There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Telavi to Tbilisi, via Sighnaghi, Part 6 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

In the morning central Telavi did not look quite as depressed as our first impression had suggested.

Central Telavi, on a quiet summer Saturday morning

After the destruction wrought by the Persian Shah Abbas in the 17th century, his successor Nadir Shah (for whom the Topkapi Dagger was made, though he died before the gift was delivered) appointed local princes as kings of Kartli (central Georgia) and Kakheti (eastern Georgia). One of these, Erekle II (also known as Heraclius) united the kingdoms and from 1762 ruled them as a semi-independent state. He built the sizeable castle that occupies much of central Telavi. Unfortunately it was not open, so we had a look round the outside.

Telavi Castle

Erekle was generally a wise and forward looking ruler but overreached himself when he tried to free Imereti, a western Georgian kingdom, from the Turks. He sought Russian help in 1770, then Russian protection in 1783. Although apparently a good idea at the time, once the Russians  had their foot in the door it was only a matter of time before they annexed Georgia in its entirety. A brief period of independence followed the First World War, but by 1922 the Red Army had incorporated Georgia into the new USSR and that was the end of independence until the USSR disintegrated in 1991.

Telavi Castle

In front of the castle is an equestrian statue of Erekle II. Dinara was dismissive, the Soviets threw up hundreds of such statues, she told us, paying lip service to Georgian history.

Erekle II outside his castle, Telavi

Opposite the statute is a plane tree, said to be 900 years old. The claim is unverifiable, but it is certainly the biggest plane tree I have ever seen. It is more than likely that it was already mature when Erekle started work on the castle and it has outlived him, not to mention the Soviet Union.
Lynne and a huge plane tree, Telavi

Although our destination was Tbilisi, we set off eastwards, back towards Azerbaijan,....

Telavi to Tbilisi via Sighnaghi

....stopping first at the Tsinandali Palace, in the wine village of that name. The Italianate palace was built by Prince Alexander Chavchavadze (1786-1846), son of Georgia's first ambassador to Russia and godson of Catherine the Great - though he became an anti-tsarist activist and poet.

Tsinindali Palace on the Chavchavadze Estate

Photographs were not allowed inside the house, but in the literary salon he entertained Dumas and Pushkin, among others.
Lynne and Dinara in the 'Literary Salon' Tsinindali Palace
Photographs were not allowed inside, but if you step out onto the balcony........

The house passed to Alexander’s son David Chavchavadze, but the fortunes of the family came to a shuddering halt in 1854 when tribesmen from Dagestan ransacked the house, kidnapping 23 women and children, including David’s wife. To pay the substantial ransom demand, David borrowed money from the Tsar. When he could not manage the repayments the house passed to Tsar Alexander III, and the Russian royal family frequently spent their summers here. Despite this misfortune, the Chavchavadze family*[update at end] have continued to play a prominent role in Georgian life and politics.

The house is set in a garden in the ‘English Style'. At the end of the Garden is a winery built by Alexander's father. Beneath the house is a tasting room where we were offered a glass of Tsinandali wine (see Tasting Georgian Wines ).

The 'English Garden' and the winery, Tsinandali Palace

A little further east, near the small town of Sighnaghi is the Bodbe nunnery, the burial place of Saint Nino. Nino is believed to have been a Greek speaking Roman from Cappadocia, and possibly a relative of St George, who arrived in Georgia ca 320 intent on converting the country to Christianity. Requiring a cross for her work she entered a nearby vineyard - there is usually one handy in Georgia - picked up a couple vine twigs, tied them together with a lock of her hair and so invented the distinctive Georgian Grapevine Cross.
Georgian Cross, Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral
(thanks, Wikipedia)

She first converted King Merian III of Iberia (Iberia here meaning central Georgia, not Spain and Portugal) followed by the rest of the country, making Georgia the second country (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Her work done, she retired to Bodbe and died there in 332, 338 or 340 depending on which source you read. The main church is 9th century though it has endured many makeovers, most notably in the 17th century. The detached bell tower is 18th century.
The old church, Bodbe Nunnery, Sighnaghi

A striking feature of Georgian (and Armenian) Christianity is that one church is never enough, and a second one is currently being built next to it. Wealthy people who want to show their piety and gratitude for their success build a church to the glory of God. Fair enough, but when there is already one perfectly adequate church why build another next door? Could their piety be better shown by using the same money for good works? Do Georgians want a lesson in morality from me? No. At the bottom of the hill below the new church is a spring which miraculously appeared when Nino prayed at that spot and its waters are alleged to cure a variety of ailments.

