Georgia October 2017 – Kutaisi – Prometheus & Sataplia Caves & surrounding Monasteries & Cathedrals
Having been to Georgia earlier in the Summer, when a Wizz Air e-mail dropped into my inbox advertising their new flights direct from London Luton to Kutaisi, and that they were being released at a promotional rate, I booked almost straight away. I’d been looking for somewhere to go during the October half term and this seemed like a sensible idea. Having not been to Kutaisi on my previous trip, it would be a good exploration trip as well.
Booked through Wizz Air
W6-6424 1745 Luton – Kutaisi
W6-6423 1600 Kutaisi – Luton
Kutaisi – Best Western Kutaisi – prominent near the White Bridge, the staff at the front desk spoke fluent English, were friendly and polite. The hotel lobby was pristine and check in took no time at all. Our room wasn’t massive, but it was spotless and very well appointed, as you’d expect for a Best Western hotel. The bathroom was as modern as they come and there were plenty of toiletries and tea/coffee making facilities. Breakfast is served in the small restaurant behind the reception area. There was plenty to choose from and eggs were cooked to whatever specification you wanted.
All bought at ticket offices or on board local trains from the electronic ticket vending machines.
Sunday 29th October 2017 (Flying out to Kutaisi)
The fact that our train from Doncaster was late into Kings Cross had us scurrying across to St Pancras Low Level for the next train to Luton Airport Parkway. We were still at the airport in plenty of time though. Our Wizz Air flight to Kutaisi was showing 45 minutes late on the screen and with Luton Airport still being a building site, there weren’t that many places to hang around and wait. It eventually took off 60’ late but was at least half empty, so we had plenty of space on our 5-hour flight to Eastern Europe; the only downfall of which, was landing in Kutaisi at 0345 the following morning.
Monday 30th October 2017 (Kutaisi Day 1 of 3 – a trip to Rioni and back)
Landing at such a stupid time of day into Kutaisi seemed like a good idea at the time of booking! Still, even though it was gone 3am, and approaching 4am, by the time we walked out of the airport, I knew that the taxi I’d booked through Kutaisi Trip Station would be waiting to take us to our hotel. I’d made the booking via contact through their website and had e-mailed to confirm our arrival time before setting off from Luton; and they’d responded straight away to tell me where the driver would be waiting. Sure enough, he was waiting exactly where I’d been told, with a sign that had my name on it. The guy that I’d been in contact with, who seemed to be running Kutaisi Trip Station, was also with the driver and we were soon heading to our hotel in Kutaisi; with Kutaisi David the Builder International Airport being a straight 22km drive from the centre of Kutaisi. I’d originally booked the Edemi Hotel in Kutaisi, which was a lot, lot cheaper than the Best Western, but various reviews on Trip Advisor had me changing the reservation on booking.com; mainly due to the amount of people who’d turned up at the Edemi to be told there was no room for them, despite having a reservation! I wasn’t letting this happen at 4 in the morning, so went for somewhere sensible instead.
The Best Western Kutaisi is a new hotel and our taxi crew told us it was the best in Kutaisi when the dropped us at the front door, and confirmed the pickup time for our trip out with them the following day, before leaving us to check in. The staff at the front desk spoke fluent English, were friendly and polite. The hotel lobby was pristine and check in took no time at all. Our room wasn’t massive, but it was spotless and very well appointed, as you’d expect for a Best Western hotel. The bathroom was as modern as they come and there were plenty of toiletries and tea/coffee making facilities. While it was nearly 5am, local time, that we got to bed, it was only 1am UK time; but we had to be up for breakfast, so set an alarm for 0930. It was at bedtime that I discovered that I’d left the phone charger for my new Galaxy S8 at home! The perils of the ever-changing charging sockets!
Breakfast at the Best Western is served in their small restaurant behind the reception area. There was plenty to choose from and eggs were cooked to whatever specification you wanted. Bless the staff at the front desk, they managed to dig me out a phone charging lead that had multiple heads, including one for my S8. Unfortunately, the lead was knackered and even when plugged into the breakfast waitress’ adapter, it didn’t work. This meant that the first thing on the agenda for the late morning was to find a shop to buy a phone charger from.
