The Beauty of Kakheti Winelands of Georgia
Fresh off our minibus from Stepantsminda/Kazbegi and still shuddering a bit, we wanted to go somewhere warm and quiet. We had heard about the beauty of Kakheti and despite having tried our best and failed with the qvevri style “original Georgian Wine”, we were curious about Georgia’s prime wine region, Kakheti. Only 100km from Tbilisi – well, hello, lets hop on a minibus and go experience the beauty of Kakheti .
Getting to Kakheti
We took the 7am marshrutka from Stepantsminda, and after a very fast downhill ride we were back in Didube Bus Station in Tbilisi in the late morning. Now we only had to get to Ortachala Bus Station at the opposite end of town and pick up a reasonably priced transport. We were probably having a chap day and really wanted to avoid haggling a taxi fare for the 6 or 7 kilometres, and so we rolled up at the main road facing south and waited for the bus or marshrutka which , according to Lonely Planet, would go to Ortachala. As luck would have it, a marshrutka turned up and we squeezed in, bags and all. I must say the locals took two budget travellers with unwieldly backpack with humour, and one of our fellow passengers pointed out Ortachala once we got there, as it is not immediately obvious.
Once on the forecourt, we had the choice of plenty of transport, and it seemed a lot less crazy than Didube. Perhaps fewer foreigners here, I don’t know. We quickly found the earliest-leaving marshrutka but were told to wait… .one hour of crisps and instant coffee passed, then around noon we finally set off!
Well, the ride was smooth but after two hours, the road got more windy and I started feeling slightly sick. I was so relieved when we finally pulled up on the highway and were all kicked out of the marshrutka. After walking about 200m uphill and admiring the pretty impressive locally grown wares – it was only April after all- we resorted to a taxi in a conveniently placed taxi rank outside the market.
The beauty of Kakheti is imminent as you get to Telavi
We moved into the lovely Tushishvili guesthouse, then set off on a walk into town.
Telavi is essentially a small and pretty town and the major commercial and administrative centre of the Kakheti Region, located in the Alazani Valley between thr Southern Caucasus range (Tusheti) and the lower Gombani Mountain rage east of Tbilisi. Its a perfect base to explore Tusheti as well as a wine and food destination. But on the whole there is a relaxed atmosphere and definitely not that many touristd – at least not in spring when we visited, and Telavi retains more of a “real town” fel than perhaps Sighnagi whioch has been extensively restored as a touristic model town under the Saakaschwili government.
We admired some of the traditional wooden balconies and the Southern Caucasus range, then leisurely walked through the compact town centre.
And yes, there is plenty of historical interest. The region has been independent and under Arabic rule on and off but a independent Kingdom has existed here with interruptions since the 8th Century CE. A figure you willcome across in many laces in Georgia is King Erekle II who was king of Kakheti and later on larger swathes of todays Georgia (Kartlii-Kakheti) in the late 18th Century (Georgian Era or late Baroque as we would say in Middle Europe) . His statue takesa prominent place in town and if you really wish, you can see remants of his palace, too.
We contented ourselves walking around town in the warm spring weather, but worry not, there is a lot of historical content coming.
The town centre hdad quit eclearl y a relaxed somewhat well-off feel to it. With its low-rise brick and wood buildings and sometimes very artistic wooden balconies nad loggias.
Sometimes, it was impossible to distinguish what’s old and what’s new and what style this is. Traditional on steroids? The little old building on the left is the Tourist Information Office ( sadly closed). The big one? No idea but it actually looked residential.
Along with the spruced up, sometimes outright modern, we saw many weathered traditional buildings, too. The building on the left giving some small-time Jean Nouvel vibes but nevertheless futs well into the existing architecture is the Telavi Public Service Hall – a governmental agency providing basically a civil registry and archives.
But despite all the prettiness, this is no picture-book town for they are also here, the wonky fast-build Soviet apartment buildings I have seen saw almost everywhere off the major touristic areas on my trips in former Soviet Union republics.
We strolled to the main square in the sun, just getting to know the town and stocking up on water and snacks. The shops in the centre looked good and showed a significant amount of tourist traffic must pass, because of the high density of wine shops. Also, I found a lovely small jewellery shop where I bought a little bit of enamelled silver, definitely made in Georgia – next to a shop selling semi-automatic rifles. What the heck?
