Tbilisi~ The quaint and lesser known capital of Georgia and the cradle of wine!
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Georgia or “Sakartvelo” to the locals, is probably one of the least known and most misunderstood countries by many, mostly Indians. Me and Vinay had no immediate plans of visiting Georgia, but after reading a viral blog chronicling the horrible experiences of a lady at Tbilisi Airport, we decided we had to visit the country and see for ourselves. Subsequent searches about Indians travelling to Georgia threw up a whole lot of articles, everyone of them detailing their deportations and rude treatments they received from Georgian immigration authorities. Every article cautioned against Indians visiting Georgia- it just firmed up our resolve to visit that country. We decided to go and find out for ourselves if there was any truth to these accusations.
As soon as we decided to travel to Georgia, we got down to planning the nitty gritties of the trip. The process of getting a Georgian Stamped Visa is quite cumbersome and may take up to three weeks. I will detail the entire process of getting Stamped Visa through VFS Global in a separate blog.
After we got our visas, we finally booked our flight tickets and accommodations. AirArabia was the most economical option. We booked our accommodations through Airbnb. Till date our experiences with Airbnb has been awesome. Our apartment was located near Dinamo Arena and most of the sightseeing places were within a 30-45 minutes walk.
Feeling excited as well as apprehensive (the tales of deportations of Indians all too fresh in our mind), we joined the queue at the AirArabia counter at New Delhi Airport. To our intense surprise, the guy at the counter, on hearing we were travelling to Tbilisi, immediately called his superior and they immediately asked us to show all our documents- flight tickets, hotel bookings, travel insurance etc and asked us about our purpose of travel. They kept on checking our passports and ultimately, begrudgingly gave us our boarding passes and wished us happy journey, all the while their faces showing uncertainty and belief that we are going to be deported! At this point, our sense of foreboding increased. Maybe we were going to be deported after all!
Even the immigration officers registered surprise when they heard we are going to Georgia, but let us through without too much questioning.
Soon we were off to Sharjah. Now, you must know that Sharjah Airport has got to be the smallest and most depressing Airport. There is nothing apart from a food court, a duty free and some odd stores. Somehow we managed to while away 6 hours of transit.
At the time of our connecting flight to tbilisi, we were again asked a lot of questions and asked to wait by the people at the check-in counter. After all the passengers were checked in, we were again asked to show our tickets, hotel reservations and travel insurance. Finally, we were allowed to board.
And before soon (2hours 55 minutes flight time to be exact), we had landed in Tbilisi. By now we were mentally prepared to get deported. As a backup we had taken Armenian e-visa, so that if plans went awry, we could just go to Armenia (The Cost of Armenian E-visa – just 6 USD!)
We queued at the immigration counter. On seeing our Indian Passports, we were asked to move to the last counter, which was empty! There was a small office next to it and we asked an immigration officer what we had to do next. He looked at our passports and told us to wait.
After about 10 minutes, the officer called Vinay into the office and another officer asked him about our purpose of travel, how much money we had etc. Then I was called into the room and asked the same questions. I was asked about which places we were planning to visit. Thank god that I had memorized a bunch of tough unpronounceable Georgian monuments names the day before, so I could tell the officer roughly where we were planning to go. The entire proceeding was videotaped. After a few minutes of questioning the officer got up and told us “WELCOME TO GEORGIA !!”. We got our passports stamped and entered Georgia!
Now we would like to mention that though we were interviewed by immigration, the officers were civil and polite. No where did we encounter any rough or rude officers. The officer who stamped our passports was even wearing a big smile! and before long, we were in Georgia!
Before signing off, we would like to say that we should keep an open mind and not blindly believe everything that was written on the internet. There is no country where “all” people are bad. We must not think that a particular country is unwelcoming based on the stories of a few people. There are just “bad experiences”.
Now that we were actually inside Georgia, it was time to collect our bags and start our adventure!
After exiting customs, the first thing that we did was exchange some USD to Lari.
[NOTE: THE EXCHANGE RATE IS THE SAME AT THE AIRPORT AS WELL AS IN THE CITY. SO YOU CAN EXCHANGE ALL THE MONEY YOU WANT AT THE AIRPORT ITSELF. DURING OUR VISIT (May 2018) THE EXCHANGE RATE WAS 1 USD=2.450 LARI]
Next, we bought a Sim from Beeline Company. The Beeline counter was virtually empty (everyone was queuing up at “Magati”), but we found Beeline much, much cheaper. It cost us 6 Lari for 1GB data and 20 minutes talk time.