Thankfully, it wasn’t raining when we set out for the afternoon but the forecast for our three days in Kutaisi was for it to pretty much rain non-stop; after having been in the mid-twenties for the previous few days. It wasn’t long before we came across a mobile phone shop but as we found out, most I’d found on the map were all selling phones and not accessories. Thankfully, one of the shop workers pointed me in the direction of a place called Zoomer, which is a chain in Georgia, and I was soon in possession of a charging cable. This cost GEL10, about £2.85p. The Zoomer shop itself, with clear orange signage, is just off the roundabout that has one of Kutaisi’s sights right in the middle of it, Colchis Fountain; topped by golden horses. From there, the walk to Kutaisi I station is a straight line of about a mile. There are two stations in Kutaisi, aptly named Kutaisi I & Kutaisi II, and they’re about 4km apart, on opposite sides of town. Kutaisi 1 is a terminus station and the main station for all trains coming from anywhere in Georgia, including the intercity trains to/from Tbilisi. Kutaisi II station is on the line from Rioni to Tskaltubo and the only passenger trains it has are the branch trains to/from Tskaltubo itself.
From outside, Kutaisi I station doesn’t look like much and the massive empty car park gives the impression that it was either once a well utilized place, or, grand expectations for its use were never met? Inside the station buildings, the platforms are reached by going up to the second level, where a very modern and spotless booking hall is situated. Outside it’s doors though, the old, uneven and rundown platforms give a different contrast. There are four ticket windows, although I’m not sure what all are used for and if there is a certain window for certain types of train, as I found in other places in Georgia on my previous trip. As it happened though, I managed to end up at the correct window to buy our required tickets; not that there was much of a choice as only one window had someone serving!
The woman at the ticket office didn’t understand a great deal of English, so it was easier to write out what we wanted. Confusion reigned when she realised that we wanted to return on the same day, but she eventually accepted the fact and issued the tickets; which is not a quick task and does require passports to be handed over, so names can be added to them at the printing process. It probably took about 10 minutes for the tickets to be issued, so don’t leave it until the last minute. I paid cash.
At Rioni people got off the train to use the shop on the platform, while the loco ran-round. When train 11 0920 Ozurgeti – Tbilisi arrived, the loco then shunted the one coach to the rear for the run forward to Tbilisi; and I assumed it would sit and wait at Rioni to work back up to Kutaisi I with the opposing working. During the shunt moves I was asked by the security guard to stop taking photos and from that point on I made a point to not take photos when security staff were looking on.
We had our own compartment back to Kutaisi I but by the time we got there, the heavens had opened, and the forecast rain had started! From this point on, it would pretty much rain non-stop, until the morning of our flight home! Needless to say, we got a little wet walking the 1.5km back to the Best Western Hotel. On the way I tried to exchange some Pound Sterling at a few of the many exchange places along the way, but none would change Pounds, only Euro’s 7 Ruble’s. In the end I managed to get some changed at the Bank of Georgia, near the White Bridge, without any hassle at all. It was at the point when we got back, that we were very thankful for having booked a decent hotel, with heating and a good restaurant, that was open all day. Even though we were the only people using the Café Tizzani, the food was well worth the wait and my pasta Georgiana, a local Georgian dish, was excellent.
The rain stopped play for the afternoon and we were confined to barracks for the rest of it. I had plans for the afternoon though and was in two minds whether to walk the 3.5km to Kutaisi II station or not; and I definitely made the wrong decision as I set off on foot. It hadn’t been raining heavy when I’d set off but by the time I got onto the platform at Kutaisi II station, it was raining quite heavy and I was soaked. There is no sign for Kutaisi II station anywhere, not even on the platforms. Its directly behind McDonalds and has a very long platform, which looked a little strange for a train with just a loco and one coach sat in it. Trains use the Tskaltubo end of the platform, so no need to be concerned about where the train will be situated. The old station building at Kutaisi II is derelict and while there is randomly a manned public toilet on the platform, there is no ticket window or office and tickets are purchased on board the one-coach train.
