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touristing in Tbilisi

Tbilisi is not a beautiful city in the way that some European capitals are, but it has plenty of charm and is not to be missed if one plans to spend time in the Caucuses. By the time D had a chance to walk around and see the main sights, he had spent the better part of a week in the Georgian capital and developed a feel for the city, which is equal parts bustling metropolis and ancient reliquary ensconced in a crumbling post-Soviet shell.

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D’s mother asked him if Tbilisi was dangerous. She had visited as a schoolgirl in the 1970’s and the KGB agents who had accompanied her class repeatedly warned the girls about the dangers of Georgia that might befall them if they strayed from the group. However perilous Tbilisi might have been for a lone Soviet schoolgirl, D could find no indication of insecurity.

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The Embassy is sadly located on the outskirts of town, and one of D’s predecessors had the misfortune of being roomed in a nearby residence that was part of the Embassy housing pool. D, on the other hand, spent his TDY in a hotel in Freedom Square. This meant a commute to work, which in the evenings stretched to three quarters of an hour in heavy traffic. This small inconvenience was easily outweighed by the hotel’s central location, which placed D within walking distance of any number of excellent restaurants and enabled him to go sightseeing easily on the weekends.

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Freedom Square joins the two parts of Tbilisi that are most worth seeing. Running to the northwest is Shota Rustaveli Street, the artery of modern Tbilisi, which features the stunning opera house, the parliament building, museums, and theaters. Going east towards the river, one plunges into the heart of old Tbilisi, a historical center replete with ancient places of worship, wine tasting shops, art galleries, and small cafes.

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D dedicated one full day to sightseeing, which proved enough to walk up and down Shota Rustaveli, cross and recross the maze of crooked streets that comprise old town, visit more nearly identical orthodox churches than is probably advisable, see some of the less well-preserved neighborhoods on the right bank of the Mtkvari River, and climb up to the ruins of the Narikala fortress, which dominates the Tbilisi skyline.

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We have noted elsewhere the extent to which the Georgian Orthodox Church influences the lives of its adherents. One would be forgiven for thinking that nearly every hilltop with a view around the country is occupied by a church. In fact, Georgia is the only country D has visited where construction of new religious buildings — spurred no doubt by the collapse of the Soviet Union — is such a booming industry. While Christianity reigns supreme, D also had the opportunity to pay a visit to both a synagogue and a mosque in Tbilisi’s old town.

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There were a few Tbilisi experiences that D passed up despite spending three weeks in the Georgian capital. He did not go to the baths; Tbilisi owes its name to the old Georgian word “tpili,” which means “warm” and refers to the area’s numerous sulfuric hot springs. And D likewise skipped the ballet, opera, and the city’s museums, even though they all receive high marks from visitors. With the exception of the marionette theater, which piqued D’s interest but was sadly on a month-long tour abroad, he was not particularly keen on frequenting any of these places alone.

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In fact, touring Tbilisi alone may well be the main downside of paying a visit to the Georgian capital. Without a doubt, the best part of any visit to Georgia is its food, and it’s nearly impossible to enjoy an honest Georgian meal without a small army of companions. D found one restaurant that offered modern takes on traditional Georgian cuisine in moderately-sized portions. Dining at any traditional Georgian restaurant meant leaving at least half of the food untouched, which may be in keeping with Georgian customs, but is still difficult to swallow as a foreigner.

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