Reflections on a Georgian road trip

My flight back to Berlin was via Istanbul’s ginormous new airport, and it departed at the ungodly hour of 4am. I spent my final evening wandering the lovely streets of Old Tbilisi and, afterwards, I sat at an outdoor table having a long, slow meal until the early hours of the morning. This gave me time to look back over some of the scribblings I’d made during the trip, and to reminisce about the experiences, good and bad, of my first visit to this extraordinary country.

Returning from close to the Russian border, I passed two road signs that helped me to understand the feeling of unfamiliar familiarity that had been nagging at me since I first landed in Georgia. The first sign read, Tehran 1294km, the other, Ankara 940km. This is a place that straddles cultures and comes with a history intersected by hugely diverse forces: Mongol invasions, Persian overlords, early Christian conversion, Ottoman rule, and centuries of overbearing Russian control, Tsarist and Soviet.

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Georgia

Mother Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

This fusion of cultures is clearly seen in Georgian food. A glass of wine accompanied by bread and sunflower oil with harissa-style chilli paste – a taste of North Africa in the Caucasus. I devoured khinkali, the soupy, meat-filled dumplings that have more than a passing similarity to their Chinese cousins, Xiao Long Bao. The abundance of aubergine dishes is reminiscent of the Middle East and Turkey. Whatever the influence, Georgian food is invariably delicious, even if it lands on the table in no particular order.

On my way to dinner, I’d passed down narrow streets, past the crumbling facades of houses and beneath overhanging balconies that looked dangerously close to collapse. I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and sound of a young girl joyfully playing a piano in an alleyway, I was her only audience. In the courtyard behind her I could see washing hanging from lines strung between buildings, underneath which a dilapidated car was in various stages of (dis)repair – Georgia’s roads are filled with such specimens.

Driving provided some of the most memorable moments of my trip, and not in a good way. There exists a phenomenon on Georgian roads which I’ll call the ‘mythical extra lane’. Drivers routinely overtake two, three or four abreast on two lane roads, often at high speed, uncaring that at any moment animals are likely to wander into the middle of the road. Tbilisi’s rush hour has only one rule, there are no rules. It’s a literal miracle that I didn’t lose my €500 hire car deposit.

Georgian driving regularly goes well beyond ‘reckless’, but it was the only way I could see many of the places I planned to visit. The enormous 4×4 I acquired in Tbilisi allowed me to reach some fairly remote areas. I certainly wouldn’t have seen the bright purple lavender patches in the fields or smelt its sweet perfume on the air in the Mtkvari River valley. The drive into the High Caucasus Mountains on the Georgian Military Highway will live long in the memory.

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

As will watching children playing in the street, or rather a small child with sweets being chased by another small child holding a bunch of stinging nettles; an old man shaving his nose while drinking a beer; eating breakfast of homemade bread, butter and cheese in the mountains; glorious landscapes of hulking mountain ranges, vineyards, sweeping grasslands; ancient monasteries on remote hilltops; pretty compact cobbled streets in Tbilisi’s old town … the list goes on, and I’ll be going back to Georgia as soon as I can.

A Georgian Affair, Gori’s Stalin Museum

As the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war tore the Tsarist Russian Empire to pieces, countries that found themselves outside of Bolshevik control declared their independence. Finland, Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all won their freedom. Georgia, on the other hand, declared independence in 1918 only to elect a Communist, but not a Bolshevik, government. Georgia and its new government were recognised as independent by France and Britain, but this didn’t last long

In 1921, the Soviet Red Army invaded, with local boy Joseph Stalin responsible for the subjugation of his former homeland. Georgia was Sovietised, systematically and forcibly. This became known as the Georgian Affair, and led to a rift between Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and People’s Commissar, Joseph Stalin. Lenin urged a softer approach, Stalin did not. Tragically for Georgia, Lenin suffered a serious illness in 1922, allowing Stalin to rise to the top of the Soviet political machinery.