Twin-unit 10-041 was sat waiting with its one coach, to form 6378 1720 Kutaisi 2 – Tskaltubo, when I arrived. I was thankful of being able to get straight on board when I got there but as it wasn’t so warm on board, there wasn’t much drying off being done! The coach had soft seats, which were in decent shape and comfortable enough and all the windows were intact and closed properly. Boarding is through a centre door on the coach and access to the seating areas is from a central vestibule, which has closing doors to each seating area, so at least the cold can be kept out. There was an electronic ticket machine in one part of the coach, but it was only just being booted up by the guard when I got on. Once we’d set off, he came around to take money from people, used the money to get tickets from the machine and then returned the tickets to people, along with any change from the fare. I was initially concerned that I might not have the correct change, but the guard has a pocket full of it so can always put the correct money into the machine for you, regardless of what you hand him. The single fare from Kutaisi II to Tskaltubo was 40 Tetri, GEL0.40, about 11p in UK money!
As the journey to Tskaltubo is through the wilderness and it was pitch black, I saw nothing on the way, and didn’t bother to get off at Tskaltubo in the rain either, even though the station building looked in good condition. I attempted to get my own ticket, from the on-board machine, for the return journey but it was switched off when I attempted. Once the loco was attached and the feeble piece of wire that provided power to the coach was attached, only then did the ticket machine boot up. Even then, I couldn’t understand the local script so had to let the guard do it for me. The whole reason for doing the evening train up to Tskaltubo was because on the return it ran forward from Kutaisi II to Kutaisi I, via Rioni to run-round. The fare was the same for the journey back to Kutaisi I, I’m not sure it should have been though and got the impression that the guard didn’t understand when I told him I was going to Kutaisi I and not Kutaisi II; he didn’t bother me after departure from Kutaisi II though and I was one of only two passengers on board when 6377 1810 Tskaltubo – Kutaisi I departed Kutaisi II. During the run-round at Rioni two other people got on and all in all, the whole return journey can’t have resulted in more than 15 people using the train. Which even if they all paid 40 Tetri each, that’s only a little over £1.50 takings for the round trip!
The rain hadn’t eased much when 6377 rolled into Kutaisi I station and the walk back to the hotel topped up the saturation of my coat and it had soaked through my coat, jumper and t-shirt by the time I got back to the hotel. My main concern then was would my clothes and trainers dry out by the morning!? By the time we went downstairs for some food, my coats sleeves were dripping into the shower, it was that wet!
After another good meal in the hotel’s Café Tizziani, the lack of sleep from the previous day had caught up with us and we weren’t late out of bed.
Photos for Monday 30th October 2017
Tuesday 31st October 2017 (A day out around Kutaisi with Kutaisi Trip Station Tours)
A leisurely start, with breakfast starting the day off nicely. As suspected, my clothes hadn’t fully dried from their previous night’s soaking. Leaving my trainers on top of the minibar fridge had done the trick though as there was a lot of heat coming from behind it. It was just my coat that wasn’t dry, with the sleeve ends and hood still being quite wet. They were going to have to do though!
I’d booked a trip with Kutaisi Trip station, online, which had been almost immediately confirmed. The cost was GEL20 each and we were told we’d be picked up from our hotel at 10am. When 10am came around, it turned out that we were the only two taking the tour and the price was then GEL25 each, the website does confirm that if there are no others accompanying you on the tour then the price does increase slightly as a result, so it wasn’t a surprise. Even at GEL25 its only just over £7 each. The same two guys that had collected us from the airport turned up, in the same minivan but this time the owner, who was the only one of the two that spoke English, left us in the capable hands of his driver. Despite him speaking no English at all, there were no issues during the day and he is merely there to drive you from one place to the next, not as a tour guide. We named our driver for the day, Dave! I have no clue what his actual name was, but he was polite and didn’t drive like a lunatic.
