Nestled high in the Caucasus, black-robed monks flit amongst shadows framed by stone mosaics. Nary a smartphone in sight, their presence here in the heart of Georgia stirs the imagination, conjuring images of fire-breathing dragons, damsels in distress, and great deeds of medieval derring-do. Such is life around Kutaisi. The Georgian city has seen an increase in visitors in the past few years, but there’s still more than enough space to traverse the winding streets and tree-framed mountain passes undisturbed.
Not all places to explore here are above ground either. About 20 kilometres from Kutaisi’s city centre is the aptly-named Prometheus Cave. Discovered in the 1980s, the gargantuan underground expanse – where one can see incredible stalactites and stalagmites several storeys high , bathed in a rainbow of fluorescent lights that just beg to be photographed – would be a fitting home for a mythological being like the cave’s namesake. The path people can walk through is about a kilometre long – just make sure you bundle up for temperatures that can be much colder than above ground.
On the subject of above ground, taking in the rare air of Gelati Monastery is not to be passed up. After all , the alpine complex – where monks have lived for nearly a thousand years – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a reason. Not only is the Byzantine architecture incredible (and remarkably well-preserved), but the view of dramatic rolling hills and postcard-perfect villages below is also breathtaking.
Gelati is far from the only ancient place to explore. Less known , but no less stunning, is Motsameta . Perched precipitously atop a practically sheer cliff, there’s a belief that if one makes a wish while crawling underneath the ark inside the chapel three times, it will come true. Whether or not that’s really the case, the monastery has an unmistakable fairy tale quality.
Another fairy tale-like place is Bagrati Cathedral. Located within Kutaisi’s city limits, it was first constructed in the early years of the 11th century. Heavily damaged a few centuries later in a war, it was recently restored to look as it originally did. The restoration came at great cost, however: losing its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Regardless, it’s still an awe-inspiring sight. Insider tip: visit in the evening around sunset, when the golden rays seem to make the bricks glow.
Georgian cuisine is hearty – think succulent meats, stuffed dumplings, filling stews, and more. A staple worth sampling is khachapuri. It may essentially be cheese-filled bread, but it’s also Georgia’s national dish. Not only that, it’s incredibly versatile, making a great snack or even a meal when paired with the aforementioned dumplings, stew or various meats; it’s a must-try no matter how long you visit the region for.
Speaking of the region, it quickly becomes evident why Kutaisi’s been romanticised by the likes of Pushkin and Tolstoy. The chance to follow in the footsteps of queens and kings of old times.