After a little snooze after our oh-so long and bumpy three-marshrutka trip, all the way from Stepantsminda to Telavi – only 180km on the direct route, but a mostly mountaineous one, necessitating a detour via Tbilisi on public transport – we went for a quiet dinner in the restaurant next to our guesthouse. It was called “Bravo” and almost empty and the archetypal small Georgian restaurant with a large menu of the classic Georgian dishes, in particular a large choice of Khachapuri, the grease-laden traditional bread. We ordered the massive boat-shaped Adjara Khachapuri, the most photogenic but geographically not quite correct (Adjara is a region by the Black Sea, with Batumi its capital) and after that and a strengthening orange juide with pour wine, we were quite ready to roll home, but managed to squeeze in a salad and a pot of lobio (bean stew) as well.
History and Wine
On our second day, having allowed ourselves to be lazy and just wander about town, we headed into the surrounding countryside to view its historical highlights. and hoping to taste a glass of wine or two at the end of the day. I think this kind of trip is quite a popular one, so when I showed my host all the places I wanted to go to on the map she agreed with me that only a private transport might do in visiting all these places in one day, and promptly called around and came back with an offer of about 25 Euro for a day with a car and driver.
We jumped at it so the next morning, after breakfast, a beautiful vintage Mercedes limousine turned up at the guesthouse gates. And off we went! Our driver, a friendly middle-aged local man, spoke little to no English, requiring me to dig out my Russian, and, to both our delight, we managed to hold a simple conversation.
Just 10km west of Telavi, in a really sweet village by the same name, stands this famous monastery dating back . The village is worth a look and has a winery (Chateau Ikalto) and several small guesthouses and wine farms to stay.Ikalto Monastery on the outskirts of the village is a ruined monastery with a well-preserve church and some impressive clay wine jars (qvevri) on display.
The monastery was founded in the 6th Century by St Zenon, one of the Assyrian Fathers and missionaries who promoted Christianity to Georgia. It also became an important scholastic centre in Kakheti, fuelled by King David (the Builder) in the 12th Century, and Georgia’s national poet, Shota Rustaveli, is said to have studied at the Academy of Ikalto. You can see the ruins of the Academy on to the left of the photo.
I admit the academy wasn’t very photogenic, basically a rubbled heap thatt could have been anything… sorry, Georgian peoetry fans. The Academy was torched by the Persians in the 16th Cnetury and has not been rebuilt. The qvevri and the pretty church were more of an eye-catcher. There was nobody else there, which added to the peacefulness of this place.
A few words about Christianity in Georgia
Christianity came to Georgia in the 1st Century through the missionary work of the apostles Simon and Andrew. Georgia – or the Kindgom of Kartlii rather- was the second country (after Armenia) that made Christianity a national religion in the 4th Century. A main influence is thought to be a Greek Lady called Nino of Cappadocia, who came to today’s Georgia with a group of nuns among them St Hripsime and St Gayaneh to preach Christinaity – well, that’s what Orthodox belief is. The Catholics say she was a slave, the end.
While most other nuns remained in Armenia and were quickly beheaded, St. Nino made it to Georgia and gained influence at the Royal Court, leading to the adoption of Christianity in her lifetime. After this, she retreated to a cave in Bodbe, where she died soon after. A monastery was built on the site and it another popular tourist destination and pilgrimage site in Kakheti – it is near Sighnagi.
Another significant group you will hear about a lot in Georgia are the 13 Assyrian Fathers, a group of Christian missionaries who arrived from Mesopotamia in the 6th Century in order to strengthen the Christian belief in Georgia. They are thought to have introduced the ascetic movement within the Georgian orthodox Church. Many of the monasteries they founded and taught at are going strong again, at least as pilgimage and tourist sites, among them Davit Gareja, Stepantsminda and the Kakhetian monasteries of Ikalto, Alverdi and Nekresi.
