Archives for posts with tag: Sighnaghi

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.

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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.)

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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.

My best friend Chloe came to visit a few weeks ago, so she’s written a guest-post here about her first trip to Georgia.  You can follow her food blog at musingsondinner.wordpress.com.  Any comments or additions from me will be in italics.  Other than that, I’ve just made some minor changes such as fixing her Georgian spelling 😉 I hope you enjoy her post; I really enjoyed her visit!–Em

Chloe and Em enjoy the beautiful weather on the Peace Bridge in Tbilisi

First impressions

Based on my one trip to Georgia, I’m going to assume that spring is the perfect time to go. It was warm, sunny and clear, with spurts of rain in the evening that served to clear the air and dust from the roads (and there’s a lot of dust. A lot of construction work, and a lot of dust).

I’ve never been to a country that’s been part of the Soviet sphere of influence before, not even Germany, so I came, handily without (m)any preconceptions. Physically, Georgia has elements which would be familiar to those who’ve visited Bangkok or other Asian cities: crazy driving, diesel engines pouring black smoke, slightly chaotic public transport systems (I’m thinking marshrutkas!) that somehow seem to hang together and take people where they need to be. I suppose this is the part that most drives home that Georgia is still developing. Unlike Asian cities (and indeed London), though, Tbilisi doesn’t feel packed or over-crowded, with only a million people living there. In fact the greatest impression I had of Georgia was of the space: the empty, purple-dotted mountains (purple from the blossoming plum trees), the wide, almost empty roads.

Mostly, though, Georgia felt European, though different (as Em said, quoting someone in her host family, “It’s the Caucasus!”, neither European, Asian nor Russian but something that somehow combines all of them yet is very separate). It’s very mountainous, and as I usually visit the Low Countries when I’m in Europe, the landscape made it difficult for me to pin down where Georgia is, exactly, in terms of history. Driving down from the airport you come down on George W. Bush Road, complete with a large poster of the man himself – definitely not a very (Western) European sentiment!

Places to go

Tbilisi turns a good base from which to explore surrounding areas, though my trip didn’t end up being long enough to slot in Batumi (from what I hear it’s a glorious seaside-type place) or Gori (interesting from a historical perspective as Stalin’s hometown). Em took me to Mtskheta, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia, and therefore both very old and very important in Georgia’s history. Admittedly the trip to Mtskheta was made a lot smoother because Em’s Georgian teacher Irma very kindly drove us there and back! I was taken to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which is the burial site for Christ’s mantle according to Georgian Orthodox hagiography. A service was taking place as we visited and the polyphonic singing was beautiful (note: women should bring a scarf with them to cover their hair when visiting religious sites. The rule doesn’t seem to be enforced equally stringently across all places but it helps to be prepared!). The Cathedral is an interesting place: it has some frescoes painted on the walls but most have been lost, painted over in anticipation of a visit by Tsar Nicholas I (he never visited, in the end). We also went to the lovely 6th (or so) century Jvari monastery, picking our way up the stairs and dodging the many bridal couples who, understandably, go there to have their wedding photos taken, the men often wearing traditional dress, and the women in long sweeping white dresses. The view from Jvari is spectacular and feels both unspoilt and slightly precarious due to the lack of safety rails!

Our “tour group” at the Jvari Monastery

Things to do (Tbilisi)

If you’re interested in history or in heritage/the museum industry, an interesting exhibition to take a look at is the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, which is part of the Georgian National Museum on Rustaveli Avenue. It’s not particularly large, but sheds light on (the official narrative of) part of the Georgian experience of the revolutions of 1917 and of being part of the Soviet Union. The exhibit is fascinating partly because it is telling a story of occupation and victimisation: the story presented is very much a part of Georgia’s current aim to be free of the Soviet associations of its past. For example, all the Georgian victims of the Second World War were presented as victims of the Soviet occupation, and at the end of the exhibition was a map showing where ‘the occupation continues’ – i.e. Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If you’re feeling fit and not carrying too much (very important!), take the trek up the (very very) steep incline towards the Narikala fortress, which was established in the 4th century. It’s difficult going up but the feeling of achievement you get when you’re even halfway up there is pretty intense. Not to be attempted by those with rickety knees. And – like most places in Georgia – it’s imposingly lovely and has a great view.

One of the most amazing things we did was go to the sulphur baths, which was spectacularly relaxing. You can hire a private room at the baths, so it’s fun to do if you’re in a group. I’d never done Turkish-style baths before, but it’s an intense experience (as you can imagine), going from boiling water to icy-cold to a sauna and back again. The water is dense and oily-feeling with minerals. They are actually used as baths, so bring your shampoo and soap.

