Archives for posts with tag: Kakheti

Original Post, March 9, 2012:
My friend came to visit me here in Kakheti last weekend, and we decided to go on a daytrip to the tourist town of Sighnaghi.  We tried to go on Saturday, but had a false start on the marshrutka and got tired of waiting so we returned to my house (since then I have found this fabulous online marshrutka timetable for Kakheti (unfortunately now defunct)–would have saved us SO much time).  We almost couldn’t believe it when the marshrutka came, and were giddy to be on our way off to Sighnaghi!

It’s still rather early for tourist season, so the tourist areas were not at all crowded.  The main attraction of Sighnagi is the old wall.  Climbing it you can see for miles, and the view is stunning!  We played on the wall, admired the view, and took photos for quite a while.

429502_10150583159187051_592572050_9571243_1453232714_n

Em on the wall at Sighnaghi (photo from Marieka)

We then wandered around the old city–the architecture there really is beautiful!  Unfortunately, we then had a somewhat unpleasant visit to one of the old churches.  It is my understanding (and has been my experience) that in Georgia, as a rule, you do not have to pay to visit a church, though there are often  donation jars, and they often request that you leave a donation for the upkeep of the building, or buy the candle you will light in the church.  However, the man in the church (not a priest) seemed to disagree with this, and, as we were leaving, rather unpleasantly insisted we give him two lari because we had visited the church.

We decided not to visit the Sighnaghi museum, though I have heard it is good, and instead had Mexican food at the restaurant in Sighnaghi (there aren’t very many places to get Mexican food in Georgia, but this place is highly recommended).  We had a happily uneventful marshrutka ride home, and went back to our regular lives.

Sighnaghi has been the target of an intense campaign for the improvement of tourist infrastructure in the last few years.  There are some very obvious and helpful successes–there are signposts pointing to the various tourist attractions and “You are Here” maps throughout town.  Everything looks quite clean and well-kept, and buildings have been renovated and restored.  There’s a central marshrutka station, and public restrooms.  But some things still need work–the fantastic marshrutka schedule should really be better advertised.  Marshrutka travel is a bit haphazard, and for a major tourist destination, perhaps something a little more formal is in order (I assume most foreign tourists are expected to go by private car or chartered tour…)  Likewise, entry fees for attractions should be posted somewhere, and if entry is free no one should be demanding that visitors pay.

Despite a few hiccups, I highly recommend Sighnaghi as a tourist destination for a day–particularly if you’re interested in sampling Georgian wine (which we didn’t actually do.  This time.)

IMG_20160430_132305

View of Sighnaghi from Bodbe (photo from Giga)

Update May 3, 2016:

I’ve been back to Sighnaghi a few times now, and have a few updates to offer. I STILL haven’t been to the museum. It has been closed many times that I’ve visited. We spent the weekend there for Orthodox Easter, and stayed at Leli’s Guest House, which was a pleasant and affordable option. We ate 3 of 4 meals at the Mexican restaurant–it had closed for a while, but is back in business and serving up really delicious food. Definitely worth a stop. Our 4th meal was at the famous Pheasant’s Tears winery. The wine was very good–delicious, and not at all the usual fare. The food was good, though the increase in quality did not match the increase in price, and it seems that something bothered my friend’s stomach. The staff were all lovely–I’d definitely stop in again for some wine, but would be more conservative with my food choices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that during the weekend days, there were huge groups of tourists rolling through town. It seemed that most did not spend the night, but rather returned to Tbilisi, leaving plenty of accommodation options, and quieter evenings.

I am not a spontaneous person by nature.  I like to plan.  I usually am armed with a Plan A and a Plan B.  Georgia has made me a bit more flexible–as a mental survival mechanism, I usually have Plans A, B, C, and D in my head, and I try not to get my heart set on Plan A too, too much.  Georgia, on the other hand, is a country that embraces spontaneity.  Ask any foreigner living here about the frustrations of planning an event, or even meeting up with a friend.  It can drive you crazy.  As my mother and my roommate often remind me, learning to let go of my plans builds character and flexibility.  And though it’s hard for me, I am learning (and I’m going to have SO MUCH character soon).  Last weekend, I had a major breakthrough in my spontaneity, and my totally spontaneous weekend was awesome.

