I stayed in bed until the sun was awake enough to cast a rosy hue over the golden buildings, brown mountains, and blue sky in the distance. I was also hoping the heat rays would be a few meters closer to Earth this morning as I began to wander about. I noticed that shops wrap their goods left outside, more of a protection from weather than thieves, as deliveries can be left on the doorstep in the same manner.
The only other things moving this early are taxi drivers, hungry birds, a cat guarding a gate, a dog sleeping by a door, some fallen dead leaves, and employees going through auto-pilot on their way to work. Age is perception as well as upkeep, but there’s a weird feeling I get walking amongst buildings that have been here for decades and look like they’ve been abandoned twice as long, yet knowing soon people will be passing through with pets and plastics as part of their morning routine.
My first goal, besides staring at the sun coming down through the trees, is to find something to eat, as usual. I’m in luck as a window with a bakery sign appears to my right and I point at the giant croissant, full of nuts and crumb filling magic, and appreciate the distance between me and dessert breakfasts that only cost one lari as I would always find this pastry worth the walk.
The gate to the Garden of the First Republic of Georgia is open unlike much else as I explore the city on foot. I can just make out the year 1845 on the sign that appears burnt but also shares some of the plant life that calls this place home — Chittamwood, Horse Chestnut, Bleeding Heart, White Fir, and European beech. I see giant agave, a tree with ‘vino’ painted on it, a large private building with its bricks showing, and a dilapidated sidewalk that possibly could’ve been a local road.
The neatest thing in the park wasn’t the sign listing 36 books of which only three had titles I could read — Jane Austen “Pride and Prejudice”, Herman Melville “Moby Dick”, and Galaktion Tabidze “Poetry” — or the pathway of benches and waste bins lined with skinny trees, but the stone drinking fountain with a spigot that protrudes past the guard so that it resembles a germ-covered straw.
I noticed a steeple behind a short wall and inside the elaborate gate and detailed door was a small church (no photos allowed) where the booth selling books, candles, and jewelry seemed to fill the corner. I reached my hand down into the middle of a bread basket, not sure if the pieces were edible or not, and that simple prosphora loaf of leavened bread cost me a dime, so I consumed it but not with the same joy as I do most carbs whether they melt in my mouth or need more coaxing from my teeth.
If you walk around long enough eventually a dog will join you if it’s the adventurous or hungry type. I found a cup on the ground and pulled the water bottle out of my coat pocket to share a drink with a medium-sized black dog with white ankle socks on in front and white toe socks on in the back. A majority of the dogs look well-fed and disease-free but as with all things in nature, there are anomalies.
My hands are freezing because I didn’t have gloves on this side of The Atlantic to pack so they are taking turns in my armpits between photos of art, signs, cars, facades, and dogs playing in the street. I get to the sulphur baths of which I had planned to lay on a communal surface while having a layer of my skin scrubbed off but pass by the opportunity to look at water, bricks, tiles, locks, stairs, and bridges instead. I was embracing the cold weather and the drab rocks surrounding the waterfall that created dark greenery and ice.
I was going to walk west but was pulled eastward across the Mtkvari River towards the giant bronze statue, erected in 1967, of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (meaning a wolf’s head) who is credited with founding Tbilisi and ruling the capital from the age of 15 until his death in 502, some 45 years later. The Metekhi Virgin Mary Assumption Church that is guarded by the king on his horse was destroyed by a Mongol invasion but was rebuilt in the 13th century and restored in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The church’s outer wall is built to meet the river and join the rocky mountain that the place of worship is built on, so that like many religious structures in this region it can be seen from a distance as a place of refuge from weather and photos as none are allowed inside. Next time I will bring a sketch pad so that I may attempt to share the simple grandeur that these buildings share on the inside while remaining typically Georgian and beautifully weathered on the outside.