(Note: Please ask for some coins of 50, 20 or 10 tetri while buying the Sim as you will need these coins for the bus from the airport to the city.)
We then exited the airport and the Bus 37 was just on the right side. Tickets are 50 tetri per person for the entire trip (the driver does not sell tickets and you will have to get the tickets from the ticket vending machine by inserting 50, 20 or 10 tetris coins)
(ALTERNATIVELY, YOU CAN BUY A “METROMANI” CARD AT THE AIRPORT FOR 2 LARI AND RELOAD IT WITH ANY AMOUNT YOU WANT AND THEN USE IT FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION THROUGHOUT THE CITY BY JUST SWIPING THE CARD AT THE TICKET MACHINE. THIS CARD IS VALID ON BUS AS WELL AS IN METRO. EACH TRIP IS 50 LARI IRRESPECTIVE OF THE DISTANCE YOU TRAVEL)
We did not have coins on us, so we asked someone on the bus ,who gave us coins in exchange of 2 lari and we bought the tickets and were off! People seemed really nice and helpful.
Tbilisi seemed like a sleepy city, the kind you see in old movies, of people driving old Fords or Mustangs, smoking through the rolled down windows of their cars, gloomy buildings with paints peeling off, and hardly any people walking on the street. In about 30 minutes, we had entered Tbilisi City and the chaos and sounds of a city were unmistakable. The streets were full of cars, and the sidewalks full of people going about their work and tourists milling around. It was full of hotels and restaurants and shops. One by one tourists started getting off. We were staying in an apartment which was a bit far from the city center. Finally we got down from the bus and walked to our apartment. The apartment itself was just as it was advertised on Airbnb(it was spectacular to say the least. On one side, there was view of the huge Dinamo stadium and from the other balcony we had sweeping views of the city) and we settled in. Since it was already evening when we arrived at our apartment, we decided not to do any sightseeing for the day. We just bought some groceries from some nearby market, a bottle of wine and settled in for the night.
View of the Dinamo Stadium from our balcony
View of the Dinamo Stadium from our balcony
View of the city from the other balcony
Exploring Tbilisi on Foot
The next day we decided to do some local sightseeing. As Vinay is not exactly a morning person, we started out on our Georgian discovery trip around 11 AM. I think it was probably a wise decision to start late given that most shops do not open before 10 AM. We both loved walking and so we walked from our apartment to the Tbilisi City Centre (approximately 4.5 kms). The best part was walking in the boulevard along the river Mtkvari. It was fun to see numerous old people sitting on the river bank with a hook thrown into the river to catch fish! The first stop we made was – The Bridge of Peace. The Bridge of Peace is a bow-shaped pedestrian bridge, a steel and glass construction illuminated with numerous LEDs, over the Kura River, linking the Rike Park with Old town in central Tbilisi. We crossed the Presidential palace and saw it from a distance. It is a really lovely piece of architecture. There is a large park next to it, ideal for sitting and soaking up the sun and having a bit of a picnic! Since we did not have the requisites for setting up a picnic, we did not dawdle here and went to our next destination – The Sioni Cathedral. It is situated very close to the bridge. There is also a Synagogue next to it. After spending some time at the Cathedral and since we were already famished by this time, we decided to get something to eat.
Along River Mtkvari
Along River Mtkvari
The Presidential Building in the background
Park in front of The Bridge of Peace
Bridge of Peace
The Bridge of Peace
Now the street leading up to the Sioni Cathedral is full of restaurants (houses the famous KGB Restaurant) and we decided to grab some Georgian food in this Street. We ordered some Khinkali (Georgian dumplings, not unlike our momos in appearance, though very different in taste!) and a Veggie (brinjal and tomato with some walnut, to be precise!) Pizza. I loved the Khinkali, Vinay hated it – matter of taste I guess! The pizza was too overloaded and it was the first time we saw eggplants being served in a pizza! Apparently eggplants and walnuts are very popular in Georgia and can be found in most dishes!
Pizza with walnut and eggplant!
After lunch we walked around on Erekle II Street. It is a pedestrianized street in Old City and full of souvenir shops, wine shops and coffee shops. It is a quaint pebbled street and we wandered around for a while.
