There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tbilisi: Part 7 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

Looking from our bedroom window in the morning it was difficult to believe we were in a city. Behind us largely open ground rose to the heights of Nariqala Fortress and alongside it the giant figure of Mother Georgia, described by the Lonely Planet as being 'as attractive as a 20m aluminium woman can be.'

Mother Georgia looks over Tbilisi

Dinara arrived to conduct our walking tour of Tbilisi. Starting from our hotel, we passed the old synagogue (closed to visitors) and crossed Meidan Square. Whilst western Georgia battled against Ottoman control and the east fought Persian domination (long before they were both annexed by Russia) Tbilisi was the capital of an Arab caliphate. Meidan comes from the Arabic 'midan' meaning square, so we were crossing Square Square - and you have to take care crossing tautologies.

Tbilisi synagogue
The old town is on the southern side of Tbilisi's Mtkvari River. English speakers think Tbilisi starts with an unhelpful clump of consonants, so Mtkvari is a word that can only be looked at in jaw-clamped amazement. The Georgian language - a member of the Kartvelian language group, whose only other members are also spoken only in Georgia - loves to aggregate apparently unpronounceable consonants, seven or even eight are possible and four, as in Mtkvari is common.

Central Tbilisi is situated in a ravine. On the south side the cliffs are several hundred metres back, but on the north they rise straight from the river for a considerable stretch. We crossed the bridge from tautology square and climbed the bluff to Metekhi Church, one of the more prominent of Tbilisi’s ample supply of churches. Many Georgians, mainly older woman, feel the need to cross themselves, not once but repeatedly, every time they see a church. In Tbilisi old ladies can develop right arms like tennis players.

Metekhi Church, Tbilisi

The 5th century King Vakhtang Gorgasali built his palace and a church on this outcrop. According to legend the king was hunting when his falcon grabbed a pheasant and he watched the two birds tumble from the sky. According to one story he found them both dead in a hot spring, but the statue commemorating the event - which is across the river beside the still extant hot spring - shows a live falcon standing atop a boiled pheasant. Apparently this 'ready meal' aspect persuaded the king to build his capital here.

Hawk and boiled pheasant, Tbilisi
David the Builder, Georgia’s greatest king who united the country in the eleventh century built his own palace and church over Vakhtang's. The current church was started by King Demetre Tavdadebuli (Demetre the Self-Sacrificing) in the thirteenth century. Allegedly it was a copy of David the Builder’s church, but it has been partially destroyed and rebuilt many times, so if it ever was, it is not now.

Mass was being celebrated and we joined the congregation listening to a venerable priest with a rich voice reading from the New Testament. His sonorous tones were answered by a choir of unbelievable musicality. What happens, I wonder, to a young man who feels a vocation to the orthodox priesthood but lacks a resonant bass voice? As always in orthodox churches there were no pews, the standing congregation came and went, and we left as communion started.

Outside we photographed the 1960s equestrian statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali ….

King Vakhtang Gorgasali, outside Mekheti Church, Tbilisi

…. and re-crossed the bridge to the old town, pausing near the Konka Station where we had eaten last night. Nearby is a bronze statue of a man (or boy?) relaxing in a chair, drinking-horn in hand. Every Georgian supra (feast) needs a tamada, a toastmaster who proposes the toasts for others to elaborate upon and so keep the wine flowing. This little fellow, known as Tamada, is Tbilsi’s permanent honorary toastmaster. He is a copy of a gold trinket, the original hardly 2cm tall, which we would see later in the national museum. We noticed last night that visitors flock to be photographed with Tamada, those small enough sitting on its lap, others posing beside him. There was no reason why we should be left out.

With Tamada, Tbilisi
We passed Sioni Cathedral again and continued down a narrow street lined with cafes….

Café, Tbilisi
…. and a couple of caravansaries. Tbilisi was a major hub on the Silk Road between Baku and Istanbul and the caravansaries were more urban and western than the one we stayed in in Sheki. Sadly, modern Tbilisi does not quite seem to know what to do with them.

