Submerged in a pool of sulphurous water, I look across to a granite bed, where an unsuspecting victim is getting sudsed and scrubbed to within an inch of her life, and I think to myself, ‘That’ll be me in a few minutes’. Well, at least, I’ll be in good company, I muse. Famous patrons have graced those granite slabs, including Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dumas.
I happen to be hanging out (quite literally) at one of the most historically significant places in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital: the Sulphur Baths. Legend has it that the city was founded when King Vakhtang I of Iberia shot a pheasant into a spring here while hunting. Henceforth, the city was built on thermal waters (Tbili translates as warm in Georgian), which continue to spring from the ground at about 40°C.
Evergreen hills dotted with ancient fortresses and buildings is a common sight in Tbilisi, and its architecture has Byzantine, Ottoman and Iranian roots.
Today there are just five baths in the city, clustered in the Abanotubani district on the south side of Metekhi Bridge, but at the height of the Silk Road trading, the city had some 63 baths. You can’t really miss them – distinctive rows of low cupolas pump out hot steam pretty much 24x7 and sulphurous scents linger in the air.
It’s easy to see why locals describe the city as the balcony of Europe. Teetering on the craggy cliffs above the baths are colourful houses, made distinctive by their filigree-like wood carved balconies. Despite being a little battle-weary, Tbilisi, and Georgia for that matter, is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s hottest destinations to visit in 2016. Not to be confused with the southern American state, Georgia is tucked between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, bordering on Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. And despite its turbulent past (this a land that has been fought over by countless empires and monarchs, and was occupied for most of the last century by Soviets), the city is as resilient as ever.
In my book, any place that has been destroyed and rebuilt 29 times since the 5th century AD deserves a visit. You only need to go to Old Tbilisi, where a haphazard blend of communist, classic and new architecture – including Byzantine, Iranian, Ottoman and Soviet – prevails, to appreciate its history.
Scrubbed squeaky clean, and revived from my eye-wateringly early morning flight from Dubai with flydubai, I was pumped with energy and decide to make the thigh-busting hike up to the famous Narikala fortress, which stands proud on the Sololaki ridge surrounded by green rolling hills. Climbing up the steep and winding Sololaki Hill past grapevine-adorned houses, I contemplate the name Narikala, which means inaccessible fortress, and for a split second, consider turning back. But then, I’m overtaken by a couple of silver-foxed locals, and decide to power on.
Boy, was it worth it. With panoramic views over the entire city, and beyond to the Caucasus Mountains, there is no better place to get your bearings on beautiful Tbilisi, which is surrounded by mountains on three sides. Flowing through its heart is the Mtkvari River, which marks a natural border between Tbilisi’s old town and modern centre, and continues on to Azerbaijan before entering the Caspian Sea.
From the top, I can see the Sameba Cathedral on Elia Hill, glistening like gold. It is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks and includes some 10 churches, and a dome at a gravity-defying 105m high. Next door is the controversially designed Presidential Palace, which boasts an oversized egg-shaped glass dome crafted by the Bridge of Peace’s architect, Michele De Lucchi.
Having had my fill of viewing the city through my camera lens, I was ready to check it out at closer range. And first on my list was Old Tbilisi, arguably the most venerable part of the city. I meander down Sololaki Hill and find myself in an Asian and Arab maze of higgledy-piggledy architecture within minutes, the start of the Old Town.
I end up losing myself in a maze of dusty alleyways called kalas that wind past old Armenian churches, mansions (some crumbling, some restored) with exquisitely crafted doors, the odd stray cat and some beautiful art nouveau buildings. Forget Google maps – getting lost in Tbilisi’s heritage district is part of its charm. Most kalas lead to leafy courtyards framed by crooked old houses that offer refuge from the sun, as well as a nice spot to grab some fresh bread from one of the hidden underground bakeries.
Stomach grumbling, it’s time for lunch, which, in Georgia, is a long drawn-out affair. Famous for its food, hospitality and clog-your-arteries fare, be prepared to put on a few Georgian kilos while you’re here!
Loaded with cheese, bread, and rich stews, traditional Georgian cuisine is a mash-up of European and Middle Eastern influences. The national dish is khinkali, a dumpling filled with spiced meat like beef or lamb. But the dish you can’t return home without trying is khachapuri. I settle down at a local café and order the gooey cheese-filled bread, which is topped with a raw egg (optional), and a side of eggplants with walnuts and garlic called badrijani. It’s food like this that restores your faith in the world, and feeling revived, I decide to hop into a cab to visit Freedom Square.
