Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi is a city of contrasts. There’s the genteel Old Town. And then there’s the vibrant, cosmopolitan, modern city which has emerged in the decades since Georgia’s independence following the fall of the USSR.
The city was established in the second half of the 5th century. Located close to the Silk Road and essentially on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it was an important transit route and it flourished. In modern times, the city expanded with new development beyond the Old Town walls. In the 1970s and 80s the Old Town became a popular tourist destination for better-heeled Russians and money was put into sprucing it up. Since independence, even more restoration has been done.
The result is an Old Town filled with a vibrant mix of unrenovated tenements, buildings restored decades ago which are looking a bit shabby around the edges and some meticulously revamped beauties.
Many now house restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels.
One of the Old Town’s most unusual buildings is what locals call the Leaning Tower of Tbilisi. Renowned local puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze built his puppet theatre over a 30 year period using old pieces of abandoned structures. In 2010 he added the crazily leaning tower.
Every hour a balcony half way up the clock opens and a little drama of boy meets girl, love, marriage and family is enacted. At the top of the clock, a golden angel strikes a bell.
Some of the oldest churches in Georgia are here. Anchiskhati Basilica was built in the 6th century. It has some beautiful frescoes inside but photos are not allowed.
Sioni Cathedral was also established in the 6th century, although most if not all of the current structure is 13th century.
It’s considered especially sacred for an unusual relic. Christianity was brought to Georgia by Saint Nino and here in the cathedral is her grapevine cross. Georgian Christians believe she received the cross from the Virgin Mary herself, and secured it with strands of her own hair. The distinctive downward angled cross is a major symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The (purported) original is in a vault but there’s a replica behind this screen.
The Old Town also has the only mosque in Georgia to survive the Soviet purges of the 1930s. Unusually, Sunni and Shia moslems pray together here.
The Old Town also has one of only six synagogues in the country.
Tbilisi means ‘warm waters’ or ‘warm location’, referring to sulphurous hot springs. According to the town’s foundation legend, when the area was still just a forest, King Vakhtang of Iberia came here hunting. His falcon seized a pheasant and both birds fell into a hot spring and died from their burns. A gruesome end for the birds but Vakhtang was delighted to discover hot water. So impressed, in fact, that he had the forest cleared and built the town.
In time a belief emerged that the minerals in the water had curative qualities. Bath houses were built. A collection of them are still here at Abanotubani on the edge of the Old Town.
Each had a domed roof with a hole to allow light to enter and the sulphur fumes to escape.
In recent years, several have been re-established as working baths. We visited one which has been restored to its former splendour. In fact it looks more like a mosque than a bathhouse.
Inside it has a luxurious day spa feel.
You rent a private room for an hour, get naked and climb into the bath. It’s deep. You sink up to your neck.
When you overheat, you climb out and stand under an ice cold shower – some have a cold plunge pool instead – and then repeat. You can pre-order drinks, or phone from your room and have them delivered. It’s all very nicely organised.
Except for one thing. The water is piped direct from the springs and we’d read it was between 39 and 42 degrees. It wasn’t. It was so hot we could only stay in for about five minutes at a time. We developed a routine of soaking for five minutes, then hopping under the cold shower and then sitting in the steam for ten minutes before getting back in the bath.
That worked quite well for us, but as we left we heard an attendant telling a new arrival that if the water was too hot ‘just call and we will turn on some cold to reduce it a bit’. Wish we’d known that before!
Overlooking the Old Town as it cascades down the hill to the Kura River are the remains of Narikala Fortress.
And a monumental statue of Mother Georgia, a 20 metre aluminium clad statue of a woman in Georgian national dress erected in 1953 to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1,500th anniversary.
Facing off against Mother Georgia, on the other side of the river is the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It’s a cogent sign of Georgians’ enthusiastic return to practicing their faith in the post-Soviet era. At 84 metres, and on a high hill, it’s gold clad dome can be seen from just about anywhere in the city.
When Georgia became an independent country in 1991, it wasn’t all good news for Tbilisi. The city was plagued by violent mafia clans. Crime and corruption was rife throughout all levels of government. Unemployment skyrocketed and the economy crumbled. The city’s fortunes started to turn around after the Rose Revolution in 2003 with a crackdown on crime and an improved economy.
The new president, Mikheil Saakashvili went on a building spree during his tenure from 2004 to 2013. Thanks to him, the city now has the Peace Bridge.
And behind it, the Rike Jugs concert hall. We think it looks like two lamprey eels.
Near the concert hall he also inaugurated a statue of a slim, trim Ronald Reagan. The former US President looks in the direction of Russia. The inscription is a quote from Reagan that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.
Saakashvili also commissioned the Tbilisi Public Services Hall, which looks like a clump of mushrooms.
And a new Ceremonial Palace.