Caravansary, Tbilisi

Beyond is the ultra-modern Bridge of Peace footbridge, opened in 2010.  The cable car running from the north side of the river to the cliffs on the city’s southern edge does not run on Sunday mornings so there was no point crossing the bridge, but we did anyway. 

Bridge of Peace, Tbilisi

Across the bridge, in front of the Presidential Palace, is the recently completed Rike Park Theatre and Exhibition Centre. This strange tube-like structure is one of the controversial ‘New Georgia’ buildings designed to contrast with the old city. Striking and innovative it will, in time, become loved or hated (or possibly both).

Rike Park Theatre, Tbilisi
 Continuing along the south bank we passed the palace of the Catholicos-Patriarch of all Georgia. Melkizidek I became the first Catholicos-Patriarch in 1001 and the line continued unbroken until 1811 when Russian annexation led to the absorption of the Georgian Orthodox Church into the Russian Orthodox Church. Independence was regained in 1917 and, as the Soviet Union was as equally hostile to both churches it has been maintained ever since. The present incumbent, Elias II, has been in post since 1977.

the Catholicos-Patriarch of all Georgia lives in here
Nearby is the 6th century Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi’s oldest surviving church. It was packed and as even the faithful were queuing for entrance gawpers were not welcome.

Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi
The narrow streets of the old town continue as far as the Puppet Theatre with its crazily leaning clock tower. The puppet shows, Dinara informed us, were for adults, not children and as the next production was entitled 'The Siege of Stalingrad' we had to believe her. Rezo Gabriadze, who founded the theatre and designed the building, writes and produces all the shows. The shows have also toured extensively including visits to the Edinburgh Festival and London’s Barbican.

Puppet Theatre, Tbilisi
 Leaving the narrow roads of the old city we turned left toward the commercial centre.

Opposite the seminary…..

The seminary where Stalin trained to be a priest, Tbilisi
…. where Josef Dzejugashvili, who later renamed himself Josef Stalin, studied for the priesthood (he was thrown out for ‘revolutionary activities’), is a specialist cheese shop. I did not set out to write a sentence linking one of the twentieth centuries worst political monsters with the trivia of my own foodie obsession, but it happened and I am not going to change it. So there.

Cheese shop, Tbilisi
Cheese is important to Georgians (though I don't know Stalin's relationship with cheese, even if it is recorded) and appears at every meal either as the ubiquitous khachapuri cheese pie, or as plain wedges, but most often both. Georgian cheese is hard, crumbly and with a strong, distinctive flavour. It could be mistaken for no other cheese, but we had not encountered much variety. The cheerful cheesemonger was happy to give us a tasting, though he knew we were in no position to buy. Carving slices with pride he proved that variety does exist. He had cheeses of different shapes and sizes, some from cow's milk, some from goat's and a few sheep milk cheeses. They all had a distinctive Georgian character but varied in strength, friability, and goatiness or sheepiness as appropriate.

Continuing to Freedom Square we paused for a Turkish coffee. The café stood on the edge of the square where St George slays his Dragon on top of a 35m column. The sculpture in gilded bronze is the work of Zurab Tsereteli who donated it to the city. It was unveiled in 2006, filling a vacancy that had existed since Lenin, after whom the square was once named, vanished in 1991.

George and his Dragon, Freedom Square, Tbilisi
 After coffee we walked round the square and made our way to the National Museum. The museum equipped us with an English speaking guide, an elderly woman who asked if we would like to start with ‘treasure’ or ‘general archaeological’. Thinking it would not matter much I said 'treasure' and she took us down to a large, dimly lit basement.

Ten minutes later we were still at the first display case; clearly 'treasure' was all we were going to see. She was an enthusiast and talking in the way such people do, her enthusiasm was infectious. Objects of gold, silver and semi-precious stones, including the tiny original of the Tamada, have been recovered from burials from the third millennium BC up to the fourth century AD. Her particular enthusiasm was for the older pieces where the workmanship was, she said, the finest. Sometimes I could see her point, sometimes a more expert eye than mine was required. The gold came from the ancient Kingdom of Colchis where Jason and the Argonauts came to steal the Golden Fleece - before this trip I had not even realised Colchis was a real place.

