There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Kutaisi, Zugdidi and the Inguri Valley: Part 11 of the From the Caspian to the Black Sea

Bagrati Cathedral stands on a hill overlooking modern Kutaisi. As our guest house stood on the same hill the journey took only minutes.

Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi
Built by King Bagrat III in 1003, the cathedral was one of Georgia's major medieval buildings until 1692 when an explosion during the war with the Ottoman Empire brought down the dome and ceiling.

Bagrati Cathedral bell tower overlooking the city of Kutaisi
The programme of rebuilding and restoration which started at the beginning of this century was so ambitious that in 2010 UNESCO placed the cathedral on its World Heritage 'At Risk' list. As befits the granddaughter of an archaeologist and the daughter of two of Georgia's leading conservers of frescoes, Dinara was clear about the differences between rebuilding, restoration and conservation and about what it is appropriate for such a building.

A strange collection of body parts - relics of the saints, Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi
An adjusted plan has allowed the remains of the old building to be preserved while the new work echoes the old without pretending to be it. In one area at the back, where the shape of the old building is unknown, it has been replaced by a design of uncompromising modernity.

Modern addition, Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi

Although the restoration was completed a few weeks ago, workman were back in tearing up the floor, though for what purpose it was not clear.

Tearing up the floor, Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi
Leaving Kutaisi we drove ten kilometres into the hills surrounding the town to the Gelati Monastery, which stands on a wooded height overlooking the countryside.

If Bagrat sounds an unfortunate name for a king in English, Gelati is a strange name for a monastery in Italian. That apart, it is an impressive complex of buildings in, as so often in Georgia, a beautiful location.

Gelati Monastery
Gelati was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder, who was responsible not only for much physical construction, but also for the building of an independent Georgia and a Georgian national identity. He may also be a distant ancestor of Bob.

Old stones, Gelati
The Academy, which has recently been restored, was a centre for Christian culture and Neo-Platonist learning and became, according to one medieval chronicler, a 'new Jerusalem'.
Lynne in the restored Academy, Gelati
In front of the Academy are the Cathedral of the Virgin and,....

Cathedral of the Virgin, Gelati
because in Georgia one church is never enough, two smaller churches dedicated to St George and St Nicholas.

Church of St Nicholas, Gelati
Surviving an attack by the  Ottoman Turks in 1510, the cathedral became the residence of the Patriarch of West Georgia until the monks were cast out by the communists in 1922. It was re-consecrated in 1988 and was used for the inauguration of President Saakashvili in 2004. It contains some of Georgia's finest frescoes and a mosaic of the Virgin and Child with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, dating from 1130.

Virgin and Child with Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Cathedral of the Virgin, Gelati
The conservation work is much needed, but it does get in the way of my photographs!
David the Builder ushered in the Georgian golden age which crumbled a couple of centuries later under the twin, if unrelated, hammer blows of the Mongol invasions and the Black Death. Several of the monarchs from that era are buried at Gelati, though the resting place of Queen Tamar (ruled 1184 to 1213) is uncertain. She ranks second only to David the Builder in the pantheon of Georgian heroes and was such an effective ruler she is sometimes known as King Tamar - a serious compliment in the Middle Ages, if clumsily sexist today.
Iconostasis, Cathedral of the Virgin, Gelati.
The icon of St George, lower left corner of picture is especially revered

David himself is buried under the south gate as he wanted his people to walk across his grave as they entered, which might show a refreshing lack of ego in a medieval monarch, or maybe just a perverse manifestation of it. Ironically the south gate is no longer used as an entrance and many who go to see his slab of a gravestone take elaborate care to walk round him (as we did) .
The South Gate and the grave of King David the Builder, Gelati Monastery
He is buried next to his son, Demetrius I, who was a musician and composer as well as a ruler. Dinara played us one of his songs on her iPad as we stood by his grave. What a medieval ruler would have made of his music still being played 900 years after his death to foreigners from barbarian lands unimaginably far away, and by means he would probably have described as sorcery, we can only imagine. Traditional Georgian music is polyphonic chant, a type of music we had only previously encountered in Corsica. Dinara was aware of this odd link with a distant Mediterranean isle (her breadth of knowledge was genuinely impressive) but, she told us with a little national pride, Georgian singing has more parts.

The remains of the actual gate, South Gate, Gelati Monastery
We returned to Kutaisi. The city looks better when not approached through the areas of industrial dereliction but even so the streets give a clear indication that Kutaisi is far from the most prosperous city we have visited.

A Kutaisi street 
The centre, though, looks better. The parliament has moved to Kutaisi and with the latest version of the constitution giving more importance to parliament and the prime minister and less to the Tbilisi-based president, Kutaisi has become the seat of the Georgian government, and has acquired some appropriate buildings. Sadly, we did not see the futuristic parliament building on the western edge of the city.

Central Kutaisi - clearly an important building, though I have no idea what
The city's centrepiece is a fountain which echoes its claim to have been the capital of a far older country. Western Georgia is the Colchis of Greek legend, and in search of the Golden Fleece Jason and the Argonauts rowed from the Black Sea up the River Rioni perhaps as far as Kutaisi which may have been the capital of the possibly mythical King Aeetes. What are not mythical are the hordes of gold objects that have been recovered from ancient Colchis, some of them by Dinara's grandfather, and enlarged versions of several of these gold pieces decorate the fountain. We had seen many, maybe most of them, in the national museum in Tbilisi, and of course our old friend Tamada, the toastmaster with his drinking horn, was prominent amongst them.

