We are now heading to a marvelous province of wine-making in Georgia – Kakheti which is just two-three hours drive from Tbilisi. The main points on our way are Gurjaani and Telavi. Kakheti is rich of interesting places and historical monuments. It will be good to a bit change our route and go to Signagi, Qvareli and Lagodekhi.
The route looks as follows: Tbilisi – Sagarejo -50km, Sagarejo - Gurjaani – 65km, Gurjaani – Telavi – 40km.
We start our way to the heart of Kakheti, the Alazani Valley from the left bank part of Tbilisi, in its eastern part and going by the Kakheti highway. Our route passes the Iori tableland. Summer is hot, dry and winter almost with no snow at all here.
The Gombori range divides Kakheti into two: Internal and Outer (Gare and Shida Kakheti). Before approaching the range we have to pass a small township Sagarejo. The closer we go to the Gombori range, the more villages we pass, many of which are very well known allover Georgia. Here we are in the village of Patardzeuli, the native place of a famous Georgian poet, Gogla Leonidze. The village Manavi is known for its grapes, which is used for producing a fine white wine with the same name "Manavi”. Today a well-known Georgian wine company is working in the village. After the village Badiauri (81st km) the road starts dodging in wooded spurs of the Gombori range. It is a kingdom of forest giants: beech and hornbeam. Tall, erect hornbeams reach width in several girths. Dense crowns do not let the sun beams through.
Signagi town lies in between the Inner and Outer Kakheti (98th km) – an old, extremely picturesque town. It is built on terraces connected with each other by steep, winding streets. The facades of old houses are decorated originally. The town is surrounded with a well maintained fortress wall of triangular shape with towers and gates in it. Kiziki region did not know serfdom as many highland provinces in Georgia. Most probably, that is the reason so many outstanding representatives of history and culture were born on this land.
The first stage of rehabilitation of the town is over. It implied rehabilitation and improvement of the street of Baratashvili and the Graiz Square and laying underground communication systems. Just in three months time, in the end of October Signagi expects first tourists.
"It will be possible to receive tourists beginning October when new hotels and restaurants open in Signagi. It is planned to organize a wine festival by then. An ethnographic museum is opening in the town in the fall. It will be possible to see paintings of Pirosmani there to say nothing of the monasteries of St.Nino and Khirsa and the Khornabuja Fort. But as Zaza Zedelashvili, deputy to the Signagi Gamgebeli said, however, the main thing to see in Signagi in the fall is Vintage!
In October, you’ll see the exhibition hall of a local painter John Wardman, his old house and numerous old museum items like carpets, embroidery, etc along with his own paintings.
Several high level hotels are being built in the central part of the town. The first hotel completed will be able to receive visitors only by the end of October. Meanwhile, a number of guest houses are at service of visitors. Average price for a night stay is 15-20 GEL. Hotel services, food included, will amount to 35-40 GEL.
A few turns more and a tourist sees the huge mosaic of the Alazani Valley. It is stretched along the river flow at 150km. The valley is distinguished with extremely soft and healthy climate. The right bank of the Alazani from the settlement of Akhmeta to the Khirsa village is the territory all covered with vineyards cherished by industrious dwellers of Kakheti. Kakhetians are rather slow, of business-like character, reserved to show their feelings. They are hospitable, not persistent.
Their hardiness and maybe even suspiciousness can be explained by the history of this province. Kakheti more than others were subjected to invasions, more than others suffered from yoke of enemies. Many times invaders drove people away from their lands and resettled them in a foreign land. The first thing invaders did was setting fire to vineyards. The vine-tree used to be life, wealth and fame of Kakheti. There was no life without vine for Kakhetians. Peasants defended their right to live with arms in their hands, restoring vineyards for centuries anew. It is not a mere chance that Kakhetian villages stand close to one another, house next to another house, village by village. It was easier to defend themselves jointly against uninvited strangers.
The villages along the road Bakurtsikhe, Vedjini, Chandari are surrounded with orchards and gardens forming a continuous street more than of 40 kilometers length. Houses stand with their back sides to the streets, walls are of brick and rubble. This is old Kakhetian technique of building reminding twisted plait of vine-trees. Verandahs and balconies overlook inner yards. Under the each house there are wine- cellars. As a rule there are lines of ceramic pots of different size dug under the ground "qvevris”. Their size may be quite big enabling two men go into to wash the pots before filling with wine. Many houses are twined all over with vine trees. Some reaching immense sizes, object of pride for their owners.
Each village in Inner Kakheti is growing a specific sort of grapes and its own wine with original flavor and aroma. Names of similar fine wines and brands as Tsinandali, Akhmeta, Manavi, Kardanakhi, Gremi, Enisseli and others are names of villages in Inner Kakheti.
Everybody in Kakheti live in expectation of Rtveli – time of vintage. The vintage period is not only period of hard work which ends the agricultural year. It is a common feast. Everywhere on the balconies and in the attics grapes and churchkhelas (delicious sweets made of grape juice and nuts on a thread like beads) are hanging to dry. In free time, villagers make shashliks on fire and drink "machari”, plenty of young wine and toast-masters propose toasts traditionally to everyone individually around the table.
Proceeding further we come to Gurjaani, an old settlement mentioned in old Georgian manuscripts and folklore. The " Gurjaani” fine wine was produced here in the Gurjaani winery. There is a two- dome church of VIII-IX centuries to see here. Akhtala spa famous for its medicinal volcanic mud is located in the outskirts of Gurjaani used for baths, application, etc. The spa receives patients all year round for treatment of motor system disorder, peripheral nervous system problems and gynecological diseases.
