Tbilisi – the city of liquid gold
It is through the scent and flavor that we may get to know most countries in the world. We travel in order to, at least for a second, feel and understand the inhabitants of a particular region and enjoy what they experience on a regular basis. The colorful old town or impressing skyscrapers, the richness of flavors, the unknown alphabets and languages.Monumental, old Europe, Asia Oriental, far-distant Australia, the world. It is easy to describe many cities using some key words: bourgeois and lush Vienna, colorful and fashionable Paris, heterogeneous New York City, bikes in Amsterdam, green Bydgoszcz. This is how it works.
What works for other cities, it won’t work for the Caucasus. The capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi, is different – it’s extrasensory and it’s everything at once. When you see it for the very first time, even if it’s from the airplane window, you see a liquid gold that is poured on serpentine-like valleys and on the overlooking them mountains. Tbilisi is also like a ship swinging on the waves heading for the oncoming dawn. Fountains, flashing lights and illumination are the trademarks of Tbilisi. Tbilisi cannot be mistaken for any other city, like can you name any other city having over one-thousand-year-old amusement park? Many objects in the city shine so bright that it, for sure, must be visible from the outer space.
It’s four a.m., the local time, when the airplane from Warsaw lands in Tbilisi. The flight takes three and a half hours so it is too late to go to sleep and too early to get up. More and more tourists are coming here each year and the most dominant nationalities are Russians, Germans, Jews, and Poles. Georgia is both distant and close at the same time. In every area, be it social, cultural, political and historical, Georgia is like a point of contact for both Europe and Asia.
Spending a couple of days in the capital city helps you to imagine what the whole country looks like. Mountains and valleys, numerous rivers and creeks, even lakes, architectural mixture of every single style you could wish for, blaze of colors, flavors, scents and noises. There are contrasts everywhere in Tbilisi – the brand new SUVs and sedans, Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus next to old Soviet bangers like Lada, VAZ, and Volga. In the eleventh-century tserkov, you can meet monks in black habits, fancy dressed women wearing a full makeup and sky-high stilettos, weddings and christenings every single day. Decaying hovels contrasting with modern steel and glass buildings, great poverty, and fancy and well-attended restaurants. Affluence can also be spotted. What comes as a surprise is lack of traffic jams. Tbilisi is a place, where everyone can slide through, cut in line, go bumper to bumper or go on the sidewalk. There are six cars on every lane and still, there is enough space for everyone. On the surface, Tbilisi city traffic can be compared to a fight for life, because everybody honks and uses high beams, but aggression is nowhere to be found. Quite the contrary, you can spot ballet and harmony!
Tbilisi can offer you sunny days from May to October, storms with lightning in July and August, the beauty of the nature, trees, parks, plazas and forever joy of life – fireworks every other night. Eclecticism, for which Georgians are renowned for, is a key to a deep understanding of the Caucasian spirit. Those, who already visited Georgia will agree. However, it may be difficult for the accuracy since there is always an exception to the rule.
Tbilisi is one of the most important cities in the Caucasus and a symbol of Georgia since the fifth century. In the fifth century, the country was divided into separate and fighting against each other counties, which were constantly invaded and conquered at the hands of Turks and Persians. Nevertheless, it was distinctive and unique language and script that always united all Georgian tribes and nations. What is more, it is worth mentioning that Georgian alphabet is one of the fourteen distinctive alphabets in the world. Christianity was adopted by Georgian rulers as a dominant religion in 337 A.D.
The legend of the city foundation has it that during the royal hunting, a hawk seized a pheasant and both birds fought until they plunged into the sulfurous lake in a valley. The water was so hot that, to the astonishment of the ruler and his suite, the birds got boiled. “Tbili”, in Georgian, means “hot” and so the name of the city of Tbilisi shall be translated as “hot springs”. The ruler of the Kingdom of Kartli, one of the cradles of the today Georgia, the king Vakhtang I Gorgasali (446-502 A.D.) came to decide to shift the capital of the country from Mtskheta to Tbilisi, distanced by twelve kilometers. His son, Dachi, put the plans of shifting the capital into action. Apart from the access to sulfurous springs, Tbilisi was assumed to be strategically better located than Mtskheta, which was situated on the flatlands. Tbilisi, on the other hand, located atop the hills and in the valley, was a much more secure place because the only possible way to get there was across the MtkvariRiver. What can be considered as Tbilisi treasure is public baths in the oldest district of Abanotubani, at the bottom of the ruins of the fortress of Narikala from the sixth century, which is believed to be one of the rarest “witnesses” of the contemporary Georgia. Over fifteen centuries of being handed down, fights and invasions, countless attempts to regain sovereignty, Persians, Turks, Mongolians, the army of Tamerlane (who is also known as Timur the Lame) and finally tsarist, and then Soviet, Russia have ruined the vast majority of the testimonies of the rich Georgian history. In the times of peace, Georgia flourished in the Silk Road as it was overhauling other countries in terms of civilization. The most prominent prophet of the country, Shota Rustaveli, lived at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and so Georgians welcomed the Renaissance two hundred years sooner than Europeans.
