Friday, August 31, 2012

New Guide Live - "Weekend Break: Tbilisi" over at Unanchor Travel Guides

I enjoyed ringing up Rod McLaughlin from the Azumano Travel Show on Portland's KPAM radio for an interview about my latest articles for the Huffington Post on Tbilisi and Batumi, part of a series of interviews I'll be doing for KPAM Portland on travel in Georgia.

For you early birds out there, the show airs this Saturday Sept 1 6:00 am Pacific Time (that's 9:00 am EST) on Portland's AM860 (or live here), with a repeat on Sunday Sept 2 at 11:00 am Pacific/2:00 pm ET. Will do my best to upload the audio to my website following the airing of the interview.

Taking a city break in the Caucasus? My new Unanchor weekend guide to Tbilisi - Georgia's romantic capital - covers everything from the decaying grandeur of the Sololaki district to the trendiest nightclubs in the shadow of the Narikala Fortress - is now for sale from Unanchor Travel Guides for just $4.99

(As, as always, my professional website can be found here.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Batumi Article Up over at the Huffington Post

Georgia's Black Sea Playground

Two years ago, the port city of Batumi, Georgia's pastel-colored playground on the
Black Sea Coast, was hardly postcard-worthy. The cobblestone streets were almost uniformly obstructed by rubble, the splendid art nouveau facades hidden beneath layers of scaffolding, plastic sheeting, and an ever-present coating of grime. The few high-end hotels dotting Batumi's main boulevard, which juts out onto a flotsam-dense and particularly oily attempt at a beach, seemed designed for the well-compensated mistresses of oligarchs, a seedy ethos that trickled down to the more economical accommodation options: No sooner had I left the lobby of our ramshackle courtyard hotel than my boyfriend received -- to his superbly Anglo-Saxon befuddlement -- an impromptu lap dance from a member of hotel staff. I warned all my friends and acquaintances passing through the Caucasus that Batumi's place on the international resort roster was just below Blackpool. But this summer, I find myself issuing a complete retraction.... Read more at the Huff

 And for a bit more shameless self-promotion, I now have a real-live professional website, here! For all your novelistic editing/ghosting/freelancing needs!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Breaking and Entering: The Tbilisi State Academy of Arts

Note - this new series of posts follows Tbilisi's interior hidden treasures - entry halls, courtyards, and other secrets that can be accessed with a simple push of a door.

I'd always thought that the most beautiful entry-hall in Tbilisi was the ornate pink Moorish one in the building at the corner of Asatiani and Machabeli Street. However, an accidental wander into Tbilisi State Academy of Arts at 22 Griboedov St in Mtatsminda, a mad combination of William Morris wallpaper, gilded carvings, and a few stray stone lines, may cause me to revise that theory. As in most Tbilisi entry halls, nobody much seemed to mind (or much notice) our presence. Some of the more beautiful rooms (which I've found in online archives) are closed off - the entire building is poised to implode into ruins at any moment. But what's still accessible - palatial art-nouveau-meets-orientalist-fantasy - is among the most beautiful examples of architecture in Tbilisi.

(Note - I didn't have a camera when I went in - all photos are internet-sourced)

Historical information about the building - (sourced from the TSAA website). It was apparently designed as a palace in the nineteenth century by one G. Ivanov, before being restored in the twentieth by its owner, Nino Kobulashvili, to a design by Simon Kldashvili. In the late nineteenth century the building was known as "Tbilisi Club" - and was home to a number of amenities, among them libraries, billiard-rooms, and performance halls - only to become an arts school in 1922. An appeal for restoration funding - along with some stunning archival photos - can be found here.

