Kutaisi is a lovely city. We spend the morning pottering around, thoroughly enjoying the indoor market. The usual mountains of fruit and vegetables. Buckets of dried beans. Flour just piled up on the counter. Chickens being singed of their remaining feathers as we amble by. Row after row of homemade cheese stalls. Honey, spices and weird looking syrup covered walnuts, which look like multicoloured dried sausage.
The sellers are as fascinating as the produce – mostly older women, short and plump who blether to their neighbours and don’t look at all upset that you decide to go to a neighbouring stall instead. A few women nap with their head straight down on the stall in front of them, I wouldn’t dare to wake them. We talk a little to the coffee man as he makes us a Turkish coffee, using heated sand – a method I’ve never seen. The coffee is exceptional. As we wait a greengrocer sings to himself, what could be a Georgian folksong or Russian pop for all I know. A gentleman who got involved in our negotiation of half a pound of cherries beckons us over to his stall, he brandishes a plastic bottle of clear liquid – ” no, no, no, madlopa, madlopa!” I cry, backing away slowly from the chacha. He seems to understand the look in my eye and let’s us get away with a smile.
On our way back from the market we detour to the river and decide to have a go on the cable cars we’d watched the previous evening. The rickety things swing us up to the top of a wooded hill, giving us a great view of the city. We disembark to find a fairground at the top, which feels a bit incongruous. We find a bench with a view and eat some of our goodies, the second and third khachapuri of the day, and make use of the free WiFi to catch up with some friends and news from home.
Finally we catch the cable car back down and tootle back to our guesthouse to pack up the bikes and find some room for the multiple purchases from the market.
We get on the road at 4, far too late really but happy to have had some time to enjoy the city and recuperate a little.
Despite the time it is hot. My brand new bike computer tells me it’s 36°c as we roll out of the city. It’s ok to begin with, and as we cruise through the stunning forest on the edge of the city we’re delighted with everything.
We leave the forest and the hills start coming thick and fast. Someone has been incredibly diligent with the road signs informing us of the upcoming gradient – 10%, 15%, 7%, 14%, 15% uphill, downhill, up again. I don’t know what happened but I start sweating like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It is hot and humid and they just don’t let up.
The scenery is epic though. We’re in the foothills of the lower caucasus now, and although they are indeed smaller than their northern siblings they are really impressive. Nearer to hand we find we’re on the wine route, and sure enough signs pointing to wine cellars, and plenty of vineyards. Not just grapes though, the trees along the roadside are laden with plums of all colours, cherries, pears, figs. The land all around is planted, most houses seem to be a smallholding. Of course there’s still cows and pigs roaming the road, but we also come across sheep for the first time.
We push on through, because there’s no place to camp, it’s steep and almost all cultivated.
We come through a town and think to find something for dinner. We can smell a bakery but out takes a few circuits to find one open, tucked down a side alley. Drawing closer we see it’s a sweet bakery, which are much rarer in Georgia. They have some tasty looking pastries. I ask for two, she says that will be 4 lari. It’s more than I expected but we fish out the change and hand it over. She goes to the back of the shop and comes back with a bag full of fresh ones – I guess we bought 2 kilos of them. Well, that’s fine. Another women comes over and hands us a couple of cream filled biscuits which we devour on the spot. Outside we tuck in to a pastry, also delicious and freshly baked. A third women comes out with a bottle of cold water and pours us glass after glass. We just keep repeating the only word we know “Madloba”, thank you. We’re just about to head away when the fourth and last woman in the shop comes out and hands us four more cookies. We laugh now and thank them again and ride away before we are too heavy to move.
Another 10km, a few more hills and we make it down to the river floor. We take the first available track down to the river and gratefully set up camp, tucked just out of sight from the road. Despite being the longest day we don’t have much light left, we manage to set up camp, both have a much needed wash and eat khachapuri numbers four and five, and a pastry before it’s completely dark and we turn to bed.
As I write a semi-wild or feral dog snores outside our tent, having refused to take Jamie’s shooing seriously. She’s a beauty.