I’m sure one of my parents at some point told me about the dangers of taking candy from a stranger but they never mentioned all the other goodies that a no-name person could present you with so I’ve been quite accepting in my three decades of life. Walking out of the church and having a man give me a prosphora with the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus would come as no surprise that I would hope the decoration made this loaf just a bit tastier. The bread giver quickly disappeared, perhaps to keep on gifting.
I opt out of the aerial tramway in Europe Square but pay the lari to use their toilet. I mention this because I tried to use the casino across the street but they wanted me to pay and sign up to enter. I will have to add public facilities to my pre-trip research list though I did get lucky that a restaurant doing its opening routine let me in for free. There are men charging for pictures with blue-and-yellow macaws and a capuchin monkey (both from South America) along with a falcon and peacocks that have a more worldly habitat.
State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Instruments
This will be my first time seeing a portion, really just a fragment, of the Berlin Wall given to the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, on a visit to Germany in 2017 as a symbol of friendship. It’s impressive and powerful the history this almost 12-foot high slab of concrete can deliver while being over 3,000 km away from its origin. Spray painted on both sides is “ExpoNice” which refers to an annual conference dedicated to cybersecurity as firewalls replace some crumbling physical barriers.
There’s a solar-powered bench nearby with four USB outlets and a free wifi sign but the confused look on the guy’s face sitting there tells me something isn’t right — the panel is missing so his phone isn’t charging… this definitely wasn’t covered in Georgian 101. Some travelers have set itineraries whether for themselves or through a company but I quite enjoy the “I’m not lost anywhere I go because I’m still exploring somewhere/thing new” feeling, even if it is my second attempt towards the Narikala Fortress and National Botanical Garden without a map when I find my next detour.
There’s a sign for the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Instruments, a place I hadn’t considered but that brought the MIM of Phoenix, AZ to mind. It wouldn’t disappoint as I went down the stairs into an apartment complex yard and in a secure door to an older man sitting at a desk and a younger man who would direct me to the left to pay my student entrance fee to another man. This museum started as a branch of another museum in 1975 and became independent in 1984. The MIM, largest of its kind, was opened in 2010 and focuses on the impact of music on the planet.
The first hall consists mainly of animal skins and bones with wood in different configurations for string, wind, keyboard, and percussion instruments — panduri, gudastviri, tsiko-tsiko, and diplipito — local to this region. There is a picture of the Chavleishvilis’ circle dance with a group of men on one knee holding hands. Most of the displays don’t come with a description just a catalog number and title in Georgian.
The second hall contains an Oriental (meaning Jews, Armenia, Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan, etc.) exhibition. I see stringed instruments inlaid with nacre (mother of pearl) on the handles, drums similar to the djembe variety of West Africa, and turntables for 3-inch vinyl records. The third hall is full of barrel organs, orchestrions, zithers, gramophones, accordions, and symphonions to name a few. The Europeans in the nineteenth century had a large impact on the instruments that would influence the culture of the country.
In the middle of the self-guided museum tour, I’m able to look out the window and into the courtyard covered in what appears to be greenhouse roofing material. Back inside, I think about, better than being able to see within some of the larger instruments would have been having the opportunity to hear them, recorded or live. Instead, I’m left with Jailhouse Rock by Elvis on a 10-inch CRT TV which the US stopped making a decade ago but that China, Latin America, Africa, and Asia still find worthy of the low cost.
I make it to the Narikala Fortress, built in the 4th century, and there is a sign overlooking the Baths District that tells of the dinner, theatre, and match-making of women in new dresses that took place in the warm comfort of the baths. I suppose, either way, undressed there or covered for a church, I wouldn’t be able to take pictures inside but there’s a nice panoramic view of the city below and the Saguramo Range in the distance.
Next on the list, past the cats and birds (painted and real), is the Ateshgah Fire Temple from the Zoroastrians presence in the 5th to 7th centuries. I have no expectations but I only find a bunch of different-colored wooden staircases leading to locked doors after I climb the few brick stairs to what was conserved in 2007 — I’m not sure, but the QR scan tells me “a brick square type building with an almost ruined roof.” Well, I can appreciate this is the closest I will get to see the Mother of Georgia, from the knees up, erected in 1958 to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th year anniversary.
