So today was my last full day in Georgia. We left Borjomi just after 8:30 a.m. heading west to the town of Kutaisi. The drive took us out of the mountains and through a series of little villages. We ended up stopping just outside one village where women had set up stands and were selling a sweet bread. I bought one loaf of bread that was the size of a medium pizza for 2 GEL (about .75). The bread was sweet tasting, but not overly sweet, was filled with raisins and reminded me of a sweet roll (although the texture of the bread was different).
We reached Kutaisi just before 11:00 a.m. for our first stop of the day at the Gelati Cathedral and Monastery. The complex included three churches, a bell tower, a monastery, a school of sorts and the burial ground of numerous Georgian kings, including King David IV, who commissioned the original cathedral at the site in the 12the century known as the Church of the Virgin Mary. Two additional churches, the churches of St. George and St. Nicholas were added in the 13th century. And at one time, the monastery was one of the main cultural and intellectual centers in Georgia employing many important Georgian scientists, theologians and philosophers to teach young scholars.
The highpoint of the complex is the incredible murals and frescos found in the Church of the Virgin Mary and the Church of St. George dating from the 12th to 17th centuries. As we entered the Church (which was undergoing exterior restoration work) I was immediately overwhelmed by the number and condition of the frescos. They were everywhere and in amazing condition. And while the church has been rebuilt in parts and some of the frescos refurbished, it was amazing to look at so many frescos that had not been refurbished
Before I even had a chance to look at the frescos in the main cathedral, Katiya took me through a side door into an area where the original alter of the church was located. The walls were covered in frescos and contained bright, vivid colours. Because the room is hidden away and sees virtually no light, the frescoes were in pristine (for centuries old frescos) condition.
We then walked back into the now main portion of the Church, which had a beautiful dome, soaring arches and pillars and a bright airy feel. As we walked in, I heard chanting and smelled smoke. The priest of the church had appeared and was chanting prayers in front of a fresco and swinging a copper lantern emitting lots of smoke. I stood well back and behind him and captured a lovely picture of the scene.
Katiya and I wandered about the cathedral looking at the graves of various kings and admiring the frescoes (without anyone to bother us). Unfortunately, our solitary enjoyment was interrupted by a loud group of Russians. Adios.
We walked across the path to the adjacent monastery before walking to the far side of the complex to see the King David IV tomb. Ironically, King David IV had made it clear he wanted people to walk on his tomb after he was buried, but today, there was a red plastic rope across the length of the tomb indicating no one was to step on the tomb. Sorry King David IV, the less than royal authorities have just put the kibosh on your last will and testament.
We then walked back towards the Cathedral to the little St. Nicholas church, which was constructed next to the main Church. We walked up the staircase and took a look inside the tiny room (it was about the size of a very small walk-in closet). Quite frankly, the view was more impressive than the church.
We ended the tour with a trip through the St. George Church, which was entirely worth it. The little church looked a bit like a miniature version of the main Church and was also filled with gorgeous frescos. Standing on its own it would have been impressive, but when coupled with the main Church made for an absolutely stunning display of ancient religious paintings.
Unfortunately for site number 2, it had to follow site number 1. Site number 2 for the day was the Motsameta Monastery in the little village of Motsameta, a few kilometers from the Gelati Cathedral and Monastery. In order to reach the monastery, we had to walk about a kilometer down hill on very rough cobblestones through a little thicket of trees. As we approached the monastery we could see the small church and bell tower through an alcove of sorts, which we had to pass through to reach the church.
And in the alcove we had to don the standard church issued skirt. Unfortunately, the skirt I grabbed was covered in bugs. Eeek!! I immediately dropped the skirt and chose another. However, this had a number of bugs clinging to the skirt as well. This time, I shook the skirt out over the railing and the pesky things fell off. Apparently the area has been infested with these tiny brown bugs that are chewing up the trees. (This would not be our last encounter with these pesky buggars.)
Now the church sits on a hill above the Tskhaltsitela River, which means red water. The name was given to the river because of an Arab massacre that occurred on the site in the 8th century. Victims of the massacre included brothers Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze, dukes of Argveti, who refused to accept Islam. The remains of the two brothers are enshrined in the church.
The church was actually quite lovely and the shrine was rather touching with dozens of crosses and chains hanging over the paintings for the brothers. However, we probably should have visited this church before Galeti because it really paled in comparison. (I suppose if you are a deeply religious Georgian, it is a magical place.)