Then we decided to go see the Mtatsminda Pantheon, a necropolis where some of the prominent people of Georgia are buried. There is a park as well from where you can take a funicular to the top of the mountain to see the views of the city, but we gave it a pass and walked up the hill to the Pantheon. Entrance to the pantheon is free, but not the funicular (costs 1 lari one way). It was an uphill hike to the top and we were winded! There is also a church, Mama Daviti Church (named after Davit Gareji, a Syrian monk who spread Christianity in Georgia and is highly revered there). There is also a small cave next to the church from where you can drink some crystal clear spring water (considered extremely holy by the Georgian people). A monk actually came up to us and explained the significance of the place! It is a really nice place to see the views of the entire city.
Mama Daviti Church
Sweeping views of the city from the Pantheon
After the pantheon, we walked back to Freedom square but first dragging Vinay along with me to see the Parliament of Georgia. I make it a point to see the parliaments of all the countries I travel to. I find it weirdly fascinating. By now, it was nearly evening and we walked along the Rustaveli Avenue (full of boutiques and branded shops) and back to our apartment. We took another way back and accidently discovered the Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue which was full of restaurants serving a wide array of cuisines (there is also a McDonald’s) and boutiques (costs much lower compared to the shops on Rustaveli Avenue) and we discovered this SPAR supermarket, which had the most delicious cream rolls ever! This was the place where we stocked up on anything that we needed (And, it was quite near from our apartment as well). And then it was back to our apartment, where we ended our night downing a couple bottles of wine and some lovely Georgian cream rolls!!!
In front of Tbilisi Classical Gymnasium
We had originally planned to visit Mtskheta today, but I succumbed to severe diarrhoea (I would blame the Shawarma that I ate the day before at a local eatery), we decided to cancel that and do some more local sightseeing and some shopping perhaps. Thankfully, we had carried our own medicines and it came in quite handy. We went out after I felt sufficiently better. Since it was already noon, we decided to grab some lunch (though I was is mood for none, but Vinay was hearing none of that!). W went to this restaurant called SHEMOMECHAMA on Mtskheta Street. We took the bus no 46 from Gori Street to Janashia Street stop and from there it was a walk of 1 km approximately. The name of the restaurant was in Georgian and it was only from the pictures we had seen on the internet did we recognize it. It looked unimpressive on the outside and had a very grim look to it. We were the only tourists eating at that place. But the Kebabis were one of the best we ever had and the Khinkali was too delicious! The lady there speaks English and she was more than happy to translate the menu for us! After a quick lunch, we took the bus no 88 from Eristavi Street to Liberty square.
Rolls at the restaurant(source:internet)
Exterior view of Shemomechama(source:internet)
(NOTE: PUBLIC TRANSPORT OPTION OF GOOGLE MAP WILL GIVE YOU THE EXACT BUS NUMBER THAT YOU NEED TO TAKE TO YOUR DESTINATION)
On reaching liberty square, we strolled along the Rustaveli Avenue, drinking in the atmosphere and looking at the beautiful buildings. We ducked into some shops to find something to take back home. It had started to rain a bit but luckily we had an umbrella and it was fun to walk in the rain (though I must add, Vinay would probably disagree with me, as he was constantly complaining about getting drenched!). We again went back to Erekle II Street from where we bought some souvenirs. Then we walked around some more in the old city. But the rain had started to come down real hard and it was already dusk, so we decided to go back to our apartment. We took the bus again from Liberty Square (Bus no 20) to Marjanishvili Square stop and walked to the SPAR supermarket from where we got our dinner, bottles of wine and some chocolates and then walked back to our apartment. Back in our apartment, we sat on the balcony, sipping some wine and enjoying the rain pouring down.
Sitting i the balcony watching the rain
Lobiani and Georgian wine
A day Trip to Mtskheta
Today we decided to travel to Mtskheta. As soon Vinay got ready, we were off! First we took the bus 33 to Metro Station Didube. From there we went into the metro station (but did not enter the platforms) and exited from the other side. We walked straight through the shops and came across some taxi drivers (ignored them) and walked past them and finally reached a small bus station. We asked around for which minibus (called “MARSHRUTKA”) will go to Mtskheta. On the left there was a ticket counter from where we purchased tickets (1 GEL one way) and the lady at the counter pointed us to the minivan. And soon we were off (lucky for us, the minivan was almost full)!In about 20 minutes we reached Mtskheta.