Also notable - if slightly less sumptuous - is the Academy outpost at the Toidze Building, located at 21 Chonkadze Street, into which I wandered on a couple of previous occasions, and which is famous for having the most utterly dangerous-looking steampunk spiked chandelier I'd ever seen (and for being all-but abandoned and hence more prone to chandelier collapse than the Opera Garnier.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where to Write a Novel in Tbilisi: Book Corner

I probably shouldn't write a review of Book Corner, my official new favourite cafe in Tbilisi. The last few times I've written about a favourite cafe in Tbilisi (to wit: Caravan, Tashkent, the Abano St branch of Nero, and my all-time favorite Near Opera), they've closed down within months. But Book Corner, a characteristically bizarre, artfully mismatched collection of typewriters, upside-down umbrella, upright pianos, gramophones, modern art, antique chairs (and, in typical Tbilisi fashion, almost no books) tucked into a side street in the heart of Vera, deserves a much wider audience. Less slick than Moulin Electrique or Literaturuli, less horribly smoky and hipster-crowed than Salve, Book Corner is the closest thing I've found to an Old World Viennese cafe in Tbilisi. Its furniture is properly old, rather than suspiciously shiny; the ceilings are high and the decor is reasonably simple, giving the interior the atmosphere of a particularly bohemian dowager's living room. (The terrace is, by contrast, utterly bizarre, and largely occupied by murals of various writerly quotes and a ceiling fashioned from colorful inverted umbrellas). The bill comes in an old photograph box and the menu contains several varieties of cake, as well as proper food.

The proprietress is absolutely lovely (She remembered me and the VEB after a single visit!); there is wifi; all these are amenities necessary to a Local Haunt. But what makes Book Corner utterly delightful (other than the marvelous paradox of being a largely bookless bookshop) is its genuine secret-hideaway feel, something that's largely absent from both the posh eateries of Vake and the rather glitzified cafes in the old town.

Increasingly, my own geographic sympathies are likely moving in the direction of Mtatsminda (perhaps the only part of Tbilisi I prefer to Sololaki) and Vera - between this cafe, the nearby Uzbek restaurant Ferghana/Asian Town (replacing the departed Tashkent with a slightly less "mother's kitchen" vibe and insanely friendly and charming waiters), the German beer garden, and the as-yet-untested Tarkhinshvili branch of Literaturuli, nearly all my favorite cafes are (alas) an hour's walk from my house.

Book Corner is located at 13b Tarkinshvili St (the second street to the left as you take Melikishvili past the Philharmonic). The entrance is not on the street itself but rather on the side-street just to the right of the main street. Ferghana is located the next street towards Vake (Janashia St) at the top of the hill.

Find me at the Huffington Post!

Yes, that's right, Fleur Flaneur's expanding her Internet horizons. I'll keep posting here (probably adhering to a new schedule of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday updates), but some slightly tidier journalism of mine (under my real-life name) now appears at the Huffington Post!

When Off The Beaten Path Becomes Mainstream: Rediscovering A 'Discovered' City In Tbilisi, Georgia

A few nights ago, at an Ossetian dive bar in the heart of the Tbilisi's historic district, my long-suffering English boyfriend was forcibly (if amiably) abducted by a table of Georgian men who insisted on testing his Anglo-Saxon constitution with copious amounts of cha cha (essentially gasoline schnapps). They had grown up nearby, on the street on which I now live. Their ringleader had emigrated to Strasbourg; this was his first visit back in 10 years.
Together they toasted and drank and sang along to gloriously kitschy folk songs and celebrated the old coterie come together again; they celebrated wine and women and the street on which they had lived. I -- an expat with a respectable command of Georgian and the ability to hold my cha cha -- was just along for the ride.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Retraction: Batumi

A few months ago I posted in no uncertain terms that the Black Sea port city of Batumi was a seedy, filthy, gloriously miserable conglomerate of prostitute-hunters, truck-drivers, and oligarchettos looking to play "master of the universe" at seaside nightclubs only slightly marred by oil spills and washed-up jellyfish.

I was wrong. Gloriously wrong.

When I decided to stop in Batumi for the afternoon en route from Mestia (the new road gets from Svaneti to the seaside in five hours flat - vastly preferable to a day's layover in lush but utterly dull Zugdidi), I did so on the expectation that I'd be shutting my eyes, avoiding the probably-insalubrious Glamour Elit Exclusiv Premium tower-block hotels (general Georgia assumption: the more a hotel attempts to convince you that it caters to an exclusive set of well-heeled individuals, the more likely it is actually a roach-teeming brothel), and engaging in a series of quick Black Sea dunks while avoiding radioactive poisoning.

