work through the cellar windows, or the PurPur Café on the corner of Anton Catholicos Street, furnished with the generosity of turn-of-the-century bourgeois culture, and provided with a balcony with fond memories. The mosaic made during my penultimate Tbilisi trip in 2019 tries to render the former atmosphere of the square.

These new developments incited me to tour the still existing old houses of Kala, and document what was left. I don’t want to show ruin pornography, nor to display the obvious misery, but to show how much beauty there is still in these once resplendent houses. A cry for help while they are there, and a memento for when they will be no more.

Old houses in the old town of Tbilisi (continuously increased).

For the western visitor it is surprising that these houses are still freely open to walk around in. The gates and doors to the street are open, and the inhabitants neither protest entry nor photography. As if they considered the courtyard of the house a public space. Does the private area start at the door of their apartment – which, however, is usually open all day to the courtyard or the gallery? We didn’t try that.

The house Ierusalimi Street 23 has two entrances, a large gate directly to the courtyard, and a small one, from which a rather warped wooden staircase leads up to the first floor. A wooden gallery runs around he four sides of the courtyard, with a beautiful wooden spiral staircase in the southwest corner. On the south side of the yard, a concrete hut was once built, so the spiral staircase does not reach down to the yard level any more. An impressive three-level staircase system rises on the side opposite the gate. A kind of colorful multi-circle sun was painted in the middle of the yard, and colored paper birds were glued under the kitchen window behind it.

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Betlemi Street 3 is one of the most beautiful houses of the Kala, and futhermore in fairly good condition. The staircase leading from the street to the upstairs gallery is surrounded by a “musharabi”, a colored glass patterned wall called Парадная Калейдоскоп (Kaleidoscope Staircase) by Russian bloggers and OpenStreetMaps. At the other end of the columned gallery with pierced fence is an open dining area, closed from the rest of the gallery with the label “Private space”. The house with its protruding staircase and dining area embraces a garden with large cherry trees. Once owned by the Jewish community, it is now home to eight families and houses the souvenir shop Galeria 27, named after its 27 m² floor area.

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The Art Nouveau house at Beglar Akhospireli Street 4 was designed by Mikhail Ogadjanov (1870-1917) for Ashot Ter-Gevork Teimurazov, abbot of the nearby Mughni Surb Gevorg Armenian church. On the stair in front of the entrance is an Armenian inscription: ԲԱՐԻ ԵՎԱՔ bari yevak’, Welcome. The front door and the staircase are decorated with Art Nouveau floral motifs. The ceiling of the doorway has a classicizing fresco of a flying girl dressed white with a red cloak and a putto, both sprinkling flowers. The house is just being restored; only the mentioned details have remained original, the rest is being rebuilt.

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The main entrance to house No. 2 of Betlemi Rise, which ascends from the Kala to the Bethlehem quarter under the fortress, opens from the perpendicular Lado Asatiani Street 12, and only the staircase to the first floor opens from the Rise. The wooden galleries still preserve many sawn decorations. The protruding balcony, as seen from the Betlemi Stairs, defines the view of the whole street. Remains of a 1990 election poster in the doorway.

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Our accommodation is in Lower Kala, near Metekhi Bridge. From our attic room we have view in three directions. Facing the bridge and the fortress, on the bazaar quarter. In the foreground, the Armenian Norashen (“Newly Built”) Church of the Virgin Mary, built in 1507, which is now closed after a long Armenian-Georgian struggle for its ownership. Below it is the dome tower of the Georgian church of Jvaris Mama (Holy Cross), founded in the 5th century and last rebuilt in the 16th century. In the background, the Narikala (New Castle) fortress, built by the Persians in the 4th century and last rebuilt in the 16th-17th centuries, as well as the upper station of the cable car running from the former floodplain of river Kura, now Europe Square, to the castle, offering wonderful views and photo points.

From the other window, the usual Tbilisi topos: on the balcony of one of the above old houses, an elderly lady spreads a spectacular mixed laundry.

Giorgi Tabliashvili: ზრენვა, Zrenva, Care

And from the third window, you can see the pro who, together with the city administration and real estate speculators, is the main one responsible for the appearance of tomorrow’s Tbilisi. In addition to howling, his most important achievement is an individual interpretation of Georgian folk songs. Unfortunately, this comes through little in the video.

