WEEK­END IN: Tbil­isi

Tbil­isi was last seen in the news when floods caused an­i­mals to es­cape from the zoo and take to the streets. Chris­tine Win­zor takes us on a tour of this hid­den gem of a city and rec­om­mends a visit be­fore its charms dis­ap­pear

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Last June (2015), Tbil­isi, the vi­brant and ven­er­a­ble cap­i­tal of the Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia, spi­ralled briefly to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion as im­ages of es­caped zoo an­i­mals - in­clud­ing a bear, a tiger, a hip­popota­mus and a wolf - roam­ing the city streets af­ter ma­jor flash flood­ing of the Vere River, sat­u­rated the me­dia. Dam­age to western neigh­bour­hoods was ex­ten­sive, with the loss of at least 20 lives, but for­tu­nately the charm­ing his­toric cen­tre of the city, dra­mat­i­cally sit­u­ated on the banks of the swiftly flow­ing Mtk­vari (Kura) River (of which the Vere is a right trib­u­tary), ap­pears to have es­caped harm.

Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, Tbil­isi was founded in the 5th cen­tury CE by King Vakhtang I Gor­gasali of Ibe­ria af­ter a hunt­ing trip led him to the hot sul­phur springs from which the city takes its name (‘Tbil­isi’ be­ing Ge­or­gian for ‘the site of warm springs’). Lo­cated in the heart of the Cau­ca­sus, Tbil­isi has had a tu­mul­tuous his­tory, fall­ing un­der Arab, Per­sian, Rus­sian and Soviet rule, un­til Ge­or­gian in­de­pen­dence was fi­nally de­clared in 1991, and it is re­ally only in the last few years that ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers have started to re­dis­cover the de­lights of this sur­pris­ing city.

The log­i­cal start­ing point for any tour of the city is Free­dom Square (Tav­i­su­plebis Moedani), for­merly Lenin Square in the Soviet era, from which a statue of Lenin was sym­bol­i­cally top­pled in Au­gust 1991. In 2006 the Lib­erty Mon­u­ment was un­veiled in the cen­tre of the square - a 35 m-high gran­ite column bear­ing a golden statue of St Ge­orge slay­ing the dragon, do­nated to the city by its cre­ator, the Ge­or­gian-born sculp­tor, Zurab Tsereteli. Pa­tron Saint of the na­tion of Ge­or­gia, St Ge­orge is con­sid­ered by many Ge­or­gians to sym­bol­ise na­tional lib­er­a­tion. Bor­der­ing the square on its south­ern side is the City Hall, orig­i­nally built un­der Im­pe­rial Rus­sian rule in the 1830s but re-mod­elled and en­larged sev­eral times. The con­ve­niently lo­cated and com­fort­able Mar­riott Court­yard Ho­tel is lo­cated on the western side of Free­dom Square.

Old Town

The quaint, nar­row streets of Tbil­isi’s me­dieval Old Town are eas­ily ex­plored on foot. The sur­viv­ing build­ings date mainly from the 19th cen­tury, af­ter Tbil­isi’s dev­as­tat­ing de­struc­tion at the hands of the Per­sian Qa­jars in 1795 and sadly have been badly ne­glected due to a lack of re­sources. From the lower left cor­ner of Free­dom Square, head to­wards the river, fol­low­ing Alek­sandr Puskin Street which seam­lessly turns into Barat­shvili Street. On the left is a sec­tion of the old city wall over­grown with vines, above which are crum­bling res­i­dences with or­nate tim­ber bal­conies. Af­ter the first break in the wall, turn left at the pedes­tri­anised Shaveteli Street, which brings you to the lean­ing Rezo Gabri­adze Clock Tower, a won­drous creation by a Ge­or­gian pup­peteer, who also de­signed the quirky in­te­rior of the ad­ja­cent café.

