Tiny but historically rich, Georgia is shaking off its Soviet past to stride into the spotlight. Leading the way is the capital city, Tbilisi, with its intriguing mix of traditional and modern ways of life. By Shaikh Ayaz

Tbilisi Capital Georgia
A view of Narikala, the fourth-century fortress

Our guide’s name was a bit of a tongue twister. Given the inadvertently creative ways we were mispronouncing it, he decided to make it easy for us. “Call me Chiku,” he said, volunteering his family nickname. This May, a fellow Indian journalist and I ended up in the Georgian capital as guests of the Tbilisi Art Fair, held in the eclectic Caucasian city billed as being at the “historical crossroads where East meets West.” Chiku was entrusted with the difficult, but, I suppose, exciting, task of showing two news-hounds around. To his credit, he managed to floor my hard-to-please colleague, an incurable globetrotter who had visited at least 70 countries and hoped to strike a century soon. We all had hit it off well when Chiku suddenly announced, “I am young, but I have five years of driving experience. So, you are safe.” Spend a few days in Georgia, and you will know there’s an amiable Chiku in every Georgian.

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adjaruli khachapuri is a cheese-filled bread with a runny egg-yolk centre.

Embraced by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey on one side, and superpower Russia on the other, Georgia is the most tourist-friendly of all Caucasian countries. We were in the lap of what was once an exotic outpost on the ancient Silk Road, connecting Asia to Europe when far-flung travellers made pit stops only to return with memories of the storied Georgian hospitality and warmth. Modern-day Georgians have a way of welcoming visitors that suggests centuries of generosity and open culture. “The word ‘Tbilisi’ in Georgian means warm,” Chiku explained, from behind the wheels. “Tbilisi was founded because of the warm water of the sulphuric springs.”

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The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mtskheta

Tbilisi is as old as Georgia, and has been its capital for nearly 1,500 years. Established by Vakhtang I of Iberia in the fifth century—locally known as ‘the guy with the wolf mask’ for his unusual fetish for wolfish get-ups—Tbilisi is a melting-pot of myriad styles and periods that has arrived at its current cultural address thanks to the scars of its rich and complex history. For much of its life as a civilisation, Georgia has fought off invaders and conquerors, from Romans, Mongols, and Persians in the Middle Ages to the Soviet Union, whose remnants are still found in the brutalist Soviet-era buildings that doubled up as “dwellings of the working class,” as Chiku put it.

“It’s one of the oldest nations in Europe. Yet, it feels extraordinarily modern and up-to-date with progress,” reiterated our host Vasili Tsereteli, who was born in Georgia and whose grandfather, the eminent artist Zurab Tsereteli’s monumental bronze sculptures titled History of Georgia—simply ‘the Stonehenge’ for many locals—adorn Keeni Hill with a 360° view of Tbilisi. “A mix of cultures, Georgia has its own ethnographic and archaeological history. It’s been home to philosophers, poets, and artists, be it Dumas or George Gurdijeff. But above all, we are a happy-go-lucky race. We love music, dancing, and wine, and we ensure others are on board, too. For us, guests are like godsend, I think, very much like India,” Tsereteli said cheerfully, even as he ensured someone was always available to humour us. Chiku, we later learnt, was handpicked by Tsereteli for what was supposed to be a few hours of sightseeing on our day off from work. Exactly when those few hours turned into a day-long affair, we never knew.

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Artist Zurab Tsereteli’s bronze sculptures titled History of Georgia

Walking around old Tbilisi, visitors can easily lose themselves in the wonders it has to offer, as we did. Flanked by River Mtkvari, the old town has Jewish, Azeri, and Armenian quarters, reflecting the diverse nature of its history. In a nod to its rich past, the Armenian churches are among the most delightful discoveries that a history-buff can make. A site of heritage as well as worship, the Holy Mother of God Church of Bethlehem carries a strong romance of Tbilisi’s Armenian past. The knowledge that ancient explorers would have passed these very streets on their Silk Road journeys gave us goosebumps.

As we further explored the city, we could see Tbilisi undergoing a rapid gentrification. Yet, the remains of the yesteryears, like crumbling wooden balconies, quaint bathhouses,
gingerbread porches, Orthodox churches, Art Deco and Art Nouveau, show how proudly Tbilisi wears its past. “Mentally and culturally, I’d say Georgia is based on the Greek civilisation,” argued Kaha Gvelesiani, founder, Tbilisi Art Fair, adding, “As you know, there was a big Greek influence here, Roman and Armenian influence, Byzantine influence, and centuries of wars with the Muslim world, the Turks, Iranians, and Arabs. You feel everything is so mixed-up here, still more European than Asian.”

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The Holy Mother of God Church of Bethlehem is a fine example of Armenian architecture in Tbilisi

Georgia became a Christian society very early on. “The religion and its influence played a key role in our cultural life,” said Vasili Tsereteli. A litany of orthodox churches forming the historic core of Tbilisi serve as proof. Not surprisingly, our next destination was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mtskheta is a short drive upcountry. This holy city is the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia. For those in the mood for a slice of history and religion, Mtskheta can bring unexpected rewards. Perched on a hillside, the sixth-century Jvari Monastery was where, according to Georgian lore, the venerable Saint Nino converted King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity. Evangelist Saint Nino came from Cappadocia in the fourth century and had, as per local accounts, worked miracle after miracle to spread the word of Jesus.

