We were fortunate (again!) to partner with Urban Adventures for their Tbilisi Traditions Walking Tour. While they sponsored our adventure, all opinions are our own.
We try to take part in walking tours wherever we go and to do them almost right away when we get there. We find it's a great way to get your bearings and some inside tips on where to eat, what to see and just what the vibe of the place is before you try to sink your teeth in on your own. And so it was that we took not just one but two walking tours of Tbilisi back to back.
We had booked the Intrepid Urban Adventures: Tbilisi Traditions walking tour in advance of our arrival here in Tbilisi. Once we got here, we found that a free walking tour was available and thought, why not take both?! Our second thought was: this is a little like eating dinner before you meet friends at a restaurant...for dinner.
Surely they will visit different sites and we will have different experiences. This was mostly true, but there was some overlap. We are truly glad we did both. We got to see some of the same things but with vastly different discussions. The free tour was in a huge group and the Urban Adventures tour was on our own. We also got to finish the Urban Adventures tour with a fantastic lunch, but more about that in a bit.
It was on a rainy Wednesday morning that Zac and I headed up to the Metekhi Church to meet up with our guide. We are perpetually early and had been warned that Georgians are not so much into the whole "being on time" thing, but not our guide Giorgi! He was already there and ready to start the day. We walked over to the edge of the site and gazed out upon the city of Tbilisi.
What you can see from this vantage point are really the beginnings of the city and how it has spread over the centuries. You can spot the well located but total rubble that is the 4th C Narikala Fortress. Total rubble because it's been destroyed numerous times over the years by both man and nature.
When you are up on this hill you can really see how far the city spreads and have a good sense of where all the people live. We hadn't experienced the true spread of the city before and were a bit surprised to see long bands of Soviet style block houses on the horizon and threading through Tbilisi.
We asked Giorgi many more questions about modern life in Tbilisi than about historical facts (where do the real people live?). He was really great with answering the many questions we asked him and we were shocked to find out just how big Tbilisi really is! There are approx. 1.5 million people living in Tbilisi proper while there are about 4.3 million in the country in total.
The rain started coming in spurts which just made for a really slippery walk as we headed back down into the old city of Tbilisi. We stopped in front of the pheasant statue that marks the square in front of the sulphur baths. We grilled Giorgi some more on which baths to choose but sadly, he doesn't partake and had no suggestions for us.
On we went up, up, up the hill to see the Narikala Fortress up close. Giorgi was a little surprised by a closure on our path but we remained undaunted. We swiftly continued through despite the warning to not proceed and he explained that this was his first tour of the season so some routes had changed a little bit. It seems that there are about a dozen different ways to get anywhere in Tbilisi!
We then started talking about being a tour guide and what he likes so well about it. He had a lot of great energy and talked about how much he likes to show people the country and interact with his clients. It was super obvious that Giorgi loves what he is doing and feels a great sense of pride in Georgia. I should note that the rain made the very steep granite paved hills and streets extremely slippery. My shoes were having a difficult time and I kept losing my footing. Giorgi was so kind as to offer his arm and help guide my slippery, clumsy self down the cobbles; this despite the fact I could have taken him down with me if I fell. He mentioned several times that the slippery stones were to be seen more as an opportunity for adventure, as something different and therefore more exciting than dry stones. His optimism was contagious. Falling averted, we made it to the bottom and continued our discussions and the tour.
As we headed down from the fortress area and our discussion of the many invaders and occupiers of Russia, we leveled out and headed for the Sioni Cathedral, the oldest church in Tbilisi. On our way, we started asking questions about Georgia's plans to join the European Union.
Giorgi took all of our questions in stride and was eager to answer. It's great to hear about how Georgians feel admission to the EU would change their lives and see what they think benefits of joining will be even as Britain exits. One of the points Giorgi mentioned and we heard repeated since, is that joining the EU will bring some security against additional advances and occupations by Russia. This is a very real threat in Georgia and is more of a concern than the economy. Russia has already occupied two sections of Georgia, so we can see why this would be among their most important issues.