Next door is the 6th cen­tury An­chiskhati basil­ica, Tbil­isi’s old­est sur­viv­ing church, con­structed by King Dachi, the son of Tbil­isi’s le­gendary founder, King Gor­gasali of Ibe­ria,. Although orig­i­nally ded­i­cated to the Vir­gin Mary, the church takes its name from a pre­cious icon cre­ated by the 12th-cen­tury gold­smith Beka Opizari, which was re­moved from the An­cha monastery in Klar­jeti (now part of mod­ern Turkey) in the 17th cen­tury and brought to Tbil­isi to pro­tect it from the Ot­tomans. The church is a three­naved basil­ica and has been re­built and re­stored on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. The fres­coes in the church date mainly from the 19th cen­tury, but dur­ing restora­tion work, traces were found of 17th cen­tury paint­ings un­der­neath. The brick bell tower to the west of the church was built in 1675.

Con­tinue along Shavteli Street to the leafy park at the end (Erekle Mooedani), then fol­low Erekle II Street with its cafés and car­pet shops un­til you reach the Sioni Cathe­dral. This Cathe­dral traces its ori­gins to the 6th and 7th cen­turies and was the seat of the rul­ing Catholi­cos-Pa­tri­archs of the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox church un­til 2004. The Cathe­dral was com­pletely re­built by King David the Builder in 1112, whose design be­came the ba­sic plan for the ex­ist­ing build­ing. It was dam­aged in 1226 dur­ing an at­tack by Mon­gols and was re­stored by King Alexan­der I.

The an­nex­a­tion of Ge­or­gia into the Rus­sian Em­pire was an­nounced in Sioni Cathe­dral in 1802, when Gen­eral Karl von Knor­ring, the Rus­sian com­man­der in chief in Ge­or­gia, pre­sented the man­i­festo to the as­sem­bled Ge­or­gian no­bil­ity and re­quired them to take an oath to the Rus­sian Im­pe­rial Crown. The Cathe­dral re­mained func­tional through­out the Soviet era. To the left of the al­tar is a replica of the its most sa­cred relic – the cross of St Nino which, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, is made from vine branches bound with the Saint’s own hair.

Two bell tow­ers are as­so­ci­ated with the cathe­dral. Next to the cathe­dral is a free-stand­ing three-storey bell tower, which was built in 1425 by King Alexan­der I. This tower was, how­ever, largely de­stroyed dur­ing an at­tack by Per­sian forces in 1795. On the op­po­site side of the street another three-storey bell tower was built in 1812 to com­mem­o­rate the Rus­sian vic­tory in the Russo-Turk­ish War of 1806 to 1812. This bel­fry is the ear­li­est ex­am­ple of Rus­sian Neo-clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture in the Cau­ca­sus.

Next to the Sioni Cathe­dral is the Tbil­isi His­tory Mu­seum, housed in an old re­stored car­a­vanserai. A small branch of the Ge­or­gian Na­tional Mu­seum, it cel­e­brates Tbil­isi’s his­toric role as a sig­nif­i­cant trad­ing cen­tre on the Silk Road, and the dis­plays in­clude mon­tages of old ar­ti­sans’ work­shops and pho­to­graphs of 19th cen­tury Tbil­isi, as well as ce­ram­ics, coins, tex­tiles and house­hold items.

Con­tinue along Sioni Street, then choose

be­tween Bam­bis Rigi Street and Jan Shard­eni Street, both of which are full of smart, re­cently ren­o­vated cafés, bars, restau­rants and gift shops. Both come out at Gor­gasalis Moedani, for­merly the site of Tbil­isi’s lively bazaar, but now a busy traf­fic junc­tion. From here the Metekhi Bridge crosses the river to the colos­sal 1960s eques­trian statue of King Vakhtang Gor­gasali on the left bank, with the 13th cen­tury Metekhi Church strik­ingly sited on the steep, rocky out­crop be­hind. From here the vis­i­tor can marvel at the his­toric wooden houses bal­anc­ing pre­car­i­ously on the steep cliff face above the swiftly flow­ing river be­low.

