Monday, June 9, 2014

Kutaisi Trip

So we went on a trip to Kutaisi (pronounced coo-toe-see) over Memorial/Georgian Independence Day weekend. Kutaisi is the second largest city in Georgia with a current population of about 218,000 (according to our tour guide). Kutaisi is also the capital of Imereti (similar to US states....these were former kingdoms back in the day).

The CLO office coordinated our trip, we just had to pay and show up that morning.....definitely the way to go! I didn't have to worry about maps/GPS failing me, where is a good place to eat, etc.

Kutaisi was about 236 km from Tbilisi....the drive took about 4 hours....not sure if I should mention the drive. Eeek, that driver was little crazy at times (you know passing semi's on a blind curve or taking curves on the edge of a cliff so quickly that duffle bags fly off the seats). Both kids had a bit too much fun with the bus curtains and Clarissa appears to be a budding photographer (too bad she kept taking out the batteries since that clears her camera's memory).


On the way we passed through a mountain via a tunnel. We drove in from the east side of Georgia and exited to the west side of Georgia. There was a cool carving above the tunnel entrance of Jason and the Argonauts (a little shout out to my alma mater, whose team is the Argonauts and the mascot at games is Jason). It is rumored that during the late Bronze Age (1300 BC), Jason came here in search of the Golden Fleece and somewhere in the area there are rumored remains from his ship, the Argo.

The city of Kutaisi is believed to existed as early as the 7th century BC, being at the time part of a Greek colony (sorry Richard, doesn't count, I still want to go to Greece!). Bzyantine sources state in the 6th century AD, Kutaisi was a important fortress for Romans. In the 8th century, Kutaisi became the capital of Georgia (the Arabs had captured Tbilisi then) and it remained the capital until 1122. The town was spared invasions of Mongols during the 13th and 14th centuries but was seized by the Turks in 1666. In 1770, the Turks were finally dislodged from the town when the Russian forces helped the Imereti forces seize the city. Due to helping them out, King Solomon II signed an allegiance to Russia and abdicated his throne in 1810.

Pretty fountain in the center of town. We arrived at lunch time but didn't have a chance to a grab a shot until after dark.
After eating lunch and checking into our hotel, we headed out to the Gelati Monastery. The monastery was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder (1089-1125). He built Gelati out of gratitude to God for his early victories against the Turks. He also wanted to have a new Athos (or New Jersusalem) to serve as a center to Christendom in his ever expanding empire. Gelati became a royal monastery and academy. Gelati contains 3 churches, a bell tower, an academy building and the south entrance.


The Cathedral of the Virgin is the main church at Gelati. It was completed in 1125. The style of this church is largely Byzantine and reminded us of designs we had seen in Turkey. The main portion of the catherdral has shape like a cross from the inside with two side-arms protruding from the main cathedral (you can see the openings for the side arms here).


The cathedral had many Turkish elements (domes, archways, mosaics, etc).


The most interesting image that our tour guide pointed out was this image of Mary. She has died and people have gathered around her body. In the center of the image, you see a heavenly Jesus (his face is somewhat washed out) holding an infant (with Mary's face). Since in comparison, Mary was just an infant in heavenly time, Jesus was holding her and caring for her.


Mason chatted with some of the locals outside using his Russian he learned in a semester at school. I have no clue what they chatted about (he knows his alphabet, numbers, food, and animals to name a few), but I was impressed.


On a clear day, it is said the view from the bell tower you can see the Black Sea (in the valley in the center of the image). While our view was still nice, it was not clear enough to view the Black Sea.


At what was once the main (south) entrance of the complex, there was a gate. When King David the Builder died, he requested (as a sign of humility) to buried at the entrance. The large stone with inscriptions and calla lilies laying on it marked his grave with the gates behind that.


Next to King David the Builder's grave is a gate brought from present-day Azerbaijan in 1129. The inscription is in Arabic stating the circumstances of the gates arrival at Gelati. The other half of the gate had the same inscription in Georgian but is missing.


Also at Gelati, is a spring. We saw a lot of locals bringing in large empty water jugs and filling them at a fountain. Our tour guide said it was safe to drink and she refilled her water bottle. Who doesn't like some fresh spring water?!?!?  Mason filled up the bottle. Mason and I were both brave enough to drink some. It was very cold and refreshing....but we didn't drink too much.....



As we were leaving the complex. A monk began ringing some bells. The view of the video clip isn't that much to write home about (we were in the parking lot heading to the van) but the bell ringing had a real nice beat.


Next stop we visited was the Motsameta monastery. This monastery was visible from Gelati (and vice versa!) and located atop a cliff overlooking a bend of the Tskhaltsitela River. Given a service was going on, we opted to not go in the church (some people in our tour group did...I fed the kids snacks to un-grumpy them). Motsameta is on the site of an old 700s village and during the 11th century the monastery was built in honor of two brothers killed and thrown into the river below during an Arab massacre in the 8th century. Legend has it that lions brought their bodies up to the site of the monastery and their bones are still kept here. A fire set in 1923 destroyed much of a the building. So we just enjoyed the views of the river and church.


Budding little photographer.....note the windy wind blowing Clarissa's hair back.....


While this looks like he is precariously lounging on the edge, he was not harmed in the taking of this photo....


I think I had the song from Pocahontas stuck in my head here....'just around the river bend'......


Being a goofball...because I can!


Well at least I look good in this shot.....too bad Clarissa is still in her don't take my picture stage, Mason is being a goofball, and Richard.....well I don't know what is going on there.....


