When visiting a country whose very alphabet is based on the shapes of grapevines, it seemed downright irresponsible not to go visit its wine country, so early one Thursday morning, we caught a marshrutka to Sighnaghi. In the far eastern side of the country, approaching the Azerbaijan border, this little town has become a hub for wine tourists coming to Georgia to experience the ancient wine culture that rivals Armenia’s. Mostly perched on a high hill above the fertile valleys below, it was the perfect place to spend a couple relaxing days.
Of course, there were many pleasant hours spent wandering the maze of cobbled lanes through the back streets and little parks, but we also made sure to do some proper sightseeing. The old city fortess, whose walls are still intact, wrapping around the back of the town provided a morning’s climb through its battlements. We also passed the famous lion statue on the way to sampling mounds of delicious, traditional Georgian foods in the clocktower square restaurants.
On our second afternoon, we hiked the 3 kilometers over to the nearby Bodbe Monastery, one of the holiest sites in all of Georgia (in a country where half the people on the bus will cross themselves passing every church, that is saying something). Saint Nino, credited with illuminating all Georgians lived, died, and was buried here and many pilgrims also come to bathe in the holy spring that the saint blessed. After checking out the monastery, we walked down the kilometer of stairs to see the holy spring…and there was a long line of people waiting for their turn to wash in the provided bathhouse! It was all very organized by the attendant nuns. There was no line for the free-flowing holy spring drinking water, so we filled our bottle and had a cool drink before climbing back up all those stairs.
The next morning, we headed out again with the intent of getting to the medieval capitol of Gremi. First, we rode the minibus to a highway intersection, where they let us out and pointed in the opposite direction. Good thing we are practiced hitchhikers by now! A friendly glass seller pulled over and gave us a lift as far as his town, where we were able to catch another ride to Kvareli, hometown to one of Georgia’s most celebrated writers, Ilia Chavchavedze. Say that ten times fast. We rested in the little park forest on the edge of town before catching a ride in a passing marshrutka to Gremi. Once in Gremi, we asked around for a guesthouse…first, we were taken to the local school by mistake, and then taken to a lovely brand new homestay. The owner’s granddaughter was about to enter 12th grade and spoke English with rapidfire decency. She directed us to the local village church, as well as telling us the best time to go visit the castle. Oh, and help ourselves to all the figs we can eat.
As evening approached, following the advice of the granddaughter, we made our way to the old Royal Residence and the attached Archangel Church. Perched on a natural outcroup of rock that overlooks the valley, it looks a bit like a castle from a Disney movie. Inside, there was a church service in full swing on this Saturday evening, so we ducked into the museum, instead (I didn’t have a hair cover). Inside the old castle, they have preserved many artifacts from the time that this was the capitol of Khakheti region and home of the local king. They had even recreated the king’s toilet! Up in the tower, we also had a flawless view of the surrounding area. As the sun finally started to set, we made our way back to our homestay, where our dinner was set out by our hosts and they poured us glasses of their homemade white wine. The granddaughter sat with us, relaxing in the twilight and told us about her dreams of studying in Tbilisi and eventually going to see Chicago and Miami someday.
The next morning, we were back on the road and back to our hitchhiking ways. A father-son duo picked us up and brought us to Telavi, the current capitol of Khakheti district. After hunting down a bank, we walked up into town. By stopping into one of the local wine guilds, we were able to go see the former summer palace of a local 19th century Renaissance man by the name of Alexandyr Chavchavedze, his gardens, and two different wineries. At the second one, Shumi Winery, we also had a tasting of their wines which had won 6 gold medals at international competitions within the past year.
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking around Alaverdi Monastery, where they had a very strict policy about people’s dress…Sangbyeong had to put on trousers, and I had to put on a head scarf and wrap skirt. The monastery has some glorious frescoes, but their camera policy is as strict as the dress code. Ah well. We got yet another lift back into town with two very nice ladies and spent the remainder of the time before dinner looking around Telavi’s town center. Dinner itself was served at our homestay…the host loved to pour his homemade wine and make toasts. I was SO grateful that there was a couple from Moscow who could translate the Russian for us! Toasts! For women, wine, friendship, political friendships, three for sacred places…then he recited poetry. It comes from the Georgian tradition of a supra, or feast, where there is a toastmaster, called a tamuda. This person must be able to make eloquent and elaborate toasts, sing, dance, recite in multiple languages…all while drinking twice as much as the rest of the guests!
The next morning, we were provided with breakfast by the host family again…this time without wine, but the old gentleman still had a lot of life advice and aphorisms to deliver over our toast and tea. Sated with both conversation and the perpetually good food, we loaded our bags into the Russian couple’s car and they drove us to the marshrutka station so that we could make our way onto Akhmeda and the next step of our adventure.