21 January 2012

Impressions of Georgia

In October 2011, the Blackmer family drove a few hours north to Tbilisi for a relaxing long weekend, and only now have I found time to post a little bit about it.  Though we stayed for just 3 days, here's what I can say about our experience.

First of all, the Armenian landscape is more diverse and visually dramatic.  While the parts of Georgia we visited were certainly pretty, particularly the forested areas, much of the terrain we observed pales in comparison to the breathtakingly beautiful mountains, gorges, river valleys, grazing land, and historic sites throughout Armenia's countryside.  
A lovely forested road on the Georgian side of the border

On the other hand, I find downtown Tbilisi, built along the banks of the Mtkvari River, a more aesthetically attractive city than Yerevan.  From the charming and well-maintained Old Town to the European-style Freedom Square, from the broad Rustaveli Avenue to the romantic hillside Narikala Fortress, it was nice to get away from the dreadfully artless Soviet architecture that permeates Yerevan's neighborhoods, including the city center.  One of downtown Yerevan's advantages, however, is its navigability and easy walk-ability.  Central Tbilisi, spread over a larger area with rugged terrain and poor street signage, is not as easy on the feet as it is on the eyes.

 The old (from left to right): Metekhi Church (13th Century), Church of St. David, and Narikala Fortress (4th Century) watch over Tbilisi.

The new: standing on the Bridge of Peace (2010), with the 900-foot TV tower (1972) behind us on Mtatsminda.  Both  are illuminated with sparkling lights at night -- rather garish, in my opinion, yet clearly adored by many locals and tourists.

Enough about appearances.  What about the food?  Georgian cuisine heavily influences the menus in Armenian restaurants, so we had an idea of what to expect, yet still we were pleasantly surprised by many new and delicious tastes.  For example, I never knew there were so many types of khachapuri, freshly-made breads topped with regional cheeses, eggs, and sometimes vegetables.  The type known as adjaruli, common in Armenia, is Nathan's favorite. As for me, I fell in love with lobio, a flavorful bean stew often served in a clay pot, and the vegetarian varieties of khinkali, juicy boiled dumplings.  Jarred has always enjoyed Georgian wines, so he sampled some whenever he got the chance, and we came home with at least 4 bottles -- not bad for 3 days!

Lunch on the terrace of our favorite cafe in Old Town.

Georgia, as I learned during our visit, is a land of legends.  I never heard so many stories about a place in such a short time.  One of my favorites is the folk tale of how the nation of Georgia came into existence, which says that when God was dividing up the earth among all its people, the Georgians, for whatever reason, did not come to claim their country, and so did not receive any territory.  God distributed all the lands, and kept only a small portion, the best, for himself.  Later, when the Georgians finally arrived, they asked God for their share.  Although at first God refused, the hospitality and charm of the Georgian people won him over, and he gave them the beautiful land he had saved for himself.

Legend also surrounds the founding of Georgia's capital city.  According to Lonely Planet, "Despite evidence of settlement in the area stretching back to the 4th century BC, Georgians prefer the legend that King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli founded Tbilisi in the 5th century. The story runs that when the king was hunting, a pheasant fell into a hot sulphur spring and was conveniently cooked for dinner. Another version has it that a wounded deer fell into the hot sulphur spring and was miraculously healed. Either way, Tbilisi takes its name from the Georgian tbili (warm), and there seems little doubt that the magnificent hot springs, which still lure visitors today, attracted the king to the spot."  It seems that Georgians favor the first version, as the king's hunting falcon and pheasant are represented in a decorative fountain near the sulfur baths, as well as in the city's official seal.

Another interesting tale deals with Georgia's early Christian traditions.  It is said that following Jesus's crucifixion, his robe (though some say it was his tunic, others his mantle) was purchased from the Roman solider who had won it by lottery.  It was brought to Mtskheta, a town in Georgia, and buried with a woman who died from the passion caused by touching it; the spot where it was buried became the site of miracles, and a church was built on top of it in the 4th century.  The church, rebuilt in the 11th century as Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, now stands as one of the holiest places of worship for Georgian Orthodox Christians, and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The pillar in the below photograph supposedly shows the precise location of the buried garment.  To read more details of this legend, check out Wikipedia's article on the subject.

Frescoes on the pillar have been rubbed away by the touch of generations of faithful hands.

Although countless other fun and fascinating tales abound in Georgian folklore, there is one legend whose cultural influence is most clearly visible, and that is the legend of Georgia's revered patron, Saint George.  Obviously, the country's English name is a testament to its people's devotion to this martyred Christian soldier of the Roman emperor Diocletian.  Additionally, St. George's cross features prominently on the Georgian flag, and depictions of his famed dragon-slaying heroics appear in every church, in the national coat of arms, and on souvenirs, postcards, tombstones, and monuments throughout the country.  His image is so ubiquitous, I was inspired to put together the following humble photographic collection.

Mamadaviti Church, 6th century

Armenian Cathedral of St. George, 13th century

Norashen Church, 15th century

Also at Norashen Church

A souvenir plate

A souvenir metal icon

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

I love the look of these flags, which feature the distinctive St. George's cross (red on a field of white), next to this medieval-style defensive wall around Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

The gold-plated Freedom Monument (2006) in Tbilisi's central square

I am anticipating at least a couple more trips to Georgia in the near future: one is tentatively planned for this spring, when I will attend a seminar at QSI Tbilisi; the other scheduled for next October, is a professional development event for all regional QSI teachers and directors, also to be held at the Tbilisi school.  We are excited about the opportunity to explore more of this legendary land and its captivating capital.

To view all the photos from our visit, click here!

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