Recently another blogger friend of mine over at his blog, Fill That Passport, went to Georgia. His route took him only to Kutaisi, and then to some sites around Kutaisi. What fascinated me was that most people in Georgia never really think of Kutaisi itself as a tourist destination, even though it definitely is, but still, this guy made it so.
With a beautifully recently renovated old town, its close proximity to half-a-dozen tourist sites, cheap Wizzair flights from Europe that go as low as 9 euros, and low price of food, wine, and tours, it’s really set to take over as Georgia's leading destination.
What even impressed me more though was that he was able to get to some pretty hidden but spectacular sites that Georgia has to offer, which I don’t think ever make it on a top ten list. I think that’s just amazing myself and says a lot for the potential of the area.
Colchis Fountain in Kutaisi and the theatre, with Bagrati in the background
A bit of history
Kutaisi was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis, famous for where Jason and the Argonauts landed to get his golden fleece, and where he found his future bride and murderous maiden Medea. It was later the capital of the Kingdom of Georgia during the short period it was a unified country, and then for three centuries, it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Imereti. It now serves as the seat of the Parliament, where they built a giant, snail-like cosmo-dome on the city limits from which to rule the country. It was an economic powerhouse in the Soviet days, until the fall of the USSR, when the factories all closed their doors, but since the Parliament’s relocation, it’s been witnessing something of a renaissance.
a view of Kutaisi from Bagrati
I’ve visited Kutaisi three times. The first time was for a week, as I was there to lead a teachers’ training, the second time I was there just a night, coming in with a friend from the epically awesome village of Chiatura (read my blog here), and finally, another time just before my wedding. I’m by no means an expert, but I can say I’ve been around the Kutaisi block, so to speak.
A first peak
That first time I was there I was staying in a new area, which didn’t really seem that new or interesting. It was a short walk to the school where I was teaching, so that was fine enough. Having lived in Tbilisi, I didn’t have high hopes for Kutaisi. Tbilisi people give the town a bad rap. They go on about how it’s a city of criminals and scoundrels, and that there’s absolutely no reason to ever go to Kutaisi.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
My initial introduction to Kutaisi had met my low expectations. I was staying on the sixth floor of a newly built hotel without a lift, right near a long avenue of Soviet buildings.
Leave it to say, I didn’t think the rest of the trip would be that great. When the office worker asked me to accompany her downtown, out of boredom and only mild interest I accepted. My students also offered to take me to the main tourist site, Bagrati, on my last day. So at least I would see something of interest while I was there, and Kutaisi - outside of the working view - wouldn’t be a complete waste of my “cultural” time spent in these last few weeks of Georgia.
View of the Rioni river
The office aid had to buy some ink for the computer, so I went with her to the office shop. We hopped on the line 1 bus (which goes at least from McDonald’s to the Old Town, passing a scenic palm tree lined street of Soviet buildings) and got off just at the start of the Old Town. There had clearly a lot of money spent in revitalizing the Old Town. It is actually all quite nice now, and not just a Potemkin village facade rehaul, but something that feels more true to the locale.
street in the old town
Since the renovations, Kutaisi’s inner city is crowded with restaurants and beer gardens, some which also line the Rioni River, which lazily makes its way through the center of town. A look at the houses and hotels hanging off the river gives one a sense of what Tbilisi had looked like before the Soviet Union had torn up the center to make highways for the ease of traffic flow (apparently not the best planning giving the current situation). The way that Georgians seem to excel at making buildings hang off impossible places is what inspires me the most about Georgian architecture. Never mind the nervousness that they also inspire in me, knowing the modern building standards in the country.
The crown of the Old Town is the fountain, which is in the center of the traffic circle in front of the Opera House, itself a handsome building. The fountain, a cornerstone of development during Mikheil “Fontanadze” Saakashvili’s reign as President, has various ancient Georgian symbols in gold plating circling the center - rams and bulls face outward, protecting its core of water, while streams come forth from between the figures.
Kutaisi Central Square
The statues are replicas of actual artifacts found in the area from the Bronze Age. Visible peaking up behind the fountain and the Opera House is the giant Bagrati Cathedral, which seems to be visible from almost every point of the city, as adding to its enormous size, it’s built on the main hill of the city, where also was once the main fortress of the ruler of the land.
The last day, my students took me to Bagrati to show off the crown of Kutaisi. Bagrati, or the Cathedral of the Dormition, was built under the order of King Bagrat III back in the 11th century, and was in vastly deteriorated form when the Soviet Union fell and the property was returned to the Georgian Church.
