I prefer to wander rather than be led. But needs must. When time is limited with just one day to see so much, it’s best to be led. We booked onto a tour. I know. Agggh… Not something I’d usually do. Considering it was just the two of us, though, it was more like paying a mate in the know to drive us around. Zali, from Hostel Luxe (where we stayed) offers tours at a rate of 10 GEL per place of interest. We had four on our list so we paid 40 GEL each (about €16 / $18 / 5000 huf each) for a whole day.
Although we just wanted to see the monasteries, he insisted that we needed to see the caves, too. I fleetingly wondered if it was a money-making thing but as with other Georgians we met, Zali is exceptionally proud of his city and what it has to offer. So to the caves we went.
First up was Sataplia (Land of Honey), some 10 km outside the city. Let’s go back in time, say, 135 million years ago. Instead of the lush greenery and forests we see today, the place was a lagoon beach, home to dinosaurs. According to the guide, the footprints they left in the rocks were preserved and discovered in the 1930s by Petre Chabukiani. He’d come across the cave in 1925 but it wasn’t until 1933 that he found the footprints. There are more than 150 all told, of two different types of beast. I missed the whole dinosaur craze and don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie Jurassic Park (nor do I want to), but I have to fess up to a modicum of fascination: to think that these prints have survived so long. Humbling.
Life-size replicas of the beasts are scattered throughout the forest, which in and of itself is a magical place. Lots of really skinny trees (apparently it’s a subtropical young Colchic forest) and the very audible sound of bees buzzing. All a tad surreal. What buildings there are to cater to the thousands of visitors that come throughout the year are all built to blend in rather than stand out. With the exception perhaps of the glass-floored lookout that is perched atop the highest point in the park. It looks more like a UFO and strangely, instead of detracting, adds to the whole surrealism of the place. It offers a spectacular view of the city and its surroundings. And it’s here that we realised how beautiful and unspoiled the country is. Miles and miles and miles of green sat in front of the snow-capped Caucasus. Villages nestled in the mountains and the river valleys provided the rich agricultural land used to supply the Green Market.
But there was no getting out of seeing the cave, even though I’m not a great fan of enclosed spaces. We hadn’t gone with the guided tour option as when we arrived Russian was the language on offer and anyway, I prefer to go at my own pace. Instead, Zali agreed to come with us and point the way. Poor lamb. He’d probably been there more times that he could count and was sick of the place but again, pride-in-country won out. Not since I was in Slovenia for the Eights have I met such obvious feeling and in times when everyone seems to love to hate their country, for whatever reason, it was nice to see.
Sataplia Cave is 900 m long, 10 m high and 12 m wide. The colours were quite remarkable. I spent the usual few minutes trying to remember which were the stalagmites and which were the stalactites and failed miserably. There was no quiz, no prize, and nobody died because I could only make a half-assed guess. It was dark and slimy and cool. There was a fairly constant temperature of about 14 degrees C and it was humid. Very humid. I stepped to the side once to let someone by and found myself ankle-deep in slime that may well have lain undisturbed for centuries. Not a nice feeling. I now know that the caves echo. I’m glad English isn’t all that widely spoken and gladder still of the dark.
Entrance fee is 6 GEL (about €2.50, 770 huf, $2.75) and, done properly, could take a whole afternoon.