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Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, is full of rugged charm and brimming with history

A statue of St. George slaying the dragon tops the 115-foot-tall monument on Tbilisi, Georgia's Freedom Square. The statue, 18 feet tall, is of bronze covered with gold. The monument was unveiled in 2006.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By MICHAEL ABRAMS | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 22, 2015

Despite the country’s geographical location on the edge of southwest Asia, most Georgians consider themselves European. They are part of UEFA, the European soccer federation, and would like to be part of the European Union and NATO.

No matter how it’s classified, a visit to the country and its capital Tbilisi reveals that over the centuries it has been on the crossroads of east and west. Its lands were invaded over the centuries by Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols, and in the 20th Century, it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Independent again since 1991, Georgia is a fascinating place to visit.

Tbilisi, the capital, is home to more than a million people, and really can’t be seen in a day.

But I had less than a day to sightsee during a recent business trip. When an afternoon of appointments fell through, I grabbed a camera and was off to see what I could.

Strolling down busy Rustaveli Avenue past Freedom Square with its golden statue of St. George slaying the dragon, I entered the warren of narrow streets that make up Tbilisi’s Old Town.

Meandering along, I passed shops selling fruit and churchkhela, a sausage-shaped Georgian candy specialty. Cafes and restaurants lined the road. Small squares punctuate the area with shady trees.

I crossed the Kura River on Hundred Thousand Holy Georgian Martyrs Metekhi Bridge — could there be a cooler name? — and walked up the hill to Metekhi Church with the equestrian statue in front of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, who founded Tbilisi. From here, there is a good view up the river and across it toward Narikala Fortress.

Back down the hill, walking through the riverside Rike park, I came to the ultra modern Concert Hall and Exhibition Center, and a statue of Ronald Reagan sitting on a bench.

Re-crossing the river — which is also known as the Mtkvari — on the steel and glass pedestrian Peace Bridge, I dove back into the old town. Walking past the city’s bathhouses I wound my way uphill to Narikala Fortress. First built in the fourth century by the Persians, what is left of it today dates to the 16th and 17th centuries. There is not really much to see in the fortress, but from here there is another great view across the city. Not far from here is the 66-foot statue that overlooks Tbilisi, known as Mother of Georgia.

Orthodox Christians make up most of the population of Tbilisi, but walking through the Old Town, you come past one of the city’s two synagogues and its only functioning mosque.

All that glitters is not gold in the capital. Despite the shiny new buildings, the glass cupola of the presidential palace and the gold dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, much of Tbilisi has a run-down look. Ramshackle wood and plaster houses, many in Ottoman style, painted in pink or blue or green line the narrow lanes of the old town, giving it a certain rugged charm.

It is an enticing city.

abrams.mike@stripes.com


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