Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
UPDATE 6/4/20: Eager to revive its tourism sector, the country’s government says it plans to reopen to international travelers on July 1. Officials have brought in a three-stage “anti-crisis” plan, which includes a marketing campaign designed to promote Georgia as a “safe destination.” The next stage will allow for domestic travel in special “safe” tourism zones, while the final stage involves reopening borders and resuming some flights.
“What is there to see?” That was the most frequent question when I told people about my upcoming trip to Georgia—the country—and T’bilisi, its capital. This sentiment is understandable given that Georgia began to emerge on travelers’ maps a mere fifteen years ago after the Rose Revolution of 2003. The unique beauty of the country had therefore become a well-kept secret that leaked to the West only sporadically. In one such case, John Steinbeck reported from his Eastern European tour in 1948 that people were describing to him “the country in the Caucasus and the Black Sea…” as “…the second heaven.”
If you travel around Georgia, you will quickly appreciate what Steinbeck’s sources meant. Despite being small by world standards, the country’s landscapes are extraordinarily diverse—from snow-capped mountains and deep valleys to vineyards, forests, deserts, and beaches. To many visitors, the depth of Georgia’s cultural heritage will come as a shock—you can see cave monasteries, churches on hilltops, massive fortresses and experience a unique cuisine and wine-making tradition that both go back millennia. No wonder you need about two full weeks for a thorough tour of just the country’s highlights. T’bilisi is a good place to start exploring Georgia and during my June trip to the country, I set aside two days to get to know the capital.
Each city has its own “first awe” spot—the kind of place from where you not only appreciate the first majestic panorama, but also feel connected to the city. T’bilisi has such a spot on Metekhi Bridge that links Maidan Square in the Old Town to Europe Square in the Metekhi neighborhood. It crosses the Mtkvari River, which meanders around rocky ridges, in the backdrop of steep and forested mountains. This geography does not seem like a natural place to build a metropolis, as noted by Boris Pasternak, another Nobel Laureate enchanted by Georgia. One of Pasternak’s poems calls Tbilisi “…a city as if not of this world.”
Whose idea was it to build a capital city there? If you look up from the bridge to the Metheki side, you will feel dwarfed by a dominating statue of a 5th century king of Georgia, Vakhtang Gorgasali, made by the sculptor Elguja Amashukeli. According to one legend, the king hunted in the area, which contained only a few small settlements at that time. He wounded a deer and it fell into a warm spring. Instead of dying, the deer was healed by the water. The king hence decided to move his capital there, to the place of healing warm water. The Georgian word for warm—Tbili—gave the city its name.
The Old Town, on the other side of the river, sits on the slope of the Sololaki Ridge. On its top, you will immediately spot the Narikala Fortress and a white statue of a woman, 20 meters (66 feet) tall, looking sternly, yet protectively at the city and the country. It embodies Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) and its original version was created by sculptor Amashukeli, for the symbolic year of 1958 which marked the millennium-and-a-half anniversary of T’bilisi’s founding.
T’bilisi has many meaningful cultural statues ingrained in the public consciousness with installations in many public spaces. Not just statues of prominent figures, but also of everyday people and even fictional artists. After dusk do not be scared by a dark figure sitting on a bench or on a railing of a bridge—in most cases, those figures will be statues.
Seeing the Sololaki Ridge spurred my hiking impulse, and I decided to explore the Old Town by climbing to the Fortress. (If the slope seems too steep, you can always take the recently opened gondola cable car that will take you to the Ridge from Europe Square.)
The Old Town is well worth a roaming as it opens a window into Georgian culture. Its restaurants and dining halls—some already adjusted for tourists, while others frequented by locals—offer the must-try items from the country’s traditional cuisine. You can taste the filling Georgian round bread topped with egg, known as khachapuri. Or a north Georgian dumpling, filled with meat or mushrooms, called khinkali.
Visitors tired of the steep streets of T’bilisi are often taken aback when street sellers offer them some peculiar items as snacks. One looks like a string of small balls on a thread (churchkhela—which is hazelnuts glued together by dried grape juice or honey) and another one resembles a neatly folded tablecloth (tklapi—which is dried fruit molded into a large round shape). According to David, my local guide, these “snacks” have energy-enhancing powers that have been proven over centuries of use by ancient Georgian warriors who devoured them before battle. He also referred to churchkhela as “Georgian snickers,” and after trying it myself I agreed.
