A Report on the visit to Kutaisi October 2010
by Sonia Fisher, Rosemary Butler and Derek Butler
DAY 1. Saturday 23 October.
Like all visitors to Georgia flying with BMI, we arrived in Tbilisi airport just after midnight and, once through passport control, we were warmly welcomed by our friends Madona Tkeshelashvili, Marika Megrelishvili, Nana Khetsuriani and Nick Okreshidze. The visit couldn’t have had a better start.
Nana and Nick soon waved goodbye as both were due to start work a few hours later but Madona Tkeshelashvili (who we will refer to as Madona T in this report to avoid confusion with Madonna Megrelishvili) and Marika were keen to show us Tbilisi’s nightlife so, despite the decision taken en route to seek an `early` night’s sleep, we were willingly whisked off to the restaurant quarter and there, on a warm night and beneath the city’s floodlit castle, we shared snacks and drank toasts to `friendship` until after two o’ clock, the first of many such toasts made during the following week.
We had booked ourselves into a Tbilisi hotel and after breakfast were met first by Marika and Madona T and then by the three doctors we had the pleasure to meet when they visited Newport in 2008 -
Then, accompanied by Mamuka’s daughter, Natia, and Zaza’s niece Mariami (both good English speakers and delightful company), we all set off for Kutaisi.
Our first stop was Mtskheta where we visited the ancient cathedral and were impressed by all the renovations being undertaken in the cathedral grounds and surrounding village.
Sonia Fisher, Chair of Newport Kutaisi Association welcomes delegates to Newport
After admiring the craft stalls (where we were bought traditional hats), we drove to a recently opened restaurant where we sat at a table on the banks of the River Mtkvari and ate a range of delicious dishes consisting mainly of freshly caught fish.
The section of motorway between Tbilisi and Gori is new and we made rapid progress. As we neared the outskirts of Gori we could see the new housing estates built to accommodate the refugees displaced as a result of the Russian invasion two years ago.
Here we crossed the temporary steel river bridge fabricated in Chepstow and galvanised in Newport by Mabey Bridge Ltd to replace the one destroyed by Russian bombing – a strange feeling to think that the bridge, too, came from Newport!
The road tunnel under the Trialeti Ridge is presently closed for repairs so we took the mountain route which added to the length of the journey but made it even more attractive.
When, in mid afternoon, we arrived at Kutaisi’s new Hotel Bagrati we were very warmly welcomed by a large gathering of friends led by Professor Madonna Megrelishvili and after many hugs and the presentation of flowers we were allowed a brief rest. The Hotel Bagrati is another result of the huge construction programme currently taking place in the city. With friendly staff and excellent facilities, we were told that it will help meet the needs of the increasing number of tourists and business people who are now visiting Kutaisi and Imereti and that another 200 bed hotel is presently being built.
Later that evening we were taken for dinner at the stylish Literary Café and during the meal we had our first opportunity to meet the many members of the Kutaisi Newport International Association who teach English at the University or the English Language Centre. As everyone was seated at tables dotted around the restaurant we moved from table to table to chat to as many of our friends as possible. We had much to talk about and conversation flowed freely -
Madonna had invited members of the Kutaisi Branch of the Soroptimists to join us for the evening and Sonia and Rosemary enjoyed talking to them. Friendly contacts have already been made between the Soroptimists in Newport and Kutaisi and we hope the evening will help further strengthen the link.
Day 2. Sunday 24 October.
On this, our first full day in Kutaisi, we were collected by Madonna, Zaza, Mamuka, and Mirian together with the youngsters Mariami and Natia and Mirian’s daughter Ann and a pleasant young translator named Irena Kobakhidze. Our first stop was the Museum and archaeological site at Vani. Vani, capital of the Colchis civilisation that flourished from the 8th to the 1st centuries BC, is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Europe. After being introduced to the Mayor of Vani we were taken on a tour of the Museum by the Director and, to our delight, we were invited in to the Museum’s strong room where the most magnificent artefacts found at the site, including breathtakingly beautiful gold jewellery, are safeguarded. Then we toured the site.
At this point, Zaza set up a clever `leg-
(reproduction as it turned out) and a Welsh dragon broach – “proving” as Zaza exclaimed “that the Welsh reached Vani two thousand years ago!” Everyone collapsed with laughter! It was typical of our hosts’ great sense of fun – a characteristic that was evident throughout our visit and which made it so exceptionally enjoyable.
