In all these years of writing about my travels, I have often been late in publishing individual stories. I have been particularly prone to procrastination upon returning to Canada. But this time, I outright abandoned my blog for several months. The only thing that got me going again is the fact that I am travelling as I write these lines. I can’t really write about my current travels without first catching up, so here’s Georgia, a few months late. This will certainly be a little superficial, as I must admit I have forgotten some of the details.
The capital, Tbilisi, is pleasant to walk around and fairly compact when it comes to most things of interest to visitors. You can catch this panoramic view after a short cable car ride up to Narikala Fortress (free access, but in ruins and without much to see except the view). Or, if like me you hate cable cars, you can walk up there in a fairly short time.
The domed roofs indicate the presence of bathhouses, which have been operating in the city for hundreds of years, due to naturally occurring sulphurous springs. Persian, Turkish and even Soviet architectural influences indicate which empire had invaded the country on the year a particular bathhouse was built.
Old Tbilisi is known for its omnipresent, ornate balconies. Unfortunately, many, like this one, are in dire need of restauration.
The city also boasts several very modern constructions, such as the now iconic Bridge of Peace (pedestrian only).
And the Musical Theatre and Exhibition Hall which, like the bridge, is adjacent to the lovely Rike Park. In the background, the Presidential Palace.
Although I already wrote about Armenia, my actual itinerary in the Caucasus was: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Georgia again. If you want to visit all three countries, you are likely to end up doing something similar. This is due to two reasons; there are relatively few affordable flights in or out of Armenia and, due to the ongoing conflict, you cannot travel directly between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In any case, I arrived in Tbilisi by overnight train from Baku.
Appart from the Soviet-style bureaucratic visa, Baku is very easy to visit, but I had been told Georgia was even easier.
I was happy to discover, right after arrival, that signs were written in both Georgian and Cyrillic alphabet, a feature which would certainly help me a lot.
Now, if you have been to Georgia, you know I am pulling your leg. This sign is an exception and traveling around Georgia’s main touristic sites is relatively easy, even if you don’t speak a word of Georgian or Russian. Taxis can be a little difficult however.
Rustaveli Avenue, the main downtown shopping street.
The metro. Like any metro I have seen in the former Soviet Union, it is deep enough to double as a nuclear shelter.
The Old Town has all sorts of pleasant little streets filled with cafes, restaurants and bars, although I am sure locals consider it touristy and overpriced.
One of the main contrasts in Tbilisi, coming from Azerbaijan, is the massive presence of gypsies. The sad part is that they get the kids to beg at a much younger age than I have witnessed elsewhere in Europe. Alone on the street (or at least seemingly alone) at 3 or 4 years old. Most just beg (sometimes very aggressively), but this older kid was using a metal rod to steal something from some machine.
Still travelling with Matthew, the British spy/arms dealer I mentioned in my Armenia story, I ended up in a pub watching some important soccer game. Actually, maybe it was rugby, I only remember that the older expats were really creepy with the waitresses. But we met an interesting and 100% non-creepy UK expat and his – I think Russian – wife, and this somehow resulted in drinking wine late at night on a roof that was clearly not designed for that purpose. My phone was almost dead, so the flash didn’t work.
On the main avenue you can find the very nice Georgian National Museum. This piece is a burial headdress from the 4th century BC. It was found in the small town of Vani, Western Georgia, which thousands of years ago was probably an important city in the Colchis Kingdom. I had no idea such intricate craftsmanship existed in the Caucasus so very long ago.
The remains of this cart are nowhere as impressive, but they are over 3,500 years old! Unfortunately, the sign didn’t explain the conditions that caused it to remain in such a good state for so long.
