Today Seb and I are on the Tbilisi Free Tour. The meeting point is at the Tourist Information Centre at Freedom Square at 12pm. There is a second tour each day at 5pm.
Our guide is Joseph from Great Britain who has lived in Tbilisi since 2012. He moved here to become a freelance journalist, he’s involved in Urban NGOs and now he is involved in politics and was the first non-Georgian to stand in a local election!
The tour lasts 2.5 hours and we’ve got a huge group today, far more people than I expected, especially after our quiet pub crawl the night before.
Freedom Square is also known as Liberty Square, though only for the metro station and nobody knows why!
In 1795, Tbilisi was destroyed by the Persian empire when they returned to Georgia to restore their grip over the country after 20 years of independence. The current city of Tbilisi has all been built since that time. There has been Russian influence since 1799 and it began more slowly and then Georgia became part of the Russian empire in the early 19th Century.
The city of 150 years ago would have been incredibly ethnically diverse, with Armenians making up a large proportion of the wealthy inhabitants.
The Georgian declaration of independence in 1980 only lasted for three years before the Soviet era
In 2003, the peaceful Rose Revolution brought into power a more pro-western government, which was keen to be part of NATO. It spelled the end of the Soviet Era in the country as even independent Georgia had very strong political ties to Moscow. Following complicated parliamentary elections and a parliamentary reform referendum on 2 November 2003, the official results were fraudulent. This led to twenty days of protests in November 2003. The protests triggered new parliamentary and also a presidential election in which the United National Movement party was democratically elected into power.
In 2006, a huge golden statue of St George and the Dragon was placed at the top of the column in Freedom Square, and 3kg of the statue is pure gold.
Just down the street from Freedom Square is an exposed section of the city wall. It used to be in a beautiful park and then in 2014 the new mayor decided to prioritize solving the traffic problems over the heritage, so there is now a very busy road and lots of buildings in the area. Don’t go down the underpass to see the walls, stick to the path above.
Arab incursions from the 7th century onwards led to some Arabic words in Georgian and also the Arabs in the 8th and 9th centuries created a fantastic Observatory which survives on the hill behind parliament house.
Joseph Stalin studied at the seminary in Tbilisi. It was one of the first places to be closed down during the Soviet repression of religion and perhaps this was due to his previous connection with the place.
Tbilisi Old Town
We visited the Old Town next and it’s extraordinarily tumbledown. Sadly the buildings being protected by a cultural heritage zone isn’t helping – it means that it’s tricky and expensive to renovate so people are waiting for the government to help and fund projects and the government has other priorities..
The building style in old town is interesting and is a good example of East meets West. External facades are often neo-classical European styles and the rear areas are often filled with wooden balconies which appear to show a link to eastern, Arabic cultures.
Many of the houses in this neighborhood date from 1830s onwards. The cellars pre-date the upper floors and are often intricate networks of tunnels.
Houses were built for just one large family, with the ground floors being rented out to businesses. However, during the communist period (1920s and 30s) these houses were separated into flats and became shared properties. The metal staircases are the clues that a building was split in the Soviet Era. Sometimes clues remain as to the original owner, with wrought iron initials or coats of arms on the gates or buildings.
The oldest house in the neighborhood has cellars that are 280 years old. The facade on the road is simple but the interior is absolutely enormous. It was created for one family and since the 1920s it has housed 13 families. The balconies are gorgeous and they were the shared and allowed wonderful interactions including sharing food, gossip and games.
Georgian Hospitality and Feasting
The yards are also used for the feasts, Soupra (meaning tablecloth), where the table is so covered with food that you can no longer see the table cloth! The Tamada is the leader of the gathering and he is in charge of toasts. The first toast is to the glory of God and peace. Another toast might be to the meeting of guests and getting to know each other. A third toast might be to the Homeland – Georgia and also to your country where ever you are from and the links between them (even if they have to be very creative to find a link to toast). This tradition goes back to the 8-7th Centuries BC! The Armenians originally believed they were the birthplace of wine, as clay pots were discovered that were 4 millenia old. Georgia managed to find even older remains and theirs was 8,000 years old!
