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The Road To Batumi



Interior image of the stone dome in Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia
Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi, Georgia

There are several ways to get around in Georgia. The least expensive option is usually mashrutkas, minivans that service most cities. While this option is very budget friendly, it has its drawbacks, particularly if one wishes to arrive at a destination without being a nervous wreck. Another downside is mashrutka timetables are usually more aspirational than functional.


If one doesn’t wish to redefine adventure travel by riding in a mashrutka, the best option is hiring a driver.


Corie and I met Armen coming back from Kazbegi a few weeks ago. After racing down the mountain to catch the day’s last mashrutka back to Tbilisi, scheduled to depart at 6 p.m., we found out sometimes it departs at 6, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there are no vans after 4.


Riding back to Tbilisi with Armen, we noticed a remarkable difference from our mashrutka experience. We didn’t feel the need to notify our next of kin, and the car was comfortable.


I have written before about Georgian drivers. On its website, the World Travel Guide notes, “Poor road conditions and poor driving mean getting behind the wheel in Georgia isn’t a relaxing experience.”


That, my friends, is an understatement. It’s like saying jumping into a lion’s cage dressed up as a gazelle taco might not be a relaxing experience.


For the most part, Georgians see driving as a cross between Formula 1 and wild horse racing. Knowing someone who is familiar with the nuances of driving here is helpful, and Armen is one of those people. When he dropped us off in Tbilisi, we made sure to get his phone number, knowing he would be our first choice for upcoming trips.


Armen made it politely clear that he isn’t a tour guide, but he does have a good sense of amazing places in his home country. When we left for Batumi, I asked him if he knew of any good churches along the way that I could photograph.


Our first stop was the Jvari Monastery, an early medieval church that overlooks the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. According to legend, St. Nino placed a wooden cross at the site, which became associated with several miracles, drawing pilgrims from around the region.


Today’s pilgrims have ample parking and an incredible view of the city Mtskheta.


Further on the highway lulls the unsuspecting traveler that the remainder of the journey will be on a modern expressway with minimal traffic.


That notion quickly dissipates. While the Georgian government is working on an ambitious highway project that bypasses the narrow two-lane road that winds through several small towns along the way, it won’t be finished for a number of years.


In Surami, Armen treated us to nazuki, a Georgian spice bread made with cinnamon and raisins. He insisted we eat it right away while it was still warm from the oven. Surami’s main road is lined with nazuki vendors, the side of the road is packed with cars and people buying their morning fix.


We continued on to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city, stopping at the Bagrati Cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the 10thcentury and was briefly on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites, but lost its designation after too many changes were made in its renovation. Like many churches here in Georgia, it sits on a hill overlooking the city from its expansive park-like grounds. The complex seems to make the world slow down, allowing one to appreciate the historic architecture and stunning scenery.


We finished our brief stay in Kutaisi with lunch at the El Paso restaurant.


I’m going to let you in on a little secret. New Mexicans can be insufferably snooty about food. Any time a New Mexican is outside the Land of Enchantment, well-meaning hosts boast about their Mexican restaurant. Polite New Mexicans play along, longing for their bowl of hearty green chile stew back home.


So Corie and I felt our chests tighten. A Mexican restaurant in Georgia? How’s this going to go? Armen assured us it was the best restaurant for Georgian food in Kutaisi and had no idea why it shared its name with the Texas city.


He was right. It was one of the best meals we've had here.


Black and white image of the exterior of Bagradi Cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia
Bagradi Cathedral, Kutaisi, Georgia

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I was committed this week to avoid photos of the Black Sea since Corie and I seemed to have spent most of the last time we were here less than 500 meters from the beach. Guess what?

I hope you join me next week for a walk along the Black Sea coast :)



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