At 07:00 after our host Gia made us both a nice hot coffee, the marshutka arrived at MestiaTour Guesthouse as promised to take us and a Ukrainian couple also staying there to Kutaisi. After doing the rounds of town and waiting a little while at the main square we finally headed off around 08:00. Under a clear sunrise silhouettes of the surrounding snowy mountains began to appear against a backdrop of lilac skies, with Mestia’s iconic Svan towers lit up across the valley. The recent snowfalls were still visible on the trees and as we wound our way down the icy snow covered road, passing dripping ice waterfalls, we both thought what a magical, special part of the world this is.
Five and a half hours later we’re dropped on the side of the road outside McDonalds (which is right near the bus station) and quickly work out our hostels location on Maps.me. A short walk and we arrive at Hostel LUXE, well signed by numerous green signs all over the building. The owner has llived in both Spain and Canada and speaks perfect English and again we got a great deal by booking ahead on Booking.com. Our room came with a double bed (made of two very comfortable singles) and a bunk, private bathroom, TV and heater/AC unit for just 20GEL a night (use of the spotlessly clean kitchen cost an extra GEL5 per day). The place is relatively new, being open under a year, and we were so impressed we extended our stay by a couple of nights.
With a couple of small shops and a large supermarket nearby you’ve got everything you need though it’s a bit of a (flat) walk to the old town. With the afternoon free head down to check it out. There’s a lot of road and restoration works going on but the streets around Kutaisi Park are nice for a walk. Heading to the bazaar, which we’d heard was one of the best in Georgia, we weren’t surprised to find prices inflated once the stall holders set eyes on our non-local faces. After a couple of attempts to bargain we left empty handed refusing to waste anymore time getting a decent price. It’s a massive market though with plenty of fresh produce, local cheese, wine and spices galore. Know rough prices (6GEL per kilo for local white cheese) beforehand, bargain hard and good luck!
While checking out the stone ‘To the heroes of socialist movement from our city’ monument south of the park we were approached by a local teen wanting to take a picture. Used to this kind of thing, Matt puts our expensive Canon 6D into his bag before getting ready to pose. This time somethings odd. A few of his mates start to disappear when our fancy camera does, and funnily the kid who asked for a photo doesn’t even have a phone to take it with. Hmmm. Not stupid enough to hand over our gear to a kid with too many tattoos for his age Matt whips out his iphone, snaps a selfie with the potential thief and they all disappear into the distance.
North of the park you can cross the rubbish strewn Rioni River on Tsminda Nino Street and hike up the steps to the right to the Bagrati Cathedral. Built in the 11th century it’s sustained a lot of damage during it’s lifetime, in particular by the invading Turks in the 17th century, but a 2010 restoration programme has seen it mostly rebuilt. It’s a stunning sight with grey walls and a bright green roof and the huge interior sees a mixture of old stonework propped up by large new steel columns. It’s old meets new in a combination that really works.
A worthwhile stop while you’re in town is the Tea House on the south west corner of Kutaisi Park. What used to be a branch of VTB Bank has been transformed into a funky hipster hangout, where Scandinavian and upcycled furniture is scattered up the old concrete entrance stairs, the disintegrating walls and ceiling are propped up by steel beams and there’s 80 different varieties of tea to choose from. Relaxing over a couple of pots of Flying Ginseng Dragon we watch a table of Georgian hipsters speak no words to each other as they’re too engrossed in their hair, cigarettes and smart phones.
Heading to the east side of the park we take in the large fountain topped by two large gold plated horses. There’s 30 deer and animal statues in total which are replicas of those found in the area belonging to the Kolkhida bronze culture. Heading back along the White Bridge we paused for some typical tourist photos at the statue of a boy who reportedly stole two mens hats before jumping off the bridge.
