It’s Warm and Easy in Tbilisi

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Prominent Landmark: The Narikala Fortress towers on a hill above Tbilisi

The Country

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The Presidential Palace glows in morning sunlight over Mtkvari River and the Old Tbilisi section of the capital

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Symbol of Georgia: The statue of Saint George at Freedom Square

Georgia’s location in the Caucasus region is somewhat like a link between Eastern Europe and Western Asia.  To its west is the Black Sea and its neighbours includes Russia to the north; Turkey and Armenia to the south; and Azerbaijan to the east.

According to scholars, Georgia’s history can be traced back to the ancient kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia. Georgia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity in the 4th century. It reached the peak of its political and economic strength during the reign of King David and Queen Tamar in the 11th and 12th centuries; was annexed by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century; gained a brief period of independence; was annexed by the Soviet Red Army in 1921; then was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922 until the breakup of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1991.

Some notable historians claim that Georgians are so called Georgian because they especially revere Saint George who appears in most national symbols. A statue of Saint George dominates the Freedom Square and in January 2004 the country adopted the five-cross flag, featuring the Saint George’s Cross. It has been argued that the flag was used in Georgia from the 5th century throughout the Middle Ages. Present day Georgia is a democratic semi-presidential republic.

A City of Warm Springs

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Mother of Georgia: Wine for friends; Sword for the enemies

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Sulfur Baths: The dome-shaped structures house the sulfur baths in Narikala district

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A bath house with an ornate facade

It was a crisp 14 degrees Celsius – a good shift from the 32 degrees of the tropics – when I got out of the terminal at Tblisi International Airport.   As we drove on the George W. Bush Avenue towards the city, I can already sense the richness of Georgian history and, within the next few days, immediately felt warmth from the friendliness and hospitality Georgian people are known for.

Incidentally, Tblisi also literally means “warm spring”.  According to legend, the present-day territory of Tbilisi was once covered by forests and King Vakhtang I Gorgasali went hunting in these woods with a falcon. The King’s falcon was trying to catch a pheasant during the hunt when both birds fell into a nearby hot spring. King Vakhtang became so impressed when both birds got cooked in the hot springs that he decided to cut down the forest and build a city on the location. The name ‘Tbili’ or ‘Tbilisi’ (‘warm location’) was therefore given to the city because of the area’s numerous sulphuric hot springs that came out of the ground.

At present, several establishments offer sulphur baths in the ancient Bath district several hundred metres from the Metekhi Church. The dome-shaped brick structures with sulphuric steam oozing out from dome-tips are unmistakeable. I entered one of these baths with some Georgian friends one night but was I was not ready to take a dip in a sulphuric pool yet.  Maybe next time.

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Freedom Square and Saint George Statue at night

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Rustaveli Avenue at night

Center of Georgian Culture and Religion

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The former necropolis at Mtatsminda is now a leisure park

Tbilisi has often been a point of contention between various rival powers and empires because of its strategic location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, along the historic Silk Road routes. The history of the city can be seen by its architecture, where the Haussmannized Rustaveli Avenue and downtown are blended with the narrower streets of the medieval Narikala district. The city is also emerging as an important transit route for global energy and trade projects and a significant industrial, social and cultural centre in the Caucasus.

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Haussmannized: The Rustaveli Avenue

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Tbilisi Theather: Harry Potter appears before a busy street

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A uniquely designed wedding place (now a private property) catches attention in another part of the city

It is easy to daydream about being a king or a prince, a queen or a princess in Georgia where medieval castles, churches and monasteries seem to compete for attention in the Georgian landscape.  The 4th century Narikala fortress, towers on a hill above Tbilisi.  Standing along its wall could immediately give a sense of the power that its occupants once held. Almost the whole of Tbilisi can be viewed from this fortress, especially its most dominant landmarks including the Metekhi where a statue of King Vakhtang I Gorgasali stands guard over a bridge beside a beautifully placed church.  The imposing Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral, the largest religious building in Georgia and the Caucasus, is very visible from this vantage point together with the presidential palace across the river.  On the other side of town, the statue of Saint George on a horse in the middle of Freedom Square is also visible as it is poised to gallop towards Rustaveli Avenue, the primary and busiest street in Tbilisi.  The Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain); a necropolis where some of the most prominent writers, artists, scholars, and national heroes of Georgia are buried; stand adjacent to the fortress. The modern structures of a leisure park on the mountain are now providing contrast to the medieval structures of the Narikala.

