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Tbilisi is the Georgian metropolis of contrasts. Here, tradition and modernity meet and merge into a vibrant, creative mixture. Wine plays an enormously important role here. Raffaella Usai reveals what wine fans should definitely not miss.

Departure 10 p.m.! The unspeakable flight times of the only direct connection from Munich don't exactly make the journey to Tbilisi pleasant. But when I catch sight of the outline of the Caucasus on the horizon during the landing approach at five o'clock in the morning local time, i.e. three o'clock in Germany, I am wide awake. Georgia! Rarely have I looked forward to a trip so much.

Harrowing contrasts fly past my eyes on the taxi ride: Run-down barracks, grey prefabricated buildings from Soviet times, a lot of broken-down building fabric, in between always neon signs from fast food giants like Wendy's or McDonald's. Here, East and West meet brutally.

I already have the city map in my head. Sololaki, Wera, Saburtalo: I know these neighbourhoods from the novels of Nino Haratischwili, which aroused my curiosity about this city. The terrific storyteller Nino brought her hometown Tbilisi, as the locals call it, to life in me long before I decided to make this trip.

Ajapsandali is a Georgian classic © Raffaella Usai

Symbol of dynamism and industrial charm

My first lunch takes me to Café Stamba, part of the 5-star hotel of the same name: a city hotspot - and a must-see. What owner Temur Ugulava has done with the former publishing house is impressive. The industrial aesthetic with high ceilings, raw concrete and unplastered brickwork is a tribute to the past, while new touches give the hotel a contemporary-urban character. The five-storey atrium, planted with climbing plants, is reminiscent of a greenhouse and has jungle character: design and architecture fans will get their money's worth here.

The menu is manageable, with classic Georgian dishes according to the "from farm to table" concept predominating. The ajapsandali, an aubergine stew with peppers and fresh herbs, and the tomato salad with sulguni, a cheese similar to mozzarella, are delicious. The Quevri white wine Tsolikouri combined with this is a perfect lunchtime wine with its light tannin, minerality and distinct citrus notes.

From Rustaveli Boulevard to the Old Town

From Café Stamba it is only a few minutes' walk to the famous Rustaveli Boulevard, the city's boulevard that leads to Freedom Square. Named after Georgia's national poet Shota Rustaveli, it has been the scene of political upheavals, brutally crushed uprisings and peaceful revolutions. The Georgian Parliament, the State Picture Gallery as well as the Opera and the Rustaveli Theatre are located here.

I drift towards the old town. In front of a shopping centre that might as well be in Manhattan, street vendors on rickety prams offer "churchela", traditional sweets that look similar to hand-pulled candles. Some visitors compare Tbilisi to Berlin in the 1990s: a spirit of optimism and creativity are tangible everywhere. The city's cultural and music scene is alive and kicking, as is the ever-changing gastronomy.

Wine tasting with language seminar

Lured by the well-filled terrace, I enter the wine bar Vinoground near the Sioni Cathedral. Two tourists are sitting at a table, tasting wines. After a short small talk, I curiously join them, have them bring me a few glasses and explain. Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Khikhvi: I try to pronounce the grape varieties on the labels correctly, much to the amusement of the sommelier, who patiently corrects me. Georgian is, after all, a thing of its own. Only four million people worldwide speak the South Caucasian language, it has its own alphabet and a beautiful script - but it is impossible for Europeans to decipher it.

Owner David Dukashvili is a passionate host © Raffaella Usai

Shabby outside, inviting inside

A hidden gem is Café Chaduna in the old town, a tip I got from a local. It is located in an old building that, like so many houses in Tbilisi, gives a run-down impression. At first I am sceptical. But owner David Dukashvili has managed to turn this place into something special. At Chaduna you can have breakfast, eat a few snacks - and above all drink wine.

David takes almost two hours to taste with me. In the process, he pulls out one surprise after another. His knowledge of Georgian wines is enormous and there are extremely exciting wineries among them that I had never heard of before. A real insider tip!

The Mother of Georgia watches over her city © Raffaella Usai

The mother of Georgia also drinks wine

From the old town, I climb the countless steps to the monumental statue Kartlis Deda, in German: the Mother of Georgia. Since 1958, she has been enthroned on the Sololaki mountain ridge and watches over the city. The fact that wine plays an important role in Georgia is also visible here: Kartlis Deda holds a bowl of wine for the friends in her left hand, a sword against the enemies in her right.

The climb in 36 degrees in the shade is arduous and my water bottle is already empty halfway up, but it is worth it. From up here you have a breathtaking view of the city. From the statue, a panoramic path leads over to Nariqala Fortress, the most important medieval castle in Georgia, and behind it, the small alleys lead downhill to the Abanotubani bathing district. The famous sulphur baths with their hot springs offer an unusual wellness experience!

Natural wine mecca

Later in the evening, head to the city's best-known wine bar, Vino Underground in the old town, just a Katzensprung from Freedom Square. This small, brick-lined wine cellar is a cult site of the natural wine scene and is run by a collective of Georgian winemakers. Before the bar opened in 2012, you couldn't drink traditional Qvevri wines practically anywhere in Tbilisi, this is where it all started. Since the staff is very well connected in Georgian wine community, you can get a lot of expertise and great insider tips here on request.

At the Vinotel, guests are welcomed with great attention to detail © Raffaella Usai

Nomen est omen

Crossing the Peace Bridge, completed in 2010, I reach the left side of the Mtkvari River and walk through Rike Park to the hotel-restaurant Vinotel. Named "Best Boutique Hotel in Georgia" in 2017, Vinotel is not only a popular spot for stars and starlets, but also houses an impressive wine cellar with a first-class selection of Georgian and international wines.

In the adjoining restaurant, you can enjoy typical Georgian cuisine - from khachapuri to pelamushi - at a high level. Highly recommended!

Casual atmosphere at Fabrika © Raffaella Usai

Meeting place for the creative

Also on the left bank of the river is the Fabrika cultural centre - hub of the city's creative avant-garde. Today, graphic artists and architects, designers and artists meet in the former Soviet clothing factory for rooftop yoga and workshops. The "Fabrika" is the right place to immerse yourself in Tbilisi's dynamic and innovative scene. There are various bars and cafés, and you can also stay cheaply in the integrated hostel. Every year in May, the Natural Wine Fest takes place here, where the wine community meets.

I'll be back soon

My taciturn taxi driver takes me back to the airport after three exciting days. It is the middle of the night. As I take off, the sun rises over Tbilisi. I am happy. And my thoughts are already on my next trip to Georgia.

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