Georgians often joke that there is nothing impressive in the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century monuments as they can boast about a large number of monuments from the sixth, eighth and eleventh centuries. At large, Russian secession from the second half of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century social realism, which I myself call for my own purpose “social-block”, are what characterize Tbilisi the most. Luckily enough, there are also places embellished with Persian, Turkish, French, and Italian styles – both mess and beauty.
Two days in Tbilisi
Even in such place as chaotic Tbilisi, there is a list of “TOP 10” places worth seeing. Most of them are situated in the old town, in the vicinity of the fortress of Narikala, to get to other places just take a cab or subway. It is worth mentioning that Tbilisi has an impressive public transport system, including an extensive subway system with most of its stations being built in 1966. Many countries can be jealous about it! What is also advantageous is the access to buses, marshrutkas and cabs, though it is a pity that schedules are only in Georgian.
It takes only two days, from dusk to dawn, for an avid sightseer to check all the attractions and go even further to regions of Kakheti or Adjara, to see another cities – Batumi and Kutaisi, and to drink a glass of wine in Sighnaghi or to admire the Mount Kazbek, a five thousand meters peak of the Caucasus.
Symbolically, for Poles especially, Lech Kaczynski Street (which was a few years ago renamed from Black Sea Street) in the Armenian district of Avlabari can be a start of the trip. It is worth mentioning that on Lech Kaczynski Street, there is a monumental socle with a portrait of the tragically late Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland.
Tsminda Sameba Church
Being still on the same side of the Mtkvari River, the longest river in Georgia, which divides the city into the left and right side, going to the largest tserkov on the Caucasus – Tsminda Sameba (the twentieth century Holy Trinity Church) is a must. The tserkov is almost 84 meters high (with cross atop) and was consecrated in 2004.
The erection of the monumental tserkov can be considered as the Georgian equivalent to the individualistic gesture made by Władysław Kozakiewicz to Russians (when during the 1980 Olympics the Pole was booed by the Soviet fans because he defeated the Soviet athlete Konstantin Volkov at the finals, he showed this famous gesture as a “bite me” gesture) after two hundred years of the Georgia and Russia “friendship” since 1782 and their attempts to get support from Catherine the Great for a strife with Persians and USSR back in 1801 when tsar Alexander I of Russia incorporated Georgia into Russian structures. He took the sovereignty away from Georgians, imposed liturgical rites in tserkov and the next Georgian kings were never entitled to reign. Instead, they were murdered and their bodies were never found. This is represented by two beautifully ornamented, yet empty sarcophagi at the lowest floor of the tserkov. During the tsar and then Soviet times, those in favor of Georgian Christianity, fell victims to chicane and repressions. With the intention of imposing Soviet ideologies, many of the frescoes were destroyed and tserkov got closed.
But now history has changed! We’re still standing here!
Kozakiewicz – “bite me” 😉
Tbilisi Old Town – Abanotubani
From the Tsminda Sameba Church, a two-kilometer-long walk can get you to the fortress of Narikala (6th – 8th centuries) and the neighborhood of the impressing tserkov of Metekhi (13th century) where you can see the monument of Vakhtang I Gorgasali, the Anchiskhati Basilica of St. Mary (5th – 6th centuries) and the holy icon, which as the legend has it – was painted by itself. Moreover, Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral (11th – 12th centuries), which offers to show the Grapevine Cross, one of the most significant relic in Georgia and Tbilisi sulfur baths, the most popular Orbeliani Baths (19th century), which was attended by the bohemia of the nineteenth century, namely: Alexander Griboyedov, Aleksandr Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, père, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, to name but a few. Tbilisi has always been a city of art and artists. Even today, it abounds with theaters, sculptures, monuments, and interesting plaques on houses, which give information on renowned tenants.
Only on Tbilisi old town, can you spot multicultural diversity of Georgian and Armenian tserkovs, a mosque shared by Shia and Sunni, Jewish synagogue from 1904, the ruins of a caravanserai as well as fancy restaurants, night clubs for teenagers born into affluent families, casinos, and striptease clubs. In a music district, Rikhe Park, you can admire dancing fountains and the famous and modern Bridge of Peace, known also as “Always Ultra Bridge”. If you want to see a Kartlis Deda – Mother Georgia monument atop a hill, you can take a gondola lift only for GEL 1.00. Atop a hill, you have a chance to admire a breathtaking view on the whole city.
