• Michael Knock

Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Days 11, 12 & 13.

We were due to be heading to Aerbaijan & Georgia @ this time of year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have required us to suspend all tours for the rest of 2020.

On this virtual Tour, you can travel with us as we explore two emerging countries - Azerbaijan & Georgia. On this Tour, we fly into Baku, Azerbaijan and out of Tbilisi, Georgia and bus, hike & funicular our way around these amazing cultures.

Day 11 Tbilisi, Georgia

I forgot to mention that Tuesday 26 May is Georgia Independence Day and the country celebrated 102 years as a republic. I should say "one of" the Independence Days as Georgia was subsequently annexed into the Soviet Union in 1922 before seceding on 9 April 1991 which is now observed as the Day of National Unity, Civic Concordance, and Remembrance in Georgia.

The celebrations were muted as all formal or public activities have been postponed due to COVID-19 limitations and restrictions.

Damouk'ideblobis dghe,Sakartvelo! (Happy Independence Day, Georgia!)

We have three "free" days to explore Tbilisi and so we will be covering Tbilisi in the one blog rather than day-by-day. Andria is always available to help us and what he has proposed is that we spend the morning learning from him and then the afternoons exploring on our own. We are all for that.

Apart from the now-normal selection of meats, cheeses & breads, a Georgian breakfast introduces such great dishes as:

Kikliko is essentially eggy bread (a bit like French toast) crisped up and served with a savory topping. Different combinations include cheese, eggs, ham, mushrooms, sour cream & sun-dried tomatoes.

Khachapuri - Georgia's ubiquitous cheese pie is now not-so-much a breakfast-only dish, it has evolved into something eaten all day and is pretty much the Georgian National Dish. As one fellow blogger wrote:

"A molten canoe of carbohydrates and dairy, the quantity of sulguni cheese alone in khachapuri Adjaruli is enough to land a lactose-intolerant friend in the ER. But the decadence doesn't end there. Seconds after the bread is pulled from the toné, a baker parts the cheese to make way for a final flourish: hunks of butter and a cracked raw egg. When the bubbling mass is placed before you, you must wield your spoon fearlessly and, working from the yolk out, vigorously swirl the ingredients together until hypnotizing spirals of orange and white begin to appear. At this point—and God forbid the mixture get cold—tear off a corner of bread and dunk with conviction."

Tbilisi's Metro is pretty easy to navigate if your either a) have a guide like Andria or b) count your stops. Most of the signage is in Georgian (to be expected) and announcements are made, also in Georgian. Don't worry, the locals are the eitomeof friendliness and will always step in to help.

Two lines - NorthSouth & EastWest.

Our hotel was only 200metres from the Avlabari Metro Station and as our city walk commenced at Rustaveli, 2 stops on the Metro was easy.

The Metro has a fixed price of 50 tetri (0.5 GEL/Lari) per ride. We grabbed a Metromoney Card as the Metro is a great way of getting around the city easily and cheaply and we would need the card for the Rike Park Cable Car (to/from the Narikala Fortress). I also find that transport cards are a good momento as well.

Our walk gave us a great opportunity to further orientate us as to the layout of the city and covered a number of highlights including: - the Monument to Shota Rustaveli (a national bard (storyteller, poet, writer), the Academy of Sciences, Rustaveli Boulevarde (the main shopping drag),

the Opera & Ballet Theatre, Rustaveli Theatre, Parliament, Musem of Georgia, city walls, Clock Tower, Peace Bridge, Rike Park including the striking Music Theatre & Exhibition, Sioni Cathedral and then Narikala Fortress.

Total walking time was @ 3 hours and 3.5km including a pretty steep climb up to the Fortress. The weather is still very much in our favour - lows of 15C overnight and a max of 24C during the day - pretty much perfect ravelling weather.

The benefit of the climb was the amazing views over Tbilisi and the opportunity to catch the cable car down to Rike Park/Europe Square.

Tbilisi, like Baku, has a wealth of interestingly-designed buildings that actually add something to the landscape other than sheer volume - the buildings make you stop and consider them and their setting.

Also called the Mother Fortress of Tbilisi, Narikala is an ancient symbol of Tbilisi’s defence. The fortress was established in the 4th century, around the period when the city itself was founded. It was then known as Shuris-tsikhe (Invidious Fort). The name Narikala is said to derive from a Persian word for citadel, but another theory says was the name that Mongols used, meaning “little fortress”.