I find my way back to a main road, past a man chopping wood, and stop for a maroon churchkhela (fruit paste dried around walnuts). The treat looks like a lumpy candle as it hangs on strings in a group. You choose the shade of red, yellow, or purple that you want and it gets cut and bagged, but I grabbed mine and separated the chewy and nutty goodness starting from one end as you could also start in the middle or cut it into sharable pieces.
The first church that I can take pictures in today is the Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, complete with an old candle-holder chandelier turned electric and a scene of the Baby Jesus cut into the top of a mural only decapitating a few of his disciples. There’s also a 3D version of the youthful savior on the floor with open arms lying between a pair of poinsettia plants.
Museum of Fine Arts
Back outside, down the street, and into the daunting container called the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. Inside is a large glass container — doors, walls, floors, and stairs — but a very typical museum counter to the right. I approach, pay my 15 lari, and scan my ticket at the gate to gain entrance to the exhibits — the first being “this is how it feels to walk on glass and wonder if you will fall through.” The feeling is different in the glass elevator that I will take to the next floor, but my mind starts to play with me as I can see the black-tiled floor below.
I’m relieved to see men in a room with banana leaves reflecting off the shiny ground though I could see the artistic reason behind an entire glass-bottom museum it may play into others’ privacy, but that’s part of the excitement of exploring how other cultures create their societies and what aspects of their humanism they choose to enforce. I once told my dad that I wanted to go to college so I would have an easier time understanding the concepts at museums.
That statement wasn’t a lie but it wasn’t the full reason either. I find that some art is better-left unknown, left to interpretation by the viewer, like international music without understanding the lyrics which can add a sad twist to a song that sounds upbeat. I don’t know now if it was the museum’s curation or if I was just drawn to mostly black-yellow and black-white images but there are so many techniques and themes being expressed of which mostly people and trees captured my attention.
The next place to grasp my senses is the Georgian National Museum. The first exhibit contains a few paintings, some over a century old, with descriptions beside them trying to explain the actions, and meanings thereof, of the humans or what the image lacks that creates uncertainty in the viewer and increases speculation to what the artist intended to represent in the details. With all that guesswork I’m ok imagining a different scenario, but I seem to do that in the actual world as well.
The next exhibit is a Roman collection from the Santarelli family that shows the beginnings of Greek statues being copied and displayed in the royal residences of popes and cardinals between the 14th and 18th centuries — the start of the Renaissance, the first public museum, and what would become archaeological science. What surprised me most was seeing the typical white marble heads atop beautiful porphyry busts (an igneous rock with crystals in a reddish groundmass).
People often ask how I feel traveling alone (without a man, without knowing the language, driving locally, etc.) and I always reassure them about how much I love it, not that I don’t have a limited other few that I also enjoy seeing new things and places with, but I’m ok doing them on my own as well, even if that means putting up with a weird guy in Sri Lanka and another in Georgia while walking between museums.
I don’t know how I backtracked from the Fine Arts to the National Museum but I was unknowingly on my way to the MOMA when this guy decided to walk beside me. I would’ve been ok with his temporary company had he not felt the need to stare because he thinks I’m pretty. I appreciate the compliment and he wants to make small talk which I figure isn’t good for a museum and I’ve already seen two so I will wander into the Biltmore instead.
It’s a first for me because I rarely find myself dressed enough or nearby a hotel that charges a minimum of $180 a night unless there’s a sale and it’s my wedding anniversary or a night in Great Falls, MT. I’m enjoying the lights, decor, and warmth of the corridor and indoor pool (with curtained balconies that overlook it) when this guy gets the idea that he’s going to tell me how or where to spend my vacation and I abruptly tell him otherwise. I don’t care if he thinks security will escort him out because that’s what I had in mind.