11th century Bagrati
Here, at the cathedral, my new enthusiasm for the city wavered a bit. I’ll have to admit that Bagrati is a huge cathedral by any standard, and that once upon a time, the gigantic construction must have also had some sort of airy, mystical allure to it. But not so much now. The renovation of the building has been somewhat caught in a tempestuous scandal, especially as UNESCO threatened to remove it from the cultural heritage list, as it reared dangerously close to not looking very much like the original structure. Much of the building now is new and whitewashed, bearing none of the regal glory that the building had centuries before, lacking most of the finely carved and detailed walls that now only are born on two or three columns.
view of Bagrati from the back
I’m not sure if it’s simply the lack of skilled stonemasons in modern Georgia, or if the thirst of new and modern made those in charge of the renovations simply overlook what makes a church great. And so I think, insofar as churches in Georgia go, Bagrati falls into a place of now nearly un-noteworthy sites (unless you happen to be in Kutaisi, then you might as well see it). See Svetitskhoveli or Alaverdi if you want huge, mystical places, or for more intimate religious spaces, then the nearby Gelati. Bagrati remains a controversy, and not at all mystical. But from viewing the place, I’m left with the feeling that, had the building been left in disrepair and collapse, in the condition that it was in, there would be still more of the feeling of God than what I get with its renewed state. If you like ruins though, and imagining how rubbly old castles once were, then the ruins next door are worth a look.
Bagrati from the ruins of the old castle
The second time I was in Bagrati just before my wedding. My friend and I ventured off to explore the castle ruins right next to it. The ruins seem somewhat forgotten by the locals, but are fun to hop around. We climbed up the wall and looked down at a huge complex of ruined castle, with one small chapel standing in the middle in a protest against time. There was no way to get down to it from on top of the wall, but then we found a path that went past Bagrati and around the wall so that you could walk among the stone ruins. This was, I found, probably the most interesting thing for me at Bagrati.
the medieval chapel near Bagrati
the old fortress mount
We went to Gelati on the trip just before my wedding.
As is the custom with Georgian taxi drivers, our driver didn’t seem to know exactly where Gelati was. We ended up driving for a good thirty minutes through the outskirts of Kutaisi, asking ever birja-dwelling kaci where it was, and all of them pointing vehemently, “That way!”
We kept going that way, and at a curious sign, saying Gelati was both to the right and straight ahead, we turned toward the right. As our station wagon lugged and blugged its way through narrow, unpaved roads, with houses in various shapes of disrepair, I began to loudly doubt our choice of journey. “I don’t think this is the right way, guys,” I said.
the Gelati monastic complex
We stopped. The driver got out and consulted a woman standing on her balcony in nothing but a towel. He then nodded and brought us back to the sign where we chose the other direction for Gelati.
my best man walking from the bell tower
Gelati is nearly as old as Bagrati, dating back to the time of David the Builder in the 11th and 12th centuries, who decided to build a "New Athens" - a new center for learning and religion - this decision being made in next week’s mentioned monastery at Martvili. The place now is under renovation, but not in the same manner that brought to me and UNESCO such contention as Bagrati.
the interiors are full of beautifully painted murals:
The renovations at Gelati seem a lot more suited and faithful to the original form of the monastery, and preserve the old and mysterious tone of the places. However, they seem to be taking a rather long time, due to the controversy wrapped around the UNESCO status.
renovations are a constant at the site
Prometheus and Sataplia
My next choice for our journey were the Prometheus caves. The Prometheus caves were discovered recently and were named after the Greek god who was allegedly chained down at the feet of Mt. Khvamili for an eternity of vultures picking out his eyes because he brought humans fire.
walking through Sataplia
The Prometheus caves are evidently huge and you can rent a boat - yes, a boat! - to get through them. This really for me would be the highlight of that trip, since I had never been in a cave on a boat. As we were driving there, the driver kept asking us, “You are sure you don’t mean Sataplia? I’ve never heard of Prometheus.” And several times again he had to stop the car to ask directions. Finally, we found the caves. Evidently you can be there on any day but Monday, and it was a Monday.
“I can drive you guys to Sataplia,” the driver offered. I might note here that these places are on Google Maps, so don't be too afraid of my driver stories. And most Georgian drivers, like this guy, are pretty accommodating.
another view of the kiddy caves
So, instead of the awesome, underground Styxian cave, we went to the nearby Sataplia, which I'll label here as the "children's cave". The Children’s Cave, to round out its title, even comes complete with dinosaur footprints and the tour includes standing next to man-sized statues of the giant lizards for photo-ops. The Georgian name of “Sataplia” was given due to some cave bees creating gigantic sucrose catacombs of honey in the cliff sides. Well, when we were shown the outer layer, they didn’t appear so gigantic, but “gigantic” is a relative term and bees are quite small.
