On the route from the airport, Batumi to the left, Kutaisi to the right, the festival of rust and Georgian recycling resourcefulness continues. The road is decorated with workshops stuck to each other, and in front of them car wrecks being diligently recycled into new models, of course cows on the road and on the roadside, loaded Turkish coaches and lorries, air rustle. One lane in both directions. It is the only sensible road to the region of Adjara, that is at the Black Sea, or to the mountainous Svaneti or in the opposite direction, to the east, to Kartli and Kakheti, or to the south or in any other place that can be accessible by asphalt. After landing here, there is no such visual effect as the “Liquid gold in Tbilisi” and my favourite tales about fairytaleness and over 1500-year-old theme park, but one thing is for sure – since the launch of the David the Builder airport in Koptinari, Kutaisi has become another highly polonised and touristically recognisable city in Georgia, sometimes even a starting point. No longer than a few years ago one tried to leave this place quickly so as to reach a destination somewhere else as soon as possible. In 2007, I remember I was looking for accommodation in Kutaisi so desperately that… I ended up sleeping in Ureki, more than 100 kilometres away. Noise and scorching heat are the first impressions for those who arrive here in the summer months. Noise and fog in the morning greet those who come here in the winter. Here are 5 things you need to know about Kutaisi and the area.
5 things you need to know about Kutaisi
- Where is the airport?
Kopitnari Airport (King David the Builder International Airport, in Georgian ქუთაისის საერთაშორისო აეროპორტი) is located about 15 kilometres from Kutaisi and works dynamically. A lot has changed since 2012. It has a restaurant (or even two), tourist information, shop in the free zone, currency exchange (the rate throughout Georgia is the same, there is no spread), points with tickets for the Georgian Bus. Directly after the launch, the airport looked like a scarcely stocked kiosk, just like the Polish shops in the Polish People’s Republic period, only temporarily decorated. The last time I was here was in 2015 and I only landed once when flying with Polish Airlines LOT to the capital in January 2014. The fog over Tbilisi was so thick that the pilot decided to change the place of landing. The flight attendant told us to get… out, so I did just that. I collected my luggage and didn’t know what to do next. As it often happens, the staff in the Information Point didn’t know anything either. In Georgia it happens very often – you ask for something, someone nods, goes away… and you’re waiting, not knowing at all what are you waiting for. The communication with the customer is sometimes challenging. In Poland it annoys me just as much.
With insufficient amount of sleep and confused, without the knowledge of how my onward journey to Lagodekhi should look like and what my friend who is waiting for me in Tbilisi should do, I sat on the floor in the corner of the arrivals hall, staring blankly ahead. Service rooms were empty and looked unfinished, blooming wirings protruded from the walls, desks and chairs smelled artificially from afar, just like doll houses. Backpackers slept on a bench waiting for a signal. Just before the entrance, the place was (and still is) crowded with taxi drivers and bus drivers. Yes, everyone here wants to be the king of marketing. I fully understand it because it is often the only chance to earn money. I get angry when I read on other sites about their importunity. We live in such times, my dear, that everyone is selling something and either you win or someone else. This is the law of the jungle. You cannot do it in any other way. Besides, 5, 10 or 15 GEL – what’s the difference for a tourists from the country which is in the European Union?!
On the other hand, in Warsaw we have a saying “cierp to cierp” – which means that the taxi drivers are a pain in the ass and it is indeed very painful when you get yourself tricked into a pricey ride.
Finally, breaking news coming out of the speakers – the buses, which will get us to Tbilisi free of charge, are waiting for us. I seated myself in the minibus and looked at the adjacent seat. The travelling companion seemed familiar. In my somnambulistic, half-asleep state, it took me a while until I matched the face to the right person. I nodded knowingly to the Polish consul, Mr. Piotr Apostolidis. All right, we finally set off. The two-hour trip from Tbilisi to the Father’s house which I initially planned, lasted about seven hours instead of two. It sometimes happens, right?
