Historic Tbilisi: At the crossroads of empires

A ancient city situated at the crossroads of empires, Tbilisi has witnessed the rise and fall of several world powers. This is reflected in the medieval, neo-classical, soviet and modern era architecture found throughout the city. After a fun filled adventure across Turkey we had crossed over to Batumi, Georgia via the Hopa-Sarpi crossing. Having spent a few days exploring Batumi, we rented a car to drive across to Tbilisi; there was endless construction going on, with tunnels and bridges being built, this construction work promises to shorten the now 8ish hour drive down to 4 hours or less. More adventure was in store for us, from experiencing amazing architecture, street art and of course great food, not to mention getting my pocket picked by a bunch of kids!

We had booked a boutique hotel, Villa Mtiebi in the old town area near the Kura river, by the time we got there it was already dark. The old town like all such areas has very narrow roads, and at one point the street got so difficult to traverse that I thought that we were lost, only to explore the last 100 yards on foot to see the street widen and find our hotel. The hotel itself made the search worth our while, Villa Mtiebi is a refurbished old villa, which has been redesigned with a lot of attention to detail and love, I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to stay in this part of town. With directions from our hostess we headed out for dinner to Meidan Square, the area is rather touristy but there are some very good restaurants there. Although the food in Georgia is generally very good and not too expensive, the restaurant we tried, Seidabadi was unfortunately neither, the only redeeming feature was the nice ambience, they really need to up their game. A couple of days later we tried “Restaurant Hide‘ nearby, we perhaps had our best dining experience in Georgia there, great food and service at a very reasonable price. The next morning, after a big breakfast at our hotel, we explored the area around old town, we first crossed the bridge of peace (which has an interesting design itself) headed to Rike Park with its massive hot air balloon and cable car to Solalaki Hill overlooking the National Botanical Gardens. After a long walk exploring the area, with its many interesting art installations and murals we headed to Liberty Square. We had to get a few things so made a beeline to the Galleria Mall, as I was climbing on the steps leading to the mall a bunch of teenaged kids surrounded me and literally clung to my arms and legs, asking for some money, chanting ‘One Lari, One Lari’. With a bit of effort I managed to get free enter the mall. I had stashed away my wallet and cellphone in an inner pocket but my reading glasses which I had kept in an outside pocket got stolen in the confusion. I later found out that this has unfortunately become a regular occurrence, with these poor gypsy kids forced to make this harsh living, a bit later oI saw a man kick and punch one of the kids away, this is a distressing situation and needs to be addressed by the authorities. We got some shopping out of the way and had some mediocre Italian food at Silvio d’Italia before heading back to our hotel.

Our friends Alexander and Tina picked us up from the hotel the next morning for a guided tour of the city. We took the Cable Car and saw the Mother of Georgia statue up close, the vista is quite breathtaking from Sololaki Hill and one can see many of the historic sights in the distance from up there. After a tour of the area, we headed out to the ancient city of Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia. The city itself is has lost most of its old glory to time, however there are several structures of lost most of its religious significance that have been well preserved. These include Svetitskhoveli CathedralSamtavro Monastery and Jvari Monastery. The cathedral is reputed have been built by St. Nino, who introduced Christianity to Georgia, it is also one of the places which claims of house the Mantle of Christ. The walls were once completely adorned with Frescos, these however were severely damaged during the time of the Soviet Union, since then, there has been considerable effort in restoring these historic artifacts. Samtavro’s Monastery is situated nearby and is another site to visit when in the area. About 20 min away by car on top of a mountain is the historic Jvari monastery, this is the place where St Nino according to tradition converted King Mirian of Iberia to Christianity in the 4th century AD. After an extended tour of the sites we headed to the famous Salobie Restaurant nearby. Besides the main seating area, there is seating avaiable in log cabins with a central fireplace, we had a wonderful meal with Gerogian dishes like Lobio, Khinkali, Khacchauri and Badrijani and of course plenty of good Georgian wine.

Our hosts dropped us back to our hotel in late afternoon and after a rest we headed over to a Christmas market at Orbeliani Square. We had briefly stopped by here a couple of days back during daytime, but the market really comes to life in the evenings. The many kiosks selling trinkets, mulled wine and fast food, live music and lots of fun things for kids really got us in the festive spirits. We really wanted to see Orthodox Christmas being celebrated and was perhaps one of the main reasons to add Georgia to our itinerary, the several hours we spent that evening really gave us a good taste of the Christmas festivities. We headed back to our hotel late in the evening and called it a day.

Our final day in Georgia was spent visiting the town of Sighnagi in the Kakheti region. This is part of the Georgian wine trail, and one can see the endless vineyards one the way to the town. The town is situated high in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains which can be seen looming majestically in the distance. It is known for its quaint houses and cobblestone streets and has become a destination for local as well as foreign tourists. Although it lies in the heart of the wine growing region, we had overlooked the fact that as it was winter the vineyards on the way had a deserted and withered appearance and it was rather cold as well. After wandering around the town we ended up at the Terrace Panorama Restaurant, the views form the restaurant are absolutely stunning and the food was wonderful. After a very leisurely meal we headed back to Tbilisi, a two hour drive away.

The evening was spent taking a red bus tour of the city, I have become a big fan of these tours as they give a great overview of main sights. The town was decorated for Christmas, there are many quaint public art pieces all over, and watching all of this from the top of a bus was fun. Alas it was time to say goodbye to this wonderful country all too soon. There is so much more to explore, from the wine trail to the Caucasus mountain villages to medieval towns, we will be back hopefully soon!

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