Spend a few days in Tbilisi and you’ll start to realise just how integral food is to Georgian life and culture. Nothing says ‘Georgia’ more than a heaving plate of khinkali dumplings, a cheese-stuffed khachapuri and a carafe of amber wine shared between friends.
Maybe ‘fresh’ isn’t the first word I would reach for when describing Georgian food (Heavy? Rich?); but the cuisine is fiercely regional and locally grown/slaughtered/brewed/prepared/pickled ingredients feature prominently in most recipes. One of my favourite dishes is a traditional Georgian salad: thick wedges of cucumber and tomato smothered in a creamy walnut sauce and finished with handfuls of parsley – yum!
Wherever you are in the world, if you want to know more about a place and its people then a visit to the local food market is a good place to start. Spending a few hours wandering around Tbilisi’s largest open-air market is pretty much a necessity if you want to deepen your understanding of Georgian food, and thus culture. It gave me a new appreciation for the quality and quantity of Georgian produce (just wait until you see the colours), and it certainly made me curious to try some lighter, fresher Georgian dishes come springtime.
The Dezerter Bazaar (also called Dezertirebi Bazroba and listed as ‘Desertir Market‘ on Google Maps) covers more than 2,000 square metres. There’s no telling just how many individual stalls and shops fit together to form the Bazaar proper – the scale of it is staggering! The main marketplace underwent a major renovation in the early 2000s and the relatively polished grey-and-peach facade you see today was only finished in 2012. Stallholders were asked to temporarily vacate so that construction works could begin, and apparently many never returned to the new building. Instead, they carved out niches from which to sell their wares in the streets, laneways and carparks around the bazaar and inside an adjacent building, the Central Bazaar. This all adds to the Dezerter Bazaar’s sprawling feel.
GREY AND PEACH. WHEN YOU SEE THIS, YOU’LL KNOW YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT PLACE.
Just like Phnom Penh’s Russian Market, Tbilisi’s Dezerter Bazaar earned its name during wartime: Soldiers absconding from the Russo-Georgian War in the 1920s would offload their weapons and gear at the marketplace, earning it the moniker ‘deserter’. Phnom Penh’s Psar Toul Tom Poung – better known as the Russian Market – owes its English name to the Soviet soldiers who shopped and traded there. It’s still a favourite spot for buying old Soviet coins – and according to some, grenades.
That’s where the comparison between a Cambodian wet market and Georgia’s agrarian Dezerter Bazaar end. A laundry list of what’s available at the Bazaar would be redundant: take a look for yourself in this series of photos I captured on our first visit to the Dezerter Bazaar one Friday morning in March.
You’ll find some practical advice for navigating the Dezerter Bazaar and getting there by public transport at the end of this post.
NAVIGATING THE DEZERTER BAZAAR
It’s hard to know exactly where the Dezerter Bazaar begins and ends. Walking back to our apartment in Tsereteli, we noticed fruit and clothing stalls that continue all the way along the road past the stadium. One market seems to merge into the next.
We’re not actually sure if we got to see all of the Bazaar (it’s that big and confusing), but the parts we did get to were the grey-and-peach-coloured shed (fresh produce at the entrance, a carpark underneath and wholesale fruit market upstairs), the laneways around the bottom of the big shed (selling spices and cheese), and the upstairs section of the building next door, accessible by stairs to the right of the main entrance. This latter part of the Bazaar was a bit more organised and well-kept. If you continue walking along the streets either side of the shed, you’ll also see produce stalls, bread shops and eventually, clothing and shoes.
The Dezerter Bazaar is located north of downtown Tbilisi on the eastern bank of the river, close to Station Square (Tbilisi’s main train station) and the Dinamo Arena. There are lots of ways to enter the Bazaar, but the main entrance is on Tsinamdzgvrishvili Street. To get there, take the metro to Station Square and walk one block west. Buses 33 and 46 from Freedom Square pull up right outside the market at the stop called ‘Tsinamdzgvrishvili Street #135’.
If you’d prefer to let someone show you around the market, Culinary Backstreets run a culinary walk of Tbilisi that focuses on the Bazaar. I can’t personally vouch for this tour, but it has good reviews online.