Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is as genial a place as you will find anywhere in the world. Hospitable locals, great wine and delectable cuisine are at every turn. “Save the earth, it is the only planet with wine,” is a restaurant sign that deserves a confirming nod. Rick is gleeful to find a billboard that fits his motto, “First we eat…and then we do everything else.” And in this order of things, a glass of wine from one of the world’s oldest wine regions is a perfect pairing with khinkali; a Georgia favourite of steamed dough stuffed with meat or cheese or mushrooms!
Morning coffee in a small café above an “I Love Tbilisi” sign, is a good place to plan our day. The cobblestone alleys of the Old Town bustle with shops and eateries. Every eyeful holds an array of ancient structures, modern architectural creations, and we’re soon on the move for close-up viewing.
The new Presidential Palace with its egg-shaped dome is a showy landmark. A structure below resembles two gigantic horns-of-plenty. Construction seems to be halted on this behemoth that locals say will be a cultural centre. A short distance away we tromp over the elegant glass and steel Peace Bridge spanning the Mkvari River.
Naiqala Fortress stands like a sentinel on the highest hill surrounding Tbilisi. We find the cable car service and are soon riding upward to mill about where a 4th century Persian citadel once stood. The present fortress walls and palace were built by the Arab emirs in the 8th century…or what is left of them after the 1827 explosion of Russian ammunition stored here when Georgia was part of the USSR.
From the fortress we follow a path to Mother Georgia statue; this 20m aluminum lady holds a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other for the countrymen’s character of warmly welcoming guests and passionately fighting off enemies.
There are churches a-plenty in this city of 1.1 million. One day we climb up to the Metekhi Church. We learn this was the palace and church site of a series of kings. Beside the church is an equestrian statue of King Gorgasali, the first to build on this spot in the 5th century. The last king to build his place of worship here was in 1289, followed my many reconstructions since. In the semi-dark interior our eyes adjust to see beautiful paintings of the Blessed Mother, saints and a rustic old cross lit only by the flickering glow of offertory candles.
Outside the church a priest sits on a bench and taps the cloth-covered head of the man knelling before him. Others wait in line, and the same ritualistic healing procedure is performed on the shoulder of a lady. A Baba (Grandmother) in black garb holding a cup for donations wins my heart.
The newest church in the city and the largest is size in the Caucasus is Tsminda Sameba Cathedral (Holy Trinity Cathedral), consecrated in 2004 after a decade of building. We climb (yes, the hilly city is climb-after-climb) to the soft golden hue of the exterior softens this stunner of brick, concrete, granite rising 84m from foundation to the cross on its central dome. The pillars on the inside emphasis the vertical dimensions pulling eyes upward to its huge central dome.
A Georgia countryside day-trip to see a monastery and villages entices us. We are in good hands with our diver So-so and guide Jonah for the 100km to Davit Gareja, named after the one of the 13 ascetic Syrian fathers who came back from the middle east to spread Christianity and founded this monastery in the 6th century. Of the 15 old monasteries that eventually spread over this vast remote desert area, Lavra is the only one inhabited today. Various invaders over the millennia murdered monks and destroyed treasures, with some being restored post-Russia era.
We climb the three levels of Lavra, the buildings dating from many periods; the outer walls from the 18th century. Our eyes feast on 1,000 year-old murals of saints. Descending to the lower courtyard we linger before the caves once occupied by Davit and his main disciple so long ago – a fitting finale.
The village of Badiauri is next to see ladies pounding dough into oblong shapes then pressing it to the sides of a piping hot cylindrical clay oven to bake. While this traditional bread is browning nicely, we line up at a small nearby stall to purchase a variety of homemade cheeses to compliment the warm crusty loaf that we are soon devouring with gusto!
Our last tour stop is the city of Sighnaghi, founded by the ruling king in 1772, surrounded by a high defending wall.
Back in Tbilisi it is more fun and good food, and to take a turn flaunting my best tourist pose in front of the sign expressing love for this city, and which we extend to every place in the country of Georgia that we were privileged to see.