Window on Georgia's capital

Breads, bargains, bridges ~ and beautiful friendships

Do you agree with this?

You just have to love a country where the signature dish is a baked-to-order cheesy boat bread, called here Adjarian khachapuri (above) and served with a smile at Just Tiflisi restaurant in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

When that dish uses only three ingredients - a few more, if you count the bread dough - and ticks every box (flavour, freshness, texture, satiety) then you know your tastebuds have truly come home.

Above, is the most common bread, Imeretian khachapuri, filled with local salty white cheese, then cut open immediately it is served to let the aromas engulf you. I challenge anyone to resist it.

There's a whole family of these breads, and we tried most of them - some several times - on our recent trip to Georgia. Each answers to the name of khachapuri, and the end of the word hints that the recipes were probably picked up in Central Asia by Silk Road traders centuries ago. Or else they originated in Georgia (which is many people's belief) and were proudly shared with the East. It was an inspired trade, whichever way it went, as they are addictively delicious!

(Folk-art on the ceiling of Radio Cafe)

Radio Cafe became our favourite breakfast stop, just steps from the simple yet very affordable and well-located Hotel Old City where we stayed for a week.

And there was yet another drawcard to this cafe. Outside, on the footpath, anyone is encouraged to tinkle the ivories of this old piano. This was an offer that music-loving Gordon could simply not resist!

~~~

Of course, we're not talking about Georgia, the US state, here. This is the tiny, vaguely boat bread-shaped country in the Caucasus, tucked between Turkey, Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan.

Tbilisi is its capital, with a modest population of around a million, and it was here we recently spent two wonderful weeks discovering its secrets and falling for it.

This wasn't difficult because of course we just had to be smitten by a city that welcomed us with this message (above) as soon as we left the aircraft.

Come with us now, on a leisurely, eclectic tour of this 1500-year-old city that has suffered insurgents and domination for most of those centuries.

You will surely fall under its spell, as did we.

~~~

To orientate ourselves we had decided to spend a week in Tbilisi before our guided tour began. We find it's a good way to revive after a long trip and often try to do it. In this case we had travelled 15 hours to Doha from Australia, via Qatar Airways, currently my favourite airline and then around three hours more to Tbilisi. It also meant we could move at our pace, taking photographs, getting the feel of the place beforehand.

One day we spent a worthwhile couple of hours on this tour (above). These double-decker tourist buses are in every country, and they are usually good value for an overview - better still if the translation on the headphones is audible/understandable and you can get a vantage point to do some rapid point-and shoot pictures.

Unfortunately, that particular day, grey clouds hid the sky. Oh well!

In what is now called Freedom Square, St George and the Dragon stand tall and impressive on the central pillar. While the country was under Soviet control it was called Lenin Square, featuring a statue of him. It was symbolically torn down in August 1991, and in 2006 this one was unveiled.

Freedom Square is one of the main landmarks in the Old City of Tbilisi. Many streets fan out from the circuit that surrounds the 35 metre gilded column. Visitors can access the Information Centre in the adjoining gardens, and the terminus for the City Tour buses is here too.

Also in the gardens beside Pushkin Square there is an ornate fountain and, like anywhere else in the world, Georgian young women enjoy experimenting with their hair colour.

By night the fountain is just as lovely.

Georgia declared independence from Soviet control in 1991, yet there are still many reminders and we were to discover these as we became more aware, while walking the city. Above, is a bust of Pushkin, the 19th-century Russian playwright and novelist. 

Writers of many genres are appreciated here. In 9 April Park is a huge statue of 20th-century poet, Giorgi Leonidze

In this city, some buildings are new, such as the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts built in 2013. It is on Shota Rustaveli Avenue one of the city's major roads and named after the medieval Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli. 

Here it is again. Interestingly, several of these main roads with very heavy traffic do not have pedestrian crosswalks. Instead, to reach the other side, people must walk several blocks to a subway that passes under the road. Please notice: no crosswalks, and the traffic is on the right.

