After completely succumbing to Armenia and its otherworldly charms, the experience not only made me desirous to return in the near future, it also heightened my curiosity about the Republic of Georgia, the country making up the Northern half of the Caucasus region. Fortunately, music would again prove to be an answer to my prayers and my wanderlust, the driving force returning me to this fascinating region of the world for more concert engagements.
Despite its rather unassuming stature on world maps, the Republic of Georgia is deceivingly large. With its high land elevation and stunning greenery, Georgia has aptly earned the nickname “the balcony of Europe”. Perched high above Eurasia like a lone, bucolic box seat in nature’s finest opera house, Georgia sits, quietly surveying the other countries below it. My entire 5 day sojourn was spent in Tbilisi, the country’s capital. To embrace Georgia fully would have required much more than the 5-day time allotment I had been designated, but I leave you with my impressions.
The name Tbilisi comes from the Georgian word, «Tbli», meaning warm. According to Georgian legend, King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of ancient Iberia, was hunting in the forests near Mtskheta, Georgia’s ancient capital. After some time, the King spotted a pheasant, which he shot and killed, then sent his falcon off to find the prey. After eventually losing sight of his falcon the King and his hunters went off in search of the birds. They eventually came upon a hot source and found both the falcon and the pheasant in its waters. Amazed by this finding, the King decided to found the city of Tbilisi right there, realizing that the location had a great advantage. In addition to the hot sources, Tbilisi’s location had many strategically favorable factors: it was in a protected position between the mountains, and had a location on a trade route. Thus, according to the legend, the city of Tbilisi was founded. The word «tbili» is translated from Georgian as «warm». Therefore, Tbilisi is a city of warm sources.
In stark contrast to Yerevan, Armenia, Tbilisi struck me as being a remarkably modern city. From aesthetic and cultural perspectives, Tbilisi seems to be far more artistic, eclectic and estranged from its former Soviet influences, unlike Armenia, its southern Caucasus neighbour. Proof of this is Georgia’s usage of the Russian language; today Russian is not as widely spoken among younger Georgian generations, greater emphasis is placed on learning English. Russian it is mostly ‘maintained’ by older generations who spoke it prior to 1991 in the USSR. The generic slower pace of life, compounded by the city’s warmth and unhurried nature reminded me a great deal of Southern Spain. Georgian citizens seemed to naturally make more time for eating and socializing and gravitate towards that lifestyle.
On day 1 in Tbilisi, My friend and I lunched at an eclectic American-style bar with a fantastically vibrant collage of famous artists on the restaurant wall. The bar was owned by a jovial Turkish gentleman, who eventually approached us, the obvious foreigners in his restaurant, to inquire about the nature of our visit. After my friend offered him the explanation that I was a classical musician in town for concerts, he immediately pulled up a chair, ordered us more food on the house, and engaged us in a long stirring musical conversation about the famous wall of artists looming above us. In the midst of speaking about jazz, The Beatles, The Clash, or 60’s Turkish music, he would spontaneously pop out of his seat and saunter over to the restaurant’s DJ booth to let us sample music of the various artists he suggested. This meaning, that each of his musical selections blasted through the entire restaurant – even Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik! At the end of our shared meal, our generous restaurateur thanked us graciously for visiting his restaurant, vowed to spread the word about my Tbilisi recital and heartily invited us to return once again before leaving Georgia, promising to prepare any meal for us that we desired.
I neglected to mention earlier that I arrived sick in Georgia, much as I had upon arriving in Armenia. My voice was mostly gone, and I wondered how I was going to address my audience in concert. Fortunately, my voice returned to me somewhat on today of the performance and I decided I would seize the opportunity to speak to my audiences. In retrospect I’m glad that I made that decision but upon watching the video concert playback, I was slightly amused to find that my vocal limitations made me sound somewhat British!
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the delectable Georgian cuisine. 2 particular dishes come to mind: Khinkali (Кинкали), a steamed, meat-filled pastry with a tasty broth and Hachapuri (Хачапури), a flat, pizza-like flatbread with a special supple white cheese. I had a chance to try these twice during my stay. My first dining experience occurred unexpectedly at a Georgian restaurant. It turned out that the concert hall was unavailable for rehearsal the day before my solo recital performance. After walking through a beautiful garden with many large dogs contemplating my dilemma, I suddenly found myself on a lovely narrow frescoed street. I crossed the street, and happened upon a Georgian restaurant – with 2 pianos! Although the restaurant had not yet opened to the public that day for business, the owners warmly welcomed me to come in and rehearse for as long as I needed. Following an intensive rehearsal at the restaurant, complete with appreciative applause from the cooks and waitstaff, my 2 friends and I ordered our meals and had our first taste of the savory and authentic Khinkhali pastries. It was unbelievably satisfying to slurp the hot, soupy goodness out of the unique, Hershey’s kiss – shaped pastry.
My second opportunity to sample fine Georgian cuisine was afforded us by a friend’s grandmother living in the Gdani region of Tbilisi, who lovingly cooked in abundance upon learning that Canadian guests were coming to visit. The entire meal was absolute perfection and, I must confess that, homemade Georgian cooking gained the advantage, bar none.
It was a sweltering 37 degrees outside, on my last day in the city of Tbilisi. I had pent up and expended most of my energy the night before at the concert, and was now physically spent. But I realized this would be a last-chance to explore this historical city before taking a midnight flight to Belarus. We rode a small yellow Tbilisi city bus all the way up the steep winding mountainside to its summit area called “Mtatsminda“, or Mountain Saint. At the top of Mtatsminda is an amusement park filled with rides, small petting zoos, beautiful fountains, more restaurants and some of the most spectacularly scenic views of the entire city.
As we made our descent from the mountain, the warm Tbilisi air was blowing cooler at the bottom and we strolled down the famous Rustaveli Street. I caught a sight of the Tbilisi Opera House and beheld some of the most stunning views of the mountain ranges as the sun began to set over the city.