Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, has a European air. Most directions make reference to Freedom Square, a central monument in downtown, where stands a golden statue of St. George, slaying a dragon, atop a very tall, sculptural pillar.
In the afternoon sunlight, it is blinding. St. George is considered the patron saint of Georgia. The downtown has museums, theater companies, bookstores, and an active opera company. The Courtyard Marriott occupies a corner on rambunctious Freedom Square, across from the Burberry store (which tries hard not to notice the Dunkin Donuts on the corner.) It’s a five-minute walk to the much more snazzy Marriott Tbilisi on Rustaveli Avenue, an older and more sedate neighborhood with parks, churches, and boutiques, along with the theater and opera.
President George W. Bush visited Georgia in May, 2005. Georgians named one of their main roads “President George W. Bush Street” in thanks for his support when Russia assumed control of two Georgian districts. The taxi driver pointed that out to me.
In “Old Town,” there are numerous coffee shops (no Starbucks,) and inexpensive hotels. That’s where I landed, being a “budget traveler” on this journey. It is the older, more colorful part of the city – the streets wind, melting together then parting again, paved with cobblestones and lined with shops, restaurants, sculptures, memorials, and churches, with a mosque and two synagogues for good measure.
Real people work in Old Town. One woman I talked with in the store where she worked, asked where I was from, and reacted as I see so often: “America, that is my dream.” We talked about conditions in Georgia, and she told me that she earns seventy “lari” a day working in the store. That would be about $27 USD, or about $800 per month, assuming she works every day.
The Gabriadze Puppet Theater sits on the edge of Old Town, just before it becomes downtown Tbilisi. It is a newer place, having opened in 1981. You can recognize the “Leaning Tower of Tbilisi” by the clock tower, built deliberately askew, where an angel striking a bell marks each hour. At five o’clock, marionette-like figures parade across an opened stage under the clockface. Sitting inside the adjacent cafe, one can watch the gathering audience on the small square in front, phones and cameras at the ready.
This puppet theater is not for children. Rezo Gabriadze, the founder, is a native Georgian who grew up when Georgia was under Soviet rule. He viewed the Soviet regime as repressive, and used puppet theater to write creatively, but under the radar of Soviet officials. It’s a small theater, only eighty seats. I was able to attend one of the performances of “Stalingrad,” a collection of vignettes about life under Stalin during WWII. It was incredible in every way, from when the small tanks rolled onto the set to when the old horse ascended to Heaven. There were English subtitles for people like me.
“Our aim was to visit the country from where Jason stole the Golden Fleece. A new world, full of unexpected surprises opened up in front of us.” (Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian-Bohemian Nobel laureate) This was on a postcard I bought in Tbilisi. This sense of romantic adventure fills the air of Georgia, sweeping visitors and natives alike into the rich history that surrounds them.
Georgia claims to be where Jason and the Argonauts came to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The boundaries of mythology and history dissolve in the face of tantalizing facts that seem to support the wonders of the Greek myths – since 1870, archaeologists’ excavations of Bronze Age artifacts make it clear that Greek myths preserve traditions of a Bronze Age society (2300-700 BC.) (BBC.co.uk) To this day, from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, people use sheep fleeces to sift gold flakes from streams that flow from the mountains.