Thursday, May 31, 2012

Not-Horrible Things to Do in London, Part II

London is horrible. Let me establish this from the outset. Nothing will convince me that London is not an overpriced cesspool of filth and stale beer, constituted of identical chain-filled "High Streets" from which it is impossible to travel from one to the other without invariable Tube signal failures (two unplanned last weekend alone), where Health and Safety conspire to ruin any sort of enjoyment of life's myriad opportunities without remotely preserving health or safety, and where sandwiches contain more mayonnaise than filling.

Nothing, that is, except the Victoria and Albert Museum, which single-handedly caused me to research property prices in London for next year before realizing that the Very English Boyfriend and I don't fancy paying 400 quid apiece to share a tiny studio and a single bed in Brent Cross.

Best. Tea Room. Ever.
The V&A is, quite simply, a Best Thing Ever. Not only is it free, gorgeously laid out in a Great Nineteenth-Century Generalist way that allows for a combination of learning and sheer awe at the vast cultural repository of beauty the monarchy's managed to build up over the years. The VEB and I accidentally wandered into an expertly-given free tour entitled "Sex, Love, and Death in the Middle Ages" ("Super!" crowed the VEB, before making quietly English remarks about Sir Gawain and the plot of Hamlet - there are few places where being a Medievalist-turned-Shakespearean-actor is more useful than on a "Sex, Love, and Death in the Middle Ages" Tour at the V&A. In fact, it may be the only place being a Medievalist-turned-Shakespearean-actor remotely useful.) It was remarkable not only for the wealth of facts, but also guide's wonderful MiddleclassEnglishness ("should we be talking about sex on Sundays?")

Also, there is This Tea Room, which has £2.50 cappucinos and £5 cream teas (reasonable for South Kensington, slightly higher than Oxford prices), and looks like the Pera Palace on crack. It's not just the sort of place to write a novel. It's the sort of place to write a bloody epic.

It must have been the sun, however, because apparently the whole weekend consisted of Not-Horrible Things in London (tube delays excepted). The area around Mile End Tube Station is quite beautiful (we found a gorgeous Gothic church tucked away behind a residential street), unlike the seedy Bethnal Green - despite smelling like beer, Roman Road is filled with exciting second-hand shops (promising shoes, not my size) and a market that feels like a cross between Palermo and Istanbul (even if it gives the VEB agoraphobia), and Victoria Park has a marvelously inventive children's adventure playground that I very nearly started clambering on!

But that wasn't all! (What, you say? More nice things in London?) We also discovered that Shoreditch, once the site of one of our most disappointing nights out of all time (ten pounds for mediocre cocktails in a 1920's-themed "decadence" bar filled with staggering hen-nighters) is actually not that bad, despite being uniformly filled with hipsters sporting grubby fur coats, bright red lipstick, and no pants. We found an eclectic used booksale in front of Shoreditch Church, sat outside (!) drinking free refills of coffee at retro pancake house (and VEB's new "best thing in London") Love Shake.

But perhaps our Very Best Thing in London (other, of course, than the V&A) was our inaugural visit to Hampstead Heath, one of the few London parks that doesn't feel depressingly manicurized. Enormous, sprawling, and possessed of a SWIMMING POND (albeit a rather small one you, predictably, have to queue for), Hampstead Heath lured us all the way from Debden for two visits in two days! It has grass, sunshine, a gorgeous pergola, and DEER in Golders Hill Park! FUZZY DEER! IN A DEER PARK! (along with a confused-looking rhea that isn't sure whether or not it's a deer)

Such a weekend would have been perfect had we been able to conclude it with falafel at Golder's Green. However, it was Shavuot, and we arrived to find everything remotely Hebraic in a two-mile radius closed...

Fleur's Verdict: London is not horrible in small doses, as long as it's sunny and the Tube doesn't break down and you don't have to eat anything. The V&A is amazing. Hampstead has a Hungarian patisserie. You can buy comfortable shoes for three pounds on Bethnal Green Road. The Overground is preferable to the Tube. People in Shoreditch don't wear any trousers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"New Sensations, Strange Sensations" in Armenia

Sweets shop on Mashtots
I was not initially drawn to Armenia. Yerevan has nothing of Tbilisi's beauty or mystery - although, apparently, it has plenty of Farsi advertisements for strip clubs and women in six-inch heels - and the austere stone style of the churches (stark, unpainted, resisting any distraction from the adoration of God) less to my fanciful/baroque tastes than the mosaics of Byzantium or the frescoes of Rome. The city centre of Yerevan is small, ruthlessly modern, and relentlessly cool in a manner not unlike the less salubrious, oligarchs-playing-pool bars of Chardini Street. The much-vaunted "cafe culture" I was told was a hallmark of Yerevan's social scene turned out to be infinitely less charming than that of Sololaki or Kala.