The town itself is very small and full of cobbled streets. We walked around a bit, took some pictures and then walked over to the Svetitskhoveli Church. It is an 11th Century Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and supposedly contains the robes of Jesus Christ. It’s interesting to note that Mtskheta used to be the capital of Georgia once! The church was impressive. There are a lot of souvenir shops outside and we looked inside some shops and in general, wandered around a bit, taking in the sights of this quaint little town. Next we went to the Samtavro Monastery, an ancient monastery with fortress like walls. After walking around a while, we decided to catch a marshrutka and head back to town.
(NOTE: YOU MAY HIRE A TAXI TO VISIT THE JVARI MONASTERY FOR 10 GEL ROUND TRIP FROM THE NUMEROUS TAXI DRIVERS MILLING AROUND EVERYWHERE. IT IS A SMALL, BUT VERY POPULAR MONASTERY)
We decided to give a pass to the Jvari Monastery and caught a marshrutka from the road in front of the Samtavro Monastery and it dropped us off at Didube metro station, from where we caught a bus back to our apartment.
(YOU CAN FLAG DOWN ANY MARSHRUTKA ON THE STREET AND ASK THEM IF HEADING TO THE CITY. MOST OF THEM ARE ANYWAY!)
At the Svetitskhoveli Church
At the Svetitskhoveli Church
At the Svetitskhoveli Church
At the Svetitskhoveli Church
At the Samtavro Monastery
At the Samtavro Monastery
Once back, we rested a while and then headed out to taste some more local food and take in the sights of Tbilisi one last time before heading out to Yerevan the next day. We again walked to the city centre and did some shopping in the numerous shops dotting Rustaveli Avenue (I must add, it was Vinay who took up most of the time shopping anyway!). After our extended and exhausting shopping spree, we caught the bus to Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, bought some food and some more cream rolls before heading back to our apartment, devouring our dinner (we were famished by then) and calling it a day!
Day trip to The chronicles of Georgia
The next day we decided to visit the chronicles of Georgia. While browsing through places we can see in Tbilisi, we came across this place. The pictures looked spectacular- huge columns depicting the history of Georgia. So we decided that we had to visit this place.
Also known as the “Stonehenge” of Georgia, the chronicles Is one of the least visited sights in Tbilisi. One is at a loss to explain as to why this site is visited by so less people. Indeed, one of the most peculiar thing was that even the locals were unaware of this place. And to say this place is grand would be an understatement, to say the least.
We left our apartment and walked to the Station square metro station and crossed to foot overbridge(also known as Railway passage bridge) to the other side. The area around the station was full of shops and vendors selling their wares. In fact, the foot overbridge was also flanked on both sides by vendors selling everything from stationary to food! Looked exactly like any other railway station in india! We had seen on google transit that bus number 111 would be leaving from the railway passage bridge bus stand and it would take us to military school stop from which chronicles was a kilometre by foot. We located the bus stand, but could not find our bus. So we started asking the locals which bus would take us to the chronicles. We were surprised to see that none of the locals knew the place we were referring to! how strange! Then Vinay took out the phone and showed a few people the pictures of the place we wanted to go to! and then some one recognized the place and pointed us towards a bus. We saw it was indeed the bus number 111! We got on the bus and the bus started as soon as it was full. The journey cots 0.50 GEL one way(that is INR 27 per person!).
Soon, we had left the city of Tbilisi behind and the bus was rolling through the cobble stoned Georgian suburbs. There were children playing on the streets. It was a short half an hour ride and we reached our stop. We got down from the bus and in the distance we could see the towering pillars in the distance on top of a small hillock. We were the only tourists. We sauntered up the hillock at a leisurely pace. The sun was shining brightly and it was a lovely day! The entrance to the chronicles is absolutely free! A series of stairs lead to the platform where the chronicles is located. A series of huge columns depicting the history of Georgia and created by Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian born Soviet-trained sculptor. Building began in 1985 but never finished till date. From the top one gets superb views of the Tbilisi sea(not an actual sea, but an artificial lake in the vicinity of Tbilisi that serves as a reservoir).
