Despite being the country’s centre of wine production, Kakheti is much more than endless vineyards and dim cellars. From the rugged peaks and mountain pastures of Tusheti to the undulating steppes of the south and her quaint provincial towns, Kakheti is an incredibly diverse travel destination that shouldn’t be missed.
After spending more than six weeks in Georgia, I can safely say that Kakheti has cemented its place as my favourite region in the country. Often reduced to its (albeit significant) role in the Georgian wine industry, Kakheti, encompassing the entire east of Georgia, surprised me with a variety in scenery I’ve rarely seen anywhere else.
In the north the jagged peaks of the Greater Caucasus soar to lofty heights and freezing streams gush from the perennial bedrock before tumbling down the rugged mountainside, cutting deep rifts into this ancient land, while shepherds herd their flock on the verdant pastures of Tusheti, as they have done for centuries.
Down in the lowlands, vineyards dominate the scenery. For eight millennia, wine, Georgia’s biggest export and national beverage, has been cultivated and refined here in Kakheti, deeply engraining itself in the local, as well as the wider Georgian culture.
However, look further south and the arable land will soon vanish and make way for a barren landscape of withered grass and arid soil. Beyond grape-laden vines, the land suddenly feels very empty and desolate, the wind unhindered sweeping across a swaying ocean of culms, until it reaches the otherworldly hills near David Gareja.
All within roughly 100 kilometres.
And I haven’t even talked about her charming towns and cultural sights yet.
EXPLORE TELAVI, CAPITAL OF THE KAKHETI KINGDOM
Although being the administrative centre of Kakheti and boasting a rich history dating back to the Bronze Age, Telavi feels incredibly overlooked.
In the Middle Ages, the city not only served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti but transformed into one of the most important political, as well as economical centres of Georgia during the countries golden age (12th-13th century). Following a period of decline, the birth of King Erekle II in the 18th century reinvigorated Telavi. Under his reign the city prospered once more and re-established itself as a commercial and cultural hub prior to the Russian occupation.
Artifacts spanning the ages are now on display in the castle museum (which also features a small art gallery), and the Persian-style palace of the Kakhetian kings (birthplace of Erekle II) has been restored to its former glory.
Besides Batonis Tsikhe (castle) and some beautifully restored sections of the old town, Telavi also offers some more obscure and eerie sights such as the old cemetery or the Gorijvari Church.
Oh, and if botany is your thing, the city is home to a 900-year-old plane tree, as well!
WHERE TO STAY
Tin-Tina Guesthouse |
Quiet and comfortable guesthouse a short walk away from the city centre (roughly 1km). The owners are really friendly and will help you whenever you need them.
The rooms are spacious and clean, so are the shared bathrooms and the kitchen. There is also a light-filled common room with a couch and a table if you need to get some work done or just wanna hang out with other travellers.
Should you travel by bicycle or motorbike you can leave them in the courtyard in front of the house.
LEARN ABOUT GEORGIA'S MOST INTOXICATING TRADITION
Participating in a wine tasting tour in Kakheti is much more than just a cheeky way of justifying drinking before lunch. It will open your eyes to the very soul of the country.
Believed to be the cradle of wine making (according to the lore, cultivation of wine in the region started more than 8000 years ago), Georgia’s unique relationship with wine is truly extraordinary. In fact, this special connection even sprouted the country’s native name: Sakartvelo, “Land of the Wine”.
Besides the fact that wine is the very lifeblood of Georgian culture and identity, the art of wine making differs greatly from the classic/European production method and you will hear (and taste) a great deal about the whole process, from the freshly picked grape to the finale product.
In Georgia wine is ubiquitous, and if there is anything you should take away from your time in this beautiful Caucasian country it ought to be the country’s most intoxicating tradition.
SAUNTER THROUGH SIGHNAGHI
Perched up on a forested slope overlooking the Alazani valley, Sighnaghi is a sight to behold.
Pastel brick houses, adorned with intricately carved balconies, hug the lush hillside. Pointy steeples jut out from an undulating sea of terracotta rooftiles, as a fresh breeze carries relief from the heat of the lowlands. Pedestrians stroll down tranquil cobble streets (if you ignore the odd quad bike blaring through) and along ancient fortifications, while others treat themselves to a glass of Saperavi or Kindzmarauli in one of the many terrace bars, while the whole might of the Caucasus claims the horizon.
