Tbilisi: The Capital With Many Lives

The undulating glass-and-steel pedestrian Bridge of Peace, which crosses the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, opened in 2010.

TBILISI, Georgia — When I came through Immigration at Tbilisi this past fall, the agent stamped my passport then handed me a small bottle of wine.

Officials gave wine to all arriving air passengers who carried foreign passports. The gifts bespeak Georgia’s eagerness to welcome tourists and, in particular, to promote wine tourism.

I was entering Georgia (the country, not the state), which is one of three former Soviet republics in the southern Caucasus Mountains, which puts them just south of Russia. The other two are Armenia and Azerbaijan. All gained independence in the early 1990s.

There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Georgia. For the press trip I had joined, travel was via Kiev, which got us into Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in the late afternoon.

A view of Tbilisi’s Old Town. The buildings house a hotel and the Kopala restaurant.

That was in good time for a memorable meal at Kopala, a restaurant in the Old Town and on the side of a hill, providing great views of well-lighted parts of the historic city center.

We learned at Kopala that typical Georgian meals include a lot of bread, including the very seductive khachapuri, which looks a lot like a plain pizza; it has no topping, but is filled with cheese.

With only one day in Tbilisi, we concentrated on the highlights.

The city is nestled in the Lower Caucasus Mountains and sliced down the middle by the Mtkvari River. Tbilisi climbs the hills on both sides of the river.

Our itinerary included the following guided visits and sightings of interest:

• Georgia’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, known locally as Sameba Cathedral, consecrated in 2004 and seat of the patriarch of

The newly built Holy Trinity Cathedral, known as Sameba Cathedral, consecrated in 2004, in Tbilisi.

the Georgian Orthodox Church, is reminiscent of traditional Georgian religious architecture.

Funded in part with gifts from billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, now Georgia’s prime minister, it sits on a hilltop with great views of the city and is itself visible from many points.

Although pretty on the outside, it is, at least for now, largely unadorned on the inside, meaning without the many icons or frescoes found in older Georgian churches.

As we walked through a broad entry gate and up several flights of steps, past a bell tower, we were greeted by peeling church bells calling the faithful to prayer. It was a Sunday morning, after all, and a nice way to approach the church. We were able to enter during the service, where all congregants were standing, and take photos “discreetly.”

• The 13th century Metekhi Church, which we had seen from our restaurant the previous night, sits on a small plateau overlooking the Mtkvari River with ancient Narikala Fortress and much of the Old Town visible across the river.

The tiny Metekhi was packed with worshippers. It shares its plateau with a statue of Georgia’s fifth century King Vakhtang Gorgasali, who founded Tbilisi.

• The Old Town is the embodiment of the city’s long and turbulent history. Narikala Fortress originated in the fourth

The walls to Narikala Fortress, which dates from the fourth century. The small St. Nicholas Church within the walls is a recent rebuild. Part of the mostly 19th century Old Town is visible below.

century, but underwent numerous modifications and expansions at the hands of foreign conquerors. The bulk of the current structure dates from the 16th and 17th centuries.

My book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, reports that the city was destroyed 29 times. Among those to do the dirty deed, in alphabetical order, were the Arabs, Byzantines, Mongols, North Caucasian tribes, Ottoman Turks, Persians and Seljuk Turks.

A view of houses with the 19th century balconies typical of the Old Town in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The churches in the Old Town date from various points in Tbilisi’s history. However, the Old Town’s charming wooden houses, noted for their extensive use of balconies, mostly date from the 19th century. That’s because much of the city center was destroyed in the last major assault on Tbilisi, by Persians in 1795.

• Chardin Street, one of Tbilisi’s oldest streets, was named for Jean Chardin, a 17th century French traveler and visitor.

It is lined with cafes and clubs, art salons and galleries, which makes it popular with

A Georgian man wears the traditional national costume, featuring a black robe with a dagger attached at the waist.

visitors and locals alike. I noted that several of the cafes, with a lot of outdoor seating, were well supplied with hookahs.

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