Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sameba Cathedral and More of Old Tbilisi.

Inside the Great Synagogue, Old Tbilisi.

As I write this post, I'm already getting sad as it means we only have a half day left in Tbilisi before we leave for Yerevan. It also means that our time in the Caucasus is almost two thirds over. That's the glass half empty side of me talking. That side of me crops up every now and again.

Today's itinerary was to visit Sameba Cathedral and then go back to see more of the old city.  We also had plans to meet up with Inga at 2p today as she wants to take Pat and I out for lunch.  Very nice of her.

But we did have another good day of sightseeing today. We began with breakfast at the Panera/Au Bon Pain type bakery, called Entree,  conveniently located right across the street from our apartment.  It's a Georgian chain of bakeries so they have locations all around the city.  We had already checked out the place yesterday and today, the young woman serving us gave us a rundown of the breakfast items as well.  Pat opted for something sweet so she got a croissant type pastry. I needed something savory so I got a small ham sandwich.  We both had cups of coffee to go with our small meal.


A nice selection of croissants and other pastries.

She doesn't look happy but it's just a bad camera shot.  She was actually in a great mood!

Pat's selection.  A version of a chocolate croissant.  As good as what we can get in the US.

After eating, we immediately made our way to Sameba Cathedral.  Looking at the map, we figured it was approximately the same distance from our apartment as the Old Tbilisi and since I was able to walk to the old town yesterday, there should be no issue with walking to the Cathedral.  My foot was feeling good today.

Pat's navigation route had us walking back down towards the river and then up a hill to the cathedral.  Our walk took us, once again, through neighborhood streets.  It was still early morning but people were already out and about.




For the most part, it was an easy walk as we could match street signs to the names the map that Pat was using.  But then, things got challenging as English lettering quickly disappeared from the street signs.  We then began counting street blocks, hoping that the map was in sync with the layout of the streets.


We've gotten used to the road and sidewalk conditions in the back neighborhoods.  The government has focused attention on restoring and repairing the parts of the city that most tourists would be in but if you get even just a wee bit off the beaten path, you get to experience what the typical local resident puts up with.  We both had pay careful attention walking as rough surfaces can often hide holes which can easily cause you to trip up and injure yourself.   Not that I would know anything about tripping up and say.....twisting an ankle :-)


Pat The Navigator.

Although we could have reached the river via the same street, David Aghmashenebeli Avenue , we took yesterday, we walked down a different street today mainly to avoid having to walk through what is essentially a construction site.  Besides, it gave us the opportunity to see some different sights.

We walked by the building in the photo below, the facade of which reminded me of the Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, Latvia most of which have been lovingly restored.  Apparently, Art Nouveau also made its way to Tbilisi though Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of the form in Riga, never worked here.

and in its glory days, the city was filled with buildings exhibiting the style.   Several of the buildings are the ones being restored on  Aghmashenebeli Avenue. Unfortunately, much has fallen into disrepair and may never be restored and has come under the attention of the World Monuments Fund.  Hopefully, that will change and buildings like this one will get saved.  Otherwise, it will be a tragic loss not just Georgians and lovers of Art Nouveau but for ordinary folk like me who appreciate the beauty of Art Nouveau architecture.

The facade of this old building reminded me of the

It felt like an eternity before we reached the water.  It's so slow going when you're hobbling along.  We then turned onto the street heading up the hill.  My heart sank at the sight of the cobblestone.  It's already hard enough on my foot to up hill on a paved path forget the uneven surface of cobblestone.  Thankfully, that was just a short stretch as there was a nice sidewalk for most of the way up.


Pat had us going every which way.  From the cobblestone street, her map indicated we needed to take a flight of steps up a hill.  We took the first set of steps we saw.  It felt like we were traipsing behind some private residences and I think that was pretty much what we were doing.  They were nice homes and from where I could glance over a wall, the people who lived there enjoyed nice views of the river and beyond.


It's spring.  The wisteria are in bloom.