How­ever, in­stead of cross­ing the river, fol­low Gor­gasalis Street, then turn left at Abano (Bath) Street, where the strong sul­phuric smell alerts the vis­i­tor to the lo­ca­tion of Tbil­isi’s his­toric ther­mal baths, the Aban­otubani district. This is an al­most un­be­liev­ably pic­turesque district of the city, with pas­tel-coloured build­ings each with two or three lev­els of rick­ety lat­tice work bal­conies over­look­ing a cen­tral square. On ac­count of Tbil­isi’s lo­ca­tion on the Silk Road, there were as many as 63 baths in the city by the 13th cen­tury, but by the 19th cen­tury, when Pushkin and Du­mas were among the no­table bathers mak­ing use of these fa­cil­i­ties, this num­ber had been re­duced to ten. To­day just five sur­vive, the old­est of which, Bath­house no 5, is al­most 300 years old. In the cen­tre of Abano Street is the sub­ter­ranean Royal Bath­house, with its dis­tinc­tive red brick bee­hive domes, but un­doubt­edly the most strik­ing of Tbil­isi’s sur­viv­ing bath­houses are the Or­be­liani Baths, lo­cated at the top of the street, with their un­mis­tak­able façade of turquoise and blue mo­saic tiles, rem­i­nis­cent of the ex­u­ber­ant ar­chi­tec­ture of Sa­markand and Cen­tral Asia. At­tached to the ex­te­rior of this bath­house is a mar­ble plaque bear­ing an ep­i­thet (in Ge­or­gian and Rus­sian) penned by Pushkin in 1829, which can be trans­lated as ‘ Not since I was born have I en­coun­tered such lux­ury as Ti­flis’ baths’.

Vis­i­ble from the Or­be­liani Baths is the oc­tag­o­nal red brick minaret of Tbil­isi’s only func­tion­ing mosque, built in 1895. To reach the mosque, which serves both Sunni and Shite Mus­lims, fol­low the wind­ing road up­hill. Vis­i­tors are most wel­come to en­ter the mosque, pro­vided they re­move their shoes and are ap­pro­pri­ately dressed. The road (Botanikuri

Street) con­tin­ues steeply up­wards to the en­trance of the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, which strad­dle the Tsavk­i­sist­skali Gorge and were orig­i­nally laid out as royal gar­dens in the 17th cen­tury.

The Botan­i­cal Gar­dens com­prise over 4,500 or­na­men­tal and medic­i­nal plants from the Cau­ca­sus re­gion, China, the Hi­malayas, Ja­pan, North America, Turkey, Siberia and the Mediter­ranean. The Gar­dens are di­vided by the Tsavk­i­sist­skali River, but sev­eral bridges have been con­structed to con­nect the two parts. The most im­pres­sive of these bridges, built in 1914, spans a wa­ter­fall with a grace­ful arch. El­e­gant tim­ber kiosks and look­outs are dot­ted through­out the gar­dens. In the sum­mer months the gar­dens are cooler than the rest of the city, mak­ing them par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with vis­i­tors. In 2012 a brand new ca­ble car ser­vice opened con­nect­ing Rike Park on the left bank of the Mtk­vari River with the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, which takes just a cou­ple of min­utes and saves the vis­i­tor the steep hike up the hill and of­fers spec­tac­u­lar views of the city.

From the hill-top ter­mi­nus of the ca­ble car, head left first to­wards the 20 me­tre high statue of Mother Ge­or­gia (Kartlis Deda). Erected in 1958 to cel­e­brate Tbil­isi’s 1,500th an­niver­sary, the statue sym­bol­ises the Ge­or­gian na­tional char­ac­ter: In her left hand she holds a cup of wine rep­re­sent­ing her hos­pi­tal­ity to­wards friends, and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as foes.