Truly, in all of Georgia it would be challenging to find a more picturesque, and romantic, town.
Not beyond reasoning many a couple journeys to the “City of Love” to say their vows and celebrate their liaison.
WHERE TO STAY
Nato and Lado Guesthouse |
Hands down one of the best guesthouses I have ever stayed at. Due to an injury, I spent nearly two weeks in Sighnaghi, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to rest!
Run by the wonderful Nato and her husband Vako (shoutout to their lovely daughters Kato and Qeto, as well!), they took me right in and made me truly feel as if I was part of the family. It is a place that will make you feel right at home. The rooms are spacious, clean, and the beds are comfortable.
Also, if you come at the right time (mid to end of September), you might even be able to join in the wine harvest (and the subsequent Georgian supra!) at their vineyard (highly recommend)!
If you wanna experience Georgian hospitality at its finest, this is the place to be.
WITNESS DAVID GAREJA MONASTERY AND THE SOUTHERN STEPPES
Clinging to the Georgian-Azeri border south of Tbilisi, David Gareja is not only one of the most important religious sites of the country but the oldest monastery in Georgia. Founded in the 6th century CE by St. David Garejeli, one of the 13 Assyrian Fathers, the complex consists of hundreds of chambers, living quarters, chapels and other caves hewn right into the rockface, many adorned with century-old murals.
Unfortunately, the area has been subject to an ongoing border dispute between the two former Soviet republics, and large parts of David Gareja are not accessible at the moment (September 2022).
What makes the visit truly spectacular, however, is the surrounding steppe. Endless grasslands, reminiscent of Central Asia, stretch for miles, the swaying ocean only disrupted by dried up salt lakes, multi-coloured rock formations, and solitary trees braving the gales travelling across these badlands.
Even if you couldn’t care less about yet another monastery, go there for the gorgeous nature alone.
FEEL THE MOUNTAINS IN TUSHETI
Tugged away into the country’s remote northeast, Tusheti is a stunning corner of the Caucasus few have ventured into. Connected to the outside world by a single, precarious dirt road, and only accessible during the summer months, reaching this incredible hiking destination is an adventure by itself.
For those who brave the dizzying journey, beyond the perils of the road awaits a spectacular mountain realm of rugged peaks, verdant pastures, rushing streams, and pristine trails, however.
Although tourism is increasing, Tusheti has remained somewhat off the beaten path and the country’s most isolated region.
Shaped by the elements, it is a land of wild beauty where tradition reigns supreme and the life of the herder is still bound to the change of the seasons.
VISIT AN ORTHODOX MONASTERY
As one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as state doctrine, the abundance of religious sites in Georgia doesn’t surprise. During my time in Kakheti, I ended up visiting two monasteries: Bodbe and Nekresi.
While Nekresi is one of the oldest monasteries in the country (6th century), situated on a forested crest opposite the Caucasus mountains, Bodbe monastery occupies a very special place in Georgian religious tradition. According to legend, Bodbe is the final resting place of St. Nino, a Roman woman who is said to have converted the royal family of (Caucasian) Iberia to her faith, ultimately resulting in the Christianization of the entire region. To this day she remains one of the most venerated saints in the Georgian-Orthodox church.
Hence, Bodbe monastery has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country (unsurprisingly it is extremely touristy). The frescoes and beautifully arranged gardens do warrant a visit, however.
MARVEL AT MEDIEVAL VESTIGES AT MANAVI CASTLE
Manavi Fortress, located just off the main highway between Sighnaghi and Tbilisi, might seem dismissible at first sight.
In true castle fashion the complex appears way more impressive from afar than up close. Besides sections of the outer wall and a few reconstructed chapels (that are still being used) there is not much to write home about.
However, scattered around the main bailey fascinating remnants of Georgia’s medieval period reveal themselves. About a dozen tomb stones, possibly dating back to the 11th century, rest amidst the withered grass and parched bushes. Adorned with ancient Georgian script and beautifully chiselled depictions of nobleman and women, these weathered vestiges of the past (some in better condition than others) definitely warrant the small detour (I can geek out about stuff like that all day).
The fact that they are just lying around there boggles my mind!
WHERE TO NEXT?
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