Just to make sure he’s gone his own way I step into the Smart Market, another public place with security, and take a picture of some tiered chocolate cups with dried fruits and nuts. The saleswoman goes to her display stash and begins to hand them to me and set some up for a posed-candy photo-op. I thought I would buy one but she was separate from the rest of the store that I wanted to explore and the guard let me know there would be no more photos inside.
I walked among the cabins at the Christmas market selling chocolate art, wooden trinkets, bottle bags, etc. and emptied the change out of my purse for a cup of glühwein that I carried with me as I moseyed into Stamba Hotel which appeared to be just an old factory turned sex lounge library at first. It’s actually an old Soviet printing house with a five-story atrium and two courtyards and guest rooms filled with more books, a reader’s paradise. If that wasn’t enough, the hotel also has a vertical garden and photo museum to highlight women photographers in the Southern Caucasus.
Dinner of rolled eggplant stuffed with walnut paste and covered in onion, pomegranate, and khmeli suneli (herb mix) will be at the Chaba’s Jazz Rock Cafe. I walk into the cozy establishment and sit at the end of the bar next to the 21″ TV displaying a well-lit brick-walled crackling fire while I look at the menu. I order the black bread hoping for a new carb experience, but it’s just regular delicious brown bread that will go great with my appetizer of a meal and a glass of dry red Saperavi wine from the Kakheti region.
I move to a table in the corner so I can take my coat off and listen to a guy explain to his friend about the similarities of languages and his journey of learning Spanish. This meal is embedding itself into my long-term memory and between my stomach lining as I check my pedometer for the explanation of tired legs and sore feet (no blisters is a win) and find that I climbed 56 floors (equivalent to about 1,000 stairs) in over 12 miles. I’ve hiked steeper mountains and walked in San Francisco but the elevation changes are more subtle here.
I check on the car after a day of it being parked on a steep corner so close to someone’s gate and I’m glad I did. There is a note on the windshield that Google can’t translate (didn’t want to disturb the Dr if I didn’t have to). The sign on the door says cardiologist and that’s how the guy introduced himself after I knocked and he excused his dog from guard duty. He was going to get his son (perhaps my age) but I showed him the note and let him know I’d be gone in the morning and he agreed that was fine.
Back at the guesthouse and the manager for the night needs me to pay for my room. I told him what I paid last night and then he charged me that for two nights on my card (since I didn’t see the machine yesterday) and I will get 25 lari cash back at some point tonight. I agree and go into my room where the bed is made and fall into the mattress because one of the support beams had been dropped in the process.
With a full tummy and my coat and boots off I could sleep but I will stay up another hour and a half to shower and plan for tomorrow. I have that feeling that it was me seeing Tbilisi but also that I saw nothing because it wasn’t me lucky enough to be experiencing another country. Usually, this feeling comes when I’m back home editing my notes and adding the pictures to the descriptions and getting to relive it all again so soon that it doesn’t seem real.
I’m in the shower when my guesthouse neighbor turns the lights off thinking she’s doing the opposite and quickly reverses her action. I’m surprised by the amount of pressure and hot water and want to set up a temporary residence here but I quickly smear soap around, grab my hair from the drain, and walk out wrapped in a towel past the lobby living room filled with men. I get my change back and there are coins for the 1s and 2s, like the loonies and toonies of Canada, which I prefer over the 10 and 20 cent pieces in filling my pocket.
My sister called while I was in the shower but instead of calling her back I will look at an unhelpful large paper map and use it as a notepad in realizing how all over the city the attractions are. They all open at 11 am and I wonder if I will see them all driving, let alone hiking like I had planned. Once my camera battery and watch are charged I can plug my phone into the one outlet (because I brought one adapter), set my alarm for my 9 am breakfast (included in the $8/night fee), and enjoy that it’s much quieter tonight outside and in.