Everyone will want to see Bagrati Cathedral, while those with more time will also enjoy the Historical Museum, the busy market between Paliashvili and Lermontov, and the attractive, recently spruced-up area around Kutaisis bulvari park, with its opera house, theatre, art museum and more.
From the Jachvis Khidi (Chain Bridge), you can walk up cobbled streets lined with attractive houses and gardens to the stately ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral on Ukimerioni Hill.
Bagrati was built in 1003 by Bagrat III. A great dome rose over the centre of the cathedral, but in 1692 a Turkish explosion brought down both dome and ceiling to leave the cathedral in a ruined state. The cathedral is now being completely restored, with the aim of returning it to its original form. Un- fortunately, this contributed to Unesco placing Bagrati Cathedral on its World Heritage in Danger list in 2010, due to threats to the ‘integrity and authenticity of the site’.
The ruined palace-citadel immediately east of the cathedral dates back to the 6th century. It was ruined in 1769 by bombardment from the forces of Solomon I of Imereti and the Russian General Todtleben as they fought to take Kutaisi from the Turks. But you can see wine cellars at the west end of the palace, a church in the middle, and parts of the medieval walls.
Kutaisi Historical Museum
The history museum has superb collections from all around western Georgia and is well worth your time, but a guided tour is a good idea as labelling is poor. The highlight is the Treasury section, with a marvelous exhibition of icons and crosses in precious metals and jewels, including a large, reputedly miracle- working icon from the Bagrati Cathedral. The rest of the collection ranges from a famous 7 th century BC androgynous fertility god figurine to medieval weaponry, historical art, manuscripts going back to the 10th century and even the first telephone used in Kutaisi.
Georgians have always had a talent for choosing beautiful locations for their churches and this monastery complex, on a wooded hillside 9km northeast of Kutaisi, is no exception.
Gelati was founded by King David the Builder in 1106 as a centre for Christian culture and Neoplatonist learning; its academy became, according to medieval chroniclers, ‘a second Jerusalem’. Many Georgian rulers were buried here, including David himself and (according to her chronicler) Queen Tamar. In 1510 the Ottoman Turks set fire to the complex, but Bagrat III of Imereti subsequently restored it, and it became the residence of the West Georgian patriarch. The monks were cast out by the Communists in 1922, but the churches were reconsecrated in 1988 and President Saakashvili chose Gelati for his inauguration in 2004.
The interior of the main Cathedral of the Virgin is among the brightest and most colorful in Georgia. Among the frescoes, painted between the 12th and 18th centuries, note especially the line of seven noble figures on the north wall of the north transept: these include David the Builder (hold- ing the church) and Bagrat III (with a cross over his left shoulder). Across the corner to the right of David are the Byzantine emperor Constantine and his wife, Helena. The apse holds a famous 1130s mosaic of the Virgin and Child, with Archangels Michael and Gabriel to the left and right respectively. If you visit during the Sunday-morning service from around 10am you’ll be treated to beautiful Georgian chants.
Outside the cathedral’s west door is the smaller Church of St Nicholas, built on an unusual arcaded base, and beyond that, the Academy, where philosophy, theology, sciences and painting were studied and important chronicles and translations written. The Academy has recently been completely rebuilt after years as a roofless shell. To the left of the Academy, inside the South Gate, lies David the Builder’s grave. David wanted to be buried here so that all who entered the monastery would step on his huge 3m tomb, a notably humble gesture for such a powerful man. Ironically, reverent visitors nowadays take great care not to step on the tomb.
Little Motsameta monastery sits on a spectacular clifftop promontory above a bend of the Tskhaltsitela River, 6km from Kutaisi, 1.8km off the Gelati road. The river’s name, ‘Red Water’, derives from an 8th century Arab massacre. Among the victims were the brothers Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze, dukes of Argveti. Their bodies were thrown in the river, but the story goes that lions brought them up to the church where their bones were subsequently kept. If you crawl three times under the side altar where the bones are kept, your wish will supposedly be granted (this didn’t work for your correspondent).
Sataplia nature reserve
This 3.5-sq-km reserve, 9km northwest of Kutaisi, has recently been developed for visitors and is a big hit with Georgian tourists. Its star features are a couple of dozen 120 million year old, fossilized dinosaur footprints (well displayed in a protective building), and an attractively lit 300m long cave with a small underground river and plenty of stalactites and stalagmites. The reserve is covered in thick, subtropical Colchic forest and has a couple of panoramic lookout points.
At Kumistavi, 20km northwest of Kutaisi, this 1.2km long cave is more beautiful and impressive than the Sataplia cave. It was opened for tourist visits in 2011, initially free though a charge will probably be introduced. It’s planned to make boat trips available on the lake inside the cave.
The site of this ancient city is 40km south-west of Kutaisi. The modern museum here, labelled in English as well as Georgian, has spectacular exhibits.
Vani was one of the main centres of ancient Colchis, flourishing from the 8th to 1st centuries BC. Some speculate that it could have been the city of King Aeëtes, where Jason came in search of the Golden Fleece. Archaeologists have found remains of monumental architecture and opulent burials. Strong brick and mud walls with towers were built towards the end of Vani’s life, when archaeologists think it may have become a kind of temple-city, dedicated principally to the goddess Levcoteia. The museum’s most remarkable treasures are on its upper floor, where you can see fine bronze casts including a statue of a youth, and a mix of originals and copies of fabulous gold adornments with incredibly fine animal designs. The first excavations at Vani took place in the 1890s, after locals reported gold ornaments being washed down the hill after heavy rains.
The site itself is not developed for visitors but you can make out some temple areas, defensive walls and a deep ritual well, as well as a small city gate and a section of paved street.