The new church, Bodbe Nunnery, Sighnaghi
Sighnaghi itself is dramatically placed on a bluff above the wide Alazani Valley, but before taking a look around we had lunch at the Pheasant's Tears Winery. This Georgian-Swedish-American concern aims to produce wines so rare and beautiful you would think you were drinking pheasant's tears.


After a brief glance at the cellar and a look at more qvervis we sat down to eat. When the Russian market dried up after the 2008 war the owners of Pheasant's Tears decided that for export purposes their USP was that Georgian wine was different, so they have concentrated on making organic Georgian style wines as well as they possibly can be made. Like many wineries Pheasant’s Tears is run by enthusiasts, and their enthusiasm is infectious. I wish them well with their endeavour.

Lynne, me, qvervis (at our feet) and some bottles
To say that we had a different wine with every course would be true if Georgian food came in courses. We ate bread and cheese, aubergine purée, a chard/spinach dish, green salad, a melange of wild mushrooms, beef patties (do I mean burgers?) and chips. We drank four different wines - see my Georgian wine notes (Tasting Georgian wine) - ranging from good to excellent and finished with a glass of chacha, the Georgian version of grappa. We immediately felt the need to part with 30 Laris (£10.50) for a half litre bottle.

Well fed, we staggered out onto Sighnaghi's main drag where Lynne attempted to get run over by a man apparently unaware of the difference between a hill start and vertical take-off.

Driving through the town and out to the end of the bluff we reached one of the 23 watch towers on Erekle II’s 4 km long encircling wall.

Watchtowers on Sighnaghi city wall

Perched high above the Alazani Valley, I find it hard to imagine any attacker even getting as far as the wall.

Sighnaghi city wall above the Alazani Valley
Back in town we dropped in on St George’s church, one of two Georgian Orthodox churches within the city walls. It is not particularly old, Sighnaghi was an 18th century new town, but it looks older.
St George's Church, Sighnaghi
We walked through the pleasant streets of the small town pausing at the war memorial, which has far too many names for such a small place.
Just part of Sighnaghi War Memorial - so many names for such a small town 

We had by now travelled 50km in the wrong direction, so the journey back to Tbilisi took a couple of hours. The roads were good, though perhaps not quite as good as in Azerbaijan and the driving was a little wilder. We left the Alazani valley and crossed rich agricultural country - with the inevitable sprinkling of vineyards.

Leaving Sighnaghi
We seemed to drop into Tbilisi. One minute the city was not there, then we dipped down, rounded a hairpin went back under the road and there it was. Eastern Tbilisi and the 'old town' are situated along a valley, in places almost a gorge.
Across the bridge to the old town, Tbilisi

Our hotel was near the old town and after settling in we took a walk past the bars and cafés that make up this area and continued past the Sioni Cathedral (of which more in the next post), which is built in a depression. Saturday evening mass was well attended with queues outside the door.....

Queue for Saturday Mass, Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi
...and confession being heard in the precinct.

Hearing confession in the precinct, Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi
We stopped to rehydrate at a bar called the Konka Station. The Konka was Tbilisi's old tram system and a retired tram car was parked outside. As the intense heat of the day began to wane and we became more and more comfortable where we were, the thought of walking back to the hotel and then coming out later to find dinner became increasingly unattractive. We called for the menu and another beer and ordered a khachapuri (cheese pie) and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Although the Georgians are great wine drinkers, they brew a decent lager and eat an immense amount of their distinctively flavoured cheese. Norma and Wilson Metcalfe, whom we met in North Korea, have travelled extensively in the former Soviet republics. It is their opinion that khachapuri is actually addictive. They may be right.

*The family remains prominent and not just in Georgia. In October 2014 I spotted a newspaper obituary of David Chavchavadze. Born in London 1922, he moved to America in 1943. He was a writer and musician and for two decades a CIA officer in the Soviet Union division.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea

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