The first stop was a petrol station and then onwards to Prometheus Caves, which is about 8km directly north of Tskaltubo. Doing the furthest away place first made sense and as we approached Tskaltubo, on the main road from the south, 4E10.2-1768 was just coming over the main road, having departed Tskaltubo with 6373 1010 Tskaltubo – Kutaisi II. This was a train service that hadn’t been running during the Summer months and must have recently restarted? The Tskaltubo services run Kutaisi I – Tskaltubo – Kutaisi II and then there are two round trips to Tskaltubo before running Kutaisi II – Tskaltubo – Kutaisi I in the evening. During the Summer, only the morning and even trip had run, with the train running ecs to/from Kutaisi I in-between times and the two daytime Kutaisi II – Tskaltubo return trips had been cancelled.
Our arrival at Prometheus Caves was perfectly timed as there was a group waiting to go on an imminent tour. The woman at the information counter spoke English and we were only allowed to pay cash. Tickets cost GEL25, which included a discount with Danielle’s NUS card. Unfortunately, the group we had to tag along with was a big group of Indians and by the end of it we’d had enough of their selfie taking and staggering around at a snail’s pace and pretty much walked through most of the caves on our own; giving up on the guide’s spiel as a result. The caverns are quite spectacular and are well lit, but in my opinion, spoilt by the ever changing colours of the lighting. It was a nice walk though and we enjoyed our time at Prometheus Caves. As an optional extra there is usually a boat ride in an underground river chamber but due to the heavy rains this option wasn’t available during our visit.
Back at the mini-van, Dave was having a nap and we had to knock him up to let us back in. Our next stop was Sataplia Nature Reserve and within an hour of taking our last photo in Prometheus Caves, we were inside Sataplia Caves, taking photos there. The cross-country journey from Prometheus Caves to Sataplia Nature Reserve was through the back end of nowhere, where there were more pigs roaming around on the roads than locals. Pigs being at the roadside, roaming free, seemed to be a thing in Georgia and we saw plenty during our day out. As before, our arrival at Sataplia Nature Reserve was perfectly timed, just as a very small group of Russians were about to head into the reserve. Tickets cost GEL20 for the both of us and there was no discount for Danielle this time. It was still raining and part of the tour at Sataplia was outside. Firstly, we were shown into a large covered area, which now protects quite a few 120-million-year-old dinosaur footprints; which are easily visible. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand what was being explained to the others in the group but the pictures on the wall seemed to intimate what types of dinosaur had made the footprints. On the walk from the dinosaur footprints to the cave entrance, we ended up walking ahead of the group and while they dithered, ended up at the caves long before them. There was no reason to wait and when we found the entrance, which looked like the patio-style entrance building was straight out of a Jurassic Park film, we wasted no time in heading in. There was a map just after the entrance and we were able to amble through at our own pace, with nobody else about at all! The caves aren’t as spectacular as Prometheus Caves and the ever changing coloured lighting is off the scale in Sataplia Caves, which kind of spoils the true nature of the caves. There were a lot more man-made walkways in Sataplia than Prometheus as well, taking away the natural wonder inside. They’re still well worth a visit and we were very grateful of the walk through being without company. During the walk back towards the reserve’s entrance, there is an option to use the glass viewing platform, which offers excellent views of the surrounding area. During our visit this platform was closed due to the rain, and the fact that visibility was poor with low cloud being in the valley.
Next it was over to the opposite side of Kutaisi and first to Gelati Monastery. To get there from Sataplia we had to drive back through Kutaisi itself and it took about 35 minutes to get there. The weather was still miserable when we got there, and the poor woman sat in the entrance way to the complex, asking for donations, must have been freezing. Externally, the main part of the monastery was undergoing restoration and had a lot of scaffolding around it, internally you could hear a pin drop. There was no problem taking photos of the decorated walls, which looked like they were lacking a bit of luster and needed a bit of colour injection; they were almost looking as miserable as the day outside. Their intricate details couldn’t be faulted and the story they told will have made perfect sense, if I could have figured out where to start, and pretty much had a guide book telling me what the story was!
