Georgia on my mind. Tiblisi.

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September 10th 2016
Published: September 10th 2016
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As we flew from on the second leg of our today's journey we could see the southern coast of the Black Sea, and then Georgia's feudal strips of land by big sandy rivers scattered with villages. Not many trees, mainly dry arid land with occasional patches of green. You could see the The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipelineis a 1,768 kilometres (1,099 mi) long crude oil pipeline from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshlioil field in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. It connects Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and Ceyhan, a port on the south-eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey, via Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It is the second-longest oil pipeline in the former Soviet Union, after the Druzhba pipeline. The first oil that was pumped from the Baku end of the pipeline on 10 May 2005 reached Ceyhan on 28 May 2006!

In the last ten minutes descending into Tblisi everything was much greener, illustrating perhaps, why Tbilsi is sited where it is. There are lots of pants, or natural springs around the city with pure water where people fill up their bottles and wash their faces.

On the ground there was a smiling greeting from passport control.

Driving to the centre if felt like we were in Greece: hot and dry with paint concrete and rough but functional roads. The driving was more Indian, cars heading for a gap in a queue and holding their nerve whilst honking.

Hotel Tekla Palace is in the Old Town and is typical of the architectural style. Wooden balconies surround each stone building framing the whole external wall and providing shade. Cypress trees waft in the breeze in the back garden. It's just up from the river and parallel to it, Shavteli Street, a lane of bars, restaurants, and the Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theatre with its wonky clock tower.

In the early evening sat on our balcony taking in the view and gently snoozing before a gentle exploration of the old town.

There are numerous old wine cellars advertising tastings. And road side stalls, some with with fruity snacks, Churchkhela, which look like a cross between candles and salami, hanging from racks. They are threaded caramelised nuts dipped in a grape must and flour mix.

The evening meal was delicious Georgian flat bread made in a tandoor style oven, Lobio salad made with beans and coriander, and a chicken stew with paprika and turmeric. The house red wine was fabulous.

Was sick in the night afterwards with a stinker of a head.... I blame the gin and tarragon lemonade that I drank when I got in from the lovely meal. (Silly boy). It was so romantic sitting out on the balcony, too.

Sun was up for the first full day in a Tblisi, the ground wet from a thunderstorm in the night. First to Vakhtang Gorgasali Square and the Metekhi Bridge over the Kura River. There are hillsides to the south west with cable car going up to a fortress and large silver statue of Mother Georgia. And scattered all around are domed churches, many made of unrendered brick.

As you cross the bridge there is Vakhtang I Gorgasali himself on a horse, the founder of Georgia. And the town rises up on hills on this side of the river as well. A brand new park follows the north side of the river brimming with new planting, trees, shrubs and grass, all tended by a team of municipal gardeners. There's a huge pair of stainless steel undulating tubes that are unfinished which lead to the Parliament building, in line with the new pedestrian Freedom Bridge with its canopy of glass. Apparently it's known as the 'Always' bridge now as it looks like a well known sanitary product.

Through to to Freedom Square where a golden George and the Dragon (hoorah) has replaced Vladimir Lenin who was pulled down in August 1991. There a lot of building going on around Pushkin Street and the Freedom Square at the moment, a new shopping gallery, I think.

Then on to Rustaveli Avenue, a 1.5 Km boulevard with theatres, museums' government buildings and shops along its length. We walked it up to Republic Square, to find the Metro and avoid the MacDonald's.

Near here we bought an orange felt bag from a street stall, very nice.

An interesting phenomenon is the police strategy for cars blocking highways, and other misdemeanours. Instead of issue a ticket or entering a dialogue through the drivers window, they use a megaphone, at some volume, to the shame the offender. It's a very public affair.... I'm not sure of the police script: 'Please move on driver of the blue Mercedes you're in the way', or 'Shift it short arse in the posh car don't think you can leave that there......' .... but it certainly does the trick without actual fines being made.

We ate on Rustaveli at Marco Polo's restaurant, a pleasant establishment, then walked past the Pantomime Theatre and the Opera, both of which haven't started their new season yet. Pantomime here means dance and mime, I father (on no it isn't). Onward through the 9th April Park to the 'Dry Bridge' flea market. A number of Weltmeister accordions for sale and also panduris... 3 stringed bow-backed lutes from this part of the world. But mostly on show are books, brassware, pictures and jewellery.