While you may wonder whether the Russian Orthodox and the Georgian Orthodox Church are the same – they are not! The Georgian Kingdoms and their unified Orthodox Church was unified and relatively throughout the Middle Ages to withhold attacks of the Persians, Arabs, Seljuks and other invaders, but the Russian Empire essentially replaced the Georgian Orthodox with the Russian orthodox Church and had thousands of religious images in the country overpainted or replaced. Only in 1917, shortly before the 1917 October Revolution, did the Georgian Orthodox Church split off, but the ensuing Bolshewik rule didn’t make things better, and after being swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1921 and existing as a Soviet Republic until 1991, religion was not to be practiced aloud. It wasn’t forbidden but not public. Since independence, the Georgian Orthodox Church has garnered an increasing influence in daily life and politics again, to the point where it is protected by the state, and about 85% of the Georgian population are Georgian orthodox, with the rest being Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic. Only one in 200 people said, according to census data, not to belong to any religion
Not far from Ikalto, in a wide plane of the Alasani Valley, was our next stop, coninuing seamlessly from one Assyrian Father foundation to the next. The monastery was founded by Ioseb of Alverdi. But the buildings you see today are 11th Cnetury foundations, quite impressive considering this was until the 20th Century the highest sacral bulding in Georgia.
It had one beutiful detailed frescoes which were painted overunder Russian rule. Only in the 1960s during some restauration work were the original frescoes redicovered and conserved, and the work to restore them is still ongoing. This is a very quiet place, and apart from the frescoes, there is little going on, and this continues to be a working monastery with some very strict attire rules and no photography inside the church.
We had the first morning flagging and much desired to sit down for a nice cup of tea in the cafe next to the site, but our driver dragged us on to visit a very fine patisserie in one of the villages. Absolutely inconspicuous from the outside and rather simple ont he inside, we had some wonderful cakes and coffee while being examined by local schoolkids.
By now we had crossed the valley plain and were skirting the mountsains of the Southern Caucauss range again. Gremi Fortress hadn’t really been on my radar but looked scenic as we passed. There lies the beauty of a self-organised private tour – you can stop wherever and whenever you wish. The place is one of the most visited places in Georgia, but really wasn’t busy on that April weekday.
We climbed the little hill to the fortress, which has one of the smallest cathedrals within its walls. Both were built in the 16th Century by King Lewan of Kakheti during his peaceful rule. The once prosperous city of Gremi got razed in the 1650’s by the Persians, and the cathedral moved to Telavi and this became the Church of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. The church was a real highlight of the trip, though small, it was covered with frescoes in every available space – some faded, some intricately vibrant and detailed.
The church is now on the Tentative UNESCO World Heritage list.
Gremi Fortress is also the site of peace-loving Queen Ketevan of Kakheti trying to come to a peace deal with the Persians, even surrendering herself as a hostage at some stage to prevent her city from being attacked. She wasn’t pushed at having to renounce her religion, after which she was tortured to death and canonized a few years later. Interestingly, her relics have been sighted in places as far as Portugal and Goa in India, and the Republic of Georgia’s clergy has made several attempts to retrieve her relics, some of which has been enshrined in a convent in Goa, but even after meticulous DNA analysis to prove the provenance of the bones, only managed to retrieve them on loan from India.
I must have spent about half an hour sitting in that church – it was so beuatiful. I was pleasantly surprised that photography was allowed, as long as it wasn’t with a flash. In many other Georgian churches, there is structly no photography, here when I asked, they shrugged and said “well why not??? just no flash” so it’s hardly a religious issue.
Just a few kilometres down the road, in the same valley, lies Nekresi Monastery. A It is almost a thousand years older than Gremi, being founded in the 6th Century by one of the Assyrian fathers, Abibos, and was active until shut down by the Russians in the early 19th Century. It sits on top of a steep hill, still nicely protected and impossible to reach by anything than on foot, bicycle or a small vehicle. If you don;t want to walk on the exposed and somewhat boring tarmac road, you have to rouse the marshrutka on quiet days like ours, to be chauffeured up the hill.
The monks obviously knew how to make a good time here, with wine cellars galore. The holes in the ground are to store the wine amphoras or “qvevri” where the Georgisn wine is traditionally matured.
The Church of the Archangel is an 8th Century foundation, a small simple church build from limestone and rubble. It had some beautiful but badly faded frescoes but alas, no photography allowed.
Nekresi is quite the complex, and after lhying dormant for nearly 200 years, the monastery was reopened and now has resident monks again. Here you get an idea of the steepness of the path and the ancient fortifications. The complex was archaeologically assessed and renovated in the 2010’s. You see the Bishops Palace, now residences, on the right, and the 6th Century Mortuary Chapel, the complex oldest building, on the left.
It was all incredibly idyllic, especially with so few people around. There is another church in teh Complex, the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God, which dates back tothe 8th Century and also has sparse frescoes attributed to the reign of King Lewon of Kakheti (16th Century) .
