Monday, April 11, 2016

Walking to the Major Cultural Sites in Tbilisi, Georgia

(March 2016) After checking into the Mercure at 6am and sleeping for 3 hours, I took a leisurely shower and then opened the curtains to see a splendid fortress on top of a hill just outside my hotel.  Settling down with a cup of coffee, I opened the window to a blue sky day and the sound of sweet bird song.  Small white blossoms were just appearing on the trees, as springtime settled upon Tbilisi. After spending about an hour reading about the cultural sites of the city, I put on my walking shoes and headed out.

View of Narikala Fortress from my Hotel Window

Monument of King Gorgasali

The first thing I saw when I exited the hotel was this amazing church and monument of a man on a horse.  They were on the high bluff above the river that ran in front of the hotel.  I quickly crossed the street to take photos. It is the home of one of the oldest churches in Georgia, and though I didn’t enter the church, the statue of King Gorgasali, the founder of Tbilisi was quite impressive. He was apparently out hunting with his falcon in the 5th century AD, and came upon the hot springs that make up today’s sulfur baths.  Therefore, he decided to establish a city here.

Monument of King Gorgasali and Oldest Church in Georgia

The Sulfur Baths of Tbilisi

As I wandered along the river, I noticed steam rising from strange short buildings with domed roofs.  Upon closer examination, I realized these were the famous sulfur baths, and were less than 2 blocks from the Mercure Hotel.

It turns out that the term “Tbilis”, for which the city is named, means “warm,” and the sulfur baths empty into a small stream that merges with the larger river. Over the years, many invaders were also attracted to the warm water, including the Romans and also the Arabs who ruled the city for over 200 years.

Short Domed Buildings Outside Sulfur Baths

I wandered through the buildings and gardens outside, and realized there were a variety of different sulfur bath houses.  The next day, we were given one free hour before dinner, and I came back with two female companions to enjoy the baths.  We booked a private room for one hour and for the cost of around $30 per person, we were able to bath in the very hot sulfur water (40 degree C), take dips in an icy cold plunge pool, sit in a sauna, and also have a 15 minute massage on a marble ledge that was splashed in hot water. It was quite interesting, and I slept well that night. One hint is to avoid the scrub if you have sensitive skin, because it is quite rough.  I didn’t sign up for this, because I knew I would have a bad reaction, and sure enough, one of my colleagues woke up with a rash the next morning. The massage, however, was quite nice.

Various Sulfur Bath Houses Along Small Stream in Tbilisi

Old City of Tbilisi – Where You Taste Wine on the Sidewalk

After checking out the sulfur baths that first day, I continued to wander around the cobblestone streets of the old city and was enchanted with all of the small shops selling souvenirs, as well as many restaurants and parks.  But what amazed me the most was the large number of wine shops on almost every corner, including two places where you could taste wine on the sidewalk.  This was my kind of city!  In addition, grape vines grew up walls of buildings and sometimes over the tops of roofs, and there were decorations on the buildings of vines and grapes.  I immediately felt at home here.

Tbilisi Wine Shop Offering Tastings on the Sidewalk in Old Town
A Shop in Old Town Tbilisi

Narikala Fortress

After about an hour of wandering around the old town and peeking into shops, I decided to climb up the imposing fortress on top of the hill.  I could see many people hiking up there, but couldn’t figure out how to find the trail.  Instead I got lost in some houses halfway up the hill, until a small boy rescued me and led me back down the cobble stone streets to the one that led up the fortress.  It turns out that the fortress is only a 20 minute hike from the Mercure Hotel, once you take the correct street.

It is a steep hike up, but well worth it when you see the view of the complete city and the river winding through it. Tbilisi also has many modern buildings with some amazing architecture that you can see from the top of the fortress.  The aerial tramway is also easy to see from the hilltop.

Cobblestone Road Leading Up the Hill to the Fortress

The fortress was apparently started in the 4th century, but expanded upon by the Arabs.  Unfortunately a lot of it was destroyed in earthquakes and wars over the years, but the huge stonewalls still stand and are quite impressive.  Within the wall is a church called St. Nicholas, which has been rebuilt.  I wandered around it, and found 3 doors but no clear way to enter the building. There were more vine decorations that were beautiful to behold.

View of Fortress Walls Looking Towards the City

Mother of Kartli Statue – Some Slightly Negative Memories

If you wander further around the fortress you will come to the large and imposing statue of Mother Georgia.  She stands over 60 feet high, and is quite imposing with a sword in one hand and a bowl of wine in the other.

I didn’t get the warmest feeling about her, and was not surprised to learn from one of our Georgian hosts the next day that the statue was erected by the Soviets, and the locals do not like it because it reminds them of when they were “occupied by the Russians.”  They laughingly said the statue “insists you drink the wine the Russians forced to them to make, or she will kill you.”

We learned later that when Georgia was under Soviet rule that many of the grape growers were moved into collectives and forced to grow the grapes the Russian decided they should grow. Most of the ancient grape varieties were forgotten, and they had to plant varieties that produced large quantities, rather than high quality.  This is why Rkatsiteli is still so pervasive in Georgia today.

Mother of Kartli Statue - Photo Credit: 

Dinner at Bread House Georgian Restaurant

In the evening, I stopped by the rooftop bar of the Mercure for a drink and bumped into a colleague. After admiring the view and enjoying a glass of wine made in qvevri (buried clay pot) with the goruli mtsvane white grape, we decided to look for a restaurant for dinner.  Using TripAdvisor, we discovered that right next door to our hotel was one of the top 20 restaurants in town called “The Bread House.”

At the time, I thought this was an unusual name, until I came to discover that some of the most delicious bread in the world is made in Georgia. Indeed, by the end of the trip I had gained 3 pounds because I could not resist the freshly baked bread filled with melting cheese that was brought from the stone oven and served at every meal.  It should be outlawed!

However, I did not know this until we walked in the restaurant (which by the way is hard to find because it doesn’t have a sign in English), and saw huge stone ovens in which they were cooking the fresh bread. We were invited to watch them make bread, and then sat down to a delicious meal of authentic Georgian cuisine, including dumplings, mushroom soup, lamb, and of course, cheese bread and a bottle of saperavi red wine made in qvevri.  Little did I know at the time, that this would be one of the smallest meals we would eat during our time here.

Stone oven at the Bread House Georgian Restaurant

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