Hardcore free Kakheti: how to survive a trip to the winemaking region

Hardcore free Kakheti: how to survive a trip to the winemaking region

As I discussed the recent trip around Kakheti with my friend Levan, who was about to host four Poles, I was afraid that there would be too much drinking. Kakheti is the main winemaking region of Georgia, wineries are on every step, and if you travel there with a driver, your chances to finish you day being drunk and happy are very high.

Though in the end it was planned it in a cool way, which allows the guests to see things and have some time for themselves. So if you travel around Kakheti with a car for two days, you will be able to see and experience all sides of the non-highland part.

dsc_5710We started our day with David Gareji. For the first time I was there on the sunrise, and that was unforgettable. I know that some very experienced travelers might find Gareji trivial and too pop, but as I don’t have an ambition to be the wow-look-I-found-a-lake-now-all-worship-me explorer and being in love with the place, I always enjoy taking guests to that area.dsc_5696 dsc_5713 dsc_5717 dsc_5730 dsc_5747 dsc_5750It depends on you, if you are into climbing to the other side of the hill and seeing the caves of lavra. You can see the place, where St. David used to live in the VI century, as he and the other preacher named Dodo have started the monastery there, as well as check out the church and the old systems of channels for collecting rain water.

From Gareji we headed to Sighnaghi and Bodbe, having made a short stop to eat buffalo matsoni in a roadside café near the village Mzisguli. As I used to mention, this part of the road is quite famous for such stops. For example, people think that in Kachreti is the best meat, in Mzisguli is the best matsoni etc.img_20160919_094534Near Sighnaghi there is a monastery Bodbe, where St. Nino, the main female saint of Georgia, is resting in peace. She used to start spreading Christian faith from Mtskheta, but her last shelter was here. The bell tower of the monastery is dated back by the XIX century only, but the nunnery and the church are quite old (established in the IX century, they have been renovated in the XVII). In 1-1.2 km from the monastery you’ll find an ice-cold spring, which is believed to have supernatural power. You just have to get special clothes and get inside three times (be aware of big queues on the weekends), asking St. Nino to make your wish come true. After that be prepared to ascend back or to pay around 10 lari for the cab to get back to the monastery or 15 lari to go to the center of Sighnaghi.
dsc_5783To me, Sighnaghi is extremely lovely and extremely over-PR-ed. It is an old town, it is very picturesque, so if you are fine with climbing old city walls or a bell tower of a church, visiting the museum and having local food and a jug of a local wine – go there and relax. It is good for relaxation, because nothing big is usually happening there. The status of “city of love” and 24/7 marriage registration is not relevant to every tourist, so if you need more incentives, at least add Bodbe to your trip.dsc_5787 dsc_5802 dsc_5805img_20160919_111218Talking about interesting businesses around Sighnaghi, I couldn’t but mention the ranch Living Roots, where it’s possible to ride horses, and the winery Pheasant’s Tears, which has been established by an American and produces traditional Georgian wines. Staying in Sighnaghi is possible: there are quite a lot of guesthouses and hotels there. I can tell you that Pirosmani is good enough, and Kabadoni is super good (and quite pricey).

After that our next destination was Lagodekhi Natural Reserve, the first protected area of Georgia, which has been established in 1912 as a result of efforts, made by the Polish researcher Ludwik Mlokosiewicz.img_20160920_101837The information center of the park is in 1.2 km from the center of the town. You can get the information about the routes and start your trip from there, but be sure you have your ID with you: the protected area is located at the border to Azerbaijan, so the border police will ask you to show your documents. Another tip – try to get waterproof shoes, especially in spring: the rivers can go really wide there.

The shortest route will take around 3.5 – 5 hours here and back and will lead you to a fortress. The trail to the beautiful Ninoskhevi waterfall starts in 7 km from the information center in the village Gurgeniani and takes at least half of the day. The longest trail to Black Rock Lake (unfortunately it has nothing to do with Burning Man festival) usually takes three days. There are shelters on the way to the lake, and you can also rent a tent in the information center.

