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You’ll Be Their Guest

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In Tbilisi, you are guaranteed to acquire new friends who will send you text messages on every holiday asking when you are finally going to come again

“What do you mean you haven’t seen the Mimino monument yet? Let’s go right now!” We caught Lasha’s cab on the bank of the Kura, near the glass-and-steel Bridge of Peace, a symbol of modern Tbilisi. Now we are going uphill on the left bank; this is the old Tbilisi district called Avlabari. We are engaged in a discussion which is obligatory for any Georgian cab ride.

“When did you arrive? Do you like it here? Are you from Moscow? Where are you staying? When are you flying back? Do you want me to drive you to the airport? Or let’s go to Mtskheta tomorrow, we’ll find some home wine and cheese on our way?” Lasha is smiling contentedly, listening to my delighted interjections about khinkali, chanakhi, chashushuli and saperavi.

Here is the monument, then. The actors Vakhtang Kikabidze, Frunzik Mkrtchyan, Yevgeny Leonov and the director Georgiy Danelia are cast in bronze per design of Zurab Tsereteli. This is certainly not the main sight of the city that has preserved the churches of the 6th century. But, you know, a monument to the characters of a Soviet movie based on the script by Rezo Gabriadze and Viktoria Tokareva creates a very distinctive mood for appreciating Tbilisi and your contacts with the Tbilisians. Do not feel like a tourist; feel like a good, curious, and kind person. Do not see the locals as waiters, taxi drivers or sellers — accept them as welcoming, hospitable, generous people. And then Tbilisi will be yours.

You will remember it in the hypnotizing aroma of khinkali, fresh cilantro and khmeli suneli. You will certainly find taxi drivers among your new acquaintances — you will agree to a trip to Mtskheta, won’t you, and the car trunk will reveal its treasures of young suluguni cheese, homemade wine and bread from a brother’s bakery.

“Money? Don’t; I just wanted you to have a look at Mimino.” Lasha has already brought us to the Rezo Gabriadze Theater. Five lari, his honestly earned wages, remain in my hand…

The Rezo Gabriadze puppet theater in the Old Town, on Shavteli Street, is a small hall for just 80 people, the coziest cafe imaginable and four masterpieces on the bill: “The Autumn of My Spring”, “Ramona”, “Stalingrad” and “The Diamond of Marshall De Fantier”. As soon as you buy tickets to Tbilisi, immediately check what’s on at the Gabriadze theater those days. If you do not manage to see a show, come anyway. Best to come at noon or by seven p.m., when the puppets in the clock tower are performing a show of their own. The surrealistic tower is also Rezo Gabriadze’s idea. It is absolutely unsymmetrical, decorated with hundreds of tiles, each with a unique pattern, and pomegranate bushes adorn its top. The clock tower is new — it was only built in 2010 — but it looks wise and weary. Perhaps this is because it contains the bricks from the demolished houses of old Tbilisi. Or perhaps because Rezo Gabriadze gave life to the stone, just as he did to the puppets.

From the theater, you do not have to take a cab — right next to it, a couple of steps away, is Anchiskhati, the Orthodox church of Virgin Mary’s Nativity. Truth be told, this should be the point where you make acquaintance with the city, because it is Tbilisi’s oldest church. But in Georgia, it is difficult to follow plans and pre-scheduled routes.

The sixth century; the sixth! Moscow would only appear half a millennium later when King Dachi Udzharmeli was already erecting those yellow tufa walls. The temple was later destroyed, re-erected, built upon and restored. The ancient Anchi icon of the Savior with a silver and gold frame, which gave the church its second name, Anchiskhati, is no longer there. It is kept in the Treasury of the Georgian State Museum of Fine Arts on Pushkin street, not far from the central Freedom Square. It is about a seven minutes’ walk from Anchiskhati.

You could choose a different direction — along the Kura bank to the south. In ten minutes' time, you will find yourselves at the Sioni Temple of the 12th century, where one of the oldest relics, the cross of Saint Nino, is kept. Such unusually shaped crosses, uneven and thin as vines, can be seen in many Georgian churches. You can take one home, too: they are sold in church shops.