Now fol­low the path back along the sub­stan­tial but ru­ined de­fen­sive walls to the en­trance of the Narikala Fortress, Tbil­isi’s an­cient for­ti­fi­ca­tions which dom­i­nate the city. Orig­i­nally built in the 4th cen­tury, the fortress was con­sid­er­ably ex­panded in the 7th cen­tury by the Arab Umayyads, whose Emir’s palace lay within the walls. King David IV the Builder fur­ther en­larged the fortress dur­ing the 12th cen­tury. In 1827, the fortress, in­clud­ing the 13th cen­tury Church of St Ni­cholas lo­cated within its lower court, was sub­stan­tially de­stroyed, ac­cord­ing to dif­fer­ing ac­counts ei­ther by an earth­quake or by an ex­plo­sion of Rus­sian mu­ni­tions stored on site. The Church was re­built in the 1990s to the plan of the ear­lier church.

A cob­bled road leads out of the gatehouse and back down hill to the old city, di­rectly to the

Ar­me­nian Cathe­dral of St Ge­orge. Orig­i­nally founded in 1251, this Cathe­dral, which is the seat of Ge­or­gia’s Ar­me­nian arch­bishop, was largely re­built in the 17th and 18th cen­turies. Fres­coes dat­ing from the 18th cen­tury have been at­trib­uted to Hov­natan Hov­nata­nian, a mem­ber of a prom­i­nent fam­ily of Ar­me­nian pain­ters span­ning five gen­er­a­tions. To the right of the Cathe­dral’s en­trance is the tomb of Sayat Nova, King Erekle II’s court poet who was killed in Ar­me­nia by the in­vad­ing Per­sian army in 1795.

Head back to Gor­gasalis Moedani, and fol­low busy Le­selidze Street (also marked on some maps as Kote A hazi Street) past the Great Syn­a­gogue, built by Ge­or­gian Jews be­tween 1895 and 1903, to the Jvaris Mama Church. Another of Tbil­isi’s an­cient churches, with a 5th cen­tury foun­da­tion date, the fres­coes of this Church have been re­cently re­stored in vi­brant colours. Next door is the 15th cen­tury No­rasheni Ar­me­nian Church, now dis­used and show­ing ev­i­dent signs of earth­quake dam­age, with cracks run­ning through the brick­work. Pass­ing count­less shops sell­ing not only the fa­mous Ge­or­gian wine but re­li­gious sou­venirs of all kinds, Le­selidze Street con­tin­ues to­wards Free­dom Square, where it emerges next to the City Hall on the south­ern side.

Rus­taveli and the New Town

To the north-west from Free­dom Square is Tbil­isi’s ma­jor thor­ough­fare, Rus­taveli Av­enue, one of the wide, tree-lined boule­vards fronted by el­e­gant neo-clas­si­cal build­ings which were laid out as the “New Town” in the 19th cen­tury when the city started to ex­pand un­der Im­pe­rial Rus­sian rule. Now named af­ter the 12th cen­tury Ge­or­gian poet Shota Rus­taveli – au­thor of the na­tional epic poem,

The night in the Pan­ther’s kin – Rus­taveli Av­enue ex­tends for about one and a half kilo­me­tres and is the lo­ca­tion of many of the cap­i­tal’s main pub­lic, cul­tural, and com­mer­cial premises. With large, level foot­paths and invit­ing street-side cafés, the av­enue is again eas­ily ex­plored by foot, but it is worth not­ing that due to wrought iron fenc­ing Rus­taveli can only be crossed via pedes­trian un­der­passes and at des­ig­nated cross­ings.

