Europe In The Caucasus: Tbilisi

Melih Uslu Yunus Emre Çaylak June 2014

GEORGIA’S 1500-YEAR-OLD CAPITAL, TBILISI IS RAPIDLY BECOMING A CULTURAL HUB. MAGNIFICENT, NEWLY RESTORED BUILDINGS, REFURBISHED MUSEUMS AND CHIC RESTAURANTS ARE LEADING THE CITY’S REMARKABLE TRANSFORMATION.

Europe In The Caucasus: Tbilisi

Rustaveli Avenue running straight through the heart of Tbilisi may at first blush remind you of the elegant boulevards of Paris. Its conspicuously broad sidewalks are like an outdoor museum of architecture boasting everything from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. Colonnaded by trees every ten paces or so, the avenue is also adorned with fantastical street lamps and sculptures large and small. Prominent venues like the Parliament Building with its sixteen columns, Rustaveli Theater, the National Museum, the Opera and the Museum of Fine Arts all stand here on this avenue where the traffic never stops all day long. And you won’t see the unsightly pedestrian overpasses that create visual pollution either. Tbilisi has solved this problem with underpasses.  
Abuzz and dazzling with colorful lights by night, Rustaveli Avenue is lined with elegant cafes where white-gloved waiters serve guests at old-fashioned marble tables. The avenue ends at Freedom Square, in the middle of which a giant column with a statue will grab your attention, a monument to the rebirth of Tbilisi. The opulent mansions on the streets connecting to the square are a throwback to the city’s wealth in the 19th century. If you delve into these streets, the balconies with their wood and wrought iron decorations will catch your eye and you will feel as if you stepped into an ancient fairy tale. You’ll find a florist on almost every corner. There’s a big flower market in Tbilisi because the natives love flowers as well as art. Indeed, the city even has an art market that is well worth seeing.

CONFLUENCE OF CULTURES
Foremost among the places preserving Tbilisi’s multicultural identity is the Old Town. Mosques, synagogues and churches rise side by side in this area, where you will also come across traces of the Ottoman presence. Cafes and gift shops abound now in this quarter’s narrow streets. The 19th century Friday Mosque in the Azeri Quarter was built on the site of an older mosque, using red brick. The road up the wooded hill next to the mosque leads to the botanical garden, a green area with trees and plant species endemic to the Caucasus that welcomes guests from all over the world. A few minutes’ walk from here will take you to Tbilisi’s famous sulphur baths, said to be a remedy for everything from rheumatism to dermatological conditions. Spas like this enjoyed enormous popularity across a broad swath from Europe to Iran in the 19th century, and Russia’s famous poet, Pushkin, is known to have said of them: “I’ve never seen such luxury in all my life. I was literally reborn in Tbilisi!” We tried them and decided he was right! Following a refreshing bath, we strolled along two lovely streets: Shardeni with its cafes and Shavteli, known for its puppet theater and quirky clock tower.

GATEWAY TO ASIA
Arising in Turkey and emptying into the Caspian Sea, the Kura River flows through the center of Tbilisi. There are more than ten cities, among which Tbilisi is currently the biggest, in the vicinity of this river whose banks are known to have supported human settlement for 7,000 years. According to numerous sources, this river forms a natural border between Europe and Asia, making Tbilisi a gateway to Europe for people coming from Asia and a gateway to Asia for people coming from Europe. Historic bridges join the two banks of the river, which is likened to an emerald for its green hue. A large flea market is set up daily near the one called Dry Bridge, where you can find everything from old gramophones to sterling silver place settings. The more recently built Bridge of Peace was erected to showcase the city’s modern face.
For a bird’s-eye view of Tbilisi, a ride on the Air Tram is your best bet. Magnificent views are to be had from the cable cars that glide along a line connecting two hills overlooking the city, and at the end stop you can also take in a glorious sunset. As long as you’re here, don’t forget to stop at Tbilisi Castle just a few steps away and at the Monument to Queen Tamara, the Mother of Georgia.
After a pleasant tour of Tbilisi, we head outside the city to the old Georgian town of Mtskheta. Only 20 minutes from Tbilisi, it’s an easy outing with breathtaking landscapes along the way. Situated at the confluence of the country’s two great rivers, Mtskheta boasts thousand-year-old monasteries atop wild, deserted hills and loads of charming restaurants on the riverbank. If you happen to go to Tbilisi, be sure to include Mtskheta in your itinerary. Both cities are ready and eager to show you their beauty.

TBILISI GUIDE
INNER CITY TRANSPORT
Tbilisi airport is about 18 kilometers from the city center. If you take a taxi, it will cost you around 50 lari (30 USD). Inside the city, fares run anywhere from 5 to 10 lari. We recommend however that you first agree on the fare with the driver. Car rentals start from 80 lari a day. You can also tour the city on City Tour buses: www.hoponhopoff.ge

VISAS AND FOREIGN CURRENCY
Turkish citizens need no visa for Georgia. You simply leave Turkey on your Turkish ID, no exit stamp required. Currency exchanges are easy to find in Tbilisi and most are open until midnight. One U.S. dollar is equivalent to approximately 1.75 Georgian lari.

A PLETHORA OF HOTELS
There are plenty of choices of accommodation in Tbilisi, with four-star hotel chains offering double rooms starting from a hundred dollars a night as well as numerous hostels and bed&breakfasts at the city center for just 20 dollars a night.

GEORGIAN CUISINE
Rich in savory pastries, vegetables, salads, mushrooms, wild mountain herbs, walnuts, pomegranates and cheeses. “Haçapuri” cheese-topped flatbread, Georgian mushroom “khinkali”, cheese torte, shepherd’s salad with walnuts, eggplant with spinach and pomegranate, and pickled linden leaves are some treats unique to the region.

RUSTIC RESTAURANTS
About half an hour from Tbilisi by car, Sighnagi is an historic settlement well worth a visit. There are lots of rustic restaurants in this town, perched atop a green hill looking out over the Great Caucasus Range.

GETTING THERE
Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Tbilisi-Istanbul flights daily. Departure times are 07:05 a.m. and 1:10, 2:50 and 9:30 p.m. from Istanbul. There is also a flight at ten past midnight. From Tbilisi, departure times are 4:15, 8:25 and 11:20 a.m., and 5:15 and 6:55 p.m. The flight take two and a half hours. www.turkishairlines.com