We grilled him some more on current Georgian life and learned the government is putting in measures to prohibit smoking in restaurants in September and then measures to curb pollution from cars and trucks. Both are very real issues if you spend any time walking in Tbilisi. The very air smells like cigarettes, even when there is nobody around. Giorgi seemed to think these would be welcome changes to the Georgian people and that they would embrace the changes. We hope so too because this would make Georgia even more spectacular than it already is.
On our way to the church we suddenly stopped in front of this sort of indistinct building. It wasn't until Giorgi pointed out this statue over the doorway that we understood why we were stopping here. Giorgi went into the tale of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. Zac and I just sort of looked at each other blank faced as the bits of the tale Giorgi was telling sort of rang a bell but then also did not. Even though this is Greek mythology the reason the statue is in Georgia is that Georgia is Colchis (the region the winged ram returned with Phrixus in order to save him from sacrifice). I know, that's totally not telling the whole story but we need to get back to the tour sometime and this is a long tale.
As we stood gazing at the statue and listening to Giorgi, Zac noticed a doorway and several older women coming up and down some stairs. His enquiry lead Giorgi to explain that this was the oldest bakery in Tbilisi. Of course we had to check this out so headed down the stairs. We decided not to buy anything since we were heading to lunch in a bit but promised to be back.
So off to the Scioni Cathedral. We had previously been here, but were happy to be back. This time I remembered my headscarf and we headed in. Zac went wandering a bit and Giorgi was telling me about how in the Georgian churches the altars are flanked on either side by images of Mary on the left and Jesus on the right. On the sides of these icons are usually other icons depicting the saint or the figure of focus for the particular church. I love details like this! There was quite a bit of action in the church as we saw much praying, kissing of icons, and the priest was chanting and wafting incense.
We were on our way to our wine tasting but found ourselves in front of the Rezo Gabriadze Theater. There's a clock here that looks super janky and old, but really is not. However, it is a big tourist attraction because the clock has animatronics which ring in the noonish hour. There was a huge crowd with cameras lifted and smiles on their faces so we all looked at our phones to see that it must be noon. Sure enough our clocks all showed 1 minute to noon, but we quickly realized the Gabriadze clock showed 12:05. The door to the animation was closing. We missed it! Oh well. It wasn't really a stop on the tour anyway but was hilarious to be just a few minutes off. This happens to us frequently. You can see in the first few seconds of the video that the door to the clock is closing, but Zac kept eagerly recording.
We continued on our way to the wine tasting and then lunch. The wine tasting was at a new location for Giorgi so he had to do a little sleuthing to find out where it was and ensure they were ready for us. Lucky for us, the tasting was at Vino Underground. I say lucky for us because we had this place marked on our "go to" list and were really excited to try their amazing organic wines. The woman helping us was super kind and passionate about her product. We were tasting two wines as part of the tour but as we expressed such interest and excitement in what we were drinking, she kindly gave us a third. It was incredible. So much so that we returned again to this same spot for more delicious Georgian wine.
On to the last stop; lunch at Sakhi 11, a restaurant really close to where we were staying. A perfect location to end the tour! Our first reaction to the restaurant was that it felt swank and really posh. Our experience with such places led us to wonder if the food would be any good. Giorgi did a great job with ordering and satisfying my obsession with veggies. He was also super accommodating with my request to remain meat-free. No worries - we ordered khachapuri, eggplant, mushrooms and a cucumber tomato salad. It took a really long time for the dishes to arrive to the table but the food was delicious. Giorgi said this was one of the best khachapuri he's had in a while. A last coffee and tea and we bid Giorgi farewell. He was going to be guiding a large group of Dutch travelers for the next few days and we were headed straight for a nap.
The tour was a great way to get around and see the city. For us, it wasn't super history focused but rather more focused on current issues. This was probably due to us having already been on a walking tour and hearing some history but also our curiosity about how real people live in Tbilisi. It was great to have someone as flexible as Giorgi because he was able to move from topic to topic and deal with whatever we threw at him. We got off topic and off the tour a bit, but that's why we enjoyed it so much. Without that, it would have been any other tour!
Thanks again to Urban Adventures for sponsoring us on such a fine day. If you are ever in the market for a walking tour, these are your people. Just make sure you show up hungry. As always, our opinions are our own.