Although it was dull when we set out, the day improved and became beautifully warm and sunny – perfect for enjoying a lovely city.
After breakfast, Zaza arrived to act as our guide. He not only lives here, he works for one of the art galleries as well as his work as an archeologist – he is proving to be a national treasure! So knowledgable.
We started the tour by standing in the grounds of the church at the bottom of the road from the hotel. We were on a terrace on the high river bank looking over to the old town as it slopes down towards the river on the other side. Although not originally the Georgian capital, the area came to fame when it was found to have hot springs that an ancient king rather took to. He decreed that the capital should move its location – Tbilisi means ‘warm city’. The springs are still there, as are the old baths which are still in operation. We could see the domes of the bath house buildings as we looked down from our terrace. Artefacts would indicate that there has been a settlement on the site since the 3/4th century.
The top of the hill opposite is dominated by a huge fortress and the original town grew around it’s base. Tbilisi has the same history as so many places we have seen on our journey since China – destroyed by the Persians it grew up again with its narrow, twisting streets and was then ravaged by the soviets.
Now it has an old town under renovation and a new modern city spreading out on the other side of the river. Most noticeable were some really odd architectural shapes that could be seen in the bridges. the unfinished concert hall – two massive silver tubes that were to glisten in the sun later in the day – and what looked like a gigantic patch of mushrooms which was the civic building. These are all the output of a recent young president wanting to make his mark.
Tbilisi has a multi ethnic population and a real cukture mix – so much so that the only mosque in the old town provides a place of worship for both Sunni and Shiite Moslems. Amazing given all the ‘fuss’ elsewhere…….
A key feature of the housing architecture is the large balconies. We asked about this when we saw them in the old town of Baku but did not really get an answer but apparently they are popular because it gets so hot. Everybody lives on the balcony!
We descended from the terrace and crossed the bridge at the bottom of the road. First we passed the bath house and then peered down into a huge crack In the earth – a small gorge with water trickling through it to join the main river. Apparently the Russians used it as a rubbish tip – it must have been very smelly in the heat of the summer and so close to the old town buildings….
Walking up the gorge, with high cliffs either side you were suddenly transported to another place. Instant countryside. The sides of the gorge rising like cliffs over our heads, but trees, shrubs and grass underfoot. The water in the narrow river bed trickled over boulders and stones and as we rounded the corner we were confronted with a natural waterfall. Not what you expect in a modern city. We crossed the stream and climbed a spiral metal staircase to take us us to the road level of the old town. We were immediately in the old town. Initially we walked through recently renovated buildings with some rather startling mistakes! One of the new marble external staircases had been built across the front door of the house behind it. Hmmmmm.
We walked on up the steep narrow street. We passed the mosque, up and up until we came to the church by the fort. It was Sunday and coming up for service time so people had begun to gather. As we peered over the church wall down into the city – now from the other side – a young member of the clergy came out and started to toll one of the rusting bells. At this, even more cars arrived. It is obviously a big thing here. While both parents were inside, children played outside in the sun as the sound of singing came from within the building. Peeping in the door – it was true – they were all standing.
We moved on further up the battlements. A huge female similar to Mother Armenia, stood in a similar stance, sword in hand, looking down on her Georgian citizens below. Having taken in the view ourselves we started our descent. This time we found ourselves in the real, not renovated old town. This was much poorer. The buildings, although in the same style, were in various stages of dilapidation. Peeling paint, rusting ironwork, a labyrinth of external pipe work and dangling wires were all in evidence in the narrow winding streets. Amongst all this, washing hung from strings attached to anything with an appropriate hook or nail.
We passed people emerging from another church, near a site of an ancient Zoroastrian site. Cats and kittens were everywhere. One of our number, Barry (or Sir Barrington as he has come to be known) is very fond of cats and had a field day of photography in Tbilisi! We eventually arrived at the bottom of the hill and the old town continued on its route to Freedom Square where ancient joins modern on this side of the river.
One rather bizarre incident has to be reported. We were taking a path passed a church that was a level below us. We were looking at the usual large congregation that was milling around the entrance to the church, as Zaza explained another topical point, when around the corner came some men carrying – much to our amazement – an open coffin. Horrified, we were shocked into stunned silence as we unwittingly stared down into the exposed face of the deceased (nun as we later found out) who was being rather unceremoniously carried into the church…… This trip does not cease to amaze us.
Continuing on our way we passed a clock tower with something of a fairy tale aspect. Built in several sections it took the form of sort of boxed sections in squares at slightly different angles and differing materials. It gave an indication of all sorts of ‘goings on’ when the hours were struck. It had a big iron girder on one side holding it up. Words fail me (really!) to describe the clock tower – hopefully a photograph will help!
After this it was a short walk along old exposed city walls that ran along at pavement level beside us to Freedom Square, passing on the way a cheese shop. (How exciting was that!!)
The square is surrounded by huge buildings – art galleries and museums – although one side is just a pseudo classic facade facing with nothing behind it! A tall column stood in the centre with a gold George and the Dragon on top. George certainly gets about…,,,,,
This marked the end of the tour and we raced back to the clock to see what happened. Sure enough an angel emerged with a hammer to strike a bell to toll the hours at the top and lower down, clock puppet figures emerged and rotated past us. A huge crowd had gathered for this, rather as I remember a crows gathering by the Liberty’s clock off Regent Street when I was a child. Is the Liberty’s clock still there?
We had a rather more hearty lunch than we had anticipated in a nearby cafe and then took off on our own to explore. We wondered art galleries, enamel museums and expensive shops. I bought fingerless gloves and we continued to hunt for a small (we are fast running out of walls at home) picture to mark our trip, but found nothing despite walking along the river later in the afternoon to the Dry Bridge Market.
This is an area where anyone can go and sell anything it would appear. Although dominated by paintings, people had laid out all manner of things on the pavements. Much looked to be rubbish, but some struck me as sad as elderly people sat by ancient chipped pots and pans looking as though they were selling their last possessions. Good job I have no where to put them in the truck! Along the riverside was a whole row of book sellers, old books piled high in purpose built stalls.