Every journey begins with a single step. The next one you take should be in Georgia, home to many undiscovered, original and unique places, several of which are to be found in Tbilisi.
Another year has passed since I moved to Tbilisi in 2014 – in 2017, I rented an apartment in a renovated historical building, which – as is the case in all of Georgia – has its pluses and minuses. The fact that the electrical supply to the building works intermittently is a minus. The same is true of the water supply – but these minor faults are not as serious as they might seem at first, because Georgians seem to have this natural skill of carrying on regardless, not letting life get in the way of getting on. What is very much a plus in terms of location is the proximity to the city centre, allowing me to walk on foot to the famous flea market, Dry Bridge and the old town.
Tbilisi’s sulphur waterfall
I love Tbilisi’s old town for its uniquely charming atmosphere – including such surprising delights as its Leghvtakhevi sulphur waterfall. Passing historical buildings dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, perched upon an escarpment and so characteristic of the local architecture, we then climb some winding stairs to reach a stone-lined lane with a picturesque bridge. The roaring Tsavkisistskali river (which means “ Tsavkisi water”) leads us directly to the waterfall in the very heart of the old town, located at No.1 Botanikuri Street, at the feet of Georgia’s National Botanical Garden.
I come here as often as most local residents, this being a lovely spot for a walk, something I value most when the temperature begins to rise to forty degrees Celsius. The Leghvtakhevi Waterfall, surrounded by trees and bushes, enveloped with the fortified walls of nearby Narikala fortress and its ragged rock formations, gives blessed relief from the heat – as well as ample opportunity for taking lots and lots of great photographs.
The water falling with a roar disperses the delicate aroma of sulphur all around, and after dark it flows with many colours reflecting the city lights, creating an even more magical, romantic mood. It’s also lovely here in winter, when frosts freezes the rushing water into nostalgic ice formations. Those living on the surrounding escarpments must truly feel blessed by good luck – each day, they wake and fall asleep, surrounded by these views and the soothing whisper of water spouting from the sulphur springs.
Interestingly enough, the waterfall and rocky ravine leading to it are called Leghvtakhevi – “gorge of figs” for a good reason. According to source materials dating back to 1429, one of the oldest parts of Tbilisi was home to whole orchards of fig trees. In early 17th century, vast royal gardens spread between the hills of Sololaki, also known as fortified gardens or else Seidabad. These lush landscapes were wrecked during the Persian invasion of 1795, replaced in 1945 with botanical gardens which quickly began to blossom and spread. Along with its lush greenery, the site is famed for a tomb housing the remains of Azerbaijani writer Mirza Fatali Akhundov, and the aforementioned Leghvtakhevi waterfall. The city invested in new bridges in 2012, along with walkways suspended over the river, which makes visiting the waterfalls even safer and more pleasant than before. Coffee shops have sprang up all over the area, allowing us to buy drinks and fresh, juicy oranges which sweeten our experience of exploring this magical area.
Whenever I come here, I am always made to think of one thing – Georgia is full of modern, beautiful sites of interest, as well as its ancient, unrestored, ruined heritage sites. There are sacral and secular sites of interest, some more and some less popular with visitors. Then there are all the unique sites of natural beauty, such as Leghvtakhevi waterfalls. Few tourists ever get here, which is a shame, for it is a side of Tbilisi few experience, being the chance to experience astounding natural beauty in the heart of a capital city – to slow down, see something fresh and new, to focus on the moment and life live to a different sort of full.
Sulphur baths – Tbilisi’s unique calling card
To reach the waterfall, one needs simply to walk along the river, past the baths. And how to get to the baths? Follow your nose! Sulphur baths give off a very specific sort of aroma (not too pungent, no worries there), and give Tbilisi a very special sort of calling card. The very story of how the city was founded is directly connected with their existence – clear from the name of the place: tbili in Georgian means “warm”, so the whole name can be translated as “warmth” or “warmer”.
Legends tell of king Vakhtang I Gorgasali – ruler in the 5th century AD of both Georgia and Iberia, a principality to the east of the country – setting off on a hunting expedition along with his hawk, whom he sent out to find more birds. The hawk spotted a partridge, birds circling in the air, some of which then fell into a sulphur spring where they were boiled alive. Another version of this legend tells of the king wounding a deer by shooting it with a bow and arrow, which then leapt into the sulphur waters and was restored to full health. No matter what the truth may be about the king and his discovery of this region, we know that he would go on to build a city which King Dachi, Vakhtang’s successor, would choose to move his capital to from Mtskheta in the 6th century.
I return along the canyon, watching the route up ahead from the escarpment. It is not possible to miss the famous sulphur baths of Orbeliani, located in the 1000 year old Abanotubani district. The charming oriental architecture, influenced by the styles of construction craftsmanship in present-day Iran, is striking from word go. The beautiful elevations flow with mosaics of white and blue, resulting in many people mistaking the Blue Baths for a mosque. Nothing could be further from the truth, though I do suspect that this place has much to offer both the body (for certain) and the soul, in fact.