Fountain, Central Kutaisi
Leaving Kutaisi we headed northwest across the rich agricultural land of the Kolkheti plain, the modern name echoing the ancient Colchis.
Our route so far
We had lunch in Zugdidi, the small capital of the Samegrelo district. We ate at 'The Host', a popular three storey pub on the main drag. We lunched on the top floor where the waiters have to bring all the food and drink up two flights of stairs. The good service was a testament to their fitness.

'The Host', Zugdidi
Continuing our efforts to eat as many local specialties as possible - and with Dinara keen to point them out whenever they appeared on a menu - we both chose gomi described as cornmeal porridge, and best thought of as a pallid and rather sloppy polenta. The idea is that you hide a slice of Salguni cheese in the gomi so that it melts and then cover everything with a white walnut based sauce. Sadly, the combination of white on white inside white did not look appetizing, the gomi was not hot enough to melt the cheese and the polenta was uncompromisingly bland. It was the least successful of the specialties we encountered, but the spicy stuffed peppers, fried potato and trout were excellent, though it was, perhaps the smallest trout I have ever seen - we have eaten bigger sardines in Portugal.

Lynne, Dinara a tiny trout and a plate of gomi
At Zugdidi we were within 30km of the Black Sea, but we would not reach it for another three days. Zugdidi is the gateway to the mountainous Svaneti region, and that was where we went next, heading northeast along the banks of the River Inguri. For the next three days we would not stray far from the Inguri and its tributary the Mulkhara and would eventually come within a couple of hour’s walk of the Mulkhara’s source, a glacier on Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak.

As the road climbs into the mountains it follows the Inguri’s sizeable gorge to the Inguri dam, at 270m high the second highest arch dam in the world,* and then runs up the eastern side of the lake.

The Inguri dam
Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway region (for South Ossetia, see here) was on the other side of the lake. The Abkhaz speak their own language, quite distinct from Georgian, but the region had been linked with Georgia since medieval times. In 1921, under the Soviet Union, Abkhazia signed a treaty of union with Georgia and ten years later it became an ‘autonomous region within Georgia’. Stalin and Lavrinty Beria, then Secretary of the Georgian Communist Part and later Head of the NKVD oversaw the migration of Georgians into Abkhazia. In 1989 the Abkhaz made up only 18% of the population, but they dominated Abkhazia's Supreme Soviet which in 1990 declared independence as a separate republic within the Soviet Union.
The road runs beside Lake Inguri

As the Soviet Union crumbled Georgia tried to regain Abkhazia. A brief but vicious war in the early nineties resulted in the displacement of Abkhazia's Georgian population sending some 230,000 refugees to Georgia. Despite Russian backing for the breakaway, Georgia retained hope of regaining Abkhazia, and some 40,000 refugees even returned, but after the 2008 South Ossetia war, Abkhazia declared complete independence. Their independence is recognized only by Russia (and Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru) and fellow unrecognised breakaways South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh and Transnistria. The Abkhaz are barely a majority in their own ethnically diverse country but remain in firm control of the government. Abkhazians might hold Russian passports and use the Russian Rouble, but they have shown little inclination to join Russia.

..and beside the River Inguri above
Higher up the gorge, dozens of vehicles of the Georgian environment agency lined the road, and there was a large police presence. Then we ran into what at first appeared to be a traffic jam outside one of the villages crammed into the narrow valley, but it was not a jam, the cars were parked and a crowd of men were making their way towards what already seemed to be a packed and angry meeting in the village square.

The environment agency, we later learned, were trying to enforce stricter rules to safeguard the forest and the protestors did not think the rules should apply to locals. Not understanding the argument and having no wish to take sides we were glad that Alex managed to pick his way between the parked cars, milling crowds and nervous officials.
A demonstration, not a traffic jam, Inguri Valley

We wound higher and higher into the mountains on a well-made road, occasionally detouring round rocks and boulders which had fallen from the cliffs above.

The road climbs higher into the mountains, Inguri Valley
As the road rose we entered the region of Svaneti. The Svan people have their own language, though unlike Abkhaz, it is of the Georgian language family and they have shown no yearning for independence. Living high in the mountains has always given them a measure of freedom, though they remain dependent on the valleys below for economic survival.

Approaching Mestia
In late afternoon we reached the remarkable small town of Mestia where we checked into the Hotel Tetnuldi on the edge of town, while Alex and Dinara made do with a B &B in the centre.

Our balcony had a wonderful, if inevitable intermittent, view of the snow covered peak of Mount Tetnuldi (4858m, 16,319ft) and a different though also splendid view over the town, which will be the subject of the next post.
Mount Tetnuldi from our hotel balcony

According to the Rough Guide the Hotel has the best restaurant in Mestia, but we were treated to an uninspired buffet and an overpriced bottle of beer. We quickly gained the impression that what should have been a good quality alpine-style hotel was drifting like a rudderless ship. We later learned that the builder, owner and driving force behind the hotel had recently died in a motorcycle accident and under the sad circumstances the lack of direction was perhaps inevitable.

*The highest at 292m is Xiaowan Dam on the Mekong River in Yunnan Province, China near the Burmese border

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