City of stone
Walking up to the Fortress, I appreciated what makes the look of T’bilisi unique: the houses with wooden balconies and above all, the Georgian churches. The country developed its unique national version of orthodox Christianity in the fourth—yes, the fourth—century and it ranks as the second oldest Christian country in the world after neighboring Armenia. Christianity was brought to Georgia by St. Nino, a missionary who once created a cross from two vine branches that she tied together with a strand of her own hair. This “grapevine cross” then became a distinct symbol of the Georgian Church.
The architecture of Georgian churches follows that of Armenia —with an architecture laid out in the shape of a square cross; walls are made of brownish stones; and vaults that resemble a drum, but with a pointed roof reminiscent of the surrounding mountains.
The most dramatic moment of a church visit occurs when you step inside. Rays of light brought in by narrow, high-placed windows only gently illuminate the wall paintings which often cover the whole interior. As you walk around, sometimes in the mild smoke created by religious incense, your eyes cannot stop wondering over all the paintings, which attract the eyes with their vivid colors. Since the Georgian churches are much smaller than Western cathedrals, the religious atmosphere in them is all the more intensely intimate. You are always close to the altar and to the art.
One dress code warning—no entrance into any Georgian church with shorts or bare shoulders. Women are also expected to pick up a scarf at the door to cover their hair. These requirements may make the logistics of T’bilisi walks a bit difficult because long pants and covered shoulders do not seem like the best match for the city’s hot and humid summers.
Once I made it through the narrow Old Town streets to the Fortress, another physical exercise followed—walking the steep staircases and the narrow, railing-free paths along the ancient walls of the Fortress. The spectacular views of the city then felt like the appropriate reward for my personal efforts.
A peculiar balance lies at the core of Georgian culture. The country has preserved its old, singular traditions to this day, and at the same time it has developed, and sometimes suffered, through intense interactions with other cultures, near and distant. In some sense, Georgia’s survival is extraordinary because this small country (3.7 million inhabitants) has always been sandwiched between competing empires that often ruled over its territory. Persians, Ottomans, and Russians all left marks on the country, sometimes subjugated it, and yet the unique Georgian culture survived and has persevered for millennia.
The National Museum displays treasures documenting how advanced the artisans and artists in Georgia were, even in times predating Ancient Greece and Rome. With the advance of Christianity, Georgian kingdoms developed their own completely unique script (one of its versions is still in use today).
Throughout its history, T’bilisi sat close to the trade routes of the Silk Road, which attracted traders and settlers. The city constantly interacted with the West and the East alike—Alexander Dumas visited, and so did Alexander Pushkin. You can find an Armenian quarter in the city, several synagogues, as well as a mosque that stands above the Abanotubani quarter settled by Azeris, who came from the neighboring Islamic country of Azerbaijan.
I wandered into the Azeri neighborhood not the least because the warm healing springs noticed in the legend of King Vakhtang are to be found there. Since the 19th century, the rejuvenating water has been channeled into bathhouses. In one of which I took a rejuvenating bath and took a healing massage. The water, whose vapor escapes through the domes on the roofs, felt completely regenerating and refreshing—but, one should know, that the healing is facilitated by sulfur, and that is accompanied by a corresponding smell.
The Russian and Soviet periods of the 19th and 20th centuries saw a development to the north of the Old Town, along Rustaveli Avenue. The 1.6 km (1 mile) long avenue, named after the 12th century Georgian poet and statesman Shota Rustaveli, is the city’s political, cultural, and shopping vein. The avenue begins at Freedom Square, which used to have Lenin’s statue in its middle, and passes by several major sites, including the Soviet era Parliament building, exquisite Moorish style Opera House, theaters, galleries, and the Georgian National Museum.
