Georgia’s Secret City

Posted on May 15, 2012 by

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The city is very old, but most Georgians don’t know that.

It has been destroyed, reborn, destroyed, reborn, and destroyed and reborn again.

In the city’s lone, mostly unknown, museum, lie the plaster-cast remains of a girl. Centuries ago, she died at her doorway, a weapon in her hand, while she attempted to defend her family from invaders.

There are archeological treasures buried beneath the city, but there’s no money to retrieve them.

A thousand-year old fortress stands guard over a man-made lake that feeds into the River Mtkvari.

In the spring, the steppes surrounding the city wear a grassy cover draped like the folds of a toga.  Ivory herds of sheep move up and down the steppes and in the floodplain around the city.

A wide, straight boulevard runs through the city, its name changing from Shatava to Megobroba to Kostava at each of three important city sections. There are numerous parks – small, medium, and large – distributed throughout the city. An improbable amusement park with bumper cars is stashed behind modern glass public-service buildings.

The city is so like the country at large – a place of contrasts. It is ugly and beautiful. It is old and new. It has a large population, but possesses a village sensibility.  There is birth here and there is decay. It is a Cinderella city, full of hidden loveliness, but maligned by residents and outsiders alike.

In the time of Stalin, the city was an international center, populated by men and women from all over the Soviet Union. In this time, one of the city’s heydays, it was a planned community. Workers lived in gracious flats. Each type of worker had his own health clinic, hospital, and health resort. There was a grand theater. A large park housed a zoo, another theater, botanical gardens. Buildings were designed in the Empire style, graceful and classic.  Trees lined wide streets.

In the 1970s, on the other side of the river, there was a demand for a lot of housing very fast. So hundreds of block apartments shot up, vertical micro-villages for workers streaming in from Georgia’s countryside and beyond.  Less outwardly beautiful than its older sister across the river, this new addition to the city boasted an internal beauty in the camaraderie of the neighbors. Some inhabitants recreated small bits of their villages in the form of pocket farms with tiny orchards, vegetable gardens, and chickens.

When the Abkhazian refugees came, they brought only their memories of a gorgeous land, as most had to flee with what they wore on their backs and nothing more. One Abkhazian husband and wife who settled in the not-so-beautiful part of this city recreated a bit of paradise by transforming their block apartment yard into a botanical garden, then building in that yard a petite church, and then in an empty lot next door, creating a tiny fountain park with a tiled pool stocked with fish. In the midst of ugliness, then, an island of beauty, shared with all.

Many people know there’s a new part of this city and an old part. But even life-long residents forget about the third part of the city – its vibrant city of the dead. The city’s massive cemetery, which includes both Christian and Muslim sections, is located on a bluff that overlooks the River Mtkvari valley with views of both the old and new parts of the living city. There’s also a view of an Azeri-Georgian village. For good or ill, the engraved photographic images of the dead create the sense of a city populated with men and women (and, alas, children) who smile, laugh, drink, smoke, and ponder into perpetuity. Cement picnic tables, trees, flowers, and arbors welcome loved ones still living.

Would-be travelers often ask if a place is “worth” visiting. About this city, I say: For more than a day, right now, no. Maybe in the future. But for one day? Yes!  It’s a worthwhile destination for cyclists (the land is flat – and you can cycle to Azerbaijan from here), architecture lovers, photographers, and historians. It’s a very walkable city. There may be more restaurants per capita here than anywhere in Georgia.

The city? It’s Rustavi.

It’s where I’ve lived for almost year and I love it.

To get to Rustavi from Tbilisi: Pick up a marshrutka in any one of a number of spots, such as Station Square, Didube, by the Polytechnic University, or Samgori. Cost = 1 lari, 30 tetri. Time = 40 minutes.

You’ll enter New Rustavi first, where masses of block apartments rise eerily from the river plain. Get off here if you wish, but I recommend starting your visit in Old Rustavi, which means you’ll continue on the main boulevard until it crosses the river. Get off at the ‘meria,’ the main plaza in front of the city hall.

Some sights to see:

  • Old Rustavi:  The Youth Park, which is along the River Mtkvari and which is home to the ancient fortress and the remains of a zoo
  • Old Rustavi: Metallurgical Factory building at the end of the boulevard
  • Old Rustavi: Rustavi’s History Museum
  • Old Rustavi: A meandering walking tour to look at the Stalinist-era Empire buildings, many falling slowly (and beautifully) into a patina-ed decay
  • New Rustavi: On Shatava Street (main boulevard before you get to the Rustaveli roundabout) – the miniature church and park built by the Abhkazian couple
  • New Rustavi: Amusement park behind the glass public-service buildings that are on Megobroba Street (main boulevard after the Rustaveli roundabout)
  • New Rustavi: Brand new car race track before you enter Rustavi proper, in the auto bazaar area
  • New Rustavi: Hike up the steppes to the enormous cross
  • Between Old and New Rustavi: Walk along the marshes near the river bridge, following the railroad tracks
  • Cemetery: At the Old Bazaar in Old Rustavi, take marshrutka #15, which will take you past the cemetery. (This marshrutka also goes to Samgori station in Tbilisi via an Azeri-Georgian village)
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