Kutaisi, situated 220km west of Tbilisi, is a perfect hub for getting out and about in nature, with pristine valleys, caves and canyons all on its back doorstep. That was all the invitation we needed to go on a range of different excursions in the surrounding region.
Before arriving in the city, we took the backroads from Gori to check out Katskhi Column, located only five minutes from the town of Chiatura. Strikingly situated in the small river valley of Katskhura, Katskhi Colmumn/Pillar consists of a small restored church perched atop a 40 metre high natural limestone monolith that can easily be seen well before you arrive.
You can drive pretty much right up to the column along a gravel road, with only the very last part requiring a bit of a stretch of the legs.
After a very short 50 metre walk up the hill, you’re then rewarded with access to the pillar complex, the oldest parts of which are believed to date back to the 9th or 10th century AD. There used to be time, not that long ago, when male visitors could access the column and scale to the top via an iron ladder. Here they could then visit the church dedicated to Maximus the Confessor, a crypt and some hermit cells. A wine cellar is also supposed to be at the top, possibly to provide some fortitude for the trip back down. At some point, however, the Health & Safety Committee have obviously deemed scaling the ladder to be inappropriate and this practise has now stopped. I’d by lying if I didn’t say that a part of me is quite happy with the committee’s decision.
Sitting at the bottom of the pillar is a newly built church dedicated to Simeon Stylites, the inside of which can be visited. Simeon is an extremely well known ascetic saint who lived for 37 years on top of a much smaller pillar in modern day Syria. It was initially believed that monks who previously used the Katskhi Pillar may have been emulating Simeon (hence the church at the bottom), but the existence of the wine cellar debunks any notion that the had any ascetic tendencies!
Another highly regarded excursion from Kutaisi is what is commonly referred to as Prometheus Cave, but properly known as Kumistava Cave. About 20 kilometres from Kutuaisi, visiting the cave complex can easily be included with a trip to the mostly deserted spa resort town of Tskaltubo, which you pass through on the way to the cave.
Only discovered in 1984, it’s obligatory to take part in a tour, which costs 15 GEL each (5 GEL for kids) and depending on when you arrive, will be conducted in either Russian or English. Not that much explaining happened along the way, as we fairly whizzed through what is described as one of Georgia’s natural wonders with its myriad examples of stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, petrified waterfalls, cave pearls, underground rivers, and lakes.
The tour visits five caves along its 1.6km length, a number of which are Neon-lit, before it finishes at its most famous cavern, Prometheus Cave. In Greek mythology the upstart God Prometheus annoyed Zeus by stealing fire from the gods for man and refusing to tell him which of his children would dethrone him. Enraged, Zeus ordered Prometheus seized and taken to the Caucasus Mountains to be chained to a rock with unbreakable bonds, so that a giant bird could peck at his liver. Legend says that the rock used to chain Prometheus lies somewhere in this cave.
I’m obviously not much of a cave guy as I wasn’t particularly taken with Prometheus Cave. The stalactites are impressive and reasonably interesting for 10 minutes or so but having been fortunate to have seen these before on a number of occasions, we ended up having more fun seeing whether we were going to be first to complete the Prometheus Cave race. With a group of close to 60 people I can happily report that the Sowerby’s smashed all comers and claimed all the spots on the podium.
If you haven’t got your fill of the caves, there is also a short boat ride (10 GEL for adults) which can be done at the end of the trip. Unfortunately, this wasn’t operating on the day we were there, so we can’t report whether this is any good or not. I’m sure if we had done the boat trip, we would’ve won that race too.
There’s a bit more effort getting to the canyons if you’re situated in Kutaisi, given that they're situated about 50 kilometres away. The girls had had their fill of outdoor excursions, but I was keen for more so made the roughly hour and a quarter drive out to Martvili picking up a hitchhiker along the way. Trust me, if you saw your grandmother standing on the side of the road dressed all in black and trying to thumb a lift, you’d pick her up too. We didn’t speak a word the entire journey but on arriving in Martvili, she poured herself out of the car, gave me a blessing and toddled off to do whatever it is Grandma’s do in Marvili.
There’s a 16.75 GEL entry fee to visit the canyon and an additional 15 GEL for a short, 300 metre boat ride on what is described as a river with deep green colour. Probably due to the amount of rain we’d been receiving, brown would’ve been a better colour to describe it by the time I took my trip, which partly explains why the whole ride was a bit underwhelming.
I was situated in the back of the boat, so wasn’t required to do any paddling, but if you are at the front you are expected to row away which might make taking pictures a tad difficult.
The boat ride probably took all of 15 minutes, after which I explored the Dadianis’ Path, so named after the House of Dadiani who were a Mingrelian (western Georgian) ruling family of nobles, dukes and princes. The short 500 metre walk has been completely man made and takes you through the mountain river gorge over limestone natural bridges to viewing platforms and waterfalls.
The walk was actually quite nice and definitely not taxing, without being breathtaking. To get more out of what really is supposed to be an amazing part of Georgia, I reckon you’d be better placed hooking into one of the day or multi-day tours that are offered here or elsewhere.
Not content with visiting one canyon, I thought I’d try my hand at another. Actually, I’d gone with a plan to get a run in and as Martvili was exceptionally short, with no opportunity for running, I thought I’d try my luck 20 kilometers around the corner at Okatse Canyon.
It costs the same 16.75 GEL fee to enter Okatse with this canyon being markedly different from Martvili. First of all, you’re required to walk a fair distance to the canyon from the visitor centre along a reasonably steep, in places, pathway. This takes you to a 700 metres long walkway which is literally suspended from the side of the canyon. Having run to get to this point, I was less keen to bounce along the pathway given the 100 metre drop below.
The walkway finishes at a viewing point where you can then look into the depths of the canyon and admire the surrounding beauty.
There are waiting jeeps here that'll take you back to the visitor centre, for an appropriate fee of course, else you’ll need to head back for the mostly uphill journey back. The round trip was 6 kilometres with 270 metres of vertical, so it’s a bit of solid outing. I’m glad I did it, but given there’s not a whole heap to look at until you get to the suspension pathway, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
From Okatse Canyon, a lot of people journey on to see Kinchkha Waterfall just up the road. As I’d recently filled my waterfall bucket just outside Stepantsminda and I was feeling a tad guilty about how long I’d left the girls on their own, instead I made the sweaty and smelly return trip back to Kutaisi.