Currently, the network of connections is very attractive and includes flights from several airports in Poland, Germany, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, and is constantly expanding. A few days ago, the world heard the news that Wizz Air will establish its permanent base here. Also Ryanair wants to compete with the Hungarian budget flights giant.
Beautifully situated at the Rioni river, in the legendary region of Caucasian Colchis, also called the Imereti region, the city of Kutaisi is considered by many as the ugliest city in Georgia, where almost nothing from the ancient and medieval times survived. It is mostly blemished by bleak, neglected block housing estates and abandoned factory stretching to the horizon. The name of the city, which is somewhat funny for Poles, comes from a time when Kutaisi was built and transformed into the capital of the country, and the builders used the white stones from the Rioni river and nicknamed the city as Kvataisi – the stone city (kva means a stone in Georgian). Later the name evolved to the current version.
Kutaisi, also known in the Greek mythology as Ai, was the destination of Jason and the Argonauts travelling on the ship Argo in quest for the golden fleece belonging to the ram Chrysomallos. By the way, I really like the Georgian beer “Argo”, totally recommend. Famous Jason had some serious problems with seizing the precious treasure, but fortunately he received help from the daughter of the ruler of Colchis, a sorceress Medea. The legends often have a kernel of truth in them. As a matter of fact, the way of extracting gold by immersing wool in a mountain river was very popular in Georgia and some say they still use this method.
Caucasian Colchis can be deemed as the earliest form of the Georgian state and its foundation dates back to the first millennium BC. Colchis was under the strong Hellenistic influence. The trade and intellectual cooperation flourished. The Greeks established their colonies along the Black Sea coast. The significant centres emerged in the cities of Phasis (now Poti), Dioskuria (now Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia) and Pitnunt (Pitsunda in Abkhazia). In the 9th century, due to the internal conflicts in the Islamic world and the weakening of the Arab Caliphate, which occupied mainly eastern territories of Georgia, the new principality Tao-Klarjeti appeared in the south west. The power was taken over by Ashot Bagrationi, who descended from the centuries-old Armenian Bagrationi dynasty. It must be mentioned that they were often compared to European Jagiellonian dynasty. Both families have much in common, they were similarly divided into lines and ruled several countries for many centuries. The Georgian Bagrationi family ruled in Georgia through the lines of Abkhazia, Kartli, Imereti, Kakheti until 1801, so until the beginning of the reign of the Russian Tsar. To this day, the descendants of this great family come from all over the world and meet in Tbilisi, and the Georgian monarchists, including my uncle Teimuraz, see the next Georgian king among the youngest members of the family. The state of Tao-Klarjeti was under the influence of the Byzantine Empire, but had a certain degree of independence. It was enough for Adarnase IV in 888 to announce himself as the king of all Georgians. In the following years, the alliance with Abkhazia gained momentum, where members of the Bagrationi dynasty also ruled, and thanks to family connections and protectorate, they successively conquered successive principalities subordinate to Byzantium. Unfortunately, once again in the history of brave Georgians, a deadly threat appeared, an insurmountable obstacle. The 11th century was sullied by the bloodshed caused by the invasions of the Seljuk Turks. Religious massacres ravaged throughout the country, cities and villages were levelled and the people were taken into captivity. George II, who was ruling at the time, lost most of the country’s territory and together with his folk, took refuge in the west. A significant part of the aristocracy and rich townsmen took action against him as well. The king could not withstand the pressure and handed over the throne to his 16-year-old son, David.
