This weekend, Tiflis Hamqari offered its final walking tour of downtown Tbilisi’s historic architecture. The tour was led by Hamqari co-founder and city historian Tsira Elisashvili. Hopefully in the next few years there will be tours like this offered in English, but for now I was very lucky to have a local art student come with me to translate! The whole thing took a whopping 5 hours (food and pee breaks? pshhhh, we’re preservation nerds) but even so it drew 20+ adults from teenage students to pensioners–and a puppy! We followed a tour developed by Hamqari, which you can pick up in the form of an amazing annotated map (we have them for free at the ICOMOS office on Betlemi ascent), also available as a pdf through Hamqari’s Scribd account.
Some things I learned on the trip:
- When most people think of downtown Tbilisi, they think of the stretch between Freedom Square and Rustaveli. Actually, Tbilisi’s historic downtown is closer to Abanotubani, known as Seidabad in the 17th century. This is why our tour (covering parts of Vera, Mtatsminda, and upper Sololaki) is referred to as “garetubani”–the “outer neighborhoods” that were developed later, under imperial Russian rule. I guess this somewhat analogous to how many people think of Back Bay as “historic Boston,” when in fact it was built from scratch on landfill in the late 19th century.
- The first bust of Lenin in Georgia was installed in front of what is now Cafe Gallery. Cafe Gallery itself was actually once an Orthodox Russian church.
- Georgian bricks are formed in a “Byzantine” way–larger but flatter, like a book. European and Russian bricks are more like blocks, which provides more insulation. Many older houses (or houses built by Georgian craftsmen as opposed to foreign or foreign-trained workers) can be identified by their use of old-style Georgian bricks.
- Eastern-style balconies face the street, while Western-style balconies face the courtyard.
- As a young man, Stalin once worked in the factory of a Georgian tobacco magnate, who was also the first man in the Caucasus wealthy enough to import a car.
My favorite structures on the route:
- Rustaveli 54 (not on Rustaveli, but in the courtyard behind the big building with the steps where people sell crafts). This is an absolutely gorgeous house, built for the noble Gabashvili family in 1897 (it was also recently professionally renovated at the expense of the owners, descendants of the Gabashvilis). An interesting anecdote is that the family patriarch detested his non-noble son-in-law–until the son wrote to Stalin himself in order to save the house from destruction. It has a magnificent two-story balcony with elaborate latticework. The interior has a beautiful entrance hall and plaster details.
- Tbilisi has many lovely examples of external staircases connecting balconies, but I particularly like the wooden spiral staircase in the courtyard of 2 Barnovi St. It was made famous by the movie დღე უკანასკნელი, დღე პირველი (The Last Day, The First Day), which includes a plot about a postal worker who must run up the stairs every day to deliver letters. Unfortunately these beautiful carved stairs are now severely deteriorated and may even be dangerous if it is left for a few more years, or if there is another earthquake.
- 4 Chonkadzi Street, known as the “hidden house,” definitely wins in terms of architectural creativity–its elaborate plan was commissioned because the owners of No. 4 got into a bit of competition with No. 12 over who had the coolest house on the street. Chonkadzi Street is right up against a steep hill (being in hilly Mtatsminda), and the architect set the facade and entrance hall into the hillside, with the actual house and gardens located above. As a result, the facade looks like it has trees growing out of its roof, when actually this is just a garden terraced into the hill behind it. So cool!