We walked down through an archway of trees and emerged in front of an awesome building which has been renovated to have a bizarre eclectic style by an architect who is known as the Georgian Gaudí. There is a Latin inscription beneath a window which reads “Nobody should cry in life unless they are chopping onions”. At 6:55pm (sharp) every evening there is a puppet show from the clock tower. The details are just so cute and kitsch.
The clock tower isn’t straight and it’s a metaphor for life – nobody takes a straight path and we just change direction as we move forward. The girder next to it is symbolic and represents that we all need support sometimes. The tower has the smallest working clock of any clock tower in the world.
The sign on the outside address of the building shows the street address as number √169 and also as 12+1!
Cafe Leila is just around the corner. It’s a stunningly decorated vegetarian Persian restaurant and on the counter they are serving the most delicious sweets!! Walnuts covered with honey and caramel for 3 Lari (£0.90) each. Warning: they are extremely moreish.
Georgia is an orthodox Christian country, like Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia, each orthodox church has a Patriarch, which is as close to a pope as you get.
Georgian is one of only 14 unique alphabets in the world, and it has three completely distinct alphabets, one is roughly equivalent to capital letters, and it was mainly carved. It was claimed to be developed in the 3rd century BC but it hadn’t been proved to be older than the 6th century (which is still old!). The next alphabet to be developed was a priest alphabet which was used to copy from Greek scripture into Georgian and it was developed for writing on parchment with old pens. The third script, of Knights/war was developed during a period of wars and it was possible to write joined up messages more quickly on the battlefield. The Armenians joke about the Georgian script being developed when a king hurled a bowl of cooked spaghetti at the wall and he copied down the patterns that stuck. There are 33 letters in the current alphabet (the number of years Christ lived on earth), there used to be 35 but in the reforms two of the letters were decided to be redundant.
We stood on the Peace Bridge to look at other landmarks. The bridge commemorates peace between Russia and Georgia following the 2008 annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This year is the tenth anniversary of the conflict. At night the bridge is lit up with the colours of the Georgian and European flags. It also emits the word Peace in Morse code.
Tbilisi Modern Architecture
The Saakashveli presidential period (2008-2013) led to very distinctive architecture in city projects. Bridges, ministries and government offices were rebuilt in glass, to symbolise transparency.
Almost all of the modern architecture was controversial and so when the government changed some of the projects were halted, like the cut-off legs in the bottom right of the photo – they were going to be a tubular concert venue but because the construction wasn’t finished, they look like a pair of cut-off legs.
From the Peace Bridge, you can see the third largest orthodox church in the world, The Holy Trinity Church (see section on that later), soaring above its neighbourhood.
One of the main north-south thoroughfares in the city was a road which joined up with the silk road and was an enormous reason for the prosperity of the city. This street was the one along which you could find caravanserais. The current buildings were rebuilt after the destruction of Tbilisi in 1795 but the Georgians used camels until the Soviets out a stop to it in 1920s.
An aside about the Georgian Post
If you want to send postcards then you should consider writing and sending the cards where you buy them – postboxes are few and far between and they are tough to spot so you can’t rely on finding another one!
We entered a caravanserai and stood in the area where the camels would have been unloaded before they were taken to the river for a drink. The traders would stay on the second floor and the goods were stored on the first floor. Wine, food and perishable goods were stored down in the cellar, which is two storeys deep. The fine silks and other products ready to sell would have been sold directly from the traders rooms on the second floor. Back in their heyday, these places would have been even busier and louder than the street.
A bit further down the street, past some nice artwork are some more caravanserais, one of which gives directly out onto the river and has an art deco facade in the street.
The Church of Sioni is a large church in the old city which was created for the mountain villagers who would drive their flocks into Tbilisi once per year – it was incredible for these peasants to be able to worship in this fantastic church because so few of them even had a church in their home villages. The original cross of Saint Nino is in the church.
