When last you heard from me, I was leaving Tbilisi, Georgia, on Day 26 of my trip to Turkey and the Caucasus. So I will pick it up there.
As I mentioned in Part One, I made some changes to my itinerary. I have decided to cut Batumi, the Black Sea resort city I was planning to visit. Read on to learn more about why.
Kutaisi is the traditional rival of Tbilisi for capital status. Since the days of the Golden Fleece, Kutaisi has been considered the capital of Western Georgia (then Ancient Colchis). It is Georgia’s second largest city, but, to the irritation of the proud locals, it does not come even close to Tbilisi’s present day size and wealth.
Since the Georgian Parliament moved to Kutaisi in 2012, there has been a lot of work on restoring streets, buildings, parks and monuments in the city, and it has become much safer. Kutaisi’s large, central park is a great (and safe) place to sit and watch people. In addition, a visit to Kutaisi is near mandatory to see the magnificent Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, which are both UNESCO World Heritage sites and have commanding views from the mountain slopes over the city and the roaring Rioni River.JayWay Travel
“Colchis” is actually what the ancient Greeks called what is now western Georgia. Aeëtes, the king of Colchis, was in possession of the Golden Fleece. (How he received it is a story for another day.) King Pelias of Iolcus sent Jason, with his crew of Argonauts, on a quest to retrieve it, which he did with the help of Aeëtes’s daughter, the sorceress Medea.
The drive from Tbilisi to Kutaisi should be under four hours, but we’ll have a few stops along the way, so it might end up being a full day. There’s nothing on the agenda once I arrive in Kutaisi and am dropped at the Hotel Solomon, where I stay for three nights.
Here are the stops we’ll make on the way to Kutaisi:
Aside from being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, with a museum dedicated to him, Gori has a number of historic buildings, including a fort and several old churches.
Chiatura is a mining town. It’s in a valley surrounded by hills rich with manganese oxide, peroxide, and carbonate that were discovered in 1879.
In the 1950s the Soviets installed a system of cable cars to transport the miners from the valley to the mines up in the hills. This was revamped in the last few years, and the new cable car network opened in 2021.
I’m not exactly sure what there is to see in Chiatura.
This monastery is just outside Chiatura. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:
The Mghvimevi monastery is a Georgian Orthodox monastery … near the town of Chiatura, partly carved into rock. Its main feature is a 13th-century two-nave basilica, dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God.… The monastery is a functioning nunnery. It is rich in ornamental architectural sculpture which decorate the exterior of the churches. The Mghvimevi complex is inscribed on the list of Georgia’s Immovable Cultural Monuments of National Significance.
The photo at the top of this post shows Katshkhi Pillar. The ruins on top of this 40-meter-high pillar date from the 9th or 10th century.
This is a day for experiencing Kutaisi. I’ll have a three-hour private city tour, and the rest of the day free.
Because I cut Batumi, I have given myself an extra day in Kutaisi. This will give me the opportunity for an excursion that sounds really interesting.
Kutaisi Surroundings Private Day Trip
This six-hour excursion is what JayWay calls “an unforgettable journey to see some of the natural wonders of Georgia.” The tour starts at the Prometheus Cave, which has magnificent stalactites and stalagmites lit up with colorful LED lights. After the cave, we’ll continue to the Martvili and Okatse canyons for a hike of about three hours. The last stop will be at the Kinchkha waterfalls.
A little Googling tells me that I can find excursions from Kutaisi to these destinations from local guides at a lower cost than JayWay is quoting. So I may do it that way instead.
Why I cut Batumi
Batumi is a resort city on the Black Sea. With a population of 172,000, it is Georgia’s second largest city, and it is an important port as well as a tourist destination.
There is some interesting architecture in Batumi, and of course, the beach. Nearby is also the Batumi Botanical Garden, which I think I would have liked to see. So it was a hard decision to eliminate Batumi from my itinerary.
The first reason to do so was to add a day each to Tbilisi and Kutaisi. I just felt I didn’t have enough time to enjoy everything I wanted to see and do in these two destinations.
Batumi is also a long way to the west, meaning some long drives. I’m already covering a lot of distance on this trip, so this was an opportunity to spend less time in a car. It’s also one less relocation, one less time to pack up my luggage and check out of and into hotels.
October is also one of the rainiest times of year on the Black Sea coast. There was a good chance my activities in and around Batumi would have been in not the best conditions.
Finally, though, it was the things I was reading about Batumi that made me doubt my decision to visit. The Wikipedia article on Batumi says it’s nickname is “The Las Vegas of the Black Sea.” I’m not a big fan of the original Las Vegas, so I’m not sure I would have liked it that much.
My final Georgia destination is Akhaltsikhe. It’s about 3 1/4 hours drive from Kutaisi. (Compare that with the 5 1/2 hours it would have been from Batumi.)
My main reason for visiting Akhaltsikhe is that it’s the closest city to Vardzia. My advance research suggests Vardzia is one of the top sights in all the Caucasus.
The one point of interest in Akhaltsikhe is its castle. A visit to the castle is part of the itinerary for today’s tour full-day tour.
Here’s what Lonely Planet says about the castle:
Rabati Castle has been comprehensively renovated from the perilous, semi-ruined state it was left in a decade ago, and while it was a much-needed investment, sadly what greets you today feels a bit Disneyfied.
On the drive from Kutaisi to Akhaltsikhe, I’ll have a stop at Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Since visiting Borjomi was one of the optional excursions from Tbilisi, that’s one less choice I’ll have to narrow down.
AllTrails lists some of the top hikes in Borjomi. I don’t know how much time I’ll have there, but it should be no problem doing one or two of the shorter hikes.
After the hike, my driver (who I assume is also my guide at Borjomi) will take me on to Akhaltsikhe and drop me at Hotel Julia.
Vardzia is about 60 km from Akhaltsikhe, and it’s supposed to be a dramatic route. We’ll drive along the Mtkvari River through narrow canyons and wider valleys. Vardzia itself is a cave city and monastery established in the 12th century.
Also on today’s itinerary is Khertvisi Fortress, one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. It dates from the 10th century and sits at the confluence of two rivers.
Today I depart Akhaltsikhe and Georgia and head to Armenia. Stay tuned for the rest of my plans for this trip.