Tbilisi’s Natural Charm
Published: March 6, 2013 (Issue # 1749)
Luigi Guarino / FLICKR
Among Tbilisi’s charms are its terraced balconies, which are a picturesque feature of many local buildings.
Tbilisi, Georgia — Visitors can sense this city’s vibrancy as soon as they log on to the local public wireless network. “Tbilisi, I love you” pops up on the screen as the network name — a reminder that modern marketing techniques are there to promote the ancient reputation of warmth and hospitality the Georgian capital has earned over the centuries.
Having been designated capital nearly 1,500 years ago, despite spells of self-rule and subservience to Persia, Russia, and the Soviet Union, Tbilisi’s attributes are now known far and wide. This results in people having a preconceived notion about the locals — who will easily take a stranger home, give him an excellent meal and generously fill his glass with fine wine (and later in the evening, a shot of Chacha moonshine), and exchange life stories.
No matter whether it is a dilapidated street in the old town, or a newly refurbished glossy boulevard, nothing feels artificial in Tbilisi. The city doesn’t try to deceive, so even the aspects of it that might seem negative, such as Soviet-style suburbs filled with prefab housing blocks, will not leave an aftertaste. The locals are famous for their serenity — probably thanks to the one and a half millennia of uninterrupted reign as capital, and the fact that despite the continuous onslaught by foreign invaders, the city’s bold cultural ego has remained undimmed.
The natural charm extends not only to Tbilisi — its ancient fortress, churches, and picturesque balconies — but also to its people and the plethora of cats that move around and feel at ease everywhere in town. They are complemented by a seemingly equal number of old men, who take their chairs outside and sit on the streets observing the passers-by. This is Tbilisi’s present, past and probably its future.
The city’s name derives from the Old Georgian word Tpili, which means a warm place. Numerous sulfuric hot springs, which you can smell even in the metro, are a distinctive feature of the city. One way to feel the physical warmth of the place and its people is by going to public bath houses, where you can get the most recent rumor about whether Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili will sell Georgia to the Russians, where to buy the best dates, and an unsolicited review of the latest play at the Marjanishvili Theater.
In the countryside outside of Tbilisi, the landscape changes every half hour, from rocky crags to fertile green fields, but the people and cuisine are always enjoyable. It is through such a combination of flexibility and consistency that the Georgians have managed to build their new state in such a complex geopolitical environment. When the essence of that magic balance sinks in after a short time in Tbilisi, then the visitor will know that he has really arrived.
What to see if you have two hours
In order to get a sense of the layout and beauty of Tbilisi’s natural surroundings, it’s good to start with a climb up Mount Mtatsminda. Looking down you can see central Tbilisi, with its main thoroughfare Rustaveli cutting through the heart of town. You can also grasp the spiritual side of Georgia by walking into the St. David’s Mamadaviti Church, surrounded by a necropolis where some of the most prominent figures of Georgia’s cultural history are buried. Underneath the church you can see the grave of Alexander Griboyedov, a famous Russian poet, and his Georgian wife Nino Chavchavadze, and get a sense of how Tbilisi was an object of inspiration and affection for Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Ilia Chavchavadze and the Romanov family.
Walking down to the city, you can stroll along Rustaveli to see Tbilisi’s main landmarks: the Moorish opera, Rustaveli Theater and the Parliament building. If you come in late summer or early fall, take full advantage of numerous fruit stands that offer delicious dates, grapes and peaches. Instead of stopping for lunch on Rustaveli it might be a better idea to walk to Freedom Square, turning left onto Leselidze Street, which has more of a genuine feeling of the town. The street will lead you toward Meidani square, overlooking the serene Metekhi church and statue of King Vakhtang I Gorgasali. From there you can climb up to the Narikala fortress or ramble around the maze of the Old Town, the most venerable and unique part of Tbilisi.
What to see if you have two days
Take a cab and drive to the outskirts of Tbilisi to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. The trip takes only half an hour and will not cost more than 30 lari ($18). Mtskheta has been recently renovated and looks like a mid-sized Prussian town. The difference is the Svetitskhoveli (the Life Giving Pillar) cathedral in its center — one of the most sacred places in Georgia — surrounded by mighty mountains. The cathedral houses graves of the ancient Georgian kings and also the Holy Robe said to have been worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.
