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Rustaveli avenue

Running from Freedom Square northwest and parallel to the Mtkvari river, Rustaveli Avenue is 1,500- meter-long (4,920-foot) avenue that has been an important thoroughfare since medieval limes.

Laid out by the Russians in the 19th century and strung with elegant and important buildings, it tends to be the place in Tbilisi you always find yourself walking. A refurbishment programme has spruced up Rustaveli: facades have been restored, flower beds planted and new pavements (on which cars can no longer park) laid . Several new top-end hotels are also being added to its landscape.

Named Golovinskii Avenue by Vorontsov, the Tsar's viceroy in the Caucasus, who constructed it in the 19th century, it is now named for the great 12th-century Georgian poet. Lined with plane trees, decorated with flower beds, graced by a vari-ety of neoclassical and Renaissance revival facades, and site of the city's most important theatres and the Opera House, Rustaveli Avenue was and will no doubt again, in less stressful times, be the street of choice for Tbilisians to take their evening passegiata.

Here's where the young used to "check each other out," with groups of girls walking in one direction up the avenue and encountering their male counterparts coming the other way. Families shop, old men sit on the benches in the small recessed parks, children buy ice cream from street vendors. So integral to the lives of Tbilisians is the ebb and flow of movement on the avenue that most citizens couldn't conceive of not having easy access to it. A joke was told about a professor from Tbilisi who was thinking of emigrating. After his friend agreed on the wisdom of his leaving, expounding on all the problems in Georgia, the Tbilisian said, "But does that mean I wouldn't be able to stroll on Rustaveli?" The realization was, of course, enough to make him stay.

The first building on your left as you look down Rustaveli with your back to Freedom Square is the Tbilisi Department Store, built in 1975. The store's atrium creates a passageway to the Alexander Griboyedov (Russian) Theatre, founded in 1845 by Vorontsov to promote Russian culture in Georgia and to make a posting to the Caucasus less of a hardship for Russian officers. Just behind the entrance to the Freedom Square subway is the Children's Palace. Set behind a tall fence and a lovely garden, the house was built in 1807 and served until 1917 as the residence of the Governor General of the Caucasus. Designed to conform to the official classical style of the time, the strict Doric order was altered by architect Otto Simonson, who supervised fundamental renovations and changes to the interior and the facade between 1865 and 1868. Today the palace is used as a youth center where dancing, music, and chess are taught. A very extensive Toy Museum, comprised mostly of dolls, is also here.

Off the opposite corner of Tavisuplebis moedani is the well-presented Museum of Money (Leonidze 10; admission free; 10am-1pm & 2-4pm Mon-Fri), set up by the National Bank of Georgia next door. You can see Georgian money from the 6th century BC to the present day, including the Monopolystyle coupons used in 1993-94 before the lari was introduced.

North along Rustaveli from Tavisuplebis Moedani, almost opposite Tavisuplebis Moedani metro station, is the Museum of Georgia (Rustaveli 3; admission 3 GEL, tour 10 GEL; 11am-4pm Tue-Sun). This is Georgia's top museum. The main rooms cover Georgia's history, including a section on the Soviet occupation and an exhibit on the 1.75-million-year-old skulls found at Dmanisi, 80km southwest of Tbilisi, which may be the oldest human remains found outside Africa. Most stunning of all is the basement treasury (guide obligatory) with an outstanding collection of archaeological finds including gold artefacts and jewellery from pre-Christian Georgia.

Back on the west side of the street, the high-arched Georgian Parliament was constructed as the Soviet government building between 1938 and 1953 and finished off by German POWs. This enormous structure with a row of arches occupies the entire block. Momentous events in Georgia’s recent history have taken place here: the Soviet massacre of 20 Georgian hunger strikers on 9 April 1989; Georgia’s independence declaration on 9 April 1991; on 6 January 1992 President Gamsakhurdia fled the building after being besieged in it for two weeks; and the Rose Revolution on 22 November 2003. A small monument in front of the Parliament commemorates the dead of 1989.

The next building, School Number 1, was founded in 1802 to prepare sons of the Georgian nobility for the Russian Civil Service. This structure burned down completely in the Tbilisi War in 1991 and was one of the first buildings to be completely restored. The faithful reconstruction took place in two years, a wondrously short amount of time for a project like this in this part of the world. It was funded with a gift from the Russian government.

On the front lawn is a monument to Ilya Chavchavadze (1837-1907) and Akaki Tsereteli (1840-1915), the two Georgian writers of the second half of the 19th century whose works embodied the ideals of a free and democratic Georgia.

Opposite School No 1 stands the Kashveti Church of St. George, on a spot where it is said pagan rituals used to take place. The first church here is supposed to have been built in the 6th century by Davit Gareja, one of the ascetic ‘Syrian fathers’ who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia.

