Where: Kutaisi, Georgia.
When: July 2018
Why: Kutaisi was our final destination on our Caucus trip. We only went here because we were flying out from Kutaisi airport. We decided to have a day or two here before this though.
We started our Caucus trip in Sofia (our stepping stone to the Caucus), then we went to Baku, Azerbaijan, Tbilisi and Borjomi in Georgia, we went to Armenia for a few days, then we ended our trip in western Georgia, at Batumi on the Black Sea coast and Kutaisi, which we flew out of.
Kutaisi is Georgia’s third largest city. We only went to Kutaisi as we were flying out of Kutaisi airport.
I’m not sure what is going on with Kutaisi and what is going to happen to it. From what I understand the previous administration moved parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, in a bid to boost the city and de-centralise the workings of government. I think this is why the airport was developed here – so officials could more easily come to town.
In and of itself this is not a bad decision. However, most of the workings of government are still in Tbilisi, there’s only slow trains from Tbilisi to Kutaisi (the main Tbilisi to Batumi train line passes a little way to the south of the city; the direct train takes six hours), and from what I understand, many people in the administration hated having to travel here from Tbilisi, where they were still based. Not only this, but parliament was built on quite a contentious site, which offended many locals.
And now parliament is moving back to Tbilisi.
To be fair though, had parliament not been here and the airport not been built to service the parliament, then we wouldn’t have gone to Kutaisi – so maybe this move was a positive thing for the city. Although Kutaisi has a nice centre and some wonderful attractions in the region, I don’t think we would have gone out of our way to visit here unless we were travelling through.
Kutaisi has been the capital of Georgia before; both in the middle ages and as the capital of Imereti. David the Builder, one of the key figures in Georgian history, is buried in a wonderful monastery close to the city. As a result of its key role in Georgian history there are some very important sites to see in the region, including Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and my favourite place that we visited in Georgia.
For me, by the time we got to Kutaisi I just wanted to go home. I was four months pregnant and physically tired, the heat was getting to me, I was fed up of Georgian food and I just wanted familiarity and comfort. I was tired of struggling to navigate Georgia and just wanted to go home to Spain. This is not Kutaisi’s fault though and I think had we visited under different circumstances I would be much more positive about the city.
Like much of the rest of Georgia, Kutaisi did have quite a lot of dilapidated buildings (especially in the outskirts) and a lack of infrastructure, but it was also being developed and we could tell that the people of the city were working to make it better and to make it more inviting.
So although we only went to Kutaisi because of its airport, I’m glad we went. I hope that the parliament moving away from the city won’t mean that it gets forgotten about again, and that even though the parliamentarians might not want to come here, tourists still will.
Getting there, getting around and getting away
Batumi to Kutaisi
You’d think getting information on how to get from Georgia’s second biggest city to its third biggest city, both of which are in the same area, would be relatively easy. But this is Georgia, where much of the infrastructure is informal or information is not readily available about what services there are. It took us a whole day to find out how to get from Batumi to Georgia. Hopefully by telling you how we did it, I can save any readers this time.
Currently (2018), there seems to be two ways to get from Batumi to Kutaisi: train or mashruka. Mashrukas are informal mini-buses which run on set routes. They are usually over-crowded and they seemed to be extremely dangerous to me, the drivers really unsafe, so we stayed away from them. For a while we thought this was the only transport option between the two cities. If you are happy to get a mashruka from Batumi to Kutaisi then these leave from the mashruka station, which is just behind the harbour.
We much prefer the train – we just had problems getting tickets and finding times. In Batumi, the station is 5km out-of-town and so not somewhere you’d pop in to, to get information. Ajara Travel, a travel agent in downtown Batumi, advertised that they could make train bookings, but when we went to their office it turned out that wasn’t the case. They didn’t even have train times.
In the end, J had to catch a bus out to the train station to find out when the trains were. The reason there is very little information about the Batumi-Kutaisi train is that it is considered a ‘local’ train. For this reason you also cannot pre-book tickets and there’s little information about it online. The train we got left about 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, took four hours to get from Batumi to Kutaisi, and it only cost us 2 Lari (a preposterous 60p/66c). It was a very basic train but it had a toilet
Kutaisi has two train stations: Kutaisi 1 and Kutaisi 2. We came into Kutaisi 1, a nice, small, modern station.