At the top of the steps, we made our way up a street that continued uphill.  Our view of the neighborhood quickly changed.  In an instant, we went from nice homes with nice views to an area populated with crumbling homes. 



Even as the sight of the cupola of Sameba Cathedral came into view, we were in the midst of ramshackle buildings.  It's obvious they do have electricity (though how reliable?) and most likely, running water but some of the construction was in such poor shape, I don't know how difficult it must be for anyone living here to survive the cold of winter.

Electricity meters??

I don't know what the income level of the people living here is but it was all the more obvious to me that the Marjanishvili area we were staying in is very upscale....by Tbilisi standards.  Remarkably, the homes may look like they're about to fall down but there was not a single piece of litter on the ground!  There is no trash lying everywhere so people still take pride in keeping their environment clean.  Good for them!




We followed the sight line of the cupola of the Cathedral and eventually arrived at the entrance to the church.


We entered the cathedral complex and before us stood the large church.  My first impression was that it looked awfully knew for a cathedral in a country that has embraced Christianity for centuries.  I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi or even Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.

Formally known as The Holy Trinity Chathedral of Tbilisi, Sameba (which means Trinity in Georgian) is the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It was constructed between 1995 and 2004 which is why it looks so new.

Sameba Cathedral

The bell tower.


The entrance that we came in from.

There was a long path leading up the stairs that takes you up to the front doors.  Along the path were a series of carved pillars, each of a different design.





Looking back at the bell tower and the entrance to the complex.


 The church stood at the top of the steps.  It's a big structure. 



The front doors were closed so we had to find an open entrance.


We came back down the stairs and entered in via a side door.


Inside was a dark space.  Completely empty of furniture, decorations and most importantly today, people.  We felt like were in the basement and even in hindsight, I think that's exactly where we were.  I wouldn't have been surprised if someone had told me that a historical religious figure or two was entombed  here or their relics were enshrined here.


Pat and I headed back outside and went back up the steps.


We noticed some people walking towards the side of the Cathedral and so we did the same.  Best to follow the crowd.  You always figure someone else knows where they need to go :-)



One of several chapels.

This time the doors were open.  People were coming and going.



Stupid me though.  I had forgotten to bring along my headscarf so instead I took off my denim shirt and draped it over my head.  I must have looked like an absolute idiot.  Luckily, no one except for Pat knew me and she didn't care and as long as I did not want to have a photo taken of me inside the cathedral I was good to go.


It was interesting to see that even though the cathedral has been functioning for more than ten years now, work is still taking place.  There was scaffolding, sitting atop (or behind?) the iconostasis.  Above the scaffolding, on the wall of the apse, was the outline of what will obviously be a large mural.  Nothing had been painted yet.  I have a feeling more murals will get painted as time goes on.


There was a service taking place when we enter the place.   For some odd reason, I felt compelled to tip toe around although with the service blaring out over speakers, no none would have heard my ordinary footsteps.  We are so conditioned to behave in certain ways.




We didn't stay inside the cathedral for long.  Pat and I have been to so many churches in our travels that few really warrant visiting for any long length of time.  Back outside, we decided it was time to leave and we slowly made our way back to the entrance.  I stopped to take in a view before heading down the flight of steps.

He was really absorbed into whatever he was reading.

That tall glass and steel structure in the far distance is still under construction. 
When completed, it will be the tallest building in Tbilisi.

We decided to go back to the old city next.  We stood for a few seconds debating whether or not we should walk and quickly decided a taxi would be a better option.  There were plenty waiting outside the entrance to the Cathedral complex.  I approached one driver and he was willing to take us there for 10 lari which is only $4 USD which is very reasonable to me so we hopped in for the short ride down the hill and across the river.

Back in the old city, we decided to yet again, just wander about.  Today though, we did take our time to do a bit of souvenir shopping as well.

Too hard to figure out the signs.  Better to just wander.  You really can't get lost.

