It may be trite to say this, but the truth is, I didn’t know much about Georgia (the country) beforehand. I know that it’s a former Soviet state and that it’s geographically somewhere in the Europe-Asia limbo. But other than that, all the images of the country in my mind are from the handful of YouTube videos and travel blogs I’ve consumed as a primer. But I’m here for another tour with Travel Factor, and this time my sister and I are with our parents and my brother Joseph, as well as some folks we traveled with in Iceland and some new ones.
My first view of Georgia is the Tbilisi International Airport, where we land on a Sunday morning after a 14-hour total flight with a short stopover in Dubai. The off-the-beaten-track quality of the place is immediately evident in the seemingly deserted airport. Where many other airports are teeming with locals and foreigners alike, here, there’s just a handful of people lining up in the immigration – mostly from our group.
Georgia is a country that’s hard to pin down even among the locals themselves. Georgians are not related to the Russians or Turks, who are their neighbors, nor do their language have ties to those spoken in the region. The task, thus, of introducing us to the country’s history and culture falls on Bako, our local guide. But first, he has to get us to our hotel and check us in.
Our hotel is near the center of Tbilisi, the country’s capital, and just a 30-minute ride from the airport. There’s not much hitch, and after checking in and dropping our bags in the hotel room, a handful of us take our first stroll of the city while looking for a place to have lunch.
Just a few meters from our hotel and the charm of the city starts to show itself. A church with traditional architecture spills out people after a just-concluded Sunday service. Cobblestone streets are lined with aging buildings, and the overall vibe feels more Eastern Europe than West Asia. The capital is also unsurprisingly the best place to get a grip into Georgia.
The city’s location along the banks of the Mtkvari River has made it an important site in the Europe-Asian trade and had, thus, been the subject of numerous conquests, including Arabs in the 7th century, the Mongols in the 13th century, and the Persians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Russia then annexed Georgia in 1801 and redesigned Tbilisi, turning it into a prosperous city that drew thousands of migrants from the countryside.
Tbilisi became a center of opposition to Soviet rule during the waning years of the Cold War. Georgia gained its independence in 1991, but a civil war soon broke out, plunging the country to political, economic, and social turmoil throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Bako recalled that, until 2004, blackouts were common and people weren’t able to take a bath for days, with electricity and water rationed irregularly.
Since then, Tbilisi has seen a revival, and the flood of investments has resulted in a modernization of the city. Five-star hotels, malls, bars, clubs, and modern museums and galleries are just some that have sprouted up as the city and Georgia as a whole has increasingly seen an uptick in tourist arrivals. Tbilisi is a fun city to explore as a result.
We find a restaurant serving traditional dishes near Liberty Square, and we quickly get a crash course on Georgian cuisine. We order khinkali (Georgian dumplings) and khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), two dishes we’ll be encountering throughout our stay in the country.
After lunch, Joseph and I continue exploring the other parts of the city. We stroll northward for half an hour until we reach the Rustaveli metro station, where a statue of the Georgian poet stands majestically in the middle of a square. To its southwest is the National Academy of Sciences building, where outside is a line of souvenir vendors displaying their wares. We backtrack from here and head south to the main Rustaveli Avenue, passing the Museum of Modern Art and the Opera and Ballet Theater (notable for its Moorish architecture).
After passing through the Parliament building, Joseph returns to the hotel while I continue walking south until I reach the Liberty Square once more. East of the square is where the old Tbilisi reveals itself. The Old Town, as it is more popularly known, is a jumble of narrow alleys lined with dilapidated buildings, attractive churches, atmospheric cafes, and leafy plazas.
I wind my way through the Old Town, coming across the Clock Tower in one of the plazas. Though it blends well with the medieval vibe of the city, the clock was actually built just a few years ago by puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze during the renovation of his neighboring theater. On the hour, a puppet angel pops out above the clock and strikes the bell.
I eventually reach the foot of the hill where the Narikala Fortress is perched. The fortress is an ancient citadel overlooking Tbilisi built in the 4th century. I manage to climb halfway to the top of the hill before surrendering to exhaustion and returning to our hotel.
It’s just been a day and already I’m already in love with Tbilisi. The sights are pretty, the vibe is easygoing, and the locals are very friendly. There’s a Georgian saying that visitors are a gift of God, and it’s probably with this mindset that many Georgians go out of their way to make tourists feel welcome.
In the evening, Bako takes the group to a restaurant serving traditional dinner. We have a more comprehensive lesson on the Georgian table, with dishes like chakapuli (beef stew with tarragon) and badrijani (eggplant rolls with walnut-garlic paste filling). It’s where I learn how Georgian dishes are so addicting and satisfying. The dishes are also at a fraction of the price in other European cities.
After our meal we head back to our hotel and rest and ready ourselves for the journey the next day.