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s childhood house, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s childhood house, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Georgia is a fiercely proud nation. Independence is a matter of intense national pride, so the fact that this brief glimpse of national self determination was crushed by one of their own raises many tricky questions. Not that you’d get that impression from the bizarre museum dedicated to Uncle Joe and occupying a grand building in the centre of his birthplace, Gori. This is an unabashedly upbeat interpretation of Stalin the man and leader of the Soviet world from 1927 to 1953.

The concept of ‘dark tourism’, visiting places associated with tragedy and death, should probably apply to the Stalin Museum but, since it makes little or no effort to address the horrors that Stalin was responsible for, it’s hard to categorise that way. There are pleasant photos and paintings of Joseph, victim of Tsarist oppression; Joseph, proud compatriot of Lenin and other Soviet leaders; Joseph, strong leader of Soviet Russia; Joseph, victor over Nazi Germany; and Joseph, the loving father and family man.

If you’d never bothered to become even vaguely acquainted with 20th century history, you might be convinced that here was a man who pulled himself up from a childhood of abject poverty to rule benevolently over half of Europe. There is more than a whiff of personality cult, the room decorated in red velvet and dedicated to Stalin’s death mask is just the most obvious sign of this tendency. Coupled with a feeling that the museum was last renovated when Stalin was alive, it made for an uncomfortable experience.

Although there are few English signs in the museum, Georgian friends assure me that almost no mention is made of small inconveniences such as the Ukrainian Famine (up to 7 million deaths); the disaster of dekulakisation and collectivisation (millions more dead); the Great Terror; the pact with Nazi Germany; the Gulags and prison camps to which millions more Soviet citizens were sent; the crushing of Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain … I could go on, but you get the point.

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin’s work desk, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Lenin and Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Statue of Joseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Death Mask ofJoseph Stalin, Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

I wandered around in a state of mild bemusement, not really sure what to make of the museum. There were only a handful of other visitors, most seemed to be Russian or Chinese, and they seemed to be taking the exhibits of old newspaper clippings, faded photos and statues of Stalin seriously. I was quite glad to get outside again and visit the train carriage Stalin used when travelling, not to mention his childhood home, removed stone by stone to occupy pride of place outside the museum.

What, if anything, does the Stalin Museum tell us about modern Georgia’s relationship with a man conservatively estimated to be responsible for 20 million deaths? Not much I’d say. There’s no doubt that for some Georgians there is a lingering sense of national pride in a local boy made good. For the majority Stalin is, at best, the man who inflicted decades of Soviet Russian persecution on the nation. There’s a reason that Gori is the only town in the country to maintain a Stalin statue in its main square.

Ancient and magical, the cave city of Vardzia

The extraordinary cave city of Vardzia inhabits a remote hillside above the meandering Mtkvari River. It sits in a magnificent fertile valley that, until recently, was a remote and isolated spot only a few kilometres from the Turkish border. The green valley contrasts sharply with the brown hills surrounding it. As I drove through it I couldn’t help wishing I could spend a couple of days exploring this fascinating region. Sadly, this was a mad self-drive dash from Tbilisi and back in a day.

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

I’ve never been happier than when I discovered Vardzia lived up to both the photos I’d seen of it and the fulsome praise it received in my guidebook. I left Tblisi before sunrise to drive the glorious route to Vardzia. The 280km, five hour, one way drive, skirted along river gorges, across mountains, through villages and an occasional town. The final 60km passed along the picturesque road from Akhaltsikhe into the Mtkvari River valley, at the far end of which lies Vardzia.

The whole valley is scattered with the remnants of ancient fortifications, churches and caves, but it is Vardzia that is the outstanding site. The cave complex was started in the 12th century and is most strongly associated with King Tamar, the legendary Georgian Queen who was crowned a King. She intended it to be a repository of national culture and religion during a period of intense conflict with invading Mongol armies, a purpose it would serve well.