And, as in any former Soviet Republic I ever visited (except Belarus), an exhibit on the period of Soviet occupation. Apparently prisoners were transported in this wagon and shot through the walls. This happened in the context of a nationalist uprising in 1924, but most of the hundreds of thousands of executions and deportations happened between 1937 and 1952, if I understood correctly.If you have no idea who this man is, you are not alone. The museum had a temporary exhibit on Alexander Kartveli, a Georgian engineer who had an enormous impact on US military aviation. But unlike the German rocket scientists, like Wernher von Braun, who were celebrated for their contributions to the space program, Kartveli’s contributions were classified. This was due to the fact that, despite having immigrated to the US in the 1920’s and never having waged war against his country of adoption, Kartveli was of “Soviet” origin, a current enemy at the time. Concerned over espionage, assassination or other pressures, the authorities forced him into a life of great secrecy.
So, are the Georgians exaggerating the importance of this man? You be the judge. He was the lead designer of the most-produced American fighter plane of all times, the P-47 Thunderbolt (almost 16,000 of them), as well as the successful F-84 Thunderjet/F-84-F Thunderstreak and the more recent F-105 Thunderchief. Amazingly for a man born in the 19th century, he was also heavily involved in the design of the the still-in-service A-10 Warthog II! So yes, he was a big deal.
Speaking of big deal Georgians, I will completely go off on a tangent about a man whose mini-biography I read years ago. Prince Dimitri Shalikashvili was born in the 19th century and served as a diplomat and soldier for the Tzar of Russia, the Democratic Republic of Georgia, the Polish Army and the Waffen-SS! With his son John (who was born a few weeks appart from my own father), he ended up in Illinois in the 1950’s. John initially didn’t speak English, but he managed to graduate high school and eventually became a US citizen at the age of 22, the first citizenship he had ever had. He was immediately drafted in the US Army for 21 months and, deciding he liked it, he volunteered for an extra 435 months of service.His last two “jobs” were those of NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If I read such a biography in a novel, I would think the author is not being very realistic. And wether or not you believe America is still the “Land of Opportunity” for the average immigrant, for people of extraordinary abilities like this guy and the Henry Kissingers, Sergei Brins or Elon Musks of this world, it most certainly still is. End of tangent.
Since Georgia is relatively touristy compared to its neighbours, one can easily book day trips to various regional attractions, ski resorts and the like. So Matthew and I booked a tour to the Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe.
The beautiful site boasted what is possibly the stupidest map I have ever seen. Click on it to see the details I highlighted.
One of the churches on site is being heavily restored.
And you can see the stone cutters working behind.
The tour also took us to a small town, the name of which I forget. It had typical ornate balconies.
And a set of crazy fortifications. Like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. We stopped at an unremarkable shop selling expensive wine we could have bought anywhere in the capital, and then a Ukrainian couple traveling with us saw some sign on a house and told the driver to stop (Russian is a very useful language in Georgia, as everywhere else in the Caucasus).
So we had wine in some old woman’s living room and I have no idea what was discussed, but we bought a few bottles.
Eventually the husband showed up and apparently explained the facts of life to our driver (in a friendly way). It is not so obvious from the side, but he really looked like Stalin. Since the Soviet leader was born very close to this town, the resemblance is hardly surprising.
On another day, Matthew and I took a local minibus to the former capital of Mtskheta. The vowel keys on my keyboard are not broken, this is actually how it is spelled. Local minibuses are cheap and reasonably comfortable. The nice people at Tbilisi’s tourist office will explain how to take them. In any case, if you get to the slightly chaotic station with your destination written on a piece of paper in Georgian, show it to anyone except a taxi driver and they will point you in the right direction (obviously the drivers will try to tell you there is no such bus and you have to take a taxi).
The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a World Heritage Site. According to the UNESCO, it is falling appart, so if you like it, you should visit soon.
Hands down the most touristy place I saw anywhere in the Caucasus. But still very pleasant.
A little church on top of a nearby hill. Every taxi driver in town will offer to take you there. I Googled it on my phone and it looked nothing special to me, so we passed.
And that was Georgia. I also went to Kutaisi, where I caught a flight to Poland, but several people told me there was little to see in town. Since the weather was bad, I stayed around my suburban hotel. Batumi, on the Black Sea coast, is supposed to be very nice, but somewhat dead off season, so I also took a pass.