In another installment of ‘On the Edges of Europe’, Thom Brown invites readers for a walk through the Old Town of Tbilisi, Georgia’s storied capital, to a monument that offers insight into the city’s ancient past.
The chaotic jumble of architecture in Tbilisi’s Old Town kept me on my toes as the city sights shifted from the ancient Narikala Fortress to the futuristic Bridge of Peace. Walking aimlessly, it was easy to get lost in the twisted alleys that draped up and down the hillside. Each house was a different color, height, and style, with details that can consume the gaze of a curious traveler for countless hours. Some wooden buildings seemed to buckle beneath the weight of their faded pastel balconies, awkwardly tilting to one side. The stone houses appeared to sink into the ground, their medieval doors too low for any reasonably-sized human.
A day isn’t long enough to understand the history of even a small section of central Tbilisi. Heck, I’m not sure a lifetime would be. A crossroads of culture on the bridge of Europe and Asia, the city was variously built by the Romans, the Parthians, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Iranians, and the Russians (to name a few). Throughout all the occupations and ownership disputes, the thread of Georgian identity was constant. This is best summed up in the 12th-century epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, a tale of love and friendship that promotes gender equality, condemns slavery and forced marriage, and manifests a joyful vision of the Georgian way of life.
In the lower part of the Old Town, near where the Kura River flows east, two shaggy stray dogs playfully fought in front of a young violinist in a hoody and leather jacket, who himself was in front of the tacky tourist giant letters of the ‘I ❤️ Tbilisi’ sign. A small crowd gathered to soak in this uniquely Georgian scene. Further down the road, the sidewalk was narrowed by wonky, wooden tables that blocked half of the path. Displayed upon the tables was a mix of dusty, decaying books and bottles of wine. Claimed to be the world’s oldest wine producer, Georgia takes its booze seriously. So much so that I was given a bottle by the border guard as I passed through passport control.
Tbilisi was a circus of sensory stimulation; not overwhelming, just enchanting. Murals and artwork dotted the walls in a random, unstructured manner, making each one a pleasant surprise. For some quiet time alone, though, all I had to do was pick a direction and walk. The green hills around the Georgian capital were not too steep, meaning each crest was a chance to stop and marvel at the calming expanse of this vast countryside. The natural scenery is like the lovechild of the Mongolian steppe and the Lake District, a perfect transition between Europe and Asia. It is, however, very dry, which is why I opted to walk two hours northeast to the tranquil allure of the Tbilisi Sea.
Opened in 1953, it’s not actually a sea, but rather a large, artificial lake. Regardless, it offered a chance to escape the crowds and enjoy a solitary swim. Tbilisi, like almost every city on Earth, became markedly less charming as I escaped the orbit of the city center. The buildings became more brutalist; more Soviet. The dogs became less tame and more aggressive. Still, there was a Tbilisian charm. Some of the ugly concrete tower blocks were painted with stunning and heartfelt portraits of soldiers or other symbols of national pride. Georgia was at war as recently as 2008 and remains fiercely protective of its independence.
Before long, I’d reached the final tower block. Behind that was an open field with only one more building: a self-built wooden kennel for a family of dogs (presumably self-built by humans, not dogs). The field slanted upwards towards a small road. As I crossed over, the Tbilisi Sea came into view. Although only a small part of it was visible, it was much larger than expected. It was also less developed. There are plans to turn the whole area into a state-of-the-art recreation park, but it seemed that not a single day’s work had gone into achieving that goal. The lake lay desolate, surrounded by uninviting pebbles and specks of trash.
At the same time, its waters beckoned me and the sweeping scenery was a thing of beauty. I carefully made my way down to the shores, past several more desperate-looking dogs and a couple of equally disheveled, elderly fishermen, who didn’t so much as glance up from their rods on my arrival. Shoes and socks left on a rock, I crept into the lake’s frigid waters. The cold was almost unbearable, my feet felt like blocks of ice within minutes. That’s exactly what was needed after a long hike, though, and there was still some distance to cover.
To my left, atop a hill, was a large and imposing monument. From this distance, it resembled a blackened Stonehenge. This was instantly recognizable as the Chronicle of Georgia, one of Tbilisi’s most impressive, but least-visited attractions. The latter is because it’s simply so far from the incredible sights of the city center, out in what is broadly known as the middle of nowhere.
I traced the shoreline around the corner, eventually making it to the bottom of the hill. On my right was a proper beach, the only place that seemed to have some infrastructure for tourists: an empty cafe and one of those ropes with floats that marks the boundary of where you’re allowed to swim. A few people sat on the beach, basking in the sunshine and the calming scene of water surrounded by hills. That would be me later on, but for now, it was time to make the final stretch to the Chronicle.
Sculpted by Zurab Tsereteli, the husband of a princess descended from a Byzantine Emperor, its name refers to the carvings within the pillars of the monument, which tell stories of Georgia’s past. The large stone staircase created a sense of occasion on the approach towards the columns, which were considerably larger than expected. Entering the plinth upon which the monument stood, I was instantly immersed in the mind of the artist. The carvings looked incredible up close, reminiscent of the artwork seen on the stained glass windows of churches. The stories are indecipherable by an ignorant Englishman like me, but the emotions of their characters were brought to life. The pillars are vertigo-inducingly tall, however, raising the question of what secrets are revealed nearer the top.
Exiting on the other side of the monument, a brilliant view deep into the countryside revealed itself, along with a perfect spot to sit and observe the lake from above. Georgia is already one of Europe’s lesser visited countries and this monument is far from a tourist hotspot. However, it’s a symbol of what Georgia is becoming: an unmovable object, in touch with its ancient – if somewhat apocryphal – national story, ready for a future of peace and prosperity. Construction of the Chronicle began in 1985. Apparently, it was never finished, but neither is the story of Georgia, so I think it’s rather fitting.