Hmmm.  How to say what I want?  This is where just pointing your finger works best.

We had the driver drop us off at the only place we know how to tell him to go to.  The sulphur baths.  We've both been curious about seeing what one looks like inside so just picked one based on the recommendation in Pat's Lonely Planet guidebook.

We stepped inside and a young man immediately walked up to us. We told him we wanted to see the bath and he graciously escorted us to see a couple of rooms.  I felt awkward about taking any photos so I simple kept my camera tucked away.  He showed us two rooms and each was a private room.  The walls and floors were tiled and decorated in manner that I would describe as something you would see in Turkey.  The taps were turned off but there was a distinct smell of sulphur about the place.

Neither one of us was interested in having a bath so we didn't want to linger inside for long.  In fact, we were probably in and out in less than 5 minutes.


From here, we made our way to a very familiar church, passing through Heydar Aliyev Park along the way.



Up a very familiar street.


To a very familiar set of gates and steps.  We were back at St. George's Church.  For all  the days we've been in this city and the fact that our first apartment was literally located inside the boundaries of the church's small courtyard, we had yet to step inside the church itself.  We had no excuse to skip it yet again.

St. George's Church is one of the two functioning Armenian churches in Tbilisi and is the cathedral of the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Though there is debate on exactly when the church was founded - in 1251 or earlier, it was restored in the 17th century, and then again in 1832 and 1881. The most recent round of renovations was just completed in 2015.


In the small courtyard, looking back at the gate.  Sameba Cathedral in the far distance.

The church was really a teeny, weeny space inside but very elaborately decorated.  Colorful murals decorate the walls, ceilings and columns.  Smaller paintings adorn the iconostasis.





Remnants of what I presume are earlier incarnations of the church are now embedded in the walls.



Looking down at the entry gates to Old Tbilisi.

Our wandering, mixed in with a bit of window shopping and souvenir buying, led us to one of the only two synagogues in Tbilisi - the Great Synagogue, also known as the Grand Synagogue.  Pat spotted it when she saw the menorah on the roof top.  Pat's husband, now deceased, was Jewish so she's far more familiar with the religion than I am.  I really must make more time and effort to learn more about Judaisim.




Mezuzah at the entry gate.

The synagogue was built was built from 1895 to 1903 by Georgian Jews from Akhaltsikhe, a small city in southwest Georgia, who migrated to Tbilisi in the late 19th century.

There was a literally a busload of tourists pouring out of the synagogue as we walked up to the front door.  It was quite a wait before we could actually get inside.  I have been to dozens of churches, temples and mosques but this is only the second time I've been inside a synagogue.  The only other time was when I was in Safed, Israel.  No better place to experience a synagogue than in Israel!


Standing behind the bima.
The bima on the left and ark on the right.

The ark.

Mezuzah. I think the design incorporates what look like buildings in old Tbilisi.

Prayer books and tallits.


A clock though I don't know what times it's tracking.

Obviously, the synagogue is located in the heart of the city's Jewish quarter.  To me, it looked like a poor part of town.


We didn't bother trying to figure out the signs.  Better to just wander.

While the Great Synagogue anchors the Jewish quarter of the old city, it's the city's Christian heritage that surrounds you.

I don't know who the two figures on the left are but St. Nino, holding the Georgian cross, is clearly the figure on the right.

We also happened upon a gate that led to a small garden.  At the other end stood a large church.  Both the garden and church looked to be under renovation - everything around us was a bit messy.


We had stumbled upon the Norashen Holy Mother of God Church or Norashen Sourb Astvatzatzin Church, a 15th century Armenian church. The church was was founded in 1467 and renovated in 1650. It also underwent renovations later in 1795, 1808, and 1875. Recently, the church as been the subject of controversy between the the Armenians and the Georgian Orthodox Church which has sought to convert it into a Georgian Church. Supposedly, the Armenians have charged the Georgians with the defacing of Armenian inscriptions on tombstones, and the bringing in of Georgian tombstones.

