Too often, city tours are merely elaborations of what you can find in any guidebook. In Georgia, I enjoyed having a local show us major Tbilisi sites like the Narikala fortress, the Meidan, the Abanotubani neighborhood and the Metekhi Church, but the experience I’ll never forget was Rooms Hotel Tbilisi’s private Insider’s Guide tour. No urban explorer should miss it.
Our guide, Alexander, spoke excellent English and showed us numerous places we never would have found on our own, starting with a gorgeous, decaying “Italian courtyard” in the Zemeli neighborhood just off grand Rustaveli Avenue. The wooden spiral staircase connecting the multiple stories of balconies, though apparently still in use, was literally falling apart.
In another hidden courtyard off Rustaveli stood the meticulously restored Gabashvili house, its balconies trimmed with complex, lacy gingerbread. Like many other mansions on Rustaveli, it had been slated for demolition. It was saved only by the efforts of Stalin’s private physician, who was married to the owner’s daughter.
Alexander also took us inside private buildings, including the home of the first British Mission in Georgia and the former Persian and Polish embassies, all now converted into apartments. Clearly, their foyers and staircases were once beautiful, even opulent, but each had fallen prey to neglect. Ceiling frescoes and wall murals had serious water damage, graffiti marred dramatic entry halls and the building where Tchaikovsky once lived leaned at a shocking angle, its walls riven with cracks caused by an earthquake years ago.
The impressive Kalantarov house had fared much better. A wealthy Armenian merchant built the elaborate mansion in the late-19th century for his opera singer mistress. As we admired the colorful, intricately carved plasterwork surrounding the grand entry staircase, a woman of about 75 walked up to us, holding a bag of eggplants. She had lived in the building for decades, and she told us about its history, alas, in Russian. When she realized I had been nodding along without understanding a word, she sighed and disappeared into her apartment. Alexander was starting to translate what she had told us when she returned and presented each of us with a fresh peach.
You can book this private tour whether you stay at the Rooms Hotel or not. It shows another side of Tbilisi from what most tourists see, redolent of romance and melancholy. Just off the major streets, many of Tbilisi’s loveliest buildings are crumbling to pieces, either because their residents don’t have money for basic maintenance or because they’ve been abandoned entirely. Tbilisi is now on the upswing, perhaps more so than at any point since the Communists took over. But for much of the city’s most graceful and elegant architecture, it may already be too late.