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A weekend in...Tbilisi

Tbilisi was seen in the news when floods caused animals to escape from the zoo and take to the streets. Christine Winzor takes us on a tour of the hidden gem of a city and recommends a visit before its charms disappear

The Rezo Gabriadze Clock Tower in Tbilisi

Last June (2015), Tbilisi, the vibrant and venerable capital of the Republic of Georgia, spiralled briefly to international attention as images of escaped zoo animals - including a bear, a tiger, a hippopotamus and a wolf - roaming the city streets after major flash flooding of the Vere River, saturated the media. Damage to western neighbourhoods was extensive, with the loss of at least 20 lives, but fortunately the charming historic centre of the city, dramatically situated on the banks of the swiftly flowing Mtkvari (Kura) River (of which the Vere is a right tributary), appears to have escaped harm.

According to legend, Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century CE by King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of Iberia after a hunting trip led him to the hot sulphur springs from which the city takes its name (‘Tbilisi’ being Georgian for ‘the site of warm springs’). Located in the heart of the Caucasus, Tbilisi has had a tumultuous history, falling under Arab, Persian, Russian and Soviet rule, until Georgian independence was finally declared in 1991, and it is really only in the last few years that adventurous travellers have started to rediscover the delights of this surprising city.

The logical starting point for any tour of the city is Freedom Square (Tavisuplebis Moedani), formerly Lenin Square in the Soviet era, from which a statue of Lenin was symbolically toppled in August 1991. In 2006 the Liberty Monument was unveiled in the centre of the square - a 35 m-high granite column bearing a golden statue of St George slaying the dragon, donated to the city by its creator, the Georgian-born sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli. Patron Saint of the nation of Georgia, St George is considered by many Georgians to symbolise national liberation. Bordering the square on its southern side is the City Hall, originally built under Imperial Russian rule in the 1830s but re-modelled and enlarged several times. The conveniently located and comfortable Marriott Courtyard Hotel is located on the western side of Freedom Square.

The quaint, narrow streets of Tbilisi’s medieval Old Town are easily explored on foot. The surviving buildings date mainly from the 19th century, after Tbilisi’s devastating destruction at the hands of the Persian Qajars in 1795 and sadly have been badly neglected due to a lack of resources. From the lower left corner of Freedom Square, head towards the river, following Aleksandr Puskin Street which seamlessly turns into Baratshvili Street. On the left is a section of the old city wall overgrown with vines, above which are crumbling residences with ornate timber balconies. After the first break in the wall, turn left at the pedestrianised Shaveteli Street, which brings you to the leaning Rezo Gabriadze Clock Tower, a wondrous creation by a Georgian puppeteer, who also designed the quirky interior of the adjacent café.

Next door is the 6th century Anchiskhati basilica, Tbilisi’s oldest surviving church, constructed by King Dachi, the son of Tbilisi’s legendary founder, King Gorgasali of Iberia,. Although originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church takes its name from a precious icon created by the 12th-century goldsmith Beka Opizari, which was removed from the Ancha monastery in Klarjeti (now part of modern Turkey) in the 17th century and brought to Tbilisi to protect it from the Ottomans. The church is a three-naved basilica and has been rebuilt and restored on several occasions. The frescoes in the church date mainly from the 19th century, but during restoration work, traces were found of 17th century paintings underneath. The brick bell tower to the west of the church was built in 1675.

Continue along Shavteli Street to the leafy park at the end (Erekle Mooedani), then follow Erekle II Street with its cafés and carpet shops until you reach the Sioni Cathedral. This Cathedral traces its origins to the 6th and 7th centuries and was the seat of the ruling Catholicos-Patriarchs of the Georgian Orthodox church until 2004. The Cathedral was completely rebuilt by King David the Builder in 1112, whose design became the basic plan for the existing building. It was damaged in 1226 during an attack by Mongols and was restored by King Alexander I.

The annexation of Georgia into the Russian Empire was announced in Sioni Cathedral in 1802, when General Karl von Knorring, the Russian commander in chief in Georgia, presented the manifesto to the assembled Georgian nobility and required them to take an oath to the Russian Imperial Crown. The Cathedral remained functional throughout the Soviet era. To the left of the altar is a replica of the its most sacred relic – the cross of St Nino which, according to legend, is made from vine branches bound with the Saint’s own hair.


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