Today a few of my friends and I rented a car and drove to Kutaisi, the capital of Imereti (west Georgia), and supposedly the soon-to-be legislative capital. It’s about a 4-5 hour drive from Tbilisi on a well-paved highway (this is nice, but it also means the road is constantly full of slow-moving semi-trucks).
Our first stop was at Gelati, an 11th-13th century monastic complex, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and burial place of King David the Builder. I enjoy visiting Georgian churches, but as far as most people are concerned, you’ve seen one and you’ve seen ’em all. Gelati is a bit different, very airy and with much brighter colors on the interior frescoes. There is even a highly elaborate mosaic of the Virgin Mary, for all you mosaic fans out there. The complex itself is beautifully landscaped (not something you can usually say about any site in Georgia), and is a great place for picnicking.
Next we visited Sataplia National Reserve, a nature park on the outskirts of Kutaisi. I went in with low expectations, but seriously–if there’s good weather, this place is not to be missed. I would have never wanted to leave this place when I was a kid. Because first of all, DINOSAURS. Sataplia is home to an archaeological site where the footprints of Cretaceous herbivores and carnivores were found preserved in rock. In order to capitalize on the dinosaur draw, Sataplia spent its grant money on 1.) creating a building over and around the prints so visitors can view them from a walkway without stepping on them, as was the norm until recently and 2.) ANIMATRONIC DINOSAURS! In a fantastic Jurassic Park knockoff, the path through the woods near the footprint exhibit features a (not-to-scale) stegosaurus, iguanadon, and tyrannosaurus. They grumble, roar, wave their stubby legs, and look a little worse for wear already but meh, who’s paying attention? DINOSAURS!
After a walk through the woods (very mossy, picturesque, and indeed Jurassic-looking at points), our guide led us along a cliffside walkway, where you can see evidence of Sataplia’s honeybee population, which gave the park its name (“place of honey” in Georgian). The walkway terminated at a glass structure that serves as the entrance to Sataplia’s underground caves. According to our guide, archaeological evidence indicates that the caves were inhabited by a small community 100-300,000 years ago. Because they are so deeply embedded in the cliffside, the caves also maintain a constant temperature of 14C throughout the year, creating a habitat friendly to bats and small amphibious creatures (we didn’t see any).
Thanks to a development grant, the magnificent rock formations (stalactites, stalagmites, “rock waterfalls,” and “rock curtains”) are now also lit by garish multicolored lights that give it a nightclub atmosphere totally at odds with the hushed water-trickling noises. At the center of the caves’ largest cavern is a giant stone heart (not the cartoony kind, it literally looks like an enormous lumpy human heart). This is the only rock formation visitors are allowed to touch, because you get to make a wish when you do so.
Outside the caves, you can walk up a hill to a glass-bottomed ghost walkway projecting from the highest point in the park, from where you can nervously hold onto the handrails and take photos of the magnificent view. Curiously, the walkway also features a space-agey, Austin Powers-style lounge, ostensibly so parents can booze while the kids run around and look at more dinosaurs.
Next we went to go see what was up with the new Parliament building, which can at best be described as a misallocation of funds and at worst a hideous blight on the landscape. Several reasons were proposed for moving Parliament to Kutaisi–two I heard were to help counter Tbilisi’s unquestioned dominance as the country’s major city, and to move government to a non-downtown location where people aren’t as protest-happy. While those are good goals, Georgia once again fell apart on the methods.
First of all, the new Parliament is built on the site of a Soviet-era WWII memorial and public garden, which was detonated (killing a local mother and daughter across the street in the process, causing public outcry). Then there’s the fact that it looks like a giant creepy eye and is impractical in almost every way. Then they went and installed a laughably incongruous statue assemblage of some fairies on tree branches. I’m not sure if these are left over from the former public garden (which would make it a little more appropriate, if still weird), or if this is literally the most tone-deaf piece of public art ever commissioned.
Next we visited Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi’s other UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently the subject of a fierce debate between heritage professionals and the Georgian church/government. Saakashvili decided to have this 11th century masterpiece of medieval architecture “restored” in 2011. I use air quotes because restoration, in the heritage-professional sense of the word, means that a building is brought back to a certain point in its history using various historical sources (plans, sketches, paintings, photographs, first-person accounts, etc.) to ensure accuracy. None of that was possible with Bagrati, because none of these existed–the cathedral was destroyed during an Ottoman invasion in the 1690s, and no sources have been found providing details about what the structure actually looked like before the incident.
As Radio Free Europe reports,
Named after Bagrat III, the first king of a unified Georgia, the ancient cathedral is seen as a symbol of the unity of the Georgian state, an idea that still resonates strongly in the Caucasus country, which has two breakaway provinces under the control of separatist rebels.
By restoring Bagrati Cathedral, it’s possible that Saakashvili had hoped to strike a chord with many Georgians who also wish to see the country’s traditional borders restored as well.
While I’m all for keeping cultural heritage monuments relevant, I do not support doing so when the changes irreversibly damage the original structure and give the public a false sense of the site’s history. As such, the Bagrati restoration project constitutes yet another example of Saakashvili’s modern-day political agenda being forced through at the expense of Georgia’s actual cultural heritage. After much deliberation and tut-tutting, however, UNESCO ultimately decided to change Bagrati’s status (to cultural instead of historical), rather than outright de-list it. Making an example of Georgia and putting strain on diplomatic relations in this way might win the battle, but would lose the war. Although UNESCO has expressed its disapproval, it does not want to remove itself from the many other projects it currently advises and otherwise supports throughout Georgia.
Heritage atrocities aside, I really enjoyed Kutaisi. It’s a great day-trip (in order to see everything at a reasonable pace, I recommend hiring a driver–we paid 200 lari for the whole day, split between 4 of us). Unlike Tbilisi, the city still very much has a small-town feel–most houses are very similar to the vernacular style found all around rural Imereti: low lying (rarely more than 3 floors), with exterior staircases, deep porches/balconies, and interesting ornamentation. I have noticed since first coming here in 2010 that West Georgian houses often feature beautiful metal folk ornaments on their balconies, gutters, rooflines, and gates, but I can’t for the life of me find any photos online, so I’ll have to get my camera fixed and take photos myself later this year.
Downtown we also ran into this newly-installed piece of Georgian heritage kitsch, the Archaeological Fountain! My colleagues at ICOMOS have universally declared it an affront to taste, but (waste of water aside) I thought it was a creative presentation of ancient Georgian art (all elements are replicas of gold work that can be found at the Georgian National Museum archaeological treasury).