An accordion player performing in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia… The video is here if you want to listen to him play:
In an effort to preserve the integrity and objectivity of The Velvet Rocket, I should probably state my bias immediately: I loved Tbilisi. In fact, I would probably even put it in my “top eleven favorite cities” list. Spectacularly frenetic and stylishly gritty, the city was, fortunately, left essentially untouched by the recent war with Russia.
Below is Mother Georgia, the large statue overlooking the city, much as Christ the Redeemer gazes down on Rio de Janeiro. To reach her, one hikes up the hill she resides on to Narikala, a 17th century fortress. Not much remains of Narikala aside from a church and some ruins accompanied by private perches overlooking the city where couples can be seen making out (or breaking up in one case we observed):
Mother Georgia looks down on the Botanical Gardens on one side of the hill, but more importantly for our purposes at the moment, she also gazes down upon Tbilisi on the other side of the hill. So, we’re starting out here to give you a commanding view of the city before plunging in…
Night settling over the center of Tbilisi:
That swirl of light and activity you saw in the pictures above is the heart of the city… This area is always active.
The heart of the center of Tbilisi is Freedom Square. Freedom Square’s city hall and clock tower provided quite a theatrical backdrop to 2003’s Rose Revolution:
Tbilisi is more Mediterranean than Soviet in its mentality and culture… And not just because Georgians hate rules. It is also because the city is usually more active at 2 am than at 2 pm:
This is the Parliament of Georgia – the most dominating building on Rustaveli Avenue… The very solid portico was constructed by German prisoners of war and the building officially opened in 1953. It was on the steps you can see below, that the massacre of 9 April 1989 took place and memorials to the dead can still be seen here. This was also the focus of the civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Gamsakhurdia and his supporters holed up inside; the side wings were gutted, but the portico resisted the National Guard’s shellfire, giving rise to comments on the superiority of German building to Soviet efforts:
Strolling down Rustaveli Avenue… Rustaveli Avenue, the main street in the city center, is an elegant thoroughfare lined with trees, expensive perfume shops, and architectural oddities like a Moorish-style opera house:
If one follows Rustaveli Avenue in the opposite direction (toward Mother Georgia), the street narrows dramatically as it wends its way to Old Town, a ratty cluster of religious iconography shops burning incense, unkempt artisan studios and sloping guesthouses with twisted chimneys and ornate flower-patterned balconies. Within a few blocks, you can light a candle in an Orthodox basilica, pray in a synagogue or meet an iman at a mosque – a testament to Georgia’s history of multi-faith hospitality.
I know it looks like she is yelling at me, but the reality of the situation is that she is crazy and so she was actually yelling at an empty newspaper stand:
I’m not sure what this government building is, but, as usual, I got yelled at by a soldier for taking this picture:
And speaking of government buildings, this is the new presidential palace which rests on a cliff overlooking the Kura River (also called the Mtkvari) as well as the center of the city:
The presidential palace also overlooks the Bridge of Peace, which crosses the Kura River to connect Old Tbilisi with the newer district surrounding the presidential palace:
LED arrays on the Bridge of Peace provide quite a light show at night… At times, the bridge lights up in waves from one side of the river to the other. At other times, the pattern begins with a band of light at either end, continuing from either direction until the light meets in the middle, and fading to black before starting over. The third program starts by lighting the outer fixtures on the roofline, then briefly illuminates the entire canopy before going entirely dark. The fourth program makes the roof flicker like stars as different groups of fixtures light and dim across the entire bridge length. Additionally, a message in Morse code that renders the periodic table of elements goes across two parapets every hour:
This is Republic Square… The hotel in the background was long inhabited by refugees from the Abkhazia conflict, who were finally given $7,000 per family by the government to leave so that the hotel could be converted into a Radisson:
There’s always something going on in the center of the city… In this case, a significant protest:
Once you get out of the main city center and into the surrounding neighborhoods you can get into “real” Tbilisi which is much less polished, but much more visually interesting:
When I say “less polished”, I mean that some of the buildings look like they could collapse at any time:
But look around! Aren’t these neighborhoods great?
Most of these streets are barely wide enough for a Mini Cooper to squeeze through:
The constant activity and the late hours are not restricted to the center of the city. Even in outlying nerighborhoods shops are always open very late, so it is not uncommon to need to wake a shopkeeper up so that they may assist you. I felt bad doing so initially, but that is the custom and they appreciate the business:
There’s an abundance of cheap cafes back in these neighborhoods where you can sample khinkali – Georgian dumplings embedded with spicy meat:
Houses spilling down the steep hills surrounding Tbilisi… You can see the TV Tower in the background:
Contrasting the neighborhoods shown above and on the outskirts of the city (often interspersed with crumbling Soviet-style apartment blocks) are examples of the ultra-modern:
It’s a curious mix of a city, but that is part of its appeal…
It’s difficult to say what Georgia’s capital city will be the capital of in the future… Georgia lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russian occupation during the August 2008 war. And there remains concern about the secessionist region of Ajara, otherwise known as the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, which violently rejected Saakashvili’s government in 2004 after the Rose Revolution.
The region was brought back into the Georgian fold after a mini-Rose Revolution took place in Ajara, but the fear remains that Ajara could rise up again. Tbilisi especially wants to keep Ajara under its control because it is home to the large port of Batumi, and many of Georgia’s transport routes to Turkey run through it. If Ajara rises up, there are rumors in the area that its neighboring secessionist region, Samtskhe-Javakheti, will join in to help destabilize Saakashvili and the government. Having already lost its northern secessionist regions to Russia, Georgia is highly concerned with its southern regions trying to break away.