Set below street level, one used to enter through the courtyard that opens onto Jorjadze Street, but after the Tbilisi War during the restoration of the bullet-scarred facade, a new Western narthex was built which became the main entrance directly off Rustaveli. The church was designed by the German architect Leopold Bielfeld between 1904 and 1910. He used as his basic model the 11th-century domed Cathedral of Samtavisi, 60 km (37 miles) northwest of Tbilisi. Designed to accommodate services both in Georgian (upper level) and Russian (lower level), the church is distinguished by its rich ornamentation, especially the stone carving around the windows and arches. The altar was painted by Lado Gudiashvili in 1946.

The name of the church comes from a legend. The daughter of a Tbilisi nobleman, finding herself pregnant, accused St. David of being the father. He replied that if this were true, she’d give birth to a baby, and if not, to a stone, which duly happened. Kashveti means ‘Stone Birth’.  Kva means "stone" and shva means "gave birth." The existing 1910 building was designed by architect Leopold Bielfeld as a copy of the 11th-century Samtavisi Church, 60km northwest of Tbilisi.

Next door to the Kashveti Church at number 11, the midway point in Rustaveli Avenue, is the Picture Gallery. Built between 1883 and 1885, this amalgam of Renaissance, Classical, and Baroque styles originally saw life as a Museum of Military History. It is now used for rotating art exhibitions.

Across Jorjiashvili Street is the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel. Built in 1915 by Gabriel Ter-Mikelov, the hotel was designed with lovely rounded corners that follow the bend of Rustaveli Avenue. It was destroyed during the Tbilisi War in 1991. An American businessman currently owns the license to restore the hotel.

On the same side of the road, past the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel, is the elegant Rustaveli National Theatre, built between 1899 and 1901 in a baroque-cum-rococo style. 

Built for the Theatrical Society between 1899 and 1901 by the architects Korneli Tatishchev and Alexander Shimkevich, the elegantly decorated auditorium seats 840. In addition to a concert hall and classrooms for the Tbilisi Drama Institute, a cafe in the basement is decorated with frescoes by Lado Gudiashvili, David Kakabadze, Sergei Sudeikin, and the Polish artist Sigizmund Valishevsky. The theater is the home of the Rustaveli Theater Company, founded in 1921. It is cur-rently under the directorship of Robert Sturua, whose productions of Shakespeare, Brecht, and Sophocles have played to rave reviews throughout the world. Sturua's Richard III was a huge success in London in 1980 and a decade later his production of King Lear garnered acclaim when it appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Also, music lovers can meet many of the students from the Sarajishvili Conservatory, which is just up the hill on Griboyedov Street. Named after a famous tenor from the beginning of the 20th century, and founded in 1917, the conservatory claims such recent illustrious graduates as the great bass Paata Burchuladze and the pianists Elisso Virsaladze and Lexo Toradze. Tbilisi is a musical city: Fyodor Chaliapin began his career at the Tbilisi Opera House and Tchaikovsky began The Sleeping Beauty, Iolanthe, and The Queen of Spades here.

Nearby at 22 Griboyedov Street The Tbilisi Academy of Arts is one of the loveliest 19th-century homes left in the city. The second floor is a museum where you can see the work of recent graduates. Be particularly attentive to the examples of metal chasing, an ancient Georgian craft that is perpetuated by the Academy.

Back once more on Rustaveli, look across the street at the marvellous pseudo-Moorish Z. Paliashvili Opera and Ballet Theatre. The opera house on this site has been ravaged by fire. The original theater, which burned down in the 1870s, was replaced between 1880 and 1896 by a Moorish-style building designed by P. Sretter. In 1973 that building burned down, leaving only the front portico and a portion of the side walls and foyer. The 1977 rebuilding of the opera house preserved the orig-inal appearance of the building.

Although the backstage area and auditorium were enlarged and modified, the changes are virtually undetectable from the street. The auditorium seats more than 1,000. The Z. Paliashvili Opera and Ballet Theatre was founded in 1851. Before 1917 primarily Russian and Italian opera companies performed here. Tbilisians were perceived as an appreciative and discerning audience and new works like Verdis Othello and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin were staged not long after their debuts.

National opera began to be produced at the beginning of the 20th century. Zakharia Paliashvili, for whom the Opera House is named, is considered the father of Georgian opera and is best known for Absalom and Eteri and Daisi. A statue of him wearing a toga, holding a torch, and reading a score is in the adjoining garden. Sculpted by Merab Berdzenishvili, it was unveiled in 1973. The composer's grave, and that of the tenor who first sang his works (and for whom the conservatory is named, Vano Sarajishvili) are on the left side of the garden.

The last building on your right before entering the wide open space of Republic Square is the Central Telegraph Office.