It was expanded considerably by the Arabs during the 7th and 8th centuries. The Arabs built the Emir’s palace within its walls. King David further extended the fortress in the 11th century. Most of the existing fortifications date from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1827 it was damaged by an earthquake and was not restored. St. Nikolos church, inside the fortress walls, dates from the 12th century. It was renovated in 1996.

One of the nice things about finishing up at the Narikala Fortress was that it put us in the Abantobani (hot springs) area of Tbilisi. The word tbilisi in Georgian means a warm place and refers to this location, adjacent to the Mtkvari River, that was established in the 5th Century.

Whilst some of us caught the cable car back across the river, others explored the Abantobani area with the view to booking some time at a traditional bath at one of Tbilisi's famed sulphur bathhouses. Attending a public bath (most have private rooms) is as much a Georgian tradition as working your way through a pile of Khinkhali or drinking great Georgian wine.

Sulphur Bath Houses

In this area, we had a choice of 3 bath houses: 1. No 5 Sulphur Bathhouse

2. The Royal/Orbeliani Baths

3. Gulo's Abano Thermal Baths

No 5 has such a Soviet-era name that is an attraction in itself, is the oldest (@ 300years), the cheapest and with the largest public bathing area. The Royal Baths are the most picturesque (with their tiled, mosque-like facade), has a long history but was completely refurbished a couple of years ago and, although it’s very beautiful, the rooms aren’t authentic Tbilisi-style ie the baths on the basement level are missing their domed roofs. We settled on Gulo's - with wall mosaics depicting pheasants and peacocks and original domed brick roofs, the rooms at Gulo’s are the most authentic of the newer suphur baths. If you want a traditional Tbilisi bath experience with old-world opulence, hospitality and complimentary tea, this is the place.

Gulo’s has 6 private rooms, all of them quite beautiful and varied ie Persian Room, Roman Room etc. The cheapest at 80 GEL/hour includes pools and a shower, while the most expensive, a massive bathhouse, is 220 GEL/hour and suitable for groups. A kisi scrub costs 10 GEL, and towel hire is 2 GEL.

Rooms are booked out on an hourly basis and, to start with, 1 hour is enough. There was a private room available (a lot of Georgians consider the baths more of a winter-time treat now). The experience is not so different to a Turkish hamman - showering/washing beforehand, the roughmitt scrub-down and wash off etc - but where it did differ was that here you had the sulphur water to soak in rather than the sauna-style of the hamman. The water comes from nearby springs and, whilst sulphurous, the smell is not too unpleasant.

At the end of the hour, you emerge scrubbed & pink, slightly wobbly and ravenous. Fortunatly, we were in Georgia and good food is never too far away. Just around the corner we found Culinarium - a newish restaurant/cafe that specialises in "Georgian dishes made with ecologically clean products" - think mushroom salads, liver dishes, veal dishes, roasted beans & nuts and great desserts.

Days 12-13, Tbilisi, Georgia

The next two days followed the Adria's suggestion - a guided walk in the morning and self-exploring in the afternoon/evenings.

Over the next two days we explored the: Metekhi Church

The district was one of the earliest inhabited areas on the city’s territory. According to traditional accounts, King Vakhtang I Gorgasali erected here a church and a fort which served also as a king’s residence; hence comes the name Metekhi which dates back to the 12th century and literally means “the area around the palace”.

However, none of these structures have survived the Mongol invasion of 1235. The current Metekhi Church of Assumption was built by the Georgian king St Demetrius II @ 1278–1284 and is an unusual example of domed Georgian Orthodox church.

Sioni Cathedral

The Sioni Cathedral is a Georgian Orthodox cathedral. Following a medieval Georgian tradition of naming churches after particular places in the Holy Land, the Sioni Cathedral bears the name of Mount Zion at Jerusalem.

Anchiskhati Basilica

The Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary is the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi. It belongs to the Georgian Orthodox Church and dates from the sixth century.

Old Tbilisi

Dzveli Tbilisi, or Old Tbilisi, is a large area known for its snaking lanes, traditional Tbilisi houses, and restaurant-lined Jan Shardeni Street. The hilltop Narikala Fortress and giant Mother of Georgia statue overlook the National Botanical Garden and the stone-domed Sulfur Baths. Nearby, the Georgian National Museum traces the country’s history.

Leaning (Clock) Tower of Tbilisi

The Leaning Tower of Tbilisi is one of the city’s most unusual buildings. Tucked into a side street of the old town, it truly is a bizarre structure, with a tower apparently on the perpetual brink of falling down, and only a steel beam holding the tower in place. A huge clock sits in the middle of the disheveled tower, with a leaning column on its side.

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