Tbilisi, Georgia’s ancient, warm heart

The Narikala Fortress dominates the ancient Old Town of Tbilisi. Some 1,700 years old, the historic heart of the city is a magical place to wander, retaining a sense of the past at almost every turn. The best, possibly only, way of exploring the Old Town is on foot, but that involves plenty of steep hills and stairways that climb ever upwards between pretty houses with wooden balconies. Trudging uphill in 36ºC was unpleasant, but the views over the valley that is home to this rough and ready city are magnificent.

There are pleasant walking routes taking in the most interesting streets and ancient buildings. Explored slowly, with stops for lunch and wine tasting, I spent a very happy day wandering winding, narrow lanes lined with traditional houses with wooden balconies. There are several historic churches hidden away in the warren of streets, as well as mosques and a synagogue, testament to the diverse cultural mix that Tbilisi has inherited as an ancient crossroads between Europe and Asia close to the Silk Road.

Narikala Fortress, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Church of the Assumption, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Rezo Gabriadze Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia
Mother Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia
Sulphur baths and Narikala Fortress, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

This history was obvious when I stopped for lunch at one of the city’s best restaurants, Cafe Leila. I snagged an outside table opposite the entrance to the Anchiskhati Basilica, a 6th century Orthodox church with a steady stream of worshippers and tourists, and watched the world go by while enjoying a bowl of lobio, a thick and rich baked red bean stew flavoured with herbs, and a tomato and cucumber salad with a crushed walnut topping. All washed down with a cold beer to combat the heat and humidity.

By the time I reached Cafe Leila it was mid-afternoon and I’d definitely earned a rest. The day had started with a walk along the banks of the Kura river to reach the famed hot sulphur baths in the Abanotubani district. It was way too hot for a sulphur bath, so I wandered around the area of Tbilisi’s central mosque and then up to Narikala Fortress. Dating from the 4th century there’s not a lot to see, but the Narikala Church is worth a visit before heading to the massive statue of Mother Georgia along the ridge.

Standing on the edge of the ridge you get sweeping views over the entirety of Tbilisi, but even more exciting than the views is the way of getting down the hill: a cable car. The descent over the city and across the river gives you a close up of the streets you’re flying above before being deposited in Rike Park – a trip that takes you from the 4th century to the 21st century in around 4 minutes. Only on my way down did it occur to me that I’d have saved myself a hot climb if I’d done this journey the other way around.

I crossed over the Peace Bridge back into the Old Town to continue my explorations. I came across one of Tbilisi’s most famous sights, the Rezo Gabriadze Theatre, a puppet theatre of high renown and easily identified by the tilting tower that stands over the narrow street and performs a marionette show at midday. It stands at one end of a pedestrianised street that runs past the Sioni Cathedral and the Little Synagogue, not to mention a section lined with restaurants serving Georgian cuisine.

Cable car over Tbilisi, Georgia
Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Piano player, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

I eventually ended up in Liberty Square, where the chaotic traffic choked the streets and polluted the air, a constant problem in Tbilisi, before diving back into the cobbled lanes of the Old Town towards Vinoteka, and some wine tasting. I figured this would be good research for when I headed into the eastern wine producing area of Kakheti, and I was keen to taste some of Georgia’s famed natural wines made by a process that is around 8,000 years old.

It’s a bit touristy, but I left armed with vital information and a thirst to expand my wine knowledge further, for which I’d pay the price of a serious hangover the following day.

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