My flight from Warsaw landed in Tbilisi at 4:00am, a time i am well acquainted with but after almost two days of plane travel i was bleary eyed. The sign that greets you at customs says, "Tbilisi: the city that loves you." And i felt the love, or at least, i felt welcomed. It was too dark and early to do anything, so i settled into a comfortable cafe in the airport terminal and drank coffee and smoked (inside the cafe) until the sky lightened. I haggled briefly and successfully with a man who said "i have car. I drive you," and we drove to the city. (The price: 25 lari) i wasn't able to gain access to my hostel until 9:00 so i spent 3 hours walking around the old city part of Tbilisi and around the river.
Wow. This place is awesome. Seriously, from the sleepy early morning until now, the lively evening, it is beautiful and and so incredibly interesting. My pulse quickened as i walked down the winding streets with their beautiful, dilapidated buildings, medieval-looking churches, pocket sized squares, cafes, and shops, all nestled beneath mountains dotted with more churches and imposing fortresses, along a rushing river. There are also a handful of crazy super modern architecture structures, which add to the old world charm by way of their juxtaposition.
I know what you are thinking:"your pulse quickened? Cut the hyperbole already." But it did. On first glance the whole place was just that exciting. It is that unique: not quite European, a bit middle eastern, a bit Central Asian...but wholly enchanting. And none of it feels precious or artificial. It's just...great.
First impressions aside, i was exhausted and must have looked it, bedraggled as i was, with my pack on my back, that as i stood looking up at a synagogue, a man, the caretaker, invited me in to sit. I hung out there for about an hour, chatting with the man, drinking his coffee.
After that relaxing interlude, i went to my hostel to drop off my bag. I am staying at the Old Town Hostel. I have a private room with a kitchen on the 4th floor. Shared bathroom, shared, living room area, on one of the particularly ramshackle side streets, which is, as far as i can tell, walking distance to everything.
Dropped off my bag and set off again. The day was beautiful - sunny and warm. I walked all around, stopping to have breakfast and a cigar in one of the squares. Happily the rumours are true: everyone here smokes and there are no restrictions on where they do it.
I went to so many churches today. All simple, medievally looking ones, beautifully painted on the inside and decorated with candles, urns, and gilded pictures of saints. Unfortunately, i haven't any pictures from inside the churches, as they were filled, crammed, and overflowing with worshippers. This is a religious culture. People cross themselves, just when walking past a church. Women cover their heads to enter, and everyone seemed to be going. They lit candles and incense, prayed, took communion from dramatically dressed and dramatically bearded orthodox priests, and they kissed everything: pictures of saints, the floor, the interior and exterior walls, crosses, each other... And the singing was some of the loveliest i have heard in church. Each stop was wonderful, although in some cases the best i could do was stand outside and listen, as the church was so full, that worshippers stood outside doors and windows to participate.
I also wandered around the area where the public baths are: underground, sulphur baths, both public and private where you can enjoy hot and cold pools, brutal massages and exfoliation at the hands of strong and serious men and women on stone slabs, and all the public nudity you can handle. They are fairly ancient and renowned, but i know i won't be partaking, not being comfortable with either public nudity or massages.
I hiked up one of the hills to the fortress and another church to take in the views over the city. By then though, i was beat and all of the travelling and lack of sleep caught up with me and i went back to the hostel for an overdue shower and a nap.
I have just finished a walk around many of the same areas, but now in the evening. The bars and restaurants are busy. There are a few narrow, pedestrian streets lined with cafes, bars, and lounges, all busy and at least half of them hookah lounges filed with men smoking and playing backgammon.
I'm still a bit tired, so i have opted for a quieter bar/restaurant where i am enjoying a glass of Georgian wine and a cigar, just a fews steps away from the louder, busier places, where they are playing a loud mis of middle eastern music, techno, and hirs of the 1990s.
There is still so much so see and explore. This is only day one. I am already so happy i came here. Tbilisi says it loves me. Is it premature to say i love it back?