It was a massive site, with a throne room, churches, libraries, shops, hundreds of cave dwellings and a water system, dug over thirteen levels deep in the mountainside. This includes some remarkable tunnels that burrow through the rock and connect various parts of the complex. In total, there are over 6,000 rooms. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List which, after spending a few hours here, made me wonder what you have to do to get on the actual list of World Heritage Sites.

Maybe the problem is that what we see today is only about a third of the original city. It took 48 years to construct Vardzia, by which time it could hold a population of 50,000 people – huge by the standards of the 12th century. Unfortunately, it was the victim of a devastating earthquake in 1283, after which it was largely abandoned. It would go on to become a monastery in later centuries, until the Persian invasion of 1551 finished what the earthquake began. A handful of monks still call it home though.

The monks of earlier centuries developed an irrigation system and terraced farming in the valley, which made the city self sufficient. Being monks, this included vines to make their own wine. It’s believed there were up to 25 wine cellars in the city at one point. You can still see vines being cultivated as you drive down the valley. I visited on Sunday and, despite my early departure from Tblisi, discovered several minibuses and a couple of coaches already in the car park.

I walked up the hill and made my way into the complex that remains open to visitors – around 300 rooms, including the interesting Church of the Dormition, which comes with frescoes. I clambered up and down steep stairs, in and out of cave houses, and took in the sweeping views over the valley below. It was utterly amazing, but the best bit came when I entered the warren of interior tunnels. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like to navigate these by candlelight.

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

Interior tunnels, cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

Interior tunnels, cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

The cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

Most other visitors seemed to be Georgian family groups with a scattering of foreign travellers. Georgians are not the quietest of people in groups, making for a carnival atmosphere. On more than one occasion I was stopped by people wanting to know where I came from and to welcome me to Georgia. My trip was coming to an end, and this seemed like a fitting metaphor for the whole trip: magnificent landscapes, ancient history, welcoming people, and the promise of wine.

The legend of Alexander the Great at Khertvisi Fortress

Khertvisi Fortress flatters to deceive. Dramatically located on a steep rocky outcrop, this 2,000-year old fortress makes a very powerful impression set against the craggy mountains at the confluence of the Paravani and Mtkvari Rivers. The long, steep slog to reach the entrance is rewarded with magnificent views but little else. Apart from a few fragments of carved stone and a small chapel, the fortress is an empty shell, and comes without much in the way of information.

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

This is surprising, because Khertvisi Fortress is one of the country’s largest and most ancient fortifications. If the location wasn’t enough, it can claim a little reflected glory from its association with Alexander the Great. Legend has it that Alexander laid siege to Khertvisi on his march east towards India. That association may pay dividends now for tourism, but the fortress was said to have been left a ruin by Alexander’s army. This was one of several times over the centuries that the fortress needed to be rebuilt.

There may be little to keep you more than 15 minutes inside the fortress, but the site, in a remote valley in south west Georgia, is utterly magnificent. It’s close enough to the Turkish border that you can almost smell the coffee, and for centuries guarded a vital crossroad on an important trade route. Along with the valley that stretches south from here to the extraordinary cave city of Vardzia, this whole area has been on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2007.

It is a spellbindingly beautiful landscape and, from Khertvisi’s battlements, you can see other ancient fortifications on the tops of hills in the distance. It’s a landscape filled with mystery and meaning. As I stood there, I was glad I’d made the ridiculous decision to drive a ten-hour round trip from Tbilisi. I’d set off before sunrise, passing the famous spa town of Borjomi before taking the road from Akhaltsikhe towards my destination of Vardzia. It was to be a long but rewarding day.

Sadly, the legend of Alexander the Great is probably just myth, historical records don’t support this claim to fame. The oldest parts of the fortress today date from the 10th century, including a stone carved with the words, ‘A king to rule all kings’, and dated 985 AD. I wandered through the fortress and then back down the hill to grab a coffee in the local cafe before driving down the valley. My route to reach this point had been beautiful, but what awaited was some of the finest landscapes of the trip.

