One Day in Tbilisi

Tbilisi01

Have you ever taken an extended trip by yourself?  I do on a fairly regular basis for work.  I find myself to be an utterly terrible traveling partner.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, though.  I’m different when I’m with people.  I like having a good time with people.  It’s just that it’s not so easy to do that by yourself.  Especially in another country.  A far, far away country.

I woke up in Tbilisi today, already having planned out my day.  I was going to complete the following:

1) Walk a good part of Tbilisi.
2) Have a big damn meal of Georgian food.
3) Buy a postcard for my girls.
4) Ride the gondola up to the top of the hill and take pictures.
5) Buy and consume plenty of Georgian wine.

Scanning the ring of grassy peaks around the town, churches catch the eye as well as the shining monuments left by the Saakashvili administration.  The both loved and reviled wine bottles lying on the side of a hill.  Actually, they are a concert hall and convention center under construction.  With a new Prime Minister in power, some are calling for them to be torn down.  I call them perfectly Georgian.

I paid my three Lari ($2) for a round trip ticket for the gondola that begins just next to the wine bottles and ends at a silver statue of a maiden clutching a bowl in one hand and a sword in the other.  Her features are distinctly Georgian, in my view.  The bowl is raised high while the sword rests just under her waist.  Welcoming but intriguingly dangerous.

Back down at the bottom of the hill I walk through the old town of Tbilisi.  Wooden houses perched next to the river.  The thin wooden columns and picket-type fences that adorn the front seem strangely out of place in this rocky, sulfur aired capital city.  As is, they represent the warm, soft underbelly of a city that has seen countless invasions, sackings and fights regularly to keep its borders intact with varying degrees of success.  Out of place and at home in the same instant.

After looking in vain for the Saturday market that I was told way by the “dry bridge,” I decamp to a restaurant around 3:30 in the afternoon for some classic Georgian Food.  Cozy and hungry in the brick interior, I order veal ribs that sound incredible on the menu.  I neglected to ask the waiter if they were spicy.  Would he even have understood?

I have a 6 hour ride to Yerevan tomorrow morning.  The ribs arrive in a clay pot surrounded by the aroma of the sweetness of the meat and slightly suspended above a bubbling broth.  “I should have asked if they were spicy,” I think as the twinge of spice from the aroma reaches my nasal passages.  I dig in.  One bite and I knew that this dish would not be dinner.  As the meat pulled effortlessly away from the bone, the spice reached my tongue and my mental warning lights flashed.  A 6 hour car ride, across a border, with a belly full of Texas-worthy, spicy ribs?  Not this time.  Maybe next.

I made a strategic retreat to a crispy, flaky plate of traditional khachapuri.  Imagine cheesy bread mixed with saganaki and you have an appropriate approximation.  Three pieces went down with some sort of local Georgian beer and I was off to the wine store to taste the fruits of the land.  It wasn’t the food orgy I had hope for but caution seemed the order of the day considering the schedule for the next.

Wine aged in clay.  That is a typical Georgian method for wine-making.  I haven’t read up on it but I can only imagine that it is a process as old as the Caucuses themselves.  The flavor is completely different than any wine I have tasted.  They also have wines aged by “European methods” but I bought one of the classic wines for my cellar at home.  I’ve never tasted anything like it and likely never will again.

I walked home with a nice buzz adding a cottony warmth to the cool December air.  In front of the old Parliament building, workers were busy stacking the pieces of the Christmas trees that would soon adorn this meeting point of the city.  The denizens of Tbilisi passed buy in a blur of black.  Black shoes, black coats, black hair.  I had taken note of this before setting out and was dressed in the same fashion.  Granted, the graying of my brown hair may have been a tell-tale sign but the headphones in my ears kept all but the most tenacious of street hustlers from noticing me – and me them.

Now, back upstairs in the generic comfort of my hotel, I wish I could travel again out into the city.  Out into the dark streets that I only casually strolled during the daytime.  Into the bars and cafes that looked like they were furbished to match the beauty and mystery of this city.  Just past Freedom Square.  Where the lights glow a pale yellow and the stones of the sidewalks jut up at perilous angles.

This is a city worthy of a family visit.  A long weekend to show my wife and kids that there are no strollers on the street.  Here, mothers carry their children in their arms until they are old enough to walk.  When they can walk they do so.  A different currency and no spaghetti on the menu.  A city under siege.  A city pushing back with all of its might.  And at the same time completely beckoning and welcoming.  Completely different, completely foreign.  Completely Tbilisi.

Enrico Panigl Wine Bar – Vienna, Austria

Enrico Panigl 5

“I’ve got a theory about this place,” I said as I gulped from a tasty glass of Zweigelt.  “What?” said Mrs. NH.  “OK,” I continued, “see that flag under the light over there?  I’m betting P.C.I. stands for ‘partido comunista de Italia’ (said with my Spanish accent – not Italian).  And by looking at the wines, this guy isn’t from Vienna.  He’s Italian.”

Enrico Panigl 3Well, I was right about the flag.  The letters do stand for the Communist party of Italy.  The hammer and sickle kind of tipped me off, too.  And sure enough, the owner spoke Italian to the next guy who came in.  And with a name like Enrico, I’d consider that a trifecta.  Still, my little theory was totally missing the point.  The point was, we had by grace of collective foggy memory and sheer good luck, managed to find the best wine bar in Vienna for the second time.

The “Enrico Panigl” is something of a throwback to a different time.  Not just the flag under yellow light but the bric-a-brac nature of the decor, dark wood, marble bar and candle light.  It’s dark, inviting, cozy and bar-fly-romantic.  Its romance is in the dust on the bottles.  Rustic romantic, not frills and satin.