On the lanes back home was a Carrefour supermarket. We remembered to get some nail scissors.... why is it that toe nails grow so fast on holiday?..... they'll be taken off us again, the next time we book in for a plane. The supermarket sold draught beer and plastic bottles to take it home in. We bought some little pear shaped cherries which we've seen a lot of here. When we tried one later they were very bitter like a cranberry. On line they look like a 'Miracle Fruit' which, when you chew one, make bitter things taste sweet ......?

Asparagus salad with mozzarella and a Greek Salad for our evening meal. Huge portions of beautiful Georgian vegetables.

Day 2 Tblisi

Climbing the streets of the old town to reach the Funicular, we passed five or six traditional houses in complete disarray. Big cracks, slanting lintels, sloping walls, and some with people slit living inside them. One is encased in a cage of steel girders held in place with slanting buttresses.... there must be the hope that it will be preserved.

We also found brand new building work, smart modern apartment blocks and also one large, abandoned, concrete structure, a project where money has run out, I suspect.

The funicular is 111 years old, built a Belgian company with a 45 year lease to run the railway which was curtailed in 1921 when the Soviets imposed power in Georgia. It's opening in 1905 drew the crowds most of whom were up unwilling to actually ride on the death defying gradient. But when it had been running for a short while it became clear that the cables and track were safe it became a popular attraction with its handsome entrance facade and panoramas of the growing city.

Originally its purpose was to create access to a new town on the heights, but water supply proved difficult and also the Bolshevik invasion in '21 changed everything. Now it leads to a fun fare, with a big wheel, dinosaur park, and all the usual dare devil stuff.

The view of Tblisi confirms its sprawling length from North West to South East in the Kura Valley a capital city with a population of 1.173 million. It has the look of La Paz without the altitude, and framed with cypress trees and pines.

At the half way station where the counterbalancing carriages meet there is a station close to St Davit's Pantheon. It's a place where poets, actors, dancers, artists and politicians are buried with impressive headstones and a church of terracotta bricks with a beautiful light interior. Our lack of skill in reading Georgia's very particular script means we can't identify the remembered souls .... but it's a beautiful spot to visit.

Downhill in a straight line from the funicular and we're at the National Art Gallery on Rustavelli Ave. The permanent exhibition showcases works by the distinguished Georgian artists of the 20th century - Niko Pirosmanashvili, David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili and sculptor Iakob Nikoladze. The work of Niko Pirosmanashvili is very particular.... Naïve like the Pitman Poets from my part of the world, but in a Eurasian tradition with broad beaming faces, national costume and anatomically challenged animals. An un-leonine lion, a giraffe with a short neck and a delightful smiling camel who dwarfs his attendant. I liked David Kakabadze's work best of the bunch. His landscapes show a patchwork of greens that I saw from the plane and a subtly of colour and brushwork which pleases the rye. Lado Gudiashvili has some quite numerous but gaunt portraits and the sculptor Iakob Nikoladze's work is a complete contrast, sophisticated representational white marble sculptures in the classical tradition.

There was an extensive temporary exhibition of 59 year old Gia Bugadze.

The exhibition will showcase four different cycles: "Bibliogram", "Counting", "Prints" and "Deep Calleth unto Deep". The paintings are large detailed images on black backgrounds sometimes interrupted by white slashes which reframe and interrupt the elements within. Bibliography was a 60m X 1.5m long canvas depicting a time line narrative of an ordered pile of books which transforms through decay to a flight into in another world.

In the afternoon we went to the National Museum which is divided into smaller museums... and it was the Museum of the Soviet Occupation that we visited.

Georgia was first annexed by the Russian Empire in 1813 after centuries of being a monarchy wrangling with Iranian and Ottoman invasions.

There was an agreed independence for Georgia following the 1st WW from 1918 -1921 but the Soviet Bolsheviks supported supposed unrest in Georgia in order to bully into control again in 1921. A number of Georgians were killed in this action and this started the rot with a total of a half a million or more Georgians being shot or deported until Stalin's death in the '50's.

