Instead of risking ending up as CNN's resident tourist on the scene, we were thus re-routed to Tbilisi, Georgia. My first reaction was delight with this chance to add to my Country Count (#84, Baby!). The rampant tales I'd heard about the exceptional quality of Georgian wines factored into my excitement, as well. But based on noting more than misguided speculation, I expected the capital city to possess the same dour grayness that inhabits most of Bishkek.
We arrived at night and found the entire city lit up like the newest addition to the Vegas Strip. There were floodlit churches glowing atop low hills, beacon-like monuments at every turn and a manically blinking TV Tower that seemed like it wanted to shoot off into space. Our hotel, the Courtyard Marriott, was in the epicenter of it all, located across from St. George, City Hall and what may have been a casino in Freedom Square. Just check out the view from my room:
I tore myself from the window long enough to join some friends for a scientifically thorough taste test of the aforementioned Georgian wines. We had to discern for ourselves if their wines were truly all that and did not want to leave any room for doubt on such an important topic. We uncorked bottle after bottle after bottle. Our findings: a definite thumbs-up, followed by a stagger, followed with a "no, no, I'm fine. But, for real, that's some good wine."
Much like us, the next morning was pretty cloudy, but since we had only one full day to explore, we grabbed a map and hit the town running (ok, perhaps it was closer to shuffling, but the point is we explored). The compact size of the town helped. The homicidal traffic and constant up and down of the hills didn't.
First, we hiked up to Narikala Fortress. Originally, it was a Persian residence in the 4th century and became the city's main fortress in the 5th. From the looks of it, the roads leading up to it have been under constant repair ever since. Actually, it is more accurate to say that the entire city is under repair, with road projects and renovations taking place everywhere you turn. I got the sense that the city knows it is on the verge of getting discovered and wants to look its best when the guests arrive. But back to the fortress... While there we entered into the Saint Nicholas Church, admired the view over the city, caught our breath and tried to communicate with the elderly lady grounds keeper who was alternately trying to panhandle and throw what I fear were gypsy curses our way.
We descended to find the site of the sulfur baths, which, and I swear I mean this as a compliment, did not stink nearly as much as I expected. Had time permitted, there was a Middle Eastern looking bath house full of little old ladies that had my name all over it. Although the communication would have been severely limited, how cool would it have been to get this glimpse into Georgian life.
Next on the itinerary was crossing the Mtkvari river and ascending yet again, this time to the shiny new (1995-2004) church upon the hill. The Holy Trinity Sameba Cathedral is visible from all points in the city and boasts the title of "largest religious building in South Caucasus". It's location took us through an older, more traditional part of the city with several farmer's markets and a few buildings that were on the losing end of a long-standing battle with both time and gravity. There were concerns expressed about how they would fare in an earthquake, but I'm thinking a big bad wolf and a half-hearted huff and/ or puff would do the job just as well.
The final part of our walk took us through a pedestrian area full of art galleries, bistros and some pretty hip-looking clubs. It was clear one day was nowhere near enough time to appreciate the lively, vibrant city of Tbilisi. Hopefully, the Kyrgish revolution will end peacefully, but in the meantime, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for at least a couple of return visits to good old #84, particularly now, that it is more than just a number to me.