Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi
Monday, October 8, 2012
Dear Dodie … and my dear Maphead friends,*
Thank you for following me with your Atlas. I am so pleased that you are taking such a serious interest in my Georgia travels.
To help you along, here is my itinerary since leaving Tbilisi:
Day 1. October 5. Tbilisi – Akhaltsikhe
At the Avis agency at the Marriott Courtyard I rented a Toyota Corolla with manual transmission. I succeeded in negotiating the traffic in town and headed west on the M1 highway past Gori to Khashuri. Most of that route is a modern four-lane highway.
At Khashuri I drove southwest (now a one lane road in each direction) past Borjome, the home of the bottling plant of the carbonated and tasty local mineral water. Then onward to Akhaltsikhe.
Day 2. October 6. Akhaltsikhe - Vardzia - Akhaltsikhe
After breakfast I made the round trip drive from Akhaltsikhe southeast to Khertvisi, then south to Vardzia. (See my letter: “Vardzia.”)
Day 3. October 7. Akhaltsikhe - Khashuri - Kutaisi
The map indicates a direct northerly route from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi but I was warned to avoid that road. So I returned to Khashuri and then back on the M1 highway west to Kutaisi. In geometric terms, instead of driving the base of the isosceles triangle, I drove the two legs.
Because the mountains here are not as high as they are in the north, this area is known as the Lesser Caucasus. Regardless, the scenery is invigorating and I made several unscheduled stops along the way.
I took a quick right turn at the ruins of a fortress. Five men were camped at the base of the wall. They invited me for a drink. “Tea?” I asked. “Nyet” they responded, “Vodka!” I politely declined and indicated that I need to drive. They understood.
I made a quick left turn up an unpaved road to the Green Monastery. The chapel was filled with the Orthodox Faithful. The ladies and the little girls were dressed in their colorful Sunday best.
In Kashuri I visited one of my favorite travel sights – a Sunday Market. Peppers, parsley, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, plums and purple grapes were displayed in huge bright piles. The local vendors were friendly and happy to pose for my camera. I bought a bag of fresh, shelled walnuts.
Day 4. October 8. Kutaisi - Gelati – Kutaisi
Giorgi’s Homestay is on the hillside above the Bagrati Cathedral (1003 AD) and high above the Rioni River in Kutaisi. The bedrooms are spacious and comfortable. Giorgi and his wife and his delightful daughters Mariana and Tamar speak excellent English and are generous hosts.
At the Guesthouse I met George and Maria from Barcelona. We decided to visit the monasteries nearby.
The small, welcoming cliff top Motsameta Monastery sits above the Tskhalsitela River. We lingered here to enjoy the scenery and to listen to the priests chant the morning prayers.
Founded in 1106, and on the World Heritage List, the impressive Gelati Monastery functioned as a religious retreat and an academy for Georgian scientists, philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages. On the walls and on the dome, the church displays paintings, mosaics and murals from the 12th to 14th Centuries. There’s a painting of Jesus holding a scroll with the Ten Commandments.
My companions and I decided to continue on the road north to see what we could see. We drove past the small town of Orphurchkheti and up into the hills but the road was poor so we returned to town. We found a small café and ordered tea and a local bread stuffed with beans. The proprietress served the hot tea and bread and also a plate of cookies and a dish of candies.
We three sat and chatted over the tea for the better part of an hour. When we attempted to pay for the refreshments, the lady absolutely refused to accept any money. We offered repeatedly, but her refusal was final. She finally accepted a very small amount in payment for a tin of instant coffee.
Across the street was the village church. When George proposed to make a donation, the priest refused to accept it. In fact the priest presented George and Maria with a small religious painting and again refused any money.
In this relatively poor country, such has been the level of hospitality, generosity and humility. Up in the mountains, I stopped for a coffee and a snack. The waitress was shocked and grateful when I left her the small change from the bill. When I needed a man’s help with my car (more on that later), he refused any payment. I must offer several times before a breakfast waitress will reluctantly accept a small gratuity. (Taxi drivers, like everywhere else in the world, are another matter altogether.)
It appears that hospitality and generosity sprinkled with a dash of humility are the national traits.
Georgians I have met admit that they are “poor.” But they are also eager and proud to describe themselves as “rich.”
Rich in history. Rich in natural beauty. Rich in culture and tradition. Rich in family ties. Abundant in patience, tolerance and openness to strangers.
* Mapheads is an entertaining, sometimes hilarious and always informative book about the subject of world geography written by Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy champion, and a self-described maphead or map nerd.
We Americans think we know a lot about a lot of things and maybe we do, or maybe we don’t. But as Jennings points out, and I concur, Geography is not our forte.
So, let’s all follow Dodie’s lead and take out our maps! I will need my Caucasus map as I travel south to Yerevan and east to Baku.
Here’s a surprise! Between Yerevan and Baku, I will be taking a brief “side trip” to yet another capital in another small country, also bounded on the west by a large sea, and on the east by a smaller “colorful” one.