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
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.
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
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)