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.
(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)
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Our first stop: the Holy Trinity Cathedral, commonly known as Sameba. This ambitious building finished in 2004 and is the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church is an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church in full communion with the other churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. It is Georgia's dominant religious institution. It asserts Apostolic foundation, and its historical roots can be traced to the Christianization of Iberia by Saint Nino in the 4th century AD.
After having walked a lot in little streets and leafy avenues, it was time to see Tbilisi from above.
The Aerial Tramway (cable car) opened in 2012 and connects Rikhe Park (Europe Square) with Sololaki Hill, Kartlis Deda and Narikala Fortress.
The ride up costs 2,5 lari (paid by Metrocard) and offers great views during its 2 minutes journey.
Kartlis Deda (mother of a Georgian/Kartli) is a huge statue which was erected on the top of Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. Prominent Georgian sculptor Elguja Amashukeli designed the twenty-meter aluminium figure of a woman in Georgian national dress. She symbolizes the Georgian national character: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends, and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies.
Narikala is an impressive fortress overlooking the old city and the river.
The fortress consists of two walled sections on a steep hill between the sulphur baths and the botanical gardens.
On the lower court there is the recently restored St Nicholas church. Newly built in 1997, it replaced the original 13th-century church which was destroyed in a fire. The internal part of the church is decorated with frescos showing scenes both from the Bible and history of Georgia.
The fortress was established in the 4th century as Shuris-tsikhe ("Invidious Fort"). It was considerably expanded by the Umayyads in the 7th century and later, by king David the Builder (11th century). The Mongols renamed it to "Narin Qala" ("Little Fortress"). Most of extant fortifications date from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1827, parts of the fortress were damaged by an earthquake and demolished.
Besides taking the cable car to reach the fortress, one can take Orbiri street (just opposite the main entrance of State museum of Georgian folk Songs and Instruments) and walk up, or take the car to some point up and then continue on foot.
the boat trip
Back from the Sololaki Hill looking for a cool place to escape from the intense sun.
Borani cafe is an excellent place under the trees and just on the river bank off Europe Square.
Borani cafe is built on two levels: the top level is a cafeteria and the bottom one is a traditional restaurant.
What makes the place really interesting is that they have boats to take you up and down the river. For just 20 lari per person we had a 30 minute trip in the river, on a small catamaran boat.
They even have a floating restaurant for thematic or party dinners.
The highest point of the city is Mount Mtatsminda (meaning the Holy Mountain).
Mtatsminda Park is a famous landscaped park located at the top of Mount Mtatsminda (at a height above 720m) overlooking the Georgian capital. The park has carousels, water slides, a roller-coaster, and a big Ferris Wheel offering a splendid view of the city. The park was founded by the Soviet government in the 1930s and was once noted as the 3rd most visited public park in the USSR.
Next to the park is standing Tbilisi TV Broadcasting Tower, a free-standing tower structure used for communications purposes. The tower was built in 1972 and replaced a structure, built in 1955, which was moved to the vicinity of the city of Gori.
There are two ways to reach all the facilities on Mount Mtatsminda. The long way: bus No 124. The bus ride lasts about 20-30 minutes, as it stops at several neighborhoods around the mountain. Nevertheless, the road is newly build and of good condition.
The other way to reach the top of the mountain, the most spectacular one, is to take the Tbilisi Funicular.
The lower station of the Funicular is located at Daniel Chonqadze Street.
There is an intermediate stop before reaching the top of the mountain, at the Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures, which is a necropolis, where some of the most prominent writers, artists, scholars, and national heroes of Georgia are buried. It is located in the churchyard around St. David’s Church "Mamadaviti" and was officially established in 1929.
After a long hot day, what is better than a cup or cone of ice cream?
Back to our neighborhood and off to Luca Polare at David Aghmashenebeli avenue.... just some blocks from our hotel.
I do not think that Tbilisi could be remembered for its ice cream, but there is a chain of 5 ice cream shops (established in 2008 in Tbilisi), which could satisfy your need for ice cream. Try the pistachio... my favorite.
Let's talk about Food (Part I - bread)
not simply bread
The first think that comes into our mind, when we think of Georgia, is Khachapuri (Khacha=cheese and puri=bread). There are many “puri” in this country and certainly much more than that.
Traditional Georgian bread comes in many variations, and includes Tonis Puri, Khacha Puri, Shotis Puri, Mesxuri Puri and Mchadi. Georgian bread is traditionally baked in a large, round, well-shaped oven called tone (similar to the tandoori oven).
Khatchapuri comes into many varieties, but the most common ones are the Imeruli which has cheese only inside and the Megruli khachapuri which has cheese both inside and on the top.
Megruli is a flatbread that is stuffed with a layer of cheese (usually, Imeruli cheese or/and Sulguni cheese), then topped with grated sulguni cheese and baked to golden. Shortly before it is finished, slabs of sulguni are added to the top and it’s briefly returned to the oven so they can melt just a bit.
Achma has multiple layers and looks more like a sauceless lasagna.
Osuri khachapuri has potato, as well as cheese, in its filling. It is commonly called Khabizgini.
Penovani khachapuri is made with puff pastry dough, resulting in a flaky variety of the pie.
Acharuli could also quailify as a khachapuri. It’s a deep filled cheese boat! Loaded with cottage cheese, then topped with sulguni cheese, and browned in the oven. It’s served by being topped with a raw egg that cooks on the hot cheese, as well as a wedge of butter that melts all over. Tear off generous pieces of the outer bread crust to dip in the cheesy centre.
This is really a magical dish of heart clogging proportions.
Lobiani is a bean-filled bread. The most popular is Rachuli Lobiani, like a Khachapuri, but with beans and bacon inside.
The word "Lobiani" comes from the Georgian word for kidney beans, which is "Lobio".
Lobiani is especially eaten on the Georgian holiday of Barbaroba, or St. Barbara’s Day (December 17).
(at the markets)
Next day, we decided to take it easy. We woke up rather late and we decided to have a coffee and Pelamushi at Barbarestan. Yummy Yummy!
We sat outside (it has only 3 small tables outside), as I love to sit and watch people passing by. The previous days, we tried to sit outside, but all tables were occupied.
The very gentle young man announced us that they do not serve Pelamushi before 12:30 p.m. To tell you the truth I did not understand why...so we were very disappointed. At least we had some nice Turkish coffee anyway.
Barbaristan is a restaurant that serves “Georgian fusion” cuisine. I have big reservations about that kind of restaurants in general. I went thru the menu the first day we visited and there was really nothing interesting for me to eat as a firstcomer in the country. Whichever site about Tbilisi you visit you read the best reviews about this restaurant. Obviously, they have very good PR! But, I should not be bitchy: maybe it is a good restaurant for the locals who need something different than the traditional establishments, but not good for the tourist who wants to taste the genius Georgian cuisine the 2-3 days visiting the city.
main Railway station
We walked to the main Railway station. The absolute chaos. It is almost impossible to find the main station building, as there is an adjasent to it shopping mall, a casino (!) and lots of small shops and sheds selling everyhing you can think of.
This is an early 90s building which replaced a wonderful 40s stalinistic building.
To escape from the bustling streets, the crowds and the noise we headed towards Vake neighborhood.
Vake neighborhood is an upscale neighborhood south of river Vere, between the Tbilisi Zoo to the east and Vake park to the west.
It is probably the most “European” neighborhood of the city, with nice cafes, brand shops and a relaxed and quiet atmosphere. Tabla Saloon is a nice restaurant if you feel hungry. We visited Paul café for a more “Parisian” and familiar feeling and of course the typical chocolate cheesecake.
Dry Bridge Flea Market
At the east end of Saarbrucken Bridge, at the Dadaena Park by the river, there is an open air daily flea market. It is called the Dry Bridge Market.
The area is huge and one can find old soviet memorabilia, useless machinery parts, paintings and other artifacts, old books and music records. Do not expect anything really of a value or real antiques here. If you are after real antiques you have to check into the shops around the park.
Davit Aghmashenebeli ave.
When I booked the hotel I had no idea which neighborhood is beautiful and appropriate for our stay. As always, my criterion was the convenience of commuting. Of course, I checked some pictures and “google street”, but when our taxi (coming from the airport) entered into David Agmashenebeli Ave, I was really confident and complacent because I had chosen a really beautiful place to stay.
David Agmashenebeli Ave is a long street (about 2 km long) on the eastern bank of the Kura river: starting from Saarbrucken square and ending at Giorgi Tsabadze street, just a block away from Dinamo Market.
The avenue has been refurbished recently. All the buildings of the street have gone a thorough renovation (at least the facades, as like in many streets in Tbilisi, the back of the buildings is much neglected and sometimes in ruins) showing off the amazingly beauty of the buildings.
Tsarist architecture prevails, but there are also some excellent examples of soviet architecture here.
The lower part of David Agmashenebeli Ave (the one close to Saarbrucken square), has been recently pedestrianized for about half kilometer and has been transformed into a very beautiful neighborhood full of cafes, restaurants, clubs and street entertainment. People hanging around, street musicians, lights and laughter in a very relaxing and gay atmosphere.
Let's talk about Food (Part II)
The Georgian cuisine is unique to the country, but also carries some influences from European and nearby middle eastern and central asian culinary traditions. Each historical province of Georgia has its own distinct culinary tradition, with variations. Rich with meat dishes, the Georgian cuisine also offers a variety of vegetarian dishes and bread.
Georgian cuisine is the result of the broad interplay of culinary ideas carried along the trade routes by merchants and travelers alike. The importance of both food and drink to Georgian culture is best observed during a feast called supra, when a huge assortment of dishes is prepared, always accompanied by large amounts of wine, and that can last for hours. In a Georgian feast, the role of the tamada (toastmaster) is an important and honored position. Toasting is an art and can last for long, a habit shared with many countries in the area, especially the ones which used to be part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Russian poet Alexander Pushkin asserted that "every Georgian dish is a poem". I suppose that feeling is shared among peoples in the area as Georgian restaurants have a prevailing position in Russia and Ukraine today.
I have to admit that as a Greek of the north, I am very familiar with many of the Georgian dishes, but what I found in Georgia had a unique touch and a great imagination.
Badrijai Nigvzit is an eggplant (aubergine) with walnuts and spices dish. This is primary a summer dish due to the seasonality of eggplants of course and it is served cold. Thick slices of fried eggplant are wrapped around a paste made of walnuts, garlic and spices.
There is a love for eggplants in Georgia, as it is in all countries in the area, from Greece to Iran, and certainly my beloved summer treat.
There are plenty of mushrooms around, so what comes more natural than coating them in butter and throw them into the oven!?
The most popular Georgian version is the one of mushrooms filled with sulguni cheese and baked. Georgian cuisine is definitely celebrating putting various kinds of tasty staff into hot ovens.
Chakapuli is a sour stew made with tarragon. Typically it is served with lamb or chicken but we also tried the mushroom version which is just delicious: chopped mushrooms of any kind into a rich broth with tarragon.
Shashlik (meaning skewered meat in Turkish) was originally made of chunks of lamb. Nowadays it is also made of pork or beef, depending on local preferences and religious observances.
The skewers are either threaded with meat only, or with alternating pieces of meat, fat and vegetables, such as bell pepper, onion, mushroom and tomato. In Georgian it is called mtsvadi and in Armenian khorovats.
The best shashlik in Athens is served in the Russian (Greek Pontiac) taverna Velentina in Kalithea. Deliciously marinated big chunks of port, lamp, beef or chicken/turkey.
Certainly, these plates I describe here are just a small portion of the opulence of Georgian cuisine. You have to visit yourself and discover more.... I will certainly do it myself, as I am sure I will return to Georgia soon.
If during your visit in Tbilisi you have an extra day to spare, try to visit some of the towns and other attractions away from the city.
A usual (and rather tiring) tour is the one we did: Mtskheta (including Jvari Monastery), Gori and Uplistsikhe caves. One can rent a car and do these and more at his own pace, but we decided to take a taxi (a privet car, that is), as our driver Evrard was more than eager to do this for 150 lari.
The itinerary Edvard chose, was:
👍 From Tbilisi to Jvari Monastery (just outside Mtskheta) on "Leselidze Hwy/A1 (22 km),
👍 From Jvari to Gori on Hwy E60 (52 km),
👍 From Gori to Uplistsikhe via “Zahesi-Mtskheta-Kavtiskhevi-Gori” & “Uplistsikhe Complex” provincial Roads (14 km),
👍 From Mtskheta to Tbilisi (22 km).
The first two legs of our jouney we traveled on well build highways. The rest we traveled on provincial roads.
The provincial roads are in a very poor condition with unexpected deep pot holes, which are very dangerous, as they appear every now and then and could easily throw you out of the road or break your car down. However, Edvard decided to take the provincial roads (on our way back from Gori), for us to see the rural life. Be very careful and always alert if you decide to do these roads on your own.
The countryside is really beautiful: valleys, high hills and green villages here and there. On the E60 there are several refugee camps build during/after the wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see the map at the very beginning of this page).
Jvari Monastery stands on the rocky hilltop at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, overlooking the town of Mtskheta. The view over the town and the surrounding area is stunning.
On this location, in the early 4th century, Saint Nino, a female evangelist credited with converting King Mirian III to Christianity, erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. A small church was erected over the remnants of the wooden cross.
The present building, or "Great Church of Jvari", was built at the end of the 6th century.
One last tip
A general comment for your travel in Georgia between towns or when visiting isolated places of interest: I recommend using taxis or organized tour agents instead of marshrutkas, especially if you do not speak the language.
Transport is in general very cheap and one can shop around offers as there are lots of travel agents (official or unofficial) in cities and towns. Some times these “agents” are just mini vans or cars parked at central places or any street advertising their tours (by using posters or by just shouting).
Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities in Georgia and it is located approximately 25 km north of Tbilisi. The trip from Tbilisi lasts 25-30 minute. One can visit the city on public transport (minibus “marshrutka”) for just 1 lari (each way). For taking the marshrutka: first arrive by metro at Didube metro station and then follow the crowds to Dadube Bus Station which is nearby.
Due to its historical significance and several cultural monuments, Mtskheta became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. As the birthplace and one of the most vibrant centers of Christianity in Georgia, Mtskheta was declared as the "Holy City" by the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2014.
Mtskheta is a small town and one can easily stroll around its streets and enjoy the little shops and restaurants (catering mostly for tourists) and buy tacky souvenirs.
If it is to visit just one place in town that is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Known as the burial site of Christ's mantle, Svetitskhoveli has long been one of the principal Georgian Orthodox churches and is among the most venerated places of worship in the region. The present structure was completed in 1029 by the medieval Georgian architect Arsukisdze, although the site itself dates back to the early fourth century.
While inside the church, look for a 13th century fresco of the "Beast of the Apocalypse", the Symbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and several buriers, as Svetitskhoveli was not only the site of the coronation of the Georgian kings but also served as their burial place.
Outside the walls of the Cathedral there are street vendors selling everything from fruit juice to rags.
Built on the high rocky left bank of the Mtkvari river, Uplistsikhe contains various structures (cave clusters and buildings) dating from the Early Iron Age to the late Middle Ages, and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture.
At the summit of the complex there is a Christian three-nave basilica built of stone and brick in the 9th-10th centuries.
There is an entrance fee of 5 lari for the archeological site, but visiting the place is not recemented to those who have mobility problems: there are just a few stairs at the beginning of the tour and then almost nothing. Further up, there are some steps curved onto the rock, but for most of the visit one has to climb up and down steep rocks based only on the good friction between his shoes and the rock!
The exit is not signed well and I was wandering around for long (my knees still ache) trying to find it. You better ask a guide (there are lots around) for "the tunnel out": there is a tunnel curved into the rock which leads you out of the structures down to the banks of the river.
Gori & the Stalin museum
The city of Gori houses several notable cultural and historical landmarks: the Gori Fortress, which is built on a cliffy hill overlooking the central part of the modern city, the 18th century St George's church of Gorijvari, a popular place of pilgrimage, the town hall, etc
But, let's be realistic, Gori is principally known as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, and tourists flock to visit the Stalin Museum, which is the main touristic income of the city.
Despite what we have been told in the west, Gori is very proud of its son Stalin and until recently there was a huge Stalin monument in front of the City Hall. The monument was a source of controversy in a newly independent Georgia in the 1990s, but for several years the post-communist government acceded to the Gori citizens' request and left the statue untouched. It was ultimately removed in 2010 (in the middle of the night).
However, in 2012, the municipal assembly of Gori voted to reinstate the monument. I do not know the reason of the delay, but the monument does not stand in front of the City Hall, yet.
1st Section: Stalin's House
Enshrined within a Greco-Italianate pavilion is a small wooden hut, in which supposedly Stalin was born in 1878 and spent his first four years. The small hut has two rooms on the ground floor. Stalin's father, a local shoemaker, rented the one room on the left hand side of the building and maintained a workshop in the basement. The landlord lived in the other room.
The hut originally formed part of a line of similar dwellings, but the others have been demolished.
There is big controversy weather the house is the real one or "just a house". But, this is not of any importance, as this is a typical house of the late 19th century anyway.
3rd Section: Stalin's Railway Carriage
Just to the side of the main building of the complex is located Stalin's personal railway carriage.
The green Pullman carriage, which is armour plated, was used by Stalin from 1941 onwards, including his attendances at the Yalta Conference and the Tehran Conference. It was sent to the museum on being recovered from the railway yards in 1985.
I asked several people in Georgia, our driver included. What are their feelings of today's life. What do they think about the Russians and mainly what do they think about the Soviet Union Years.
Most of them (100% of the older ones), replied without hesitation: "It was better during the soviet years, we had free time, we had work, we did not have luxuries but we had food and we had no worries. Education and medical care was free. Now we have nothing of these and we struggle to have a decent life".
One of them told me: "Look at all these theaters and culture venues which are closed today! All these were full of people every day, because tickets were affordable even for the working class and in addition people had the education/culture to value performing arts". Today, of course there is culture, but it is available only to the few".
Our driver told me (as we drove in the countryside): "You see all these people just sitting outside their houses? They are all old people having nothing to do. All young people have left to find a job in Tbilisi or abroad. The countryside is dying: there is no one to pick up the fruit of the trees, or work the land".
I do not want to be accused of trying to glorify the Soviet Era, because certainly this is not my intention. But, all the people I asked were working people, people that I came in contact during my humble stay: waiters, drivers, hotel employees, street vendors. I did not have the opportunity (you see I am a budget traveler) to contact reach and privileged people, who had the opportunity to do well after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides, I am not really interested to them.
Maybe there is one more reason for getting these answers: Georgia used to be a privileged State in the Union. Both heavy Industry and agriculture were very advanced and enough to feed the locals and export to the rest of the Union. I am sure the golden son of Georgia had something to do with this.