I was looking forward to Tbilisi, a historic capital wedged between the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman empires. It’s a place I have long wanted to visit and it definitely lived up to and even exceeded my hopes.
It’s hard to say that there is anything specifically great about Tbilisi (known typically as Tiflis until 1936) except that it just has a great feel to it. Because of its location at the crossroads between east and west it has always been something of a cosmopolitan city, something evidenced by the wide range of architecture. And the fact that the weather was just about perfect – sunny with low humidity and highs in the upper 60s – didn’t hurt. This thing about travel during the shoulder seasons can work really well.
What is there to do in Tbilisi? You can walk around a lot. The old city is small but definitely worth a visit or two with some good restaurants packed in. The Bridge of Peace over the Kura River is a particularly beautiful walkway. You can take a cable car from right near the Bridge of Peace up to the 65-foot Mother of Georgia statue, erected in 1958 to celebrate Georgia’s 1,500th anniversary. Or you can ride a funicular up to Mtatsminda Park, home of a 200-foot high ferris wheel with great views of the city.
One surprise was the Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art. I wandered in one afternoon after lunch and a pleasant hour or two reading in a park, not expecting much. Instead it was one of those serendipitous moments when you learn something truly interesting. Zurab Tsereteli, you see, is Georgia’s most prominent modern artist and, since 1997, President of the Russian Academy of Arts. We’ve actually seen two of his more famous pieces in Moscow, a decidedly controversial statue of Peter the Great – occasionally voted one of the ugliest statues in the world – and the somewhat more conventional Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
The current exhibit in Tbilisi’s Museum of Modern Art is a collection of recent work, large oil paintings from the last 10 to 15 years mixed in with some large statues he’s done over the years. It’s a remarkable body of work for someone who would have been in his late 70s and early 80s when he created them. It was fun to learn about this giant in Georgian and Russian art, though I would try to forget that he’s a big friend of and apologist for Vladimir Putin.
And then the other big event for us was an evening with Patty and Chaz, a couple from St. Louis we met and enjoyed drinking with in the Maldives. Just before we pulled into Kazbegi a few days ago I saw on Facebook that they were leaving Kazbegi. I messaged Patty to ask if we had just missed them and we discovered that we would cross paths for one night in Tbilisi, so we made plans to have dinner. It’s one thing we enjoy a lot on this adventure is meeting friends – sometimes old friends, sometimes intrepid travelers we’ve met along the way – in obscure places. I’ll call Georgia obscure enough to qualify.
This is our last stop in Georgia; from here we head down to Armenia for six nights. One word, though, about Georgian wine. For years, particularly in recent years as I’ve read Russian and Soviet history, I’ve read about these great Georgian wines. Over and over you hear how surprisingly good they are and I was looking forward to trying them. Surprising, yes. Good, not so much. Perhaps they were good in comparison to what else you could get in the Soviet Union in the 1940s or 1960s, but Mark’s estimation was that they ran from tolerable to terrible. I probably wasn’t quite that negative but I would say that the gap between reputation and execution was perhaps the biggest I’ve ever experienced. Let’s just say I won’t be hunting out the Georgian Wine section in Manhattan liquor stores when we settle there in a few months.