Af­ter pass­ing the en­trance to the Soviet era Free­dom Square metro sta­tion on the op­po­site side, the first build­ing of sig­nif­i­cance reached is the Mu­seum of Ge­or­gia (also re­ferred to as the Si­mon Janashia Mu­seum of Ge­or­gia), the main branch of the Ge­or­gian Na­tional Mu­seum. Hav­ing been closed to the pub­lic for ma­jor ren­o­va­tions since 2007, the his­toric gal­leries are grad­u­ally be­ing re-opened, with spec­tac­u­lar ef­fect. Un­doubt­edly, the high­light of the col­lec­tion is the “Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Trea­sury”, housed in the Mu­seum’s base­ment.

This ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures the re­mark­able work of Ge­or­gian gold and sil­ver­smiths and jewellers from the 3rd mil­len­nium BCE to the 4th cen­tury CE, and rep­re­sents three dis­tinc­tive eras in Ge­or­gia’s cul­tural his­tory. The first of these eras is rep­re­sented by the finds ex­ca­vated from the great bar­rows of the Kura-Araxes cul­ture of the 3rd and 2nd mil­len­nia, in­clud­ing an ex­quis­ite minia­ture gold lion fig­urine, a golden goblet in­laid with lapis lazuli, cor­nelian, jet and am­ber and some as­ton­ish­ingly in­tri­cate jew­ellery.

Af­ter the mid­dle of the 2nd mil­len­nium, pre­cious metal work does not reap­pear in Ge­or­gia un­til the 8th cen­tury BCE, and is as­so­ci­ated with the an­cient King­dom of Colchis, renowned for the Golden Fleece of Arg­onaut fame and “rich in gold” ac­cord­ing to the Clas­si­cal sources. The

Ge­or­gian gold work of the 8th to 4th cen­turies, prin­ci­pally from Vani and Sairkhe, the po­lit­i­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tres of the Colchian king­dom, dis­plays both Greek and Achaemenid (Per­sian) in­flu­ence. Heraldic beasts, in­clud­ing boars, stags, li­ons, sphinxes and rams fea­ture promi­nently among the artis­tic mo­tifs used. The gold crafts­man­ship of the King­dom of Colchis is show­cased by an out­stand­ing col­lec­tion of bracelets, ear­rings, tiaras and belts, and a stun­ning pec­toral in­laid with turquoise, cor­nelian and glass from Vani.

The third and fi­nal phase of Ge­or­gian met­al­work rep­re­sented in this ex­hi­bi­tion dates mainly from the 1st to the 3rd cen­turies CE. These ex­tra­or­di­nary items were largely re­trieved from the royal buri­als at Ar­maziskhevi as­so­ci­ated with the King­dom of Kartli – known as Ibe­ria to the Greco-Ro­man au­thors. Items in­clud­ing golden neck­laces, belts and buck­les, head­dresses, bracelets and ear­rings are in­laid with colour­ful semi-pre­cious stones and there are a num­ber of pieces dis­play­ing del­i­cate in­taglio work. The ex­em­plary crafts­man­ship of the Ge­or­gian gold­smiths is beau­ti­fully ren­dered by a gold phiale, or li­ba­tion bowl, bear­ing the bust of a god­dess hold­ing a cor­nu­copia.

Up­stairs an am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tion, “ eor­gian Ar­chae­ol­ogy from 8th mil­len­nium BCE till the 4th cen­tury CE”, traces the his­tory and con­tin­u­ous de­vel­op­ment of Ge­or­gian cul­ture from the Ne­olithic pe­riod to Late An­tiq­uity and hon­ours the con­tri­bu­tion of the Ge­or­gian his­to­rian and ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ekv­time Takaishvil­i in pre­serv­ing the coun­try’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures af­ter the First World War.

The re­main­ing floors house a num­ber of per­ma­nent and tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing ethno­graphic, art and pho­to­graphic col­lec­tions and a whole floor de­voted to the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion of Ge­or­gia. Not to be missed on the ground floor is the Mu­seum Shop which sells an ex­cel­lent se­lec­tion of books, cards and gifts in­spired by the Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing jew­ellery, pot­tery, tex­tiles and other hand­i­crafts.

