On January 1st 2023 I embarked on a trip to explore more of Eastern Europe. My trip will bring me to the cities of Tbilisi (Georgia), Baku (Azerbaijan), Dubai (UAE), and Yerevan (Armenia).
I had to take a bit of a milk run to get to Tbilisi due to it being so far East. My first flight was on an Air Canada Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner from Calgary to Frankfurt. I was originally booked in Premium Economy, however I was upgraded to Air Canada’s Signature Class for a couple hundred dollars. After arriving in Frankfurt I was prepared for the usual chaos of having to clear security, then passport control, and then security, however they appeared to have changed things since I last visited. You now just have to clear passport control, which was a breeze. Despite only having 1.25 hours to connect to my next flight to Warsaw, I had ample time.
The next flight to Warsaw was on a 28 year old Lufthansa A321. I was upgraded to the front area (for free), which has significantly more leg room. The 1.25 hour flight was a bit turbulent at the beginning, however smoothed out afterwards.
In Warsaw I had a nearly 9 hour layover, so I checked into the Courtyard by Marriot at the airport. The room was only $70, which is quite the bargain, however we have to consider that Poland is still fairly poor compared to Canada, so the prices are reflective of this. I slept for about 6 hours, which felt amazing.
It was then time to walk across the street back into the airport. There was no lineup at security so I probably could have slept for another hour, however I didn’t know what I would be in store for and didn’t want to chance it. I found a quiet spot in the airport and did some work until it was time to board my last flight to Tbilisi, Georgia on a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8. The flight was about 3.5 hours and was one of the smoothest flights I had been on in years. It was really neat to fly over the Black Sea and see Russia on one side of the plane, and Turkey on the other side of the plane.
When I arrived in Tbilisi I picked up my rental car, a fairly old Renault Duster with nearly 200,000km on it. Apparently, this is quite common in Georgia to have older rental cars. When we were filling out the paperwork for the car the Alamo rental car agent ran out of room to mark up all the scratches and dents on the car. I would soon find out why this was the case, as the vast majority of roads don’t have line markings and people are fairly crazy drivers.
Before we dive into my adventures in Georgia, let’s take a brief look at the history of Georgia, and then at the history of Tbilisi.
The Kingdom of Georgia was very unified as a kingdom under the Bagrationi Dynasty by King Bagrat III in the early 11th century, after a number of predecessor states of the ancient kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia. The Kingdom of Georgia grew an immense amount under the ruling of King David IV and Queen Tamar The Great the Builder between the 10th and 12th centuries. By 1490, Georgia was split up into many small kingdoms and principalities, which struggled to maintain their autonomy against the Ottoman and Iranian empires, until they were finally annexed by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. After a brief independence with the Democratic Republic of Georgia between 1918 and 1921, Georgia was part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic between 1922 and 1936, and was then formed into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The current republic of Georgia has maintained it’s independence since 1991.
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was the starting point of my second Eastern Europe trip. The name Tbilisi is derived from the word “tpili”, which means warm. The city was given its name because of the areas surrounding sulfuric hot springs. The city was originally named Tiflis until 1946, when it was ordered by the Soviet leadership to use official Russian names that closely match the local language, in which it was renamed T’pilisi, or Tbilisi in English. The capital city was founded in 455 AD, and is home to 1.2 million people.
After picking up the car I drove to my first stop; the Chronicle of Georgia. The Chronicle of Georgia is a historical monument located near the Tbilisi Sea, which is not actually a real sea, but rather a man-made artificial lake. It was created by Zurab Tsereteli in 1985, however was never officially finished. The monument sits at the top of a large set of stairs and contains 16 pillars that are 30-35 metres tall, with the top half featuring kings, queens, and heroes, and the bottom half depicting stories from the life of Christ. There is also a chapel, and a cross of St. Nino. The reason why the monument was never finished was likely due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The views from the top were breathtaking.
Next stop was the Former Archaeology Museum, which is a fantastic example of Soviet architecture. The museum was established in 1988 by Georgian archeologist Rostom Abramishvili. The museum houses monuments that were discovered by archeological excavations in Tbilisi. Sadly, the museum hasn’t been operational since at least 2017, and it’s hard to find information online as to when it shut down. There was about a dozen stray dogs here that were barking a fair amount and approaching me, so I didn’t stay too long.