David the Builder
Based on David IV’s biography (1073-1125), a Hollywood epic with a multi-million dollar budget and a great scenario could be filmed today. The whole world loves these kind of films: “A boy who became a prominent ruler.” It would be a blockbuster. David IV is now called “Agmaszenebeli” – The Builder – he was also declared a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Like the Polish kings Casimir the Great and Władysław the Short, David the Builder united Georgia, defeated the invaders, conquered the surrounding countries including Armenia, where he also sat on the throne, marking the border with the Black Sea in the west and with the Caspian Sea in the east. His reign started the so-called Georgian “Golden Age” which covered all areas of contemporary life, architecture, literature, sciences, philosophy. The Georgian Orthodox Church was rebuilt and reorganized. A strong, modern army was created. All administrative reforms were carried out. In 1106 the king founded the famous monastery complex Gelati called “New Jerusalem” or “New Athens”, where prominent Georgian and Greek minds studied. This object with its beautiful frescoes is now a must-see sight in Georgia, it is located 12 kilometres from the city of Kutaisi. Tourists from all over the world come to see the ruler’s grave with a huge tombstone. According to the legend, the king was indeed a great man, over two metres tall! David IV was also the advocate of tolerance between worshippers of different religions, so he initiated the concept of multiculturalism. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and still live alongside each other in Tbilisi. The legacy of King David the Builder was taken over and developed by his great-granddaughter Tamar.
For a split second in the history of the world, Georgia became a military and economic superpower.
Tamar – the most prominent ruler in the history of the world
Legendary Tamar (1160-1216) ruled Georgia since 1184. She was the only queen in the history of the country, which ruled autonomously. She was called “the king of kings and queen of queens” – Tamar Mepe. In order to curb the pressure of the aristocracy, which did not like the fact that the most important position in the country was held by a woman, she married Prince Giorgi Rusi (Yury Bogolyubsky). The marriage, however, did not work out and Tamar led to a divorce. Her next husband was Prince Davit Soslan of the Ossetian Bagrationi line, with whom she also did not share the power. As a result of military operations on the territory of northern Persia in year 1210, Georgia increased its territory by hundreds of kilometres. During the reign of Queen Tamar, Georgia also helped to create the non-autonomous Empire of Trebizond, which functioned until the second half of the 15th century on the territory of today’s Turkey, in the region of the Trabzon city.
According to legend, the most eminent Georgian national bard and treasurer at the royal court, Shota Rustaveli, the author of the most important epic poem “The Knight in Tiger’s Leather”, was hopelessly in love with the queen. Whether with reciprocity – this remains unknown, but at different periods a lot of guesses were made. The second legend concerns the death of the ruler. According to this legend, Tamar was buried in a coffin filled with honey and in order to confuse enemies, twelve funeral processions set out in different directions. Another legend indicates the burial place near David the Builder in the Gelati Monastery. What is the truth, where the facts end and the myth begins – this has not been resolved to this day.
The further fate of Caucasian Colchis, as well as the fate of the whole Georgia, flowed with various degree of happiness. From the 15th century Kutaisi was the capital of the kingdom of Imeretia. Then, after a period of strong development and prosperity, for 100 years Kutaisi froze and was in the hands of the Turks, who liked blowing up orthodox churches. In 1810 it was incorporated into Tsarist Russia, from 1946 it became the centre of the Kutais Governorate, and then a strong industrial centre, of course completely dependent on Moscow, until the collapse of the USSR.
- Sightseeing in Kutaisi
I usually arrive here in the evening and rush straight to the hotel on the hills near the city centre. If I am with a group of tourists, I organize a night walk around the city for those interested. We go down the dark streets, watching out for uncovered manholes and broken net fences lurking on the way. We pass in silence smooching couples squeezed on the benches at the theme park. If necessary, we jump over the fence to finally end up in the illuminated park with a colourful dazzling fountain in the middle of the roundabout and reproductions of 7000-years-old sculptures (the figure of Tamada) and 3000 to 5000- years-old ones (the others figures). A tiny Tamada drinking wine was found in western Georgia and figures of animals, including the famous golden lion and a chariot were found in the Kakheti region in the east. The authentic figures can be seen at the National Museum in Tbilisi and its branch in Sighnaghi. What is interesting in this mysterious art are the references to the culture of Mesopotamia, it’s really exciting.
Kutaisi by night
There’s a night party on the roundabout and in the park. During the summer holidays, the sensible temperature during the day reaches 50°C and the head evaporates, so parents don’t go for a walk with their children until after sunset. Kids drive around the park in their electric cars rented from a clever tradesman. Adults, a few of them crammed in a single car, hang around the roundabout with figures and are smiling more and more with every turn. We are also surprised because some cars stop in front of the pedestrian passing and LET the pedestrians cross the street, which is inconceivable in other regions of Georgia.