We then drove to the country home of Zaza, his wife Tamriko and his children outside Vani. Zaza’s family are a delight and, accompanied by their neighbours and friends, they made us feel at home -
It was a fun-
Day 3. Monday 25 October.
This was a day filled with enjoyable meetings that will be of future benefit to the twinning and here we wish to express our special thanks to Karino Megrelishvili (David’s father) who regularly acted as our driver while we were in Kutaisi.
Our first meeting was at the City Hall with the Governor of Imereti Mr Lasha Makatsaria, the Deputy Governor Mr Giga Shushania, the Mayor of Kutaisi Mr Giorgi Tevdoradze and the Head of the Kutaisi City Council Mr Amiran Khvadagiani, as well as Professor Madonna. Giga and Giorgi were already friends as we had hosted them in Newport a month previously and our translator was Maia Alavidze, one of our closest friends in Kutaisi. Consequently the meeting was far less formal than is often the case on these occasions.
We discussed the success of the twinning over the past twenty years, our future plans and the vast changes that have taken place in both Georgia and Wales in that time. Sonia introduced herself as the new Chair of the NKTA and Derek took the opportunity to thank the Mayor and the Council Leader for honouring him with Honorary Citizenship of Kutaisi.
After leaving the City Centre, we and our translator Natia Zviadadze walked through central Kutaisi in warm sunshine to the Gelati Academy and on the way we stopped in Newport Street to admire the new street sign put up especially for our visit.
The Gelati Academy provides education and training within the Georgian Orthodox Church and the first person to meet us on our arrival was Levan Tkeshalashvili, the young man who was hosted in Newport by Father Mark Soady and Brian and Dianne Cox two years ago.
We were introduced to the new Head of the Academy, Father Michael, and in response to his welcome Rosemary talked about the central role Newport’s church leaders played during the early years of the twinning. Other subjects covered included the Orthodox Church in Wales (we mentioned that the NKTA organised a talk by the Head of the Welsh region of the Orthodox Church in Newport a few years ago) and the growing number of Georgian icons now gracing the walls of St Woolos Cathedral. The discussions ended with Father Michael expressing the hope that he can continue to foster friendly relations between the two cities church leaders. The meeting was followed by refreshments and more informal talks on the balcony overlooking the River Rioni. Our conversation was assisted by Levan and Mamuka, the young man who assists the Academy’s students with their English. Intriguingly, Mamuka speaks English with a Scottish accent having lived in Glasgow for some time, and we wonder if this will have a lasting effect on the English spoken by Georgian Orthodox priests!
Both Levan and Mamuka then joined us, together with another excellent interpreter, Maka Jakanidze, on a visit to Motsameta, the ancient church positioned precariously above a deep gorge through which flows the River Rioni. Motsameta is presently being renovated (another renovation!) and while marvelling at the church and the spectacular views we were met by the father of Anna Chankvetadze, the young student presently studying at Newport University, and her sister Patti. After much talk and laughter, we had to decline Mr Chankvetadze’s kind invitation to visit his house due to lack of time and for the same reason we had to abandon the scheduled visit to Gelati.
We were returned at speed to the crowded office of the Kutaisi Newport International Association where we immediately fell into conversation with such long standing friends as Lyalya Kobeshavidze, Madlen Giorgadze, Tsitsino Todua, Kate Melkadze, Madlen Makhviladze, Rusiko Gvilava, Dr Nana Dzidziguri and the University librarian Giorgi Chichinadze. After a while Madonna asked for silence and after welcoming us once again she invited the Mayor to present KNIA certificates to each member present who had made a special contribution to the Twinning. As this seemed to consist of everyone in the room the presentations lasted some time, augmented with musical interludes by talented young music students. It was a splendid way to thank KNIA members for their dedication and hard work over the past twenty years and fun to see everyone presented with their certificate and applauded as if at a school prize giving.
Without a break, the presentations were followed by a formal meeting with a number of prominent Kutaisi citizens who intend to form the nucleus of the city’s first Rotary Club. The lead speaker was Mr Rezo Robakidze, the recently appointed Chief Finance Officer at the Civic Centre. Rezo is fondly remembered for his study visit of the banks in Newport organised by Sonia a few years ago. Through his interpreter Maka Jajanidze ( the young lady who had visited Motsameta with us earlier) Rezo reported that there was strong support in Kutaisi for the establishment a branch of Rotary and described the progress presently underway that will lead to its formation. In the ensuing general discussion, Sonia said how pleased she was with the progress that has been made given that Rotary has a process that must be followed which will inevitably take some time. She offered to assist in any way necessary.