Re­turn­ing to Rus­taveli Av­enue, the next build­ing of note to the vis­i­tor, on the op­po­site side of the street, is the im­pos­ing old Par­lia­ment with its ar­caded colon­nade. The build­ing was de­signed by ar­chi­tects Vic­tor Koko­rin and Giorgi Lezhava and was con­structed as a Soviet govern­ment build­ing be­tween 1938 and 1953. In its com­par­a­tively short life­span, this Par­lia­ment build­ing has wit­nessed many mo­men­tous events in Ge­or­gia’s re­cent his­tory, in­clud­ing the Soviet mas­sacre of Ge­or­gian hunger strik­ers in 1989, the dec­la­ra­tion of Ge­or­gian In­de­pen­dence in 1991 and the demon­stra­tions herald­ing the Rose Revo­lu­tion that forced Pres­i­dent Ed­uard She­vard­nadze to re­sign in 2003. In a sym­bolic yet con­tro­ver­sial ges­ture, a gleam­ing new Par­lia­ment Build­ing was inau­gu­rated in 2012

by Pres­i­dent Mikheil Saakashvil­i in Ku­taisi, the his­toric cap­i­tal of the an­cient King­dom of Colchis, 220 km west of Tbil­isi.

Im­me­di­ately next to the old Par­lia­ment build­ing is the First Clas­si­cal Gym­na­sium, a school orig­i­nally founded in 1802 for the sons of the Ge­or­gian no­bil­ity to pre­pare them for the Rus­sian civil ser­vice. Built be­tween 1825 and 1831, the school build­ings were de­stroyed by fire in 1991 92 dur­ing the up­heavals and protests lead­ing to Ge­or­gian In­de­pen­dence, but have been re­con­structed. Out­side the school is the im­pos­ing statue of two of Ge­or­gia’s 19th cen­tury writ­ers and lead­ing fig­ures in the na­tional lib­er­a­tion move­ment, Prince Akaki Tsereteli and Ilia Chavchavad­ze, who was an alum­nus of the in­sti­tu­tion.

Op­po­site the Clas­si­cal Gym­na­sium is the Kashveti Church con­structed be­tween 1904 and 1910 on the site of a much ear­lier church, per­haps dat­ing to the 6th cen­tury. The Church’s design is based on the 11th cen­tury cathe­dral at Sam­tavisi – a rec­tan­gu­lar four-piered cru­ci­form domed church. The apses do not project and the ex­te­rior makes lib­eral use of blind ar­cad­ing. The in­ter­nal fres­coes were painted by Lado Gu­di­ashvili, whose statue can be found in the neigh­bour­ing 9th April Park.

Be­yond the park on Rus­taveli Av­enue is the more ex­pen­sive Tbil­isi Mar­riott Ho­tel, then comes the Rus­taveli Na­tional The­atre, with its or­nate façade: Tbil­isi’s largest the­atre with an ex­ten­sive dra­matic reper­toire that even in­cludes Shake­speare. Next door is the Nabadi The­atre, which caters more for the tourist mar­ket and of­fers folk­loric per­for­mances re-telling Ge­or­gian leg­ends through tra­di­tional mu­sic, songs and dances. And just a lit­tle fur­ther up the street is the Opera and Bal­let The­atre (now named for the com­poser Zakaria Paliashvil­i). Orig­i­nally con­structed in 1851 to the plans of the Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Gio­vanni Scud­ieri and with a Parisian-de­signed in­te­rior, the build­ing ri­valled any of its con­tem­po­raries in Europe and was the first opera the­atre in the Cau­ca­sus. The the­atre was al­most com­pletely de­stroyed by fire in 1874 and did not re-open un­til 1896, af­ter it had been re­built to the new Moor­ish design of Balkan ar­chi­tect Vic­tor Alexan­drovich Schröter, who was also the ar­chi­tect of the Mari­in­sky The­atre

in St Peters­burg and the Na­tional Opera House in Kiev. The the­atre hosts an ac­tive sea­son of con­certs, bal­let and opera fea­tur­ing both lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional per­form­ers.