Now the most remarkable site I saw in the church was a painting of the two brother who had been massacred standing with a Georgian priest. Now I don’t know if Daniel or Henrik Sedin (recently retired identical Swedish twins who played hocked for my beloved Vancouver Canucks) have any Georgian blood in them, but I swear to God the painting of one of the brothers looks just like Daniel and Henrik. Take a look and tell me I am wrong.
Anyway, we walked back the one kilometer up the hill to the waiting Jakob who had apparently been battling the same bugs we saw in the alcove. Once in the car (and bug free) we set off for the Sataplia Nature Reserve. The reserve is comprised of over twenty 120-million- year-old, fossilized dinosaur footprints, a 300m-long cave with a small underground river featuring stalactites and stalagmites and a surrounding forest you can hike through up to panoramic lookout points.
Once we paid the entry fee, we were told we would have to wait 25 minutes for an English speaking guide to take us around the site. Uh that would be a big fat no. I was not waiting 25 minutes (25 minutes in Georgia can turn into 2 hours and 25 minutes). Apparently we could not walk the site ourselves, so Katiya got them to agree we could catch up to the Russian tour guide who was taking a couple around and Katiya would translate for me. We met up with the Russian guide at the building which contained the dinosaur footprints. The Russian couple was not even with him. They had just continued walking right through the building and out the other side. I, on the other hand, was going to take my sweet time checking out the dinosaur prints.
Once we exited the building covering the dinosaur prints, we began the walk through the forest to the underground cave. However, about 5 minutes into the walk the Russian guide ditched us because he said he had to go back for another group. Yea sure. Nevertheless, Katiya and I were thrilled to walk on our own. So much for the “guide rule”.
The walk to the cave took about 15 minutes as we wandered through a heavy thicket of trees and up and down little hills. We finally entered the door into the cave and were immediately met with classical music. Outstanding! We walked down a flight of stairs into the cave and the 14 degree celsius temperature. Now it was incredibly hot in Kutaisi (well above 30 degrees celsius with a lot of humidity) so the respite from the heat was really welcome.
Anyway, we wandered along the darkened path to the sounds of classical music while passing stalactites and stalagmites that were lit up to allow us a better view. The cave actually turned out to be pretty interesting and the cool air felt really good.
Now the last part of the visit was the one I was dreading. We were going to hike up about 2 km to the lookout point. Ugh. It was so hot and sticky, I figured I was going to pass out by the time we reached the top. Fortunately, the forest helped keep the sun at bay as we walked up, up, up the gravel path. We finally reached the lookout point, which had a glass bottomed viewing platform. Unfortunately, our visit to the platform was short lived because those pesky bugs started swarming us in the sunshine. (They had not bothered us in the forest.)
We took a couple pictures and made a beeline for the forest and trail back to the entrance. About 20 minutes later, we were back in the car and headed to our last stop of the day: the Bagrati Church, which was built in 1003. In the 17th century, the dome and ceiling were blown up destroying a large segment of the church. The church, which is currently on the UNESCO Heritage list, was renovated between 2009 and 2012.
However, I think the renovation was a disaster. When we arrived, I thought I was looking at a brand new church. There was nothing “old” or “historical” about the church. The renovations had been completed with a mix of old and new stone and a few steel sections. Yea you read that right, a 1,000 year old church was renovated with steel sections. What a joke. It is so bad that UNESCO is going to pull its heritage designation. The renovators even left behind over 300 ancient unused stones. Good grief!
And the interior was simply appalling. There were a couple areas where portions of the old wall were intact, but for the most part, the steel panels and new sandstone blocks made the church look 21st century. Gross.
As we left the building, we heard horns honking, which could only mean one thing: a wedding. And sure enough as we approached the entrance, the bride, bridesmaids, and family came through the entrance followed shortly after that by the groom, groomsmen and family. Now the bride and her group stood outside near a tree while the groom and his two groomsmen waited to be photographed entering the church grounds. The three young men were attired in traditional Georgian wedding attire so I wanted to snag a picture of them coming through the entrance. However, just as the boys were about to enter two Russian walked right in front of my camera (jackasses) and completely blocked my view. As a result, I had to hustle behind the three boys and snag a picture of them from behind as they entered the church. It turned out to be a lovely picture, along with a couple pictures of the kids who were in the wedding party.
So after the pictures, Jakob and Katiya took me to my little guesthouse (in an old historic nobleman’s house) where I would spend my last night in Georgia. I figured I would make an early night of it as I somehow managed to catch a bit of a cold and was hoping a good night’s sleep would put it behind me. (The cold appears to be a minor cold with just a bit of a sore throat and stuffy nose.)
Tomorrow we would be driving east with a short stop in Mtskheta before continuing on to the Georgian-Armenian border where I would meet my new guide and driver for my tour of Armenia.