Tbilisi, Georgia

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Tbilisi 02 - hello Mother GeorgiaThe capital city of Georgia, and the hub of the country. It doesn't offer much in the way of dark sites itself, except a couple of minor sights. But it is an important travel hub and base for day trips e.g. to Gori

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


What there is to see: Tbilisi may have fewer attractions of really dark nature compared to Baku, Stepanakert or especially Yerevan, but it's still an important stop of any longer trip around the Caucasus region. And it has a couple of interesting sights too.  
Possibly of minor interest to those interested in all things dark but certainly something for anyone with a taste for Soviet grand weird monuments, should be the city's "Mother Georgia" statue high on a hill (cf. the Rodina Mat statue in Kiev). It's known in Georgian as Kartlis Deda – and it can bee seen from far away, thanks to its location, even though its size isn't all that gigantic, at 20 m tall (65 feet). The shiny silver aluminium cladding can catch the light of the rising or setting sun nicely making her look like she's glowing.
In a way that is understood by some to be symbolic of the overall Georgian mind-frame, she's holding up in her left hand a cup of wine, signalling hospitality, while having a sword at the ready in her right hand, to ward off enemies. You can walk right up to her plinth from the Old Town by first taking the steep road up to the entrance of the Narikala Fortress that dominates the rest of the south-western skyline of Tbilisi. Then a footpath leads along the side of the mountain ridge all the way to Mother Georgia ... and beyond – you could also use the steep path and steps down the flank of the mountain. In summer it's advisable to do the hike well outside the steamy midday heat.
Outside the Parliament building a couple of monuments are of dark interest. Especially the one to the massacre of hunger strikers demanding independence from the Soviet Union, 20 of whom were shot by Soviet troops in April 1989. The place has also seen further dramatic historical events, esp. in 1991, when the then president Zviad Gamsakhurdia had to flee the besieged Parliament building, and more recently during the so-called "Rose revolution" of 2003.
There's a cubic sculpture around a stone with metal sides that look like intertwined arms holding each other. Very intriguing is the design of the ground around it – where several (20?) green glass plates appear to mark the locations of the dead of the massacre, vaguely reminiscent of those police crime scene chalk marks. Some are partly overlapping, and one is "lying" across three steps leading up to the Parliament building.
A bit further up Rustaveli Street there's a small plaque on the wall of a building on the corner of a side street that commemorates victims of an earlier massacre perpetrated by the Soviets against civilian demonstrators, namely in March 1956. The plaque does not mention, though, that the demonstrations has started as a reaction against the onset of de-Stalinization initiated by Khrushchev, i.e. in defence of the previous Stalin cult of personality, though they quickly mutated into wholesale anti-Soviet sentiments. The heavy-handed crushing of the riots cost between a few dozen and as many as several hundreds of lives and was an early incident that severely damaged Georgia's loyalty to Moscow. In practical terms, the crushing was a success, though, in so far as no similar protests took place for the next couple of decades.
Diagonally across the street opposite the Parliament is supposed to be a Museum of Soviet Occupation – although I didn't find it when I was there. It was either not marked sufficiently or possibly even closed at the time (as the whole National Museum apparently was at the time, under whose umbrella it is run). The opening of the museum apparently annoyed Russia's Vladimir Putin so much that he complained to Georgia's then president Mikheil Saakashvili, who allegedly replied by suggesting a corresponding museum of Georgian occupation in Moscow for which he would happily provide funds if they wanted it. Cheeky. And given the fact that Stalin was in fact Georgian, the idea isn't as 100% absurd as it at first appears … Saakashvili later had to learn that baiting the great Russian bear too much can go very wrong, as the military conflict over South Ossetia demonstrated (see also Gori war museum).
Other relics of the old Soviet days have long gone – what used to be Lenin Square with a statue of the man on top of a tall column, has been re-named Freedom Square, and Lenin has been replaced by a proud golden St. George stabbing a dragon with his lance.
More importantly for the dark tourist, however, Tbilisi serves as the gateway to Gori with its  Stalin Museum and also to other parts of the Caucasus.  
Location: in the central Caucasus valley of the Mtkvari river in the south of Georgia.
Google maps locator:[41.693,44.802]
Access and costs: a fairly easy to get to travel hub for the Caucasus; no longer quite so cheap, though.
Details: Tbilisi is the easiest of the Caucasus country's capital cities to reach overland. It's location is convenient for both travel from Armenia to the south and Azerbaijan to the east, with an overnight train to Baku providing the most convenient connection to the latter. Furthermore, you can travel into Georgia via Turkey, thus even allowing for an overland route all the way from Europe. On the other hand, few would want to go that lengthy way, and driving your own car to and inside Georgia is too adventurous to seriously recommend.