The abundance of churches, many of them ancient, is another characteristic Georgia is famous for (my series on medieval Georgian churches and monasteries here). This is also consistent with Tbilisi’s reputation for religious tolerance. In the city’s Old Town, a mosque, synagogue, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches can all be found within less than 500 metres from each other.

Georgians are also well-known for their friendliness and hospitality and I personally experienced this during my 2 visits.  But closely watching over Tbilisi on one edge of the Narikala is the ‘Mother of Georgia’, a colossal statue of a lady holding a sword on one hand and a bowl of wine on the other.  The wine symbolizes Georgia’s hospitality towards those who come as friends while the sword symbolizes the country’s readiness to quell those who come as enemies.

A River Runs Through It

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The statue of King Gorgasali guards an old bridge over Mtkvari. A modern footbridge can be seen in the distance.

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A hotel's terrace hangs over Mtkvari

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A church conspicuously stood on a hill near Narikala

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A small church in Old Tbilisi

The scenic Mtkvari River cuts across Tblisi, adding more colour to its already picturesque landscape.  I struggled for more than a week to capture its scenery as I passed by its banks to and from work but my driver, who seemed to be always preoccupied with getting me to my destination quickly, seldom gave me a chance to snap a good photo.  So one sunny morning I decided to take a cab to the Old Tbilisi area and walked the rest of the way to the office.  It was still very early but there were already some activities by the riverbank; people wanting to catch the bus early to work, retirees walking their dog, men with their fishing gear hoping to try their luck in the river, and individuals wanting a morning relaxation by the riverbank.

I greatly savoured the scenic riverside view together with the fresh morning breeze.  The Presidential Palace exuded refreshed power under the morning sun. The Metekhi church and King Gorgasali’s statue gloriously remained impressive in real life as they were in pictures.  The old bridges, joined by an ultra modern pedestrian walkway, magnificently cast their reflections on the calm waters. The traditional balconies, a distinct architectural feature I greatly enjoyed (My series on Georgian balconies here), insatiably viewed the river from above the cliffs.  The decision to walk along the banks was more than worth the effort.  It was a treasure trove of lovely pictures as I expected.

City of Lights

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Night time scene at the Freedom Square

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Two Symbols: The Presidential Palace (foreground) and the Sameba Cathedral (background) symbolize Georgia's young independence and old religious values

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Two Churches: The Sameba Cathedral (background), biggest in the region; and the ancient Metekhi (foreground), one of the oldest

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Two Modern Structures: The Peace Bridge (foreground) and the Presidential Palace (background)

All the significant landmarks of Tbilisi remain visible and become even grander at night when the lights are turned on. The Presidential Palace dazzles with its white lights, the Sameba Cathedral and all other smaller churches look heavenly as gold and yellow lights bounce from their walls and arches.  The Narikala fortress glows and dominates the night lights of the city below.  Even the banks and cliffs of Mtkvari River throw dreamy reflections into the water with blue lights flooding their surface while the Peace Bridge seems to breathe in luminous blue.  At the town centre, The Saint George Statue at Freedom Square gets propped by a cone of white lights and Rustaveli Avenue gets covered by a canopy of yellow and green lights at night.  On Mtatsminda, the neon lights of the leisure park throw delirious swirls of red, green, yellow and blue as if wanting to hypnotize the whole city.  And the old traditional balconies of Tbilisi come alive; their intricate details get emphasized as shades of various colours illuminate their corners.

I felt transported to another dimension as I gazed through my lens and took photos (with some difficulty without a tripod for the camera) while Georgian friends, Amiko and Natia, who drove and guided me around the city (after a daytime tour to Kakheti — another story) led the tour and answered all my endless questions about Georgia and Tbilisi.

Winds of Change

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The facade of McDonald's was adjusted to blend with the surrounding buildings

In a busy section of Tblisi stands a McDonalds, a subtle symbol of Western influence, but the design of its building, while it tries to blend with the surrounding architecture, totally changes my mental image of a yellow-dominated McDonald’s facade.   Such contrasts are not uncommon in Tblisi.  The medieval Narikala fortress, for example, is paired by a modern leisure park at the Mtatsminda Mountain while both have important historical value. On Mtkvari River, the ultra modern design of the pedestrian bridge delicately connects two of the oldest sections of the city.   These stark contrasts can be discomforting to some Georgians but I found them symbolic of Georgia’s struggle to preserve its treasured past and, at the same time, embrace the conveniences of the future.  The trick is in striking the balance between the two and, in my opinion, Tblisi has done well in this aspect. So far.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A morning street scene in Tbilisi