Three days in Tbilisi
and one day in the countryside
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia entered 25 turmoil years of instability: a war with Russia, civil wars and corrupted politicians. The last 2-3 years the country is trying to put itself back into the map as a modern and stable country investing its national psyche into tourism.
Walking in Tbilisi, the capital of the country, you have the impression of being in a huge open-air museum (музей под открытым небом) of architecture. The past times wealth is obvious in every street and every square of this impressive city. Being part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for more than two centuries left the city with indelible architectural marks.
a bit of geography
I have visited the other two countries of the Transcaucasia (Armenia and Azerbaijan) some years ago, so for long I had the feeling something was missing. So, I seized the opportunity of a direct flight with Aegean Airlines from Athens to Tbilisi, to accomplish my mission: to get to know the western part of this marvelous part of the world.
A two and a half hours flight brought me in the small but modern “Shota Rustaveli” International airport of Tbilisi. From the moment you enter the country you think that everything is named after Rustaveli, the medieval Georgian poet known mainly as the author of the poem “The Knight in the Panther's Skin”, which is considered to be the Georgian national epic poem.
Rustaveli and “The Knight in the Panther's Skin”
Shota Rustaveli is considered to be the preeminent poet of the Georgian Golden Age and one of the greatest contributors to Georgian literature.
Rustaveli is the author of “The Knight in the Panther's Skin” (or the Knight in the Tiger’s skin, according to some). We do not know much about him from contemporary sources, but he is assumed to have been born around 1160 . A legend states that Rustaveli was educated at the medieval Georgian academies of Gelati and Ikalto, and then in the Byzantine Empire. Most probably he produced his major work at the first decade of the 13th century.
“The Knight in the Panther's Skin”, takes place in the fictional settings of exotic "India" and "Arabia". The events taking place in these distant lands are nothing but a colorful allegory of the rule of Queen Tamar of Georgia, and the size and glory of the Kingdom of Georgia in its Golden Age. It tells us about the friendship of two heroes, Avtandil and Tariel, and their quest to find the object of love, Nestan-Darejan, an allegorical embodiment of Queen Tamar. These idealized heroes and devoted friends are united by courtly love, generosity, sincerity, dedication, and proclaim equality between men and women, which is a recurring theme. The poem is regarded as the coronation of thought, poetic and philosophical art of medieval Georgia, a complex work with rich and transcending genres. It bears to this day "the Georgian vision of the world".
In 1977 the prominent soviet musician Alexi Matchavariani wrote the music for “The knight in the tiger's skin”, ballet in 2 acts. Libretto by Y. Grigorovich. It’s first production staged in Leningrad, at “Kirov” (Mariisky) theatre, choreographed by O. Vinogradov. The music first published in 1982 on “Мелодия” label.
The taxi ride from the airport to the city center costs 30 lari (3 lari=1 euro) and it takes about 30 minutes.
We arrived at “Old key hotel” (114, David Agmashenebeli Ave) at 5 o’clock in the morning. Check-in was fast and we went for some hours sleep to be able to enjoy later our first day in Tbilisi.
Tbilisi metro has 2 lines, but only 5-6 stations of the red line is of any interest to the tourists. To ride the train you need a metrocard which costs 2 lari. You can add any value of money on top of it and you are ready to use any bus, underground train or cable car. Every ride costs ½ lari and with that amount you can change as many vehicles you want in the next 90min after ticket validation.
(walking around the city center)
We got the metro from Marjanisvily station and got off at the next stop, which is Rustaveli station, at Rustaveli square.
Rustaveli avenue is the main artery of the city and runs from Rustaveli square to Liberty Square (former Lenin square) for about 1,5 Km. Rustaveli is a noisy avenue, but as it is lined both sides with huge plane trees, the pavements are wide and there are benches everywhere to rest, you have a very pleasant feeling walking along it.
Almost all major attractions of modern Tbilisi are on Rustaveli avenue: McDonald’s, Khinkali House (a restaurant where you can try Khinkali and other traditional Georgian dishes), the Georgian Academy of Sciences (a triumphant soviet building in "Georgian style", enclosing a wonderful aerial cable station), Rose Revolution square, the Biltmore Hotel (former IMELI, the impressive soviet building of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, which today unfortunately is deprived of all its soviet sculptures), Moma Tbilisi, Opera and Ballet Theater, Georgian Fine Arts Museum, Church of Saint George Kashueti, Parliament of Georgia, Georgian National Museum, Griboyedov Theater, etc.