Then you can have lunch at Cafe Guga (6 Mamulashvili; on the left of the cathedral’s gates), which offers outstanding Georgian cuisine at low prices. Complete your evening by observing Georgia’s ancient capital from the top of the nearest hill, dominated by the sixth-century Jvari monastery (ask your driver to take you there on the way home for an extra 15 lari).
In Tbilisi itself, if you have time to see museums, visit Simon Janashia’s Museum of Georgia (3 Rustaveli; adult price 1.5 lari), where you can find the country’s main archeological artifacts, dating from the fifth century B.C. The building has been recently renovated and offers a new treat — the Museum of Soviet Occupation, which is an example of how Saakashvili’s government promoted nation-building. The second most important museum in Tbilisi is Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts (1 L. Gudiashvili; 3 lari), which houses the best examples of Georgian artwork, including icons in richly ornate frames.
The National Gallery of Georgia (11 Rustaveli; 5 lari) houses works of Georgia’s most famous painter Niko Pirosmani, whose primitivist work inspired Pablo Picasso, among others.
If you want to take a side trip to Azerbaijan, take a cab and go to Davit Gareja monastery (90 kilometers outside Tbilisi). This rock-carved monastery complex is an object of a border dispute between Tbilisi and Baku. When you go to the other side of the hill you get a “Welcome to Azerbaijan” message on your phone and can consider yourself being in Georgia’s oil-rich neighbor. Crossing the border between these countries is legal.
Another site to see is the Shatili fortress, a complex of fortified dwellings, located 180 kilometers, or about 4 hours by car, northeast of Tbilisi, near the Chechen border.
No visit would be complete without a wine tour in nearby Kakhetia. There are many tours that you can arrange in its capital Telavi (70 kilometers from Tbilisi). In Napareuli, you can visit both small wineries and larger ones, such as Schuchman’s. Alternatively, you can also venture out to Racha (250 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi), to see where Georgia’s most exclusive Usakhelauri wine is made.
Luigi Guarino / FLICKR
The Metekhi church, perched high on a cliff high above the Kura river.
If your idea of how to start a night out is doing something traditional, the world-famous Gabriadze Marionette Theater (Ioane Shavteli Street; +995-32-298-6594) would be the best choice. See “Stalingrad,” which depicts World War II in a moving and metaphorical way. After seeing a play, you can visit the theater’s artistic cafe.
To get a more progressive sense of Tbilisi, go to Cafe Gallery (48 Rustaveli Street; +995-32-292-0053). At night the cafe turns into a first-rate nightclub with a DJ. It welcomes many of Tbilisi’s posh and well-heeled young people.
How To Get There
The only way to travel to Tbilisi from
St. Petersburg is by plane. Ukraine International Airlines flies daily to Tbilisi for an average cost of 9,000 rubles, or $290), but you will have to change in Kiev. The trip takes around 8 hours.
Where To Stay
Tbilisi offers a wide range of hotels, the most upscale and famous of which is the 127-room Tbilisi Marriott Hotel on 13 Rustaveli Avenue, in front of the parliament (+995-32-277-9200,
www.marriott.com). Prices start at $195 per night.
For a less corporate atmosphere, try Betsy’s hotel (32-34 Makashvili Street; +995-32-293-1404) on the lower slopes of Mtatsminda mountain.
You can get a sense of the layout and the natural beauty of Tbilisi’s setting. Prices start at $140 per night.
Hotel Armazi Palace (8 Armazi; +995-32-277-2143) is a cheaper option. Situated near the President’s residence, its prices range from $55 to $110 per night, offering panoramic views of the old town.
Where To Eat
• Purpur (1 A Tbileli Street; +995-32-247-7776) is a cozy restaurant that looks like an old communal apartment. The place is popular with locals and expats. The menu is a mixture of Georgian and European cuisine, and the average check will be 50 lari per person without alcohol.
• Pasanauri (37/46 Griboyedov Street; +995-32-298-8715) is arguably the best Georgian restaurant in town. The owners are usually present, which makes the place feel very homey. Its convenient location near Rustaveli and in front of Cafe Gallery makes it a good place to start a long evening. An average check is 35 lari without alcohol.
• Black Lion (23 Amagleba) is as sophisticated and charming as Purpur, but about half the price.
It is located off Amagleba street in a less touristy part of the old town — continue up Asatiani, turn right at the fork, pass a Populi on your left, then right side of the street — look for a painting of a black lion on a wall. The bill will set you back 25 lari without alcohol.