The atmosphere of the accommodation is nostalgically Soviet, and typically Tbilisian. It is in one of the above listed dilapidated houses, two entire apartments have been opened together and converted into a glove. The palm is one of the large living rooms + kitchen, and the other rooms the fingers, each with one or two interesting occupants. Now that only very few come from the EU, these consist mainly of Russians and Ukrainians, but there is also a Punjabi: well, his contacts will have to be looked into later. The guests are constantly conversing in the living room. Had I not gone out all day, and instead just sat there listening, I would quickly learn a great deal about the world. Two thirty-year-old Russian guys from Ufa visit now Tbilisi for the first time, and describe their adventures at length every night, with such pleasure that I, too, wish I were here for the first time. Vladimir (which he always emphasizes in his self-introduction as “like Putin,” but not as a political statement, but only to help his name to be remembered) pulls out a small drinking horn bought at the Tbilisi flea market. On his way home, stopping in Mihály Zichy Park – named after the Hungarian illustrator of the Georgian national epic The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, his statue is also standing in the middle of the square – they wanted to use it for water from the drinking fountain, but an old Georgian grumbled at them, what a sacrilege, one can only drink wine from the drinking horn! At which, he immediately went up to his apartment and returned with a ten-liter jug of red wine as if to teach the lesson, lo, this is what you should drink with it. Now all of us are drinking from it in the glove, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, the Punjabi, the American from Prague and the Hungarian from Berlin.

We ask the landlady to try to call the bank hotline to see if, against all odds, Lloyd’s card can be recovered. Lloyd, meanwhile, suspends the use of the card online at his Chicago bank. Of course, the landlady cannot call them either, but she knows someone who knows someone who works in the bank. The person gives her the correct number, where she is promised that today, Saturday, or the next day, Sunday, but no later than Monday, they would collect the card, and bring it out to our address. The latter is also good, because we have to be in Kutaisi by Monday evening. The entire weekend is blissfully spent in this sweet hope.

It is characteristic of post-Soviet countries how closely they live with their former Soviet cult films. Their scenes, jokes, dialogues have become memes, they are quoted and reenacted, and the pictures and sculptures of their characters give a familiar identity to places. I have already written about this in connection with “The (Lady) Prisoner of the Caucasus” restaurant chain, which builds on nostalgia for Leonid Gaidai’s 1967 cult film. In Hungarian terms, perhaps Péter Bacsó’s The Witness (1969) could be mentioned as a parallel.

The Gátőrház (Dike-Reeve House) in Dunakeszi, with iconic pictures and quotes from The Witness

This is especially true of Georgians, who had ingenious filmmakers such as Sergei Parajanov, Otar Ioseliani, and Tengiz Abuladze, whose Repentance of 1983 was a first visual landmark of perestroika. The main square of Avlabari next to the Tbilisi Palace District features statues of Ioseliani and Georgian film characters. And the central, small main square of the bazaar is called “Square of Georgian Filmmakers”, and is adorned with a sculptural version of Sergei Parajanov’s famous jumping photo.

And in the small square, which offers an intimate green resting place with its shady trees in the triangle of the bazaar, Sioni Church and Kote Abkhazi Street, stands the head statue of one of the greatest Georgian film actresses, Sofiko Chiaureli, after whom the square is also named. She was daughter, wife and mother of film directors, as well as Parajanov’s muse. The bust and the four smaller figures around her depict her in her most famous film roles, such as The Color of Pomegranates (Parajanov), The Wishing Tree (Abuladze), or Melodies of the Vera Quarter (Shengelaia). The original head statue, erected in 2009, depicted her with her eyes closed, as she appears in Parajanov’s film. It was not until 2016 that the sculptor Levan Vardosanidze replaced it with an open-eyed version.

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Moving a little further along Kote Abkhazi Street, two protagonists of one of Georgia’s most popular film comedies, Mimino (Georgi Daneliya, 1977), Georgian pilot Mimino (Vakhtang Kikabidze) and Armenian van driver Ruben (Frunzik Mkrtchyan) greet each other.

The third character is the car tire that Ruben wants to sell under-the-table to anyone throughout, but he does not succeed, so in his image we still find him holding the tire in hand on the main square of his film hometown Dilijan in Armenia.

In the film, Mimino begins his career as a helicopter pilot between the town of Telavi in Kakheti, and Tusheti in northern Georgia, which at the time was closed to the world and unattainable by any other means. Since we are going there for a horseback riding tour in two weeks, the participants should definitely check out a selection of the best scenes from the film, including many aerial shots of Tusheti of that time. (You’ll need to click on the link, because Mosfilm does not allow embedding.)