Bus 1 runs in a loop between the town centre and the two stations. If you come out of the train station the town centre is to the right.
There are more options to get from Batumi to Kutaisi Airport. Georgia Bus runs a shuttle from Batumi to Kutaisi Airport; however this service didn’t line up with the shuttle to get into the city, so wasn’t a viable option for us to travel from Batumi to Kutaisi city (see below for more information on the Kutaisi – Kutaisi airport service).
We initially made the mistake of walking everywhere. It was a mistake because it was super hot and I was super-tired (I was preggers). Our hotel was about half an hour walk out of the town centre, up a hill and I exhausted myself walking there with our backpacks and then later on just walking there from town. Also, the street our hotel was on was being resurfaced further down, so we had to find alternatives routes to the centre. After a few days, we said stuff this and started getting taxis everywhere – at least up the hill. They were so cheap that the small cost and the hassle of trying to explain where we wanted to go was worth it. Luckily we had picked up a good map from the tourist office and this helped us navigate. The tourist office is just next to Rustavelis Khidi bridge.
We tried to get a local mini-bus (mashruka) to Gelati Monastery, which is about 20 minutes out of town. Buses leave from behind the Drama Theatre, which is next to Colchis Fountain. We got to the bus half an hour before the departure time but the bus was already over-crowded, with more tourists waiting in the hope that they could get on. The bus only costs 1 Lari (30p/35c), so if you can get it it is a cheap way to get to Gelati. Wikitravel has bus times.
We quickly decided to just get a taxi there and this only cost us 10 Lari (£3/€3.40). If you do get a taxi, arrange a time for them to come back to meet you, to take you back to Kutaisi, as the monastery is a long way from a main road and is quite isolated. We waited over an hour before a taxi came by the monastery that we were able to get. (Our driver was a funny man in a sailor’s hat that we had noticed earlier while in Kutaisi). We had hoped to get the local bus back to town, but there is a break around lunch time when the buses stop running, and so if you get stuck, you can get stuck there for hours.
Kutaisi to Kutaisi Airport
There were three or four points on our journey from Kutaisi to the airport that I honestly thought I was about to die; J and I were holding hands, not knowing if we were going to make it. This may sound extreme but the driver of our shuttle bus was crazy and a few times there were literally inches between us and the cars and trucks he just avoided crashing into. Georgian drivers are bad, but this guy was just on another level.
To be fair, when we emailed to complain to Georgian Bus afterwards they did take our complaint seriously and were very apologetic.
I had quite high hopes for Georgian Bus: we were able to book their transfer service online, their website was really informative and we could even have booked for a shuttle to collect us from our hotel. We chose to meet the shuttle in town rather than explain where our hostel was; the meeting point was outside the Drama Theatre, by Colchi Fountain.
Our shuttle bus turned up on time and we were the only passengers. There were no signs on the bus but the driver seemed to know he was collecting us and that we had already paid online, so we jumped in. He pulled away even before the door was shut and we had sat down properly. I fell into my seat.
There were no seat-belts. When we were in town he was a bad driver, but not unreasonably so – although he did overtake all the other stopped cars at a red traffic light. It was when he got on the open, one-lane highway when the real danger began. This madman would overtake with trucks coming straight at us; dodging in at the last possible minute. he did this three or four times and I really thought we were going to be in a serious crash; and without seat-belts I was scared. As we were coming up to the airport he started having a conversation with another driver, calling out to each other as they overtook one another.
Luckily we made it out alive, but as soon as we got to the airport I wrote to the company to complain; and they did follow-up really fast, asking me for details.
I hope this guy was a one-off and that he is no longer working for the company. Had it not been for him I would totally recommend Georgian Bus as it was great to be able to book online and the information on their website was really clear. Their shuttle buses are timed to link up to Kutaisi Airport flights and the ticket from Kutaisi was only 10 Lari per person (£2.95/€3.30).