Then we hurried off to the Meskhishvili State Theatre in the central square for a magnificent Charity Gala Concert. This addition to our programme was included at the last minute and it consisted of a concert performance by some of Georgia’s finest opera singers. The Theatre was full and when, at the end of the concert, Mayor Giorgi Tevdoradze took the stage to thank the singers he also announced that we were in the audience. To our astonishment the audience then applauded us, too. It seemed unwarranted, especially when compared to the magnificent performances we had just heard.
This busy and rewarding day ended with an informal dinner at the home of Vakhtang Khertsuriani and his family. Vakhtang is the brother of Maka Khertsuriani, the Mayor’s wife. Soon we were joined by Maka and Giorgi, Imereti Governor Lasha Makatsaria, Deputy Governor Giga and his wife and Madonna. Vakhtang and his wife made us very welcome, the meal was fabulous and the conversation was lively and interesting. At the end of a lovely evening we felt we were now on closer and even friendlier terms with some of the most important decision makers in Kutaisi and Imereti.
Day 4. Tuesday 26 October.
Tuesday’s programme just read `Batumi Sightseeing with Mamuka and Avtandil` and the weather was perfect for a car ride through western Georgia and an afternoon by the Black Sea. Dr Mamuka Melkadze has visited Newport several times and even worked for a while at the Royal Gwent Hospital. Avtandil is Mamuka’s long standing friend and colleague and we enjoyed making his acquaintance. It was an enjoyable drive, first through the farmlands of Imereti and Guria and then along the coastal road in Adjaria which gave us the occasional glimpse of the sea through the trees. We arrived in Batumi around mid-
Sonia crushing grapes for winemaking at the country home of Dr Zaza Lominadze and his family. Vani.
Dinner at `The Mill`, Tbilisi. Maggie Mandaria, Madona Tkeshelashvili, Maia Abdeladze, Marika Megrelishvili, Sonia, Rosemary and Derek.
Sonia and Rosemary at Kutaisi Fire Station with the firemen dressed in their new uniforms.
Meeting the founding members of Kutaisi Rotary.
Sonia, Rosemary and Derek with priests on the balcony at the Gelati Academy.
Sonia and Rosemary with the members of the Women for Regional Development Group.
The facilities at the recently renovated Kutaisi Fire Station.
The older buildings in the city centre have been either restored or cleaned and the infilling has been carried out with sensitivity and care. The numerous parks are well tended with sparkling fountains, new paths, freshly painted ice cream kiosks and attractive restaurants. After walking through the city centre and along the sea front we ended our visit to this ultra-
Day 5. Wednesday 27 October.
At 10.00a.m. we visited the Akaki Tsereteli State University. Our first meeting was with the Rector, Professor Giorgi Gavtadze and his academic colleagues. Professor Gavtadze began the discussions by talking about his visit to Newport University eleven years or so ago. It was the perfect way to open the discussions and we were pleased to hear that he remembered his visit with such enthusiasm. We talked about the close links between our two Universities and plans that we hope will further strengthen co-
There was little time for this, however, as we then needed to hurry to the Kutaisi Fire Station to meet the Chief Officer and his team of fire fighters, who were lined up outside the recently rebuilt fire station in their uniforms awaiting our arrival and inspection. This was in consequence of the 250 uniforms that were recently given to the Kutaisi firemen by the manufacturing firm `Lion Apparel` after discussions and negotiations involving Deputy Chief Fire Officer Kevin Barry, Rosemary and Sonia. We received a wonderful welcome and handed Kutaisi’s Chief Fire Officer a comradely letter from Chief Officer Andy Marle of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service. We admired the two new fire engines and fire tender parked nearby and after taking many photographs we were invite to look around the station. The new facilities, included offices and sleeping quarters, were superb. We then entered the new conference room and during the speeches the Chief Fire Officer expressed his gratitude for the help already received from Newport and further assistance promised in the future and added that he hoped to meet Kevin Barry in the near future. Finally we were offered refreshments -
In the afternoon we enjoyed a short visit to the L&J Clinic, the clinic where Zaza, Mamuka and Mirian practice. After a conducted tour of the excellent facilities we were escorted to the lecture hall where we were introduced to the many staff by Zaza who described their visit to Newport and the links that have been made between the doctors in Kutaisi and Newport. We each spoke to the assembled staff and Sonia, who has spent her career in the National Health Service, said how much she felt at home in this medical/ clinical environment. Zaza then showed the film he had commissioned which featured our activities since our arrival in Georgia. It included, embarrassingly, the `sensational` finding of `proof` of the two thousand year old contacts between the Welsh and the Colchi and our skill (or lack of it) at wine and katchapuri making and tree planting! The jokes continued when Zaza presented Derek with a framed certificate stating that he had successfully completed a course at the `National Institute of Tamadas` and was now a certified Georgian toastmaster! It was an interesting visit medically – and very entertaining too.
