What do you think we would see if we were to travel into Georgia’s past? It could be the city’s founder King Vakhtang I Gorgasali hunting; Rustaveli, the great Georgian poet, presenting a manuscript of The Knight in the Panther's Skin to Queen Tamara, who ruled during the city’s golden years; or Pushkin relaxing in the healing sulfur baths and adding “warm” stories to his works. We could also see Georgian carpenters building wooden balconies; Fidel Castro dining at the Funicular Restaurant on Mount Mtatsminda, the city's eagle’s nest; or Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers, entertaining the public with his campaign. The moment we step on the Bridge of Peace, we would return to the present.
Nature has endowed Tbilisi with the Kura River as if it were an emerald belt. I leave the shimmering green of this belt behind and visit the sulfur baths in the district of Abanotubani. I read the quote “The city [Tbilisi] possesses baths not unlike those of Tiberias, that boil water without fire,” by Arab traveler Ebn Haukal in my guidebook. It complements a sentence by Pushkin I read on the blue façade of Chreli Abano Bath saying, “I have never seen anything more spectacular than a Tbilisi bath.” I must take advantage of the healing power of these baths because these warm springs are the reason many people visit Tbilisi today. I make a reservation for the evening and walk through the cobblestoned streets towards Narikala Fortress. Remember the time machine? If it were real, this walking path would be its starting point. I pass by historic houses with wood-carved balconies and the red brick Juma Mosque before arriving at the fortress.
The view here whispers a sentence about the city into my ear: “I am Tbilisi, revealing to you my past and future in one picture!” Here, modern and historic buildings are neighbors to one another such as the mesmerizing Sameba Cathedral, the glass-domed Presidential Palace, structures that resemble the broken neck of a water jug on the floor, the Bridge of Peace, and the Mushroom Building that the locals visit for administration errands. The river is flowing coyly beneath my feet. From the cliff where Metekhi Church is located, people are watching the boats gliding along the river. Before leaving the fortress, I wish to take a souvenir picture with the Kartlis Deda monument, built on the 1,500th anniversary of the city, but she’s so tall that it’s hard to fit both of us in the same frame!
The cable car I take from the fortress soars above the river and stops at the European Park designed in the shape of Georgia. I cross the Bridge of Peace, which resembles the skeleton of a green dinosaur built with glass and steel, and return to the historic district. I see enameled silver accessories, lovely examples of Georgian handcrafts at the store Gallery Ornament on Erekle II Street, which is also home to the Tbilisi History Museum. I see a replica of the statue affectionately referred to as “tamada,” originally excavated in the Vani Ruins and enlarged here 17 times, surrounded by selfie enthusiasts, right at the junction of Bambis Rigi and Shardeni Streets filled with cafés and restaurants. Tamadas are the leaders of the hours-long Georgian dining feasts called supra. Dating back to the 7th century BC, the sculpture's original is displayed at the Georgian National Museum. In fact, Tbilisi in its entirety resembles a sculpture museum as each corner of the city is adorned with statues of historic personalities, artists, or writers. The Muse sculpture in front of the Philharmonic, and Youth on Baratashvili Bridge are only a few examples of the statues that fill onlookers with happiness. Another one is Grup Berikaoba, in which Zurab Tsereteli depicts the joy of people dancing. All these signify Georgia's cultural and ethnic richness.
I smell something that makes me realize I’m famished. Another source of happiness! This scent, which is delicious enough to whet your appetite even if you’re full, is khachapuri, a type of pita made with sulguni or imeruli cheeses. Whether you order it with an egg on top or folded, I can guarantee that you’ll ask for seconds. However, the Georgian cuisine is not limited to khachapuri. They use walnuts and coriander in addition to fruit such as pomegranate and quince in their meals and eat their delicious meat with plum sauce. I suggest you try their giant ravioli called khinkali, and churchkhela made with pomegranate, grape, or feijoa fruit.
The cobblestoned Kote Afkhazi Street takes me to another part of history in this journey through time. The buildings on Freedom Square and Rustaveli Street look solid and magnificent. This wide avenue covered in trees is lined with the Parliament of Georgia, the Opera House, the National Gallery, Rustaveli Theater, Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art, and Kashveti Church. Another striking aspect of the avenue, which is also home to cafés, restaurants, and shops, is that it has no traffic lights and the pedestrians use underpasses to cross the road.
My first stop on the second day is the legendary flea market on Dry Bridge. Installed every day of the week unless the weather is unfavorable, the market sells thousands of objects, making sure collectors or enthusiasts do not leave empty-handed. The adjacent park is a true “land of painting” imagined by dozens of painters on canvas. As I admire the paintings, I come to realize something thanks to my conversations with the sellers: most of them are the painters of these works! The variety of paintings here is rich enough to rival the streets of many big cities in Europe. Wandering among the canvases, I once again witness the Georgians’ artistic talent.
Influenced by this discovery, I visit the National Gallery to see the paintings by Pirosmani, who painted signs and received bread or paints as payment to survive. It’s impressive to see the innocence in the paintings of this genteel painter, who never had a professional education, earned a reputation in the 1920s and 1930s, and came to be known around the world. Levan, my guide around Tbilisi who sees my admiration for painters such as Gudiashvili, Kikodze, and Akhvlediani, takes me to Zura Gomelauri’s workshop. This workshop, which is also open to guests, is where I experience both the making of Georgian art and local hospitality. Gomelauri is excited to show me the painting he made with inspiration from Cappadocia which he recently visited. I smile at the painting of a “bride and groom in a rose-tinted life” depicted in a hot-air balloon.
I don’t think I will ever forget the monumental clock tower of Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theater which resembles a fine work of art. Tbilisi has many things that can be taken as symbols such as Sameba Cathedral, the Bridge of Peace, the sculptures of Kartlis Deda and Tamada, the local houses with balconies, and even khachapuri! Thinking about these things, I visit Davit Agmashenebeli, the loveliest avenue in the city. Surrounded by European buildings left by Germans, I am looking for a restaurant with an interesting story. Kurasbediani, the owner of Barbarestan, found a cookbook dated 1914 at the flea market on Dry Bridge. It was written by poet and feminist Barbare Jorjadze, who came from a noble family, and comprised 807 recipes. The family which owned the restaurant tried these recipes for six months and created a menu with 165 dishes that change every season. This must be the gastronomy section of my journey through time! You don't even need a time machine to travel into Tbilisi's history as you can find Mtskheta, the country's previous capital, only 20 kilometers away. Situated at the junction of two rivers and home to many structures included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Mtskheta is important also because it used to be the host of coronation ceremonies and a burial ground for Georgian kings.
The name of Tbilisi, a city of statues, bridges, and delicious dishes, comes from the word “tbili” meaning “warm.” Its affordability is one of the things that makes it attractive for travelers. Although it’s the capital, it’s a sincere city that distances itself from being too formal and hosts many music festivals throughout the year. It fills me with a desire to come here every season to see Georgia’s verdant nature and to fall further in love with its culture. This sentiment is strengthened by the motto I read at the airport before my flight home, “Tbilisi loves you.”
“I love you too, Tbilisi,” I say to myself as I board the plane, with Georgian folk songs in my ears.