Or, as in the case of the road below our hotel (see above) police monitor the safety of pedestrians (and possibly the frequency with which the signs operated) using hand signals and whistles. You can just see two of them in the bottom right-hand corner.

~~~

Cultural Tbilisi

Georgians have a rich history of music and storytelling. While we could not read this poster, the wide range of musical instruments was impressive. Top right, is a sort of bagpipe, called a gudastviri.

As with many countries, especially those that have had more than their fair share of oppression, the written word is revered. The Museum of Books a permanent display of the rich history of Georgian printed books features about 10,000 books from the National Library's archive of rare editions.

Not everybody needs a rare book so, on the banks of the Mtkvari River you can browse for hours at a dozen or more stands that are reminiscent of the bookstalls along the Seine in Paris. Then take your purchase to the seats in the adjoining Dedaena Park to enjoy fresh air and the sight of passing water traffic. Or settle at a table in the nearby Corner by the River Cafe and enjoy a snack and a drink.

In this park is a monument that at first appears to be a crucifix. However, it commemorates Georgian Language Day marking April 14, 1978 when Soviet authorities retracted their decision to ban use of the Georgian language, following a mass demonstration of a 100,000 Georgians in Tbilisi.

While English is spoken by some, especially younger people, it is worth getting your tongue around a few Georgian words.

We always like to learn at least one word - thank you - in each new country. In Georgian, it is madloba (pronounced mahd-LO-ba). I nearly wore it out, as the local people were so welcoming and generous. The Georgian word for Hello is not easy to see in this image, but it is gamajoba.

Georgians are very proud of their beautiful alphabet and many signs (but not all) are written in this decorative script.

Both these information boards are very considerately posted on the wall of the Information Centre in the Pushkin Gardens adjacent to Freedom Square.

 


 

What's for lunch - and dinner, and breakfast?

As you may have guessed, bread is a constant for any meal, but wines from locally-grown grapes is extremely good for any occasion. The ideal companion to these are some good local cheeses with many varieties ranging from crumbly and curd-like to hard long-matured ones. Most unusual is a stringlike one, called teneliRead more about them...

Georgia prides itself on having had a tradition of wine-making for over 8000 years. There are hundreds of varieties, but only a fraction is used for commercial wine-making.

More freshly-baked goodies to snack on mid-morning or afternoon - these ones in a tiny bakery window in the older part of town. Inside, we could see the oven and more breads coming out. The aromas were almost impossible to resist.

There are many cafes in Tbilisi, and a few have learned how to make a very fine espresso.

If tea is your thing, though, then you are in luck. Many cafes serve a range of teas and when you see a gleaming samovar like this, you will know you are in luck.

These caught our attention. One of our group dubbed them 'grapey string things' although they are properly known as churchkhela. Some people call them Georgian Snickers bars, and variations can be found throughout the Caucasus. 

Basically they are made by threading walnut kernels on a string that is dipped in thickened grape juice and allowed to hang and set. It is said that in ancient times this food was the primary snack for Georgian warriors and travellers. They are healthy, and not too expensive, with each string priced at 3.5 GEL (Georgian lari) around $2 AUD.

Try making them yourself....

Perhaps the dessert we liked best was served at the lookout accessed by a funicular.

It was a case of 'we'll have what they're having' as plate after plate of these large airy doughnuts were carried past to other tables. Called ponchiki, they are similar to a doughnut in that they are deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar, but their selling point is a centre filled with thick custard. 

As with many dishes still on Georgian menus, the heritage is Russian. See this video to find out how they are made....

 


 

An overview of Tbilisi - literally!

Our visit included a six-day tour of Tbilisi and the Georgian winelands. We chose Georgian-based Advantour because we had heard very good things about this company from close friends who had used their services the year before.

We were not to be disappointed either. Our lovely local guide, Natali (above), an accomplished linguist and translator, was the perfect person to introduce us to her city.

Up, up and away! The cable car, called here the Aerial Tramway, leaves the base at Rike Park and takes just one minute to reach the top. Framed in the distance is a landmark visible from many places in Tbilisi - the Georgian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Looking the other way, as we rise up over the Mtkvari River, we see the famous Peace Bridge (more of that later). That strange organ-like building beyond is the new Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre, still unopened when we were here.

So what to do now?

It is worth exploring the Narikala Fortress that stands imposingly on the crest of the gorge. Established in the fourth century, there are two walled sections and the newly-built St Nicholas Church.

There are many photo-worthy views from here, plus the inevitable alley of stalls selling every piece of tourist-alia you could imagine, and then, this.  

From many parts of the city, this 20-metre monument of Kartlis Deda the symbolic Mother of Georgia, can be glimpsed high on the hills above. Tbilisi was founded in the fifth century, and the statue was erected in 1958 to commemorate the city's 1500th anniversary. 

We walked on a short distance from the cable car exit and the eager stallholders, and had her to ourselves. In her left hand she holds a welcoming bowl of wine for friends of Tbilisi, but for enemy invaders her right hand wields a sword. It is the perfect expression of the needs of a small country that has had to fight fiercely for freedom, but whose people are generous and hospitable to the core.

A few days earlier we had taken the Funicular to another prominent lookout on Mount Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain) high above Freedom Square. The six-minute ride cost 16 lari ($8.50 AUD) and, halfway there, several people alighted at a station to see the nearby Pantheon. We kept going to the Mtatsminda Park where there is a restaurant, and rides and entertainment for children.

Here we discovered a cafeteria and restaurant with inside and outside dining and stupendous views of the city peacefully spread out below, in the evening light.
Of course we stayed for dinner!

 


 

A bridge of peace - and a river that eats its way through mountains

First, let's look at the eye-catching steel and glass Bridge of Peace, an amazing international project that was completed and opened in 2010.

The bridge was designed by an Italian architect and the lighting was created by a French designer. The entire structure was built in Italy and transported to Tbilisi by truck, while the lighting was installed on site.

This covered 150-metre pedestrian bridge needs constant maintenance.

By night a bewitching interactive light display is generated by thousands of state-of-the-art custom-made LED fixtures installed in the roof. Handrail glass panels along the walkway have low-power LED light.

If you want a stunning view of bridge and river, why not cross on the next bridge to the west, and stop at this cosy outdoor bar?

It is lovely by day or night, and there are cushions and seats as well at this inviting hammock from which to enjoy a lazy stretch of the Mtkvari river, as it is called in Tbilisi. This is actually a stretch of the mighty Kura river, whose name means 'to gnaw'. It earned the title because of the way, down-river, it appears to bite its way through the rugged mountains before finally emptying into the Caspian Sea to the east of the Caucasus.

JOIN US FOR A RIVER CRUISE