Let us go along the embankment further; you will soon come across the Metekhi Temple (the church dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin) and Vakhtang Gorgasali on horseback. According to the legend, this Georgian ruler built the church here in the 5th century. The one we can see today dates to the 13th century. I love to watch Tbilisi from the Metekhi Bridge in the evening, when it becomes dark. The beautifully illuminated Old Town soars up, to the Sololaki Ridge. Above it glows an even brighter light of the Narikala Fortress with St. Nicholas Church.

It makes more sense, of course, to see the fortress in daytime. There is no need to grow weary during a long ascent along a windy road, it is easier to grab a cableway car right on the Kura embankment.

“You don’t seem to eat anything for breakfast”, mournfully says Maya, the owner of the family mini hotel. And she takes away the fifth plate. There’s been a lot of suluguni, the corn porridge called ghomi, fried eggs, pancakes with cottage cheese, a salad with a heap of green stuff, and now some home-made jam… At home I can gulp a yoghurt, wash it down with coffee and start running about; but when you are a guest in a Georgian house, even a breakfast turns into a feast. Yes, I do feel like a guest, even though we are not really acquainted with the owners, and they have visitors who come and go every day. Nothing personal, tourist business as usual. It might be like that anywhere, but not in Tbilisi.

After such a breakfast it seems that not just lunch, dinner would not be necessary. This is also something that could happen anywhere except Tbilisi. For lunch and dinner today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow we will have: khinkali (dumplings with chopped meat, with and without herbs), khachapuri (a kind of cheese-filled bread baked the Imeretian, or Megrelian, or Adjarian way), lobiani (with beans instead of cheese), pkhali (of beetroot, cabbage, spinach), the tender nadugi cheese, chkmeruli, chashushuli, suluguni again, achma, adzhapsandali, chakhokhbili, tkemali, chakapuli…

At the two-story Khinkali House on Rustaveli Avenue we were greedy enough to order about ten khinkali each — that was the first Tbilisi night, after all! Two days later, the zipper on my skirt tactlessly reminded me that a waist should actually be here, while the waiters at the famous Funikuler restaurant at Mount Mtatsminda looked at me with unmistakable pity: “Just two khinkali, really?” A couple of extra kilos is an inevitable side effect of a holiday in Georgia. You should just accept it.

If the idea of going on a diet back home does not thrill you, at least take a walk – along the long and beautiful Rustaveli Avenue, or in the Old Town and its pedestrian Shardeni Street which is composed exclusively of bars and souvenir shops (they are all very nice though rather expensive by Tbilisi standards). Walk in the park on Mount Mtatsminda (a cable car can take you there, or you can go up the stairs for the sake of fitness), walk in the Rike Park. As for restaurants, cafes, khinkali places, you won’t be able to simply pass them by. Let me repeat: accept it.

Details

- Visa Russian citizens do not need a visa; a foreign travel passport is enough.

- 4★ hotel downtown price starts from $70 per day.

- Dinner in popular tourist places costs around $50–60 for two; further from the Old Town or in budget cafes it starts from $20–30.

Three Tours

- Mtskheta. The ancient capital of Georgia is just a few kilometers away from Tbilisi, and it makes sense to go there to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (which is considered the earliest surviving temple in Georgia, founded in the 4th century), the Samtavro Monastery and the Jvari Temple. Jvari sits on a high rock, from which you will enjoy a supreme view on Mtskheta and the confluence of two rivers, Kura and Aragvi.

- Uplistsikhe. This rock-hewn town is more than three thousand years old. Ancient pagan temples and sacrifice premises, great halls (the most beautiful one is given the name of Queen Tamara), a functioning Orthodox church, wine cellars… From Tbilisi it is about 80 kilometers to Uplistsikhe, and a trip there is often combined with a visit to Joseph Stalin’s museum in Gori, which is quite close.

- On the Lopota Lake 115 kilometers from Tbilisi there is one of the best resorts of the country, Lopota Lake Resort & Spa. After tours in the capital and around, you can relax here for a couple of days in a jacuzzi, Russian bath, spa center, a balcony with mountain or lake views. This, by the way, is one of the first Georgian hotels to offer a full-scale detox program.

Text: Yulia Smirnova

Published on: December 28, 2017