Cafesjian Museum
I don't like to use the phrase "European" on this blog - it's silly and reductive and largely meaningless. But whatever magic Tbilisi has - smoky and melancholic and filled with boulevards and alleyways, in some cultural communion with cities like Vienna or Budapest - Yerevan lacks it. It's infinitely shinier and more "modern" and possesses more chain stores (and a Debenham's, for goodness' sake!), but there's very little sense there of a shared (art nouveau, dreaming gargoyle, crumbling facades) aesthetic with that part of Europe to which I, at least, am most drawn. It's that peculiar contrast that does it for me in Tbilisi - not a facile mix of East and West so much as a fusion between fairyland and melancholy, between the rosy sunrise pastels of the Betelmi houses against the hard emerald of the Narikala hill, the sense of bright promise that comes from waterfalls and carpet-shops and the balconies of the Old and the lonelier, richer walks I take through Mtatsminda and Sololaki, listening at splintered windows to out-of-tune pianos, looking for gargoyles.

I couldn't find that in Yerevan. There were a few excellent things in Yerevan - a dried-fruit-and-nut shop about halfway down Mashtots Avenue (on the right, facing the Opera), the Cafesjian Museum, which rivals the Museumsquartier in Vienna as one of the most impressive uses of art-museum-public-space I've seen, a sculpture exhibit above a souvenir shop on Abovian Street - haunting, puppet-like mechanically moving sculptures by Karen Baghadasarayan, who is, along with Merab Abramishvili, one of my favourite post-twentieth-century artists (the Caucasus overall, I've found, is infinitely superior to the US/UK when it comes to innovative, exciting, well-crafted contemporary art). Also, Armenian pomegranate wine (and Easter fruit pilaf, cooked by our excellent guesthouse hostess, who seemed to be under the impression that my friend Caitlyn and I were having a torrid lesbian affair).

But the most striking part about my visit to Armenia - that which makes the country a necessity to visit - was my trip to Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple (the former, a largely thirteenth-century cave monastery; the latter, a rebuilt Roman-era pagan temple), both of which were overwhelming, overpowering, striking in their austerity.

Geghard - with its stone lions, echoing chambers, secret doors, and slices of sunlight - hasn't suffered the way Georgian churches have from the decay of frescoes - it's been continuously bare since its construction. The divine presence here, for me, was very much the Old Testament God - enormous, awesome and terrible in the oldest and best senses of the world: wrathful and yet just. (The Jew in me responds all too well to that conception). It's rough and uncompromising and great in a way that puts all my High Church smells and bells to shame.

So too Garni - the sort of quasi-pagan ruin that - situated overlooking what can only be a vast Romantic chasm, fills me with giddy faux-classicist delight (there's even ruins of a house with mosaic floors!). It's one of the few places in all of the Caucasus where I've felt Not the melancholy of Mtatsminda, not the glorious ugliness of Perovskaya, not the all-too-easily-won beauty of Betelmi - where I do, sometimes, feel like I'm in a self-indulgent holding pattern - but some strange communion with everything atavistic and ancient and prophetic.

I'm always looking for that in the Caucasus. Something to get me outside myself, to free me from my mental repository of comparisons, from that endless self-reflection that separates me from geniune, immediate experience.

I could say I found it there, but it wasn't quite by chance. The Armenian government, apparently, was piping in gloriously subtle Armenian folk music via loudspeaker. I may have been subliminally brainwashed towards ecstasy.

Fleur's Verdict: Yerevan worth it for a half-day of modern-art-scouting; Geghard and Garni unmissable sights of a lifetime.

Where to Soak in Abanotubani

credit to panoramio user Asfur_foreveR

The first time the Very English Gentleman and I attended a private bath in Abanotubani, we expected something out of an Orientalist fantasy: coloured marble, doe-eyed masseuses, steaming pools, pearls in vinegar - and so forth.

What we got, naturally, was a horrid subterranean 25-lari room with yellowed white tiles and the distinct smell of rotten eggs.

This was, thankfully, an anomaly. While the blue bathhouse seems to have quite a big jump between the 25-lari rooms (horrid) and the 45-lari rooms (genuinely incredible, and very good for the price), and the Royal Baths are likewise similarly fantastical for 50-60 lari, I have since discovered that, for 25 lari a room, I can attend the nicest bathhouse of all.
Unlike the others, the Synagogue Bathhouse (not its real name, but it looks rather like a Moorish synagogue) is located up the hill from Abanos Qucha, on Grishashvili Street (the public entrance is located beneath the archway; the entrance for private rooms is around the corner, past the "Bohemia" sign). It's very slightly less exquisite than the blue-tiled palaces at the Royal Baths, but more than charming, and the tea room (picture above) looks like a terminus of the Orient Express, if said terminus also had Georgian soap operas blaring on television in the background. Tea is 5 lari and comes with fruit candies; massages and scrubs are the standard 10 lari each, and may be performed by naked Soviet shotputters. Manicures and pedicures are also available.