We pass the building of the theatre and Art Nouveau public buildings. The renovated artery, full of cafés and clubs, leads us to the famous bridge with shining white stones underneath, which is Kutaisi’s hallmark. From there we go back to the hotel to finish the tour the next day.
I really liked it when I was once sitting with a friend in a square near the hotel, we talked and had a little drink. A police car drove up, one of the police officers rolled down the window, lit a cigarette, eyed us up and down, asked us what’s up and after a short small-talk, they drove away. For drinking bear in the square without goofing around and shouting we haven’t got pepper sprayed or bashed in the head and nobody took us to the forest outside the city, as it happens in Poland. Since recently, there have been fines for alcohol consumption in public places in Georgia – and that is terrible.
Kutaisi by day
Bagrati Cathedral (in Georgian ბაგრატი)
After breakfast, we direct our first steps to the controversially renovated Cathedral of the Dormition – Bagrati – the controversy aroused due to the reconstruction, by which the Georgians have got in UNESCO’s black books. The orthodox church is located on the hill Ukimerioni towering over the city and owes its name to the sponsor, King Bagrat, who ordered its construction at the turn of the 10th and 11th century. According to many historians, its construction can be treated as a symbolic beginning of the Georgian Golden Age. The splendour of the church lasted until the invasion of the Turks who blew it up. After this event, only fragments of the temple and a pile of stones have survived. At the command of the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, an invasive reconstruction was carried out, adding modern and fashionable steel and glass that none of my Georgian friends liked. Bagrati Cathedral was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and in 2010, during the reconstruction, it was included on the List of World Heritage in danger. In the newest, glittering version it was commissioned in 2012. Almost no important holidays and celebrations are held here.
This is an iconic place, where for 8 GEL (about 3 USD) I bought several times the original Ray-Ban glasses, which cracked on my nose due to the heat. I don’t understand why, it is such a good company from what I’ve heard! 😉 Here you can stock up on tasty fruits, cheeses and other delicacies. For example, you can buy churchkhelas, that is walnuts or hazelnuts strung on a thread, then dipped in a grape-flour batter and left to dry out in the sun. They are so-called Georgian Snickers. 🙂
Kutaisi is the seat of the Georgian parliament since 2012. Officially, it was moved here from Tbilisi to compensate for the imbalances between the largest cities in the country. Mischievous folk claim that the former president Saakashvili did so in order to get rid of his opponents from his milieu.
If you have more time, it is worth visiting the Great Synagogue in Kutaisi, the second largest in Georgia.
- Where to sleep?
Hotel infrastructure is still pretty weak in Kutaisi. For backpackers I recommend Hostel Kutaisi by Kote which owners in a Georgian-Polish family tandem do a great job promoting the region and their activities. Accommodation prices start at 20 GEL/person, the hostel also offers transfers from the airport, excursions around the area and many other attractions.
Tel.: +995 593 54 85 07 (Kote)
Address: 18 Maxim Gorky street
As usual, I will devote a separate post to accommodation and recommend a few possibilities, and I will advise against a hotel filled with carpets, where I was afraid to enter the bathroom or open the fridge, so as not to encounter carpets there, too.
- What to visit in the area?
In the region of Imereti, you can find stunning landscapes, sights and attractions. Make sure to visit the Prometheus Caves and Sataplia Caves with the remnants of the famous Kolkhida forests, as well as the Gelati monastery complex which I mentioned above, and the second monastery – Motsameta. There is no problem finding a driver who will drive you around. The sensational attractions newly discovered for a wider audience are certainly the canyons of Okatse and the surrounding area of Martvili. I will visit them soon with my groups “for friends”. You are also invited.
You will read more extensive presentations of these wonderful places in the following posts, because it came out exceptionally long. 😉 Thanks for reading the article “5 things you need to know about Kutaisi”. See you around.