After an uneventful trip from Udabno we find ourselves back in the Metropolis of Tbilisi, soon enough checking into the old faithful Pomegranate Hostel. Checked in there’s only one thing on the mind having been out in the middle of nowhere for a few days and that’s khinkali.
From Revolution Square if you head south on the river side of Rustaveli Street you come across a nondescript door with ‘Khinkali Centre’ written on it. Descend the stairs and you’re in for a treat. A lofty subterranean restaurant with vintage tools, carpets, typewriters and record players the place is a rare find which you’ll instantly fall in love with and the khinkali is one of the best yet. Also try one of our other favourites, eggplant with walnut sauce and pomegranate. With eight different varieties of khinkali (including veggie options) plus an extensive Georgian menu you must go here, you will not be disappointed.
Strolling along Rustaveli we headed thorough another nondescript gate where Prospero’s Books & Caliban’s Coffeehouse occupies a leafy courtyard that’s perfect to escape the madness of the main thoroughfare outside The store is stacked with books in all languages along with complimentary newspapers where you can check the ‘Kachapuri Index’ over your morning coffee.
“To evaluate Georgia’s econimic situation economists and financiers have worked out a special index based on Georgia’s important dish kachipuri – a price dynamic of the essential ingredients needed to cook one standard Imeretian kachapuri: the Kachapuri Index”
Tbilisi has its fair share of Post-Stalin architecture so back out into the blustery streets we venture first north to the National Bank Building of Georgia (29a Gagarin Street). Originally designed for the Ministry of Highway Construction of the Georgian SSR in 1975 it juts out impressively from the cliff above the Kura River with architect Giorgi Chakhava took inspiration from the forests of the Caucasus.
Next on the list a jaunt to the Left Bank where we weave through the numerous mechanic garages to the slightly hidden VDNKH Exhibition Complex (118 Tsereteli Avenue). Built in 1961 it’s a little run down but is a good example of Soviet Modernism containing sculptures and mosaics showing a cosmonaut and a worker against a backdrop of spaceships beneath a large concrete arch. There are a number of large old mosaics scattered around Tbilisi so keep an eye out for them.
The final stop on our Soviet architecture tour was Viktor Jorbenadze’s 1984 Palace of Rites (21 Bochorma Street). It’s a futuristic building where wedding’s and nuptials are held and the design was inspired by the fortress and churches in the old capital Mtskheta. The site is privately owned so you’ll get the best views from the Ortachala Bridge.
With the wind kicking up we struggled through the backstreets to the metro and headed for some indoor entertainment. On the way we watched an old man board, open his jacket and attempt to sell everything from bath plugs, spatulas, batteries, matches, sewing needles, cotton, pens, in fact we wouldn’t have been surprised had he pulled a kitchen sink out of his jacket pocket. Right by Liberty Square you’ll find the Simon Janashia State National Museum of Georgia (3 Rustaveli Ave, open every day except Monday 11am-6pm). The museum holds animal remains dating from 40 million years ago and the famous 1.8 million year old Dmanisi prehistoric human remains. These are the oldest human remains found outside of Africa, the finding of which changed the whole history of human evolution in just the last few years. Downstairs they hold some of the most detailed gold jewellery and artefacts we’ve ever seen with the best examples coming from the Colchi civilisation who may have also started the biblical Golden Fleece story due to their practice of using sheep skins to sift for gold in the rivers. There’s a good collection of Asian artifacts and art upstairs and make sure you don’t miss the small yet worthwhile Museum of Soviet Occupation on the top floor.
With the weather having improved the next day we headed up to the Iranian embassy to finialise our visa application and with our visas in hand we decided to enjoy the long walk back to town and no visit to Tbilisi would be complete without taking on the arduous walk up the Mtatsminda Tourist Trail to Mtatsminda Park. For those too lazy to climb the strenuous path there’s a funicular that will get you to the same place. The park is a chill out area and amusement park that offers sweeping views across the valley of Tbilisi. Mostly geared towards children it still makes for a great half day walk to work off those extra calories we’d been stacking on via numerous kachapuri and khinkali eating sessions.
Back down another trail to complete a circuit to the bottom of the funicular you can pass by the Mama Daviti (St Davids’s) church and the small garden Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures. HISTORY? A short walk from the bottom of the switchback road leading down from the church you’ll find Rhea Squirrel Art Café. Set up to help those less fortunate it both employs artists and sells art from locals that struggle to make ends meet. The coffee is proper espresso too.
From here if you’re still feeling fit the old Sololaki area makes for a convenient circular route toward Abanotubani, passing many interesting facades with a mish-mash of European styles, some actually pulling it off well with the Chancellery of Georgia building making a contrasting statement. One of the most dominant buildings in any view of Tbilisi is the newly completed (2004) Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi or Sameba. The light stone and huge soaring domes draws your eye and it’s worth a visit to see just how big it actually is when you’re standing in front of it. The inside is yet to be completed with scaffold still erected and altar paintings still underway. It’s an impressive sight yet with so much of Tbilisi’s historical old buildings crumbling and in ruin we think it’s a shame more money couldn’t be directed to rejuvenate the characteristic old town instead.
