Exotic, Cultured Tbilisi

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2005)

There’s something intriguing about a city whose main street has been swallowed up by culture. Take Tbilisi, Georgia. Its grand Rustavelis Gamziri Boulevard – named after the national poet – houses the opera house, National Museum, Gallery of Modern Art, National Theater, bookshops, a historic church and even – to top it all off – a Soviet-era culture and sports hall for youth.

Whereas in America the prime real estate is usually appropriated by big business, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare is a testament, on an epic scale, to a love of the finer things in life. True, unemployment may high, but at least the Georgians have their priorities in order.

Since 1990, when Georgia won its independence from the Soviet Union, tumultuous changes have occurred. Uprisings in the western province of Abkhazia and the mountainous central region of Ossetia during the 1990’s caused major disruptions and slowed the country’s transition to a market economy. Since Georgians suspected that these rebels had the tacit backing of Moscow, anti-Russian feelings are widespread.

Westerners, on the other hand, can count on a warm reception in the city of the warm springs (as Tbilisi is known in Georgian). The U.S. and other governments have taken a keen interest in the country’s welfare, both to pull it out of the Russian sphere of influence and to safeguard a major oil pipeline, now under construction, that will connect Azerbaijan and Turkey – by way of Georgia. This influence means that Georgia (urban Georgia at least) is turning to the west – as is evidenced by the handful of popular Irish pubs, Mexican restaurants and internet cafés in Tbilisi’s center. While the exotic Georgian alphabet (one of the world’s original fourteen) is completely impenetrable to outsiders, the well-educated and friendly younger generations are glad to speak English.

Despite this new westward orientation, the Tbilisilebi (as the city’s inhabitants are known) have maintained a tenacious hold on their traditional culture. Although it has been sacked, ravaged and rebuilt countless times over the past two millennia, Tbilisi has always been marked by its unique spirit of renewal. Despite suffering many hardships over the past 12 years, Georgians keep optimistic about the future through their passion for music, literature, dance and – wine.

Indeed, should you be lucky enough to be invited to a Georgian feast, be prepared to eat, drink and be merry – and then drink some more. Georgians are legendary in their love of wine, which is believed to have originated in the fertile plains of east Georgia (even the word ‘vino’ derives from the Georgian). But, be careful – they use any excuse whatsoever to make a toast, and visitors especially are celebrated. Usually, the glass-draining invocation honors essential things: children, friends, prosperity, and the beauty of females, including Mother Georgia herself.

Greeting visitors with a bowl of wine and enemies with a sword, the colossal statue of Georgia’s matriarch overlooks all from a hilltop in Tbilisi’s oldest quarter. Known as Abanotubani, this neighborhood lies along the south bank of the meandering Mtkvari River, which cuts Tbilisi in half. Abanotubani (and the narrow streets adjacent) attest to the city’s multitude of histories. Here stand a mysterious assortment of buildings that attest to the unkempt, overlapping rules of Turks, Persians, Byzantines – and the Georgians themselves.

Indeed, the skyline of the Old Town is crowded with relics from Tbilisi’s past – especially religious. Within view lie a synagogue, Armenian Orthodox cathedral, Catholic church, Sunni mosque, and several Georgian Orthodox churches. Many contain superb paintings and architecture, and all are worth a visit.

Strangest of all, and perhaps most rewarding, are the ancient baths of Abanotubani. Appearing like enormous stone bubbles rippling out of the ground, they certainly can’t be missed. And nor should they be. Like their more famous cousins in Turkey, the Abanotubani baths are full of heat, steam, smooth marble and opulent treatment. The most famous (Orbeliani) Bath features multi-colored tiled walls. Six different bath complexes are now operating. Personal massages are very inexpensive, and an entire room (which fits several people) can be rented for under £10 per hour.

Tbilisi is also a great place for shopping. Its ubiquitous street vendors hawk everything from roasted chestnuts to works of art – keep on the lookout, as sometimes antiques of real value turn up. Prices are relatively low, and one can always try bargaining.

Indeed, Tbilisi owes some of its charm to the lingering spirit of artful commerce. It is not completely unknown for a shopkeeper lacking a cash register to calculate one’s change on an abacus.

Yet, Tbilisi has also become a center for modern fashion, combining Western chic with an exotic Eastern flair. The best (and priciest) shops are located in the posh neighborhood of Vake, near the prestigious State University.

After a day of exploring, it’s time to enjoy Tbilisi’s vibrant nightlife. Cozy restaurants serving Georgian and international cuisine abound, and upscale bars and clubs can be found on Akhvledianis Kucha (near the Republic Square, in the very center), and also in Vake – Tbilisi’s place to see-and-be-seen.

Visitors who spend more than a few days in Tbilisi may also want to check out some of the nearby attractions. Best of all is Mtskheta, Georgia’s medieval capital. Located about 15 miles west of Tbilisi, at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers, Mtskheta is significant as the place where Georgia’s first Christian, the legendary St. Nino, arrived in the year 337. When she converted the king (a pagan), Georgia became the second Christian country in the world, after Armenia.

Now, a Unesco World Heritage Site, Mtskheta features the enormous cathedral of Sveti-Tskhoveli, where for centuries the coronations of Georgian kings took place. Just outside the cathedral sits a giant, iron-clad bell, illustrated with saints, pious inscriptions and- of course- grapes.

Overlooking everything is the hilltop church of Jvari, another stunning testament to Georgia’s past. Standing upon Jvari’s windy promontory, one has a commanding view of Georgia’s rugged green mountains, and the rivers that give life to the city of the warm springs.