I had been invited to visit a friend’s village that weekend for a village festival, but I honestly wasn’t very interested in going to what I thought would be a very large supra where I would be force-fed a lot of khachapuri and treated as a novelty, so when I woke up to horrible allergies in the city, I decided that a trip to the village (with all the possible allergens there) was just not my cup of tea that day.  Besides, I’m taking an online class, and I had homework.  Right after my friends departed to the village, I received an exciting instant message–Cat was being spontaneous, and would be passing through town that evening: was I around?
I was very glad I’d decided to stay home, and spent the day getting work done so I’d have some flexibility once Cat arrived.

Cat came to town, and we got some dinner and ice cream, and we went to the welcome party for a friend’s new flatmate, while trying to figure out what to do the next day.  Cat had planned to go skiing, but wasn’t sure which resort to go to.  In the meantime, roomie S, who was already in the village, sent me a text message about the festival–our friend’s brother was designing his mask for the festivities, and there were horses–this festival seemed a bit more exciting than a regular supra; did Cat and I want to come and join?  It looked like there would be rain in Gudauri, so we decided: why not?

Sunday morning we made our way to the marshrutka station, from whence we made our way to the village, not far from my old home in Kakheti (incidentally, my friend’s mom attended the school I used to teach at in a town nearby–small country!).  Our friends were standing alongside the road to flag us down, and not long after we alighted from the marshrutka we saw the spectacle of the village festival:  the young men of the village were wearing masks and had adorned their clothes in strips of brightly colored rags.  They were menacing passers-by with whips and extorting money out of passing cars.  We asked our friend to explain this odd phenomenon.  The explanation seemed a bit incomplete, but here it is:  The festival is called Kvelieri (ყველიერი) which comes from the Georgian word for cheese. But there is no cheese involved in the festival.  It might be related to cows.  The guys in masks are called berikos (ბერიკო), which I have since learned means “little friar”.  The festival happens in the village of Patara Chailuri every year in February or March.

So, there we were, being chased by guys with whips and possibly celebrating cheese.  We weren’t really sure, but it was fun!  After not too long, we were ushered to our friend’s house to meet his family and have some lunch.  His mother is a very good cook, and the menu included a special type of kada (ქადა, Georgian sweet bread) made just for this festival which interestingly incorporated both onions and vanilla (and was really good.)

After our mini-supra, we went to the village square where the main celebrations were taking place.  There was a song-and-dance show put on by the local kids, a wrestling competition, and a very cool (and probably not very safe) gigantic swing fashioned from a tree trunk.  (The swing is recommended pre-supra)

After sampling the festivities, we returned to the house for more food and some rest.  Before we began our journey back to Tbilisi, we learned from an inside source that the berikos had made themselves nearly 500 lari over the course of the day!  Kvelieri was unlike anything else I’ve seen in Georgia–this place still has some surprises up its sleeve!

(Apologies for the lack of pictures: I hope to remedy my camera situation in the near future. If you’re a real-life friend, you should be able to see some tagged by the others on Facebook)

Kakhetian wine jugs and landscape in the Nekresi Monastery

Last weekend I was offered a free trip to Gremi and Nekresi in Kakheti, so I thought “Why not?” and went along for the ride. I’m clearly starting to become jaded from my time in Georgia, because my first reaction was “Oh.  Another church on a mountain. Yawn.”  Kazbegi definitely wins the prize in the “Churches on Mountaintops” category for me so far, but Nekresi and Gremi were still worth a visit (and much easier to access).