My favorite scene from the film, however, is where Mimino works his way out to Munich as an airplane pilot and wants to call home to Telavi. The telephone operator, who does not know this metropolis, connects him instead to Tel Aviv, where a Jew from Kutaisi, Isaac, happens to pick up the phone. When Mimino realizes the mistake, he wants to put it down, but Isaac is so touched by hearing a Georgian voice that he persuades him not to put down, so that they can sing Georgian songs together.

“To Georgia for 169 shekels!” An advertisement for the Georgian restaurant Mimino in Haifa so that Isaac no longer has to suffer for homesickness. True, the picture does not show Kutaisi, nor Telavi, but the more photogenic monastery of Gergeti, but Georgian cuisine remains Georgian cuisine everywhere.

Tbilisi is flooded with graffiti anyway. Luckily, not primitive tags we see in Berlin, but more elaborate ones, meant to be witty. This year they even released a visual album of them.

The real estate boom has also contributed to this, as the particle board panels used to surround renovations, construction sites and empty plots offer an ideal surface for graffitis. Some are even recycled. In 2019, when Lado Gudiashvili Square was still being renovated, Noémi photographed this corner graffiti on the square’s panels, where not exactly a nice man is menacing a little girl, unaware of what she is leading on her leash.

The renovation of Gudiashvili Square, meanwhile, is over, as we have seen. The panels are now used to cover another construction site on Khachtur Aboviani Street, opposite Norashen Church. The old guy and the little girl were moved here, but the role of Xenomorph was taken over by a well-bred lion.

Probably because Xenomorph has been on parental leave since January this year.

And the artist, gosha, has since specialized mainly in cats. That they have a concept to them, I do not deny, but it is a bit tiresome to walk around town to see the same figures on every corner.

Cats are everywhere in Tbilisi anyway. On the street and in the courtyards, dozing under your car during the day and fighting under your window at night. Or even in my favorite bookstore, at the checkout and at the bottom of the shelves, where customers feed them.

The book trade in Georgia is very different from what we are used to in Europe. Apart from Tbilisi, there is virtually no bookstore in the country, at most some paper shop selling a few books alongside. But the bookstores in Tbilisi are not much more than that. The basic experience of European intellectuals – even in countries with a small number of consumers such as Hungary – to go into the bookstore and browse with pleasure through the offerings, seems unknown to Georgians. Honestly, I do not know where they buy books, how they find out about the supply, whether there is any supply at all, whether there is any serious book publishing in Georgia. What is booming is the market for Soviet books spread out around the main squares and market places of cities. There are plenty of these, and you can even find many good ones, real treasures, for a few lari. But the newest book in them is thirty years old. Perhaps it is the flourishing of this market that proves that modern Georgian book publishing virtually does not exist.

The used book maket in Tbilisi is dense around the metro ramps of Liberty Square and on the Dry Bridge flea market

The book of the Soviet war interpreter Elena Rzhevskaya on the occupation of Berlin was also published in Hungarian in 1966. She first reported on the identification of Hitler’s corpse in the bunker, and on the “signatures” of Soviet soldiers on the walls of the Reichstag, which can be seen on the cover of the book and about which I also wrote. Since then, in another second-hand book market, in Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv, I also bought a Soviet book that identifies the most important signatures. I will quote from it in another post.

The best store in this market is located in Dadiani Street, on the corner of Liberty Square. A true old-fashioned old book shop, with an insider proprietor and regulars who not only come here to browse and buy, but also to play cards and dominoes, or feed the cats of the store. Every time I come in here – and I don’t have to hurry because it is open until ten in the evening – I find amazing good boks, albums, materials about the history and art of the city and the country, mostly in Russian or Georgian, of course. Their Hungarian section is especially strong:

A first walk in Tbilisi, through the Bethlehem quarter. Recommended for those who are here for the first time, but also for myself each time, because it helps to recall memories and revisit the city. Going up to the fortress by cable car from Rike Park, and descending on foot from the Statue of Mother Georgia through Bethlehem Quarter, touching each of the four churches.

The left bank of Mtkvari/Kura river at Metekhi Bridge. Still floodplain in the time of Dmitry Ermakov, now Europe Square and Rike Park, with more than one outstanding modern buildings of Tbilisi, including the lower terminus of the cable car. The bazaar buildings around the bridge were demolished by the “town planning” of Beria and Stalin in the 1950s.