Next on the programme was a concert at the University by students attending the local Music Academy – always one of the highlights of a visit to Kutaisi. There was a large audience and we were seated in the front row where we could only marvel at the high quality of musical talent in the city. The concert opened with a glorious choir of young children in national dress and they were followed by a succession of outstanding young vocalists and instrumentalists. Finally, we were treated to a performance by a choir of young men and women who sang, hummed and whistled their way through a magical and very demanding piece of Georgian music that left everyone stunned – a truly memorable experience which underlined the quality of the programme that Madonna and our friends in the KNIA had arranged for us!
We then went in different directions. Sonia and Rosemary attended a meeting of the `Women for Regional Development Group` while Derek was taken to a football match.
The women’s group was formed in 2007 as part of a European Union funded equalities project. The members represent a coalition of women’s groups and professional bodies and their aim is to promote and develop women’s interests in Georgian civic life. The members each gave short but very interesting presentations about themselves, their achievements and their hopes for the future. Sonia and Rosemary were made Honorary Members and presented with membership armbands (a nice change from membership badges) and both felt an entire day could have been spent discussing issues that affect women in Wales and Georgia (at present there is only one woman on Kutaisi City Council). Hopefully this group will go from strength to strength and enable more women to become decision makers in Georgia.
The football match Derek attended was a `local derby` between Kutaisi and Samtredia. After seeing all the new construction work in the city it came as little surprise to him to find that Kutaisi now has an excellent, newly completed stadium that houses both the local football and athletic teams and can seat 18,000 spectators. Despite Derek’s vocal encouragement the game ended in a draw, although everyone agreed that Kutaisi had by far the best of the game.
The evening ended in the grandest possible manner with the final event of the Kutaisi based programme, the Farewell Dinner in the Hotel Bagrati. It was held in the ballroom and a typically sumptuous suprha was laid out on a massive table that stretched the length of the room. Once seated, we found that we were surrounded by many of the people responsible for providing us with us such a magnificent welcome during the week with our delightful personal translators, Maia Alavidze, Nino Jaradze, Natia Zviadadze and Ziniko Chachnidze seated close by to help us with our conversations and find our way through the ceremonial toasts.
We understood the honour that was being conferred on us when the Mayor assumed the role of Tamada. During the evening Giorgi proposed (with great style) the full, traditional programme of Georgian toasts and as a result our diligent translators spent most of the time working, with little spare time to enjoy the meal. Once again the Mayor stressed how pleased he and the people of Kutaisi are to welcome visitors from Newport and Derek upheld Newport’s honour by taking on much of the responsibility of replying for us while struggling to remain sober.
For us, the highlight of the evening came when the Mayor proposed a special toast to Madonna. The toast praised her for the huge contribution she has made to the city during her lifetime and the Mayor emphasised how pleased everyone was that Madonna had agreed to accept an Honorary Citizenship – an honour she has been offered several times in the past but had felt unable to accept. Everyone rose to their feet to speak in support of the toast – a demonstration of how highly Madonna is regarded in Kutaisi and beyond.
At the end of the evening our friends gathered round to tell us how much they had enjoyed our visit while we responded by attempting to thank them adequately for their wonderful and unforgettable welcome.
Day 6. Thursday 28 October.
The morning of our last day in Kutaisi was taken up in informal discussions. Sonia met Soso Khakhaleishvili from the Kutaisi Office of the Local Democracy Agency to discuss the forthcoming ALDA meeting in Malcaforne while Derek spoke to his old friend, Konstantin (Kota) Charkhalashvili, Head of Tourism in Imereti.
Kota told Derek how, for many years, his chief problem was the lack of tourists coming to the area but how the problem has now changed to one of lack of accommodation to meet the rapidly growing number of tourists. A more positive form of challenge – but a major challenge nevertheless!
Then Rosemary, Madonna and Derek took a short stroll in the city centre during which they were pleased to meet, and chat with, several people who had visited Newport in the past and they discussed a wide range of topics while sitting together on a park bench in the sunshine.