While Kutaisi itself would only occupy you for a day at the most it’s the surrounding area which can keep you here for a week or more. With caves, hiking, gorges, waterfalls and monasteries to choose from you can opt to hire a car from Hostel LUXE or as we did use a mix of public transport and walking. On the road outside the hostel we flag down the passing #44 marshutka on our way to check out Prometheus Cave. If you’re uncomfortable with being driven at 100km an hour without a seatbelt you best take a private taxi (though there’s no guarantee that’ll be any better!). Dropping us in the small town of Tskaltubo about 45 minutes later we have two options – wait 1.5 hours for the marshutka to the caves or walk the 5km. Heading off on foot we waved away the numerous taxi drivers who pulled up alongside us and enjoyed being out in the fresh air. Passing through small villages and waving locals in their front yards, we find our way easily using (you guessed it) offline maps.me.
About halfway on old man backs his car out of his driveway, waits for us to catch up then offers us a lift. Jumping him with him and his two small granddaughters he cuts 1km off our walk before dropping us at the turnoff to the caves. There’s an information centre to purchase your tickets and you must visit the cave with a guide. Lucky for us a group was about to leave and they changed to guide to an English speaking one to accommodate us (everybody else spoke Russian). Heading down into the cave it didn’t take long for us to be amazed. Low music and coloured lighting has been used to great (but not tacky) effect, bringing out specific formations of rock, minerals, stalactites and frozen rock waterfalls. It’s a magic place and one of the best cave systems we’ve every visited.
Only discovered in 1984 it’s said to be the place where Prometheus, the Greek titan who defied Zeus and was caught gifting fire to humans, was chained to a rock for punishment. The guided walk is roughly 1.4km and contains a lot of steps. There’s a number of chambers you pass through including one which is being prepared to host live music concerts and another where it’s possible to be married. Upon reaching the end of the tour you can choose to exit via a straight tunnel or for an extra fee be ferried out by boat. As we’d never been on a boat in a cave we went for the later. Donning our fancy red hard hats it didn’t take long before the guy in front learnt why they were necessary when he smacked his head on the low cave ceiling. It’s a short trip but worth the small additional fee.
The second part of our day involved walking the 18km’s to Sataplia Caves to check out some dinosaur footprints. The walk wasn’t too tough and we followed the road passing through small villages and towns along the way. After three hours the final 2.2km showing on the map was obviously a series of uphill turns and curves and Matt was ready to throw in the towel. Tempting him with the promise of a roadside spring we’re disappointed to discover it’s been fenced in and is inaccessible. With Sarah pushing him on (aided by a slight untruth about how far we actually still had to go) a couple of locals inform us the caves close at 17:00. With just 10 minutes to go we’re sure Matt’s sure we won’t make it but Sarah won’t give up. Arriving at 16:57 Sarah rushes to the ticket counter to find we’d just made the last group of the day. Sataplia means ‘land rich with honey’ as people used to come here to buy it though we were here for something more unique. Just a short walk from the Visitor Centre we’re escorted to a large covered building protecting what is reportedly one of the only preserved examples of both carnivore and herbivore dinosaur footprints side by side.
It’s amazing to stand on the walkway above and look down imagining these guys walking through here millions of years ago. Having never seen dinosaur prints before we were pretty captivated. While the rest of the group headed one way we ventured into the forest to hunt out what maps.me led us to believe were more footprints from a Stegosaurus, Iguanadon and the big daddy a T-Rex. The first sign something is wrong is when we glimpse the large fiberglass models of the first two and it’s only with more coaxing and laughing that Sarah can drag a slightly pissed off Matt to see the ‘T-Rex footprints’, which turns out to be nothing but a stoned looking fiberglass T-Rex. Well at least we got to see some footprints!
Walking back down to the main intersection we pass a friendly old man on a bicycle who gives us a smile and a wave. Taking a seat at the roadside picnic table to wait for the marshutka old mate isn’t far behind and it’s not long before he’s inviting us to his nearby house to try his homemade Georgian brandy. Politely passing on the offer we attempt to convince him that we really must wait for the marshutka or risk having to walk all the way back to Kutaisi, something we weren’t keen on after having walked over 20km already. What happened next is what we now refer to as The Great Georgian ambush. Refusing to take no for an answer, old mate soon has his son involved, sending him back to the house to bring the brandy to us.
