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View of Kutaisi from the Bagrati Cathedral (May 2019).

The city of Kutaisi is the third most-populous in Georgia, after Tbilisi and Batumi. Located about 220 kilometers (140 miles) west of Tbilisi, this small city had briefly been the capital of Georgia between 2012 and 2018, before being passed back to Tbilisi– it even had a Parliament built, but it was never used! Today, it still remains a notable city that tourists visit, especially as it’s a gateway to the country’s west.

I didn’t have any expectations of Kutaisi before I visited, namely because I had never heard of it! However, during the full-day tour there, I was bombarded with plenty of history and information about this modest city, all the while exploring its natural surroundings in the rich Imereti region.

Apparently, Kutaisi has become quite popular in recent years, as its airport serves low-cost European flights from Budapest and Warsaw– no surprise, then, that many Hungarian and Polish travelers come to Kutaisi for a couple of nights as a weekend break, along with getting a taste for Georgia.

After spending a night and a half in Tbilisi, I was up at a glorious 5:00 to get picked up by my driver from Budget Georgia, who was to take me all the way to Kutaisi (a two, three-hour drive away). It was a little startling to be woken up by a massive, burly man in his forties with limited English, let alone get in the car with him, but he was actually really kind– despite the language barrier, we managed to talk a little on the long drive over.

One thing you should know about Georgia is its drivers– they are crazy. It’s not just going full-throttle the entire drive, but also passing cars on single lanes (with cars coming at you in the opposite direction) and whipping through the mountain curves like it was nothing (and no guard rails for protection). As my local guide in Kutaisi jokingly put it, pedestrians not only have to look left and right before crossing streets, but also even up and down, just in case!

My driver was the perfect example of the crazy Georgian driver– I was tired when we left, due to lack of sleep, but his driving was the “coffee” that kept me awake and alert for most of the drive. My driver could tell that I wasn’t used to Georgian driving and teased me for it, but I was just making sure that I wouldn’t die while on the road *knock on wood.*

His driving was just a teaser of the other rides I would be taking in Georgia for the rest of the week– all crazy drivers, but somehow alive in the end. Eventually, I put my mind at ease and told myself that, if these drivers do this for a living every single day without an accident, then I should be in good hands. In the end, I was fine!

The highway we drove on was the longest in the Caucasus region, connecting with Turkey on one side and Azerbaijan the other, before extending to Iran! My driver pointed out some natural landmarks, along with several villages on the roadside, which were actually occupied by Russians. That surprised me, as I’d believed that only the northern parts of Georgia were Russian-occupied, not the central-west.

We also zipped past men just standing on the road, which my driver told me were Russian military– it was strange, because the men weren’t in obvious uniform. While I knew I would be safe as a tourist, it was unsettling that the Georgians themselves weren’t safe in their own country, as they’re constantly watched by the Russians.

After zipping through the mountains (and I praying for my life), we soon reached Kutaisi in a record two-and-a-half hours. I met my local guide at around 8:00, and he gave me a short, walking tour of the city. We first visited the White Bridge, which actually isn’t white, but made of grey metal– in the past, it’d been made of white material before the river destroyed it. There was also a quirky statue of a boy holding two hats– urban legend has it that a small thief “stole” hats from two passerby before jumping into the river with his treasures!

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On the White Bridge.
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Thief statue on the White Bridge.

My guide and I passed by the Golden Marquee, a former palace, before checking out the central grocery Bazar– I got to sample churchkhela, aka “Georgian Snickers.” Instead of chocolate, though, it’s grape juice which coats the walnuts inside. Very sweet, but tasty!

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Inside the central grocery Bazar.
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Churchkhela.

We cut through Central Park, as well as passed under the Mon Plaisir arch before we stopped for breakfast at a random restaurant. I hadn’t eaten since waking up for the long drive over, so it was much-appreciated. I wanted to try different Georgian dishes, so I opted for khinkali (dumplings) and badridzhani nigvsit (eggplants with walnut paste). The latter might appear simple, but it turned out to be my favorite dish– and one of my favorites I’ve eaten on the entire trip! The walnut paste was so rich and creamy, almost like peanut butter and, paired with fresh eggplant, it made for a refreshing meal on a hot day, as it was in Kutaisi– I would go back just for that!

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Mon Plaisir arch.
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Eggplant with walnut paste.
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Khinkali.

After breakfast, I was taken to visit the city’s state history museum, which had plenty of archaeological artifacts dating from the Stone Age to religious icons in the Middle Ages. It was a short tour, since many of the artifacts were actually being restored. I’m not one for museums, so I found it the least-interesting part of my time in Kutaisi.

The second half of my tour started half-past noon, with a different guide who drove me around to see the Bagrati Cathedral and the region’s surroundings. Besides the cathedral, we also visited a couple of monasteries– the Gelati and Motsameta– and what surprised me was that I had to cover myself with a headscarf before entering each religious site. As a woman, it’s necessary to cover the head, shoulders, and bare legs at such places, as Georgia is deeply religious (as Orthodox Christians). It was a first for me, as I don’t recount having to cover up in other churches in places I’ve been, but to respect the grounds, I didn’t mind it.

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One of the three Gelati monasteries.
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Motsameta monastery.

Highlight of the day, however, was my first of two wine tastings I would be doing on my trip: my guide drove us to a winery some 40 minutes from Kutaisi, and I met the really-kind family who owned the property– the mother and father asked if I knew Russian (unfortunately, I didn’t), but they were still happy to chitchat with me in broken English. Their daughter, who was fluent in English, did all of the explaining of how they cultivate and make their wines, first showing me their lush vineyard and then their cellars where massive traditional barrels were stored. Of course, we concluded by tasting four different types of wines, along with a vast spread of Georgian dishes that I couldn’t finish all by myself!

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Vineyards.
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Food at the wine tasting.

Compared to the *copious* French wines I’ve tried since living abroad, I’ve found Georgian wine to be much milder in taste. More so like table wine– light and smooth, goes down easy with food. Interesting to note that it’s believed that Georgia is where wine-tasting originated, so we have to thank the country for that!

The tour concluded after the wine tasting. Full and sleepy, I headed back with my driver to Kutaisi, where he was kind to drop me off right at the hostel I would be staying for the night. I definitely didn’t eat dinner that night, as I was so full from the food and wine consumed, so I just showered and slept. It would be another long day ahead of me the next day, and I needed all of the rest I could get.

Overall, I found my tour of Kutaisi to be rather underwhelming– visiting the city itself, I didn’t find that there was so much to see. However, it was by going outside of town into the lush Imereti region with the monasteries and wine tasting that I found my stride, and that was what I really appreciated about my tour that day.

More adventures in Georgia coming up! Next: Mestia & Ushguli, Georgia!

 

— Rebecca

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