Tbilisi Old and New

September 17-19 & 28, 2014: Gamarjoba (hello) from Tbilisi.

Tbilisi was to be both the starting and ending point of our Georgian odyssey. We expected that three and a half days would give us plenty of time to at least see the city’s major highlights but nowhere near enough time to try all the different foods on offer.

Our hotel, the Sharden Villa, was located in the Old Town just steps from Fortress Square, Mektekhi Bridge and a huge variety of restaurants, coffee shops and wine bars. On our arrival from the train station, we dropped off our bags in our room, freshened up and dashed right back outside to explore the city. It was a spectacular sunny day and the good weather was not expected to last. Time was of the essence.

But, first we had to have lunch so we headed over to one of Chris’ favourite haunts on Erekle Street, a pedestrian only block lined with numerous sidewalk cafes.

Following lunch, we wandered around the old town for a bit, meeting up with the famous Tbilisi Cat Lady. She doesn’t speak English, but I’m pretty sure she knows how to speak cat. She lives in a tent on the street and looks after a number of kittens, cats and even the odd dog.

After a hot climb up to Narikala Fortress, we stopped to take in the views back down to the Mtkvari River (Kura River) that winds its way through the heart of Tbilisi. The fortress was first established in the 4th Century and expanded over the next 1300 years. Chris noticed quite a few updates and some restorations since his previous visits. But there are still plenty of ruins to poke around.

Along the ridge overlooking town is the upper station of an aerial tramway (the easy way up) and Kartlis Deda, an enormous aluminum statue of the Mother of Kartlis. At 23 metres tall, she is said to symbolize the Georgian national character, with a bowl of wine in her left hand to greet those who come as friends, and a sword in her right hand for those who come as enemies.

We kept on along the ridge coming to an impressive $50 million glass mansion built over top of a major road. Owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest man in Georgia, it houses its own zoo, a $1 billion art collection, a helipad and a business centre (what us mere mortals might call an office). From here we made our way back down to the old town and checked out the old baths, Abanotubani, a waterfall hidden up a gorge behind the city and the old mosque.

Heading the other way, we made our way to Freedom Square and sauntered along Rustaveli Avenue, home to trendy shops and cafes, as well as museums and the old national parliament building. It was hot and thirsty work, so when Chris spied the Kazbegi beer truck at the far end, we had to stop for a bit of refreshment. Then it was a long walk back to our hotel.

The next morning, we enjoyed a fabulous buffet breakfast on the hotel rooftop. Despite the overcast sky, the views were incredible. There was Narikala Fortress to one side and Tsminda Sameba Cathedral to the other.

Once again we set off for the walk to Freedom Square and Rustaveli Avenue. This time, we turned off and headed uphill to the Funicular Station. For just a couple of Lari, we rode the new funicular up to Mtsminda Park. If it had been a clear day, the views back over the city would have been amazing. Instead, it was hazy, windy and cold. We snapped a few photos, wandered around the deserted amusement park and quickly made our way back down in the next funicular car.

Dodging raindrops, we spent more time exploring the old town, including the old wall that still exists in good shape along the northern edge. Juxtaposed against the old architecture is the new Peace Bridge, built in 2010 over the Mtkvari River. On the far side, Rike Park hosts the ultra modern, tube like theatre and exhibition hall and a mushroom shaped public service hall.

Perhaps the most photographed of the churches in Tbilisi is the Metekhi Church, perched atop a steep cliff on the Mtkvari River. When we went to have a closer look, we came across an Armenian wedding party posing for photographs with the fortress and the old city in the background.

On our last day before setting off to the four corners of Georgia, we decided to explore a bit of culture. First up, the Georgian National Museum. The archaeological treasury, filled with artifacts dating back to the bronze age and even earlier was certainly interesting, but the big draw was the Soviet Occupation exhibit. It retraced the appalling history of the 70-year period from 1921 to 1991 when Georgia was under Soviet rule.

That evening, we went to the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre to watch a performance of Ramona, a quirky love story between two train engines that also involved a travelling Russian circus. It was performed in Russian but a video screen above the stage showed English subtitles. The puppetry was amazing but I think Chris would have preferred to watch the Battle of Stalingrad. Unfortunately it wasn’t showing when we bought our tickets.

We’ll tell you about the rest of our Georgian trip and the incredible Georgian food in future blog posts, but I’m wrapping up this one with our last day in Tbilisi before we caught our flight home in the evening.

It being a Sunday, we were lucky to be able to check out the Dry Bridge Flea Market. It was another drizzly day, so many of the vendors had their treasures tucked away under sheets of plastic, but there were amazing finds from Russian editions of old Madonna and Michael Jackson records, to antique china, carpets and war memorabilia to original paintings and handmade Georgian crafts. We did not come away empty handed.

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