Old Town Tbilisi

The problem with traveling for work is that you actually have to work–instead of exploring at leisure. I’ve peered at maps, trying to figure out nearby places I could get to, and even considered hopping a quick flight to Batumi, the resort town on the Black Sea.

Getting to Gori, a few hours away is possible–but its main claim to fame is that it is Stalin’s birthplace. There’s a museum (including his house) and everything. And I have no desire to go. Other than a passing “oh, that’s kind of interesting…” it really doesn’t sound like a great way to spend a weekend.

A few weekends of free time is all I’ll get while I’m here, and I’ve decided it would be most fun to simply explore Tbilisi. Mostly on foot. It’s a walkable city…sort of. Now that I’ve figured out the Metro system, it’s pretty easy to get around. Although the station closest to my hotel doesn’t have signage in English, some of the other stations do–which makes life easier.

Street signs (if they even exist) are in Georgian, sometimes Russian, and in English only in the really touristy areas. Yesterday, I spent about a half hour looking for a cafe on Tarknishvili Street–29.5 minutes of that was wandering around trying to find the street. Finally, I spotted an old street sign that still had the name in Russian. Voila…found the cafe a block up. Seriously, who knew that 20-year-old, rusty college Russian would ever be useful? But useful it is; instead of being completely illiterate here, I’m only quasi-illiterate. Total upgrade.

Maybe I’m just easily entertained, but simply walking around–hearing this amazing mix of rapidfire Georgian and lots of Russian, and here and there a snippet of other languages I don’t recognize, but which are probably Armenian, Turkish, Azeri, and whatnot–is just magical.

Old Town Tbilisi is not too far from my office and my hotel, so I’ve visited several times. There are two main little byways, filled with cafes, restaurants, and bars, including the KGB Cafe, which I mean really–who could resist? Plus I was told it had the best espresso in Tbilisi.

But really, that’s sort of off topic and getting ahead of the story. So, let’s go back and start at Freedom Square, which is a really good starting point, and it has a very cool statue of St. George slaying the dragon (this was Lenin Square during the Soviet era):

By the way the building shell in the background? No idea…but all the signs seem to say “coming in 2010!” Which appears a lot in signs on half-built buildings here. (Side note: The horse’s butt faces Tbilisi City Hall, which I couldn’t get a picture of because of the angle of the sun. Still…funny!)

From Freedom Square, a quaint, cobbled street leads down into the heart of Old Tbilisi.

If you’re me, you will no doubt take a wrong turn and wind up walking the back alleys of Old Town, which are interesting, too:

I wish I were sneakier with my camera and could get some closeup shots of the myriad street vendors–who are generally little old ladies (and occasionally men) selling flowers, fruit, nuts, magazines and other random things for what has got to be a subsistence living. I did manage to spot this orange seller while trying to find my way back to a main street in Old Town:

Finally, I popped out into a little square containing a crazy clock tower and the local Irish pub. (And for anyone who knows Old Town, this is basically hell-and-gone, other side of Old Town from where I was trying to go.)

A little golden angel wheels out through the doors on top, every hour on the hour, to ring a bell indicating the time.

After this little, er, digression, I got back on track and headed through Old Town to the Mtkvari River, which divides Tbilisi in two.

That crazy ass structure is a new pedestrian bridge which, as far as I can tell, is called the Baratashvili Bridge. It’s the subject of much controversy. With a tab of about $60 million, it didn’t come cheap (as one Georgian said to me, that comes out to about $20 per Georgian–in a country with a per capita income of about $600, well…yes, some people might be a bit unhappy with that). Also, its modern design (which reminds me of an amoeba) is loved by some and despised by others. On the left side of the bridge is Old Town, while on the right a huge, sweeping park is being built on what used to be the neighborhood of Rike–which was destroyed when the river overran its banks several years ago.

From Metekhi Bridge (where the shot above was taken), you can also see the Metekhi Church and statue of King Vahktang Gorgasalis, who founded Tbilisi in the 5th Century:

There’s evidence that Tbilisi has been inhabited since sometime during the 4th century–but very few really old buildings remain from its early history, probably because everyone and their brother felt the the need to burn it to the ground every century or so.

Next stop: The Tbilisi sulphur hot springs that give the city its name. But first, a surprise visit from Flat Dylan and Flat Katie, because they’ve been kind of fun to have on this trip:

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