While the Brits trooped off to the Iranian consulate in Tbilisi again to try to secure their visas now that they had their Letters of Invitation sorted, the rest of us bundled into a very spacious minivan and headed off for a day trip to Kutaisi.
It’s a bloody long way from Tbilisi to Kutaisi actually! 221kms as it turns out. But we did stop off briefly in Stalin’s home town of Gori for a quick visit to the Stalin museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed when we arrived and only opened its doors about 10 minutes before we had to leave, but I did get to see Stalin’s house where he was born and his train carriage! And take a picture of him through the foyer of the museum.
We eventually arrived in Kutaisi and headed straight for the Sataplia Nature Reserve, with the Sataplia Cave and dinosaur footprints. I was super-excited to add another dino site to those I’d visited in Toro Toro National Park and Sucre last year, but when we arrived we were confronted by a padlocked boom gate about 1km from the entrance. WTF? Oh right … it was Monday … and everything in Georgia is closed on a Monday!
We decided we’d take our chances and ducked underneath the boom gate and walked the last kilometre. There was a school group there and quite a few others as well, and the gates were open! So, we headed through – only to be confronted with a very angry young woman who gave us what for and marched us straight back out again. Some in the group tried to argue with her, which made her even more angry, and in the end, she jumped in her car and, with screeching tires, herded us back down the road to our minivan. So, unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the dinosaur footprints ☹
Which was a little closer than I was to either Sydney or Mars according to this sign that was just beside the gates.
We were all a bit disappointed after that fail, so headed into Kutaisi for some lunch. I wandered around the market to buy street food to eat in the park, and found this amazing Russian mural.
After lunch, we headed up the hill to the Bagrati Cathedral – the symbol of the united Georgian kingdom.
The original was completed in 1003 but blown up by the Ottomans in 1692, and the current structure has been heavily restored starting in the 1950s. The inside is beautiful in its austerity (not clear whether it was always like this)
And the remains of the four pillars that originally supported the dome are still there.
There was also a traditional Georgian Cross outside the cathedral – something I’d learned about on the Tbilisi Hack Free Walking Tour. Otherwise known as St Nino’s cross, it is formed from two branches of a grapevine – hence the drooping horizontal arm – and a key symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
From Bagrati Cathedral, we then visited the Gelati Monastery, one of the two monasteries near Kutaisi. This was one of the main cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia in medieval times, where scientists, philosophers and theologians worked and studied.
The most amazing remaining feature of the Monastery is the large number of murals from different periods that cover almost every centimeter of the inner walls. Prominent in the main building is the standing Virgin holding the child with archangels at her side, which dates from around 1125AD
Though the whole inner is covered with paintings, most of which date from the second half of the 16th century.
The Church of St George, another building within the complex, is similarly painted in murals dating from the 16th century.
The murals really are amazing to see – even if you aren’t particularly into religious artwork and artefacts.
By this time, it was around 5pm so we thought we’d better start the 3 hour trip back to Tbilisi. We returned to the minivan and our driver, Davit, handed around a plastic 500ml water bottle that clearly had something stronger than water in it! We had hardly heard a peep out of Davit the entire time, but now he was extremely chatty and full of great cheer! Turned out the water bottle contained Chacha – a strong spirit made from the residue leftover from winemaking, and Georgia’s local spirit!
So with our tipsy-at-best, drunk-at-worst, very happy driver, we started the journey, but stopped into a winery on the way back to buy more wine. A short time later, Davit surprised us with Georgian pizza (Khachapuri) that he’d pre-ordered! We picked it up on the way through a small town, and pulled over on the side of the road a little out of town to eat!
It is basically dough stuffed with salty Georgian cheese, and you can’t eat too much of it, but it was a wonderful gesture and really helped make the day a great one, despite missing the dino footprints and cave. It was a VERY happy ride home, which fortunately saw us delivered safely back to the hostel, despite the terrible Georgian drivers!