The desultory tour of the Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum climaxed with a question. In the middle of a large wooden table, in the centre of a grand old room, was a wine bottle sitting under a glass dome. Clearly old, it appeared to contain some of its original contents. “Is there something special about this bottle?”, asked an inquisitive-minded tourist. “No”, responded the less inquisitive tour guide. Realising this wasn’t a satisfactory response, she said, “It’s probably from the 19th century.”
The guided tour of the house was mandatory and this was about as interesting as it got. Elsewhere, bored employees sat around chatting and ignoring the visitors. It’s a shame the tour was uninspiring because the house has a fascinating history and retains many of its original furnishings, pictures and personal objects of its former owners, the noble Chavchavadze family. Not only that, it sits in a lovely landscaped English garden that I’d spent an enjoyable hour wandering around in the cool morning air.
Although the house was first owned by his diplomat father, Garsevan Chavchavadze, who negotiated a peace treaty between Georgia and Russia in 1783, the most famous inhabitant was Alexander. A poet and member of the Georgian intelligentsia, he was also a famed military man in the service of Imperial Russia – although he twice rebelled against Russian rule in military uprisings. He was forgiven both times – Catherine the Great was his godmother, which probably helped.
His story is just one of many, including that of his eldest daughter, Nino. Married at the age of 16 to Russian poet and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov, she was widowed aged 17 when Griboyedov was murdered on a diplomatic mission. She never remarried and became known as the ‘woman in black’ thanks to her preference for wearing mourning clothes. Alexander’s son was kidnapped from this house and taken to Persia where he was held for years until being ransomed. A ransom that bankrupted the family.
Told with panache, this is the sort of family history that would enliven any regimented guided tour. It was not to be. I headed to the Kakheti countryside in search of ancient monasteries. There are dozens around this region, but I’d been recommended to visit two in particular: the 6th century Ikalto Monastery and the 5th century Dzveli (or Old) Shuamta Monastery. On the way, I found myself chatting with an English-speaking Georgian nun at the 17th century Akhali (New) Shuamta Monastery.
The pleasant nun who answered the door informed me that it wasn’t possible to see the famed frescoes because of building works. I could however visit the gift shop. They may not be very worldly, but the average nun knows how to guilt someone into buying some monastery-made soap and a couple of candles. I actually enjoyed the visit to the nunnery because, in exchange for buying soap, I was able quiz her about life inside the fortified walls. Not much goes on and I got the feeling there were few visitors.
This contrasted sharply with the experience at the ‘Old’ monastery a kilometre or two up the hill. Here, a monk chatting on his mobile phone waved a welcome to me and left me to wander around without guidance, spiritual or otherwise. The buildings were the same design as I’d seen elsewhere and the interiors were quite plain. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way to visit Ikalto Monastery, a few kilometres away.
This was far more interesting, mainly due to the Georgian families who were visiting at the same time. I wandered around the monastery and back out to the car where I saw a graveyard with some intriguing looking headstones. It turns out that Georgian graves often come with a headstone that is carved with a lifelike image of the person who has died. Creating a vision of a series of dead people standing above their graves. I thought this was rather nice, but I imagine it’s a little spooky at night.