The hilly backcountry of Mtskheta and Jvari revealed me only a glimpse of this wonderful country and I was yearning to see more. This backpacking trip in Georgia was going as planned. A trip to the eastern side, the rural wine growing region of Kakheti is a must for anyone visiting Georgia. This is a land of bountiful vineyards, glorious Christian churches and royal castles of the yesteryear and some of the friendliest people you will ever come across in your life.
The marshrutky (minibus) to Telavi, a city in Khaketi, leaves from the Ortachala Station in Tbilisi similar to the one I took from Didube to go to Mtskheta. Ortachala has mini-buses traveling to Khaketi, and beyond the borders of Russia, Armenia, Turkey and so on.
The ride to Telavi is 7 GEL($3) for a seat and takes about 2-3 hours across the countryside. The roads are good closer to Tbilisi but get worse further to Kakheti and the in-betweens. Large fields of cash crops, grape farms, old Georgian men drawing horse carts, road vendors at popular stops and trucks carrying a boatload of grapes was my scenery en route.
The Alazani Valley
Georgia is one the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. Some dating back to 8000 years comparable easily or sometimes better than the Italian and French counterparts. And Kakheti is the country’s best wine-producing region called the Alazani Valley.
The ride was long and I was pegged to the single window seat by the side gazing at the striking views that passed by me. I kept thinking in my mind that I would definitely not mind retiring and settling here, if I was given a chance. The Greater Caucasus mountains form the natural backdrop to the grand landscape. Though the mountains seemed distant and far away, you could touch it with your mind’s eye. The valley is splendid to the eye, with the splashes of color that are thrown at you; blue skies, white clouds, warm yellow fields at some places, green lavish vineyards, old trees and woody pine forests at some parts.
I got dropped at the town center of Telavi. It was going to be my base to move around and visit some of Kakheti’s historical sites. Telavi is on the cusp of development and so there’s a lot of work happening here in terms of road construction and new buildings coming up.
I booked a place on booking.com and hiked to this lovely single-story cottage by the name of Wine House. It was a short walk away and situated high up on the hilly interior roads overlooking the entire town. The hosts were non-English speakers but that did not deter me from having a good time communicating with them. I made good use of Google translate to speak Georgian which worked like a charm every time.
The hostess showed me to my little room upstairs. There was an old Soviet-era feel to the house. Wide colored walls, wooden interiors, a piano in the living and wallpapered walls in the rooms, oh yes, and a box tv in the room. A small balcony from the dining opens up to the view of the snow-covered Caucasus mountains and there was a vineyard right in the backyard with a picnic table.
I enquired about finding a guide to show me around Kakheti. I could probably move around alone but that would take a lot of time and two days is too short. The lady rang up the local tourism office. I had to visit the office in the morning the next day and everything would be taken care of. They then offered me a small bottle of homemade wine, a plate of nuts and some freshly plucked grapes from the farm. I felt so welcome and at home in a country not my own.
A storm was brewing in the skies that evening and I decided to take a walk down to the town center to find some local Telavian delicacies. The hosts at the homestay suggested me to visit Bravo Restaurant downtown to taste some the region’s exquisite food. I placed an order for a plate of Khachapuri, a traditional Georgian bread stuffed and baked with cheese and eggs. A Georgian pizza of sorts yet distinct in flavor and topped the meal with a glass of local wine.
Tour of Kakheti
The hosts were kind enough to include breakfast with the stay and I woke up to a healthy yet lavish Georgian spread ready for me in the kitchen. I walked up to the local tourism office. All I had to do was to pick a guide and decide what I wanted to see for the day. I was going to be alone and it was a way for me get to know the Georgians better. They have guides on call and they’d be ready to come and pick you up on your call. Mine was there in ten minutes.
- For the whole tour, he charged me 60GEL ($20) which I thought was very, very reasonable.
“Gamarjoba (hello), speak English”, I asked? With the little Georgian, I had now picked up. I open the google translate app. “Of course”, he said.
But I wanted to converse in Georgian. It was exciting to learn a new language and converse in it. I said, “I am Induri (Indian)”. The man was quite elated hearing that. We spoke a mixture of English and Georgian and were off on the curvy roads of the Gombori range of mountains.
There is a 5th-century aura to the place. I bought candles, paying a small token for the people who sell them outside. Beyond a carved door, a narrow cobbled alleyway leads up to an age-old monastery campus amidst tall deciduous trees. The guide tells me there are two monasteries here, the Dzveli which translates to “old” and the Akhali, which is the “new” one a little down the hill. And Shuamta means “in the mountains”. Both interconnected with hidden tunnels which were used in times of war. A nun asked us to maintain silence. I light and place the candles at the entrance of the basilica. The air is filled with prayers, while I break into mine.