Nekresi Monastery  (photo by M)

Nekresi has been recently restored, and the wine storage area is impressively extensive.  From the monastery you can look West across the beautiful green Alazani Valley and see Telavi in the distance.

 

 

 

Overlooking Kakheti from the road up to Nekresi Monastery

While the panoramic views from Nekresi are better, Gremi was on the whole a more interesting place to visit.  The complex contains a small museum with portraits of the Kakhetian kings, and a simple but mesmerizing projection of local  landscapes onto a sandbox that you could play in to distort the images (I could have been kept entertained

Gremi Fortress

for hours).  It was a simple interactive exhibit that really made the museum.  We also found the toilet in the museum quite impressive–though it was centuries old, it was more “modern” than those at many tourist attractions.

The best part of the trip, though, was some roadside churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა, Georgian walnut candy ) that was the best I’ve tasted yet!

Here is your post letting you know that I’m safe and unaffected by Sunday’s flooding.  🙂

The worst has been on either side of me—to the West in Tbilisi and to the East in the far-Eastern regions of Kakheti.  Saturday and Sunday’s rain only disrupted my laundry plans (and perhaps partially contributed to my bruised right side from tripping and falling…).  Today (Monday), we had some strong rain and crazy hail.  (Keep in mind that I’m a Midwesterner, so I do have some experience of rain and hail).  The hail was nearly golf-ball-sized, and my host brother had to go and venture into the storm to dig out the drains.  The rain has stopped now, though, and things are back to normal.  If I manage to get the photos from his camera, I might be able to share some crazy weather photos in the future.

Hope everyone else is safe and dry!

2012 has been declared the “Year of Kakheti”, and with that moniker comes a new and improved Kakheti tourism website, funding for infrastructure renovations, and increased attention to the region’s tourism potential in the media.  Even entertainment programs such as the telenovela The Wine Road and the recent popular film Love Ballad feature Kakheti as a travel destination.  A new campaign to promote tourism in the region entitled “Find your own Kakheti” is intended to both advertise the region’s attractions and provide information to potential visitors.  The new website contains listings for attractions, accommodation, and transportation all in one place.   According to an article in Tabula, this new 100-million-lari project is co-funded by the World Bank and the Government of Georgia.  Geographically, the project will focus on the towns of Telavi, Kvareli, and Dartlo, and aim in particular to develop tourist infrastructure such as hotels, souvenir shops, and public restrooms in these areas.  In a press release from the Ministry of Economic and Sustainable Development, Minister Vera Kobalia said that the project will focus on infrastructure development and rehabilitate the most important tourist sites.  In the same release, Maia Sidamonidze, the head of the National Tourism Administration, said that events will be held throughout the year in Kakheti in order to encourage tourism within the region. The regional government of Kakheti expects to see positive economic results from the increase of tourism in the region, and states that “Tourism is expected to become a main source of income for the population, together with agriculture.”

Despite the attention that Kakheti has been receiving this year, people working in the tourist trade in the region note that tourism in 2012 has, as of mid-April, been slow.  The high season (beginning with warm weather in May and peaking in the fall with the wine harvest) has not started yet, but Davit Luashvili, an English-speaking taxi driver in Telavi, points out that compared to last year, 2012 has seen a decrease in the number of visitors, though he remains hopeful that the high season will bring more guests.  Shalva Mindorashvili, the owner of the Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant in Sighnaghi, concurs that 2012 has gotten off to a slow start, but does not expect many visitors until the warm weather arrives in May.  He believes that the lack of visitors can be explained in part by the weakness of the economy.