Note the cool cave openings in the cliff wall. Our tour guide mentioned that there is a legend that one can walk from Gelati to Motsameta going through underground tunnels/caves.


Cute little vine fence. We (us and some others in our tour group) speculated the fence (about 6 inches tall) was made with grapevines but we are not entirely sure.


Upon exiting, we saw this cute little lamb tied up right outside the main monastery gates.


Our last stop before dinner was in the city of Kutaisi. We visited the Bagrati Cathedral. An inscription on the the north wall states floor of the cathedral was finished in 1003 AD (and that inscription is also the oldest remaining example of Arabic numerals in Georgia). Bagrati has a triconch shape similar to another church in Turkey. The triconch shape has shape like a cross from the inside with two side-arms protruding from the main cathedral.


The cathedral was sacked and destroyed by the Turks in 1691. Since 1951, Georgian restorers have been working on the site. The original building had roof made of stone tiles that were a pretty blue-green color. (There was a piece of the original roof in a sign under glass). It appears the restorers used copper to mimic the original color.  To the side there was a bell tower.


There appeared to be a service going on and a wedding getting ready to begin, so our guide discourage us from entering the cathedral.....so no pictures from inside.

Here's a view of the city of Kutaisi. If you look above the city line you can see the still snow covered Caucasus Mountains between cloud layers!


Old Bagrati ruins....and ruins with cute kiddos on them (these are mainly for the grandparents....sorry everyone else).




So we walked behind the Bagrati Cathedral and had a great view of the city below us.


Bells.


Still loves picking flowers!


Just down the hill from Bagrati was a very popular restaurant we had dinner at. Next to the restaurant there was a little park with carnivalesque rides that Clarissa and a parent wandered around when she got bored with dinner. By the time we got back to the hotel it was after 8, so I put Clarissa down and Mason played some minecraft (apparently he didn't play enough on the bus). Richard went out with several others in our group to see the city (hence the above night shot of the fountain). Richard and another gentleman from our group found themselves in a liquor shop and seriously considering purchasing a 3 foot tall bottle of Jack Daniels....because it was only 200 GEL (about $100).

The next morning before breakfast, I walked down to the white bridge (a metal bridge painted white) just down from our hotel. The Rioni river was moving quite quickly with limestone looking rocks in the center.


Since our room was stuffy I had opened the window before leaving. I called for Mason....see if you can find him looking out.


So our first stop after breakfast was Prometheus Caves. Unfortunately children under 5 are not allowed in (only discovered in 1984 and doesn't contain guard rails), so Clarissa and I hung out and did some exploring and gave a giant moth flowers (because they like those?).



After exploring a bit, we went and played in the bus. I think the cutest thing was when Clarissa climb up into the tour guide's seat in the front of the bus and pretended to talk into her microphone. She said, "We are in Georgia. It is a nice place to visit." I tried to grab a clip of her doing that, but she quickly moved onto playing something different.

Meanwhile, inside the cave the boys hiked for an hour, climbed tons of stairs and saw the 16 giant halls. (I've been to Meramac Caverns in Missouri and Richard had never been inside a big cave like this...so I was nice and took Clarissa duty).



Following this cave, we went over to the Sataplia State Reserve. Sataplia means 'place of honey' and in some cracks in the limestone we saw bees flying into and out their hive. The main attraction of Sataplia is the dinosaur footprints!


This is the only location in the world (according to the park guide) where there are plant-eating dino footprints and meat-eating dino footprints in the same place. The interesting part was even though these foot prints were very close to each other (climb a few stairs...aka millennium), they were left millions of years apart. The plant-eating footprints were the oldest foot prints and we saw them first at the bottom of the stairs.


I think Mason was excited to see the footprints.


Aaaah, meat-eater footprints!



Not really sure she appreciated the dinosaur footprints, but we have proof that when she was little she saw dinosaur footprints.


Exiting the preserved footprints cave, we walked along the side of the mountain to another cave within the reserve. Mason essentially entered boy-heaven!


....and now feels he is ready to see the movie Jurassic Park since he survived this encounter!


Besides the dinosaurs, the path also highlight several species of trees that are indigenous to this area only. The main cave has a 600m path with handrails. Lots of pretty stalactites and stalagmites.


I think the highlight of the cave was the Stony Heart Hall....which contained a giant stone shaped like a human heart. Our guide said we could touch the heart and make a wish....so Mason and I did.


Just have to say, aaaaah!


We headed to our next stop, lunch in Ubisa (a small village with a monastery complex).....which throwing rocks into Dzirula River is much more fun than eating.



Following lunch we went to a small pottery market on the side of the road. We got a nice clay vase (clay is very plentiful here in the mountains). The artisan gave Clarissa a tiny clay pot (miniature wine making vessel), but she wanted nothing to do with it for some reason....but I like it.

Afterwards we made a final stop at the monastery in Ubisa.  It was a medieval complex with St. George's Monastery built in the 9th century, a 4-floor tower built in 1141 AD, and a defensive wall surrounding it.



The monastery is known for its mural of the last supper (FYI, it is hard to take flash free photos on a rainy day and get super sharp images).


Upon leaving the complex, we noticed another lamb (just like at Motsameta)....not sure of the significance or if was just a coincidence.


So that little adventure was our Memorial Day/Georgian Independence Day weekend fun. Monday we hung out at the pool for several hours.

P.S. The historical information was information I took from the CLO Kutaisi Tour sheet or tidbits of info I caught from our tour guide as she spoke to the group.  Hopefully I have been accurate in my recollections.

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