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Mtkvari River valley, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Mtkvari River valley, Georgia

Mtkvari River valley, Georgia

The road through the valley floor follows the Mtkvari River, passing hillsides terraced for agriculture (reminding me of the Inca terraces in Peru), pastures filled with flowers, and more ancient fortifications. I stopped occasionally to take a photo and take in the views. On one occasion I found myself walking amongst a cluster of thousands of blue butterflies, perhaps attracted by the bright purple patches of lavender in the fields. The windows down, the perfume of lavender filled the air as I drove towards Vardzia.

On the slopes of Mount Gareja at David Gareji Monastery

The climb up Mount Gareja was hot and humid, only compensated for by the ever expanding views across the Georgian valleys and hills below. Reaching the ridge at the top of the hill offers an even more spectacular view into a deep valley that sits in the neighbouring country of Azerbaijan. The vast panorama over the sweeping grasslands on both sides was accompanied by birdsong, a multitude of butterflies, and the buzzing of insects. This might tempt you to think all is well with the world. You’d be wrong.

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The road to David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The road to David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The ridge I was standing on, marks the poorly defined border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the presence of armed border guards from both countries gives a hint of the unfurling diplomatic spat between formerly friendly neighbours. David Gareji is an ancient complex of rock-hewn monasteries and caves where monks have lived since the 6th century. Some have magnificent and ancient frescoes, but the border runs right through the complex and thanks to the dispute many areas are out of bounds.

In less politicised times, monks, pilgrims and tourists were allowed access to the whole area, with the Azerbaijani border guards allowing people to move freely between both countries. That arrangement ended earlier this year when the border was abruptly and surprisingly closed. This sparked tensions and a breakdown in relations between the countries. I could see the cave monastery of Udabno and another church that were, at most, a hundred meters away, but access was blocked.

Luckily, the Lavra Monastery, the main sight on the Georgian side, is still accessible and you can walk along the ridge before descending via the Spring of David’s Tears … but first you have to get here. I left Sighnaghi in the early morning for a drive that was supposed to take me almost to Tbilisi before turning back into the wilderness, where the David Gareji complex sits in grand isolation. That was, until I saw a road sign to the  monastery directing me down a small but paved road.

In the spirit of adventure I took a chance that this was a shortcut and headed off into the vast open landscape. This was an inspired decision. Until the final 20km, the road was in good condition but, much more importantly, it passed through some of the most extraordinary countryside of this entire trip. Utterly beautiful grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, mineral lakes shone brilliant white in the sun, and I watched as a cowboy herded his cattle along the valley floor. It was worth the bone-jarring final 20km.

The Lavra Monastery was founded in the 6th century but was expanded significantly in the 11th century, when this complex was the centre of religious life in eastern Georgia. It was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and then rebuilt, only to suffer disaster during Easter, 1615. The army of Persia’s Shah Abbas’ killed over 6000 monks and destroyed much of the complex. It was rebuilt in the 17th century but never regained its former prestige or authority, much of the complex was abandoned.

This is how it remains, a place of solitude and mysticism set in a hostile lunar landscape. There is a working monastery, you regularly see black-robbed priests, and it’s a site of pilgrimage. There were only a handful of people when I arrived, including a number of pilgrims, making for a relaxed visit. The Lavra Monastery is especially spellbinding, a mixture of traditional buildings, rock-hewn passages, monks cells and caves. I visited before heading up the hill to the border.

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Azerbaijan from Mount Gareja, David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Spur-thighed Tortoise, David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Even though I couldn’t visit the rest of the complex, I’m glad I made the effort for the views alone. It was good to take some exercise before the long drive to Tbilisi where I’d spend the night. I wandered down the hill again and came across a most unusual sight, a wild tortoise. I later learned this was Testudo graeca, a Spur-thighed Tortoise. I had no idea Georgia was home to wild tortoises. It went some way to mitigating the closed border.