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Inside the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

Even more significant (historically and architecturally) was our next Mtskheta stopover. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral resembled a carnival, as pilgrims with their heads covered in supplication lined up the entrance. To reach the cathedral, we had ambled past souvenir shops selling locally produced honey (some of the oldest in the world, just like the oldest wine that was discovered here recently) supposed to be infused with life-giving properties (“Good for s-e-x,” the shop owner gestured, reaching for a hard sell) and churchkhela, a type of candy that can easily be mistaken by the church-goer for a candle. Friendly shopkeepers beckoned us to sample their wares but with sunset casting dark shadows, Chiku prodded us to get going, lest we miss the sight we had come to see. As we entered the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the bustle of the market was quickly replaced by an unmistakable air of spirituality and chants of prayers. The mantle of Christ is buried here. Legend has it that a Georgian Jew named Elias brought Jesus Christ’s robe with him to Mtskheta after the Crucifixion. Elias’s sister is said to have touched the robe and died from it. “Nobody could remove the robe from her firm grip, so it was buried here with her,” Chiku pointed out, as the clamour around us rose. The neverending labyrinth of pilgrims kept filing in, some observing a private moment of meditation while others lighting a candle or placing flowers at the altar. As we were leaving, sounds of piety followed us out onto the lane.

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The Bridge of Peace is a relatively new steel-and-glass structure on River Mtkvari

When asked about Georgia’s global prospects recently, renowned author Nicolas Iljine, who has written extensively about it, quipped, “I think Azerbaijan is the richest, Armenia the poorest, and Georgia the most exciting country in Eurasia.” With that statement racing through my head, the next morning, I swung by the Erti Gallery to meet artist Uta P. Bekaia, whose solo show was a talking point in Tbilisi. Contemplative, funny, and provocative, it used 20 of his self-images to reflect on 21st century’s most pressing question: identity. Who better than Bekaia to know about identity? He had lived in New York, but had recently been drawn back to his hometown. “Tbilisi finally feels alive. There’s some kind of energy that is boiling and it’s ‘in the making’, and I feel like I am participating in it, both as a native and an artist,” he said. Comparing Tbilisi’s nightlife to Berlin’s, Bekaia explained that the techno movement at the club Bassiani has been at the forefront of the cultural change. “Since it opened in 2014,” The New York Times gushed, “Bassiani has gained a reputation as one of the world’s best techno clubs, and visitors from around the world come to Tbilisi to party there.”

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Supra—a feast tradition in Georgia—at restaurant Veriko.

Bekaia hailed Bassiani as a symbol of freedom, a multicultural ground “where all parts of the society can come together and be at peace with it.” He added, “The conservatives are rubbing shoulders with transgenders. So fascinating! It’s like there’s drought in Africa and all animals have come to drink from the same pond.”

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A plate of khinkhali or Georgian minced-meat dumplings.

It was close to dinnertime, and I was struggling to keep aside the nightmarish thoughts of Bekaia-sponsored ‘drought’ to bring myself to enjoy a more lavish reality. As we joined our friend Vasili Tsereteli and others for supra (special feast) at Veriko, an upscale eatery specialising in Georgian cuisine, a table full of delicacies and a jovial ambience had royalty writ large over it. A diehard foodie and bon-vivant, Tsereteli spoke of the hazy similarities between Georgian and Indian cuisines. Old Bollywood is still hugely popular in this part of the world, with random strangers breaking into Raj Kapoor’s Awaara songs at the mere sight of an Indian, but it is, in fact, the gastronomic culture that serves as the great unifier. “The Georgian word for bread is puri, just like in India,” Tsereteli observed, as waiters plied us with typical Georgian fare, including khinkali, soupy minced-meat dumplings, and the ubiquitous khachapuri, pizza minus the toppings— basically, bread stuffed with cheese and egg, but done so divinely that it makes for a classic Georgian experience.

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Jvari Monastry is a rare Early Medieval Georgian church that as survived to this day.

But no Georgian experience can ever be complete without wine. Georgians take pride in their ancient wine-making traditions, and for good reason. More than food or music, it is wine (over 500 indigenous grape varieties are cultivated here) that has put Georgia on the world map in recent times. After the oldest wine was found in 8,000-year-old jars in south Tbilisi in 2017, the discovery changed the way oenophiles looked at wines. More recently, the award-winning Saperavi wines have caught the eye of enthusiasts and experts the world over. They are, reportedly, flying off the shelves. Wine lovers might also be tempted to try a few glasses of aromatic local kvevri-fermented wine, and you won’t need a nightcap. But then, this is Georgia where toasting is something of a national hobby. The night shall be sweet but long, thanks to the tradition of endless merrymaking. Ever-smiling and jubilant, one male guest at the dinner rose from his table, glasses clinking, to lob poetic toasts. Then, another and another—a firm reminder of Georgia’s boundless passion for social life, fine wine, laughter, food, and friendship. I am still hearing ‘Gaumarjos’ in my sleep.

GETTING THERE

No direct flights ply between Mumbai/ Delhi and Tbilisi. Opt for comfortable connecting flights with a stopover in Dubai or Doha.

STAY

Tbilisi Marriott Hotel: Located in the city’s historic heart (on the teeming thoroughfare Rustaveli Avenue), this hotel is at a walking distance from everything of note. Liberty Square is a pebble’s throw away. From INR 15,000.
Stamba Hotel: A former publishing house, today this Soviet structure houses a chic hotel filled with books from ceiling to floor in a nod to its glorious literary past. Tbilisi is crawling with fashionable boutique properties, but Stamba is by far the best with its exposed brickwork architecture and sumptuous spreads. From INR 12,000

EAT

We recommend you don’t leave Tbilisi without trying culinary delights like khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread), khinkali (Georgian dumpling), and badrijani nigvzit (fried eggplant).

Related: The Oldest Libraries In Europe: A Travelling Bibliophile’s Dream Come True