Rus­taveli Av­enue con­tin­ues past the square now named af­ter the Vel­vet Revo­lu­tion (Varde­bis Revo­lut­sis Moedani) be­fore ter­mi­nat­ing at Rus­taveli Square, which fea­tures a statue of the poet him­self and another en­trance to Tbil­isi’s metro sys­tem. About turn at this point and head back along Rus­taveli Av­enue to­wards Free­dom Square, per­haps paus­ing for re­fresh­ment at one of the many street cafés or pop­u­lar eater­ies on the way. In a shady court­yard (marked no. 34) on the op­po­site side to the Opera and Bal­let The­atre is Pros­pero’s Book­shop and Cal­iban Cof­fee­house, a Tbil­isi land­mark well-known for its stock of books in English about Ge­or­gia and the sur­round­ing Cau­ca­sus, as well as for its gourmet cof­fee and bou­tique teas. Another per­sonal favourite is the French-style bak­ery and patis­serie, En­trée, lo­cated di­ag­o­nally op­po­site the Mar­riott Ho­tel which of­fers good cof­fee and an ex­cel­lent se­lec­tion of filled baguettes, cakes, pas­tries and ice cream.

Alternativ­ely, take a de­tour to the Dry Bridge Mar­ket by cut­ting through the 9th April Park to­wards the right bank of the Mtk­vari River. Open from 8 am un­til about 1 pm on Satur­day and Sun­days, this open air flea mar­ket of in­di­vid­u­ally run stalls is a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure trove, with stalls sell­ing ev­ery­thing from fine chi­naware to crys­tal chan­de­liers, sil­ver­ware, re­li­gious icons, old car­pets, brass samovars, orig­i­nal art­works, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments and Soviet mem­o­ra­bilia. With pa­tience, per­haps even the next long lost Fabergé egg or Stradi­var­ius vi­o­lin will be un­cov­ered here!

Tbil­isi is an ab­so­lute hid­den gem to visit and will not dis­ap­point the trav­eller pre­pared to go the ex­tra dis­tance for a unique week­end ex­pe­ri­ence. And per­son­ally I would rec­om­mend that the sooner the bet­ter, be­fore the Old Town is ei­ther com­pletely de­mol­ished in the name of progress or

is over-ren­o­vated and sani­tised at the ex­pense of its authen­tic­ity and gra­cious charm

Left Bank

Across the river, which can be crossed via the ul­tra-mod­ern bow-shaped glass and steel LED-lit

pedes­trian Bridge of Peace (likened by crit­ics to a gi­ant glass slug!), is one of Tbil­isi’s most re­cent land­marks, the im­pos­ing Pres­i­den­tial Palace. Built at the be­hest of former Pres­i­dent Mikheil Saakashvil­i, the build­ing was com­pleted in 2009 un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Michele De Luc­chi, who was also re­spon­si­ble for the Bridge of Peace. The Palace com­bines a neo-clas­si­cal façade with a post-mod­ern glass dome, sup­pos­edly sym­bol­is­ing a new, trans­par­ent Ge­or­gia, and has been dubbed “The Egg” by lo­cals.