To immerse myself in Georgian history, I toured three exhibitions in the Museum—ancient & medieval treasures; traditional Georgian attire & uniforms; and the Soviet occupation. The exhibition about the Soviet occupation focused on the decimation of the Georgian elite at the hands of Stalin in the 1930’s. As a bit of historical irony, Stalin was Georgian by birth, and a mere two-hour drive away in the city of Gori, you can view the dictator’s birth house and museum – a deja vu throw back to times of Soviet occupation and propaganda.
City of Glass
With the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia tried to leave the post-Soviet malaise behind. Embarking on an ambitious reform program, the country rooted out endemic low-level corruption, eased methods for doing business, attracted foreign investment and, despite tensions within the country, oversaw a series of democratic elections. The new found strength of the Georgian economy is visible not only in the restored facades of Old T’bilisi, but also in the new structures commissioned by the post-revolution government. Several noted foreign architects have also contributed designs. The Bridge of Peace, for instance, which has become the symbol of recent Georgian success, was designed by the Italian architect Michele de Luchci in 2010.
I was able to view some of the newest monuments both from above, from the Narikala Fortress, and up close when I was walking along the river. Some of the unfinished constructions represent world-class architecture, (e.g. the presently unfinished Rike Concert Hall & Exhibition Center, also an Italian design), while others provoke more mixed reactions, (e.g. the Presidential Palace with a design inspired by Berlin’s Bundestag; or a golden statue of St. George that has now replaced Lenin on Freedom Square). The country’s anti-corruption drive created fresh opportunities for architects as the government decided to build new public service halls and police stations, with the largest ones in T’bilisi. The main missions of the new public spaces are—openness to citizens and transparency of operation—which are represented by using glass as the building material.
In addition to modern buildings, the post-revolution era brought construction of new churches, e.g. the gigantic Holy Trinity Cathedral, as well as, paintings of new frescoes in old churches; additional statues placed around the city; and many other interesting projects, e.g. a clock tower next to the Puppet Theater in the Old Town; or the walk to Leghvtakhevi Waterfall, right behind Abanotubani.
The result of all this work? The number of tourists coming to Georgia has increased from less than half a million in 2000 to over eight million in 2018. Still only a small portion of those presently come from the West. True to the city’s Silk Road tradition, I met visitors in the streets from Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, as well as some from the West.
Georgia’s effort to reconnect with the West, (you can see European Union flags in many public places), led to skirmishes with Russia, which spilled open during the short war of 2008. The tensions continue as I witnessed on my trip. As I was returning from an evening visit to Mount Mtatsminda, to see the city lit up in its full nightly regalia, I passed by a demonstration in front of the Parliament building composed mostly of young people protesting against the deferential treatment, of a delegation of Russian deputies. Since my visit, the situation has settled down, with some of the protesters’ demands met and elections coming up soon.
T’bilisi’s place as an emerging travel destination looks secure. Whether you walk its streets, visit its churches, admire the new buildings, taste Georgian meals, or take to the sulfur bathes, the city has a story to tell you. A story of a unique culture with thousands of years of history, yet vibrant, rejuvenated, and connected to the rest of the world. Visually, it all comes together in the forms of stone and glass.
IF YOU GO
- Tbilisi is well connected by direct flights with many West European cities, including Paris, Munich, and Athens, as well as with Istanbul and Dubai.
- Visitor accommodation in Tbilisi ranges from large international hotels to small, cozy hotels in Old Town. I stayed in a centrally located and comfortable boutique hotel Tekla Palace.
- Places to visit in Tbilisi
- Old town
- Sololaki Ridge with the Narikala Fortress. Information about the gondola cable car: http://tbilisilocalguide.com/tbilisi/cable-car/
- The walk to Leghvtakhevi Waterfall
- Bridge of Peace
- Freedom Square and Rustaveli Avenue
- Mount Mtatsminda, with the restaurant at the top. Information about the funicular to the mountain: http://tbilisilocalguide.com/tbilisi/funicular-railway/
- Things to do
- Browsing the Dry Bridge Market.
- Sulfur Bathhouses, with a massage. For information about Chreli Baths: http://chreli-abano.ge/?lan=en
- For adrenaline seekers: the zip line from the Sololaki Ridge.
- Two essential phrases in Georgian
- Hello: Gamarjoba [ga-mar-jo-ba]
- Thank you: Madloba [mad-lo-ba]