Gold Earrings from Colchis, 5th century BC
Georgian National Museum, picture from Wikipedia
Dinara remarked that one particular group of artefacts had been discovered by her grandfather. The guide asked who he was. She knew him, of course (he is an eminent archaeologist) and she had also taught Dinara's father. Tbilisi is a small town.

After over an hour with the treasure lunch beckoned – it was well after one o'clock.

We decided to eat and then return, but to the Soviet Occupation exhibition rather than the archaeology – life is too short to see everything.

We lunched in a cavernous basement restaurant which we almost had to ourselves. 'It's always busy in the evenings,' Dinara said, slightly defensively. We ate Mergalian Khachapuri (every region had its own version but the differences are mostly too slight to concern foreigners) and mushrooms in a clay pot - seven or eight mushrooms each with a small piece of cheese melted in the cap. The dish is relatively expensive but brings out all the flavour of the mushrooms.

Back in the museum, the Soviet Occupation section had similarities with those we had seen in the Baltic States (see Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn). Like the Baltics, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were absorbed into Imperial Russia by the expansionist policies of Peter the Great. All six states saw a brief flowering of freedom after the First World War but while the Baltic States remained independent until the Second World War freedom lasted only until 1920 or ‘21 in the Caucasus.

Independence was reclaimed in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but not without a struggle. We saw the Declaration of Independence, and Dinara proudly pointed out her great-grandmother's signature in the second column.

The Baltic States are now members of the European Union and NATO. Georgia fears Russia even more than they do, having lost control of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russian supported breakaways, and losing a further war against Russia over South Ossetia in 2008. In Georgia we frequently saw the EU flag flown alongside the Georgian flag, and many would like the protection of the EU and NATO – a situation to which the Russians are implacably opposed.

Emerging into the heat of the afternoon we headed back to the Peace Bridge, pausing only to photograph Lynne alongside Pushkin who spent some time in Tbilisi in the 1820s.

Lynne and Pushkin, Tbilisi
The cable car was now running and it swung us swiftly up across the old city to Nariqala Fortress. Looking back we could see the huge Tsminda Semeba cathedral which is nearing completion….

Looking across the city to the new Tsminda Semeba Cathedral, Tbilisi
…while to the northwest the city spread away into the distance.

Tbilisi sprawls into the distance
Nariqala Fortress sits on a thin ridge....
Nariqala Fortress, Tbilisi
 ....the land behind dropping away as quickly as on the city side.  Behind we looked down onto the botanical gardens and an area of eroded badlands that seemed incongruous so near the centre of a city. Below us was the river and the Metekhi Church.
Metekhi Church and the Mtkvari River, Tbilisi
There is road access to the end of the fortress and we were surprised to find Alex waiting for us in the car park. Also there was a young man who had apparently packed the whole of a coffee shop into the back of a van. Perhaps he looked so glum because apart from my photographing him, his feat was attracting neither interest nor custom.
Coffee van, Naraqila Fortress, Tbilisi
Alex drove us down the end of the ridge to the thermal baths where Vakhtang Gorgasali's pheasant was boiled. Most of the low domed buildings have been converted to other uses, but some survive as baths and the smell of sulphur lurks around the streets, though you have to be in exactly the right place to catch it.

The old baths, Tbilisi
At the end of the baths and rather separated from the others is a building I took to be mosque. Persian in style it is, in fact, another bath, and once described by Pushkin as the most luxurious place on earth.
Persian style baths, Tbilisi
There is real a mosque tucked behind the ridge, just one for the whole Muslim population of the city. There used to be two, one Sunni, one Shiite, but Stalin said they only needed one and should share. They still do, which could be a lesson to some of their co-religionists.
Tbilisi mosque (from the Naraqila Fortress)
We walked up the stream past the baths where the sulphur smell comes and goes to the waterfall at the end of the little ravine. It may not be the most majestic of waterfalls but it is the largest I know of in the centre if a capital city.

Waterfall near the hot baths, Tbilisi
We returned to our hotel for a shower after a long hot day. Later we returned to the row of cafés in the old city and picked the wrong one. There was nothing wrong with the dolmas and soured cream, the mushrooms, or the pancakes with walnuts and honey, but they were overpriced and the service was frustratingly slow.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea

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