Another a “must see” attraction is going for a walk across the main artery of Tbilisi – Shota Rustaveli Avenue, which starts from the St. George Monument located in Tbilisi’s central Freedom square, where you can also see a former town hall. Walking across Rustaveli Avenue gives you also the opportunity to see the house of the former government, where the Rose Revolution of 2003 took place. The Georgian National Museum, which was once a seminary in which, before he became a revolutionist, Joseph Stalin took some classes to become a priest can be also spotted when walking across Rustaveli Avenue. Other attractions include the Center of Contemporary Art – Tbilisi, which presents the exhibition of the works of Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), the most renowned Georgian primitivist painter, Tbilisi Opera House and Ballet Theater erected in oriental style of architecture, old-time Palace of Caucasus Viceroy, the Kashveti tserkov (19th century), secession buildings of Shota Rustaveli Theater and Georgia State Film University, and the fanciest and most fashionable world boutiques and stores. Enjoying meal in the 24/7 restaurant, in the vicinity of the Rose Revolution Square and nearby the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel, the “House of Khinkali” is a must. The “House of Khinkali” treats you with the world famous khinkali – a Georgian dumpling in a pouch shape with meat stuffing and consommé, which should be drunk, or rather slurped before eating! A trip to Georgia is not perfect when you don’t check numerous restaurants and don’t sample Georgian food, wine, beers, and side dishes. Fifty pieces of khinkali a head, few liters of chacha, Georgian grape vodka, and you can feast all day long. There you go! Salut! Gaumarjos!
Dry Brigde Baazar
The famous Dry Bridge Bazaar, a flea market where you can get folk art products and relics of USSR, is, by all means, another a “must see” place on my list of things to experience in Tbilisi. I purchased therea large number of Georgian classic music on vinyl from my friend – Sergey, and now my target is “Soviet rock music” like Akvarium, Lyube, and Kino.
Mount Mtatsminda, the highest place in Tbilisi, is what you have to see, especially in the evening. A Tbilisi city railway can get you to Mount Mtatsminda and this is a very popular way of transport since the beginning of the twentieth century. Don’t get it twisted, it’s very modern! In his book The Kirghiz Dismounts (1968), Ryszard Kapuscinski, famous Polish traveler and reporter, mentions that the gateway to the Mount Mtatsminda from the city center is like a “road from Marszalkowska Street directly to Gubalowka” (from city center in central Poland to the mountains in southern Poland)!
Funicular, the TV tower, and a restaurant specialized in delicious pastry and a lounge bar are what you can also see on the peak of the mountain. The view on the city is priceless! In the lower area, there is the Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures (19th – 20th centuries), the most significant cemetery in Tbilisi. A large number of historic and cultural figures in the history of Georgia was buried there, namely: a poet Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov with his wife Nino Chavchavadze, poets Akaki Tsereteli and Giorgi Leonidze, a prose writer and a prominent thinker Ilia Chavchavadze, and the first president after the collapse of USSR – Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and Joseph Stalin’s mother Ekaterine “Keke” Geladze, to name but a few.
Alexander Griboyedov’s grave
Those, who like Georgians enjoy great fun, feasting, and open-air relaxing more than life, have to visit the three bodies of water in the city. Nearby the first one, the Turtle Lake (Kus Tba), you can admire an open-air museum presenting a large number of examples of Georgian architecture, including a Middle Aged defense tower, which was moved “brick by brick” from the mountain region of Svaneti. Another one, the Lisi Lake, is enchanting and beautiful especially in the fall, which I had an opportunity to experience first hand recently. The biggest reservoir, however, is Tbilisi Sea – a paradise with beach, where all fancy Georgian women sunbathe. You think that’s all? Not a chance!
Modern Street Art
You can’t go sightseeing the capital city of Tbilisi without veering off the course of the trip. You have to see the famous Italian yards and openwork balconies, discover impressive staircases in decayed secession buildings with finely embellished handrails and stained glass windows. The modern street art is everywhere in the city, be it in the backstreets or under the bridges. The nightlife takes place in restaurants, in which, apart from the national cuisine, you can experience a folk music and enjoy dance shows. Other nightlife attractions include 24/7 clubs, discos, karaoke, concerts and many more. I have come up with a sightseeing program for my friends, a program perfect for a bachelor party which I called “Tbilisi Hangover” as an equivalent to The Hangover movie.
Tbilisi has its mysteries and is open for you to discover them. This is exactly what Tbilisi is like. I do love to live in there and observe the changes which the city undergoes when the seasons change. I have my favorite store, cafe, barbershop, greengrocery, and an open-air place perfect for walking or training – the Vake Park. I love coming back there, both from the interior and from Poland.
Luca Polare Cafe, The Round Garden square, Vake district
Georgians believe that each visitor is like a divine gift from Heaven, so you are more than welcome to come and grasp Georgia yourself!