Thus most foreign tourists will fly to the Caucasus – and Tbilisi has one of the best airports for this, with a splendid terminal newly opened in 2007. There are several direct connections to various European cities, including Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris and London. Flight times are notoriously inconvenient, usually in the middle of the night. A flight attendant I got talking to in Yerevan once explained this to me as being due to climate of the Caucasus valleys which during the day can cause dangerous updrafts.
Getting around the city is made easier by the metro, which is cheap: a flat fare of 0.40 GEL regardless of the length of the journey. But it may be a bit tricky to use in so far as station signs are in Georgian only, so you either have to learn to decipher them or listen carefully for the announcements. Within the city's core areas, and certainly in and around the Old Town, your own two feet are the best mode of transport anyway. City buses and marshrutkas are more for the advanced.
Accommodation options are plentiful and cover the complete range from budget to luxury – and more hotels spring up all the time. It pays to shop around on the Internet. Note that many hotels quote their prices in USD rather than GEL and don't necessarily include the relevant taxes.
As for restaurants, there are obviously plenty of superb places offering the delightful cuisine of Georgia, some also providing live music ... and in the case of authentic Georgian folk music this can actually be genuinely interesting rather than the usual annoyance it is in other parts of the world. In the unlikely event that you end up wanting something other than Georgian dishes, there are now a few "exotic" places serving Japanese or Chinese food – or of course the ubiquitous Italian too.
Prices in tourist hotspots are slowly catching up with Western levels, but it is still possible to have a filling feast for relatively little money.
I don't normally do this a lot, but in this case I would like to pick out one particular place by name: The "KGB" bar in the slightly less touristy northern end of the Old Town pedestrianized bars and restaurants strip running from Gorgasalis Moedani to Erekle II qucha. The name already suggests it: this is one of those tongue-in-cheek "retro-Soviet" places. The walls have Soviet-era memorabilia and flags of the different constituent SSRs of the former Soviet Union hanging from the ceiling. But the place also served very decent food, including the rare treat of a South Ossetian variety of khachapuri (with mashed potato filling). And they had the best range of Georgian wines also by the glass that I encountered in the city (though it's not necessarily cheap).
Staff speak English, and there are also English-language menus. The bill at the end is presented in an old communist party membership book cover … Contrary to my normal ambition of trying as many different new places as possible when I'm in a new city, I went back to the KGB twice.   
Time required: At least a couple of days, more if using the city as a base for day (or overnight) excursions to other parts of Georgia.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Tbilisi is within easy day excursion reach of Gori, the town that is most (in)famous for its Stalin Museum, and also features a war museum with a small section about the 2008 war that hit Gori hard.
Batumi can be reached from Tbilisi by train or bus and it's also a good travel link between Armenia and Azerbaijan (overnight train from Baku), given that the two countries' mutual borders are closed. There's a awkwardly slow train to Yerevan, but the better option is to go by bus or even taxi – cars offering this service wait outside the southern bus station. It may be more affordable than you'd think, especially if you can share a car. But it will also depend a bit on your haggling skills.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: There's plenty of non-dark things to do and see in Tbilisi itself, such as its many churches, including the grand new Tsminda Sameba cathedral. The best bit, however, is simply wandering the narrow streets of the Old Town – although at the time of my visit in August 2010, rather large parts of it were inaccessible because of the extensive (re-)construction work going on. Building sites were in general the one unifying factor I found in all three of the Caucasus countries' capitals!
Other parts of Tbilisi's Old Town have clearly not seen any kind of refurbishment in a long while. But the quaint old-town-ness coupled with a certain state of dereliction can have its own appeal ... but maybe rather one for the dark tourist than for mainstreamers.
The part most developed for tourists is the couple of side streets north of Gorgasalis Moedani. Of particular interest too is the area south of this, around the Abanotubani and Orbeliani baths and the mosque with their decidedly oriental flair contrasting in an interesting way with Tbilisi's otherwise very European feel.  
The Mtkvari river also looks its prettiest around these parts, with the Metekhi church towering over it on a rock promontory. The quarter just behind the church is also quaint and offers good views of Old Tbilisi and the fortress.
The New Town further north is also worth exploring – here Tbilisi takes on its most Paris-like look (in parts). Rustaveli is the main street leading through the New Town and it's also here that some of Tbilisi's more significant theatres and museums are located.
