A Weekend in Tbilisi Part 1

Salalah Swan Song
A Weekend in Tbilisi Part 2: Tbilisoba

Georgia (the country, not the US state)  has been on our bucket list since we have lived in Doha. A few years ago I could not have told you where it was, but the more I heard about Georgia as friends visited and shared photos and glowing reviews the more I needed to visit. So when an email from Qatar Airways Holidays arrived with a great deal on weekend escapes to Tbilisi, we jumped at the chance. We stayed 3 nights, which gave us 2 full days to explore the city.

Tbilisi is a city of around 1.5 million people, with a long and turbulent history. Located on the famed silk road, the trade route between Asia and Europe, it has been invaded and conquered by Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans and Russians, all leaving their mark. The city suffered 40 invasions between 627 and 1795 and the buildings were destroyed and rebuilt many times. Georgia was absorbed into the Soviet Union until 1991, but really only began to blossom since the “Rose Revolution” in 2003. Today the city has many historic buildings, striking modern architecture and a lively arts scene.

We soon realised that 2 days was never going to be long enough, but read on to discover what we did manage to fit in. We walked a lot, caught local buses (always an adventure) and occasionally ordered a “Bolt” (the local version of Uber) which was extremely inexpensive and we probably should have “bolted” more often.

Our hotel was located on Rustaveli Avenue the main road of Tbilisi, named after the medieval Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli. The street is lined by a large number of governmental, public, cultural, and business buildings that are located along or near the avenue. We started our day by walking down Rustaveli Aveue to Freedom Square (which is more round than square). It is marked in the centre by a tall column which once held a statue of Lenin which was symbolically torn down in 1991. In 2006 the large St George statue was unveiled. St George is of course the patron saint of Georgia.

Georgia is a largely Christian country, the majority of the population (over 80%) are Georgian Orthodox, but the country has a long history of religious tolerance, at least until the annexation by USSR. We visited several churches, all of them Orthodox. The first was the Kvashveti Church, built in 1904 on the site of a 6th century church which had been demolished. In the sixth century, an Assyrian priest, Davit Gareja, preached widely throughout Tbilisi and earned the wrath of Zoroastrian fire-worshippers who resented his proselytising. According to legend, they bribed a pregnant woman to accuse him of adultery. Upon hearing this, Davit said that if this were indeed true she would give birth to a baby, and if not, a stone. The woman duly gave birth to a stone, and the name Kvashveti derives from this miracle (‘Kva’ means stone and ‘shva’ means give birth).

Spanning the Mtkvari River, The Bridge of Peace is a steel and glass pedestrian bridge connecting Old Tbilisi with the new district. The bridge was designed by the Italian architect Michele De Lucchi. The structure of the bridge was built in Italy and transported to Tbilisi in 200 trucks. Not universally popular with the locals, it certainly is striking. At night 1,208 LED fixtures in the bridge canopy create a colourful display in varying patterns, including a message in Morse code that renders the periodic table of elements going across two parapets every hour. As we headed to the bridge we decided on a short detour and took a 30 minute boat ride along the river, for a chance to sit down (!) and to see the city from a different perspective.

After our boat ride we headed to Rike park, a large green space with fountains, sculptures, playgrounds and cafes. We found a nice spot for lunch (Art House Tbilisi) and enjoyed some typical Georgian cuisine.

Our energy reserves fortified we hopped on the cable-car to take us to Narikala Fortress at the top of the escarpment overlooking Tbilisi. Narikala dates back to the 4th century, when it was a Persian citadel. (I’m pretty sure there was no cable car back then). It has been rebuilt by Georgians, Turks and Persians over the centuries, but was largely destroyed in 1827 when there was a huge explosion of Russian munitions stored here. The fortress dominates the old town, and the ruined walls are very evocative. We didn’t climb over the ruins, but enjoyed the panoramic views of Tbilisi which the elevated position provides. You can’t help but spot an enormous metallic statue of a woman nearby. Known as Kartlis Deda or Mother of Georgia this 20 metre high figure represents the Georgian character. She holds a sword in one hand, demonstrating the Georgian’s passionate defence of their homeland over the centuries; in the other, she offers a bowl of wine, showing the country’s hospitable and welcoming nature. The statue was erected in 1958 when the city celebrated its 1500th anniversary.

We managed to pass through Meidan Bazaar without buying anything, despite the many temptations on offer till we came to the famed sulfur baths of Abanotubani. A popular myth describes how King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the woods along the banks of the Mtkvari river. He wounded a pheasant which subsequently dropped into one of the many hot springs in the area. The water had a miraculous curative effect, and the bird flew off to live another day. The king, amazed by the healing powers of the water, decided to move his capital here. ‘Tbili’ in Georgian means warm, and so was an apt name for a settlement centred on so many hot springs. In its heyday there were around 60 bathhouses, though only a handful remain. Most are underground, a series of brick domes revealing their location. One bath is housed in a blue tiled building with obvious Moorish influence. Leghvtakhevi Gorge (means gorge of the figs, as fig trees used to be common here) leads past the baths to a deep waterfall in the middle of the city. Tbilisi was preparing for the festival of Tbilisoba the following day (more about that in my next post), and there were many interesting and mysterious displays being set up in the gorge. Sadly we didn’t get to return to the gorge to see what they were setting up, but it looked intriguing. 

The Tbilisi Mosque has the distinction of being the only mosque in the world where Sunni & Shia worship together, after the Soviets destroyed the original Shia mosque.  The original mosque was built in the 1700s but has been destroyed and rebuilt 3 times. The present building was constructed in 1895. It has a distinct octagonal minaret with a unique Georgian-style balcony at the top. We strolled through parts of the old town, admiring the faded beauty of the colourful balconies, before enjoying a delicious dinner at Schuchmann Restaurant, which had been recommended by friends. In an old wine cellar, it was very atmospheric, and the food was delicious – traditional Georgian food with a modern twist. 

If you are planning a trip to Tbilisi, here are some resources you might find helpful:

  • All my Tbilisi posts can be found here.
  • I have saved lots of helpful articles I found to my Georgia Pinterest board.
  • I purchased this guidebook on Kindle. It had only one very negative review, but I’m not sure why. We found it very helpful, and particularly enjoyed the self-guided walks. (Note – not an affiliate link, just a recommendation): A City Guide to Tbilisi, Georgia by Stephen Stocks

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