Rike Park and the old town looking back from the upper terminus of the cable car. On the left side of the park, the double “periscope” was built as a concert hall and exhibition space (Massimiliano and Dorina Fuksas), but was never opened. In front of it, Michele de Lucchi’s footbridge (2010) spans the Kura. In front of the bridge, already on this side of the river, emerges the dome tower of the 13th-century Sioni Cathedral, to its left the baroque tower of the chapel of the theology, and then the dome towers of the previously seen Norashen and Jvaris Mama churches. From here to the right along the bazaar street, around middle way, the white roof and red-brick façade with a round window of the synagogue, and from there, rising towards us on the hillside, the Bethlehem Quarter. Almost immediately below us you can see the small green dome tower of the church of St. George in Kldisubani. On the top of the Avlabari quarter on the other bank emerges the golden-colored Holy Trinity (Sameba) Cathedral, the Orthodox main church of Tbilisi, built between 1995 and 2004 under scandalous conditions (partly on the cemetery and tombs of the Armenian community), and in scandalous quality.

The Kldisubani (Rock Quarter), Tsikhis Ubani (Under the Fortress Quarter) or Betlemis Ubani (Bethlehem Quarter) is the part marked in green on the map, which descends toward the Kura from Narikala Fortress and the Botanical Garden. You can descend here on a narrow flight of stairs from the foot of the huge Mother Georgia statue. The quarter of only a few streets, which looks down from a high parapet to the bazaar district Kala, is defined by three churches and their neighborhod: the small church of St. George and the two Bethlehem churches.

All these churches were built for the Armenian community, and they were used as Armenian churches for as long as churches were allowed to be used in Tbilisi. After all, the Bethlehem Quarter itself, just like the whole bazaar quarter, was basically Armenian. A peculiarity of Tbilisi, which most of its visitors do not know and most of its residents are happy to forget, is that throughout its history it was basically not a Georgian but a multi-ethnic city, a fact that is still visible in its buildings. According to the last census of Tsarist Russia in 1897, only ca. 20% of the population were Georgians, while 40% was Armenian, with an even higher proportion in and around the bazaar. During the 20th century, however, the ratio gradually reversed. Today’s Tbilisi tallies ca. 90% Georgian, while only 4.8% are Armenians. Therefore in 1990, when the churches, which had been used for industrial and social purposes for nearly seventy years, were returned to religious purposes, the Georgian church and its local representatives required and appropriated the former Armenian churches for themselves. The Armenian inscriptions and characteristic Armenian crosses were removed, the interiors were painted with frescoes following traditional Georgian iconography (Armenian churches mostly have no frescoes but only biblical and founding inscriptions), and early medieval Georgian historical pedigrees were coined for them, while the Armenian origins are not mentioned anywhere. This happened to the churches of the Bethlehem Quarter as well.

The first and smallest of the three churches is the Church of St. George in Kldisubani (Rock Quarter), whose green dome tower can be seen below us right from the upper terminus of the cable car. The church, built in 1753 (or, according to the Georgians, restored from an earlier Georgian church) by the Armenian merchant Petros Zohrabian and his wife Lalita was used as a toy-making and varnishing workshop in Soviet times. In 1990, it was appropriated by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Armenian inscriptions and crosses were eliminated, and since about 2010, a local painter with whom we also spoke, has been constantly enriching the church with frescoes following medieval Georgian iconography.

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The two, upper and lower, Bethlehem Churches are named after the title of the upper one, the Mother of God of Bethlehem, i.e. the Nativity of Christ. Both were founded by the wealthy Meliq-Agha Bebutian, son of Meliq-Ashar Bebutian who settled from Persia in the early 18th century, each together with a convent (nunnery) to which Armenian nuns from the St. Catherine Monastery of Isfahan’s New Julfa were invited. Their fate from Soviet times to the present day followed that of the St. George church. Today, both are Georgian Orthodox churches. When we descend to the upper one on Sunday morning, the liturgy is just coming to an end, the believers are already drifting away, and the priest is talking with the more insider believers under the big tree next to the church. Between the church and the parapet overlooking the city is a small rose garden with benches and a well of fresh spring water. In the summer, I really enjoy sitting here among the roses, in the shade of the grape arbor, reading, and from time to time looking down on the old town.