We had a bakery break and then discussed wine and the Mother Georgia.
The Mother Georgia statue is holding a piala for drinking wine and in her right hand she has a sword. If you are good, you get the wine… It’s quite a powerful symbol and I like it. In 1956 the statue was first erected in and in 1996 it was replaced with a slightly more curvy model!! This was during a period of intense financial struggle, but the government made it a priority to replace a statue.
We stopped at Meidan, which was the main square, named by the Arabs during the 7th/8th Century. There is an underground market in the storerooms and tunnels of the original market, they sell everything from wine and Chacha to souvenirs.
The castle on the hill is called Nari khala – from Mongol word for “new” and Arabic word for “Castle”. The Mongol invaders knocked down the castle every time they invaded and then when they left, the Georgians would rebuild and then on the next invasion, the Mongols would exclaim that the Georgians had built a “New Castle”.
Founding myth of Tbilisi
Vakhtang Gorgasali, “the Wolf-headed one” founded the city of Tbilisi. He was hunting near the river in this wooded valley. He saw a pheasant flying from the undergrowth and he shot it with his first arrow. His hawk was sent to collect the pheasant but never came back. So the hawk was found standing on the pheasant which was in a hot sulphur pool and the hawk was eating the cooked pheasant.
Tbilisi Sulphur Baths
Bath district gave Tbilisi its name, “Tbil” for warm and “si” is the end of the name of a place – warm place. There are lots of sulphur baths that have been around for centuries in this place, the merchants that arrived in Tbilisi would sell all their wares and then spend days at a time at the baths to celebrate! One day per week the women of Tbilisi came to the baths before dawn with their children, servants, dirty laundry and dirty crockery to the baths and they would chill drinking tea all day and leave late to go home after nightfall. The timing was designed to avoid the neighbours being able to see whether or not a family uses the expensive crockery.
Bath number 5, entry costs 3 Lari, take your own towel, razor, soap, flip flops. The men’s area has far more facilities than the women’s area. You can get a scrub or massage for 10 Lari, paid direct to the attendant.
The Royal Baths with the yellow writing and the Colourful Bath House have private rooms which you can rent for 40-60 Lari per hour. Massage and scrub is around 10-15 Lari each. Nakedness not enforced in there.
Jamma Mosque of Tbilisi is one of the only places in the world where Shi’as and Sunni’s pray together. We finished the tour in a lovely canyon in the bath district – there is a waterfall and the air is cool which makes a difference from the oppressive heat.
After the tour, Seb and I headed to the cable car and paid 2.5 Lari each to go up the top of the hill for spectacular views over the city. The 2.5 hour tour had lasted 4 hours so the heat of the day had already begun to dissipate slightly (the cable car ride is like being in a greenhouse under a magnifying glass so try to go when it’s not too hot!)
The Mother Georgia monument is really very pretty, she’s a fairly attractive mother, which is unusual for a matriarch statue.
Also up on the hill is the castle and we walked past it on our way back down to the Old Town. We visited the underground Meidan Bazar and browsed all the cool stuff in there from spices and hats to drinking horns and ceremonial knives.
Then we went back to Cafe Leila to grab some tasty vegetarian food (staying away from the fatty Georgian meat dishes for a little while) and wait for the puppet show at 6:55pm.
Seb and I had another free afternoon in Tbilisi after we were unable to catch the night train to Yerevan when we tried to get tickets. No matter – there was certainly more to see and we were lucky with the weather again.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral on the top of one of the hills of Tbilisi is the third largest Cathedral in the world and it is beautiful inside, the ceilings are really high and the arches are really pretty.
We watched an Orthodox wedding ceremony and I was genuinely confused about the clothing rules – I had to wear scarves to cover my hair and my knees but one of the bridesmaids was in an unbelievably short red dress.
I think I prefer the grounds, which have lots of lovely intricately carved stone crosses and arches with gorgeous views of the main Cathedral.
I had a nice mooch around the flea market and the shops before the night train to Yerevan.