The Caves & Cave Cities of Georgia
Kumistavi Cave, also known as the cave of Prometheus, is located near the Georgian town of Tskhaltubo, 20 km from Kutaisi, Imereti region, in the west of the country. The cave was discovered in 1984 and is the biggest cave in Georgia. Although only one tenth is open for tourists, it takes about an hour to explore it’s 1000 plus meter route. A 280 meter boat tour on an underground river is also available at times.
If you’re lucky enough to be in a quiet and respectful group of fellow visitors, the cave exploration can be quite magical. The concrete paths and steps are well-laid (it took workmen four years to get it done!), and the multi-colored lighting is something truly spectacular (“Fairy land!” my 6-year-old daughter whispered delightedly). Stalactites, stalagmites, mirror pools, petrified waterfalls, “bottomless holes,” huge cavernous ceilings and a trip to the lowest point with a river miraculously running through. The guide service could do with developing- little details have to be asked for as there are no signs, and only basic information is given (no fun legends or dark secrets, like the fact the paths were first developed there during soviet times with the intention of making the caves a bunker for authorities to hide out in). Prometheus wasn’t mentioned once on the tour, and although we can guess that that particular legend didn’t take place there, it would at least be fun to pretend and spice up the visit with some “maybes” and “what ifs!”
WHERE: Outside Tkaltubo town. From Kutaisi bus station (next to Kutaisi Macdonald’s restaurant) take the minibus to Tskaltubo (წყალტუბო). At Tskaltubo bus terminal/market take a taxi to the cave (10 min)
Ticket: A standard tour is 6 GEL and a boat tour 7 GEL
Open: Daily, except Mondays. November to April - 10 am to 5 pm, May to August - 10 am to 6 pm, in September and October from 10 am to 5:30 pm
Established in 1935 to protect the Sataplia Cave and dinosaur footprints found in the area, this small reserve 9 km from Kutaisi was renovated some six years ago. The first stage of the tour sees an enclosed space and a clamber up a staircase with smooth limestone rock below, the three-toed footprints of some 7 species of “Sataplasaurus” dinosaurs left in the rock dated to the Cretaceous Period (165-65 million years ago) clear to see. Then we’re out into the woods, past a few fibreglass mini replica dinosaurs (the kids enjoyed everything except the fact they could look, not touch and one of the dinosaurs had a nose missing!) and into the short but beautiful caves- a well-lit, sturdy 314 meter-long pathway and beautiful rock formations, including the bulbous “heart” rock in the center. Back outside there is a nice narrow pathway past golden cliffs and woods below- in these very rocks the honey bees used to live (Sataplia means “For Honey,” which the locals used to harvest). The bees moved on long ago. Another gem, if you have the legs, is to walk to the glass walkway which juts out over the edge of the highest point and offers a fabulous view of the valley. The walkway was built during the time of the previous government, as was the glass wedding house above it. Both have fallen into a state of “unlove”- with the slippers meant to prevent the glass from being scratched often not present and the wedding house closed and dusty. The guide was friendly but impatient to finish the tour and the slower members of the large group we were part of (elderly, overweight and children) often missed the few descriptive moments. There was a simple but interesting museum halfway through- with a dinosaur skeleton and black and white photos of those who originally discovered the dinosaur footprints.
Where: 5km from Kutaisi. Take minibus 45 from Javakhishvili Str., Kutaisi
Ticket: 6 GEL
Open: Wed-Mon 10 am to 6 pm, earlier closing in autumn and winter
The ancient cave city was built on a rocky bank of the Mtkvari River, approximately 15km east of the town of Gori. Between the 6th century BC and 11th century AD, Uplistsikhe was one of the most important political, religious, and cultural centers of pre-Christian Kartli, flourishing until it was ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century. A full exploration of the cave city, named “God’s Fortress” will take around an hour. Preservation is clearly not on the list of priorities at present, as can be seen from how degraded the sandstone caves are, but there is something special in the child-like freedom you are given to wander over the rocks as you wish, climbing here and there with no restrictions. Those with no head for heights or bringing children should beware- there are few safety barriers to stop you tumbling over the edge of the mountain or into the random (now empty) water holes scattered around. Nor are their descriptive signs, so a guide is recommended if you want the juicier details of the place. If you choose to go it alone, make sure to look up when you enter the caves- many of them, including “Queen Tamar’s Throne Room,” have carved ceilings. The exit down the cave tunnel from settlement to river bank is another treat not to miss.
WHERE: 15 km from Gori. Buses leave Tbilisi’s Didube bus station for Gori, (the trip takes about an hour), and taxis are available in Gori to Uplistsikhe.
Ticket: 3 GEL, Guide: 25 GEL
Open: Daily, except Mondays, 10am – 5pm
Davit Garedji Monastery
I went in a family Volvo but for the sake of sanity and car longevity, I don’t suggest trying this in anything but a 4x4. We approached from Sagaredjo- heading out into what they call a “desert” but actually a vast expanse of rolling-to-the-horizon grassy hillside- the kind that could easily feature in a horror movie for isolation. But breath-taking nonetheless. Just take plenty of water and snacks with you and make sure the tires are pumped and the fuel tank full! The rocks across the valley from the monastery complex were of a wonderful mixed coloring- reminding me of the Painted Desert in the Four Corners, USA.
You enter the functioning part of the complex (named Lavra) through a stone archway- drinking water available- and then head down to the courtyard via “hidden” steps to see the renovated church- ladies, make use of the headscarves provided, men, don’t go in if you’re not wearing trousers! There are no signs explaining the history of the caves (though a simple guidebook can be bought in the giftshop), but plenty –disappointing to that natural tourist curiosity- saying “No entrance.” Lavra, the original monastery, was founded by St. David Garejeli, one of the thirteen Assyrian monks who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. The monks translated and copied manuscripts here, and there was a renowned school of fresco painting. The monasteries were destroyed by Mongols in 1265, revived in the 14th century and then destroyed in 1615 by Shah Abbas’ soldiers. During Soviet times, the military used the area for exercises and vandalized the monasteries.
Another route up a narrow trail by the giftshop leads you around the complex and up to Udabno- a frescoed cave and fabulous views the other side of the mountain. At times the trail crosses the border into Azerbaijan. Three warnings here- don’t take young kids, smile at the border guards in your best “I’m an innocent tourist” manner, and beware of poisonous snakes!
Infrastructure is being added to around the Lavra complex but for the moment the only “café” comes in the form of over-priced drinks from a Coffee Car.
We drove back via a dirt-and-gravel track through fields and past old soviet hulks of abandoned factories into Rustavi.
WHERE: 2 hours outside Tbilisi/Rustavi. There is also an inexpensive (25 GEL tour) shuttle bus Gareji Line going daily from and back to Tbilisi from 14th of April to 15th of October.
Open: 10am til sundown
The Prometheus Myth- Georgian version
The Caucasians have their own version of the Prometheus tale to explain the mysterious Kumistavi cave. Legend has it that Amirani, like Prometheus, angered the gods and was punished. Day and night eagles tormented him by pecking at his liver; however, in contrast to the Greek giant, the cruel gods chained Amirani not to a rock, but somewhere inside a huge cave. That cave is thought to have been Kumistavi.
Katie Ruth Davies