David the Builder Kutaisi airport
Kutaisi airport is a budget airline hub for western Georgia. It’s quite small. I thought it was a car garage at first. The problem with its small size is that when there are a lot of flights, it can be quite chaotic. There were a couple of Wizz Air flights going out about the same time as us, some of which were delayed, including ours, and this created significant crowds, that the airport didn’t really have the capacity to handle well.
So even though we had checked in online and only had hand-baggage we were told that we still had to go check in at the check in desk. The check in desk was in a roped off area and the clerks were only checking in flights before ours, so we had to wait awhile first. At first I thought fencing off this area was a bit crazy, but later I understood why they do this: many people had brought their extended families with them to wave them off, and this led to extra-large crowds of people, milling about and trying to stay with those checking in. Also, people seemed to queue sideways, rather than behind each other and this created even more chaos. So keeping the desks as clear as possible, for passengers only, was actually quite sensible.
The departure area had a cafe and there were large benches for people to sit and lounge on around a central atrium. These were pretty packed but we did get somewhere to sit, luckily quite close to an air-conditioning unit.
After a short while we managed to check in, but then we had problems with the crowds again as the queue to get to departures was a mass of relatives saying goodbye and people queuing anywhere. Although from afar I can see this is really sweet, at the time I was tired and pregnant and just wanted to get out of Georgia.
The departure airport had a duty-free shop and two small cafes. We were delayed there for a while but it wasn’t a bad space to wait. There were lots of seats for everyone.
Kutaisi to Barcelona
We flew from Kutaisi to Barcelona with Wizz Air. Our flights cost £85/€95).
Wizz Air have started to do that stupid budget airline thing of deliberately splitting up travellers in the hope that passengers will pay to sit together. I can’t wait for them to realise that this is stupid and actually means more time on the ground, messing about.
So I had an allocated seat away from J. I love him, but I didn’t mind. Went to go to my seat, there was a lady sat in my seat, who wanted to be sat by her kids and asked if I would take her seat. Me, being a nice, reasonable person, of course said yes. Went to her seat, someone was sat in it. ‘Oh, please, I want to sit by my partner – would you take my seat?’ – It’s further up the plane, but I say okay. I just want to sit down. Get there – there’s someone in that seat. By this point I am angry. Why am I, the pregnant, knackered lady being ping-ponged around the plane? Why can’t I sit by my husband? I know it’s not the crews fault but when the air-hostess came to hassle me to sit down and ask where my seat was I lost it a little bit (only a little) and explained the situation and asked her to find me an effing seat.
I was put in a seat next to this lovey-dovey couple who were all over each other for the whole flight. I wouldn’t have minded, but every time this girl flirted with her boyfriend she flicked her long hair back and it hit me in the face – every. single. time. By this point, I hated Georgia and everyone in it. I just could not wait to get back to Spain. I’m sorry Georgia for this, but this last day was such a s**t show, from the nearly being killed, to the chaos of the airport, to this – that I was just done.
Barcelona felt like a calm-heaven when we got back.
What we did on our holiday
So as I was pregnant when we were in Kutaisi and it was 40 degrees, we tended to only be able to do one thing per day. In the afternoons we (I) needed to hide away in our air-conditioned room and rest. We were in Kutaisi for two full days (a Monday and a Tuesday), so on the Monday we went to Bagrati Cathedral and then into town to see if we could arrange a tour to Gelati and the Prometheus Caves. On day two, having not been able to organise a tour, we made our own way to Gelati. And that was it.
Bagrati Cathedral, alongside Gelati Monastery, was a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its historical importance. However, in 2017 Bagrati Cathedral was removed from the list because of the unsympathetic restoration work that had been done to it – and I can understand why.
The first Bagrati Cathedral was built in 1003 by Bagrat 3, hence the name. It had a very simple design of four freestanding pillars with a pointed dome on top. In 1692 an Ottoman explosion destroyed the cathedral and left it in ruins. The cathedral was restored between 2009 and 2012, using old and new stone, plus steel sections. These steel sections look very out-of-place in this ancient cathedral and I think it’s probably these that have so impacted the integrity of the ancient site, and thus led it to being removed from the World Heritage List.
Bagrati Cathedral has a beautiful location, up on a hill, overlooking downtown Kutaisi. We caught a taxi up to the cathedral, as we just didn’t want to tackle the hill in the heat. It would only take about twenty minutes to walk to normally though.