The short journey from Gelati Monastery to Motsameta Monastery only took 10 minutes and access to Motsameta Monastery, which is perched on a lonely cliff-side, is via a dead-end road and across the railway tracks to a long walkway that leads down to the monastery. Right outside this entrance is a railway station, known as KM15, which is on the Kutaisi I to Tkibuli branch line. Unfortunately, there is now only one train per day, in each direction, on the Tkibuli branch, which is out from Tkibuli very early in a morning and back up the branch from Kutaisi at 1810 in the evening; so is neither use yet ornament for a trip out to Motsameta by public transport! Which is what I was originally planning to do when I booked this trip, likewise with Prometheus Caves, via Tskaltubo.
Motsameta Monastery seems better kept than Gelati Monastery and the internal paintings on the wall look in a lot better condition; and definitely don’t lack luster. During a clear day, the views across from Motsameta must be spectacular as the mountains could be seen in the distance, even with the rain not letting up and could obscuring part of them.
Last, but not least, 10 minutes after leaving Motsameta Monastery, we were dropped at Bagrati Cathedral, which is only 1.5km from the Best Western, but uphill all the way from it! Bagrati Cathedral overlooks Kutaisi but what stands today is a complete reconstruction, which commenced in 1940 and took over 50 years to complete. The original cathedral was destroyed and ended up in ruins after the 12th century struggle against Turkish invaders. What stands today is indeed quite spectacular but is a reconstruction, nonetheless. Initially, we couldn’t get inside as the doors were locked, but someone was soon on hand to let us in. Its quite interesting to look around but unfortunately, some of the recent reconstructions may well result in the cathedral being stripped of its world heritage status. Outside the cathedral can be seen some of the many remaining parts of the original building, pretty much strewn all over the place and over the back of it are some ruins. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise you could access the ruins until we got home, and I found some photos, so didn’t bother trying to venture up to them in the rain.
Despite the rain putting a dampener on the day, it had been a pleasant day and Dave dropped us off back at the Best Western before 4pm and we were almost straight into the restaurant for a much-needed meal. There was the opportunity to stop for lunch on the trip, but we just got Dave to stop at a bakery, so as not to waste too much time, and we got back earlier as a result. And a much needed meal was consumed in the restaurant the moment we walked in.
Photos for Tuesday 31st October 2017
Sataplia Nature Reserve & Caves
Wednesday 1st November 2017 (A day bumbling around Kutaisi – after a trip to Tskaltubo)
After breakfast, I walked to Kutaisi II station again, this time the rain wasn’t really doing too much, but it still hadn’t stopped. It took me about 45 minutes to cover the 3.5km. When 6371 0800 Tskaltubo – Kutaisi II turned up, the loco immediately ran-round to work back with 6374 0910 Kutaisi 2 – Tskaltubo. Having seen it departing Tskaltubo with 6373 1010 Tskaltubo – Kutaisi II the previous day, I took a punt that a full service had been reintroduced on the Tskaltubo line, so I could do it again, but in daylight instead. My punt paid off and even though it was daylight, there still wasn’t much to see along the line, especially while it was pouring with rain. At least I took the opportunity to get off during the run-round at Tskaltubo this time; and had no issues photographing there. The station building looks quite grand from the outside, but on looking through the windows I discovered that it was completely derelict inside and even had places where sections of ceiling had fallen through. I guessed that the whole building wasn’t that safe as a result, which was a shame as the external paint job made it look quite striking. While Georgian Railway was making nothing from running local passenger trains to Tskaltubo, I guess there was no money to refurbish the station building, and no point in doing so either? After working back to Kutaisi II with 6373 1010 Tskaltubo – Kutaisi II, the loco was run-round and attached to the Tskaltubo end of the stock again, to work back up the branch later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, I hot-footed it back to the Hotel while the rains had almost stopped for a while.
We used the fact that the rain had stopped, as an opportunity to have a wander around Kutaisi. We didn’t go far as there isn’t a great deal to see in town, once you’ve stood on the White Bridge and seen the Colchis Fountain; so, it wasn’t long before we were sat in a proper Georgian Tea Room, drinking proper Georgian Tea, while waiting for our food to be served; in the rather aptly decorated Palaty Restaurant. It was only a short walk from our hotel, literally just over the White Bridge, so when the heavens opened again, we didn’t have far to go to get back. While the tea was exactly what we’d expected, I was a little confused when my beef arrived with some sort of white sauce pasted on top of it. Thankfully, it wasn’t mayo, as I’d originally suspected, and it wasn’t too bad either. I did wish I’d ordered pizza when Danielle’s arrived though!
