Caucasus Journey VII: Cruisin' Kutaisi and Environs

April 12, 2009
Today (Saturday) was a lot of fun. It was raining and nasty out in the morning, so until about one o’clock I just screwed around with my computer, working on my photo album for this trip. In the early afternoon, however, the sun came out and I decided to check out the sites. I’m really glad I did. 

The first place I went was Bagrati Cathedral, which dates to the eleventh century. The cathedral is located on a hill overlooking the city, and the views of Kutaisi are really great from there. Most of the cathedral itself is undergoing heavy restoration so isn’t too much to look at right now.
View of Kutaisi

After the cathedral I headed back into town, where I propositioned a taxi driver to take me out to Motsameta monastery and back. We haggled for a minute or so, then struck a deal.

The way to Motsameta was okay for the first three miles or so, just kind of steep as we drove east out of town. Then we turned off the main road and things really got messy. The road appeared to have once been asphalted, but now was just a rocky soup of mud and potholes. Sura, my driver, slowly weaved his way around the larger holes as if we were navigating a minefield. Finally, we got to a tiny lane which broke off to the left and led directly to the monastery. By this point, I was ready to get out and walk, but Sura insisted on driving. An old man manned a gate at the beginning of the lane, and lifted it up for us to pass through.
Driving and skidding down this muddy lane—with a very steep drop off into the river below to our right—was something I would have preferred not to do, but Sura was trying to be nice and we were already through the gate anyway so I didn’t bother stopping him.
Once we made it to the monastery itself, Sura said he’d wait in the car while I went inside. First I took a bunch of photos of the extraordinary views from the site. The monastery sits on a small peninsula, with the Tskhaltsitela River, about a hundred yards below, rushing up on one side and then back down the other. On both sides are beautiful green mountains and white cliffs, a view which gave me my first real taste of the Caucasus during this trip.

Gorge below the Monastery
After I entered the monastery complex I asked a kid standing nearby to take my photo. He threw himself into the task, taking about seven shots of me from various angles. We started chatting (in Russian, which is the language that I use with almost everybody here), and he told me his name was George. He told me he’s studying at a monastery in Tbilisi, and was living at Motsameta for the month. He took me inside the church and told me that if I crawled three times under an altar which held the bones of two local saints (Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze), a wish of mine would come true. I’d read about this in Lonely Planet, but hadn’t planned on partaking until George and his seminary friends started to egg me on. There were a number of people praying in the church, so I didn’t think it was a good idea, but the sight of black-robed priests (George wore just street clothes) pointing to the altar and smilingly encouraging me led me to change my mind, so I crawled through the space under the altar—a distance of about five feet, then walked back to the front around the main altar, then repeated the process two more times. At the end, one of the George’s friends gave me three candles to burn in the name of the dead. I lit the first one for my cousin Barbara, who recently passed away, then lit the other two. 
With George at Motsameta

  By the time I exited the monastery, the weather had really gotten beautiful. There were still a couple of dark rainclouds above us, the remnants of the rain that had fallen in the morning, but these were passing in the distance. The contrast between the black clouds and the blue skies and brilliant sunshine that were emerging made me think it would be a good idea to visit the other monastery in the area, Gelati, which was another few miles down the road. Getting into the taxi, I asked Sura if he’d be willing to take me there for an additional charge, and he said he’d be happy to.

Even though the drive was just a few miles, it took us about twenty minutes to get there because of the terrible condition of the road, although once we got back onto the main road things went more smoothly. Sura stopped a number of times so that I could take photographs of the hills around us. It was truly a gorgeous trip. 

Gelati Monastery

When we got to Gelati, Sura got out with me and we walked around together. The first place he took me to was the spring, and he pointed out the fish swimming in the little reservoir that the spring drains off into. Then we went together into the main church of the monastery, something that I probably would have been too timid to do on my own since there was a service in progress. Sura took it all very seriously, crossing himself and kissing the door of every church we visited, just as he’d crossed himself as we passed other churches while driving to the monastery.
All in all, I thought Gelati was really breathtaking. The views from the monastery were really stunning, and the monastery itself—particularly the inside of the main church—was really beautiful. I felt really lucky that the weather had improved so dramatically. 

Main church at Gelati
On the way back to Kutaisi, Sura and I exchanged numbers and he told me to call him if I felt like hanging out sometime over the next couple of days. He then dropped me off near Gaponovis Street, which is the center of what used to apparently be a fairly large Jewish neighborhood. A couple of ladies I spoke to (while asking directions) told me that the Jews started leaving in the 1970s. It’s an attractive neighborhood, and I took a number of photos of stone houses with large overhanging balconies, a feature of many buildings in both Kutaisi and Batumi.
Back in Kutaisi

  After grabbing something to eat I headed back to the apartment I’m staying in at about nine. I’m living with a family which lives in a beautiful and enormous old apartment, albeit one that seems to be slowly falling apart. The ceilings are very high and attractive, and the place is really a kind of temple of crumbling elegance. Like almost everywhere else I’ve been (archives, hotels, restaurants), no heat comes through the radiators. Instead, I’ve been given a (semi-decent) space heater to warm my enormous room. When I came back in the evening, Nana—the lady who runs the place—invited me to sit with the family in the kitchen, where they had a wooden stove burning. We sat and watched the news and talked about the political demonstrations still taking place in Tbilisi. After a while I got up and excused myself, and returned through the corridors of the freezing cold and pitch-dark house to my own small oasis of warmth and light in order to write these things down.

When I’d first arrived in Kutaisi I wasn’t very optimistic about my odds for enjoying myself here, but the sites that I visited today were really impressive. I’m not quite sure what’s going on for Sunday yet—perhaps I’ll just stay in and try to get some work done—but no matter what, today alone made the trip to Kutaisi worthwhile.

Hopefully Monday's return visit to the archive will have a similar impact upon my spirits.
To see more photos from the Caucacus journey, go to the photos page of  
More links, analysis and photographs can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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