We move on, to another monastery built by Assyrian fathers in the 6th century. This place became the cultural, spiritual and educational center of Georgia by the 11th century. Torn down stone structures, wine cellars, and even an academy along with the churches are spread across this property. Shota Rustaveli, a famous Georgian poet is said to have studied here. Large clay vessels and jars which were used for storing wine was seen lying around, some of them broken, some still intact. My guide walks me through the ruins of what is left in the yard. There are three churches here and all of them have been restored well.
We descended from the mountains to the open fields. Vines hang on either side of the road and I see a large cathedral complex from afar as we were fast approaching it. “This is Alaverdi“, the guide said, loosely translated to “Given by God”. The monastery resembles a fort and was completed between the 6th and 11th century. Another example of medieval Georgian Kakhetian architecture. Some parts of it were destroyed and redone by the Persian Shahs who raided this part of Georgia. Inside the campus, there are vineyards, a winery that is claimed to be a thousand years old, horse stables and public baths. The interior of the cathedral is painted with colorful frescoes and murals from the bygone medieval times and the church has a dome as high as the heavens could reach. Alaverdi is famous for the grape-harvest festival called Alaverdoba.
The guide asked, “some vino (wine) now?”. He drives me to a place nearby, set amidst the vineyards that we saw beside the highway. It was a wine cellar and they offered a brilliant tour of Georgian winemaking traditions after which I sat down for an hour tasting the different types of Saperavi wine with local cheese and traditional Georgian bread. Historically wine was made in clay vessels or jars called Qvevris.
We drove through some the scenic roads across the land, the skies were clear blue by noon with the bright sun while some scattered clouds lingered around the surface. He stopped by the road for a minute and said he would be back in a moment.
“Best grapes you can get in Georgia”, he said while offering me a green bunch. I responded with, madloba (thank you), and smiled. Slowly popping them in one by one.
We reach Gremi, a castle, and a church both sit atop of a hill. Gremi was the citadel of the Kakhetian kings and they built this overlooking the land they once ruled, with a three-story castle attached to a church, called the Church of the Archangels, a proud symbol of Georgian cultural and religious history.
I walk into the castle, winding narrow stairs lead up to the tower. Small pigeon windows open up to super scenic 360 degree views of the entire region. The castle itself hosts a vault room of history, artifacts, and collectibles of the life and times of the royalty that lived here and even included a pearl-studded crown. The church was built by King Levan of Kakheti in 1565. The stucco and frescoes in the church were a treat to the eye, some faded away in the sands of time. The arms of a bright candlelit chandelier rise above the altar. By far the most magnificent of the churches I saw in Georgia.
- The entry is 3GEL ($1.2)
The final destination for the day and we drive to the bottom of a really steep hill covered in the thick woods of the Alazani Valley. There is the Alazani river flowing by and a check post stops us. The monastery can only be visited on foot or by the church minibus which departs at various times of the day for 1 GEL per head. I choose to take the minibus as it was a long day to climb all the way above. Like the other monasteries I had visited over the day, Nekresi monastery had several historical buildings rising one above the other in the steep mountainscape, a bishop’s palace, three small churches built over different periods and a tall tower. The views are stunning and you could stare endlessly at the horizon from here. Nekresi is historically significant as it is said to have withstood the Arab and Persian invaders of the East preserving the Orthodox Christian traditions of the land.
Calming views and the Kakhetian sunset
I had a great day and my guide said there’s just one more place I needed to go to and it would be a perfect day. A good place to relax, have a good meal and enjoy views of a nice Kakhetian sunset. It was the best viewpoint in all of Telavi and a local restaurant called the Nadikvari Terrace sits on top. I couldn’t have had asked for a better end to the day. We bid goodbyes with a hug and he told me to enjoy the beauty of Georgia. I was truly blown away by the warmth and generous hospitality of the people of Kakheti, living true to every word that was said about them. Everyone leaves a lasting impression on you.
To end the magical evening, I got myself a bowl of Georgian meat soup, a specialty dish of the region. I sat there as the skies turned orange to blue to black and the cold northern winds blew from the mountain tops far away. It was the end of summer and the advent of autumn, the September equinox. The dew was settling in on the grass as the stars shined through the Caucasian skyline. I didn’t want it to end, this real Kakhetian dream with Utopian landscapes.
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