What to eat

I’ve eaten Georgian food once before, at a restaurant in London, so I was sufficiently excited to be trying it in Georgia itself. Khachapuri, which is the food everyone seems to talk about in relation to Georgian food, is probably the least exciting part of the cuisine for me – cheesy bread is fairly common across cultures – but if you want to try it, there are plenty of street vendors selling both that and lobiani, which is a bean-stuffed bread. Lobiani is heartier and less greasy; very good.

Meal from Salobie. Tasty! (photo: Chloe)

While in Mtskheta we went to a well-known place in Georgia, Salobie, which is apparently Saakashvili and Shevardnadze’s favourite restaurant, and is well-known for its lobio (bean stew), which is served with mtchadi, Georgian cornbread. The stew was very salty, but the mtchadi was extremely plain – unseasoned and very pure tasting. The idea was that you crumbled the mtchadi into the lobio, and the saltiness evened out. It worked and was delicious. Unlike a lot of bean dishes lobio doesn’t feel particularly dry or solid – it’s quite light and fresh-tasting, though filling.

I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic wine drinker: a lot of wine tastes quite heavy and sour to me, and I abhor a tannic taste (which is why French wines don’t really work for me!). Georgian wine is something else: lighter and sweeter than other wines (even the drier Georgian wines are on the sweeter side of the wine spectrum in general). So even if you’re not usually into wines – or if you don’t like reds as they’re too tannic – it’s certainly worth trying the Georgian wine.

If you’re tired of Georgian food, you can head to Sighnaghi and have some authentically Georgian Mexican food (you read that right) at Pancho Villa, a restaurant run out of a tiny house by a man who, having lived in the US before returning home to Georgia, realised he missed burritos. The food was tasty, hearty and everything – down to the tortilla chips in the nachos – was hand made. Mexican food as it would have been done 50 years ago, I guess!

Things (and places) to buy

A great place to buy wine was Vinoteka, near the Dry Bridge (in Old Town on Leselidze Street), which is convenient, as it was another excuse to walk through that market area with its Soviet accessories, traditional felt-work and sprawling art pieces. One place we’d looked at to buy wine had wanted us to pay for any tastings we did, but the staff at this place were generous and knowledgeable. They had run out of one wine for tasting, but that wasn’t a surprise as it was almost closing time! If you’re looking to buy wine I’d recommend you go in the middle of the day. I came back with several bottles, some as gifts.

I bought some salobie – the little pots out of which lobio is served – at Dry Bridge, as well as some Georgian ceramics to distribute to friends. Prospero’s Books (near the Canadian consulate) is a good place to pick up books about Georgia, though they are quite expensive. I got some little booklets on Georgian food there (in English), which are good as souvenirs and presents as well. Traditional felt-work – scarves or more contemporary hair accessories and stuffed animals – is also cute to bring back.

How to get there

Escalator in the Tbilisi Metro (photo: Chloe)

The Tbilisi metro is a Soviet holdover and looks it: it’s extraordinarily deep, as this photo attempts to capture. As I said I’ve never been to any post-Soviet country before so while I’d read about the Russian metro, the actual scale of the Tbilisi underground was a surprise – and I live in London so I’m pretty familiar with underground transport. It’s a deep, cool, musty labyrinth, but the best thing about it, to those of us unable to read the ornate set of squiggles that is the Georgian script, is that they signpost stops in English, using the Roman alphabet. Admittedly I mostly followed Em around but I think I could have found my way. Just bear in mind, if you’re using it, that the overhead announcements aren’t always in sync with the actual station you’re pulling through.

Taxis in Tbilisi were cheaper than in most other metropolitan cities – ideal for getting to and from the airport, or in a group – but it pays to bargain. According to Em you shouldn’t pay more than 6 lari to get around Tbilisi. Georgian driving is pretty crazy, just bear that in mind.

It would be remiss not to mention marshrutkas, those communal bus-like ‘route taxis’ which have no set stops but follow a set route, but actually, I have no idea how I would have used them had I not been with a Georgian-speaker/reader. They can be used for intra-city (in Tbilisi at least) and inter-city travel, with the destination signposted on the front as they speed past you in the street. While I would say the experience of dodging traffic in a marshrutka is an essential Georgia experience and not one to be missed, I also highly recommend grabbing hold of a Georgian-speaker (I guess Russian-speaker would also work) to help you on your way (or, in other words, get Em to be your guide and translator). Thanks! -Em

Tbilisi public transportation (photo: Chloe)

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