After a relaxing afternoon at the hotel, I headed out at 5 and braved the rain for one last time. At Kutaisi I, ChME3T-6948 seemed to be acting as station pilot and 4E10-932 was stabled in the sidings with a short works train. The plan for the evening was pretty straightforward, do the evening Kutaisi I – Tkibuli and get ferried back to the hotel by Kutaisi Trip Station. 10-408 arrived into Kutaisi 1 with a freight at around 1755, while 10-1024 was running around the single coach to work 6325 1810 Kutaisi 1 – Tkibuli. The journey up to Tkibuli was slow and again, as it was both dark and raining, there was nothing to see out of the windows; not that I could for the rain on them anyway. The 44km journey from Kutaisi to Tkibuli takes 5 minutes short of 3 hours, an average of around 15kmph; and it felt like it! The same guy that had done the honours the previous night was waiting for me at Tkibuli and in comparison, the 35km journey back to the hotel by road only too 50 minutes, an average of around 40kmph.
After yet another excellent meal at the hotel, we packed our bags, in readiness for the journey home the following day.
Photos for Wednesday 1st November 2017 – Railway orientated
Photos for Wednesday 1st November 2017 – Kutaisi
Thursday 2nd November 2017 (Homeward bound)
It was something you couldn’t write, the rain was set to stop, just in time for us to head home and by the time I got back from Tskaltubo, the sun was out, and the clouds had all but disappeared from the skies; it was like being in a completely different world!
The checkout time at the Best Western Kutaisi was 1200 and we took every last second of the time to relax, before using the Café Tizziani for one last Pasta Georgiana. There seemed to be something going off outside the hotel as police were turning people away from the parking area outside and there was a load of them in the hotel lobby as well. One paid particular interest to my camera after I’d been outside to get a few pics, which was when it dawned on us that whatever was going on involved the hotel and probably someone that was in a meeting at the hotel’s conference room. Interest in my camera had been as they thought I was a journalist, until the staff had confirmed I was a guest. Whoever they were securing the area for must have been pretty important, but their presence didn’t stop us from enjoying our last meal in Kutaisi.
What the police presence did do, was stop Kutaisi Trip Station from getting to the front door of the hotel, when the came to take us to the airport. The main man walked to the front door to greet us though and bode us farewell as he took us around the corner and showed us where the minivan was. Both the Best Western Kutaisi and Kutaisi Trip Station had done us proud during our very wet visit to Georgia; but we wouldn’t have changed a thing about the whole trip, despite the constant rain.
Getting out of Kutaisi was harder than it had been to get in and despite already having paper boarding passes for our Wizz air flight, we had to queue and get proper boarding cards as the Georgian’s wouldn’t accept our paper printed ones; which was a hassle everyone could do without on their way home. I managed to get rid of my remaining Georgian Lari once we got through immigration and it was a good sign when our plane landed from Germany early. It didn’t stop it departing late though, thanks to late boarding of our flight to Luton. As there were no other planes about at Kutaisi, we were allowed to walk straight out onto the concrete and then march across to our waiting plane. Unfortunately, it was a lot fuller on the return, than it had been on the outward journey; but the 30-minute delay didn’t affect our pre-booked train home from Kings Cross. On the 2005 Kings Cross – Leeds we had 1st class advance tickets, and were able to make the most of our journey home.
For a short break, we’d really enjoyed Kutaisi, even though we’d not really done a lot. As Wizz only fly twice a week from Luton to Kutaisi, next time we might go for a 7-day stint instead, so we can head to Tbilisi or Borjomi instead. Still, a thoroughly enjoyable trip and Georgia is a country I’d like to visit again.
Photos for Thursday 2nd November 2017 – Kutaisi