Construction on the streets of Telavi

Ultimately the improvements in infrastructure being made throughout the region as part of the Kakheti 2012 campaign, including the renovation of buildings in downtown Telavi, will make the region a more inviting place to spend time.  In the meantime, though, the effects of improvement may dissuade some guests from visiting the sites or fully appreciating their beauty.  As of early spring 2012, downtown Telavi more closely resembles a construction site than a charming tourist destination, and the road from the Kakheti Highway to the cave monasteries at Davit Gareji is in need of repair so that visitors can access the site more comfortably.  Few tourist destinations in Kakheti (or in Georgia in general) have clean restroom facilities that will appeal to foreign visitors, and some more remote sites even lack small maghazia where tourists could purchase a snack or a bottle of water.  These are the types of problems that the current initiative hopes to overcome, but it appears that the situation may briefly worsen before it improves.

One of the challenges that must be overcome in order to improve the tourism industry in Kakheti is the fact that tourists typically only stay for a short amount of time.  Davit Luashvili says most foreigners will only spend a day or two in the region, even though they might be traveling in Georgia for as long as a month.  Shalva Mindorashvili concurs, pointing out that a typical visitor can see all the sights in Sighnaghi in just a day and does not feel the need to linger overnight.  Increased hotel space, an aim of the new program, will help to alleviate this barrier and make it easier for visitors to stay overnight if they wish.   Mindorashvili points out, however, that it is not just infrastructural development that is necessary to bring more tourists to Kakheti, but a greater diversity of attractions to keep tourists busy and encourage them to stay for longer.  He says “We need to attract more people. Different ideas, different people who will dare to do new things.  We need to make people stay longer than a day.  When somebody comes and spends money they don’t want to stay longer than a day … We need something else not in the restaurant or hotel business—something to entertain the guests.”  He is full of ideas for potential projects in his hometown of Sighnaghi, such as bicycle tours, hang-gliding, and historical reenactment.

People working in the tourism industry in Kakheti are cautiously optimistic about the impact of the new development program.  They continue to hope that more visitors will come to the region, and that the new government program will contribute to that growth by making the area’s attractions more visible and easily accessible.  Mindorashvili says, “As a project, we like it. We’ll see how it will work.  It’s nice as an idea…It’s up to the tour companies and the government itself, but we’ll cooperate.  We need to cooperate with the government and tourist companies.”

Though 2012 has not yet been a tourist year for Kakheti, great potential remains.  As Luashvili points out: “Georgia is always open for everyone…They just need to decide to come to Georgia and Kakheti. If they wish to come, they’re welcome. Our government welcomes everyone to come and see our great country.  We have wine, and you can come to drink with us together.”  It is the traditional welcoming attitude of Kakheti combined with the resources being devoted to improve tourism that may eventually turn Kakheti into the tourist paradise that many envision for its future.

You might notice that the style of this post is a bit different–it was originally written for another website, but things didn’t work out and I think the post is worth reading, so I’ve given it a new home here.  –Em

Em in front of the Caucasus Mountains in Telavi’s fortress.

Unfortunately, our trip to Telavi got off on the wrong foot.  My travel buddy and I had hoped to meet on the marshrutka—a bit of a gamble, but since she was travelling from Tbilisi and I live along the Kakheti Highway it made sense.  Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work out because my friend had managed to catch one of the small number of express marshrutkas that travel the new, direct road to Telavi.  (She says it’s beautiful, by the way).  Her quick journey meant that she had over an hour to herself in Telavi before my marshrutka made its way there.   By the time we reached Telavi itself, I was the only person left on the marshrutka, so the driver offered to drop me off at my hotel.  Except he’d never heard of it, so he gave me directions for how to find where my friend said she was waiting.  I took a cab to rendezvous with my friend, and that driver had never heard of our hotel either.  When I met my friend, she said she had asked around a bit about our hotel, and no one had heard of it.  Uh-oh.  So, we set off to find the place to stay that we had cleverly booked on the internet the night before.  When we arrived at what should have been the address of our hotel, it was nowhere to be found.  We went across the street to the cab stand, assuming that the cab drivers across the street should surely know the place, but they didn’t.  One kindly cab driver tried calling the hotel for us, and there was a message saying the number was not registered.  He even called directory assistance for us, and they were unable to shed any light on the situation.  We were getting cold and tired, and a bit worried.  Telavi was not making a good first impression.  We decided to stop in somewhere with food, heat, and a bathroom while we planned our next move.  Fortunately, my supervisor is based in Telavi and we are supposed to call her if we ever need help with Georgian life.  We assumed that not having a place to stay qualified as needing help, and she saved the day by booking us a room at the Alazani Valley hotel.  ASIDE: The owner of our initial hotel did eventually call us to see where we were and help us get there, but we already had our new reservations and were no longer interested in figuring out the first place