It was then time to leave the city for a bit to explore some Monastery’s and a Cathedral. The first monastery was Jvari Monastery. Jvari Monastery is a sixth-century Georgian Orthodox monastery located near the historic town of Mtskheta, Georgia. It is a recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. Jvari is a rare example of the Early Medieval Georgian style that survives to this day, relatively unchanged. It was built atop of Jvari Mountain, which stands 656 metres above sea level overlooking the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, and the town of Mtskheta. In the 4th century Saint Nino, a female evangelist erected a large wooden cross on the tie of a pagan temple. The cross reportedly was able to work miracles on the locals and drew people from all over the area. A small church was eventually erected over the remnants of the wooden cross in 545 AD during the ruling of Guaram I, and named the Small Church of Jvari. The small church wasn’t able to satisfy the needs of the huge influx of Pilgrims, so the present building, known as the Greg Church of Jvari, was built between 590 and 605 AD by Guarum’s son Erismtavari Stepanoz I. In 914 the church was set alight by the Arabs, and was able to survive with only minor repairs. The importance of the complex increased over the time, and was fortified many times, especially during the Middle Ages, with the introduction of a stone wall and gate, many of which still survive.
Georgia is home to a very unique scenario where the White Aragvi and the Black Aragvi rivers meet, however don’t technically combine. You can see this from the top of Jvari Monastery. The rivers both have their unique colours, and don’t really truly mix or combine. I can only think of one other confluence like this, which is the Rio Negro and the Amazon River meeting in Brazil.
Also, from the top of Jvari Monastery you can see my next stop, which was Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which was about a 15 minute drive away. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is an Orthodox Christian cathedral located in the historic town of Mtskheta, Georgia. The cathedral is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. The cathedral dates back to the 4th century, and is currently the second largest church in Georgia, after the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Throughout the centuries the cathedral served as the burial place for kings. The current structure on site was completed between 1010 and 1029 AD by the medieval Georgian architect Konstantine Arsukisdze.
The final monastery for the day was Shiomgvime Monastery, a medieval monastic complex near the town of Mtskheta. It is located in a narrow limestone canyon on the northern bank of the Kura River, which also flows through Tbilisi. The history of the monastery dates back to about the 6th century when Monk Shio setup the monastery. The earliest building, the Monastery of St. John the Baptist, dates back to 560-580 AD. The church has an octagonal dome covered with a conic floor. The monastery underwent many changes throughout the 11th and 18th centuries, however it has largely maintained its original structure. An archaeological expedition revealed in 1937 a 2 km (1.2 mile) long aqueduct supplying the monastic communities of the nearby village of Skhaltba. The aqueduct was constructed by Bishop Anton of Chkondidi in 1202.
I noticed early on after leaving the airport that my phone wasn’t getting any data signals, which was making it hard to navigate, so I decided that it was best to get a local sim card. I stopped at a Beeline location and picked up a 2GB sim card for $4. I had to wait about 40 minutes in line, and submit my passport, but it was worth it being back on the grid.
I then ventured out again about an hours drive away from Tbilisi to Didgori Battle Memorial and Memorial Estate Statue. Wow, what a drive that was going through the mountains. It’s extremely beautiful in the Georgian mountains. The Didgori Battle Memorial is dedicated to one of the most famous battles in Georgian History, the Battle of Didgori. IN 1121, the king David the Builder won the great victory in the Battle of Didgori against numerous Turkish-Seljuk armies.
Close by is St. George Church, although I couldn’t find much information on the church. It is a small domed church that looks to be built relatively recently.
Continuing along my drive I completed a loop back into Tbilisi from the South side. The decent back into Tbilisi provided incredible views of the city below. I stopped to enjoy the view, and also saw an interesting old bus that was setup on the side of the road as a display piece.
I dropped off the vehicle and settled into my hotel; Hotel Myriam-R. The hotel looked nicer online that it did in person, but provided a clean and comfortable bed. After checking into the hotel I walked around Old Tbilisi for a while, but I won’t go into detail of the buildings I saw until tomorrow when I cover them in more detail.
It was eventually time for dinner. I ended up having Khachapuri, also known as Gerogian Cheese Bread, at a restaurant called Kebab House. Khachapuri is a warm boat-shaped yeast bread stuffed with multiple kinds of cheese and features a runny egg in the center. It was delicious!
It was about 8:30pm by the time I got back to my hotel room. I was barely able to keep my eyes open so I went to bed. I was woken up fairly regularly throughout the night with the noise of fire crackers going off, however it settled down around 3:00am. This is apparently a common issue in Tbilisi and they’re trying to crack down on it. I find it extremely inconsiderate, however I’m becoming a grumpy old man that doesn’t like noise.