Tbilisi – the city of Churches and Views

We left Ganja at 9:30 a.m. heading 2 ½ hours northeast to the Tsiteli Khidi (Red Bridge) crossing into Georgia where my driver would meet me for the one hour drive to Tbilisi. The drive was pretty uneventful, but as we approached the Georgian border we began to see more wineries and fields of wine grapes. (Georgia is the home of wine and is credited with creating the first wine over 8,000 years ago.)

Selling grapes amid the wineries near the border.

When we reached the border, Javid and Mahir helped me with my luggage through to the passport check. I waved goodbye to my trusty companions and then it was hurry up and wait as some fellow argued with border control about the contents of his luggage. No idea what the issue was, but he was led away, and I did not see him again. Uh oh.

Javid and Mahir

I passed through Azerbaijan border control with no issues, walked the 300 meters or so with my luggage across, you guessed it, the Red Bridge, and into the passport control area for Georgia. One check of my passport and luggage later and I was into Georgia. However, once though the process, there was no driver. Huh? I fortunately had Jakob’s number and one call to Jakob cleared up the issue. Jakob thought he was picking me up at the Armenian border not the Azerbaijan border. A half hour later Jakob arrived, apologizing over and over again that he simply made a mistake. The instructions were correct, but he screwed up. No worries. He was there now and we set off for Tbilisi.

View from one room in one direction
View from my room from the other direction

The drive took us through more farmland before we finally reached the hilly region outside Tbilisi. The drive into the city was fairly quick since it was a Sunday and there was a lot less traffic. Once we reached old town, we quickly pulled into the parking lot for my hotel, the fabulous Tiflis Palace Hotel smack in the middle of the old quarter. And the room I was given was awesome. A corner room with two walls of windows on the third floor (actually the 5th floor if you counted the two floors above the lobby that weren’t hotel rooms) that overlooked the old fortress, the baths and the old church. It was probably the nicest room I have had on my trip.

After a quick change, I took a wander around the old quarter, found a bank, found a Christmas ornament (the streak continues) and grabbed an early dinner with, of course, a glass of wine.

St. David’s Church

After a great night’s sleep, I met my guide Katiya, and drive Jakob for my tour of the Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. First up was the St. David’s Church also known as the Mamadaviti Church, and the necropolis of writers and public figures where some of the most prominent writers, artists, scholars, and national heroes of Georgia are buried outside the church courtyard.

The church is located on the slope of Mount Mtatsminda and was constructed in 1929 replacing an older church on the site. The church is named after St. Davit Gareji, a Syrian priest who helped spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century and lived in a small cell where the church is now located. (Unlike the last 4 countries I have visited, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, Georgia is a secular Christian nation.)

The view

To reach the church, Katiya and I had to walk back and forth on a series of switchbacks up a steep slope, but once at the top we were rewarded with spectacular views of the city. We took a walk around the exterior of the church, then wandered inside to a very small interior that was filled with gold icons. We lit some candles and asked for blessings (at least Katiya did) as Katiya told me about the history of Christianity in Georgia and the important religious figures in its history.

Cool headstone of a theater designer
Inside the holy water shrine

After the visit to the church, we walked outside and wandered around the the necropolis area where the headstones were as interesting as any I have seen.

Beside the burial ground was the St. David Gareja springs housed in a little building where the faithful come to be blessed with holy water and to take a drink from the springs. In order to enter, we had to cover our head. We were rewarded with beautiful murals and a drink of the water.

Cool little cafes

We walked back down the steep hill and Jakob next drove us to Agmashenebeli Avenue, a newer part of Tbilisi that is filled with lovely cafes, shops and restaurants. We walked through the area and then got back in the car for a drive across the river to the Holy Trinity Church aka Sameba Cathedral. The Church was constructed between 1995 and 2004 and is the third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world. The grounds of the church are massive and contain many beautiful gardens.

Holy Trinity Church
Inside Holy Trinity Church

In order to enter the church, we had to don headscarves. The church was built in the fashion of Russian Orthodox churches with a large dome and golden icons everywhere. The church also included religious relics discovered in the Tbilisi area. As we wandered around, we lit more candles and Katiya provided me with more details on the story of Christianity in Georgia.

Downturned cross in Holy Trinity Church

Now the interesting thing about Christianity in Georgia is that the woman (St. Nino) who helped bring Christianity to Georgia had a dream about the Virgin Mary asking her to spread Christianity. St. Nino asked for a sign and when she woke up, there was a cross made out of grape branches with the crossing branch downturned. To this day, Georgian crosses have a downturned portion.

Anyway, after the second church visit, we got back in the car and Jakob drove us downtown along Rustavelli, the main artery in Tbilisi where he dropped us off in front of the Georgia Parliament Buildings. We would walk the remainder of the day.

Parliament and protests

Now in front of the Parliament Building there was a protest of sorts going on. Apparently two fathers were on a hunger strike and were demanding justice for their two children who were murdered. The government investigated and concluded its investigation last week without charges. As a result, a hunger strike has commenced. We saw both fathers, one of whom was sitting on a chair in the middle of the parliament steps.

Portion of old city wall

After watching the protest for a bit, we moved on walking down the street and into an area of shops and restaurants. When we reached the end of the street, we walked down some underground stairs to reach the opposite side of the street. We then walked around a corner, past a portion of the old city wall and stopped at an old street car converted into a little food truck of sorts where Katiya purchased two little bags of pipping hot ponchiki, little donuts dusted with powdered sugar. These little bites of goodness were FanFreakingTastic.

Funky clock tower
Angel ringing the bell

We ended up eating the little bites of goodness as we walked down yet another narrow little street to the “Clock Tower”. This tower was a hodge podge design, and I couldn’t really figure out what the deal was with the clock until I learned that it was designed by a puppeteer and placed outside his puppet theater. The deal with the clock is that at the top of the hour, an angel pops out of a door near the top and strikes the bell outside with a hammer. We had arrived just before 2 so we sat and waited and at the stroke of 2, the doors opened, the angel appeared and struck the bell twice before disappearing back inside. As ridiculous as it sounds, it was one of the highlights of the day. It was quirky and fun.

Antshiskhati Basilica

We then walked a short block to the Antshiskhati Basilica, which was hands down my favourite church of the day. The church was built in the 6th century, was made of stone and had very old looking frescoes inside. To say it had charm is an understatement. And of course to enter, we had to don the requisite scarf. We once again lit some candles and as we were standing there, the priest of the church walked in, came straight over to us, said a few words and used this small brush to mark the sign of a cross on the forehead of both me and Katiya. Katiya was thrilled, and I was a little bewildered. Katiya said that he only blesses those who exude goodness. Clearly this priest was off base with me. He has obviously never seen me in court or arguing on the phone with opposing counsel.

Cafe lined street
Sioni Cathedral
Inside Sioni Cathedral

Anyway, after the lovely church visit, we wandered down another cafe lined street, stopped in a shop to look at local enamel jewelry and the visited yet another church. This one was the Sioni Cathedral in the heart of old town. It too was rather nice and had an authentic feel. Apparently, the original church was constructed in the 6th century, but the “new” church is from the 13th century. The church is of special significance for Georgians because it apparently houses St. Nino’s cross made out of grapevine branches and bound with St. Nino’s hair. (The same cross St. Nino awoke to after her visit from the Virgin Mary.) I have no idea where the original is located, but there was a replica in the church.

Inside the Median Bazaar

After a look around and lighting more candles, we walked about a block and down a set of stairs to the Meidan Bazaar. Back in the early 20th century, the underground was a bazaar and today it has been recreated with local crafts, wine, meats and cheeses for sale. The underground building was rather narrow and the walls were covered in stone and brickwork. The entire bazaar was about a block long.

On the Metekhi Bridge over the Mtkvari River

We walked out the other side and then crossed the Metekhi Bridge, which crosses the Mtkvari River. As we walked, we were hounded by folks selling Hop on Hop off bus tours, boat trips on the river and tours of the city. Georgia is one of the up and coming tourist destination, and I guess they are preparing for the onslaught of tour groups.

On the Peace Bridge

Once we crossed the river, we walked through Rike Park to the Peace Bridge, which also crossed the Mtkvari River. This bridge was for foot traffic only, was constructed of glass-and- steel, was partially enclosed and opened in 2010. I thought the bridge was absolutely gorgeous as we walked across and back. The enclosure cooled the walkway and made for a lovely little stroll.

View from the cable car to Metekhi Church

We then walked back through the park and hopped on the cable car that would take us from the river’s edge up, up, up high over the Mtkvari River and Old Town to Narikala Fortress that sits on Sololaki hill. The ride on the cable car only took a couple minutes, but it did provide me with a gorgeous view of the front of the Metekhi Church, which is on the hillside across from my hotel, but is being renovated.

Kartlis Deda statute

Once we reached the fortress, we took a walk down to see the Kartlis Deda statute. This massive 20 meter aluminum statute dominates the hillside and was constructed in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The statute is of a woman in Georgian national dress and in one hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come in peace and in the other she holds a sword to deter those who come as enemies. I really appreciated how large the statute was once I stood directly beneath it.

Narikala Fortress
Near Narikala Fortress

We then reversed course and went back to have a look at the ruins of the Narikala Fortress, which dates to the 4th century. The walls were built in the 8th century with the inner fortress having been occupied by everyone from Arab emirs to Georgians, Turks and Persians. In 1827, the Russian apparently used the fortress as munitions storage site and a huge explosion destroyed the fortress. So today, all that is left is some walls and bits of the interior fortress.

View of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress
St. Nicholas Church

We began the walk down the hillside after taking a look at the remnants and admiring the views along the way.  As we walked, Katiya suggested we visit the St. Nicholas Church, which had been destroyed in the 1827 explosion, but recently reconstructed. Now I was all “churched” out, but not wanting to be rude, I agreed. We walked up a short hill to the other side of the fortress and took a quick walk around the church. I was exhausted and really just wanted to head back to my hotel. Fortunately, the visit was short and we continued our walk down the hill.

The public baths
View of the public baths from my hotel room

At the bottom of the hill we reached Legvtakhevi which is part of the Abanotubani, which translated means the “district of Sulfur Baths”. The ancient public baths date to the 5th or 6th centuries and use the sulphurous waters of the many hot springs in this area. The bathhouses are located below ground level with only beehive-like domes visible on the surface. I have a view of these little “beehives” from my hotel room.

Legvtakhevi Waterfall

Anyway, before we reached the sulphur baths, we had to walk over the tsavkisi-tskali (water) gorge where low and behold there was a waterfall. Yep, a waterfall right in the middle of the old town. And while I was exhausted as could be, the spray from the waterfall, cooled the hot air and actually perked me up a bit.

After the quick visit to the waterfall, we wandered down the street, past the bathhouse beehives and to the front step of my hotel. I was done. I needed to lay down and put my feet up, it had been a long day. (And oh yeah …. we had walked 10 km.  Yikes.  No wonder I was tired.) Tomorrow we drive to wine country where I will be staying at a winery for two days! YES!