Khachapuri with grandpa
There’s a small graveyard behind Gelati, one of the three monasteries around Kutaisi, where the dead have tombs with wrought iron gates and full-length colourful portraits, proudly standing and looking at you in the Sunday dress. No sad B&W photos, no dried-up flowers: families come to eat bread and kachapuri with them, while the kids cheerfully play and shout between the graves. The Georgian tradition of “banqueting with the deads” is particularly felt during Easter: that’s why on Saturday, as first thing in Kutaisi, I meet a nice family who came to greet its grandfather with good things to eat. This is also my first meeting with khachapuri, the Georgian national dish, a simple and delicious cheese-filled bread that according to the region can be cooked in different ways: the Imeretian, the most popular one, is filled with salted cheese, the Acharuli has also eggs and butter, the Megrelian has double cheese on top (yummy!).
Gelati is the symbolic monument of Georgian religion and culture: built by King David “the Builder” in the 12th century, it was not simply a monastery, but also included an Academy where the major scientists of the country were working, that’s why it was honored by the title of “New Athens” or “Second Athos”. Today it is an evocative complex under restoration that overlooks Kutaisi from the top of the hill, including three churches and the academy. It has been listed as Unesco heritage since 1994 and is remarkable for its incredible frescoes, some dating back to the medieval foundation.
I get to Gelati taking one of the marshrutkas departing from Meskhishvili theatre in the main square, David Agmashenebeli: a “marshrutka”, literally meaning “routed taxi”, is a kind of shared taxi originated during the Soviet Union and still in use, between a taxi and a bus also for the price, that has a timetable and a fixed route but stops at passengers’ request. This is the first of a long serie of marshrutkas during my trip, and as always I will have fun socializing with the drivers with surreal fragments of English, Russian and gestures.
Motsameta and Bagrati
The day is gloomy and humid but I’m brave and I decide to walk the 6 km from Gelati to Motsameta, the second of the three monasteries around Kutaisi, more isolated and less refined, but with a stunning view on the bend of Tskhaltsitela river and the countryside. I end up walking only a part of the trip, because a very nice Georgian man with his daughter decides to stop and offers me a ride… probably the same thing that an elderly veiled lady was trying to do some minutes before, at the level crossing of Gelati, screaming and shouting, but since I showed not to understand she had disappeared with her driver. Georgian people are very kind and hospitable with strangers, and in different other moments they have offered me a ride along the street, even without hitchhiking. I case you don’t want to walk, you can also bargain with a taxi driver in Kutaisi the full visit to the three monasteries around Kutaisi.
In Motsameta I also buy some gifts for mine, here Google Translator saves me to understand that “oil” is not blessed water, and I meet the mythical taxi driver Zurab, with him I bargain a ride to Bagrati, provided that I wait while he drives to Gelati a German couple. The wait is not in vain: Zurab clearly doesn’t speak a word of English, but on the other hand he offers me a lot of grappa, white wine and red wine that he takes out from unsuspected bottles of Pepsi. I also taste the churchkhela, sweets made with hazelnuts or almonds, covered with sweetened grape must.
Kinkali, music & wine
Returning to the centre by foot (Bagrati is close to Kutaisi) I share a ride with A., one of the Italians of the Wizzair flight, who is visiting the monasteries around Kutaisi with a local guide, and with whom I arrange to hang out in the evening. I walk a bit around Kutaisi, which is actually not so interesting itself, but more a foothold to visit the surroundings. I see everything in an afternoon: the Opera, the Synagogue, the square with the Colchis Fountain, a lot of small shops each one selling a microscopic assortment of products. Then I go back to my base, the nice Guest-house Deda Lali where I will feel like home, spoilt by granny Ali (absolutely recommended, only 30 GEL per night for a single room, less than 10 euros).
We have dinner for 3 euros per person, with khachapuri and kinkali (Georgian dumplings) at Caffe El Paso, a restaurant on the main square, then we end up at Satsnakheli Wine Bar, a very nice winery with a special atmosphere – halfway between a bunker and a cellar, with a library and a piano, often hosts high-quality live concerts. After a bottle of Otskanuri, the Georgian adventure can be said to be officially opened…