The site was very quiet and open and there are still remains of the old complex dotted around the cathedral grounds. There were good information boards at the entrance to the grounds explaining the history, with pictures of how the ruins used to look.
The actual cathedral was quite nice and simple in the interior, apart from the large, modernistic steel structures by the entrance that just don’t fit in. They’re totally unsympathetic to the original design. Apart from this, I remember the cathedral being relatively plain and not that impressive.
After we looked at the interior we went to have a little look at the rest of the grounds and we ended up resting in the shade of a side doorway and here there were some very beautiful carvings, the kind of thing I’d anticipated seeing across the rest of the site.
After visiting the cathedral we wandered back into town, over the chain bridge and up to the centre. We walked past the market, which Lonely Planet had said was great, but which didn’t look that inviting to us (it seemed to be a collection of small shops, rather than a big market hall with stores).
The centre of town is definitely the area around Colchis Fountain and the Drama Theatre (and MacDonalds). Colchis Fountain is a fabulous fountain which incorporates statues of some of the treasures that have been found in this area, some of which I recognised from the National Museum in Tbilisi.
Next to the fountain was Kutaisis Bulvari, a lovely park with modern art, lots of benches and lots of tall shady trees. In the heat of the day this was a wonderful place where people were relaxing; it felt like the heart of the town.
We went from here to the Tourist Information Centre, which is just next to Rustavelis Khidi bridge, by the Rioni River. They have a lovely terrace at the back, overlooking the river and the cable car. We managed to get a useful map of the city here.
Gelati Monastery (UNESCO)
Gelati Monastery was my favourite place in Georgia; somewhere that I felt was truly special and a world-class site.
Gelati Monastery is located about twenty minutes drive out of town. As detailed in the Getting Around section we originally tried to get the local bus here, but as that was full even half an hour before departure we got here by taxi.
The monastery is located in a gorgeous place, up on a hill overlooking a wooded valley and green hills. Even though we were only in the next valley from Kutaisi, it felt like we were right out in the countryside. It was so peaceful here.
The Gelati Monastery complex is made up of the Cathedral of the Virgin, the Church of St George, an academy, outbuildings, and the old entrance way where King David the Builder is buried. Both the Cathedral of the Virgin and the Church of St George are covered in stunning frescoes; the best that we saw on our Caucus trip. You think we’d be frescoed out after touring Georgia, Armenia and Sofia, but we inadvertently saved the best for last.
Galati was founded by King David the Builder in 1106. David the Builder is possibly the most famous Georgian king; one that we heard a lot about on our travels. He is buried here, at the monastery, in the south entrance way (not the one by the car park but on the other side of the site). He humbly wanted everyone who visited the monastery to walk across his tomb. Today, it is roped off, so you can see it but not walk all over it.
We started our visit in the Cathedral of the Virgin. This is a stunning building, with obviously very old but fascinating frescoes. The walls are covered in wonderful paintings. We had a good explore, going through the outer chambers, and everywhere seemed to be covered in art. It was magnificent.
After visiting the cathedral and the south entrance we climbed the tower that is just outside the Cathedral, to see lovely views over the surrounding valley.
We also went inside the Church of St George, located behind the Cathedral – and again, the frescoes here were wonderful.
Building work was taking place while we were at the monastery, but it didn’t detract from our visit as it wasn’t noisy and most of the key delights were inside the buildings.
After our visit, we had to wait an hour before we could get a taxi back to Kutaisi. I wish we had asked our taxi driver to return at a set-time. There were a few stalls in the car-park, selling drinks and snacks, but no toilets were open at the site (they were there but locked).
Golden Marquee/Riverside Park
After visiting Gelati Monastery we went for a long, lazy lunch at Gardenia, a lovely, external cafe by the river, designed for lounging in (it had cabanas and, I think, sun-loungers too).
Gardenia is located in the riverside park which used to be the location of the Golden Marquee, the palace of the Imeretian kings. Trials and executions apparently used to take place under one of the trees in the gardens. There is a museum here which contains remains from the Marquee. We didn’t go in the museum.
