12.06.2017 - 12.06.2017
Day 19 Monday June 12 2017
Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi 178 km
- Breakfast at the castle is very uninspiring. The worst so far of our trip. But we will not judge Georgia for its poor breakfasts yet.
- For the first time in over a week, we sleep through dawn. It makes a huge difference.
- Today's distance is relatively modest, but roads in Georgia are inferior to Turkey's superb network. And we have 2 sightseeing stops scheduled: the Sapara Monastery complex some 12 km SE of Akhaltsikhe and the town of Borjomi, source of the mineral water we drank last night with supper.
- To get to the monastery we drive through undulating rural countryside. Wild flowers are in abundance beside the road and in the fields. No wonder the honey tastes so good. The bees are happy.
- We see farming families in the fields - much work is done manually.
- At Sapara Monastery we are the only visitors. We have the place to ourselves. What a privilege.
It has existed since at least 9C and important figures in Georgian ecclesiastical history have lived here. The largest church in the complex is called St Saba and is architecturally one of the most important of its era. The 14C frescoes inside are of a very high quality.
- Borjomi is nowadays a spa resort and sits on the edge of one of Georgia's National Parks. It is geared up for domestic & Russian tourism. In the immediate area there are about 40 different hot spring sources. The focus of our attention today is the source of Borjomi mineral water within the Central Park. Look for the pavilion just inside the entrance and you will find the original source. A lady will fill for free any size bottle you give her.
- The water is definitely an acquired taste. A bit salty, somewhat sour & luke warm. A wisteria growing nearby obviously flourishes on this water supply.
- You may not have previously heard of the Borjomi brand but in this part of the world and throughout Russia, it is like Perrier is to Europe.
- Rumour has it: Borjomi water was discovered by Russian soldiers during their campaign against the Ottomans in 1828 - large numbers of troops had fallen ill with stomach disorders and they halted their advances in Borjomi to await recovery. The taste of the spring water amazed them as well as the therapeutic effects of drinking it. News got around the Russian empire and in 1841 the Vice Roy of Georgia brought his sick daughter to Borjomi. She was cured. And so the spa and the idea of taking waters took off. Again.
- Archeological digs have discovered 7 tubs that date back to 1C - so there is a strong possibility that the pleasures and benefits of bathing in natural warm spa water have been known for millennia.
- By the mid 19C Borjomi became a favourite and prestigious recreation resort for Georgian & Russian nobility.
- The commercial potential of Borjomi water was first recognised by a Russian military scientist - he dreamed of bottling the stuff & selling it. The first bottling plant was opened in 1896 - it's the large stone building just inside the park entrance. In 1900 the water was enriched with carbon dioxide and it became fizz! By 1913 the plant was producing an astonishing 9 million bottles.
- Today of course there is a new bottling plant with much larger capacity outside of the park at one of the other spring sources.
- We eat another lunch of Khatchapuri ( hot bread filled with melted cheese and served w butter & runny egg - remember?) washed down with a bottle of Borjomi. What else?
- As we head to Kutaisi, heavy rain starts to fall & the temperature plummets to below 15C.
- The roads are busy with HGV traffic and daredevil car drivers. We feel vulnerable. Our European insurance does not cover us. And unlike in Turkey there seems no easy mechanism for foreign cars to purchase special insurance cover whilst in Georgia.
- Kutaisi is Georgia's second city with a population of around 150000 people. Since 2012 it is also where Parliament sits. An effort to decentralise the spoils of political power from the capital city. Apparently it's not that popular with Georgian politicians.
- Our hotel, the newly built Best Western is situated conveniently on the south side of river with great access to the old city. Despite the rain there is no time to lose. So we decide to put on macs, grab our umbrellas from the truck and brave the storm.
- We walk across the bridge adjacent to the hotel to access the steps that lead up to Bagrati Cathedral.
- The River Rioni is flowing very high. Unusually so according to locals. But the old riverside buildings look as if they have endured such torrents before. So there should be no need to worry.
- Bagrati Cathedral is an obvious landmark of Kutaisi City. Standing visible up on the hill and now surrounded by genteel leafy suburbs, it was built in 10-11C.and is a magnificent example of ancient Georgian architecture. In 1692 the Ottomans invaded Kutaisi having taken control of Akhaltsikhe (where we stayed last night ). They plundered the Cathedral's treasures and removed the marble columns from the temple ( dangerous manoeuvre !).
- The Cathedral underwent a prolonged restoration project that lasted most of the 20C . In 1994 it was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site ( yes another one! ).
- Between 2004 - 12 there was further restoration of the cathedral. The finished model is presumably what we see today. Hopefully the photographs give you a good idea of its architectural beauty, despite the pouring rain. The restoration work has been done extremely well, perhaps with the exception of the roof which looks a bit new for a 10C church. But the colour is accurate. Old broken roof tiles have been discovered with a patina of exactly the same shade of azure. Amazing.
- According to Christian tradition, azure symbolises heaven & the Kingdom of God.
- It is a very wet walk back to the bridge. We stop in White Stones Bar adjacent to the Best Western. From the bar we look out onto the river, watch the rain, sip chilled Georgian wine and listen to the first live music of our trip - a trio of elderly Georgians playing the saxophone, violin & piano. What a find. They play 7-11 pm this evening. We may stay!