Attracted by the goodwebsite and “unique” tunnel system, we headed to Khareba Winery which is a very slick touristic operation including a 300-cover subterranean restaurant . So who cares if their cellars are the longes,t the deepest, the tastiest – there is almost 8km of them, man made in a grid of 500m long tunnels, but only a tiny section is for public viewing, the rest is to mature and store wine. They farm about 100 hectares, mostly in Kakheti, and grow a variety of native Georgian and European grapes, with some being vinified using the traditonal “qvevri” method of maturation in clay jars, pothers matured in steel tanks or oak barrels.
While our little early Christianity tour saw very few other visitors, there was some action here, but not full to bursting. We had to pay to visit, so we chose the cheapest tour available, a quick tour of the cellars plus tasting of three wines. Which is enough, because Eastern European/Caucasus pourings are extremely generous. So we had a little private tour, then a few glasses of wine while our driver had a snooze in his car. It was fine, but not the most outstanding winery tour I have been on. I think Cricova in Moldova takes that price for the sheer quirkiness, but also the quality of their very reasonably priced wines.
We weren’t overly amazed by this large winery, but I admit it is quite nicely done ut this is the place were, if unlucky, you will get coach loads of visitors and these pretty cellars filling up.
As we drove back some extremely scenic road, only slowed down by flocks of sheep, our driver decided that he could do some more wineries, just as we wished. So my choice fell on Shumi – maybe not the most spectacular vineyard, but one with a reputation for quality wine made in Georgia. Located in Tsinandali, perhaps “the” wine village of Georgia, it first comes across as relatively unspectacular.
There is a pretty little show vineyard showcasing native grapes, then a tiny museum and shop and a pavilion for tasting, all in a pretty little garden. The winery is less than 20 years old but has a relatively large output, mostly from regional varieties done in modern style, and their wines can be tried all over Georgia. We stayed away from the qvevri wine and tried a few very pleasant low-priced reds and whites, and bought a few, since they were insistent not to charge us for the tasting.
After a small amount of wine and a bit of wine shopping we were dropped back at our guest house, a bit sad to be leaving already.
But Tbilisi and a flight home awaited. We had another 1,5 days to spend in Tbilisi, whoch, of course, is not enough, but we had been on a relatively tight schedule with our 14 days in Armenia and Georgia. That’s a full time job to you, but in retrospect, I found the two countries totally do-able even making up our own itinerary on public transport, without rushing.
Our last dinner and the beauty of Kakheti on a plate
We were due to return to Tbilisi the next morning, in a shared taxi our host had arranged, so we could almost have a lie-in – and a big dinner the night before. Our choice fell in the “Restaurant by the Plane Tree” because of the good reviews and the stupendous view over the Alazani Valley.
The cuisine is traditionally Georgian, simple, and very well done. We started with the “Georgian salad” as usual. This was one of the best – super fresh quality produce with a wonderful walnut dressing. I have rarely had anything to complain aboutmy Georgian salds, as most produce in Georgia is wonderful. And of course, when in Georgia – Borjomi water is automatically part of the meal. Its distinctive taste reminds me of my holidays so much – you can find it all over the former Soviet Republics, but no such luck in a Russian supermarket at home so far.
I have tried to recreate that salad at home. According to many recipes, the dressing is just minced walnuts, cliantro, oil and vinegar. Just didn’t taste like in Georgia. Same for the aubergine rolls – but usually I am jus ttoo lazy to slice augergines into fine slices and grill them then make a filling etc. The Georgian cuisine alone is a reason to return there – so simple, so good! A lot of it like these veggie dishes is super healthy, too, but there are aspects of it that are rather hefty, like the various khatchapuri and khinkali which I would usually stay away from for being a bit too much for me.
After what might have been the most wonderful meal of our holiday, we wandered home and sank into our fluffy duvets. The next morning, we were very pleasantly surprised for our host to have semi-recovered from the flu and to have made these great pancakes. With homemade jam. It was a simple but superb breakfast, We would not need to eat until dinner.
And so we waved goodbye to our host and boarded another beige chrome-adorned vintage Mercedes limousine that delivered us to Isani Metro in Tbilisi at great speed, taking the scenic mountain route. Squeezed in the back with a babushka or two, I didn’t even get a chance to feel motion sick. I loved our short two-day trip to Telavi, and it was nice to be able to spend a few nights there and wander around and enjoy the great culinary offerings. If you get a chance, spend at least one night in Telavi, but three to four are probably ideal.
