Our Eating Georgia Food Tour offered an optional walking tour of Sololaki in Tbilisi. Of course, I put my hand up for what is described as a tour with “stories of buildings and their owners that can’t be read in any guidebook.”
An Enthusiastic Guide
Our guide, Baia is late. Her earlier tour went overtime, such is her enthusiasm for her topic. Our tour also runs overtime, but that’s fine by me. I’m fascinated by the buildings, their mostly faded interiors and the stories behind them.
Why is the area called Sololaki?
Sololaki is a district outside the Old Town of Tbilisi. Kings and nobles lived here in estates surrounded by beautiful gardens. Baia explains that these gardens needed irrigation. Canals (long since buried) brought water to the area. In the way that language changes over time, “sulu-lah”, an Arabic word meaning “irrigation canal,” became ‘Sololaki’.
In the early 1900s, Armenian and Georgian merchants and businessmen built their family homes here. They were opulent mansions. Our tour takes us past and into some of these old mansions that were built in Art Nouveau and Baroque architectural styles. Grand facades and ornate entrance halls were features of the day.
Once grand homes, now dilapidated apartments.
Walking past these buildings, you would be forgiven for not recognizing the former opulence of this suburb. The days of grandeur are long gone. In 1921, when the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was established, houses, originally occupied by one family, were divided into apartments and handed over to anything from five to fifteen families.
Many buildings are in a poor state of repair and look unstable. This is a result of a lack of ongoing maintenance. No one takes responsibility for maintaining the common areas now that the houses are divided up into apartments. With the canals collapsing beneath the foundations, some of the houses have an obvious lean. Many buildings have Cultural Heritage status and are expensive to repair and restore.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
There is a program of restoration, but it is slow going. A recently restored building which now houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is inaccessible to visitors. It was once home to the National Bank of Georgia. I’ve been told that either Stalin robbed the bank to fund the Bolshevik rebellion, or he robbed the person who robbed the bank.
The Devil’s House
The next house at our next stop owes its common name to a carving above one of the windows. A bearded man with horns rests his chin on clasped hands. He looks like the devil and the house is known as the Devil’s House. Others claim that the carving depicts Pan, the Greek god of the wild and shepherds.
Baia says that the Devil’s house is the only haunted house in Tbilisi. The story goes that the young girl who lived there had a number of suitors. As in many such stories, her father wasn’t happy with them and scared them off. When she fell in love with one man, her father refused them permission to marry and she killed herself. Neighbours have heard her ghost roaming the house.
The Estonian Consulate
We enter another building. A beautiful staircase winding up to the upper floors, greets us. After a short flight of marble stairs, dusty wooden steps rest on delicate filigree risers. The Estonian Consulate had offices here between 1921 and 1922. The building has been divided into eight apartments. Paint peels from the delicate artwork on the high ceilings. Dust obscures the original parquetry on the floors. The murals that would have decorated the entrance hall are long gone.
An Italianate villa, set back from the road behind an old metal fence, was owned by two brothers who were in the textile business. Their initials ‘A’ and ‘M’ are immortalised in the crest. Outside another large building, workmen take a break. They know little about the building, but tell us that people only live on the first floor. It has had some paint and repair work done to the glassed-in balconies. The upper two floors look derelict with missing window panes boarded up and the wooden frames and balustrades in dire need of a lick of paint. It seems incongruous that expensive looking cars are parked out front.
We pass many homes that once were beautiful, but are well past their prime. Baia points out various features. The decorative wrought iron work in the front doors often includes the initials of the owners who lived there. Behind the doors, the floor tiles may include owner’s initials. In one entry hall, I read a faded “S A L V E” meaning “welcome” in Latin.
Entering these Old Mansions
We enter a few buildings, sometimes through wide open doors. Other doors are unlocked. I feel like I am trespassing. I suppose I am. At one door, Baia keys a code into a security panel. I ask if she lives there. She doesn’t, but she has worked out the security code. People live here and we duly keep our chatter to a minimum while admiring the grand surroundings.
False picture frames line the walls of large entrance halls. The pictures within them have often faded or been painted over, but some remain or have been painstakingly restored.
The design of one beautifully restored building was inspired by the Opera House on Shota Rustaveli. The Persian influence in the design as well as the Star of David in one window suggests that the owner may have been and Armenian Jew.
Our last stop
Our last stop is an ordinary looking three-storey building. Baia takes a key out of her purse and lets us in. She doesn’t live here, but her brother owns one of the apartments. My jaw drops. Five framed murals line the walls of the the dark entrance . Painted in oils, directly onto the walls, they each represent a different country or continent. An intricate mosaic decorates the floor. The two brothers who owned the house were tobacco merchants.
We follow Baia up the stairs. Light streams in from a glass ceiling. The murals here are light and airy, less severe than those downstairs. Restoration work is ongoing.
My experience of a Walking tour of Sololaki in Tbilisi
Baia’s walking tour of Sololaki introduced me to a side of Tbilisi that I would never have discovered independently. Another day, as I wander down streets I look more carefully at the doorways and facades. I even enter some of the entrance halls and am delighted by more hidden artworks and architectural features.
- Find out more about Baia’s Walking tour of Sololaki here