Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Georgian Series: The Capital

View from the Metekhi Church over the Mtkvari River

As I am not quite sure where to begin - I think I will just go chronologically and break it down into places, peoples, things to eat and perhaps another category or two. So let us begin at the beginning, shall we? Our story begins in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Old Soviet-style murals peeking out behind the overwhelming Coca-Cola billboard. Glasnost! Perestroyka! 

Tbilisi literally means "warm" referring to the hot springs that the area was known for. There are different versions of a similar story about King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli who was hunting in what is now the capital when he came upon the hot springs - one story has it that a pheasant he was hunting fell into the springs and was instantly cooked for dinner; another has it that a wounded dear fell into the springs and was miraculously healed. In any case, all of the explanations transmit a sense of the wondrous powers of the springs, honored in the capital's name.

The sulfur baths 
And what's a spring city with out baaaaaths. Tbilisi's famous sulfur baths, the Abanotubani, are centered around a loved little park that sits underneath the botanical garden and the Narikala Fortress. Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin both bathed here and the latter apparently raved about his bath as the best he'd ever had. With such a recommendation, I had to check it out. I stole an hour on my last day after returning to the capital following a 6 hour bus ride from the southern state of Samtskhe-Javakheti where I had been observing. A bath would be a perfect way to remove four days of dirt, SMOKE (so. much. smoke.), alcohol and general griminess from my skin. A friend of mine called ahead for me and I indulged in a private room complete with a sauna, hot pool and cold pool and it was diiivine even though the faint smell of an egg salad sandwiches wafted through the tiled room. I skipped the scrub and opted to use the last 20 minutes before the final briefing to buy a carpet because, well, I have a carpet addiction. That and I love the look on my husbands face when I bring home ANOTHER carpet. ("NOT ANOTHER ONE!!! They smell like dead camels and they hide the wooden floors!!! Ughhhh!)

Inside the bath

Ok, maybe this isn't going chronologically after all. Because the bath and carpet came at the end and what came first was Independence Day. As I mentioned before, flights in and out of Tbilisi come and go in the middle of the night. So by the time my head hit the pillow, the sun was coming up. Still, a few other observers I met in the hotel lobby and I decided to meet at 10:30 to head into town for the Independence Day parade. 

 On the way to the Independence Day parade at Freedom Square

We arrived at Freedom Square and were instantly absorbed into the mob jockeying for position. Babies sitting atop their fathers' shoulders, kids climbing up lampposts and grown men jostling for space on park benches. I stopped to take a few photos and promptly lost the entire group. Suddenly completely on my own, with no idea where I was or how to get back, I decided rather than panic I would let myself get swept up in it. The families enjoying a gorgeous spring day, the pomp and circumstance of the parade, the soldiers - rifles cast over shoulders, fatigues flawlessly pressed - running in perfect time. And then came the humvies and the tanks. And then the fighter planes and helicopters. And then the ice cream lady.

A tank rolls through Freedom Square...

After the parade wound up, I had an hour to kill before meeting Jacob for dumplings. Just me and my camera strolling through the old city.

Slowly crumbling but still reminiscent of what it once was

Although slowly crumbling in that post-Soviet way, it was still easy to see how gorgeous this city had once been - not that it isn't any more, but there is a desperate need for major restoration. In fact, a number of NGOs, and specifically the Norwegians have put a great deal of money into restoring crumbling facades and rebuilding damaged homes and buildings in the old city. And the results are stunning. Technicolor houses that jump out from the hillside next to a sagging shack.

Religious art and artifact stores on every corner in the old city

Christianity is the dominant religion here and most Georgians adhere to the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the predominantly Armenian south where I was observing elections, I was constantly reminded by proud Armenians that they were the first people in the world to convert to Christianity - or so they liked to tell me. The Armenian Apostolic Church dates back to 301 AD. 

Shops like the one picture above selling elaborate gold portraits of Jesus were quite common place. Especially near one of the numerous churches in the city.

Campaign posters plaster the walkways

The campaign was in full throttle when we arrived as mayoral candidates were to be directly elected for the first time on Sunday. Lots of shaking hands and kissing babies, cries of foul and threats to disrupt the parade from one of the main opposition parties and of course the ubiquitous campaign posters plaster every free wall and billboard in town.

Love these wooden balconies and the courtyards in between them

Tbilisi is an architecturally stunning, historically fascinating and geographically challenging city that is easy to get absorbed in as one wanders the streets of the old town. Winding up narrow alleyways toward the fortress, one is impressed by the skillfully carved wooden balconies, the 4th century Zoroastrian temple, the crumbling courtyards decked with lines of laundry. It's so charming, I was charmed. Pleased to meet you, Tbilisi. And after all this wandering up winding walking ways, serious sustenance is in order. Next in the Georgia series: the Fare. Monday! I promise!

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