The White Bridge is located next to the park. There is a statue on the bridge which records a famous Georgian story about a boy who steals hats, or something. The whole bridge was closed off for repairs while we were there, but if we leaned across the fence we could see the statue of the little boy.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
Kumistavi / Prometheus Cave
One of the major sights neat Kutaisi is Prometheus Cave, the largest cave in Georgia. The cave is 3 km long and is made up of six chambers plus an underground lake. You can pay extra to go on a boat trip on the underground lake. Apparently there are walkways through the caves and they enhance the atmosphere with lighting and music. They also have bats.
The cave is 12 miles from Kutaisi. To get there on public transport you need to take two mashrukas, so maybe best to travel there on a private tour. We wanted to do this, but the tour that visited both the cave and Gelati Monastery was a pretty long tour (for a pregnant woman in 40 degree heat), so we chose to just visit the monastery instead.
Entrance 20 Lari (£5.20/€6); boat trip 15 Lari (£4/€5).
Kutaisi State Historical Museum
Central Kutaisi museum containing bronze age and antiquity artifacts.
3 GEL (£1/€1 ish). Located on Pushkin Street. More info about the collections can be found on the Visit Kutaisi website.
Cable Car and Besik Gabashvili Park
In Kutaisi, there’s a really cute, little cable car which departs from behind the tourist office, by Cafe Argo, goes across the Rioni River, up to Besik Gabashvili Park. The cabins of the cable car look quite art-deco like, and as if they will only hold about five people.
Chai Khana has an interesting article about the cable car, which was built back in 1961.
Besik Gabashvili Park, also known as the Culture and Recreation Park, has a ferris wheel and nice views over the city apparently.
Chiatura Cable Car: Stalin’s Rope Roads
Chiatura is to be a manganese mining town, located in a steep valley, 50 miles from Kutaisi. To improve productivity and to cut down on commuting time, Stalin ordered that a series of rope-ways (cable cars) should be built to criss-cross the valley, so that minors could get to work, often located at the top of cliff faces, much faster. At one time there were seventeen rope-ways running across this valley.
Today only two of the rope-ways are operational, but though the cable cars have not been well-maintained and are rusting away, visitors to Chiatura are able to travel on the still-running rope-ways for free.
Sadly, like much in Georgia, it sounds as if this unique transport-infrastructure has been left to rot; although here I think that is part of the charm. However, I have read that four rope-ways are being rebuilt and when complete these will depart from a central hub. I haven’t been able to find up-to-date information about this project or when it”s going to be completed, but apparently building work is taking place. Probably the best place for up-to-date information on what cable cars are running are the reviews from current tourists, on Trip Advisor.
Chiatura is located about 50 miles from Kutaisi. You can combine a trip here with a trip to Katskhi Pillar (see below).
The Wander-Lush blog has an excellent article about their trip to ride the cable ways and also an article about how to get there.
Another really cool place accessible from Kutaisi is Katskhi Pillar: a 40 meter high limestone column with a church on top. The pillar wasn’t climbed in modern times until 1944. When they reached the top the climbers were surprised to find the remains of 9th and 10th century churches up there. These have now been rebuilt and are occupied by Eremites (hermits).
You can’t actually climb the pillar (although Levinson Wood was able to on his Caucus TV programme) but it would be a pretty cool thing to stop and see if you are in the area. It is about 40 miles from Kutaisi.
Where we stayed
Hostel Bavaria is not a hostel, it is a private house in which the hosts rent rooms out. Also, we were the only guests so we really felt like we were staying in someone’s home, rather than in an accommodation establishment. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t what we were expecting.
However, our host (I never did find out her name) was lovely and she and her family were so helpful to us: Her dad drove us to his office so that we could use his printer to print our boarding passes, we were given breakfast every morning and a neighbour was there so we could check out after our host had left for work.
Our room was basic but good. We had air-conditioning, which we really needed. The house was located on a pleasant back street, about 20 minutes walk from town.
Had I known this was a private house I probably wouldn’t have chosen to stay here, just because I prefer somewhere a little more impersonal. However we really appreciate the hospitality we were shown by the family.
We booked the hostel through booking.com. It cost us 108 Lira for three nights in a private double room with shared bathroom (£31/€35).
