Immediately to the north of Kutaisi is the small province of Racha (or Racha- Lekhumi), along the upper reaches of the Rioni River. Hemmed in by mountains up to 3,600m, it's a beautiful area which is mild enough in summer to produce both wine and tea (actually here is located the district of Kvanchkhara, known for its wine, which everyone will proudly tell you was Stalin's favourite), but so harsh in winter that most of the population move temporarily to the lowlands. This historic province contains an area of 2,468 sq. km and has a winter population of 30,000.
Rachans have a reputation for being particularly proud and fierce, as well as for producing some of the best chiefs in all Georgia. The people are known for their strong traditional culture, with superb icons and honey and a unique genre of bagpipe music. Racha is also becoming known as a great venue for adventure tourism.
The main road runs from Kutaisi along the Rioni past Ambrolauri, the chief town of Racha, to Oni, and then over a pass (open all year) to Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, although this route should not be attempted by foreign visitors in the current political climate.
Racha itself is most famous for the magnificent and important 11-th century St. Nicholas Church in the village of Nikortsminda.
By far the greatest attraction of Racha is 15km to the south of Ambrolauri, at Nikortsminda, where there's a beautifully decorated little church set on a hillock on the edge of the village. Buses run several times a day from Ambrolauri, crossing the bridge south from the bus station and labouring up a modernised road to reach the village on a high limestone plateau; it's also possible to come directly from Kutaisi, taking a bus past Gelati to the logging town of Tqibuli and continuing by marshrutka on the Ambrolauri road up a winding road to a pass (a great spot for advanced paragliders) and past the Sauris Reservoir to Nikortsminda, 40km and 50 minutes from Tqibuli. Given the winding road, you should plan this as a full-day trip; given the nature of the stone carving on the facade of the church, be sure to take a pair of binoculars.
The Church of St. Nicholas
Built in 1010-14 during the reign of King Bagrat III, the Church of St. Nicholas is, in its way, as important a monument as many of its more accessible contemporaries such as Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Alaverdi in Kakheti, or Sveti-tskhoveli in Kartli. In ground-plan conception, it bears greatest resemblance to the six-apsed domed church of Kumurdo in Javakheti, built just 16 years earlier. As in Kumurdo, the multi-apsed plan of the interior is camouflaged by the cruciform shape of the exterior. Tight and tidy hexagonal internal ground plan was slightly spoiled in the mid-11th century by the addition of porches to the west and south, and a chapel to the south, which has a curved west end and Romanesque-style round arches. There was a porch to the north, but this has gone (there's a wooden pole in the way instead). None of this has interfered with the external carvings on all four facades.
The transitional solution created by the incorporation of the tenth-Century paradigm of the six-apsed centralized structure into the 11th-century innovation of the cross shape is unique to Kumurdo and Nikortsminda.
Dissimilarities certainly exist between the two structures; for example in the radial projection of the north and south pairs of apses in Nikortsminda and the existence of closed rooms in the south and west instead of the ambulatory at Kumurdo. The greatest difference, however, is found in the facades. Nikortsminda is most famous for the quality, lavishness, plasticity, and organization of the carving on its facade, which ranks among the best examples of this kind of carving any where in Georgia during the Middle Ages. Kumurdo, on the other hand, is notable for the absence of elaborate decoration.
The detractors of Nikortsminda hold that in its overall harmony and proportions and in its aspiration toward some kind of soaring sublimity, it falls short of the ideal realized at Sveti-tskhoveli, the Cathedral of Bagrat, antl Alavcrdi. Critics point to the awkwardness of the porticoes in the west and south walls, built in the first half of the 11th century, slightly later than the church. The broad and massive drum of the cupola is also considered a drawback, as is the irregularity of the arches and windows under the gable of the south facade. (Blind arcading is symmetrical else-where.) Despite these objections, most observers will agree that the quality of the stone carving and the nature of the reliefs are extraordinary. We are lucky that they also happen to be in an excellent state of preservation.
The finest is a figure of Christ on the north wall, above three perfectly proportioned blind arches. Generally, the main theme of the carvings is the glory of Christ and His return on Judgment Day. The following scenes are found under the gables and in the tympana over the portals. Under the gable of the south facade, set off between two windows surrounded by elaborately carved rosettes, is either the Ascension of Christ or His return on Judgment Day. He is surrounded by four angels, two of whom hold trum-pets. The tympanum relief above the south portal is of the Exaltation of the Cross. Above the west door in the tympanum is a scene of Christ between the mounted warrior saints Theodore and George. St. George, on Christ's left, is striking down the Roman Emperor Diocletian, whose persecution of Christians led to St. George's death in AD 303. The inscription in the frame over this scene, in the Georgian Asomtavruli alphabet, refers to King Bagrat III and his son Giorgi I.
Under the east gable is a scene of the Transfiguration of Christ set off by an ornamental frame. On either side are St. Theodore and St. George, both on horse-back. On the west side, beneath the gable, is Christ enthroned, with right hand raised and left hand holding a book. Where mounted saints were located on the east facade, there are two Liny windows elaborated with rosettes. In the tympanum above the north portal are two archangels crossing standards.
The relief under the gable on the north side has disappeared. The interesting emphasis on the mounted warrior-saint in the overall composition seems to speak especially to the fierce spirit of the people of this mountainous province. In execu-tion, the reliefs under the gables and those in the tympanum are quite different. The former have an almost archaic, static quality but a great vividness, the latter a much greater plasticity and dynamism.
Bird, animal, and floral motifs predominate elsewhere. The birds and animals are largely fantastic creatures such as griffins and winged horses and lions. They reveal the loving integration of folk and pagan themes into the Christian iconography. Their presence is most notable in the band around the drum: of the 48 originally carved, only 29 remain.
Inside, the hexagonal plan produces six apses radiating from the centre (instead of the usual four in the shape of a cross) which are all identical except that the eastern one (above the very simple blue-painted iconostasis) is marginally longer, and the western one leads into the porch. The dome is set on a splendid drum without squinches, pierced by 12 slim windows with finely carved architraves. The interior was fully painted in the 16th and 17th centuries, with the life of Christ (starting with the Nativity to the right of the entrance, together with a modern icon of the church's patron, St Nicholas) and portraits of local notables. The Annunciation is over the arch of the eastern apse, with Christ in Majesty beyond that; see also the wooden model church incorporated into the altar. The detached bell-tower, with its fireplace and spiral staircase, was added in the second half of the 19th century.
A restoration of the church occurred in 1534, and the frescoes of the interior date from the 16th and 17th centuries; they were originally commissioned by a local feudal lord named Tsulukidze and probably executed by painters from the Gelati monastery.