Most famous for being the location of mass demonstrations and the site of the 1907 Tiflis Bank Robbery, the centre of the square is occupied by the gleaming gold St George Statue or the Freedom Monument. It’s a poignant landmark that reminds us of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The square also marks the beginning of one of the capital city’s most famous arteries – Rustaveli Avenue. Reflective of Tbilisi’s more contemporary character, it’s a European-style boulevard, and as I stroll down, my eyes dart between fancy boutiques, art galleries, sidewalk bands and glittering architectural marvels like the Georgian National Opera Theater, the high-arched Georgian Parliament and the Georgian National Museum.
You could happily while away an afternoon people-watching, museum-hopping and window-shopping on Rustaveli, but I’m on a mission to shop up a storm at the city’s most famous open-air flea market, Dry Bridge, which is open daily, but really comes into its own at weekends.
A brisk 20 minutes later, I arrive at my pocket-purging destination, where Georgians, Azeris and Armenians sell their wares in a bustling bazaar set up on the bridge. You can pick up all manner of tourist trinkets, from old Soviet-era relics and porcelain tableware to Georgian instruments and antique furniture.
For a more sedate shopping experience, make your way through the leafy park under the bridge, where you can pick up paintings and local textiles from stalls that stretch along the river, and watch locals play dominoes in the shade. I splurge my laris (the local currency) on a couple of decorative trinkets, and find my way back to Rustaveli, continuing north until I reach my digs for the night – Rooms Hotel Tbilisi in the artsy Vera neighbourhood.
A former publishing house during Soviet rule, the eight-storey building certainly makes a striking first impression.
I am whisked into the reception past a stylish and very well-stocked library, and instantly feel transported to 1930s New York. Maybe it’s the exposed brick walls, or the antique Persian rugs and customised leather furniture, but I love the gentlemen’s club vibe.
The decadence doesn’t end there. My room is decked out in sumptuous velvety textures and silkscreen printed walls with an iron bedstead and retro touches like a rotary telephone and old-school Marshall Stanmore speakers. But the pièce de résistance is the view out over the Garden Bar, set in an industrial-chic scaffold frame, where you can watch black-and-white movies on a loop.
Leaving the fashionistas and high-society types behind (Rooms is the place to be seen!), I don my glad rags and head out for a night of Georgian dance at the Sololakis Kari restaurant.
The show is extraordinary – traditionally clad women glide like swans, while men wow with spectacular leaps and turns in a dazzling display, and remarkably dance on their toes without block shoes!
The next morning, sufficiently fuelled by The Kitchen restaurant’s never-ending buffet breakfast, I head out to be a culture vulture for the day. Georgia’s antiquity can be traced back to the 4th millennium BC, so it comes as no surprise that there are a plethora of museums you can visit to swot up on all that incredible history.
Close to Turtle Lake and a 20-minute drive from the city is the Tbilisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography, where you can top up your tan while visiting a collection of 70 traditional houses that showcase folk architecture and craftwork from each region of the country. Don’t have time to travel the seven-hour journey to Svaneti in the north-west? No problem! You can step inside an authentic Svaneti house and Instagram to your heart’s content.
Back in the city, I continue my history lesson with a visit to Georgian National Museum, on Rustaveli Avenue.
The highlight of the three permanent collections is the Archaeological Treasury, which is crammed full of stunning millennia-old metalwork, precious stonework and pre-Christian gold.
History lesson done, I navigate my way back towards Freedom Square and turn left in the direction of the Mtkvari River, towards the space-age-like glass Bridge of Peace, which connects old Tbilisi with the new.
Built by Italian architect De Lucchi, it looks even more impressive at night during its hypnotic light show, but people flock here in the daytime to board the brand-new cable car and snap those Narikala vistas.
Keen to get a close-up of the iconic 20-metre-tall aluminium statue of Kartlis Deda, better known as the Mother of Georgia, I take the zippy cable ride and disembark at Narikala, where you can stand right below it. Clad in Georgian national dress, the statue is a defining symbol of the city, built to mark its 1,500th anniversary in 1958.
If you are hankering for yet more views, you can also take the funicular ride up to the Church of St David at the Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures, which leaves from Chonkadze Street. But I was ready for a coffee fix, so I make my way back down to the Old Town to seek out the vintage-style café Linville on Kote Abkhazi Street. A rickety staircase leads to a chintzy space with mismatched chairs and shabby-chic charm where you can settle into a cosy nook for a tea or something a little stronger.
Recharged and ready for a change of scenery, I make a beeline for the grand David Agmashenebeli Avenue, revered for its 19th-century architecture. The street is studded with shops and beautifully restored buildings in pastel hues, and several good food haunts. One of them serves up dishes from an ancient Georgian recipe book, and, with its traditional decor and ornamentation, it seems a fitting place to spend my final evening in Tbilisi. A chakhokhbili (a chicken and beef stew) and pelamushi (grape juice porridge) later, I’m giddy on Georgian hospitality. They really know how to treat their guests.