The columns depicting the history of Georgia were superb! The top parts are decorated with scenes of the history of Georgia, mainly with the kings and queens who reigned over the country. The lowers parts portray the life of Jesus. We were blown away by the sheer grandeur of the place. It seems incredible that so few tourists visit this place. When we had arrived, there were no tourists around. We literally had the place to ourselves!
There is a church also at this site which was magnificent. Only when you get to this place do you realize how big this place is! We spent a couple of hours at this place. If you are visiting in summer, you can walk down to the Tbilisi sea and go for a swim! As we both don’t know how to swim, we give it a miss.
We then walked down to the bus stop and waited for our bus, which was nowhere to be seen.. While we were waiting for the bus, a few children came to talk to us, curious about where we were from and telling us what they were being taught in school! Finally, after waiting at the bus stop for over an hour, the bus came. Apparently, the bus driver was having lunch!
The bus dropped us off at the railway passage bridge bus stop and while we were walking back to our apartment, we bought a Lobiani(a traditional Georgian dish of bean-filled bread) from one of the food stalls near the station and bought a couple of bottles of wine from the wine store located near our apartment. We were exhausted by then and quickly finished off the lobiani( its delicious by the way) and polished off the wine! We decided to rest a couple of hours before heading into the city later in the evening.
At around 5pm we walked to the Rustaveli Avenue to do some shopping. We must mention that Rustaveli Avenue houses some of the best brands, both local and international and you can shop till you drop here! However, though we are not shopaholics, we did duck into some of the local stores and bought a few things at a great bargain! We were so exhausted by all the walking around that we decided to head back to our apartment, on the way, stop and buy some dinner and a few bottles of wine. As soon as we reached our apartment, we finished our dinner as we were famished and enjoyed our wine while taking in the views of the city from our balcony before calling it a day.
In front of the Chronicles of Georgia
Church at the site
View of city blocks in the background
The Chronicles of Georgia
The huge columns depicitng history of Georgia
View of Tbilisi Sea
View of city blocks
At Chronicles of Georgia
At the church
The huge and magnificent columns.
The next morning we woke really early (surprisingly, even Vinay!), packed our bags and left our apartment to continue on our journey to Yerevan. We took the bus no 46 to Avlabari metro station, from where our minivan to Yerevan was supposed to leave.
(NOTE: BUSES AND MINIVANS DEPART TO YEREVAN FROM AVLABARI METRO STATION AND ORTACHALA BUS STATIONS. IF YOU BOOK ON THE SPOT, IT WILL COST YOU 35 LARI. BUT, WE INDIANS, NEED TO HAVE AN EXIT TICKET BEFORE ENTERING GEORGIA AND HENCE WE HAD TO BOOK A MINIVAN ONLINE FROM http://www.infobus.in and it cost us 46 EUROS. It’s sad I know, but there was no other option)
But the bus driver dropped us off in the middle and signalled the bus wasn’t going any further. Perplexed, we asked some people who were standing there (none spoke English, so we Google translated what we were asking and showed it to them). They started saying something to each other (we did not understand anything except the word “Avlabari” and “Yereva” at certain intervals) and then this burly man comes up to us and beckons us to get inside another bus (Bus No 2). He got up too and turns out he was the driver of this bus! After driving for a few minutes, he stopped the bus, got down, beckoned us to follow him. Once we got down, he pointed to the other side of the road (near a church) and said something in Georgian (again, we only understood Avlabari and Yerevan). We took it to mean that we would get our minivan to Yerevan from there. So, we thanked the driver (amazed at the level of helpfulness) and off we went!
Turns out the bus driver bought us to the correct place. There were several minivans waiting at that place, though none had Infobus written on them. So, we showed our ticket voucher to the several drivers sitting there and one of them promptly gets up and opens the back of his minivan for us to store our luggage. It was as simple as that! The minivan got filled pretty fast and we were off at 8:30am!
The road border is at Bagratashen. The minivan dropped us off at immigration and went to wait for us on the other side. It took a few minutes to cross immigration. And we were off Georgian soil and poised to enter Armenia! But that is a separate adventure. As of now, our Georgian chronicles had ended. It was with a sad heart indeed that we were leaving Georgia. We loved our stay here-the people, the food, the city- everything was amazing! And we loved every second of our stay here in this little gem of a country. Hope, we will come back here soon as there is a lot that we have yet to see.