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The lower Bethlehem Church is being decorated with flowers on Sunday morning for the patron saint’s afternoon liturgy, with the women’s choir rehearsing in the backyard. The young boys sitting on the stairs in front of the gate address us. When they learn that I am Hungarian, they congratulate us on how well the Hungarian football team played against the French the previous day. In general, the good participation of the Hungarian team in the Europe Cup now raises the prestige of the Hungarians everywhere in Georgia.

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Looking down from the steps of the lower Bethlehem Church, we see a long, narrow street that runs all the way to the heart of lower Kala, Lado Gudiashvili Square. This is the Bethlehem Rise, a house of which we already visited (above). Towards the end of the street rises the fourth church of the quarter, the façade turret of Mughni St. George Church. This is the oldest among the four. It was founded in the 13th century, when, according to the tradition, the Georgian king had the relics of St. George brought here from the Armenian town of Mughni. And this is the only one left as an Armenian church. Due to unprofessional interventions (demolition of the porches) its walls cracked already in Soviet times, when it was used as a museum warehouse, and then its northern wall collapsed, together with its dome, in 2009 (which we still see in all its splendor in the picture below by Dmitry Ermakov). Its gate was set on fire by drunken vandals. For seven years I have been watching how a forest of sumac trees has been thickening inside and obscuring it. Even so, the Georgian church has still laid claim on it. This is probably the only hope for its survival.
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The Georgian National Museum has two buildings next to each other. The Art Museum is located on the appendix of Liberty Square called Pushkin Square, while the Archaeological Museum along Rustaveli Avenue. The Art Museum, which I have long wanted to see alone because of the Georgian icons preserved there, is now closed for restoration. Only a small shop of icon copies operates under its arcades.

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The Archaeological Museum is open, but most of its exhibitions evoke the boredom of provincial museums. There is only one exhibition worth seeing, and very much so: the old Georgian treasure finds. The ancestors of today’s Georgians began to settle to the valleys of the Caucasus from the south, the direction of Mesopotamia, in the 4th millennium BC, partly chased away by the expanding city-states of the fertile crescent, and partly attracted by the wealth of the mines of the Caucasus. In the museum one large hall showcases the treasures, whose gold and silver were mined here and shaped into jewelry by goldsmiths from various state formations. The vividness of the figures, the tiny irregularities of the imaginative geometric shapes, this very creative visual world of many hundreds or thousands of years, is very impressive. Next to the door there is the image of a camera crossed out, but no  similar one for cell phones, so I take photos with the latter. I probably interpreted it correctly, since the watcher does not react to it. Of course, these images are of much poorer quality, but good for a first presentation of this richness. Later, in the bookshop in Dadiani Street, I buy a modern album of these treasures, with detailed descriptions – in Georgian. It will be good to learn the language. Once I will have read it, I will also post info about them.

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But what happened to Lloyd’s credit card?

Not everyone could stand it with peaceful nail biting until I announce the final solution. Laci Holler came up with a ready-made scenario:

“As for Lloyd’s credit card, even on the day of your publication of the first chunk of the story, I intended to hypothesize the path to a lucky ending.

I based the solution on my experience of what happened to us at the end of my first trip to Georgia, on May 9, 2015, the day we left Kutaisi. Since at a quarter past three in the morning, all the group ready to leave waited in vain for Mr. Tengo, our driver, we began to worry seriously, and a half past three you called him. He woke up, he said he would be there in a few minutes, but actually he alerted his famulus, who arrived at our hotel 15 minutes later. So at 03:50 we were able to leave. The driver cracked along the almost empty roads, and we were at the airport by 4:10. Although there was quite a crowd, since two planes started a few minutes apart, we all checked in by half past four, and at 5:20 our plane took off. It was only afterwards that we learned through you that right after the alarm of his famulus, Master Tengo woke up his former classmate, the Mayor of Kutaisi, and instructed him to call the flight controllers who would not allow the Wizzair flight to take off until the full group of Tamás Sajó is on board. And everything went well that way…

So I imagine that after the ATM swallowed Lloyd’s card at Saturday dawn, and the emergency phone number rang uninterruptedly and for a long time, without anyone picking it up, therefore you woke up your landlady who started to act in more than one direction. First, to the bank, so the technicians would come and take the card out. Then, to the police, to see if the criminal department had a “specialist” (perhaps in pre-trial detention), who could control such problems with appropriate technical means. And, third, she waited until her grandson woke up, to see whether him or some of his classmates can press a special code or sequence on the ATM, and finally give a well-aimed punch to make the card fall out of the machine.