Instead, I found that in the past few months, the reconstruction of Batumi and the renovation of its historic districts has been so utterly tasteful, whimsical rather than tacky, that the city feels less like Trabzon and more like - well - Trieste. The old town now suggests faded grandeur rather than post-Soviet kitsch: the newer buildings serve to highlight the fin de siecle feel of the art nouveau townhouses rather than negate them (the most successful new architecture is that that's willing to wink and nod at its balmy playground past - displayed here). Cafes are no longer empty battlegrounds in which to stare down sullen waiters in a desperate attempt to get a glass of milk (an "Irish coffee," however, still consists of dumping cointreau into an Americano, much to the chagrin of the VEG) - seaside cafes like Nostalgia and Cinema sport artfully mismatched antique furniture and jazz-fusion soundtracks. The seaside boulevard is youthful and thoroughly Mediterranean: packs of Georgian teenagers linger under archways and against colonnades, engaging in a subtle yet intricate form of ritualized wandering I haven't seen since I was a teenager in Rome, trying desperately to understand why on earth my friends were aimlessly meandering around the Campo dei Fiori instead of actually sitting down somewhere.

Tbilisi is Central European, melancholy, filled with gargoyles and ghosts. But Batumi is Mediterranean, colorful, joyful and utterly alive. Its old town (a meandering collection of piazzas and outdoor cafes, vine-tangled windows revealing moldy chandeliers, pink and yellow houses with still-smiling cherubs carved into the doorframes) is a stately pleasure dome - recalling Rivieras and forbidden love affairs and everything that easily-shocked nineteenth-century novelists associate with summertime playground resorts. (Think Eliot's Baden-Baden and Proust's Balbec and something clever out of Tolstoy all in one).

Which is to say, the prostitutes are better-hidden now.

(The beach at Gonio is still lovely and largely empty on a late-July weekday, and the intense chromatic green of the Adjaran mountainside largely distracts from the few distressingly concrete hotel-block-towers.)

LINK: Petre Otskheli at the National Gallery

I've put the blog ever so slightly on the back burner over the past month, in part because I've been working on a number of Tbilisi-related travel articles for additional publications. The first of these extra-blog projects - a review of the Petre Otskheli retrospective at the National Gallery over at Kunstpedia - has hit the press:

Staging Alienation: Petre Otskheli at Tbilisi's National Gallery

For the ill-starred heroes of Greek tragedy, the life of the individual was a study in alienation: the self, whether Oedipus or Antigone, forever caught in the meaningless machinations of quibbling deities or subdued by the incomprehensible decrees of Fate. So too for one of Georgia's greatest modernists, Petre Otskheli (1907-37), the theatrical wunderkind whose creative partnership with Kote Marjanishvili, director of the avant-garde Marjanishvili Theatre, was cut short by the terrors of Stalin’s Great Purges. Otskheli’s phantasmagoric collection of stage sets and costume designs, currently on display through September 7 at Tbilisi's National Gallery, suggest an equally grim picture of the plight of man. Trapped in increasingly geometric worlds of sharp angles and collapsing shapes, dwarfed by swaths of fabric that grotesque distort the body's silhouette, Otshkheli's characters, from the battered Othello to the imperious Beatrice Cenci, contend with a surreal landscape that is at once profoundly Classical and, in its nods to Art Deco and expressionism, thoroughly twentieth-century.

The blog will return to full functionality in the coming weeks, with profiles of the new Best Cafe to Write a Novel in Tbilisi (following the heartbreaking closures of Near Opera, Caravan, and Tashkent), a full retraction of anything bad I might ever have said about Batumi (since restored to fin de siecle glory as a result of some long-overdue renovations), and profiles of Svaneti and Khevsureti - the latter perhaps the most beautiful place in Georgia.