The next year, my wife decided to make my dream of visiting Prometheus come true. So the family took us there. The cave truly is massive – by any measure, much more massive than Sataplia. It's a 1.2 kilometer underground walk. However, we didn’t get to get a boat. Apparently, the water only rises high enough on certain days after the rains, so if you want to do cave boating, you’ll have to go in Spring or Fall. You can call ahead to see if the boats are working, with the contact on their website.
the much grander Prometheus caves
the natural color and the foot of a lake
the colors are added by light, not natural to the rock
If you’ve got kids, I’d go to Sataplia. If you’re an adult interested in spelunking, I think Prometheus makes the better tour then.
To get there from Kutaisi, take a marshrutka from the market near McDonald's to Tskaltubo. There's a connecting bus from there to Prometheus (Promete).
Where to eat
When I was there, there was a restaurant right next to the fountain, Baraqa. I took the menu and found something I had never seen before - Abkhazuli xatchapuri (Abkhazian cheesebread). I consider myself something of an expert on xatchapuri, eagerly devouring any before me and having tried every xatchapuri known to any Tbiliseli, and this was not on that list. So I insisted on ordering it. What came out was something like an Adjaruli xatchapuri, a boat of bread with cheese, egg and butter in the center. With the Abkhazuli xatchapuri though, the egg was lacking. It was a seriously delicious meal though, and I think that for any xatchapuri fans who find themselves in Kutaisi, they need to head to Baraqa. Actually, including the taste and size of the salad, I’d have to say that it ranks among one of my favorite restaurants in all of Georgia. Definitely worth making a pit stop that includes more than just McDonald’s.
Abkhazuli xatchapuri at Baraqa, your only regret will be the carbs
I went to another restaurant there called El Paso. Here I thought I was lucking out and there was a hidden gem of a Mexican restaurant in this unlikely corner of the road. But despite its strangely Hispanic name, El Paso is actually - surprise! - a Georgian restaurant. With really delicious khinkali (Georgian dumplings). Which falls possibly second in my best tasting khinkali in Georgia list. So hit Baraqa on your way to Samegrelo, Svaneti, or Batumi and El Paso on your way back. You’ll thank me for that advice.
Frankly, if you're driving through Kutaisi, there is absolutely no reason that you shouldn't do a quick stop in the old town, at the very least for lunch. You won't regret it.
How to get around
In Georgia, tourism infrastructure revolves around the idea that tourists should just hire a tour guide or take a taxi everywhere. In a land where taxi drivers are regular swindlers, I can’t really advise you on the best practice if you don’t know Georgian or Russian. Younger tour operators will know English, so that might be your best bet.
If you’re feeling courageous and patient though, go with a taxi. Be prepared to have to write numbers down and haggle a lot and over everything.
I really wish there were some easy routes to these places, but as far as I know, there aren’t (if anyone reading this blog knows some, please drop them in the comments and I’ll update the blog).
To get to and from Kutaisi is a different matter though. The safest way is by train. There’s an overnight and morning train from Tbilisi that drops you at the main station, which is only a short walk to the Old Town. Then there’s various other on the way trains, which takes about three or four hours, but drops you in little villages along the south end – Ajameti, Rioni, Brotseula – and depending on the train route, to Kutaisi II station. You can check the schedule and buy tickets online here.
Going to Kutaisi from Tbilisi, if you don’t want the overnight or morning route, you’ll have to look for Kutaisi II or one of those villages, but be warned, transit from those other stops might be impossible. Leaving Kutaisi, my preference is to take a taxi to Rioni Railway and wait for the next train to come in. That’ll cost anywhere from 10 lari to 10 euros, so be prepared.
There are, much more inefficiently, about a billion mini-buses going to and from Tbilisi as well, most leaving from the Didube metro station. The mini-buses, or marshrutkas, are only for the most adventurous of travelers, and you’ll be exposed to all bouquets of smells, loud 80s Russian music, cigarette smoke from the driver, and many near death experiences. 10 times out of 10 it will get you to a final destination. It’s easily the most convenient of the means of transport, but if you can take a train, then I’d vote for the train.
One last note. From the airport, it’s super easy to get to both Tbilisi and Kutaisi. For Kutaisi, there are marshrutkas that leave for the city every twenty minutes. There are a bit higher standard marshrutkas too that you can reserve a spot on, run by Georgian Bus.
Stay tuned next week for my review of a village in the heartland of the Georgian region of Samegrelo, Martvili. And if you want to read another amazing place to see in Georgia, read my blog on Chiatura.