When I landed in Tbilisi Airport at 4 am, it was cold, misty and drizzling. The black cobbled streets shone and my boots clunked against them. On the ride to the hotel, I noticed how eerily dark the roads were. Flickering billboards and dim yellow streetlights reminded me of Hawkins, the fictional town in Stranger Things.
I was sure something like that could easily happen right here, in the capital city of Georgia. Statues of great men on horses, forts, ornate art nouveau buildings and vast town squares are what strike you on the car ride. Tbilisi, the crossroad between Europe and Asia, I realised the day I landed there, is steeped in history, just like its neighbouring cities – one teeming with civil conflicts, power wars, Soviet imperialism and Stalin’s wrath. Here is a look into the historical structures that made my journey rewarding in a sense.
VISIT GEORGIA’S GUARDIAN ANGEL
The Kura River that runs through Tbilisi is a light turquoise. There is a cable car that pulls across the river, giving you a panoramic view of the sleepy city, whose colours, if brighter would match that of Czech Republic. The cable car for a small price will take you to the Narikala Fortress, one of the few structures that you first notice in the city. Established in the 4th century, the fortress was a Persian citadel. Some parts of it were destroyed by an earthquake. Once you step down from the cable car, take a right, walk for a bit until you spot the gigantic ‘Mother of Gerogia’ or Kartilis Deda. The twenty-metre aluminium figure of a woman in Georgian national dress holding a bowl of wine in one hand for friends and a sword in another for enemies was erected in 1958. Below the statue, vendors sell freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and warm wine along with flower crowns and other souvenirs. She looks fierce and I am just glad I got the wine and not the sword.
TAKE A LUXURY BATH LIKE PUSHKIN & DUMAS
Dome-shaped roofs, stained glass and tiled facades hide what is perhaps Gerogia’s oldest profession, sulphur baths. Legend has it, these were first documented when an Arab geographer noted in his diary that “the water in Tbilisi boils without fire”. It comes from the earth from between 75 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit. You can see the spring if you go behind these baths-the entire area smells of sulphur. A plaque in front of one of the baths reads, ‘Not since I was born have I encountered the luxury of Tbilis’ baths.’ – Pushkin, 1829. Not just Pushkin, sulphur baths also caught the fancy of Tolstoy and Alexander Dumas, who described it as luxurious. For 40 to 50 Georgian Lari (around 1000), you can rent an entire pool, followed by a rigorous scrub by a masseuse. The smell of sulphur is strong but the experience is worth it.
WALK THROUGH THE LANES OF THE OLD CAPITAL
Move away from Tbilisi a little bit for a stronger dose of the past. Around 25 km from the city is Georgia’s old Capital, Mtskheta many of whose historical structures have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. The city has fewer buildings, more hills and cathedrals. The old street that leads up to the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (where multiple weddings were happening at once) is lined with trinkets and Georgian specialties like honey, berry preserves, spices such as ajika, khmeli-suneli and so on. A bottle of honey comes for 10 GEL (238) and homemade berry preserves are priced at 15 GEL (357). The market is lined with apple trees next to which cute Georgian huskies stretch out in the sun. Sit on a bench near the cathedral and watch the happy brides throw bouquets. Sculptures of bulls’ heads welcome you on the east facade of the Cathedral. The interior of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, like all the others in Georgia is lit naturally with high-up slits and windows that throw a pool of light on the floor. Some of the medieval frescoes on the walls have survived and are fascinating.
VISIT UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Another historic structure in Mtskehta is the Jvari Monastery, a sixth century World Heritage Site that stands on a mountaintop where Mtkvari river meets Aragvi. It is a small climb to the cathedral, but more than the structure itself, what makes your head turn is the view of the confluence of the rivers. An occasional cruise boat leaves a pretty furrow as you look down, wind whistles in your ears. According to local history, the monastery came into existence when a wooden cross was erected over a pagan sanctuary in the 4th century. Jvari is visible from anywhere in Mtskheta though it is said to be facing threats of erosion. Checking in back to a humble hotel in Tbilisi, I take out my huge tourist map of Georgia and smile at having crossed off most of the historical structures. Next day, it was the turn of food, culture and adventure.