There is some debate as to whether Georgia is in Asia or Europe. The Caucasus mountains are generally considered to be the easternmost border of Europe, which would place Georgia in Asia. However, Georgia is culturally more connected to Europe, and English is the official second language and commonly spoken. The Georgian language is unrelated to any other language and the script is entirely unique.
As a rule, we (well, Keith particularly) love to use local public transport whenever we can. It is cheap, and it gives you a chance to “travel like a local”. For Keith there’s the added challenge of mastering navigating a foreign city which he enjoys (and is very good at, I might add). But on our second day in Georgia we came unstuck. As we waited at the bus stop for longer than we should have, it dawned on us that there were lots of road closures in town due to the festival of Tbilisoba, and that they were exactly on our planned bus route. Instead, we called a Bolt (the local equivalent of Uber) which we should have done a lot earlier. The driver was very pleasant and gave us tidbits of information about the areas we passed through, and expertly navigated a tortuous route to avoid the closures. And for a journey of 5km it only cost 4.40 GEL (Georgian Lari = $AU2.18 or $US1.48).
Anyway, eventually we arrived at Holy Trinity Cathedral (also known as Sameba Cathedral – the Georgian word for Trinity), the cathedral in Tbilisi for the Georgian orthodox religion . It was completed in 2004 and was built to commemorate 1500 years of the Georgian Orthodox church, and 2000 years since the birth of Christ. With an area of 5000 m², it is one of the largest religious buildings in the world. Situated on a hill it is visible from all over the city. It is built in typical Georgian style, but with exaggerated height and is very plain on the interior, apart from lots of icons and candles.
We “Bolted” back to town and strolled somewhat aimlessly, enjoying the Tsbilisoba displays and atmosphere. For lunch we found what is known as The Hidden Bakery. Through an unassuming doorway, down a steep flight of stairs is the oldest bakery in Tbilisi, where bread is made by hand and cooked in traditional ovens called tomes. We had one filled with mushrooms and another with sausage. Both delicious.
The bakery is more or less under Sioni Cathedral, which was our next stop. Sioni (Zion) was originally built in 575, under orders of King Gorgasali himself. Of course, like most of Tbilisi, the structure you see today is not that old, having been destroyed by invaders and by a major earthquake. In contrast to Sameba Cathedral, the interior of Sioni is richly decorated with frescoes, most dating from the mid 19th century, and some as recent as 1989. The highlight of the cathedral and the reason for its unique significance for Georgians is the grapevine cross of Saint Nino, a major symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Saint Nino purportedly received this directly from the Virgin Mary, and then secured it by entwining her hair. She introduced Christianity to Georgia and carried the cross, which is particularly distinctive due to its drooping arms, on her evangelical mission. The original cross is purportedly hidden somewhere in the cathedral. A copy is on display, although hard to see within an elaborate reliquary. Sioni Cathedral is obviously popular wedding venue. In the 20 minutes we were there we saw 3 weddings back to back. It seemed a little odd to have weddings taking place while tourists are wandering through the building, but that’s how it was.
Our energy levels were starting to flag, and we still hadn’t tasted Georgia’s most famous local dish khinkali, a large dumpling filled with meat (usually). The meat filling is uncooked when khinkali is assembled, so when it is cooked, the juices of the meat are trapped inside the dumpling. They are eaten first by sucking the juices while taking the first bite. The top, where the pleats meet, is tough, and is not supposed to be eaten, but discarded to the plate so that those eating can count how many they have consumed. We found a shady spot in small cafe in Erekles II Street, a narrow pedestrian street jam packed with eateries on both sides of the road and had our khinkali, washed down (naturally) with some Georgian wine & beer.
We popped into the Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi, which dates from the sixth century. No photos were allowed inside, but it was so dark they probably wouldn’t have been any good anyway. From one of the oldest structures we arrived at one that looks old but is actually very new. The Tbilisi clock tower looks like a ramshackle medieval tower, but in fact was erected only in 2010 by the renowned Georgian artist, writer and director Rezo Gabriadze to adorn his adjacent marionette theatre. If we get back to Tbilisi one day, I would love to see a puppet show, which apparently are very much aimed at adults. The theatre is internationally renowned.
No trip to Tbilisi is complete without exploring the narrow cobbled lanes of the old town. While there has been a lot of development elsewhere, this part of town has been neglected and we saw many derelict buildings. But this is the “real” Tbilisi, and you could certainly see the faded charm of the old architecture. It was lovely to wander away from the crowds and peek inside courtyards and down alleyways.
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