Walking onward through Kala we cross the Peace Bridge which provides a link between old and new Tbilisi, as the President says. Some locals think it’s an eyesore, as with many of the other newer buildings, though we think the city does well to melt these modern designs into the landscape which itself is a little irregular. Apart from the newly built Millennium Hotel which is hideous and should probably be torn down. From the cathedral it’s an easy downhill walk to Rike Park where an alternative scene of Tbilisi presents itself with views of Mother of Georgia, Bethlemi and Kvemo Churches (amongst the countless others) and the City Hall.
In need of some TLC after our recent day on the slopes we head back to our favourite (cheap) baths for a soak and a massage. This time we both opt for a scrub and the woman who caters to us doesn’t hold back and our faces are soon covered in Kakheti mud and our bodies are very vigorously scrubbed with vinegar and coffee grinds. There’s no way we could get any cleaner. The massage that follows gets every kink out of our backs and necks and the only downside of the whole experience was the feeling of having been rubbed rawer than raw. Feeling relaxed and in the knowledge that we’ll soon be leaving this lovely land of homemade wine we can’t resist stopping at Café Leila on the walk back to the hostel. A white blossom tree out front colourful tables and the stunning white and green wood panel interior is worth visiting just to see the ceiling.
With another day to spare we took the worthwhile day trip to Georgia’s old capital Mtskheta. Our first stop was the Samtavro Monastery complex where Georgia’s first Christian king Tsar Mirian and his queen Nana are buried inside in a little corner in short bright white coffins. Keep an eye out for the small but detailed beaded Virgin Mary with beaded sunburst as well as the awesome avant-garde style bronze candelabras scattered around which we found to be very modern looking for such an old church. Outside you can walk the exterior and check out the ‘graffiti’ from ancient visitors, don’t miss the sketch of what looks like an alien high on one side.
The town itself isn’t very big but some of the old brick houses are interesting to look at. Our second stop was the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which, along with many others around the world, claims to hold a piece of Jesus’s robe. In this case you can’t verify the claim as the robe is buried beneath the church, but instead look up and admire the many layers of arches, ceilings and architecture which have been built atop of one another to create a brilliant mish-mash interior. Feeling a slight case of monastery burn out we waved off the numerous taxi drivers striving to convince us we must visit the hilltop Jvari Monastery and instead took a stroll through the stalls selling crafts, wine and chacha before heading back to Tbilisi.
On the way back to the Pomegranate Hostel (one of the cheapest and best located in town with very friendly English speaking staff!) we wandered through the Dry Bridge bazaar. This open air flea market has everything from old radio and electronic parts to vinyl, china and antique brass and old Soviet cameras. Prices start high when it’s obvious you’re a tourist so bargain hard or just come for a browse.
Georgia is definitely not for the calorie counting traveller and as with ‘one last wine’ it’s hard to resist ‘one last kachapuri’. This time we go for our favourite, the Adjarian. A boat shaped Georgian bread is filled with fatty grated cheese and cooked over firewood oven for 15 minutes before being glazed with a raw egg, cooked a few minutes more then served up with a good slab of butter. As we said, leave your calorie counting at the door. Mix it all together while it’s hot, tear of chunks of the fresh bread and get stuck in trying not to spill the cheese while you’re at it. If you tire of kachapuri you can always visit the new French creperie Le Blyn which has just opened at L. Asatiani #13.
And so our time in Georgia comes to an end with many fond memories, some new friends and a few extra kilos.
Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the wine, or maybe it’s the food on which we dine
Though with all this in mind maybe it’s simply the people that make Georgia so divine
Thanks for reading, feel free to head over to our Flickr page to check out more of our travel pics from around the world.
You can also read about our experience of obtaining our Iranian visas in Tbilisi here.
Tips for Tbilisi and Georgia in general
- If you need to apply for your Iranian visa in Tbilisi you can catch the yellow marshutka #170 from Rustaveli which will drop you right at the front. You can read about our experience of obtaining the visa here.
- To visit Mtskheta head to Didube terminal where you can easily catch a minivan which takes about an hour. To return just wait by the roadside where you were dropped off and flag down a marshutka heading back to Tbilisi.
- Make sure you try the dirt cheap freshly baked Georgian ‘boat bread’. It’s the closest thing to perfect bread you’ll ever find.
- Good luck refusing to drink with anybody. These at times come thick and fast and generally when you need to go somewhere, do something early the next day or are already hungover from drinking with a local last night!
- Do take people up on their offer to join them on any occasion.
- If you love bread and homemade cheese you’re in for a treat. Don’t worry, the pure Georgian water will keep you very regular.
- Don’t believe the touts at the bus terminals that tell you there is no marshutka to where you want to go. They are touts for private cars/taxis and will try, quite forcefully, to get you in their vehicle. Refuse firmly and ask around. We found asking the ticket office ladies or other Marshutka drivers will get you to where you want to go.
- Don’t pay for putting luggage in the vehicle, locals don’t pay and neither should you.