If you aren’t feeling the atmosphere when you walk in, it won’t take long.  Taking a look up at the beautifully written Enrico Panigl 4chalkboard wine list, you can choose from some of the tastiest (and affordable) wines from Austria, Italy, Spain and Montenegro.  There’s a grape and a character to suit every palate.  On this occasion I think I found at least three wines that were incredibly impressive.

Then there are the bottles lining the walls.  They’re all spent – uncorked, dusty, ageing mementos of revelries long past.  The dates on some of them go back to the 60’s.  Their labels look like yellow parchment stuck to precious vessels of the nectar of the gods.

Adding the last bit to the Enrico Panigl equation are the patrons.  People from all ends of the spectrum seem attracted to this place.  During our brief visit we saw ageing Viennese, a biker couple, an older Italian speaking gentleman that looked like a regular, and a young couple, seemingly on a first date, both from different corners of Europe trying to communicate in English.  Did I mention that people watching is part of the fun?

Enrico Panigl 2Enrico Panigl is one of the truly great bars in Vienna and I’d put it in my top ten bars of the world.  There’s no pretense, just good wine and feeling that you’ve really found a treasure in the middle of Vienna.  Even with communist flag on the wall, the place just feels right.  Hmmm, maybe I’ll ask him about that next time.

Naschmarkt – Vienna, Austria

Naschmarkt Fresh Vegetables

If there’s a place all epicureans should visit before they die, it’s Vienna’s Naschmarkt.  Mrs. NH and I trekked there this past weekend and were blown away by the sheer variety of food on display and for sale.  The market itself is located in the southwest quadrant of the city just outside the middle ring.  It has a pretty rich history, almost as rich and varied as the amount of food that it contains.

We spent at least five hours there on Saturday.  We couldn’t help ogling the fresh exotic vegetables, meats, spices and dried goods of all shapes and sizes.  Granted, we live in Prague where it takes a good deal of searching to dig up anywhere near the diversity of product – not to mention freshness.  However, the vegetables on display at the Naschmarkt look as if they were picked seconds before being put on sale.  The fresh seafood offering there looks as good as any I’ve seen in coastal towns and the variety of cheeses, olives and wine is enough to make all but the most jaded Italian blush.

Now, let’s talk about the pasta.  You may remember that I lamented not having fresh pasta available at the Little Italy Deli down the street from my house in Prague.  Well, there is no such problem here.  There is arugula ravioli, truffle ravioli, fresh tagliatelli, parpadelle, and all other sort of vowel ending pasta that you can imagine.  I’ll admit, for a minute I considered how long the commute would be from here to my Prague office.

Before we drove to Vienna, we were aware of the bounty that awaited us at the Naschmarkt and we arrived with a cooler and made plans with the hotel in advance to reserve a little fridge room.  Beware: the market isn’t open on Sunday so, you’ll need to do all of your shopping on Saturday.  And shop we did:  30 falafels, assorted olives (including pistachio stuffed), gourds, wine, cheese, more Italian olives, pumpkin seed oil, and plenty of drooling over the fresh produce.

Finally, there was a peculiarly Austrian aspect to the market.  About halfway through one of the rows of goodies stood a fellow in a dark suit over barrels of pickles in brine and sauerkraut.  In the 2-3 minutes I watched him, I saw him dig a gigantic wooden spoon in the kraut and offer tastes to passers-by.  Wow.  You don’t see that at Dean and DeLuca.

To me, the market is the highest form of capitalism.  It is all quality product.  Some of it is mass-produced and some of it is real hand-crafted artisan fare.  Still, in this market, there is only the best and quality mass-produced sits happily beside small-batch.  He who ends up winning here is the consumer.  The sheer experience of the market is worth the visit – even all the way from the Czech Republic.

Corazón Loco – Madrid, Spain

Corazon Loco 4Perched on a corner just around the bend from Cava Baja and just up the street from Almendro 13 sits one of the most quintessential Spanish hipster wine bars that I’ve ever seen.  When I say hipster, I must make it clear that I’m not talking about Euro-hipsters – the vapid, label-wearing big sunglass bunch.  By hipster, I mean that its home to young, hip, Madrileños.  The group that congregates at Corazón Loco is a likable crowd. There’s your fair share of piercings and tattoos in the bunch but they’re a congenial lot overall and they won’t stare too hard at a couple gringos and their curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter on a Sunday afternoon after El Rastro.

The requisite chalkboards behind the bar advertise the wines that they have on hand and, as with Corazon Loco 6El Tempranillo, it’s best to go to the bar with a good idea of what you want to order and a good accent.  You can’t go wrong with what they’re pouring so there’s not much to fear.  But man cannot live by wine alone so Corazón Loco also has a good menu of eats on the chalkboard to the left of the bar.  The “Papas Arrugadas” are one of my favorites and are perfect for splitting with some friends while relaxing on the beer keg barstools.  The potatoes themselves are a Canary Islands specialty that come with a green and red sauce that has to be tried to be believed.  Never has a boiled, salted little potato tasted so good.  They’re served with a red “mojo” pepper sauce and a green one that, I believe, is a garlic and cilantro mix.  Everyone ends up liking one over the other but both sauces are super tasty.

Corazon Loco 1In the back of the establishment, there is more of a sit-down restaurant.  It looks cool but I’ll admit, I’ve never been back there.  The front wine bar area is where the action is and the corner location gives one a strategic view of La Latina and all of the goings on in the Costanilla San Andrés.  It’s an inviting atmosphere and one that I return to every time I’m in Madrid.

This place is the real Spain as I remember it.  The Spain before the EU, mass immigration and the Euro.  It’s the Spain that I hope never goes away.