~~~

Crossing the bridge allows closer views of this unusual public building.

The fluid lines of this bridge are meant to evoke thoughts of a marine animal. 

A lovely place to sit and enjoy this delicately coloured river is at one on the many riverbank cafes, bars or restaurants. We felt that Tbilisi is on the verge of a tourist boom. Everywhere we went, buildings were being dusted off and renovated, road workers were hard at work and there was a general feeling of renewal. Maybe this is Georgia's spring after its long and chilly recent history.

One day, the weather was so perfect, we took a half-hour boat cruise along the river.

Part of the banks are high cliffs with old buildings perched aloft.

Georgians love a bit of fun, and there were several iron sculptures like these, placed along the footpath of one bridge. Naturally we were drawn to the photographer - but he appeared to be in a bit of a hurry!

 


 

What about the shopping?

The people of Tbilisi like to shop as much as anyone else in the world. Heading out to dinner one evening, we passed a footpath flower-market crammed with roses - including these ultra-smart beauties.

The Dry Bridge Market was close to our hotel and we made it a priority to visit. There was everything, from one-off fashion  pieces like this felted wool jacket....

... to tourist-alia magnets....

...exceptional art and craft ....

...and antiques, many dating from the Soviet era, and possibly family heirlooms. As flea-markets go, it was excellent.

Near to Freedom Square on Rustaveli Avenue is Liberty Square, a western-style shopping mall...

...with well-known chains such as H&M....

...and several floors of boutique shops, cafes and stalls.

Further along around Rose Revolution Square is the city's CBD, its commercial centre with large hotels, a wider range of shops, restaurants and bars, as well as banks and tour companies.

 


 

A country of faith

(Kashveti St George Church)

People in the countries of the Caucasus have always had a deep spirituality. Like many in eastern Europe, they adhere to an orthodox religion, and in this country Georgian Orthodox churches are where most of the population worship. 