Sighnaghi, a town for lovers (of wine)

The picturesque hilltop town of Sighnaghi is affectionately known as the City of Love in Georgia. This epithet has been bestowed upon the town thanks to the ridiculous tale of famed Georgian painter, Nikala Pirosmani. It is claimed that his passion for his lover drove him to sell his house so he could buy her one million roses as an expression of his devotion. This idiocy was repaid by cruelty when she left him, a poor and broken man … or as they phrase it in the town’s museum, ‘a sad love story’.

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi should really be known as the place for wine lovers. There are several wine cellars around town in which to taste Georgian wines from the surrounding vineyards, as well as a handful of excellent restaurants that also offer tastings, or at least a glass or two with your meal. I ate and drank so well in Sighnaghi that when the time came to for the drive into the middle of nowhere to visit the David Gareji Monastery, I really thought twice about leaving – ever.

Outside of Tbilisi, Sighnaghi served up the best food of my whole trip. The finest of all came at the delightful Pheasant’s Tears restaurant, which is tucked away behind a large wooden door and has a pleasant outside space. It is also handily attached to a vineyard that was responsible for some of the finest wines I tasted on my trip. I ate here twice and enjoyed every dish. This included a glass of traditional red wine accompanied by bread and sunflower oil infused with black pepper. It was delicious.

It’s no wonder you can all too easily find yourself falling for the easy-going charms of this friendly place. Sighnaghi, though, is not just wine and culinary delights. Beautiful views over the surrounding countryside, a relaxed way of life, attractive cobbled streets and a history dating back centuries, combine to make this a compulsory stop if you’re passing through Kakheti. Driving up the absurdly steep and winding road to the town, I stopped at an old gate in the medieval wall that snakes around the hill.

As I stood admiring the magnificent views over the town and valley, a Japanese cyclist stopped on his way out of town. I asked him how far he’d cycled, “From Beijing”, he said, “I’m going to Istanbul.” Clearly a lunatic, I wished him the best of luck and we parted ways: I, heading for a fantastic lunch; he, to cycle through mid-30ºC temperatures. It was too early to check into the hotel, but the owner poured me a glass of homemade wine to compensate. Sighnaghi is that sort of place.

I spent my time wandering around, visiting the handful of historic sights and generally just relaxing. I did attempt the walk to Bode Monastery, which my guidebook said was 2km away on quiet country lanes. Either this was a gross exaggeration or things have changed a lot since the guide was researched. Tour buses and wildly driven cars rattle along the road making it unsafe for pedestrians. I stopped instead at a bar overlooking the town, next to which was a zip line.

I’d intended to walk back, but fell into conversation with the owner and his daughter. One thing led to another and very soon we were drinking glasses of chacha, the mind-blowingly strong grape spirit. A combination of chacha-induced bravado and a desire not to be run over by a Georgian driver led, inevitably, to taking the shortest route back to town. I’ve never zip-lined before, not sure I will again, and can honestly say it’s a bad idea under the influence.

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Kakheti, spiritual enlightenment and history badly told

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.

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine pot, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine pots, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

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.

Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Cemetery, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Cemetery, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Dzveli (Old) Shuamta Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Dzveli (Old) Shuamta Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

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.

Wine, war and faith in Kakheti

Ancient Gremi was once capital of the now disappeared Kingdom of Kachetian. A lively and wealthy trading town that sat on a branch of the Silk Road, it inevitably attracted would-be conquerers. In the 16th century, it was put to the sword by Persian armies under the command of Shah Abbas I. This was during some bleak times for Georgia and the region of Kakheti in particular. Gremi was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of of the region’s inhabitants were deported to what is modern-day Iran.

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

The ruins of Gremi are an important archeological site, while the Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel and the Royal Tower of the ancient city survived intact to the 21st century. Not that you would have guessed this history from the fleeting mention Gremi received in my guidebook. Only by chance did I pass by the Gremi Citadel on my way to the much more famous Nekresi Monastery. I drove around a bend in the road and was confronted by the dramatic sight of a fortified church on a small hill.

