From its sublimely perched old churches and watchtowers dotting fantastic mountain scenery to its green valleys spread with vineyards, Georgia (Saqartvelo, áƒ¡áƒáƒ¥áƒáƒ áƒ—áƒ•áƒ”áƒšáƒ) is one of the most beautiful countries on earth and a marvelous canvas for walkers, horse riders, skiers, rafters and paragliders. Equally special are its proud, high-spirited, cultured people: Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine, and this is a place where guests are considered blessings and hospitality is the very stuff of life.
A deeply complicated history has given Georgia a wonderful heritage of architecture and art, from cave cities to the inimitable canvases of Pirosmani. Tbilisi, the capital, is still redolent of an age-old Eurasian crossroads. But this is also a country striving for a place in the 21st-century Western world, with eye-catching new buildings, a minimal crime rate and a heap of new facilities for the tourists who are a big part of its future.
With a quarter of Georgia’s population, Tbilisi (áƒ—áƒ‘áƒ˜áƒšáƒ˜áƒ¡áƒ˜) is the place where Georgians gravitate for action and excitement. The city brims with history and has a dramatic setting on hillsides either side of the swift Mtkvari River. Its Old Town, at the narrowest part of the valley, is still redolent of an ancient Eurasian crossroads, with winding lanes, old balconied houses, leafy squares, handsome churches and countless busy bars and cafes, all overlooked by the 17-centuries-old Nariqala Fortress.
Tbilisi is also a modern city trying to move forward in the 21st century after the strife and stagnation of the late 20th. Its streets are crowded with pedestrians, construction debris and hurtling or crawling traffic. Flagship building projects, from a new cathedral and presidential palace to revamped parks and museums, coexist with crowded old markets, confusing bus stations and shabby Soviet apartment blocks.
Tbilisi is still the beating heart of the South Caucasus and should not be missed by any visitor.
Places to see:
Dominating the Old Town skyline, Nariqala dates right back to the 4th century, when it was a Persian citadel. The most direct way up to it is by the street beside the Armenian Cathedral of St George. The tower foundations and most of the present walls were built in the 8th century by the Arab emirs, whose palace was inside the fortress. Subsequently Georgians, Turks and Persians captured and patched up Nariqala, but in 1827 a huge explosion of Russian munitions stored here ruined not only the fortress but also the Church of St Nicholas inside it. The church was rebuilt in the 1990s with the help of funding from a police chief. There are superb views over Tbilisi from the top of the fortress.
The Metekhi Church, and the 1960s equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali beside it, occupy the strategic rocky outcrop above the Metekhi Bridge. This is where Vakhtang Gorgasali built his palace and the site’s original church, when he made Tbilisi his capital in the 5th century. King David the Builder had a palace and church here too – they were destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1235. The existing church was built by King Demetre Tavdadebuli (the Self-Sacrificing) between 1278 and 1289, and has been reconstructed many times since. It is thought to be a deliberate copy of King David’s 12th-century church. The tomb of the Christian martyr St Shushanik – tortured by her husband in 544 for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism – is to the left of the icon screen.
Open-Air Museum of Ethnography
About 3km uphill from attractive Vake Park is the Open-Air Museum of Ethnography. This collection of nearly 70 traditional, mostly wooden houses from around Georgia is spread over a wooded hillside with good views, and makes for an enjoyable visit. The most interesting exhibits are in the lower section (near the entrance), where the buildings are kitted out with fine traditional furnishings, rugs and utensils. Tours are available in English, French and German. You can walk up to the museum from Vake Park, which is about 2km past the university, or take bus 61 to the petrol station 200m past the large Iranian embassy, then walk or take a taxi 2km up the road between the concrete pillars opposite.
The social hub of the area is further south – Tbilisi’s famed sulphur baths, the Abanotubani . Alexanders Dumas and Pushkin both bathed here, the latter describing it as the best bath he’d ever had. Abano (Bath St) is full of subterranean bathhouses with beehive domes rising at ground level, most dating back to the 17th century.