On that midnight train to Georgia.... well, almost. Actually, it arrived from Yerevan to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia at midnight, and we were not expecting that! The downside of being lazy in a country and not learning their language is that misunderstandings happen. The train we were on was terminating in Batumi, a big coastal city in the west of Georgia. The arrival time of 7am we were given was for Batumi, not Tbilisi as we thought. Unsure of what to do, we decided to nap in the modern and clean train station until the transport started running to our first destination in Georgia. Unfortunately, the stern and unfriendly guards had other ideas, and threw us out onto the cold, windy streets. Our first experience of Tbilisi was not a good one, sitting for hours outside the station doors in one of the dodgiest areas of the city, surrounded by drunks from the casinos, and unlikely looking prostitutes. Why not get a room, you may ask? We had about three hours to kill, and wanted to get out of the city that day (and we are also renowned tight asses!). Richard pondered whether the more “Westernized” a country, the less hospitable? One thing is for sure- it would never have happened in Iran!!
We were relieved and happy, to say the least, to hop on the marshrutka to Sighnagi, our first stop in Georgia. We were quite shocked at two things at the bus station. Firstly, the public toilets, which apart from being totally flooded with God knows what and stinking, had no door or walls on the cubicles, and secondly the amount of men standing around drinking beer or alcohol at 7am! Strange place!
*A note on marshrutkas. These are basically minibuses that run almost everywhere in Armenia and Georgia- big buses are quite rare. We used them countless times, and usually found them economical, uncrowded and quite fast.
Sighnagi is situated in Kakheti, the biggest wine growing area in Georgia, and sounded like our sort of place. We arrived to find a heavily renovated small town, with picture perfect cobblestone streets, and quaint, old-fashioned buildings. It took us a while to decide that we liked it, although it kind of felt like being in a perfect Italian village in a story book.
We had been recommended a guesthouse in town, and the man from that place happened to be picking up other guests from our marshrutka, so we went along with them to the busy little B and B. Like most places out of the cities in Armenia and Georgia, this guesthouse had the option of breakfast and dinner included, which we gladly accepted, as the food is usually good value, plentiful and includes local specialities.
This guesthouse was always full of travelers and tourists, mostly Polish, as Hungarian airline, Wizair has recently introduced very cheap flights from Warsaw. We enjoyed the social atmosphere, especially at dinners, with everyone sitting around the table talking about their favourite places they’d visited in Georgia. One night was memorable for the wrong reasons, with the son of the family introducing us all to cha cha, the local version of grappa, or grape liquor, which resulted in Sal being very sick the following day! We also had our first experience of the Georgian tradition of the toastmaster that night, with the son going on in flowery speeches (that became longer as the night went on) about friendship, travel and how wonderful Georgia is before getting around to the “cheers” part!
We enjoyed the few days in town, exploring the less perfect streets away from the town centre, searching out all the pieces of the massive wall which once surrounded the town, wandering around the outlying hills and discovering sweet little churches and cemeteries, visiting the cutest market in the town centre, watching the vendors selling goods from their gardens from the back of their cars- it’s so nice to be a place with no big supermarkets, and everything looking so fresh and natural. Again, a lot of people in Sighnagi have huge veggie and fruit gardens, with pears, mulberries, cherries, grapes, figs and pomegranates common.
|Home made cheese for sale, Sighnagi|
|Church art, Sighnagi|
|Part of fort wall surrounding Sighnagi|
|Wine shop, Sighnagi|
The very sacred Bode Convent where Saint Nino is believed to be buried is the highlight of a trip to Sighnagi. Nino is particularly revered in Georgia, as it’s believed she came from Turkey after being blessed by the Virgin Mary, and converted the Georgian royal family to Christianity by performing miracles. Georgia, along with Armenia, was one of the first countries to convert to Christianity. We found the Georgian churches different from the Armenian ones, with many pictures covering the walls, and a less ostentatious altar area, along with some different architectural styles. The day we visited Bode it was busy, and the scaffolding on the main building spoiled the view of the cathedral, but we enjoyed looking around the smaller church with frescos, and also saw our first Georgian nuns! We are easily excited! We were once again impressed with the free entrance charge to almost all sights in Georgia and Armenia. This is presumably because most of them are religious/pilgrimage places, but it was still refreshing after the expense of Iran’s sights.
As pretty as Sighnagi was, it was limited in sights, so after a few days, we travelled to Telavi, the capital of Kakheti region. It was an interesting (and bumpy) drive in a seemingly badly off area. Houses were big, but in very bad condition, people were filling up water bottles at communal taps, and structures were built in a makeshift fashion, using whatever materials were at hand. The road was also filled with people selling their stone fruits, as harvest time was well and truly underway. We saw the many vineyards that grow the grapes for the copious amounts of wine in Kakheti.
Georgia has a long tradition with wine, with evidence showing it to be the birthplace of making the stuff- 8000 years ago! So, by now, it has become a normal part of life, and a meal is not complete without it, red or white.
We were met at Telavi bus station by a polite “tout” who drove us for free to an amazing guesthouse, with a welcoming non-English speaking hostess and a palatial room complete with high roofs and antique furniture on our own floor, as there were no other guests during our stay there. She didn’t cook food for guests, but as there were many restaurants and a nearby supermarket in the medium sized town, that was no problem at all. It was here we found a strange quirk of many Georgian guesthouses- no lock on the door! We asked our hostess about it, and she indicated it was safe, as she was in the house at all times. We opted to be sure, and kept all our valuables on us when we went out!
The weather was hot here, and we sweated around town to check out the renovated area of the old town (similar to Sighnagi) which we found less than inspiring as there was no life to the place, although the buildings were lovely; the fort in the middle of town; the huge old plane tree, which is now a tourist attraction, and the fantastic market filled to the brim with more fresh fruit, meat and useful bits and pieces.
|Largest plane tree in Georgia, Telavi|
|Coffee for sale in Telavi market|
|Rich with market seller, Telavi|
It was in Telavi we got more than our fill of Christian sights. There is a lot to see in quite a small area, and most things are accessible by local marshrutka, and if not, hitch hiking was very easy. Among the highlights were Gremi, the old capital where the splendid fort is still complete, and a church inside covered with beautiful paintings of saints; Alaverdi, an 11th century grand cathedral with more frescoes and a working monastery, which had a bizarre (but we later found out, common) dress code which included no trousers for women, and black robed and bearded priests walking around; Ikalto monastery, a very quiet and damaged place in an out of the way setting, but interesting for its ancient wine cellars; and Old and New Shuamta- one an old, disused, simple monastery in a lovely setting in the woods, and the other a current convent, where we had to ring a bell and wait for the stern nun to let us in a look around the church (but not the grounds).
|Exterior Alaverdi Cathedral|
|Church roof, inside Gremi church|
|Great old toilet, Gremi fortress|
|Local house, on the walk to Ilkato monastery|
|Interior, Ilkato monastery|
|Old wine pots, Ilkato monastery|
|Inside Shuamta Monastery|
We left our grand room in Telavi after five days, and took a marshrutka back to the busy bus station in Tbilisi. We had a plan to visit a place in the mountains, but changed our minds when we saw the bus didn’t leave until the next day, and decided to take the easy route to Kazbegi, a mountain village three hours from the capital.