The next morning we decided that even though our trip had just gotten a bit more expensive we would stick out the full weekend as we had initially planned.  We went to the tourist information center, (which wasn’t really expecting any guests yet) and though they were surprised to see us, they gave us maps and told us which sites they thought were best and how much a tour should cost.  We found an excellent guide and were off to see some vineyards and old churches.  This is what you do in Kakheti…and in most of Georgia, really.

Em at Tsinandali.

Our first stop was Tsinandali—Alexander Chavchavadze’s mansion.  The museum was very well done, and has both historical exhibits about the lives of Chavchavadze and his descendents and a gallery dedicated to more contemporary art exhibits.  I particularly liked the White Salon, which was arranged as it would have been in the 19thCentury for a literary salon, but the walls were an extension of the contemporary art exhibit: the fusion worked, and the room felt like a lovely place to relax and discuss big ideas.  We were able to sample some Tsinandali white wine (quite good) and stroll through the grounds to enjoy the lovely spring weather.

The main church at Ikalto (brought to you by Geocell!)

Our next stop was Ikalto, a monastery and ancient academy, and then we proceeded to Alaverdi.

Alaverdi Monastery and the Caucasus Mountains

The scenery at Alaverdi was particularly stunning—wonderful views of the Caucasus Mountains.  Back in Telavi, our guide brought us to a family restaurant where we enjoyed a typical Georgian meal of mtsvadi (meat on a stick), khachapuri, veggies, and the house wine.  We wandered through the city for a bit and found the ruins of an old fortress where kids were playing.  I was jealous—we always pretended to be playing in a fortress, and these kids actually were!  There was also a fantastically interesting church there.  I’m not sure if it was deconsecrated or not, but it was definitely no longer in official use.  However, it was obviously still an important religious site for the neighborhood, and religious images and texts were graffitied on the walls.

Religious “graffiti” in a semi-abandoned church

After we had finished exploring, we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit, popped out to take pictures of the sunset, and had a light dinner in the hotel restaurant.  The meal was one of the most memorable parts of the trip—they gave us some wine on the house, and the Georgian teenagers also staying in the hotel invited us to join their impromptu dance party.

Panorama of the Caucasus Mountains from Telavi

The next morning we investigated Telavi’s fortress.  It’s far bigger than it appears from outside, and contains multiple museums and churches, as well as a working school.  Erekle II’s palace seemed to be closed, and the building that we thought was the history museum had an open door that said “Entrance”, but we were chased out.  The art museum was small but nice, and the views offered by the fortress were fantastic.  The fortress still had plenty to see, and should have even more when the renovations are done (and they’re expecting tourists). We had a quick snack, and went to find our way home.  Despite pushy taxi drivers and a bit of confusion over the two marshrutka stations a block apart, (apparently there is a third marshrutka station not far away—fortunately that didn’t enter into the equation) we found our way onto a marshrutka and back to our respective homes.  I even got to really speak some Georgian!  (This isn’t saying, though, that non-Georgian speakers should avoid Telavi–we had no problem finding English speakers to help us, but it’s nice to use my language skills sometimes)

Despite some initial mishaps and closures due to the off season, Telavi won us over.  And we haven’t even seen all the sights yet.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

P.S. My travel buddy’s blog post on our trip is here, if you care for confirmation of my story.

%d bloggers like this: