Tbilisi is almost a world removed from Signaghi. The capital of Georgia and home to 1.5 million people, it is a vibrant, thriving, modern European city. It has also managed to mostly blend the new with the old in tasteful fashion and guaranteeing anyone visiting an extremely warm welcome.
It’s definitely warm when we arrive, with the mercury exceeding 30 degrees. Given Tbilisi means “warm location” in Old Georgian, we shouldn’t be too surprised, although its name is supposed to have been derived from its numerous sulphur hot springs, rather than its hot weather.
With only three days in the city we’re on a bit of a mission to check out some of the hot spots for when Emmy’s best friend from Abu Dhabi turns up. With that in mind we head up the Funicular, the second of which we’ve used since we began our travels, the other being in Haifa, Israel.
Rising 300 metres at an angle between 28 and 33 degrees in a matter of minutes, I’m asking myself where was one of these when I was last running in Signaghi. At the top is Mtantsminda Park, which was once the third most visited public park in the USSR. Other than the wonderful views over Tbilisi, Its popularity is due to the amusement park at the top which features roller coasters, carousels, a log flume ride, a giant Ferris Wheel, and other rides for kids. I’m probably being a bit unfair, but most of the attractions look like they’re still a hang over from USSR days. That said, both our kids were pretty excited about what was on offer and vowed that this had to be a place to come back to with Alayna.
In fairness, it’s not all gaudy tack as there’s a pretty cool tree monument in the Jurrasic Garden central part of the park. There’s also great milkshakes and ice creams to be had and, of course, plenty of wine and beer, so maybe it won’t be too much of a chore to come back and revisit.
The views back over Tbilisi aren’t just good, they’re spectacular, with the old town and green Mtkvari River spread out down below.
Having got a couple of things sorted for our visitors in 3 weeks or so time, it’s time to head out for dinner. Like everywhere we’ve been in Georgia so far, we’re spoilt for choice for eating options. Somehow we manage to find a Karaoke restaurant and it isn’t long before Veronica and the kids are providing the Tbilisi locals with a version of Try Everything from Zootopia.
Next day and we’re back in the swing of things wandering around the funky Betlemi Street area, which is full of funky arty places and cafes. As the name suggests, this is the centre of Tbilisi’s historic Jewish quarter. Sadly, despite having one of the oldest surviving Diaspora Jewish communities going back 2,600 years, less than 10,000 Jews remain in Georgia today (possibly as low as 3,000). The significant reduction is Jewish numbers is mostly due to Russian and Soviet persecution and anti-Semitic acts of violence. Once numbering 100,000 the 1970s saw some 30,000 Georgian Jews emigrate from to Israel with thousands of others also emigrating to other countries. This reduced the Jewish population to 28,000 at the end of the decade, with numbers further diminishing as emigration to Israel continued pretty much unabated. Today, relations between Israel and Georgia is cordial and a number of synagogues remain in cities throughout Georgia.
Despite the hundreds of stairs in the area this is very much a popular part of Tbilisi which caters to a wide range of visitors with boutique hotels and hostels standing side by side. With cobbled laneways and some of the city’s oldest buildings all under the watching eye of The Mother of Georgia monument it is easy to see why.
All of those stairs are helping us get to closer to one of the best attractions of Tbilis, Narikala Fortress, which is situated on a very steep hill overlooking both Tbilisi’s sulphur baths and botanical gardens. If ever there was a fortress that reminds one of Eyrie Castle (seat of House Arryn) from Game of Thrones, this is it. Built in the 4th century by the Persians, the Citadel was originally called Shuris-tsikhe meaning Invidious Fort. How cool is that!
The newly built Saint Nicholas Church just below the craggy ruins, resides where the original 13th-century church used to stand. Inside are beautiful frescos of biblical and Georgian history.
Scrambling to the top of the fortress provides even more amazing views with the Mtkari River, Bridge of Peace, Rike Park, Meteki Church and Trinity Cathedral all clearly visible to the north.
After all the scrambling and exploring it’s time to descend and take the path that leads from Narikala Fortress to the Mother Georgia Statue a short five minute walk away. Also known as Kartlis Deda (Georgia is known as Kartli in Georgian, so I’m guessing Deda means Mother, although it sounds more like Dada to me), the twenty metre aluminium monument was erected in 1958. in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine, something we’ve had the chance to see quite a lot of, whilst in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies (thankfully, that one we haven’t seen yet).
As we’d walked up all the way to the fortress (well done kids!), we’d had plenty of opportunity to see the cable car taking the easy route up. Part of getting them up there was a promise to also take the cable car (aka the Aerial Tramway) back down. This costs 3 GEL plus 2 GEL for a card to put everyone’s fares on, with 6 year olds and under going for free. I’m not saying that I said Emmy was six years old, and I’m also not saying that I didn’t. I’m not too keen on heights, most especially when going backwards, but I managed to brave the 3 or 4 minute ride back down to Rike Park without too many problems.
After a quick play in Rike Park we headed across the pedestrian-only Bridge of Peace. Whilst interesting during the day, at night four different lighting programs run every hour which makes it worthwhile hanging around for 60 minutes to view each of these, preferably with a cold beverage in hand from one of the many close viewpoints.
Having peacefully crossed the river, we stumbled upon Erekle II street with its profusion of great eateries. Here you can sit amongst the flowers enjoying good Georgian food as mist sprays down to keep both plants and patrons cool.
We'd spent the better part of the day wandering literally up and down the streets of old Tbilisi and were all pretty much done for. With plenty more to see in Tbilisi, we thought we’d next let the kids take the lead in planning the day, to see what sights they would take us to.