Tbilisoba is one of my favorite events of the year, held on the first, second, or third weekend of October, depending on various factors like sun, moon, and smog alignment. Indeed I was looking forward to it ever since we moved back to this Caucasian wonderland. Back in the day, I remember how it was full of Georgian dance, mtsvadi (Georgian BBQ pork), and cheap wine poured by the liter. Tbilisoba is one part that makes October the best time to visit Georgia in the year, and the other part is the harvest season. A trip to plan to hit both is really the key to a great trip here.
This year 2018 though, I was a little disappointed. It was a lot harder trying to find the more traditional flavors. With the official schedule being more or less vague, we bounced from venue to venue hoping to find some dance or songs, but there was very little of it. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a great weekend, as I don’t often let my expectations get in the way of my enjoyment, especially when there's wine and beer involved.
Searching for the Festival
I had seen a big stage being set up on Rustaveli the other day, so we figured there must be something going on there, despite the lack of information on the website. We’ve kind of both come to expect a lack of information, as Georgians simply like to surprise you at things a lot. I’ve missed a lot of stuff looking at official schedules, and I wasn’t planning on missing some big part of the event this time! Besides that, I had also seen people setting up things in Saburtalo, and that was nowhere to be found online…
That was a bust though. Traffic buzzed along as usual, speeding past a curiously empty stage. Quite the celebration.
We hurried down to the Old Town. We stumbled down the otherwise scenic and beautiful Leselidze Street (these days Google and now tourists call it Kote Apfkhazi Street, but anyone who’s been here longer than Google still calls it Leselidze, and good luck telling a taxi driver "Apfkhazi street"!).
Leselidze with curiously few cars, not sure how I snapped this
Leselidze is perhaps one of the most underutilized streets in the city. It has the most honest and scenic beauty of any touristic street around, with low hanging trees, street-side cafes, a couple of beer gardens, and buskers, but it’s smothered in traffic jams and parked cars advertising tours and massages. It’s really beyond me. It’s not even a main traffic corridor of the city, and if they shut it down people would easily find an alternative route up to Freedom Square (it’s only one lane that barely moves as it is). So personally, I think they should nix the street parking on it, and make it pedestrian only on weekends at least, but that’s just me. Ideally, nix the street parking, expand the pedestrian space, and only ever allow public transit (a future tram?), but I guess my first idea is more practical in the short term.
the market near Chardeni
Not much was happening on Leselidze when we were there. We went down to Chardeni Street, which had a market set up. The market had some stalls of flowers, some tourist trinkets, and honey. It was quite a lovely little area and well set up, and I hope that’s repeated throughout the year. Then to Erekle II, which seems to always be a Georgian festival, and as far as Georgian tourist streets, I’ve got to give that one a huge plus these days.
the always beautiful Erekle II
Now Erekle II is full of chairs, greenery, grapevines, and clay jugs hanging where vines don’t. Really beautiful and scenic, and the music is soft and not overwhelming, just enough to give a taste of atmosphere (while we were there at least). My wife commented, “Europeans seem to prefer here, and Turks and Arabs over to New Tiflis on Aghmashenebeli, weird.” Of course, Erekle II has an older and more authentic look, and has a more laid back atmosphere. New Tiflis is overbearing—loud music pounding everywhere, restaurant hosts assaulting you left and right, and very few spots to catch a breath of relaxation. Is it a cultural preference? I don’t know. It is a ME preference though.
Rike Park was clearly where it was at. We crossed over from the Peace Bridge and found ourselves amongst masses of people. There was a flower market that ran up the center of the park, with the flowers mostly for decorations in people’s hair. That led to a kind of children’s stage, where they did karaoke sing-song dances throughout the day. We avoided that like the infectious hospital, the disease of pounding bass and bad lip-synching was probably worse than anything found in the clinic.
the flower market
There were beer and wine gardens throughout, though strangely it was easier to get a hold of beer than wine. Lots of little areas selling mtsvadi, and for pretty fair prices considering it was a festival, and the mtsvadi we gorged ourselves on was actually better than anything I’ve had at a restaurant. There was in general so much mtsvadi cooking going on, it looked like the place was being gassed or firebombed. This area was perhaps better called the Mtsvadi Festival. I’m not complaining about that either, we need more of those.
