Whether it’s the uneven balconies of Avlabari, or the freshly-painted, ornate latticework of Abanotubani, Tbilisi’s fine architectural details are best appreciated on foot, where, inhaling sharply, you can feel the dust hit the back of your throat. The same sensation no doubt felt by the figures who helped form the contemporary city, such as the Georgian-born architect Zurab Tsereteli, responsible for the Chronicle of Georgia, who was recently described by Donald Trump as “a very unusual guy”. Then there was Alexander Pushkin, who recorded his forays into the sulphur baths on women’s day, and the author of Georgia’s first dictionary. All were wanderers of Tbilisi. After three separate walks, however, it became clear that the most interesting characters are still out there in the city, waiting to be found.
The story goes that Tbilisi was founded at Abanotubani, where sulphurous warm water springs up from the ground, and bathhouses have been located here ever since. Botanikuri Street leads up from the baths, past the red brick Jumah Mosque, to the Botanical Garden. Asymmetrical red roofs dominate the view from the top of the cobbled street, along with the wooden balconies freshly painted in pastel pink, green and duck egg blue.
It was the Ottomans who first introduced the balconies, with their ornate latticework, to the city. The Byzantines brought the narrow brickwork, and various religious groups brought their places of worship: cathedrals, synagogues, mosques. On the other side of the mountain lie clusters of Soviet housing, adding more colour to the city’s rich fabric.
One of the often photographed details here is the intricate blue tiled mosaic on the front of the Orbeliani bathhouse, which was named after the family who owned the building in the 1700s. As writers, politicians and generals, the polymathic Orbeliani family had a lot of influence on Georgia. Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani authored the first Georgian dictionary and helped to introduce printing to the country in the early 18th century.
Another distinguished writer, Alexander Pushkin, visited the baths in 1829, when, in disguise, he snuck in on women’s day. In A Journey to Arzrum (1836) he describes his foray into the baths, along with the other places he managed to gain access to: an Ossetian funeral, a Turkish harem. A Journey to Arzrum was published at a time when Russian publications featured a lot of travel writing covering this area of the world. Somewhat congruously, 200 years later Tbilisi is a popular destination for young Russians.
Avlabari totters all the way down to the river. Past fruit and vegetable stalls, where churchkhela, sweets that resemble long candles, hang. Past an entire fleet of taxis, each with a board depicting Georgia’s attractions, and past the dripping, mossy foundations of Queen Darejan Palace, where visitors pose for photos and sip the water. On the other side of the Mtkvari the green and shadowed contours of the mountain form the backdrop to Abanotubani.
Yet unlike in Abanotubani, where the houses have recently been restored and painted, Avlabari’s houses lean on one another. Many of the wooden appendages to the houses are supported by beams, and throughout the neighbourhood there are cracked walls which will no doubt eventually come down after heavy rain.
When the River Vere flooded in 2015, more than 20 streets in the city centre were damaged. It was reported at the time that the cost to the city reached 100 million lari ($41m).
It’s not only the leaning, distinctive wooden balconies and busy courtyards that draw visitors to the area, though. Sameba Cathedral, constructed in the mid-90s, is among the tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Its sandy stone arches and golden spire stand out against the surroundings, especially at night, when the entire building is illuminated.
On Easter weekend young boys wearing burgundy smocks with gold detailing run about, filling up water bottles from the spring taps, and burning branches in the fire pit behind Sameba. The front courtyard is bustling (as is to be expected in a country where 83.4 per cent of the population defined themselves as Orthodox Christians in the 2014 census).
Fewer people make the trek to the Wedding Palace. With floor plans based on anatomical forms (the architect’s mother was a gynaecologist) it’s a much more unusual building than Sameba. Originally commissioned in 1979, it was completed five years later, when Georgia’s economy was doing rather well, unlike the rest of the Soviet Union at that time.
Aside from these large scale attractions, Avlabari is made up of side streets and private courtyards, and would certainly be a great place to begin work on an Instagram account dedicated to aesthetically pleasing doors.
The Chronicle of Georgia
After searching online for images of the Chronicle of Georgia I was looking forward to the climb out of the city, through Avlabari, skirting the reservoir. Georgian kings, queens and Christian narratives are all depicted on the vast green-black sides of what is sometimes also referred to as the History of Georgia Monument.
My journey was made all the more enjoyable by Sergey, my taxi driver, who early on in our conversation boasted that he had once polished off six litres of wine. What was my record, he asked. Keen to share with me as much as he possibly could about Georgian culture, he stopped the car at one point to fetch Georgian lemonade, and then again to buy tkemali, a sour plum sauce, when he found out that I had not yet tried either. Later still we stopped in a small village bakery, where he demonstrated how puri (Georgian bread) is made, slapped against the sides of a clay tone — a deep, round, tandoor-style oven.
Most of what I learnt that day about Zurab Tsereteli’s monoliths came from Sergey, via Google Translate. I discovered that Tbilisi Sea, the reservoir we were overlooking, was nine kilometres long and 45 metres deep, and that from our vantage point we had views of the Didi Digomi district. The site requires that you take your time, appreciating the views and the scope of the project, its intricate details.
Zurab Tsereteli himself is a complex figure. He received the title Hero of Socialist Labour for his pre-92 work, as well as France’s Légion d’Honneur, and became an ambassador for the United Nations. His detractors point to the millions of tax dollars that were diverted into his various Moscow art installations in the 90s, at a time of economic hardship. All for what Solzhenitsyn would later describe as “massive and third-rate” work.
Nevertheless, he was a prolific architect in the Russian capital, and worked on a statue of Christopher Columbus which was designed to be 45ft taller than the Statue of Liberty and contain 40 million dollars worth of bronze. New York, Boston, Columbus and Miami all turned down The Birth of the New World. It now stands in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
There is so much more to explore in Tbilisi. This map is a fantastic resource, documenting Soviet architecture throughout Georgia. Likewise, Calvert 22 Foundation’s New East Travel Guide app will help you get your head around this fascinating city in even more detail.