Leave the Kvareli municipality and cross the valley back to Telavi. Now is the time for visiting this city which dates back to the Bronze Age. Telavi served as the second capital in the 18th century when it developed culturally – boasting a theological seminary and a theatre. There are several tourist sites: the 10th century fortification walls, the 16th century St Mary’s Church, the 6th century Holy Trinity Church and the 17th century fortress, Batonis Tskihe. For lunch, stop at the restaurant by the giant plane tree (rumoured to be 900 years old) and enjoy the view and the local wine. Taking pictures by this giant tree in an attempt to hug it was a rite of passage for all of us kids when we visited Telavi for a school field trip.
After touring Telavi, head to the Tsinandali Museum, the residence of Aleksandre Chavchavadze (1786-1846). He was a writer, military leader, diplomat, public figure and inventor. Frankly, my favourite part of the Museum is the park. The house itself is interesting as a part of Georgian history but it is not as grand as the European mansions of that period. However, it often hosts interesting art exhibitions, has a cute little café with a steaming samovar and holds wine tastings.
The park is beautiful. It was the first property designed by European landscapers and presents a mixture of natural and decorated gardens. Aleksandre Chavchavadze was also the first Georgian to produce and bottle Georgian wine according to European methods. His vineyard remains cultivated to this day. According to the Museum’s website, visitors may see a bottle of Saperavi wine dating back to 1839; first harvested was in Tsinandali. There are also 16,500 bottles of other sorts of wines.
Often, name of Georgian wines comes from the places where they grow. Such is the case with Tsinandali white wine, a bottle of which you can purchase at the museum.
After strolling at the Tsinandali Park, head to 18th century Sighnaghi, a quaint little town surrounded by a fortified wall. Sighnaghi was one of the first places to be renovated for tourism in Georgia and for a while, it was the best place to go – in the heart of Georgian vineyards; overlooking the Caucasus Mountains and the Alazani Valley and surrounded by historical fortifications.
If you are lucky and the weather is perfect, you will see the Caucasus on the horizon, in its full grandeur. A walk in Sighnaghi may take all afternoon. Heat radiates from all of the stone buildings, so make sure you wear a hat, sunscreen and drink a lot of fluids. The Sighnaghi museum often also hosts interesting art exhibitions. The town is positioned as a romantic getaway destination thus many couples go there for their weddings. It has many little cafés where you can take a break from all of your sight-seeing.
By the time you leave Sighnaghi, you will be exhausted. You may now take the other road back to Tbilisi, thus following a straight road, this time with no canyon serpentine. Somewhere in the middle of the trip, you will see folks selling cheese. This is the village of Badiauri. There you can buy Kakheti’s Dedas (Mother’s) bread and its famous cheese, right on the side of the road. If you are hungry, stop at the restaurant in Kachreti (on the left side of the road, called Kachreti’s Champion). It won’t impress you with its sophisticated décor or variety of foods on the menu, but it does serve the best mtsvadi (kebab) in Georgia which certainly makes up for any inconveniences. Besides, sometimes it is nice to get away from the touristy places and sample what the locals themselves eat.
Final advice: fall is the best time of the year to visit Kakheti. It is the harvest period. Thus, you may see people picking grapes, hauling them for pressing, eating them and, of course, sharing them because Kakheti is all about the grapes.
Welcome to wine country!