The Orthodox Church of Georgia is one of the oldest churches in the world - but this building, seen from many parts of Tbilisi, is one of its newest cathedrals. The  recently constructed, and controversial Holy Trinity Cathedral, overlooks the Presidential Residence on the eastern side of the river.

READ MORE about the churches in Tbilisi....

 


 

Tbilisi's New Town

Every river city should have a 'Left Bank'. Tbilisi is proud of its New Town across from the Dry Bridge Markets.

It is easy to find. Cross the Saarbrucken Bridge near Dedaena Park, and head for the roundabout at Zaarbriuken Square.

 

A block down Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue you will enter a pedestrian-friendly area packed with bars and cafes channelling the atmosphere of any great city worldwide. Take your time walking through it, stop for coffee, an ice cream or khatchapuri and indulge in people-watching as locals and tourists mingle.

It's worth walking a little further down this street to see this building with its lavish and avant-garde mosaic facade. Once the headquarters of Soviet propaganda in Georgia, it is now used by commercial companies.

~~~

The Old City

If you have a New City, there has to be an Old City, and Tbilisi's is found in a tangle of laneways and cobbled streets near the Peace Bridge.

There are art galleries...

...restaurants with someone on hand to welcome you and a place you should not miss.

The Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater has performances that everyone can enjoy inside the theatre. For those who cannot get a ticket or prefer to be outside, in the leaning clock tower on Shavteli pedestrian street, marionettes appear to entertain and delight.

On the hour an angel appears and rings the bell (above)....

.....and at noon each day, there is a special performance of many puppets.

Nearby, Gordon got friendly with some local street people.

Enjoy an additional walk around this area HERE....

 


 

Wining and dining

This is Tamada, the toastmaster and he represents a much-needed person at each long and boozy meal. He is meant to keep the toasts going smoothly. We came across this strange fellow shortly after our guide had told us about him over lunch.

(Qveri at Tbilisi's Open Air Museum of Ethnography)

Georgia's history in wine-making is perhaps longer than any other country - estimated at perhaps 8000 years. For many centuries wine has been allowed to mature naturally - no vats, no barrels, no monitoring - in large clay pots called qveri. Once, every Georgian home grew its own grapes and matured the family's wine in this manner.

One evening we dined at Tsiskvili Restaurant, where we were served this stunning Georgian wine.....

‘Ethno-Tsiskvili’ is a restaurant space that emerged from the Georgian culture and time-honoured customs. The high-class riverside restaurant was founded in 2002 and since then it has become popular with locals and visitors alike.

Not only was the food and wine exceptional, but the talented entertainment was the perfect backdrop. 

See the video for some of the dances and songs.

 


 

Sleeping in a palace

The final few nights on our guided tour in Georgia were spent in luxury at the Tiflis Palace Hotel. Our balcony looked out across the gorge to the ramparts of the massive Narikala Fortress.

Tiflis was the official Russian name for this city until 1936.

Interestingly, the city's name, deriving from a word meaning 'warm', was chosen because of the area's numerous sulphuric hot springsBeside our hotel, and visible from our window, there are sulphur baths, still in use.

Formerly ultra-luxurious Royal Baths, they were built many years ago and the hot sulphurous waters have been used therapeutically, or simply as a relaxing indulgence, for centuries.

~~~~

And then it was time to go...

As we travelled around Tbilisi, three things we all aspire to were upfront and obvious: Freedom (the square), Peace (the bridge) and Love - everywhere from the airport welcome to this bridge bristling with lover's padlocks....

... even to this sign outside the Old City restaurant.

Tbilisi - you said on Day One, when we arrived, that you loved us - and we grew to love you too!

And you will never be forgotten.

 ~~~

COMING UP SOON....

We head for Georgia's mountains and wine regions to discover more about this tiny yet terrific country.

~~~

Text and images: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently to Georgia booking the tour with Advantour. All opinions are their own.

 

Comments  

 
0 #2 Thanks LorraineSallyh 2020-03-23 12:11
Thanks so much Lorraine. You would love it. Let me know when you are going and I will tell you more and give contacts. xx
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0 #1 EditorLorraine Elliott 2020-03-23 10:15
This is in my top 10 destinations! I was introduced to it through food (of course) having made Khachapuri and other delicious breads. Now you've shown me how gorgeous it is through this amazing post-thank you!!
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