Tbilisi is probably the city best equipped for tourism in the Caucasus. Many travel agents and tour operators have their seats in Tbilisi and can arrange excursions and full-blown itineraries all over Georgia.
Many also regard Tbilisi as the most pleasant of the bigger cities in the region. Personally I would give that title rather to Baku. Still, it is clear that Tbilisi is no longer the wild place it once was, especially in the 1990s, when economic decline and violent crime forged its negative reputation. Today it is comparatively safe again, and evidence of infrastructure investment is visible everywhere.
This also includes the pretentious new presidential palace high above the left bank of the river. Going by the column-ed front façade and glass dome in the centre it appears to have taken some inspiration from the reconstructed Berlin Reichstag building … It was built under and for ex-president Saakashvili. But I presume since his surprise defeat in the election in October 2012 he had to move out to let his successor in. The fact that this change of power went by without the feared outbreaks of violence is further evidence that Tbilisi has come a long way since the turbulent times following the collapse of the Soviet Union … now let us hope that the defeated Saakashvili and his followers won't rekindle such troubles.
  • Tbilisi 01 - Narikala fortess, Metekhi church and Mother GeorgiaTbilisi 01 - Narikala fortess, Metekhi church and Mother Georgia
  • Tbilisi 02 - hello Mother GeorgiaTbilisi 02 - hello Mother Georgia
  • Tbilisi 03 - at the base of Mother GeorgiaTbilisi 03 - at the base of Mother Georgia
  • Tbilisi 04 - Mother Georgia from behindTbilisi 04 - Mother Georgia from behind
  • Tbilisi 05 - the path up to Mother GeorgiaTbilisi 05 - the path up to Mother Georgia
  • Tbilisi 06 - ParliamentTbilisi 06 - Parliament
  • Tbilisi 07 - Georgian Parliament buildingTbilisi 07 - Georgian Parliament building
  • Tbilisi 08 - memorial sculpture outside the ParliamentTbilisi 08 - memorial sculpture outside the Parliament
  • Tbilisi 09 - glass plates in the ground monumentTbilisi 09 - glass plates in the ground monument
  • Tbilisi 10 - interesting conceptTbilisi 10 - interesting concept
  • Tbilisi 11 - more historical markerTbilisi 11 - more historical marker
  • Tbilisi 12 - presidential palace from afarTbilisi 12 - presidential palace from afar
  • Tbilisi 13 - Saakashvili had this grand new palace built for himself during his presidencyTbilisi 13 - Saakashvili had this grand new palace built for himself during his presidency
  • Tbilisi 14 - classic Metekhi and Mtkvari viewTbilisi 14 - classic Metekhi and Mtkvari view
  • Tbilisi 15 - Freedom SquareTbilisi 15 - Freedom Square
  • Tbilisi 16 - golden St George who replaced LeninTbilisi 16 - golden St George who replaced Lenin
  • Tbilisi 17 - in the Old TownTbilisi 17 - in the Old Town
  • Tbilisi 18 - almost ParisianTbilisi 18 - almost Parisian
  • Tbilisi 19 - shabbier part of Old TownTbilisi 19 - shabbier part of Old Town
  • Tbilisi 20 - shabby courtyardTbilisi 20 - shabby courtyard
  • Tbilisi 21 - even shabbierTbilisi 21 - even shabbier
  • Tbilisi 22 - some real derelictionTbilisi 22 - some real dereliction
  • Tbilisi 23 - the prettily oriental Orbeliani bathsTbilisi 23 - the prettily oriental Orbeliani baths
  • Tbilisi 24 - Abanotubani sulphur bathsTbilisi 24 - Abanotubani sulphur baths
  • Tbilisi 25 - old and newTbilisi 25 - old and new
  • Tbilisi 26 - the new Tsminda Sameba cathedral by nightTbilisi 26 - the new Tsminda Sameba cathedral by night
  • Tbilisi 27 - eveningTbilisi 27 - evening
  • Tbilisi 28 - TV tower in Xmas-tree-like lightsTbilisi 28 - TV tower in Xmas-tree-like lights
  • Tbilisi 29 - touristy part of Old TownTbilisi 29 - touristy part of Old Town
  • Tbilisi 30 - KGB cafeTbilisi 30 - KGB cafe
  • Tbilisi 31 - old Soviet Socialist Republics flagsTbilisi 31 - old Soviet Socialist Republics flags
  • Tbilisi 32 - old Soviet memorabiliaTbilisi 32 - old Soviet memorabilia
  • Tbilisi 33 - Georgian wine bottles dressed up as warriorsTbilisi 33 - Georgian wine bottles dressed up as warriors

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