Over the centuries, the Tbilisi sulphur baths, also known by the name Chreli Abano, were visited by all sorts of renowned personages: Venetian traveller Marco Polo, Russian trader Vasil Gagara, Georgian cartographer and historian Vakhushti Bagrationi and the Russian poet Aleksander Pushkin, who wrote: “There is no finer delight than to soak in the baths of Tbilisi”. One can experience such pleasure for the princely sum of 50 lari per person (some 35 PLN). The Orbeliani baths were renovated a few years ago, and at present one can make use of 12 separate bath rooms with sulphur pools. They vary in size, appearance and standard of equipment. In the cheaper versions, at 50-150 lari each, we find a range of pool sizes (some with cold and hot running water), a shower, toilet, changing room and rest space or Finnish sauna. More demanding customers can rent out the royal sulphur apartment for 500 lari (350pln) with a large cold and hot pool, a relaxation space, Finnish and Turkish sauna and a massage room. Other guests can also make use of the spa – an internal phone is installed in each room, allowing us to call reception to order a masseur, a peeling treatment, as well as food and drink or… a specialist who will cleanse our body using a special mixture and a rough glove. For those tired of Georgian heatwaves, 100 lari secures access to the snow room. The temperature inside it is -25°C, while ultrasound machines produce snow and mist…
In the Orbeliani baths one can party until dawn, because this part is open round the clock. It is worth coming here following a hearty Super meal, or else after a long and exhausting journey. Sulphur baths allow us to relax wonderfully and ease aching muscles, helping to ease the burden of various ailments (according to local experts): rheumatism, metabolic disorders, varicose veins, heart problems, high blood pressure or nervous disorders.
I also have good news for those who would like to make use of Tbilisi’s baths without spending so much money – as early as the 13th century, the town already had some 65 bathing facilities on offer, with other mineral baths being available. The most famous of these is the Sulphur Bath Number 5, where for between 3-15 lari we can jump into a public pool, while for an additional 50+ lari we can access a private pool room. Overall, it doesn’t matter where we go and how much we pay – all the sulphur baths here are a wonderful tourist attraction and an unforgettable way to unwind, something which ought to be experienced in order to consider our visit to Tbilisi complete.
Tbilisi’s dark and melancholy nighttime side
I leave the baths fantastically well rested, at half one in the morning, the middle of the night, but the city is still buzzing with life. I head for the Vake district, where I used to live before moving home and where I still have my favourite haunts. In times past, Vake was home to Tbilisi’s scientific and political elites, which is likely why the area is still remarkably peaceful. Tourists tend not to come here, but should they choose to do so, they will find a welcome break from the old town’s hubbub in Vake Park, by Turtle Lake and the surrounding bars. One of my favourite places is Luca Polare coffee shop – open till late, along with many other restaurants and nightclubs. For years now, I have been coming here for coffee at various times of day and night to write a huge number of articles, managing a lot of my business, using its internet service which was a lot better than the one I had at home.
Both Luca Polare and the whole Vake district are rather sombre and melancholy. I like it best here in the fall, when leaves are falling from trees, rising like a flying carpet from beneath the wheels of passing cars. Often, when walking its streets, I think of all the people who had joined me on trips in a given year, over seven, nine or ten days, longer or shorter. I am doing my best to organise trips – to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other countries of Asia and Europe – which have a family feel to them. I get close to the folks I take on shared journeys, listening to their stories, to then simply miss them once they are gone, having spent so many high times together and shown them the place which is now my home, which I truly love and which can from time to time show it loves me too.
This is why I always thank those who set off with me on trips around the Caucasus – especially for how by coming here they are helping generate income for local people. For an example – even if I am now in one of a chain of coffee shops (Luca Polare can be found in Vake, but also in central Tbilisi, on Kote Abkhazi St – formelry Leselidze – as well as Batumi boulevard), what matters most to me are the people in those places. I’ve known the security man here for a while, having often sat with him for hours, as I was typing away on my computer. Then there are the waitresses who come to the same place of work each day. The same is true of the trips I organise, taking my fellow travellers to various pension houses and hotels, eating in numerous restaurants – always stopping in places which have been in the hands of families for generations. It is always good to see them again.
Life in Georgia is somewhat different to that in Poland, northern or western Europe. Places and sites of interest are not impersonalised. They come with the faces of those who work and live there, their histories, remembrances, dreams, plans. It is important to keep them going – they are the vessels which hold ancient traditions, forming the true spectrum of colours that is the pearl of Caucasus, the reason we come here and want to experience today, a year from now, a decade even. I insist on travelling all around Georgia in a way which is responsible, sustainable, respecting the culture of the lands of my ancestors. I therefore always thank those who, in joining me on these adventures, share in this approach, understanding its meaning and values. I do hope to keep bumping into the same people each time I pop into Luca Polare, the one local joint which always arouses in me a feeling of great sentiment, even if it isn’t the only place I have sipped coffee and beer in, while experiencing the sadness which at times comes over all those who live on the other side of the world, missing their homeland and friends (for although Georgia is now my home, Poland is that too). It is here I have reminisced about past journeys, and here I’ve sat in the middle of many nights waiting for those who had already boarded their plane in Warsaw to await their arrival and our eventual meeting – as is the case right now.