Three days before going to Tbilisi, Georgia, I decided to go to Tbilisi, Georgia. We had only fifty hours to spend in the country, so we spent forty-six of them on a cappuccino-fueled sojourn through the capital and its famous Caucusus region. The post-Soviet, Eastern culture was fascinating; Georgia seemed to have a particularly cautious and tranquil cadence.
We flew in on three different planes and met in the Tbilisi airport at 4:30 in the morning. Our host Nini and her husband picked us up and drove us to our AirBNB. Unbeknownst to us, Nini’s husband was an architect, and this apartment was something of a sketchbook for him complete with a dining room table that doubled as a pool table, a heated stone floor in the bathroom, two roofdecks, and a hammock-like net to lay in above the living area.
Although home base was enticing, we had to be on the move. We took an hour's nap and then walked toward the center of the city. Wandering down Shota Rustaveli Avenue, We ran into Kashveti Church of St. George. A distinctive, ethereal smell of incense accompanied a grandiose dome covered in Eastern Orthodox frescos on the inside. The walls of the first story were replete with paintings of Christ and other biblical characters, and many Georgians were lighting candles, praying to them, and kissing the walls. This and the many other Georgian Orthodox churches we visited were even more mystical and moving to me than any of the monstrous mosques I have seen in Turkey.
Further down the street, we found the Georgian National Museum. We payed the students’ entrance fee of about thirty U.S. cents and viewed tons of Georgian archeological finds and a special exhibit on the Russian occupation. The exposé on the occupation that had only ended twenty-four years ago gave some context to the relatively quiet demeanor of the Georgian people.
When we reached Freedom Square, we saw an advertisement for tours to Gergeti Trinity Church (pictured above). Luckily, Giacomo speaks Russian, and was able to work out a deal with a driver for a day tour to the church beginning early Sunday. With our mountain excursion planned, we continued into the heart of Tbilisi’s old city while stopping in churches along the way. Our last stop before lunch was Abanotubani, an underground spa that we referred to as “the domes” because we were only interested in the "park" that the brick dome roofs of the underground structure created.
After a long morning, we were ready for our first taste of Georgian food. We stopped at a nearby restaurant and ordered some traditional dishes, perhaps the most famous of which was Khinkali. The Georgian take on a dumpling could be filled with just about anything and has a big knot on the top that is apparently not to be eaten - it's considered rude.
We continued our wandering through a nearby park and took the funicular up to see the famous Kartvlis Deda, a statue of "Mother of a Georgian" that overlooks the city with an offering of wine in one hand a sword in the other. We conversed with some locals who sold coffee at the top of the mountain before hiking around Narikala Fortress and checking out Tbilisi's only mosque.
We walked back to the apartment as the sun went down, not having realized we had strayed about three kilometers out over the course of the day. A quick rest preceeded a Georgian dinner of more Khinkali and this time some Khachapuri, a rich, cheesy bread with an egg on top. We filled up and then made the brilliant decision to prepare for our early day with a night out in Tbilisi's surprisingly energetic club scene.
Our guide, Vaja Mah, grinned at our zombie-like appearances at 8:30 am and graciously allowed us to order some coffees and pastries at the downstairs cafe even though we were late. We set off driving north to the church, unaware that Vaja Mah planned to visit many sites along the way that would be impossible to find without a Georgian. As we drove, I watched the mountain peaks slowly ascend until they reached upwards of 2000 meters. They also changed color - we hadn't considered that it would be snowing!
The first stop was an enormous walled lookout point where we took pictures and briefly spoke to some Georgians. We drove for about a half an hour more before Vaja Mah stopped on the side of the road and pointed at some strange red rocks. He handed us some plastic cups as we noticed that there was fresh water running down the rocks; apparently it was good luck to drink it. When we raised our glasses to a toast, Vaja Mah went to the car and brought out two bottles of wine that he had made himself. We all had a small glass of his distinctive, delicious wines. The red was apparently Joseph Stalin's favorite grape.
We arrived in Stepantsminda an hour and a half later. The hike to Gergeti Trinity Church was three hours up and three hours back, so we opted for the thirty-lari Jeep. The wine didn't settle well with the bumpy, steep ride, but the reward for the journey was stunning. A lone, 14th-century stone church sitting in the middle of a vast open area and framed by the snowy Caucusus is an image that I will never forget.
We entered the church and enjoyed the view for about an hour before heading back down. Vaja Mah mentioned that we were twelve kilometers from the Russian border, so we took a quick drive to see Russia. As if we may have yet been unimpressed, Vaja Mah made one more stop on the way home to the village of Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin that has another famous church with an incredible view.
We returned to Tbilisi just in time for dinner. We took a cab to Funicular - a well-known restaurant at the top of the mountain overlooking the city. We ate our last Khinkalis and Khachapuri while commending ourselves for our hustle. When we were done, we walked outside to look at glowing Tbilisi from above. The city was still and calm.
Although we had barely slept since we arrived, we had to be up for our ride to the airport in just a few hours, and we were not finished enjoying Georgia. We played pool in the apartment until we finally crashed about an hour before our alarms rang.
When we arrived, Nini said that Georgia is the type of place that you want to return to after having been once. I chalked it up to national pride and figured I'd get my fill this weekend. However, as I sat groggy and exhausted in Tbilisi International Airport, I found myself anxiously awaiting round two.