From Tbilisi we made our way over to Kutaisi. Sofi has an apartment there and graciously invited us to stay with her for a week. Kutaisi’s highlights are Gelati and Motsameta Monasteries, the Bagrati Cathedral and Sataplia Nature Reserve. We tried to visit Martvili and Okatse Canyon but found out that we were way too early for the season as both sights were closed for renovations. From Kutaisi, we had an overnight stay at the Black Sea resort city of Batumi which we really enjoyed.
2 April – Since it was the weekend, Sofi wanted to sleep in a little before we found a marshrutka back to Kutaisi. At 9:30, we finally got up to find that Tamari and Shotigo were waiting patiently to say goodbye. Tamari was headed back to work (she had gotten back in the wee hours of the morning and already had to turn right back around) and Shotigo had to head to school for weekend lessons, so it was up to Sofi and Vacho to make us breakfast. We enjoyed leftovers and Robby was persuaded to have a shot of chacha to start his morning off right. After thanking Vacho and Ani for being great hosts, we hopped in a taxi for the bus station where we caught a van for the ride to Kutaisi (10 Lari each, well worth it to have more comfortable seats and only 8 passengers). The ride took over 3 hours and we were at Sofi’s apartment by mid afternoon. After getting settled in, we hopped downtown where we enjoyed our first taste of khinkali (Georgian dumplings) at a beer bar. Sofi went a bit overboard, ordering a whopping 30 khinkali, 6 beef kebabs, 3 liters of beer and lemonade sodas. Khinkali was delicious as advertised, and we knew to slurp up all the inner juices…yum! Our feast came out to 50 Lari and Sofi insisted on paying, telling us it was our welcome meal to Kutaisi. To help ease digestion, we walked around the entire downtown area and Sofi did a little shopping at the market for some fruits and vegetables. Back at the apartment, Sofi quickly roasted a chicken and whipped up a walnut/garlic sauce to prepare “Katmis Satsivi”, which is served cold. Also super delicious! She had given up her double sized bed for us to sleep in and volunteered to sleep on the sofa bed and no amount of arguing with her would change her mind.
3 April – Today we met two of Sofi’s five best friends (Khvicha and Aleko) when they came over for lunch. Interestingly, they are both majors in the Georgian army and Sofi is a sergeant. And yet their rank never interfered with their friendship and we could tell they were a tight knit group. We rode with them to two of Kutaisi’s “must sees” , UNESCO heritage Gelati Monastery followed by Motsameta Monastery. Gelati was a decent drive from Kutaisi, and to be honest, it looked pretty unimpressive from the outside. However, the minute we stepped into the ancient monastery church, our jaws dropped. The painted murals and mosaics were truly phenomenal. A Georgian lady dressed as a nun immediately latched on to us when we arrived, and kept giving a spiel entirely in Russian (with Sofi translating). Not our cup of tea as we would have preferred to be cut loose to take photos of the gorgeous interior but it felt rude to completely ignore her. Plus she had access to a hidden alcove where even more impressive murals were on display. Only at the very end of our visit did she admit she wanted a “donation” for her services. We quickly told Sofi that for future visits anywhere, we did not want a local guide, especially one that couldn’t speak English (considering that Sofi did all the work!) In any case, Gelati was amazing and not to be missed. Next stop of Motsameta was pretty neat. It sits on a rocky promontory high above the Tskhaltsitela River (Red Water), the site of an 8th century Muslim massacre. They beheaded all those who refused to convert to Islam, to include Georgian princes Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze. Legend has it that their bodies were thrown into the river but were rescued by lions who carried their remains to the top of the site (where the monastery was later built). The pious princes were canonized by the Georgian church and today their heads and bones are on display at the monastery in an ark. All visitors were lined up to crawl under the side altar three times while making a wish. We watched as Sofi did it but thought that we should give it a miss because the crawl space looked pretty tiny! Our last visit of the day was to the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi (11th century). Its been heavily restored with a rather plain interior, and was definitely not as impressive as Gelati or Motsameta. Dinner at Sofi’s was a long affair, and we saw why Sofi considers Aleko and Khvicha to be two of her best friends. Even though there was a language barrier, both were super fun guys, and we enjoyed being in their company. We were quickly schooled in the fact that Georgians love to drink and eat and toast. Sofi prepared a dinner feast and Khvicha served as the toast master, so our dinner meal took several hours to get through with lots of wine and chacha liberally served throughout. Toasting in Georgia is an art form and not to be rushed. We were urged to reciprocate with our own toasts and even though neither one of us was as verbose as our hosts, they seemed satisfied, ha. It was well past midnight before we could finally get some shut eye. So far, every single night in Georgia has been a late one!
