Thursday, March 3, 2011

Across the River: Phenomenal Views and Faux-English Tea Houses

I have my haunts. If I'm not in or around Abanotubani, I like to wander through the back streets of Sololaki or up in the crisp mountain passages of Mtatsminda. I take my shortcuts into town through the gardens and crumbling churches of Betelmi, or else I head down Shavteli into the centre of town. Prospero's Bookstore, the Academy of Sciences, and the Opera House represent "the end of town" to me, and Vera, Vake, and Saburtalo are visited on rare occasion when I'm meeting friends in the area.

Full disclosure: I don't particularly like Vake or Saburtalo. I will go to particular restaurants or cafes IN Vake or Saburtalo, on occasion, but I find the chain stores and modern apartment blocks to be a perfect waste of a melancholy-historic-poetic city.

But it's still rare for me to cross the Mtkvari river. There's little there by way of tangible destinations, with the exception of the Sameba Cathedral, the National Music Centre, and the Cafe Flowers, where I am willing to risk regular food poisoning in order to experience this view:

Definitely worth food poisoning.

But, by and large, I tend to avoid crossing the river, which is a great shame. When it comes to long, aimless walks, stretches of Avlabari are some of the most beautiful in Tbilisi* (I once wandered into what appeared to be a pine forest about five minutes from the river, and still for the life of me can't figure out how I got there!) The walk up to Trinity Cathedral is among my favored Saturday-morning activities, and it's a wonderful mechanism for head-clearing and pretending that I'm Exploring Somewhere Remote without running into Ray-Ban stores or Geocell shops.

*Erm, usually: 

I don't often go to the David Agmashenebeli/Marjanishvili area (I avoid McDonalds on principle) - I don't mind it, particularly, but since I do nothing all day but read books and write novels/thesis, I might as well do said nothing in scenic spots.

That said, I had a very curious experience with the English Tea House on Marjanishvili Street. As a sometime-Englishwoman, I have a very precise idea of what an English tea house is. (Beamed ceilings, cramped quarters, heavy wooden tables, a roaring fire, sticky toffee pudding, a panting pub dog, G.K Chesterton smoking a pipe in the corner). This is precisely what the English Tea House isn't. Other than serving Whittard's tea, the English Tea House is, basically, the Anti-England. If it resembles anything English, it's that sort of horrendous "trendy" London chrome-and-glass, cheap-looking "business luxe" hotel my Very English Boyfriend is prone to bemoaning in the same breath as the Blair government and London transport.

It's enormous, drafty, sleek, cold, impersonal, and generally horrid:
Do YOU see a pub dog anywhere?
...and yet, somehow, I love it! I love the rubbishy Whittard's tea, the un-English dessert menu, the uncomfortable chairs! I love curling up with my Agatha Christie novels, ordering an overpriced cup of Earl Gray, and marveling at the hilarious non-Englishness of it all. (That this correlates with an increased self-identification as English is perhaps coincidental).

But I need more reasons to cross the river, friendslist! Send suggestions in my direction!


Saint said...

Still, I still insist on Dimello in Saburtalo (though it's growing expensive for a reason beyond). It's possible to avoid views of chain stores if you take the metro and keep your head down as you pass Nike. Though does it really matter if there are chain stores when they're all Turkish fakes anyway?

And you liked English Tea House? Ungh. I hate that chain (yes, it's a chain, and there's about half a dozen throughout town). Better for you would be Coffee Haus, one such also in Saburtalo on Kazbegi (actually, just walk Kazbegi, more locally owned stores and chains are on that street).

Fleur Flaneur said...

@Saint - "like" isn't quite what I was going for. I recognize that it's rubbish - in terms of value-for-money, decor, and quality - but as a sometime-Englishwoman, I find the whole thing campily hilarious! The English Tea House isn't just not English, it's probably the single most un-English place on the planet! Hence I enjoy the sheer ridiculousness! (if not the 6 lari Whittards tea!)

Although I'm still searching for a proper Old World-esque coffee/tea house that feels European and Melancholy and ideally Viennese. Pur Pur is nice in the afternoons (and its teas are reasonably priced), but not exactly what I'm looking for....

Anonymous said...

Fleur Flaneur - I was looking for contact info for you on this blog but couldn't find so thought I'd just leave a comment. I also live between Oxford and Tbilisi... well, just moved to Tbilisi and will be doing a dphil next year on things related to Russian literature and liberty. Then will be back and forth. Also I was in Syria and Istanbul a couple of years ago (travelled on train from Aleppo to Istanbul - v wonderful). Thought we should meet for coffee if you're game. I'm on nsrandall ~ at ~ - Yrs, Natasha

Anonymous said...

Meant to add about self that I'm a literary translator and writer, married to a Georgian... Natasha