The church dates from 1565 and, uniquely in my experience, allowed visitors to take photographs of the interior. This at least allowed me to capture the dilapidated state of the frescoes. This is one of several ancient Georgian buildings that is on UNESCO’s Tentative List for World Heritage Status, I can only imagine they will need to do some decent restoration work first. The tower standing next to the church was constructed slightly earlier and was worth the 5GEL entry just for the views.

After briefly poking my nose into the wine cellar (no tastings due to driving), I set off for the even more dramatically situated Nekresi Monastery. One of Georgia’s earliest churches, dating from the 4th century, sits at the centre of the complex, and was built only shortly after Christianity was established in the country. Based on the fact that they built on top of a heavily wooded and remote hilltop, I’d say they weren’t sure how popular Christianity was going to be in those early days.

So steep is the hill, and so limited the space at the top, that you have to leave your car at the bottom and take a minibus up. This was a hair-raising experience. The minibus looked like it dated from the Soviet era and ground up and around hairpin bends in first gear, while inside we all sweated due to the oppressive heat and, at least in my case, fear of plunging to my death. I vowed to walk down. Glad to be off the bus, I followed a group of Georgian families towards the monastery.

Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine cellar, Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine cellar, Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Carrying the building materials to this spot must have been a huge task, but the views are definitely worth it. The complex has several ancient buildings in addition to the original 4th century church, including a 6th and 7th century basilica, an 8th century church, a 9th century bishop’s palace with attached wine cellar, and a 16th century tower. Oddly, there’s no information about the site, but it is a pleasant place to walk around.

The wine cellar is probably the most interesting part of the complex, and includes an ancient vessel carved from a whole tree trunk in which grapes were pressed by foot before being poured in kvevri, the large clay pots Georgian’s have been using to make wine for eight millennia. There are some frescoes, but they are badly discoloured by centuries of candle smoke. I drank in the views for a while before leaving for Kisiskhevi, where I’d booked a couple of nights in a vineyard.

8,000 years and counting, tasting traditional Georgian wine

Georgian’s identify very strongly with their food. Like many other cultures, it provides an emotional reference point, but while khinkali, lobio and khachapuri provide a sense of belonging, no Georgian worth their salt would sit down to eat without a bottle of wine from the eastern region of Kakheti or, increasingly, the appellations from western Georgia. No meal would be complete without a shot (or three) of Georgian fire-water, chacha, known colloquially as grape vodka.

I knew little of Georgian wine, but what I did know was enough to convince me a visit to Kakheti would be a good idea. It’s not just that Georgia produces good wine, or that it has grape varieties that I’ve never heard of and which are largely unknown beyond its borders. Georgia can lay claim to be the ‘Cradle of Wine’ – and does in its tourism literature. A discovery of 8,000 year-old grape seeds and the remains of vines sealed inside ancient clay vessels gives Georgia bragging rights as the birthplace of wine.

No meal would be complete in Georgia without wine

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine tasting, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine cellar, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine tasting, Kakheti, Georgia

To put that into some sort of context, humanity discovered the intoxicating joy of wine 3,000 years before it invented writing (thank you ancient Egypt). We were calling over the sommelier 5,000 years before we were using our first iron tools. As I’ve observed before, humanity’s desire to get high is one of the greatest drivers of innovation and creativity on earth. Georgian’s are rightly very proud of their contribution and, having sampled several wines, they have every reason to be.

I’m sure others around the world were trying something similar, but it was Georgian’s who first discovered that putting grape juice in clay pots and burying it underground for a few months produced wine through natural fermentation. The process may be a little more scientific these days, but the Georgian wine industry is using the same tools and processes as it did thousands of years ago to produce ‘natural’ wines. I know there is a natural wine movement, but in Georgia it’s just part of the culture.

Known as Qvevri wine-making, it made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2013. Fitting recognition given that wine cellars are considered holy places. Although wine makers often use both traditional and Western European methods, and I’d tried both in Tbilisi, I was keen to sample traditional wines during my time in Kakheti. I’ve always been skeptical but some of the reds I tried were delicious, white wines, or orange wines as they’re called, were more hit and miss.

