Georgia on your mind?
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“I’m off to Georgia” I told the
neighbours, then had to explain that I meant the country, not the American
state of the same name.
My destination was the capital, Tbilisi,
but I went via Astana in Kazakhstan. I’d visited last year so was delighted to
renew my acquaintance with the world’s weirdest, and newest, capital city with
its geometric grid-shaped road pattern. Tbilisi, on the other hand, is so very
different – old buildings and roads with bends in them.
My flights were comfortable and the
service excellent. No wonder Air Astana has won ‘Best airline in central Asia
and India’ for the last six years.
On the way from Tbilisi airport to the
hotel I noticed that some of the roads were not in great condition and the
driving, well perhaps ‘undisciplined’ might be a polite description. However, I
reached the Mercure Old Town hotel safely. My room was excellent with one of
the most comfortable beds I have slept in. Outside there was a patio with swinging
chair and gardens that were floodlit at night. The hotel is centrally located
and the staff extremely helpful.
Tired from travelling I was not really
in the mood for much more but I was taken to Tsiskvili. This is not just a
restaurant but an entire Georgian experience – a feast with great
entertainment. I and other diners sat down to a table laden with food, not sure
how we were going to cope. What we didn’t realise was that this was just starters.
More food kept arriving, musicians played and dancers danced, all in a lovely
riverside setting. If you go, skip lunch, perhaps for several days.
Next morning, after the lightest of
breakfasts, except that I’m a sucker for chocolate croissants, I set off for
the cave town of Uflistsikhe. Built high on a cliff in Kartli and overlooking the Mtkvari River
it is one of the earliest settlements in Georgia, going back three thousand
years, and was a major centre in the pre-Christian era when the sun-goddess was
worshiped. With the arrival of Christianity the focus moved to Mtskheta and
Tbilisi but the town, which at its peak was home to an estimated 20,000 people,
survived. A small Christian basilica from the ninth and tenth centuries sits at
the top of the cliff.
Prior to a lunchtime Georgian feast,
this time at Mtskheta, I stopped at Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin,
leader of the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1953. Protected by a Grecian-style
structure is a small wooden house in which Stalin was born in 1878 and where he
lived for the first four years of his life. Also on display is his personal Pullman
railway carriage. Armour plated, it weighs over eighty tons. Used from 1941 it
was this carriage that took him to the Yalta Conference in 1945 where he met
with Roosevelt and Churchill to plan the shape of post-was Europe.
Mtskheta itself is hugely important to
the Georgian people and their history. Dating back to the fifth century BC, it
was the capital of Georgia for eight hundred years. A small but bustling town,
it’s popular with visitors. Shops selling souvenirs, local produce and more
line the main street. The town in
dominated by the Svetitskoveli cathedral. The first cathedral on the site was
built in the fourth century but the present structure was built some seven
hundred years later. Subject to numerous invasions, the cathedral features a
Legend has it that Jesus’s robe is
buried here. It’s claimed a local Jew, Elias, was in Jerusalem when Jesus was
crucified, purchased the robe from a soldier and brought it home with him where
he was met by his sister Sidonia. She was so overcome with emotion when
touching the robe that she died and was buried with the robe.
Then it was back to explore Tbilisi. The
city got its name from the old Georgian word ‘tbili’ meaning ‘warm’ and is a
reference to the hot sulphur springs producing three million litres a day that
have led to a building of a number of spa bath houses. It sits astride the Mtkvari
River and is almost completely surrounded by mountains. Perhaps the most
spectacular of the river crossings is the Peace Bridge, a pedestrian bridge
covered in a bow-shaped steel and glass structure. It has thousands of small
LED lights which illuminate it at night. Another river crossing worth seeing is
the Baratashvili Bridge, named after the poet Nikoloz Baratashvili. The bridge
contains a number of bronze statues of stylised people looking along the river,
sitting on the edge of the bridge and more.
Overlooking the river is a rocky
outcrop, one of the earliest inhabited areas of the city. King Vakhtang Gorgasali
erected a palace and church here in the fifth century and there is a statue of
him mounted on a horse next to the Metekhi Church, erected on the same site and
dating back to the 13th century, although it has been restored on a
number of occasions since then.
The main street is the mile-long Rustaveli
Avenue which starts at Freedom Square. It’s home to the state Opera and Ballet
Theatre, Rustaveli cinema, Youth Palace and the old Parliament building. It
also has many shops and restaurants.
Tbilisi has a famous funicular railway
which takes passengers up to Mtatsminda, 700 meters above sea level, where there
is a large amusement park and restaurants. That evening I had dinner on a
terrace overlooking the city – yet another Georgian feast.
It was time to go home; I was beginning
to wonder if my clothes would ever fit me again.
Air Astana offers return flights between Heathrow and Astana from £495 and return flights between Astana and Tbilisi from £215. All flights and accommodation can be booked through Air Astana. In addition, from 11 September, Air Astana offers a stop-over in Astana with transfers and hotel on a B&B basis for just $1 for the first night. Additional nights at standard rates. Go to www.airastana.com/uk/en-US Tel: 020 7644 6121 Mon-Fri, 0900–1730.
I Love Meet & Greet provides valet parking at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports. For more details and to book please visit www.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk where you can also sign up to receive discount codes via email.
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