Tbilisi is a city full of surprises. I’d spent a day in the Old Town, I’d wandered through the area surrounding the massive Holy Trinity Cathedral, and explored the youthful area of Rustaveli, but nothing prepared me for the extraordinary legacy of a city that has an abundance of art nouveau buildings. Art nouveau is something I associate with Paris or Prague. Tbilisi? Not so much. Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue is, however, an art nouveau strip that wouldn’t be out of place in either city.
Defying expectations, Georgia had an art nouveau ‘Golden Age’ that has bequeathed Tbilisi some truly magnificent buildings. Today they sit uneasily alongside modern glass and steel statements to the future, and grim Soviet-era reminders of a less graceful, brutalist past. I’d not been prepared for such architectural riches and, even if many of the buildings that survive are in need of urgent care, it’s something that the city should promote more. My guidebook barely mentioned art nouveau.
Given Georgia’s relative geographic isolation from the whole art nouveau movement, it’s not entirely clear how the style even arrived in the country. Some say from across the Caucasus, others from the Black Sea. However it found its way here, once it had arrived it flourished in Tbilisi in the early years of the 20th century. Proof, if needed, that Georgia looked to the West for cultural connections before the iron fist of Soviet rule snuffed it out in the 1920s.
The neglect of Tbilisi’s art nouveau buildings started in earnest under Soviet rule. It wasn’t a style or philosophy that the Soviets were ever going to embrace. Considered bourgeois, there was no greater insult in the Soviet world, buildings were allowed to deteriorate, some more gracefully than others. Since independence, efforts to restore this cultural heritage has been haphazard at best and hampered by a lack of money and political will. That’s both shortsighted and a shame.
Agmashenebeli Avenue starts close to the Dry Bridge, famous for its flea market where people sell both tourist trinkets and personal possessions dating back from before the Soviets arrived. I was staying nearby and a stroll along the avenue begins with an area filled with restaurants and bars, which is pedestrianised – a welcome change of pace from dodging homicidal drivers. I wandered along until I rejoined the traffic and found myself in Marjanishvili Square.
The area beyond here is filled with the art nouveau, and the neighbourhoods seem to become more upmarket the further you go. I crossed the Queen Tamar Bridge (she’s regarded as perhaps the nations greatest ever independent ruler), and had lunch in the Rustaveli district. It was pretty hot by early afternoon and I didn’t fancy the long walk to my final destination in Tbilisi before heading up into the Caucasus the next day: Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Taxis in Tbilisi can be a bit of a lottery, but an Uber-like service called Bolt exists to take the difficulty out of getting a cab. Visible from just about everywhere in the city, the immense bulk of the Holy Trinity Cathedral is even more impressive close up. It may be a new building – it was consecrated in 2004 to celebrate 1,500 years of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s independence – but it plays a central role in the life of the city.
The day I was there, there were multiple wedding groups having their photos taken in and around the cathedral, lending the place a festive atmosphere. That was a relief since the whole place has a rather serious and austere air. I was wearing shorts and, in keeping with all the churches in Georgia, I wasn’t allowed to enter the cathedral itself. A shame, but my experience of Georgian churches was that their interiors are very plain. Afterwards I headed for home and an early start into the mountains.