As always, a run-down of practical things to help you plan your trip. Please note we received no sponsorhip of rewards for mentioning any of these places but some of the booking links are affiliate links to Booking.com.
How to get to Telavi / Kakheti
You have the choice of two different routes from Tbilisi. One, the longer route on a well tarmaced mostly flat road- the Kakheti Highway- via Bakurtsikhe then loops back west to telavi – this is the route that many small buses and marshrutkas take, and it takes you close to Sighnagi (change in Bakurtsikhe). It takes a really long time, though, not helped by the frequent stopping of the marshrutka. It is roughly 200km and 3,5-4 hours. Then, there is a scenic mountainous route across the Gombori Pass (1620m) that taxis will take, cutting the distance and traveling time in half.
Marshrutka and Bus
The most straightforward way if you are “fresh off the plane” would be to make your way to Ortachala or “Central” Bus Station. Which isn’t central at all but rather in the South of Tbilisi. it is a huge bus station for inter-city and international coach travel but you will find the marshrutki in a parking lot in front of the station. Also, some shared taxis to Yerevan depart from here. We paid something like 5GEL for a single ticket, just under 2 Euros. Once in Telavi, they tend to drop off at the highway intersection – about 1,5km from the town centre.
Private/ Shared taxi
If you are not prone to travel sickness and being squeezed against your fellow passengers int he back seat, use this route as it takes a lot less longer and starts from Isani Metro Station. There is no official stop, you you will need to look/ask around a bit and expect to pay 10-15 GEL per person. We took this route back, arranged by our guesthouse, and travelled in a large Mercedes limousine quite comfortably, with a driver taking the serpentines relatively sanely and responsibly.
Where to Stay
Telavi, despite being a small relatively secluded town, has plenty of lovely places to spend a few days. the only time you might need to pre-book is around the time of the grape harvest in September to October, which is a very busy but also the most touristic season.
We stayed at the Tushishvili Guesthouse in the town centre, which we found in our Lonely Planet and booked directly. It is a very simple Georgian house, the host lives on the ground floor, the guests share a top floor flat with a huge lounge and shared bathrooms. The decor is also from a bygone time but I loved it – true vntage if you like yet with comfortable mattresses and clean linen. There is a huge terrace and a garden for guests to use as well, and it is right at the edge of the town centre. We paid approximately 20 Euro for a room including breakfast. So it is simple, but really homely, the host cooks great breakfasts and is a wonderful source of local information – and she helped us hire a private taxi for the day and booked our taxi back to Tbilisi. Really great choice of you don’t mind a simple guesthouse – and would like some help with planning local trips.
For something similar, try the Guesthouse Lilia which is a bit further away from the centre but still in walking distance. Less than 15 Euro for a triple room and excellent reviews.
Another budget gem is the Guesthouse Top Floor on the edge of the town centre, in a rather palatial villa – for about 15 Euro per room excluding breakfast
If it has to be a hotel, and you don’t mind a bit of walking, consider the Hestia Hotel. Just outside the town centre, this looks like a modern middle- class comfy residence, and comes with gardens and generous terraces and its own restaurant – for about 25 Euro a night for a double.
Last not least, and I am never really recommending chain hotels, but let me make an exception here: The Holiday Inn. Its a sympathetic restoration of an older building just a little walk from the centre, all yours for about 40 Euro a double.
Where to Eat
Known as the “Restaurant by Plane Tree” in English, this one, in a somewhat touristy location yet unashamedly Georgian, provided probably the best dining experience on my entire time in Georgia and Armenia. Simple high quality food, cooked well. Eat here at least once. The wonderful location by the “Giant Plane Tree” a sight in itself, only adds to its charm.
The other evening we were in Telavi we ate at the Bravo restaurant, a typical no frills restaurant with good and fresh Georgian classics next to our guesthouse – also highly recommended.
The Small Print
We visited Armenia and Georgia in April 2018 as a couple, having booked flights and then making up our trip as we went along, staying in low budget to moderately priced private rooms. We paid for the trip ourselves and did not receive any sponsorship of any kind. I have researched and updated prices and routes to Spring 2021.
Please note that I would not recommend travel at this present time. Even though Georgia is allowing fully vaccinated foreigners into the country without any quarantine. This is to serve as information only until travel is possible safely and vaccines are available to anyone who wants it.
There are some affiliate links to Booking.com in this post. This means if you make a booking through the link, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.