TBILISI / ბილისი
My 25 year old son, the offspring of two wanderers, has lived a life for the last year + that we all dream of. Drifting from this country to that one, propelled by friends to visit places most of us have never even heard about. But when he needs to settle for a few weeks, when he needs to recharge and regroup, his place of choice is The Republic of Georgia. Nope, not the place of peaches and grits. I’m talking about the former Soviet held, but independently fierce, fiery Nation of Georgia.
He beckoned us there. Wanting to show off the reason why this country is the new travel destination of the young and adventurous. We, being old but still adventurous, took advantage of our frequent flyer miles, and went. Our 30 year old daughter, the girl of all things Anglo currently residing in London, hesitated not at all when we asked if she would like to join us. (Our 23 year old, currently living with mom and dad, could not go due to newly acquired employment.)
Getting to Georgia is not easy.
We took off one incredibly hot May evening in 2017 on an overnight flight from Washington-Dulles (Which is technically in Virginia) to Munich Germany.
Mike and I arrived in Germany the following morning; we planned to spend the next three days acclimating to the time change (+6 from the East Coast to Munich, +8 from the East Coast to Georgia) and touring the painted towns of the Alps.
Our daughter caught up with us on our third day in Munich and all three of us flew Turkish Air through Istanbul Turkey with a connecting flight to Tbilisi. There are multiple options for non-stop flights to Georgia, but they all seem to arrive in the wee hours of the morning, but the connecting flight had us arriving at a reasonable time in the afternoon, with the added benefit of a layover in the extremely entertaining, lively and multicultural Istanbul Ataturk airport.
The tiny, but well organized Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport welcomed us with a cloud of smoke. It was a bit of a shock for us Americans but we also felt a bit like celebrities because any time we spoke to one another, the Georgians around us would stop and listen intently. It is still rare to hear English spoken here by native speakers, especially by those not toting backpacks and are over the age of forty.
SIDE NOTE: It was explained to us that when Georgia regained its independence in 1991, the government had the foresight to introduce English into the school system; deciding that English would be the best option for the future of business for their country. You will find that a majority of twenty-somethings speak English pretty well, while the older generation speaks Russian. And everyone speaks the unique, and impossible language of Georgian. I am in awe of the ability of the young people to switch between all three languages at any given moment.
As I said, the airport is small but surprisingly modern. On the main level everything you need before you venture out is all within mere feet of each other. You can grab your checked bags, buy the local currency, purchase sim cards for your phone, and pick up a rental car.
We had reserved a car with Avis which has an office in the terminal. Anticipating the arrival of Americans, the manager had an under thirty assist us with the rental because he spoke English. If you do not need to rent a car, there are dozens of chain smoking, but polite locals waiting outside to assist with your ride into the city. They drive on the same side of the road as we do in the United States, although the traffic laws are shall we say, up for interpretation. My husband, who had just spent three blissful days racing around the Autobahn was up for the challenge.
The ride out of the airport was eye opening, there is still a lot of work to do here. The buildings are shabby, crumbling, and often abandoned. Laundry is hung from every possible vantage point; but it is not quaint like in Italy, more like the seedier side of NYC, but hang in there, the adventure is just getting started.
As you draw closer to the city center it becomes a different world. There is a purposeful bustle all around. Construction to repair the buildings and sidewalks, street cleaners, shop keepers organizing their wares, there is an appealing tidiness to the Capital city. We were encouraged, the sigh of relief was audible.
Tbilisi, (Pronounced “Tib-eh-lee-see“) spilling from the hills, with it’s boggling mix of ancient and modern architecture, art and sculptures around every bend, and incredible statues in impossible places, with the muddy swift Mtkvari/Kura river winding through it all, went a long way toward energized us from our travel.
And then, as we rounding a corner and descended toward the city, there she was.
Kartlis Deda the Mother of Georgia. A powerful symbol of the Georgian people. Erected in 1958 to celebrate 1500 years of Tbilisi, she is a little over 65 feet tall (20m). She holds a bowl of wine in her left hand for friends, and a sword in her right hand for her enemies.
She is inspiring. She is imposing. She is worth the trip alone.
We arrived at our hotel adjacent to the famous Freedom Square, jet lagged, hangry, and a bit queasy from the smoke filled lobby, only to find out that our daughter thought we were handling her hotel accommodations, and we thought she was staying with her brother in his rented apartment.
