Tbilisi is the ultimate cliché—the crossroads of many cultures and ethnic backgrounds that come together to create a bewildering and fascinating cocktail with a tumultuous history. I am trawling the streets of Old Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, located in the heart of the Caucasus region, between Europe and Asia; tucked between Russia and Turkey. Tbilisi is a patchwork of architectural styles. It has everything from Art Nouveau buildings to Gothic and Baroque churches, and Soviet architecture with Byzantine, European, and Middle Eastern influences.
The city’s eclectic architecture reflects its long, complicated history that includes multiple invasions from Persians and Byzantines to Russians and Ottoman. Decades of neglect, earthquakes and Soviet rule have taken a toll on many buildings. High above the Sololaki Hill stands the statue of Mother of Georgia, holding a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The statue was erected in 1958 to mark the city’s 1,500th anniversary.
One of the oldest places in the town, Abanotubani or the Bath District has dome-shaped sulphur baths made of bricks. These baths have been visited by many famous people, including Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas who is said to have felt “strong enough to lift a mountain” after soaking in its waters. The name Tbilisi comes from the word Tbili which means warm and is derived from the hot springs that still exist. As per the legend, King Vakhtang found the town in the 5th century on the site where his falcon found a pheasant cooked in the hot waters. Today, the sulphur baths in the Bath District are used by locals and tourists at a very nominal fee.
History whispers from every corner of the old town. Walking through Old Tbilisi, I saw a mosque, synagogue, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches within a few steps of each other, showcasing religious tolerance and the spirit of inclusiveness.
To gets a bird’s eye view of the city, I took a cable car that takes you uphill to the Narikala Fortress, which was first built in the 4th century. It has been destroyed and restored many times. As I walk down the hill, I stroll through the Betlemi neighbourhood where the locals live in restored mansions with the similar balconies and large courtyards festooned with laundry lines. The aroma of freshly-baked bread wafts from the neighbourhood bakeries and small stalls sell fresh pomegranate juice. I even saw a wedding party dressed in their finery, posing outside the Armenian Church.
Dotting Old Town are ancient caravanserais where the traders on the Silk route used to camp with their caravans and camels. The caravanserais offer storage space on the ground floor and living quarters on the higher floors. At the Dry Bridge Flea Market, I came across poignant reminders of the dark Soviet era—old gas masks and helmets, Lenin busts, silver cutlery, religious icons, fur hats, tea glasses, vintage maps and posters.
I took a break outside Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater which has a teetering tower decorated with colourful mosaics, and chiming of the hour with a parade of figurines. One of my most memorable experiences in the city is watching the members of one of the leading dance groups of the country, Rustavi, who have visited more than 80 countries, practice their moves of Georgian folk dance. I saw the men prancing confidently as women, with taut body language, pirouetted and moved in synchronized lines. It was heartwarming to see ancient traditions of music and dance being preserved by the younger generation.
After Georgia’s bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003, many glass and steel buildings popped up to form the new landscape. Today, Tbilisi is home also to the tubular steel Rhike Park Concert Hall as well as the Tbilisi Public Hall that looks like a cluster of mushrooms. This is a one stop shop for locals—to obtain passports, marriage registration certificates, and other permits and documents. “Almost all the brand-new public service buildings, such as the police station, are made of glass referring to the government's aim to be democratic and transparent,” explains David Sujasvili, our local guide.
A renaissance is palpable all over the city. Fabrika is an old Soviet-era sewing factory which was converted into a 400-room hostel with a colourful façade. The quirky building has art and craft shops that stock retro posters, stationary, glass ware and funky bags. The courtyard of the hostel is a lively place in the evenings with fairy lights decorative and young people meeting for a drink.
I visited the city’s oldest church, Anchiskhati Basilica, located at the heart of the Old Town. Inside its incense-scented interiors, that come alive with frescoes and old art work, I was lucky to chance upon a Georgian family celebrating the baptism ceremony of their son. Black-robed priests flit around, engrossed in the rites, and women lit candles, dispelling the darkness.
To get an insight into the city’s food culture, I headed to the Deserters bazaar sprawling over 2000 metres near the Central station and gritty Soviet era buildings. The food market is called “dezertirebi” because in the 1920s army deserters from the Russian- Georgian war sold their weapons here. The market has fresh, green herbs, large blocks of Sulguni cheese, and creamy matsoni yogurt on offer, among others. Another interesting food item found commonly is a traditional Georgian candle-shaped candy called Churchkhela-a local version of Snickers with walnuts dipped in concentrated grape juice.
“We have survived dark times, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a civil war, and a revolution,” says my local guide. “We have somehow managed to preserve our own language, alphabet, religion and culture,” she added proudly. Over the past five years the country has started to attract foreign investment and tourism and is in the throes of a change. Its stunning architecture, food and wine have made it popular with tourists and this is only the beginning.