Promi­nently lo­cated above the Pres­i­den­tial Palace on Elia Hill in the his­toric neigh­bour­hood of Avlabari and vis­i­ble from most parts of the city is the daz­zling new Holy Trin­ity (Ts­minda Sameba) Cathe­dral, the largest re­li­gious build­ing in Ge­or­gia and one of the largest Ortho­dox churches in the world. Com­mis­sioned to com­mem­o­rate 1,500 years of au­to­cephaly of the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox Church and 2,000 years of Chris­tian­ity, the Cathe­dral was con­se­crated in 2004 af­ter a nine-year con­struc­tion pe­riod and re­placed the old Sioni Cathe­dral as the seat of the rul­ing Catholi­cos-Pa­tri­archs of the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox church. The Cathe­dral has been de­signed to the tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian style, with a domed cru­ci­form plan and fres­coes ex­e­cuted un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the icon pain­ter Ami­ran Goglidze. The Cathe­dral has an area of over 5,000 square me­tres and can ac­com­mo­date up to 15,000 wor­ship­pers. The height of the Cathe­dral from ground level to the top of the cross is over 100 me­tres and at night the cathe­dral is lit up in a most spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion. The cathe­dral com­plex in­cludes the main church build­ing, a free-stand­ing bell-tower, the res­i­dence of the Pa­tri­arch, a monastery and a the­o­log­i­cal sem­i­nary. The money to build the Cathe­dral com­plex was do­nated by anony­mous busi­ness­men and lo­cal peo­ple and the Cathe­dral is seen as a sym­bol of Ge­or­gian na­tional and spir­i­tual re­vival.

Af­ter sam­pling the lo­cal de­lights of khacha­puri (cheesy bread) and khinkali (meat dumplings) and im­bib­ing the pe­cu­liarly flavoured Bor­jomi min­eral wa­ter – a great favourite with Soviet lead­ers – or the wide va­ri­ety of Ge­or­gian wines, if time per­mits the ded­i­cated trav­eller should at­tempt an af­ter­noon ex­cur­sion to Mt­skheta, Ge­or­gia’s an­cient royal and re­li­gious cap­i­tal, just 25 km from Tbil­isi at the junc­tion of the Mtk­vari and Aragvi Rivers. Ac­cord­ing to Ge­or­gian tra­di­tion it was at Mt­skheta that St Nino from Cap­pado­cia con­verted King Mirian of Ibe­ria to Chris­tian­ity in the early 4th cen­tury. The 11th cen­tury Svetit­skhov­eli Cathe­dral stands on the site where King Mirian com­mis­sioned the first Chris­tian church in Ge­or­gia in 334 CE.

With its ven­er­a­ble past, blend of east­ern and western tra­di­tions, pic­turesque his­toric build­ings and strik­ing lo­ca­tion on the banks of the Mtk­vari River, Tbil­isi is an ab­so­lute hid­den gem to visit and will not dis­ap­point the trav­eller pre­pared to go the ex­tra dis­tance for a unique week­end ex­pe­ri­ence. And per­son­ally I would rec­om­mend that the sooner the bet­ter, be­fore the Old Town is ei­ther com­pletely de­mol­ished in the name of progress or is over-ren­o­vated and sani­tised at the ex­pense of its authen­tic­ity and gra­cious charm.

eft, top: The Bridge of Peace lit up at night (Im­age rszula Chy­laszek) eft, mid­dle: Bath house rooftops in the Aban­otubani district. (Im­age Chris­tine Win­zor) eft, bot­tom: rnate fa­cade of rbe­liani Baths, with the red brick minaret of...

eft: ife im­i­tat­ing art (Im­age rszula Chy­laszek) ight: iew of the town (Im­age rszula Chy­laszek)

Above: Ts­minda ameba Cathe­dral (Im­age rszula Chy­laszek)

ppo­site: ld ioni Cathe­dral (Im­age © rszula Chy­laszek

Above: Metekhi Church and eques­trian statue of ing akhtang or­gasali above the Mtk­vari iver (Im­age Chris­tine Win­zor)

Above: The pic­turesque Aban­otubani district with fortress above (Im­age rszula Chy­laszek)

The tem­ple at a ar im

Above: Pretty bal­cony ad­ja­cent to the city walls on Baratashvi­lis treet, ld Town (Im­age © Chris­tine Win­zor) ight: The ib­erty mon­u­ment lit up at night (Im­age © Chris­tine Win­zor)

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