My last attempt to visit Georgia had to be aborted due in part to being refused a visa for Azerbaijan (I wanted to get the midnight train from Baku to Tbilisi) and in part because my eye sorta popped a few blood vessels. This time, I made it (on the midnight plane from Budapest to Kutaisi). Being clueless about the city (the legislative capital and the second-largest city in the country), I had little by way of expectations.
We stayed about a 30-minute walk from the centre, an interesting walk lined with pharmacies and pastry shops, blocks of apartments a la Communist mode, and shops laden with shelves organised by colour. There is no shortage of cleaning materials and washing detergents.
We knew we’d arrived in the city centre when we hit Rioni River. There’s a statue of a boy with two hats on what’s known as White Bridge (Tetrikhidi). Legend has it that he stole the hats from two gentlemen and then dove into the river to escape. It is to Kutaisi what the Little Princess is to Budapest.
In need of coffee, we stopped at the White Stone Café which back at the turn of the last century was a haven for poets and writers attempting to move the country forward. We watched the cable car cross over the river and wondered where it was going. We’d find out later.
There’s a curious mix of old and new with my vote going to the old. The city is definitely getting a facelift of sorts. Not nearly on the scale of the cosmetic treatment Budapest has been undergoing but there are signs. I’m torn between wishing it would stay the same and wanting to see what it would look like cleaned up. The colours of age-old rust and crumbling paint add a texture that a newness misses completely.
Wandering through the city was quite the experience. Tourists were few and far between (a novelty) and the locals were out and about and enjoying their Saturday afternoons. No one seemed to be tied to time and indeed lots of the local attractions stay open way past what I’ve come to expect as normal.
Armed with directions and suggestions from the very friendly Giorgio at the tourist office, which included back roads, hidden steps, and windy lanes, we decided that we would spend Saturday in the city, Sunday at the monasteries, and Monday at the beach. We only had three days but already, within the first three hours, we’d agreed that we needed to come back – and come back for longer. Kutaisi may well be the second city in terms of size and the third perhaps in terms of tourism, but it promised so much in terms of culture and experience.
The Chain Bridge (Jachvis Khidi) is impressive, given the location. But the metal work everywhere is even more intriguing. Houses are built on two levels, with a wrap around balcony on the first floor with a sweeping staircase. I found a few I could happily live in.
Every city probably has its signature piece, that one place that appears on calendars and chocolate boxes. Kutaisi is spoiled for choice but the Kolkhida Fountain probably gets top billing. Built in 2011 it has 30 gold-plated statues, copies of those found in the Kolkhida lowlands archaelogical dig. It is
stunning. We meant to go back and see it at night but that didn’t happen… next time.
While we weren’t exactly tripping over bars and restaurants, the ones that were open and running and doing business were doing well. Coffee shops are on the rise (as they are everywhere) but thankfully, the chains like Starbucks and Costa have yet to make an appearance. We stayed in the city to eat that evening and made three attempts to leave Palaty, the restaurant we ended up in. The music was good, the food was great, and the wine was better again. The staff were friendly, helpful, and so welcoming. And sure we were in no rush to go anywhere.