Wandering Through Tbilisi
Our Wanders through the fascinating array of bric-a-brac at the Dry Bridge Market was cut short due to thunder and rain. Looking for cover from the rain shower we rushed towards the Old Town of Tbilisi. I had already marked a few cafes and restaurants on my map that I wanted to try during our stay in the capital city of Georgia. At the modern government building, shaped like a clump of giant mushrooms next to the river, we crossed the main road and headed through an underground passage into the Old part of town.
Old Town Lanes
The crumbling, ancient city wall drenched in the rain was of little interest to us at this point, neither was the crooked clock tower around the corner. Our target was Café Leila opposite the beautiful Anchiskhati Basilica, sadly the café was crowded with people who obviously all had the same idea, but had been faster at securing a table than us. Disappointed we wandered on, the rain having eased off seeking an alternative spot for lunch, most of the best eateries were full of equally wet tourists and locals. We quickly decided to make our way over the Peace Bridge to find a restaurant there, hoping that this less frequented part of town might be quieter than the touristy Old Town lanes.
The Peace Bridge
The Peace Bridge was heaving with people, wielding their selfie sticks and posing for instagramable photos. We kept stopping to admire the views while the glass roof protected us from the lighter drizzle. Tbilisi seemed to be an eclectic mix of architectural styles, ugly concrete Soviet remnants thrown into the cocktail of wooden mansions and post-modern government buildings. The Presidential Palace was very distinctively a copy of the German Bundestag with its glass dome roof.
The interesting structure of the Peace Bridge led us into Rike Park, once a resting place for the camel caravans from Persia and nowadays a popular spot for locals and tourists for a stroll between dancing fountains and peculiar statues. It also houses the lower terminal for the gondola transporting lazy tourists to the top of the Sololaki Ridge, where we could just about make out in the haze the Narikala Fortress and a proud Mother of Georgia statue. The cable cars had stopped due to the adverse thundery weather and so consulting our options we decided to take the steep steps at the back of Rike Park towards Café Flowers.
Scenic Views From Cafe Flower’s Terrace
Cafe Flower’s terrace perched on top of the ravine that runs through that part of town provided us with a scenic view of the Old Town and the river back across the bridge we had just crossed. The charming old houses with their signature wooden balconies were a delight to see from afar. The scenery gave us a view of the some of the sights we would sample over the coming days.
Our First Georgian Food Experience
Seated under the roof at Café Flowers we savoured the first real Georgian food of our trip. Fried trout, contrasted with a pot of chakapuli lamb stew, and a clay dish brimming with pelmeni (dumplings) filled with minced meat. Looking back at it now, the dishes were very tasty, albeit the staff not the friendliest we would encounter during our time in Georgia. The cafe also had plenty of Western dishes for the fussier eaters on the menu.
Local Colour in the Avlabari District
After our late lunch the rain had stopped completely and we decided to head off the beaten tourist paths into the lesser-visited streets of Avlabari to sample local colour. After crossing Avlabari Square we found ourselves on a busy side street, lined with local shops and surprisingly busy for a Sunday afternoon. I could have spent hours watching the locals buying fruit and vegetables or just having a chat. Some of the shops were no more than a room with a counter, offering their wares. The smell of fresh baked bread was in the air, and we admired some of the goods that were yet unknown to us and looked exotic – there was the candle shaped treat, quintessential Georgian, “churchkhela”, nuts on a string dipped in simmering grape juice and dried. The bread itself looked rather odd and foreign, it comes in many shapes, the boat, bulls head and spear shapes a common sight.
The Lesser Visited Streets of Tbilisi
Further away from the square we had the impression of being in a rural village rather than a capital city. The houses in Avlabari were sometimes in a derelict state, crumbling and crooked, the street cobbled and potholed and the gardens filled with blossoming flowers and even vegetable patches. Jerome was overjoyed by the amount of cats and kittens we met on our stroll, most of them running a mile, a few obligingly let him caress and stroke them. Our attempts to buy an ice cream to ward off the increasing heat of the afternoon resulted in failure as we wasted a few cents on half melted sticks that we had to bin quickly, the shop had clearly had a power cut from the mornings thunder – or more often!
The Gigantic Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral
Amidst these charming, old houses of the Avlabarai neighbourhood towers the gigantic Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral. A recent addition to Tbilisi’s cityscape on Mount Elia, the massive construction is regarded as both a monstrosity and vision for locals and visitors alike. We agreed that it is best admired from afar, close up it lacks the allure so many of the ancient Georgian churches possess. Although I would have wanted to venture inside the Sameba Cathedral, my lack of bringing a scarf to cover my head, which is common practice for religious sights throughout Georgia, prevented me from stepping inside the holy edifice. Instead we sat down on one of the benches to rest our legs and to watch the church goers proudly pose in front of the cathedral.
Tasting Ice Cream Rolls
Leaving the Sameba Cathedral grounds through the main entrance, we stumbled onto an unusual ice cream stand that more than made up for our earlier failure. Milk, mixed with crushed berries and syrup was thinly layered onto a freezing plate, reminiscent of a crepe maker. Once frozen it was scraped off into the shape off a roll and then served with more syrup on request. Of course, both the boys had to give it a go. Jerome had his with strawberries and his Dad chose the adult version with red wine. They both savoured the ice cream quickly and although we did see ice cream rolls on a few other occasions on our travels through the country we did not eat this local treat again…
Residential Streets of Avlabari
Heading towards our rooms at the Fabrika, we wandered further off the main tourist paths, through the quiet residential streets of Avlabarai. At times we were able to get a glimpse of stunning views across the sprawling city to the futuristic telecom tower topping Mtatsminda, where we would venture for a lovely hike through the forest and on to Turtle Lake a few days later. In these streets we met only a small number of locals, most of them greeted us with their friendly smiles, others with curious looks on their faces.
Jerome was fascinated by the vintage cars we passed on our stroll, some dating back to the Soviet era and having long disappeared from the roads in other countries. Although I have to admit that I remember some of the models from just after the wall fell and East Germans journeyed through the area where I grew up.
A Glimpse at Georgian Life
Peeking through the open windows we were able to get glimpses of Georgian life and I was completely infatuated by the street scenes, the rusting gates, the gas pipes snaking along the top of fences and crossing the streets just high enough for small trucks to pass underneath. Eventually we reached Fabrika Hostel, tired after our inspiring stroll though Tbilisi, past the Dry Bridge Market and the charming district of Avlabarai and Churugeti. These two neighbourhoods should definitely be on more tourists agendas, especially those seeking an authentic experience, away from the beautifully renovated houses of Betlemi and Kala.
Dinner at Shio Ramen
For dinner we enjoyed a hearty bowl of delicious ramen in the courtyard restaurant Shio Ramen next to our hotel, Fabrika Hostel – hardly local fare but a favourite family treat. After we retired to our spacious room for a few rounds of card games. Jerome was excited at the prospect of seeing his old kindergarten friend from Germany the following day. Her family drove us to the ancient cave monastery complex at David Gareji, a truly mesmerising sight and by far our favourite cave discovery in Georgia.
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