Like many autocratic leaders, Saakashvili ultimately wore out his welcome and was ousted in 2013. He left Georgia but remained politically active and eventually was charged in absentia with corruption. Having been stripped of his citizenship, he illegally re-entered Georgia in 2021 and is now languishing in prison. This fellow maintains a solo vigil outside the parliament agitating for his release.
And although Saakashvili’s projects are a nice change from Soviet block architecture, they must have put a strain on the public purse. The government is now trying to privatise many state-owned enterprises but it’s not necessarily smooth sailing. Rike Jugs concert hall was never completely finished despite the government spending the equivalent of approximately $US23 million on it. It sold earlier this year on its seventh auction attempt for the equivalent of just under $US3.1 million.
At the other end of the artistic spectrum, there’s Gosha, a local street artist. He started painting hoardings and temporary fences when he noticed that this stopped vandalism. Now his works are everywhere. He seems to have a particular affection for cats. So do we, so we really enjoyed them.
An easy day trip from Tbilisi is the town of Gori. It’s main claim to fame is as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. You might think they’d want to quietly forget about that, but you’d be wrong.
In 1951, work began on what was touted as a museum on the history of socialism. It was clear from the start that it was really a museum about Stalin. Stalin died in 1953 and the museum was finally finished in 1956.
The purpose-built Gothic style palazzo consists of six vast halls which track Stalin’s life from childhood, through early adulthood which included imprisonment for political activism against the Tsarist regime, and his rise to power and reign as President of the USSR.
Disappointingly there is almost no English signage. But even without it, the museum is very obviously a homage to Stalin. Photographs, paintings and news clippings show him as a much loved leader, especially adored by children.
A room is devoted to how his leadership won WWII for the Allies.
There’s lots of photos of him rubbing shoulders with the other victors in that conflict, subtly suggesting he has the same legitimacy and gravitas as post-war leaders of the free world rather than being a paranoid megalomaniac who caused the slaughter of millions of his own citizens.
Which is doubly ironic because the museum also displays a photograph of him present at the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 which effectively gave licence to Nazi Germany to kick off the war in the first place.
There’s a recreation of his office.
And perhaps creepiest of all, a shrine-like room containing one of twelve copies of Stalin’s death mask taken just after he died.
In the grounds of the museum is the house in which Stalin was born and spent his first four years of life. Another shrine.
And there’s also Stalin’s rail carriage. Apparently he refused to fly because he feared someone would try and shoot his plane down. Probably not an unreasonable concern. When you kill a few million people, you likely have a lot of enemies.
The museum is, to say the least, controversial due to Georgia’s bitter relationship with Russia. When the USSR fell apart, Georgia gained independence but almost immediately Russian-backed separatists in the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia self-proclaimed their own independence. They were never internationally recognised but with the Russian army supporting them, there was little Georgia could do. They became, in effect, Russian controlled. A lot like Crimea.
The situation escalated to outright war in 2008 when Russia engaged in a ‘peace enforcement’ operation. In other words, it invaded both provinces and further into Georgia on the pretext of protecting Russian speaking people. Sound familiar?
Gori itself was shelled and briefly occupied before a ceasefire was agreed and Russian troops withdrew. But Russia still occupies South Ossetia and Abkhazia. More than 20,000 Georgians remain displaced.
This mural in town references the ‘border creep’ which has seen a violent division of the country. A man and his granddaughter can see their apple tree shedding its fruit, but a barbed wire fence runs right through it and a Russian jet drops bombs in the background. The wall is pockmarked with bullet holes from when the city was attacked in 2008.
In the aftermath of the 2008 war, Georgia’s Minister of Culture announced that the Stalin Museum would be ‘reorganised’. A banner was put up at the entrance stating “This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history.”
A Stalin Monument in Gori’s central square was removed but the reorganisation of the museum hasn’t happened and the banner was removed in 2017. There’s also still a Stalin statue at the railway station.
And even more odd, in the local military museum there’s an image of Stalin carved out of a large block of sugar.
Across the USSR, almost all statues and commemorations of Stalin were dismantled after his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality in the late 1950s. Somehow all these survived, and remain notwithstanding the recent conflicts with Russia.
Now is a really interesting time to be in Georgia. Despite the enmity between Georgia and Russia, citizens of each can travel visa-free to the other. Since Putin announced his ‘partial mobilisation’ – ie conscription – for the Ukraine war, more than 100,000 Russian men have poured into Georgia to avoid the draft. This has caused rents in Tbilisi to skyrocket. There are fears of a crime wave as many have no money. Exacerbating the tensions, many don’t necessarily oppose Putin or the Ukraine invasion. They just don’t want to be on the front line. Georgians resent being a safe haven for them.
And meantime, Georgia’s application for membership of the European Union is progressing. It aspires to join NATO and is on a pathway to achieve that. Both are anathema to Russia. Interesting times lie ahead.