I don’t want to guess as to which way turned out to be successful in the end, but I think the Gordian ATM surrendered shortly after your departure from Tbilisi and the jolly-joker card was pulled out of it. And all is well, if ends well, the sister of your Tbilisi landlady finally brought Lloyd’s “lucky card” to Kutaisi.

Lloyd only had to reactivate his blocked card at the US bank, which is of course another story…”

Laci’s scenario is based on rule number one of Soviet affairs management, which says that everything can be handled most effectively through one’s contacts. That’s how we started when we asked our landlady to make a phone call to get to the correct phone number, and from there to the promise that they would bring the card to our guest house no later than Monday. But Soviet affairs management also has other rules. For example, when you don’t have contact persons, or when you don’t have the time to wait out while they deal with it in the usual jovial Soviet slowness. Ours was a textbook case because we only managed to handle it with two more such rules.

Saturday was gone, Sunday was gone, Monday morning came, and the card was still not brought to our guesthouse. After some phone calls it turned out that although it was taken out of the ATM on Monday morning, they took it to a specialized branch of Liberty Bank. We have to go after it. We go. The card is there. Lloyd identifies himself. The card is his. It is the most natural outcome that it should be given to him. But no. The Soviet spirit favors communication between institutions over the individual. Lloyd should write a message to his US bank for them to write a message to Liberty Bank that they could give out the card to Lloyd. We try to explain to the miss that it’s five o’clock in the morning in Chicago, and by the time someone reads the message and takes the right step, we won’t be in Tbilisi, maybe even Georgia.

Second rule: you should talk to a post-Soviet official by acknowledging the rule she refers to, but appealing to her human understanding. All this with great patience. Not demanding, like Western tourists who pound on the table in the name of their rights and reason, because with this you ruin everything in an environment where there are neither rights nor reason, and where the table is a hallowed treasure. In this way, you might inspire the person to find a creative individual solution to the problem within her space to maneuver. And usually some is found.

If, however, there is no solution within her room to maneuver, then follows the third rule, где ваш начальник, where is your boss? Not to punish her, but to see if there is a solution within his room to maneuver. Or within his boss’s room of maneuver, выше, всегда выше, higher, always higher, as the Soviet airman’s song says.

Meanwhile, you should not overlook opportunities, as when the miss says “I really can’t do anything, I am so sorry for you”, to retort “feel sorry not for us, but for yourselves. We only lose a card in this Soviet system, but you your whole lives.” For a Georgian, there are few insults like calling their country Soviet, so the miss bites her lip and defiantly keeps trying, to see if she can prove it to the foreigner.

Applying the three rules, we come to a step on the stairway to heaven, where – who knows why and why exactly there – some respective boss already had the room for maneuver that allows him to say, well, make them sign something and give them the card. It took four hours of waiting in the bank to get there.

“Please, do not use this card in our ATMs any more”, the miss hands over the hostage to Lloyd. “I will not”, Lloyd promises it.

We celebrate the success with a typical Georgian delicacy, whose ancient Georgian name is თრდელნიკი trdelník, in Hungarian kürtős kalács, in English chimney cake. This delicacy probably spread to Tbilisi last year, in the year of covid, because I had not seen it before. It is distributed by the Lumier franchise, who have many outlets throughout the city. In contrast to its original Szekler version, whose festive character – as is usual in the poor regions of Transylvania – is created by the sugar sprinkled on the dough, the Georgian version follows the contemporary Prague trdelník, whose chimney these days is often filled with ice cream. The salesman of the Chavchavadze Street outlet knows exactly the Czech, and, further, the Hungarian origin of the confection, correctly pronounces the names of both versions, and happily offers their Georgian descendant to the Prague and Hungarian expats for testing.

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Two weeks later, in the Pushkin Street outlet of the franchise, we are again seduced by a თრდელნიკი. While the boy is filling the chimney, two little vagrants come into the store, like Rimbaud’s bread-seekers, in ragged clothes, with scars caused by an infection on the sheared head of the younger one. They are clearly begging for something. The young man takes two empty ice cream cones, puts two strawberries in each, and hands them to the children. The little clochards happily run out of the store. “You know, the management strictly forbids us to give anything to beggars”, the young man feels necessary to explain, “but well, man is man first, and only then an employee.”

After a while, one sees თრდელნიკი everywhere. For example, on the door of the Vinotheca in Kote Abkhazi Street.

Next part: Kutaisi