Villagers begin to appear from nowhere to witness the two Aussies out in the middle of nowhere and when the son eventually returns grasping a 500ml Coke bottle in his hands we know we’re done for. Three plastic cups emerge from the shop across the road and before we know it we’re both being plied with homemade booze strong enough to burn your house down. One bottle down another appears from nowhere and our new friend even has his 8-year old son taking a sip. The only people who aren’t allowed to refuse are us, and when the marshutka does finally arrive about 30 minutes later we’re bundled in by the surrounding villagers and sent merrily on our way. Until we arrive in Kutaisi, hop off at the wrong corner and have to stumble our way back to the hostel.
The following day consisted of nothing more than a visit to a nearby wood trimmed, African themed restaurant which draws our attention but whose name escapes us. The only reason for our visit was to tick one our Georgian experience boxes, the kinkhali challenge. Georgia’s take on dumplings, they’re cheap (here 0.50GEL each), filling and bloody addictive. You eat them with your hands holding the top and eating around it, leaving the tops on your plate as a count of how many you devoured. We managed to knock off a pretty impressive 20. Scoreboard Matt 12 – Sarah 8.
Our final day in town sees us a little more productive as we head out visit two of the surrounding monasteries, Gelati and Motsameta. You can easily reach Gelati via public marshutka (minivan) from behind the main theatre in Kutaisi. Built by Georgia’s favourite, King David the Builder, in 1106 it became his final resting place and his body lies beneath a tombstone in the south entrance with an inscription saying
This is my abode forever and ever, for I wish it. I have found eternal peace here
While wandering the site we were approached by a quietly spoken lady dressed in black who, seeing our interest at the internal frescoes and paintings, took it up on herself to show us around the entire site, doing her best in Georgian, Russian and English to ensure we understood the key points. Without wanting anything in return, our free tour concludes with David’s grave and we wave goodbye to head downhill to the next monastery.
A short walk down the road we come to a small shop on the left and take the dirt road heading up the hill behind it. Before long we reach the train tracks which we follow to the left until we come to a small abandoned rail platform and the entrance gate to Motsameta on the left about 30 minutes later. The place was jam-packed with cars wrapped in ribbons and tooting horns and it becomes obvious this is the place to come for your Saturday afternoon wedding photos and it’s easy to see why. The location, perched on a hilltop above a kink in the river far below, the monastery seems to be floating in the trees. Hiking down the driveway we crash two wedding photo shoots and even end up posing with some locals who drag us over for some photos.
We decide to get some more exercise so back up the drive we continue to follow the train tracks most of the way back to Kutaisi. It’s an easy walk as the tracks are mostly flat and we pass a couple of other tourists heading in the opposite direction. Back in town by early afternoon we pack our gear ready to head to Georgia’s famous mineral water town of Bojormi.
Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment or ask a question about our time in Georgia below! You can also check out more photos on Flickr page here.
Tips for Kutaisi
- Getting to Prometheus Cave is easy by public transport. The #44 leaves from the central bus station ever 20 minutes from 07:30 to 19:30, costs 1GEL and takes 30-40 minutes to get to Tskaltubo. From here you catch marshutka #25 to the cave, though this seems to only leave every two hours at 08:30, 10:30, 12:30 etc.
- Entrance to Prometheus Cave is 7GEL p/p with a mandatory guide plus 7GEL p/p for the optional boat ride out. Or you can walk out for free.
- Entrance to Sataplia Caves was 6GEL but if you’re planning to walk from Prometheus like we did make sure you allow enough time to get here by 5pm when ticket sales close.
- Beware of the Georgian ambush…they will find you and you will get drunk.
- The marshutka to Gelati leaves from behind the main theatre at 08:00, 11:00, 14:00, 16:00 and 18:00. It costs 1GEL and takes around 25 minutes. Returning flag down any marshutka heading towards Kutaisi, walk via the train tracks and Motsameta monastery like we did or hitch, people will always stop.