Finally, when the time came for us to leave we were waved off by a large group of truly marvellous friends.
We were driven back to Tbilisi by Mamuka, again noting the `made in Newport` bridge near Gori. On our arrived in Tbilisi we visited the breast cancer awareness clinic where Eka, Mamuka’s wife, works and met Mata, Eka’s younger sister. They asked us to join them for dinner and later they collected us from our hotel and, together with Mata and Dato ( Mamuka and Eka’s young son), we were taken to a highly sophisticated restaurant on the top floor of the Radisson Hotel from which there are spectacular views over floodlit Tbilisi. It was another unforgettable experience and we can’t thank Mamuka and Eka enough for the generosity and kindness they showed us during the week. However it wasn’t the last time we were to see Mamuka, Eka and Mata before leaving for home!
Day 7. Friday 29 October
On Friday, Marika met us at our hotel and took us to the newly opened British Embassy to meet the recently appointed Ambassador, Judith Gough. Entrance to the Embassy takes some time due to the formidable security but eventually we, together with Marika, were met by Sophiko Katsarava, the Ambassador’s assistant who has given so much help to the twinning in the past and she introduced us to the Ambassador (but not before Marika had presented Sophiko with one of the KNIA certificates for services to twinning!)
The talks with the Ambassador were interesting. She was pleased to hear about the extensive and long standing kinship between Newport and Kutaisi and, given Georgia’s regional difficulties, commented on the value of links between a Georgian city and a Welsh city. She stressed the need to encourage links between British and Georgian business people and was glad to hear that the Rotary Club in Newport was providing help and advice in the establishing of a Rotary Club in Kutaisi. The Ambassador also appeared impressed when we told her of the close relationship between the two cities universities and doctors, the gift of firemen’s uniforms from NKTA and `Lion Apparel` and the training being provided to Kutaisi firemen by the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.
When asked when she would be visiting Kutaisi she replied that she has asked for a series of visits to be arranged for her that would take in all parts of the country including the cities and towns of western Georgia. The Ambassador asked us if we would let her have extra NKTA badges for her diplomatic colleagues and then took us on a tour of the Embassy -
We then met Nick and Madona T and together with Madona’s cheerful driver (an icon painter!) we were taken to yet another good restaurant with splendid views overlooking Tbilisi (daytime views this time!) for lunch – where Marika handed Nick and Madona their own KNIA certificates for meritorious service!
Later Madona and Nick took us on a tour of Tbilisi. The brave amongst us took a scary trip on the ferris wheel situated at the summit of the mountain overlooking the city and we were taken for a ride on the Tbilisi metro. Finally we admitted exhaustion and asked if we could have a short rest in our hotel before dinner.
It was our last evening in Georgia and our thoughtful hosts had chosen the perfect venue – a `Georgian` restaurant with traditional décor and food and live music and folk dancing. To add to our enjoyment, we, together with Madona, Nick and Marika, were joined by Maggie Mandaria and Maia Abdeladze. Maggie we had met in Kutaisi earlier in the week but seeing Maia was a pleasant surprise as Rosemary and Derek have known and been in regular contact with her for the last twenty years. Oddly enough, during the evening Sonia enquired about a man in a red dragon costume on the far side of the restaurant and he told her he was from Exeter, not Wales, and that he was a member of an ex-
Day 8. Saturday 30 October.
Fearful that the hotel staff would forget to call us at four a.m., none of us slept and we were ready and waiting when Madona T and her icon painting driver collected us and drove us to the airport in the rain – the first rain we had seen all week. On the way, Madonna M phoned from Kutaisi to check that all her arrangements were being followed (at five o’clock in the morning!) When we were at the airport and about to thank Madona T one last time before going through to the departure lounge, Mamuka, Eka and Mata arrived to help see us off, a typical example of the kindness they always show us -
We hope this Report conveys something of the amazingly warm welcome we received during our visit and the importance of the twinning link in Kutaisi. We had the chance to meet many old friends and make many new ones and the week was full of fun and interest. We held a series of discussions on ways to reinforce the friendship between our two cities and returned with an invitation from the Kutaisi Mayor Giorgi Tevdoradze to the Mayor of Newport Bill Langsford and his wife Sue, together with Sonia, to visit Kutaisi next May.
We now look forward to reporting back to NKTA members and working with them and KNIA members to achieve many of the projects proposed during the visit.
Sonia Fisher, Chair of NKTA