The following pictures give three examples of soviet architecture, which is predominant in Rustaveli avenue.
Tbilisi is a very polluted city and when we were in the city, there was also lots of dust in the air. Probably that was because 2017 was a very dry year. "It hasn’t rain for 4 months", they told us.
Traffic is bad. Even though lots have been done the last years to improve the situation, still traffic is very chaotic. Cars are parked everywhere and the worst is that the city does not know what traffic lights are. There are traffic lights (which are modern and count the remaining time till next red or green light turns on), but not everywhere… and certainly not where you need them: the big roads. Of course, this is something we have experiensed in many other ex-soviet cities, like Moscow or Kiev.
Zebra crossings: one has to be very careful crossing the streets. Zebra crossings are just white lines painted on the street... they mean nothing to the drivers, who seem to target you the moment you put your foot on the road. I had a very serious argument with one driver, who nearly knocked me down: instead of him slowing down he accelerated towards me... I had to run to save my life. Believe me I live in Athens and I know what traffic means, but this is much worse!
The city is not senior/wheelchair friendly: lots of up and downs, pot holes in the streets, bad pavements, lots of stairs, etc. One has to consider these issues if has mobility problems.
There are lots of stray dogs in the streets and in the countryside. The ones in Tbilisi are all marked (their ears are marked with a small label) and very peacful and amiable, but rabis is common, so take the reasonable precautions.
Liberty Square is the gateway to the medieval Old Tbilisi, an area with narrow twisted roads and wooden houses, cheap hostels for the young and adventurous, fruit stalls and small food shops for you to satisfy your appetite or to quench your thirst, very old churches and public baths, neglected but intriguing back yards where one can see the real life of Tbilisians.
A walk in Old Tbilisi
The best way to explore Old Tbilisi and see most of its attractions is to start your walk from Liberty Square and to follow Kote Afkhazi street to the Synagogue and then get into the pedestrian area around Erekle II street.
Erekle II turn is a small pedestrian street with lots of cafés, bars and traditional restaurants. All restaurants here are catering for the tourists, but the food is acceptable and the atmosphere is very relaxed and gay.
Stop here at Boom café for a cold coffee. Don't expect anything like the rich taste of "Freddo Coffee" in Athens or the frothy "Frape coffee" in Thessaloniki, but still if it hot and humid and you die for a coffee go for this.
Follow the Jan Shardeni street to reach the Metekhi bridge. Stand in the middle of the bridge and enjoy this beautiful city, the beautiful views of the river Kura, the Narikala Fortress and the Metekhi Church.
The area around Jan Shardeni and Rkinis Rigi streets are full of noisy bars and night clubs.
Continue south to Vakhtang Gorgasali Square and follow Samghebro street to visit the State museum of Georgian folk Songs and Instruments. Then, enter Abano street where the Archeological Museum is and stop to enjoy the sulfur stream coming down from Narikala Citadel and the bath houses standing on both its banks.
Haidar Aliyev garden is the best place to have a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice or ice-cream rolls. There are plenty of street vendors to choose.
All day long you walked lots through streets and monuments and famous buildings and museums; now you certainly deserve some good, fulfilling food! Here is your best choice of a restaurant and the highlight of your day: the "Bread House" (7 Vakhtang Gorgasali St).
Its name is self-explanatory: Bread House bakes fresh delicious Georgian bread, scrumptious Khatsapuri and all kind of traditional local plates made of fresh ingredients. We tried: aubergines with walnuts, trout with pomegranade sauce, baked mashrooms and khachapuri.
The prices are very good and the selection of wines big... Bread House is the place to satisfy all your culinary needs in Tbilisi!
After such an excellent, plenteous meal what is better than some coffee at Leila café? Leila Café is located at Ioane Shavteli street just opposite Anchiskhati Basilica and just some meters away from the famous Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater and Tbilisi Puppet Museum.