From the garden entrance, there was an open door but we dare not venture inside.  We tried to enter from another direction but there was a huge stone wall surrounding the church and no clear point of crossing the wall.


The part of Old Tbilisi that few tourists see.

Our wandering took us back to what I call restaurant row.  Had we not already had plans to eat with Inga, I would have been tempted to lunch here.   Yes, it would have been a high price, touristy meal but that's pretty much the case anywhere in the old city.  At least here, you can enjoy a meal outside.  It was partly cloudy all day but warm and so an al fresco meal would have been perfect.



At one end of restaurant row were a bunch of souvenir shops, selling higher end souvenirs and art galleries.  We stepped inside a few to check out the offerings but left them all empty handed.


Soon, it was time to head back to our apartment to wait for Inga to arrive.  She was going to swing by and pick us up and take us to a restaurant. 

One last view of Sioni Church.

I was not about to walk back, especially since a taxi ride costs 10 lari.  So, I flagged down a taxi and had the driver drop us off near Marjanishvili Square.  We headed back upstairs to the apartment to use the facilities and rest for a bit.  Then, it was back down to the street where we sat at a table, first outside CoffeeStory and then outside Dunkin' Donuts where there was some shade, to wait for Inga.


Just a few minutes past 2p, Inga, who is ever so busy, scurried up to us.  We followed her to an awaiting van where there was a man behind the wheel.  Funny enough, we headed back down the streets to the old city and our driver pulled the van into the parking lot of the exact same restaurant, Maspindzelo, that we had had dinner with Yuriy the day we arrived into Tbilisi!  She was telling how good this place is and when we told her we had already eaten her, she was surprised.  Of course, we also told her that we had enjoyed the food and that we didn't mind having another meal here and that indeed was the truth.

After literally months of exchanging emails, it was nice to be able to not only meet Inga but to spend time getting to know her.  A former travel consultant with Mir Corp, she has now gone out on her own and is working hard to build up her own tour company.  My impression is that she's ambitious and extremely hardworking and with her business savvy and solid command of English, she will do very well.  Oh....and did I mention she's really nice? :-)

I don't know how the point came up but somehow, we mentioned the difficulties we had been having with taking the elevator up to and down from our apartment.  We sheepishly confessed to her that we gave up after two tries and had been walking up and down the nine flights of steps, several times a day.  That's when Inga revealed to us that you have to simultaneously push the 3rd floor button with another button, to get the elevator to move.  NOW.....we know the secret.  Of course, we find this out the day before we leave the place.  Ugh!!!

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The waiter gave Pat and I the English menu but since we had two Georgians to order for us, we really didn't need it.

Inga and our driver (I forget his name) ordering our food.

We decided to order a few dishes to share.  For once, I was so busy chatting that I completely forgot to take any photos of the food we had ordered.  Trust me though, it was delicious.  After a few non-Georgian meals, it was nice to go back to having some local food.   Pat and I were stuffed to the gills when we walked out of the restaurant.

Inga had a meeting after lunch and offered that her driver could take us anywhere we wanted to go....within the city limits of course.  By now, Pat and I had had enough of sightseeing so we just wanted to head back to the apartment.  Our driver dropped us off right outside the front door to our building and the first thing that Pat and I was to test out the elevator instructions from Inga.  And they worked!  There could not have been two more ecstatic people in the entire city at that moment!

Back in the apartment, we just relaxed the rest of the day and night away as we were too stuffed to even have dinner.  For now, I do have to repack my suitcase and reach out to Oleg to arrange for a time for him to come by and pick up the key.  I also have to reach out to Gurgen, our Armenian guide, to coordinate his arrival time as he is coming all the way from Yerevan to pick us up and take us back to Yerevan.  It's going to be a long travel day tomorrow but as sad as I am to leave Tbilisi, I am very much looking forward to being in Armenia.

Goodnight from Tbilisi!