Dive deep into churches and churchkhela at Kutaisi in Georgia
Though most people view Kutaisi in Georgia as a stopover city, it deserves a deeper exploration
Thirty golden figures mounted on blue mosaic pedestals in the middle of a traffic island form the majestic Colchis fountain, the showstopper of the city of Kutaisi in Western Georgia. Modelled on ancient artefacts—from lions and deer to horses—found in an archeological excavation in nearby Vani, the eye-catching fountain is a nod to the city’s rich history.
Situated in the Imeriti valley region on the Rioni River, Kutaisi—to the west of Tbilisi—was once the medieval capital of the Kingdom of Georgia. One of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in the world, it was also an important centre of Georgian Christianity in the 11th and 12th centuries. Little wonder then that there are quite a few monasteries and churches dotting it. Today the city has a look of faded grandeur with many majestic buildings, some of which are derelict.
The Green Bazaar with a gargantuan terracotta mural outside it depicts the Kingdom of Colchis—the ancient name for the country, referred to in Greek mythology as the land of gold—with scenes of Medea, Jason and the Golden Fleece. Stalls around the place offer a variety of fresh produce, from ripe tomatoes to bulbous watermelons.
There are also some places selling stringy sulguni and Imereti cheese, dried fruits and strings of churchkhela (dried fruits dipped in grape juice and flour, and strung like garlands). One can also find homemade sauces, spices and salt mixes in bottles that look like coloured sand, fragrant herbs and edible flowers such as tarragon and marigold.
Lermontov Street, behind the Green Bazaar, is lined with decrepit houses with exquisite facades and details, once built by traders. The typical Kutaisi houses on Gelati street are stately two-storeyed palaces of yore, in light-coloured stone, with twin doorways and balconies. The city was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities. Today a walk in the charming Jewish quarter, just behind the Colchis Fountain, with old synagogues and weathered houses with wrought iron balconies and grape vines, is a step back in time. Most families from the community left for Israel during the Soviet period, but the synagogues are still looked after well.
With unique restaurants housed in old buildings with bohemian interiors, the city buzzes with creative energy. Such eateries are a great place to experience Imereti cuisine from Imeruli khachapuri (pizza-like bread filled with local cheese), Pkhali platters of minced vegetables with walnut paste and herbs rolled into balls served with Mchadi corn bread, and eggplant rolls with ground walnuts, garlic, vinegar, herbs and spices. One of the most eye-catching street arts here is a mural of an old woman making khachapuri. Close to the Green Bazaar, one can also see fresh bread being baked in earthen tonirs (oven) with some shops selling discs of Imereti cheese.
AN ERA GONE BY
Kutaisi is surrounded by UNESCO sites, monasteries and caves. Gelati monastery, founded in 1106, used to be home to an academy of scholars and has brightly coloured Byzantine-style frescoes—there’s one significant one of King David the Builder, who heralded Georgia’s Golden Age. Not far away from Gelati, is the hillside Motsameta monastery overlooking a river gorge. It contains the remains of David and Constantine, two brothers who were captured and tortured in the eighth century trying to keep the region Christian. Another most visited place is the Tetra caves, which take its name from the Georgian word for the colour ‘white’, as the interior is awash with chalk limestone. What makes it unique is that it’s used for wine storage, ageing and tasting. It is also used for speleotherapy, a treatment benefiting those with bronchial asthma and hypertension.