Daughter, a very resourceful young woman who works for a major internet search engine company, quickly found and booked a hotel a block away. More about her hotel shortly.
Crisis averted, we were able to enjoy the chaos that is Freedom Square out our street facing window before walking the block to her hotel to check her in. Freedom Square, which is currently a multi-laned roundabout, easily converts into a parade and viewing ground during celebrations (More to come about that!) This “Square” has a rich and colorful history, I encourage you to read about it on this outstanding blog site: “Georgia About”
Meanwhile our son texted to say his apartment was literally across the alley from her hotel and would meet us in her lobby before taking us to dinner at a favorite local spot.
(While he periodically visits his sister in London, mom and dad had not seen him since the New Year and I surprised myself when I burst into tears when I saw him. Blame it on the travel if you will but that’s just Mom stuff)
Checking our daughter into her hotel we realized immediately that we needed to cancel the reservation at our current hotel, and book into her hotel. The Ibis Styles was literally brand new. So brand new that while we were there they were having a grand opening celebration that included a visit from the Prime Minister. It was whimsical, clean, half the price of our current hotel, but most importantly (For me) a smoke free establishment.
TIP: If you decide to stay at the Ibis, ask for a suite with a terrace. At the time of our stay the suite rooms with a terrace were the same price as suites without. And the suites were not much more expensive than a regular room.
Time to talk about food and the beginning of a five day odyssey to find the correct Georgian Orange wine.
Quick-step marching your travel weary family at twilight through narrow streets, often where the sidewalks would end for no reason, crowded with merchants, families out for a stroll, tour guides shouting their prices, and the occasional professional beggar might get you in trouble, but our son made up for it by guiding us to
a restaurant where we could have our first taste of authentic Georgian food.
First up, daughter absolutely had to have Khachapuri, the delicious cheesy bread with an egg on top. It was a heavy buttery cheesy plate full of yumminess, perfect for the jetlagged.
Dad and I were fully versed on the proper way to eat them (Please educate yourself by watching hilarious YouTube videos that your children WhatsApp you prior to arriving in Georgia; or you will make a fool of yourself…apparently). These delightful steamed dumplings filled with spiced meat and juice were every bit as good as we had heard, and we left the stems on the plate in true Georgian fashion.
Unfortunately, at this restaurant, the Orange wine that dad ordered was not the wine according to our daughter. She had tasted an incredible Georgian wine in London and was hoping to find it again in Georgia, but it was not to be on this first night. Between the jet lag and the other patrons smoking during their meal (A lot of restaurants are starting to prohibit this though) we were ready to head back to our hotels. We taxied back because we didn’t think we could manage the cobbled stoned streets and hills at night as exhausted as we were.
TIP: Settle on the fare before entering the vehicle. There are no meters, and it is customary to haggle for the fare, but don’t be too cheap, they are trying to make an honest living!
Taxis are readily available, and inexpensive, like everything in the county. Some drivers speak English and the ones that don’t will ask the ones that do to translate, and they will help their comrades without “stealing” the customers from them.
KARTLIS DEDA / ქართლის დედა
After taking care of some administrative stuff. (Husband’s sim card did not work, and we needed to change hotels) we met up with the kids at a local coffee shop steps from the Ibis. The “Double B Coffee & Tea” shop is a favorite of our son, he is like Norm from Cheers when he walks in. Lots of hand shaking and greetings from the Baristas and locals alike.
It was a bright, sweet little place with great speciality coffees and light pastries, it was reminiscent of the local shops we would frequent when daughter lived in Brooklyn.
As a family we decided the evening before that we would have a day in the city. While we are adventurers that prefer to take the road less traveled, we do still like to do tourist stuff too. My firm belief is that touristy things are that way for a reason. They are usually interesting or awe inspiring, and almost always worth seeing. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad for being a tourist!
First up, we were off to see a lady about a sword
And to get to her we elected to take the Aerial Tram; a gondola that glides smoothly across the city and up the steep Sololaki hill. On our way to the tram we walked across the marvel that is the Bridge of Peace. Opened in 2010 the bridge spans the Kura river and connects old Tbilisi with new. At the time of our crossing there were window washers zipping all over it cleaning the shimmering glass panels.
Exiting the bridge we walked through the serene garden at Rike Park and stopped to take a family photo in the mirrored windows of the tram building. It was a bit like snapping a photo in the reflection of the famous Chicago Cloud Gate sculpture.