the frontlines of the war on pork
So much mcvadi, so little time
One thing I will complain about though was the lack of signage. Where and how to order mtsvadi? How much did it cost? It was all a kind of guessing game until you got to the order taker. And then to find out some places were selling more than just mtsvadi, like xatchapuri and so on! But how to know without signs?
looking at Rike Park from the bridge
From there, we found ourselves at Metekhi Bridge, which was having a car show of sorts. Some old Soviet cars, a bunch of race cars, and some lend-lease WWII era American jeeps. I’m not sure if they were the originals or what, but it gave me a nice feel for the end-scene of my upcoming WWII book that takes place here in Georgia.
some lend-lease love
Meidan Square also had another great market setup that I hope makes seasonal and more common returns. Meidan historically was a market square, the crown of the long Leselidze cough Apkhazi Street once known as the Armenian Bazaar, packed with vendors, tchaixanas, mcvadi cookers, the main artery of the Old Town. The only indication of that history now is a monument to Sayat-Nova in front of the Makhachkala. Now it’s usually a parking lot, and cars continue their carbon spouting trek up the old bazaar street.
Meidan back to its roots
But for a day, some of that spirit had returned to Meidan. Now there was an array of beautiful shelters set up for vendors (not the usual blue burlap I’ve come to know), and the vendors selling quite a diverse array of handmade trinkets, bags, clothes, and so on, where you actually get the feel of a living Georgia and not just things from a Chinese-tourist-factory-vomitorium belted out in Beijing. Here on sale ranged from hipster handicrafts to a couple of tables of wine and a few more of tea and honey. This was either organized or influenced by whoever set up the new market on Rustaveli near the Parliament. A fantastic job.
Finally, we made it over to the bathhouse district, which in the past had been the forefront of traditional dance. When we were there at first, there was some orchestra that seemed to be rehearsing for something. We came back later hoping to catch some flying and spinning Caucasian sword dance, but again was disappointed to see some sort of electro-rap-hop band. They were good, but not quite what we were hoping for (I’ll save my venom on the Tbilisi music scene for another day). There's definitely room in the festival for both though.
the Killages killing it on stage
the bathhouse district with the most beautiful bath exterior
What would have been great, and what I remember from the past, is if they had reserved at least one stage for folk performances. They could highlight folk groups from across the city, country, and perhaps even invite in Azerbaijani and Armenian performers. But that’s just another random thought. But I feel that at an event like Tbilisoba, there should be some sort of historical, folk connection, especially considering how easy of an event it is to showcase Georgian and pan-Caucasian culture to foreigners and tourists.
The next day, we were hoping to catch something on Marjanashvili or Aghmashenebeli Street, but I guess those neighborhoods didn’t get the memo that there was a Tbilisi celebration going on. They were just kind of business as usual. Having been living in Prague for the past four years, we had got a bit spoiled on the Zazit mesto jinak, which would be like “Pragoba” if Prague were a Georgian city. All the different neighborhoods throughout Prague have their own celebrations, and it was a very interesting thing to jump from one festival to the next.
just another day in "New Tiflis"
Imagine in the future a Gldani festival, a Temka festival, an Isani festival… each having live music, wine brought in by the jug, and meat sizzling on shampuris, each with the residents enjoying their lives in those areas, and for a day at least, coming together as a community to celebrate.
Finally we made it back to the Rustaveli stage. Apparently, they had had an unveiling of a statue of the great Georgian composer, Revaz Lagidze, earlier that day at another square near Old Town, and that was our one opportunity for Georgian folk music… but we missed that. Lagidze, for those not in the know, was a Georgian composer of the 20th century who wrote the soundtrack to just about every Georgian-Soviet film. I’m not really sure how to describe his music, it has some of the chaos of Rach, but more lightly touched with jazz, and the chord structures much more Georgian, almost always over-the-top epic and orchestral.
some famous people on a stage
Here’s a song by him that it’s impossible not to hear if you spend a few weeks in the country:
At least we made it to the finale concert, where they had the music of Lagidze played by full orchestra and a showcasing of all the most famous Georgian singers. The concert was oddly set in the middle of Rustaveli Avenue, the main street of the city, with buses and cars roaring by, which I suppose makes a fitting symbol of modern Tbilisi. Traditionally, festivals in this spot would have been located on the more intimate side of Rustaveli with the view of the city, where it was easy to route traffic away from, why the decision to put it in the middle was lost on me. In all, the Lagidze concert was a pretty fitting end to the festival, both thematically and presentation-wise.