I wasn’t planning on doing any traveling last weekend since the elections were Monday and there was plenty of excitement at home in Tbilisi (My planning skills are also beginning to assimilate to the Georgian norms, so planning a trip is becoming rather complicated). But when my friends called and asked if I wanted to go with them to Kutaisi, who was I to say no? Kutaisi has been at the top of my list of places to visit (I’d never been before, and was interested to see the new Parliamentary city). Even better, these friends had access to a car, making Kutaisi a feasible day trip. If you’re taking a marshrutka between Kutaisi and Tbilisi, you’ll likely need to spend the night, especially since the sites in Kutaisi are geographically spread across and around the city. There are also trains between the two cities, I believe you can choose either an overnight train or a day journey.
Like good Americans (and their American-influenced Georgian friend), our first stop was the Kutaisi McDonalds. McDonalds is the only tourist attraction in Kutaisi that’s well-signed, so enjoy it while it lasts. The preferred method of finding the other attractions was asking a resident of Kutaisi. From this crude navigation strategy, we learned that (apparently) everything in Kutaisi is located straight ahead!
Our first stop was the newly (and controversially) renovated and reopened Bagrati Cathedral. The exterior was beautiful—combining stones salvaged from the ruins with new stones in better condition, and of course a bit of steel and glass (Misha likes steel and glass). Inside, though, I was quite disappointed with the renovations—the building felt quite soulless to me. All white walls, and dirty carpeting—it felt more like the fellowship hall or community room of an American church, not the mystical and mysterious Georgian temples of God that I’ve become used to visiting.
Fortunately, our next stop was the Gelati Monastery, an exquisite example of Georgian ecclesiastical architecture.
The frescos in Gelati were the best I’ve seen, and the building had the feeling of a traditional Georgian church: a bit dark and smoky with lots of color and incense.
Also impressive was the view: from the grounds of Gelati you could see snow-capped peaks off in the distance.
Our last stop was Sataplia National Park. Sataplia has also been subjected to recent renovations. Like at Bagrati, some of these renovations were fantastic, and others were not to my liking. The building housing the dinosaur footprints is clearly a positive step towards protecting this attraction, and educates visitors about Georgia’s prehistory. On the other hand, the “Jurassic Park” was just plain silly—the animatronic dinosaurs were puny, and the small explanatory signs didn’t offer much information that wasn’t in the footprint exhibit.
The caves themselves were…well, caves: dark, and damp, and plenty of stalactites and stalagmites. The glass viewing platform offered an excellent view of Kutaisi, but Kutaisi itself doesn’t have the world’s most majestic skyline. The most interesting fact about Sataplia was one that was largely ignored: the place gets its name (სათაფლია–Place of Honey) from the bees who use the cliff face itself as their hive (or so I gather). Honey drips from the stones themselves! (though I was unable to confirm this myself) (Admittedly, I’ve been thinking more about bees and honey than I ever have before because my friends Cat and Claire have been in town doing research on beekeeping in the Caucasus).
On our way out of the city we drove past and got a glimpse of the new Parliament building, which may open soon. Other nearby sights, for those not racing the sunset back to Tbilisi, include the Prometheus Cave, and the town of Vani where a working replica of the Argonauts’ ship is displayed. Kutaisi isn’t the most stunning place I’ve visited in Georgia, but the plethora of things to do there and its prominent place in Georgian history (and current events) make it well worth a quick trip.