I've taken to going alone, bringing a luxurious book (best choice yet, Mme de Stael's Corinne, possibly my favourite book of the year so far), drinking tea, and wallowing in self-indulgence.

Combine with a visit to either the elaborate but seldom-open Persian Chaikhana at number 14 Grishashvili St, the less-elaborate but reliable Azeri Chaikhana next door.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Q&A Time: Kakheti

There's a very good reason I haven't been blogging lately.
Twins Old Cellar, Kakheti
I've been having Georgian (and Oxonian) adventures - which unfortunately have piled up so astoundingly that I've been afraid of tackling the ever-growing list of sites I need to cover on the blog (large posts planned for Armenia, Kazbegi, Kakheti, as well as for Non-Horrible Things to do in London - Redux; shorter posts planned for Bath House Price Comparisons, reviews of new restaurants, and my finally-perfected Georgian Lobio Abroad Recipe).

Yet, at the urge of these slightly ridiculous letter-writers (who may or may not be Kierkegaardian pseudonyms), I will write about Kakheti.

Dear Fleur,
I am a womanizing baritone with an effectively comic sidekick seeking a charming country in which to have fireside meals, sequester myself away from civilization, meet brigands, fight duels, and avoid living statues. Is there anywhere in Georgia that might suffice?

Dear D.G.,
Like the tragic antihero of any good opera, I too have been in search of the ultimate Duel-Fighting Country Inn. Luckily for both of us, I have found such a place - the Twins Old Cellar Winery in Napareuli, Kakheti (one of the few Kakhetian towns not to resemble Lego blocks of concrete, a bucolic and donkey-filled village on the outskirts of Telavi). For 50 lari a night, plus modest food costs (order in advance), you too can sit in a private barn-turned-dining room before a blazing fire, eating enormous khinkali and perhaps the best lobio in Georgia, drinking homemade wine, and pretending that it is the late eighteenth century. Be sure to bid hello to the unimpressed-looking cat.

Dear Fleur,
I am a diagnosed antiquophile, and get a particular frisson of delight from encountering Proper Ruins. Where in Kakheti should I go?

If you are wise, you will consider hiring a car and guide/driver (75 lari a day through the Cellar) -  the smaller sites of Kakheti are not well served by public transport, and many of the best sites are all-but-absent from published guidebooks. While Gremi is satisfactory and Shuamta thrilling remote, any true ruiniste should head for Nekresi, a marvelous operational monastery consisting of a range of buildings from the 4th-16th centuries located at the summit of an hourlong mountain climb, which also affords views of the various pagan temple foundations below.

If you, like me, spent your childhood bouncing up and down and clambering on Old Things (until I was five, I didn't realize that the "playground' my mother took me to was in fact the ancient Roman Forum, which then had fewer "don't play on the columns" rules), you will also thrill at Ikalto (former academy of the famous Shota Rustaveli, as well as - according to our guide - a sign of the Georgian trend towards democratization of education: the cleverest boys, regardless of background, were admitted). Kvevri wine, climb-able ruins, and best of all - adorable cows.

Dear Fleur,

Where should I go in Kakheti for a genuine religious experience?

Any tour of Kakheti worth its salt will likely take you to Gremi, to Alaverdi, and to other storied sites, most of which are largely bereft of remaining frescoes: a testament to a history of metaphorical and literal whitewashing that, in turn, brings home the dizzingly fantastical nature of encounting Georgian history: when so much has been destroyed (pictoral evidence, historical writings...whole chronicles of culture), what is left becomes nebulous; history becomes ripe for re-invention. Out of tragedy comes masquerade. (Apparently, according to my guide, the Georgians are the spiritual inheritors of the Greeks!)

Olga's is the treehouse.
But after a day spent experiencing pangs of saudades for the empty spaces on church walls, the sight of the nineteenth-century frescoes at Bodbe monastery - bright, overpowering, and above all things present - is overwhelming. It's so easy to get used to frescoes in their half-destroyed state - faded, nostalgic, vaguely wistful - that to see them as they're meant to be seen: alive with color, defiant, brilliant (like, in that sense, Greek statues that retain their paint) is enough to provoke a heightened spiritual/religious response.

This should be contemplated over the most excellent wine I've ever tasted (the red tastes like chocolate) for about 5 lari a glass from Olga's Guest House and Cafe in Sighnaghi, which is now actually inhabited, rather beautiful, and hence no longer resembles a Disney Paradise. Two years ago, I found Sighnaghi lifeless and soulless; now, however, it is the ideal place for a spiritual retreat.