Camping is possible also in the yard near the entrance to the protected area. Forest atmosphere starts there immediately: the trees are tall, the birds sing, and noises of the town disappear. There is also a new place to stay, Waldhotel Lagodekhi, just next to the info center. I spend one night there, and it was very pleasant. Really loved the terrace!dsc_5819 dsc_5818 img_20160919_151931 img_20160919_180102It was enough for the first day – I mean, steppe landscapes and lavra, visit to the monastery and “city of love” in all its sleepy beauty, plus a decent walk in the natural reserve is already something as for the first day in Kakheti. You already feel how diverse the region is and take your time for having a rest.dsc_5829

On the second day we wanted to put even more culture to the plan. Though, having kind of headed to Telavi from Lagodekhi, we passed by Kvareli and wine tunnel of Khareba factory on the way. The excursion and tastings are not very cheap, as for Georgia (from 12 to 21 lari), but you don’t get “just” wine there: the atmosphere of former bomb shelter and now a wine storage is very peculiar.dsc_5864 dsc_5849 img_20160920_112725The next steps after Kvareli are usually two historical objects: monastery Nekresi and castle Gremi. I like both of them. Nekresi, the IX century monastery complex, still keeps this raw medieval feeling, despite of quite many visitors a day. Be prepared to give 3 lari for going up and down with a shuttle, because the road from the gate to the monastery _is_ steep. Believe me, I am not lazy, but you will be grateful, if you will follow my tip. The shuttle doesn’t stop half-way.img_20160920_130932 dsc_5900 dsc_5907 img_20160920_131557 img_20160920_131934Gremi has a nice museum (featuring the royal toilet – couldn’t skip this lovely detail), a wine cellar and even a hostel at the territory. It used to be quite a big trade city and even a capital of the Kakhetian kingdom in the XVI century, but then Persians happened to it, like they happened to many Georgian places many times, and the capital slowly moved to Telavi.img_20160920_140952 img_20160920_140847 dsc_5943 So did we – thanks God, without any help from foreign invaders. Walking in old Telavi and drinking coffee under the 900-years-old plane tree is pleasant, but if you have time, I would also recommend visiting Alaverdi monastery or the mansion of noble Chavchavadze family in Tsinandali – both places are not far from Telavi, and carry historical and wine-related value.dsc_5964 dsc_5967 img_20160920_144649 (was unable to resist the magic of Telavi’s bazaar)img_20160920_144840 img_20160920_145019 img_20160920_144542 img_20160920_144515 Before I put the last dot for today, the last point about places to stay: in June I discovered a cool place called Chateau Bruale near the village Tkhilistskaro on the road between Telavi and Kvareli. They have a beautiful garden, a wine cellar and cozy atmosphere. If you want to spend some time in the countryside, this is a place to be. Another cool place is Chateau Mere – more high-class, more stylish, it is pricey, but you get a lot of pleasant impressions there, for sure.

Ah yes, and the most important point of covering such distances is transportation, because unfortunately it’s impossible to travel across Kakheti with minibuses and be that flexible. A car + GPS + cautiousness or a car + Georgian driver + prayer are the most convenient ways. Otherwise you can get to Kvareli and Lagodekhi from Ortachala bus station or take a minibus to Telavi, Sighnaghi or Tsinandali from Isani/Samgori bus station (both in Tbilisi). The rest is in God’s hands: only he knows, when minibuses go from Telavi or Kvareli to Gremi or Lagodekhi…

Also, I started running a shuttle bus Donkey Express that takes people from Tbilisi to Telavi, Gremi, Kvareli and Sighnaghi on Tuesday and Thursday in April – October and on Saturday in November – March.

Alright, these 1400 words are more than enough for a brief review of Kakheti. I am heading to Tusheti, and that will be a hardcore – starting with quality of the roads and finishing with amount of chacha I spotted in Levan’s car.

Stay tuned!


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About Dariko

Born in Ukraine, now Tbilisi-based. Love seeing new places.