Where we ate and drank
There were quite a lot of really nice food options in Kutaisi. Sadly, it just so happened that I was going through a phase of pregnancy when I just didn’t want to eat real food (maybe it was the heat) and for at least three meals in Kutaisi I just had fruit salad and ice-cream.
We must have liked Baraqa a lot as we went there twice. Or it could have been its really convenient location, right next to the Colchi Fountain, in the centre of town.
Baraqa was a nice, diner like restaurant which served Georgian basics and pizza. They had good wifi, a TV screen and air-conditioning. The food wasn’t amazing, but it was okay.
I don’t go to MacDonalds very often, but sometimes when I’m travelling and feeling a bit out of sorts I love to go to MacDonalds for the familiarity of it. They’re usually clean, air-conditioned and the menu is easy to understand. We popped into MacDonalds for breakfast one day (I had an apple, a bagel and an iced-coffee) and one day we popped in for me to have a cheeseburger for lunch. I know it’s not healthy, but it was so hot I wasn’t really eating much in Kutaisi, so I don’t feel too guilty.
MacDonalds is in the centre of town, on the same roundabout as the Cochi Fountain and the Theatre.
We walked past Dunkin’ Doughnuts on our way to the tourist office. It was so hot and I was so tired and needing the loo, that we decided to pop in and get a snack of bagels and iced-coffees. We can’t get bagels in Pamplona, so any chance we get I like to have one.
The air-conditioning and the familiarity were so comforting that we stayed for an hour here, just nattering and literally chilling out. Again, I would never go to Dunkin’ Doughnuts at home, but by this point I was a bit sick of the ubiquitous Georgian menus, so it was nice to have a snack with a difference. Plus bagels!
Dunkin’ Doughnuts is opposite the Opera House.
Both Almano and Palaty below are on Pushkinis qucha (Pushkin Street), which had lots of nice restaurants, cafes and bars. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat or drink, I’d head for this street.
We went into Almano as it looked nice. It had a cosmopolitan air about it and an inviting, flower bedecked balcony.
Here, J had traditional Georgian food; I had fruit salad and ice cream. The staff were friendly and there was a nice atmosphere here. That is all.
There is a strange-shaped shopping centre opposite Almano which has a cinema in, though most films appeared to be in Russian. There weren’t many shops in here.
Palaty is restaurant No 2 on Trip Advisor and it generally seemed to get pretty high reviews and recommendations; so we decided to try it too. It was okay. They served the usual ubiquitous Georgian fare, but it was fine. I don’t remember the food being that special, unlike Cafe Argo, but it was okay. They had a well-decorated dining room and musicians. At first we were placed on a tiny corner table, but as soon as the people next to us left we were able to move. That is all.
Location wise, Kutaisi Gardenia was in one of the best places in Kutaisi: right next to the river, in the Golden Marquee park, next to the White Bridge. It was a lovely, holiday, beach-bar style cafe – all outside, with lots of flowers, little dens and crate-stack tables. It was a lovely, relaxing place to be and J and I spent a few hours here, J drinking beer, me eating ice-cream, whiling away a hot afternoon. While we were here they also had an outdoor, wide-screen TV to show the World Cup on.
The food wasn’t amazing, but this was more about the place than the food. We were the only people here in the afternoon, so the service was pretty good.
Cafe Argo is located on the river side, next to the cable car station. It has a lovely outdoor terrace or a well-designed, ornate interior. J and I ate here on our last night and we sat inside, by a window overlooking the river. It was a great spot for our last meal in Georgia. The river is quite dramatic here, with lots of rocks and rapids. I was a bit worried about the staff who were fixing an awning on the terrace, balancing on a railing over the river in their flip-flops. They could have been washed away if they had fallen in.
The food was a little more pricey than other places in town, but not overly expensive. J had pizza, I had salmon and both were delicious. They have specialty desserts, though we resisted. They also had very cute waiters.
In the garden area they had musicians, which was lovely. We chose to sit inside though as it was air-conditioned and the garden was pretty full.
This article from Rough Guides (Kutaisi: an Adventure, Food and Spa Weekend) contains information about some cool destinations I haven’t mentioned above; including white water rafting and an underground city.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.