Because the Aerial tram opened in 2012 the entire operation is new, clean and modern. At the time of this post a one way ticket to ride cost $1 Lari which is roughly forty cents in US currency, however you will need to purchase a loadable card which is an additional $2 L. We saved on this because our son already had one and loaded our fares onto his card.
TIP: Keep your card, you can use it in other places in Tbilisi.
*Lari or GEL? Same thing, GEL is the currency code used when converting money on the exchange, but when discussing the actual money itself, use the term Lari or my son will get mad at you.
There were few people in line so we were allowed to file into a car by ourselves. Again, clean, modern cars. No graffiti, at least not in our car, and the windows were smudge free, there is a real pride here. The trip up the hill was quick but views of the city were worth the effort.
Arriving at the top of Soloki Hill we immediately turned right and headed toward the towering statue of Mother Georgia, Kartlis Deda.
To add to the facts already posted, she is made from aluminum and is outfitted in the traditional dress of Georgia.
I know what you’re thinking, she’s pretty badass, and you are right, she is.
If you walk up the base of the statue there are benches there where you can pause to take in stunning view of the city. There are also shops and restaurants on the promenade, and from the promenade you will also be rewarded with an impressive view of the cliffs that loom over the river Kura.
Narikala / ნარიყალა
We walked down to this incredible stone and brick fortress from the Kartlis Deda promenade, wear sturdy shoes for this part of your sightseeing journey. You can also drive up if you have not trammed your way up as we did. We entered for free into the inner part of the fortress (If so inclined you may give a few coins to the women who sit at the gate and sell religious trinkets, but currently there is no entrance fee.)
Fires, earthquakes and invading hordes have tried and failed to topple it, although it appears that each succeeded in damaging some parts beyond repair. But these types of things are what make you feel like you are truly seeing a place unspoiled. Ten years from now, the whole fortress may be completely restored with very little left to the imagination about the past injustices leveled against it.
There are places that you can climb, scale and hike that require a pretty good level of physical fitness, and a touch of courage. We were climbing up on walls and hiking over scree during parts of our climb to the top. If you want to climb the tower where the cross is located. It requires that you climb vertically up the crumbling stone facade through a narrow opening, it is not for the faint of heart and would never be allowed in the US but clearly they do not have personal injury lawyers here yet.
But for all of the scraped skin and bumps you are rewarded with incredible views, and a great souvenir photo with the cross.
After all of our mountain goat like activities at the fortress we were absolutely ready for lunch. We elected to walk down through old town instead of taking the tram back down. Or rather Dad and son marched off in that general direction and daughter and I scrambled to catch up. It is a steep walk down so I am grateful that we didn’t walk up. Along the way you pass locals who don’t seem to be phased by the steep climb, small cats that jump out at you from the ledges and bushes, vendors selling all manner of food, clothing and wares. But you also get to peer down alleys where real life is unfolding.
We landed at the bottom where it is decidedly more of a touristy area. The restaurants clustered together with their hostesses beckoning you in with promises of great food. After circling the restaurants, side stepping tour groups and rejecting perfectly good places that I know for sure had cold water and clean bathrooms, we settled on a quaint cafe that served pretty darn good fresh Italian food.
Water and appetizers ordered, husband and children bent their heads over the wine menu. Did I fail to mention that I am one of those unfortunate people that suffer migraines when drinking wine?
No, I do not drink wine.
Don’t care for it very much anyway so don’t feel too bad for me, I am not much of an imbiber but when the mood strikes I am perfectly content with a vodka or gin based cocktail.
They ordered a different brand of orange wine then the night before which was sniffed, swirled, and tasted. Meh…announced daughter, pretty good and a bit closer but just not…the one.
The day was getting away from us and after everyone retired to their own spaces for some rest and respite from one another, uhm, I mean the heat, we reconvened for an easy dinner at one of the fine new restaurants on the street in front of our hotel.
Galaktion Tabidze St is a narrow alley that is lined with new restaurants, shops and residential homes. It has a slightly more upscale feel than other parts of the city and we felt that we were very well situated on that street. We enjoyed more authentic Georgian style food mere steps from the hotel and ended the night on the restaurant’s outdoor patio relaxing while it gently rained on the cobbled street. It was quite a fine ending to our first full day in Tbilisi.