Exploring Georgia (The Country)
The Oldest wine producing country in the world (and ChaCha!)
In any country in the world that uses mini buses to ferry people around there is a general rule – there is always room for one more. This is no exception Azerbaijan, we departed Sheki on a packed mini bus bound for Balakan the town the closest to the Azerbaijan – Georgia border. There were 6 of us so for a few extra manat the mini bus driver drove us the extra 16km to the border which saved us the hassle of a taxi.
The northern Balakan- Lagahdeki / Azerbaijan – Georgia border crossing is designated a ‘remote’ crossing which means not many people cross here. This also means it is super quick to cross the border, we got stamped out of Azerbaijan walked about 500 metres which included crossing a stunning river to the Georgian border control , changed some money, got stamped into Georgia and were in a taxi heading to Telavi all in about 30 minutes.
After a hairy 2 hour drive to Telavi (Georgians are the most insane drivers anywhere I’ve ever been) we arrived at our beautiful guest house. We had a lovely private suite with huge shady terrace overlooking a lovely garden. Breakfast was served every morning on the terrace and consisted of the most incredible array of homemade jams, compotes, yoghurt along with fresh fruit and all sorts of other goodies, we truly were spoiled.
Telavi is the main town in the wine growing region of the Kakheti in Eastern Georgia. It is high on a hill and has stunning views of the Alazani Valley and the Caucasus AND it’s evelvation means it is cooler than it is in the valley.
We immediately liked Telavi it is big enough to have a good choice of restaurants, shops, bars and interesting sights but small enough that you hold easily get around on foot.
In medieval times Telavi was a major trading centre it was later devastated by the Mongols and then the Persians. In the 1700’s Erekle II came to power who built a fort and castle in the town. To this day Erkle is credited with many progressive and positive policies which benefited the country.
We took some trips and visited Gemi Fortress, Nekresi Monastery set high on the side of a mountain, Chavchavadze Estate and a couple of wineries. We also visited the fort and museum, but most days you would find us just wandering around the town visiting the market or looking at the old buildings. In the evenings we would join a Canadian couple we met on the bus for an evening drink.
All in all a very pleasant way to spend a week.
From Telavi we ventured to a small walled hill top town of Sighnagi. It reminded me a little of the Tuscan hill top towns in Italy. Very pretty with beautiful old buildings many of them in ruins and drop dead gorgeous views across the valley.
Throughout Georgia and across the ex soviet countries we have travelled in we have come across many abandoned buildings.
In Georgia many buildings belonged to the wealthy and were taken from them when the Bolsheviks came in 1921. In many instances the buildings lay empty for the 70+ years of Soviet rule then another 25+ while the countries struggled to rebuild themselves after the Soviet split.
In every town across the region are huge ornate buildings that were once the place the public gathered for social events under soviet rule – these are all abandoned.
Georgia was the playground of the party faithful. Huge ornate and massively expensive spas were built where they would holiday – these are either now all abandoned or have become home to the refugees from Abkhazia.
When the Soviet split many areas across the old Soviet Union (including Russia) had no power, water and little food for up to 2 years. Very dark times.
It is only now people are in a position to buy and restore these old buildings.
Sighnagi was pleasant enough however is definitely a tourist town with blokes whooshing up and down the main st on quad bikes and the town being invaded with day trippers from Telavi.
From Sighnagi we caught a bus to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia and a lovely city. We stayed in a hotel in the old town with views of the castle, the only downside was the incredibly steep climb to our hotel…
Tbilisi dates back many thousands of years and was chosen for the capital back in the 5th century due to its sulphur springs which are believed to have healing powers. Over the years the city was pillaged and sacked by the Mongols, then ruled by the Persians, the Turks and then the Russians.
We liked Tbilisi very much, it has an interesting old town and some restaurants doing good food. One day we took the cable car up to the castle and watched the instaprat crowd jostling for selfies in the most ridiculous places. Other days found us wandering through tiny alleys and lane ways of the old town
We also found a fantastic restaurant, Khasheria serving modern Georgian food which was excellent.
Tbilisi also gave us some time to do a little organising for our onward trip into Turkey, buy tickets print Visas and all the boring things associated with travel.
Overall we felt we didn’t have enough time in Tbilisi and it is definitely on our agenda to return to for an extended period of time.
Next stop Turkey and the Dogu Express.