It had been a long ride from Borjomi but I had finally made it to Kutaisi. Woken up at 6AM, I was all too eager to jump on a local van, known as a marshrutka, to Kutaisi. When I had gotten to the bus station, there was no sign of a van going to Kutaisi though and for good reason. A marshrutka going there was unheard of.
Luckily, a group of fellow backpackers had arrived with the same purpose and we had managed to negotiate for a van to take us all to the second biggest city in Georgia. Three hours later, the other backpackers were off to Mestia and I was starting to reconsider making Kutaisi my final destination. Sure, it was always a bad idea to judge a city by the vicinity of its bus stations but the further I walked into the city, the less I understood why I had chosen to stay here of all places. A storm was coming to town too, forcing me to stay at my hotel for the whole afternoon. That was a rough start but the day after had to be better.
I opened my eyes to a bright sun the next morning. My prayers had been heard, it seemed. Leaving my sad little hotel, I walked to town through streets which had seen better days. Most houses on those streets looked decaying but the grape vines running down their façade and their wooden balconies gave them an undeniable grace.
Downtown was a little livelier, though a little crumbling too once out of the main streets. I walked in circles for a few minutes before finding the improvised bus station that would take me to the Gelati Monastery, somewhere near the Opera Theatre. I soon spotted a sign with the word Gelati written in English on a van and was off to the church in a matter of minutes for a single lari.
The ride took twenty minutes but it took less than five to get out of the city and into the countryside. A few bell towers popped up along the way until a more massive one burst into the landscape. The number of vans parked at the entrance was the only clue I needed to know I had arrived. Gelati was such a highlight on my book that I felt a tad disappointed at the church that was sitting in front of me. It was a beautiful building, true. Somehow, it felt lacklustre though. That was, until I got in.
I went straight for a basket full of headscarves without a second thought, as I had done every time I had visited a church in Georgia, paying no attention to the inside of the church. My head appropriately covered, I walked in, looked up and got punched in the face. God wasn’t literally punishing me for letting my headscarf slip off my hair though. It was the beauty of the mosaics all around me, from walls to ceiling, which left me speechless.
Some of the mosaics had faded away over time but most of the colours seemed as vivid as ever. The level of scrutiny on the faces, the way in which no single parcel of the walls was left unpainted, the perfect harmony of the colours, made me feel dizzy. It seemed a lifetime would not be enough to catch all the details encapsulated on every inch of the church. The Byzantine did know a way to bring God’s perfection to life and this work of art showed it.
I could have stayed in awe for the rest of the day but finally managed to remove myself from contemplating the monastery as I had another one to visit. The Motsameta Monastery was allegedly just a walk away, although my GPS had set an alarmingly long way there. As a result, I decided to jump on a van going back to Kutaisi, asking the driver to stop at Motsameta, which he did. Rather, he stopped at a crossroads, a thirty-minute walk away from the monastery.
The walk was pleasantly bucolic, with no one in sight but a few stray dogs. They had stopped following me when I first saw the monastery in the distance, hanging in loneliness on the edge of a cliff. No car was passing by, not a train was running on the nearby railway, all was quiet, as to respect the sanctity of the monastery. A stone path led me to the gate to Motsameta, where I once again had to cover my head. The cloister was nothing extraordinary but it was still inhabited by monks, commanding respect and humbleness, inviting to sit and ponder in silence.
The contrast was stark when I got back to the crossroads where the van had dropped me, although I actually had to sit and ponder for a good while too, since there was no sign of a van going back to Kutaisi. It wasn’t until I gave up and decided I would walk the hour and a half path to the city that a marshrutka showed up, as if fate had only been testing me.
My next stop took me to the gates of the Bagrati Cathedral, once considered Georgia’s great treasure and now seen as a national controversy. Contrary to its big sister of Gelati, Bagrati had indeed been quite butchered during its renovation, so much so that the UNESCO had dropped its name from its World Heritage sites. What used to be riveting ruins was now more akin to a romanticised, fake recreation of a medieval church.
Yet, among this entire disregard for historical and architectural accuracy, Bagrati had not lost all its appeal. My imagination could easily work past the gaudy renovated roofs to recreate the ruins as they once stood. Sure, the renovation lacked authenticity but it hadn’t deprived the Cathedral from its soul. Away from the noise of the city, Bagrati and its park felt peaceful enough to let the mind rest for a while so I just sat on an ancient stone pillar and got a book out of my backpack.
Kutaisi was perhaps not the kind of city to fall in love with at first sight. Yet, Gelati, Motsameta and Bagrati had mesmerized me and let me see why Kutaisi deserved to delve deeper than its looks.