In 1978 there were big Georgian revolts over Russian plans to ditch the Georgian language.

The current republic of Georgia has been independent since 1991. The first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia stoked Georgian nationalism and vowed to assert Tbilisi's authority over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Gamsakhurdia was deposed in a bloody coup d'état within the same year and the country became embroiled in a bitter civil war, which lasted until 1995. Supported by Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia achieved de facto independence from Georgia. The Rose Revolution forced Eduard Shevardnadze to resign in 2003. The new government under Mikheil Saakashvili prevented the secession of a third breakaway republic in the Adjara crisis of 2004, but the conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia led to the 2008 Russo–Georgian War and tensions with Russia remain unresolved.

So Russia still has forces in the north western and mid northern zones of Georgia which are seen as independent states.

A bout of sketching at the wonky clock tower next to us finished the day well.

We tried to find Georgian music in the evening at a place recommended in Lonely Planet but the staff seemed disinterested and unfriendly so lost our custom. Instead there was a piano trio playing jazz inside last night's restaurant which kept us entertained. The drummer was a touch-over decorative invading the space of the bass and piano we thought....... a youngster pupil of his 'sat in' for a couple of numbers and was much better..... He added to rather than distracted from the rest of the music.

Day 3 Tblisi.

Out an over the river with the morning sun to the city's big new Holy Trinity Cathedral known as Tsminda Sameba Cathedral.

It's adjacent to what was the Presidential Palace, it's proposed to have a new use as a building for a new Georgian-American University. As walked past it there was a distinct police presence' and a number of black shiny cars arrived with VIP status written all over their faces. It looks like the White House but with a glass dome and grey granite columns.

The Georgian Orthodox Cathedral was started in 1995 and inaugurated in 2005. Internal decoration is still underway, a giant Jesus being painted above and behind the iconostasis. The first impression is of size and light. The simplicity and height of its construction are its best features. Outside there is a huge block paved square and rose and canna gardens, all surrounded by pine, olives and cypress in a wider plot up the hillside. There was controversy when it was built because the site was a Armenian cemetery, and the maturity of some the trees can be explained by theses beginnings.

There are a further two churches in the grounds.

Down through Avlabari to the Sachino Palace built within old town walls on the north side of the river. These walls are 2m or more think and are made of stone and brick interwoven together. Lovely gardens here and views down to the river and Rike Park. Hen over the Metekhi Bridge for coffee overlooking houses built on cliffs above the Muri on Metekhi Rise.

Up hills again to the Narikala Fortress with its chapel newly hand painted inside, Mother Georgia, a giant, aluminium sculpture just beyond the cable car station, and then into the National Botanical Gardens.

The gardens are worth a stroll. A fair bit of shade to be found on a hot day, a chance of dimming under the cascade, but no restaurant currently, although when the visitor centre is reopened there will be. Huge canna lilies, water lilies, and other flower beds... Mostly an arboretum..... no labels anywhere as had become the norm in botanical gardens these days. And despite a considerable degree signage we never found 'The Orangery' which we had paid extra for, on entrance. The signs set us off in a direction then petered out when you met a new crossroad. Oh well......

I changed 60 € at an exchange booth. The woman showed me gave me 122 Lari which I knew wasn't enough and she pointed to her calculator which said 132 Lari, so I then accepted the 10 she had not given me. But on reflection, a few minutes later, I calculated at 2.45 Lari per € it should have been 147 Lari. So I went back and challenged her and she gave me the money owed. So potentially we could have been 25 Lari: £8.30 down on an exchange of £50 .... not good. Georgians have been so kind and friendly, this tainted my opinion a little.

We ate to an accompaniment of Georgian music and belly dancing. The band played Georgian repertoire on bass, cajon, panduri, end electric guitar. Everything had a reggae feel which worked well with the quite soulful melodies and songs. Near they end of their set they played 'No Woman no Cry', so may be they were reggae fans.

The belly dancer gyrated to recorded so tracks initially with a candelabra on her head and later with silk scarf. She new the dumbek solos on the tracks so well that each slap and tone had a shake or thrust attributed to it. Very impressive.

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