After Gurjaani we go to the village Chumlaki and old village Velistsikhe (123rd km). Both sides of the road are covered with vineyards; each plot on this land giving raw for wine differing from each other. On the left side driving further we see land of the former Mukuzani winery. The cellars of the winery produced dry light wine, which together with "Napareuli”, "Saperavi” was able to compete with the best French wines from Burgundy as "Clau” and "Shateou”.
At 30 kilometers distance from Gurjaani there is a village Tsinandali on the steep bank of the river Kissiskhevi where an old country estate is standing. It belonged to the poet, general and public man of XIX century Alexander Chavchavadze. Today a museum is there. There is a wonderful park around the house in the English style built by its owner. The house was frequently hosting officers of the army of Tsar exiled to the Caucasus. Russian writer, Alexander Griboedov was member of the family; there is a chapel in which the poet and daughter of the family Nina Chavchavadze were wedded. When Griboedov was killed in Persia where he served as envoy of Russia, his widow buried him in Tbilisi, on the Mount of David (Mtatsminda), later she herself was buried next to her beloved husband. Her devotedness and love has become part of legends. The grave is still there in the pantheon of Georgian public men on Mtatsminda.
Another daughter of the General Chavchavadze, Ekaterine was the last ruler of the historical province of Georgia Megrelia, princess Dadiani. One of the sightseeing of Tsinandali is the oldest winery in Georgia with immense cellars full of giant size barrels, in which wine is distilled for years.
Telavi is a city of many centuries’ history, since XVI century it was the capital of Kakhetian Kingdom. There is a fort in its center with a high wall around and towers in the corners. It is Telavi fortress the former residence of the Kings of Kakheti. Behind the walls in the palace belonging to Irakli II there are many objects of cultural and historical destination. The walls of the fort overlook a wonderful view of the valley. On the mountain slopes and green woods we still see forts and temples, which create a stone defense circle around the old city of Kakheti. The village Iqalto is under the walls of the Iqalto Monastery of VI century more known as Iqalto Academy. Buildings of different epoch have come down to our times, the main church of Transfiguration (VIII-IX). In the south part of the Monastery we see ruins of the refectory and the famous Iqalto Academy established in XI century and destroyed by the army of Shah Abbas in 1616. According to the legend, the great Georgian poet of XII century, Shota Roustaveli studied at the Academy of Iqalto. The day of Shota "Shotaoba” is celebrated every year on one of the Sundays in November.
At 16 kilometers distance from Telavi on the way to the regional center, Qvareli travelers see ruins of the old capital of Kakheti Gremi. Ruins of royal palace surrounded with strong fort walls and the main temple are towering the rock; in the latter one can still see remains of mural painting. The acropolis is surrounded with ruins of living houses, market, churches and bath-houses.
To the north of Telavi at 13th kilometer in the center of the Alazani Valley we can see the greatest temple of medieval Georgia – Alaverdi. Times ago it was one of the tallest buildings in the world (76m) and during the centuries is has been restored in XV and XVIII centuries. Alaverdi as well as other cathedrals in Kakheti is almost deprived of all decors however, it still makes a strong impression thanks to its immense sizes and harmony and the stretched high in the sky accentuated dome. Three oldest churches of Old Shuamta (V-VII cc) and the New Shuamta (XVI c) active Nunnery are the most interesting places to see are at 7 kilometers to the south-west from Telavi. The latter was built by the Queen Tina, daughter of the ruler of Guria. When a child she had a dream that she would have to build an orthodox church. In her dream she saw the place of the future church to be built but she was not told where the place was. And, only later when she was married to the Prince of Kakheti, Levan she the Queen of Kakheti saw the site during her travel in Georgia. The Monastery which was built on her initiative gave her shelter when she later decided to take the veil.
Almost every village in Kakheti has some architectural masterpiece or individual sight to show. Near the village Napareuli ruins of an irrigation system were discovered which provided Gremi with water. In the Bodbe village, in the outskirts of Signagi there is an oldest nunnery complex where, according to the tradition, St. Nino, enlightener of Georgians is buried. Near the Nunnery there is a spring of St.Nino which is a place of worship for many Christian believers and tourists keep coming to it. There are ruins of the stronghold Bakhtrioni not far from the Alaverdi Cathedral. Two picturesque villages are situated next to the fortress – Kvemo and Zemo Alvanis i.e. Upper and Lower Alvanis. Villagers are famous for their hand made worsted wool items: carpets, horse-cloths, carpet-bags. Economic center of the left bank part of the central Kakheti is a green, cozy and light township Qvareli. A sort of grapes is growing and produced in the outskirts for production of a semi-sweet red wine "Kindzmarauli” with original flavor and aroma. At several kilometers from the town, in the gorge of Chala an artificial lake is situated under which in the depth of the rock there is one of the largest wine storehouses in the world. The main hall of the wine-collection is at the length of fifteen drifts making 7.5 kilometers deep under the marble rock. A very beautiful view opens from the top of the mountain over Qvareli, home town of the outstanding writer and public man Illia Chavchavadze. He is reckoned among the saints by the Orthodox Church of Georgia. In October his birthday is the day of common celebration conducted in his house, a museum today.
The end of our route is Lagodekhi, center of the richest agricultural region at 44th km from Qvareli. Leaving Lagodekhi we are in the Lagodekhi reserve – the first national park in the Tsar’s Russia opened in 1912. The forests are rich of non-coniferous species of trees, beech and hornbeam, higher spruce and fir-tree and millennial yew-trees. The woods are rich of diverse species of birds singing of which fills the area all year round. At the height of 2000 meters sub-alpine meadows start going up to alpine highland. In the deep gorges and rocky mountain tops one may see Caucasian goats, aurochs and chamois; there are many bears and wild boars, even lynx in the forests. The number of red deer and roe deer is increasing annually.
The national park is being developed, new routes are being laid and places to stay for tourists built.