4 April – Since Sofi had to work this morning, she made breakfast before she left and we had a free morning to relax. While her original intention was to be back by 11 am, her company commander was quite demanding and she wasn’t cut loose until 1 pm. We had a quick lunch before heading out at 2 pm for an afternoon trip to Okatse Canyon. Sofi had coordinate our ride with her taxi driver friend (40 Lari round trip). To our dismay, we found out that both Okatse and nearby Martvili were closed for renovations to prepare for the busy upcoming tourist season. Huge bummer! Instead, we returned back to Kutaisi where Sofi had us help her make churchkhela. We had seen strings and strings of churchkhela hanging in the stores of Tbilisi and were very curious about these sausage shaped snacks. Apparently, they originate from the Caucasus region and are locally known as “Georgian Snickers”. We used a sewing needle, some thread and a huge pile of walnuts and strung a bunch of walnuts together (approximately 8 to 10 inches in length). After putting together a dozen strands of walnuts, part two of the process was to make the concentrated grape juice mixture. Definitely not an exact science because after stirring rigorously for what felt like forever, followed by lots of taste tests and extra amounts of grape juice and flour, Sofi finally decreed we were ready to dip the walnut strands. Then we hung the strings to dry and viola, homemade churchkhela!
5 April – Today we were leaving Kutaisi and headed over to Batumi, a Black Sea resort town. We met Sofi’s friend Gocha, who was given the day off by his Battalion Commander to escort us around the Batumi area. The only catch was we had to pay for the gas,, which we were more than happy to do. Midway through the drive, we stopped at a roadside fish market to check out the variety of fish for sale. Sofi saw that we were interested in the fish and promised to buy some tomorrow to fry up for dinner. Just before we reached Batumi, we took a detour to an old abandoned Russian camp just above the Botanical Gardens. The soldiers manning that post must have loved this assignment back in the day! Batumi reminded us a lot of Dubai with its fanciful buildings. The architecture made us swivel our heads from side to side to marvel at Georgia’s most opulent and popular city. However, Gocha promised we could explore further when we returned and we drove onward to his hometown of Gonio to pick up his son Zura. With all of us squeezed together in the back seat, we checked out Sarpi, the Turkish-Georgian border crossing. Then a quick visit to Gonio Fortress, an old Roman fortification built in Adjara. From there, we head further inland to see more Adjara towns (predominantly muslim). A stop at the Adjarian wine house was a nice detour because we inadvertently crashed a wedding party and were immediately plied with excellent wine (free). Robby ended up buying two bottles of excellent red wine for 30 Lari. Next up was the Makhuntseti waterfall and old bridge before backtracking to Batumi for the remainder of the day. Zura arranged for us to have a late lunch at his place of work, the Batumi World Palace Hotel. The food was excellent! Super tasty and plentiful. The friendly staff even opened up our bottles of wine to accompany our meal. Zura graciously paid for our lovely meal despite our protests. The hospitality we have experienced in Georgia is second to none! Gocha split from our group after the meal and we didn’t realize we wouldn’t see him again until tomorrow morning so our overnight bag remained in the back seat of his car. Bummer! We strolled down Batumi’s waterfront and made it to the New Boulevard area at dusk in time to watch the dancing fountains laser and sound show kick off. Lastly, we rode the cable car up to Anuria Hill to see Batumi lit up at night. Wonderful day and made even better because of Zura, who was an excellent host (and a super nice guy too). Since we had planned to stay overnight in Batumi, we had found a budget apartment for rent for a mere 30 Lari. Sofi couldn’t believe we had scored such affordable lodging and kept insisting it was too good to be true. However, M&D apartment on Javakhishvili 9 was perfect for our needs and even Sofi was impressed that our cheapie lodging had all worked out. The apartment came fully equipped with a kitchen, washer (for laundry), hot water shower, tv, double bed and sofa bed so technically 4 adults can stay here. For only $13 a night, it was our best bargain yet. Zura had to head to work so we said our goodbyes and thanked him for taking us around his lovely city all day today.
6 April – After calling the owner of M&D to return the apartment key and make payment, we head out to see Batumi in the early morning light. At Evropas Moedani, we checked out the beautiful buildings and the Medea monument before strolling onward to see the Orta Mosque. Gocha picked us up and we were off to the port city of Poti to meet Sofi’s mom and pick up a freshly slaughtered piglet. First a quick detour to the fish market where Sofi got 2 KG of fish for 20 Lari. Then a whirlwind visit to meet her mom before the quick drive back to Kutaisi. Somehow, Sofi managed to convince Gocha to take us to Sataplia, a nature reserve north of Kutaisi. There, we got to see 120 million year old fossilized dinosaur footprints! Walking through a 300 meter long cave and standing on a glass panoramic platform rounded out our visit, and then we were back to Sofi’s apartment to prepare the suckling pig for dinner. It was a feast as Aleko and Khvicha showed up as well with 14.5 liters of beer in hand. Robby and Aleko started pounding the beer as dinner was prepared and poor Aleko got tore up! Somehow Robby managed to out drink a Georgian which is no easy task, ha. Needless to say, Aleko didn’t drive home tonight! And the suckling pig was delicious!!!