I stayed at a vineyard in the heart of wine country which produced several traditional wines, and which came with a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains, but there are lots of producers, large and small, across this region who offer tastings. It would definitely be worth trying several. Later in my trip I was in the lovely town of Sighnaghi, where several producers have places in town offering tastings. It allowed me to sample more grape varieties.

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine tasting, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine production, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine in Georgia has been associated with monastic life for the last 1,500 years, and it is monks who have done much to develop the industry. They continue to do so today, but even in the Communist era Georgian wine was exalted across the Soviet Union, and not just because Stalin was a local boy. Georgia was known as the wine cellar of the USSR. Russia remains a key export market, but China consumes most Georgian wine, followed by the USA and Germany (I’ve never seen it on sale in Berlin).

One thing seems clear though, like tourism to the country, Georgian wine is on the map and will only grow in popularity. My extensive research indicates that that can only be a good thing.

Monasticism and wine making at Alaverdi Monastery

Kakheti is Georgia’s most famous wine producing region, with a wine making heritage that dates back 8,000 years, but for at least the last millennium wine in this region has been strongly bound to Georgian monasticism. The monks of Alaverdi Monastery may have sworn off worldly pursuits, but they’ve maintained a wine making tradition since the founding of the monastery in the 6th century. The countryside of the surrounding Alazani valley is dotted with vineyards, providing the raw product for the monastery.

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyard, Kakheti, Georgia

Kakheti, Georgia

I arrived at Alaverdi Monastery after a long and nerve jangling drive along a virtually deserted mountain road. I’d expected it to be largely unpaved, but was happy to find parts of it were newly paved. Other parts were terrifyingly rough, and there was rarely much indication of when one section would end and another begin. On more than one occasion I found myself going from wonderful paved road to something that would be best described as ‘donkey track’.

The route though was absolutely beautiful, whether forested mountainside or open pasture decorated with multitudes of wild flowers. I passed through sleepy villages, but for large stretches I saw little evidence of civilisation, could barely get a phone signal and began to worry about how long it would take to be found if the car broke down. It was a relief to find myself driving through the sizeable town of Akhmeta and to be surrounded by vineyards. Where there’s wine, you’ll find people.

Still, after days in the mountains and a lonely drive, it was a bit of a shock to find myself confronted by tour groups embarking and disembarking from coaches outside Alaverdi Monastery. Rather than competing for space with a large group, I went to the nearby cafe for a drink, which had the advantage of being air conditioned. The temperature in this lowland area was ferocious. I made a plan to visit a few other nearby sights before heading into the monastery complex.

The oldest parts of the monastery date from the 6th century, when it was founded by a monk named Joseph Alaverdeli, who arrived here from Antioch in southern Turkey, at the time a major centre of Christianity. Today, the majority of what you see dates from the 11th century when King Kvirike the Great ordered a cathedral built in the place of the small church of St. George. Over the entrance to the church is a colourful 16th century fresco of St. George doing something unpleasant to a dragon.

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyard, Kakheti, Georgia

Kakheti, Georgia

For nine centuries, until the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi was consecrated in 2004 in fact, Alaverdi had the distinction of being Georgia’s tallest religious building. I’m not sure that will have a decisive influence on the decision, but the monastery has been on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2007. Coincidentally, wine production began again in 2006 after a prolonged period when wine wasn’t made here. Today, they use both the traditional qvevri method as well as Western European methods.

Medieval architecture combines perfectly with ancient wine making traditions, and the whole complex is framed by the dramatic backdrop of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. It’s a remarkable setting. I wandered through the grounds into the church and, not for the first time, found myself disappointed by the interior. Most of the frescoes were in poor condition, but shafts of light strikingly illuminated the interior. There’s not much else to see, so I set off in search of other historic sights.