Leila café was our last stop of the day before going back to the hotel. A cup of hot Turkish (or is it Greek, or Armenian?) coffee really awakens the senses, but coffee is not really the reason we stopped by at Leila. The real purpose of our visit here was what accompanies that cap of coffee: a small, round ball of pleasure topped by half walnut: a kaklucha! Kaklucha (2 lari) is a traditional cake made of walnut paste covered with crunchy caramel. Unfortunately, not many places serve kaklucha today. So, Leila is THE place.
The following pictures give some examples of pre-soviet Georgian architecture in old Tbilisi.
let's talk about desserts
Because of its location on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and its proximity to lucrative east-west trade routes, Georgia has been rich in its varieties of food.
Its desserts are based mainly into nuts and fruits. Georgians love walnuts, dry fruit and grapes. Especially grapes!
All peoples in the area (Greeks, Persians, Turks, Armenians) are very familiar with the Georgian desserts as they also produce and love them, even though they call them by different names.
Badagi (petimezi in Greek) is a pressed and condensed grape juice used in Georgian cuisine for making popular sweets/desserts such as pelamushi, churchkhela, kaklucha and grape tklapi.
Few Georgians know about the sweet secret of the Orbeliani Royal Candies. (Vakhtang Orbeliani was a famous Georgian poet of the 18th century). The authors of the secret recipe were the daughter of the poet, Mariam Orbeliani and her cook Pelagia. They have created delicious sweets with caramelized sugar and walnuts, which are called kaklucha. Nowadays you can’t find them easily, but once you try them, you will absolutely fall in love with the so called “Pearls of the Sun”!
With the help of a needle, halves of several walnuts or full hazelnuts are put on a thread. Dry fruit can also be used instead of nuts, but walnuts is the preferred material. Walnuts are at their best in autumn, freshly harvested.
Flour, sugar or honey, and grape juice are mixed on the high heat and then a strand of threaded nuts is placed inside the hot mixture and coated (this is the same technique monks use to make candles). The strand needs several days to dry well on the sun and then you can enjoy the crispy and nutritious Churchkhela. Besides grape juice other fruit juice can be used, like apricot or plum.
Churchkhelas can be stored for several months; older ones are well dried and mature but the new ones are soft and juicy.
Wherever you are in Georgia you see multicolor churchkhelas hanging for sale and from a distance they can be mistaken for jewelry.
The mix used to coat Churchkhela is called Tatara or Pelamushi.
It is a mouthwatering dessert even without nuts. Locals serve it in small bowls or nowadays they shape them into small hemispheres or bigger cakes on biscuit base, like cheesecake.
I have to admit, that the sugarless pelamushi served in Barbarestan Restaurant in Aghmashenebeli avenue is the best. It has a deep purple colour and you really cannot resist to have more than one piece.
Tklapi is a pureed fruit roll-up "leather". It is spread thinly onto a sheet and sun-dried on a clothesline.
It can be sour or sweet. The sour version is made of Tkemali plums, which are often used for soups and stews, mostly in Kharcho soup.
Sweet Tklapi is made of appricots or peaches. It can also be prepared by the juice that is used in making Churchkhela.
more useful tips
People. Georgian people are very generous to tourists, courteous and smiley. Nothing like the sullen, glum and dull faces you see in other ex-soviet or eastern european countries. Here, people are always willing to help and to talk with you.
In Tbilisi, almost all younger people speak English. The older people and those in the countryside speak mostly Russian, so some knowledge of it would be very useful.
Service. Even though people in restaurants and cafes are smiley, do not expect them to be very prompt and eager to serve you. People are rather slow and relaxed. Do not expect food to arrive on time on your table or all people around the table to be served at the same time. Expect some plates to come 30 minutes after the first ones. Probably this has to do with the facilities of the restaurants: usually they have very small kitchens and it is difficult to prepare several plates at the same time. So, consume whatever comes to your table and do not wait the rest to arrive, because otherwise you going to have a cold meal. At the beginning, all these seem rather inconvenient, but after some time you get used to this.... or even enjoy it. Just stay back and relax... life is very short to be stressful after all.
(up in the sky and along the river)
Such a smart story teller. I live in Tbilisi and reading your post made me love this place more. Reading the way a foreigner sees my city made me love it more!