Georgia’s wine country, its easternmost region of Kakheti is a land of hospitable, openhearted and straightforward people who live surrounded by rugged mountains, ancient castles, magnificent churches, and drink wine to praise the almighty for each harvest of their nurtured grape yards. Kakheti is unquestionably a must-see for any visitor to Georgia. With its generous landscapes and people, Kakheti offers an unforgettable experience to its first-time visitors and those who are well acquainted with its heart-warming culture.
The fascinating and exclusive area of Tusheti is hidden away in the Caucasus Mountains along Kakheti’s northern border with Russia. The Abano Pass is only open from mid-June to early October and travelers should expect the unexpected as they wind their way between the steep cliffs. Tusheti has truly unique cultural heritage, and locals still practice their own form of Orthodox Christianity. Shale stone towers dot the landscape and mark the ancient sites of ritual animal sacrifices. You will gain a deeper insight into the Tusheti culture by spending a night in a local homestays.
Gareja is one of the largest monastery complex in Georgia, where famous historical figures lived and worked in ancient times. Built between the 6-17th Centuries, the monastery is even more remarkable for being carved entirely in the rock. It was once a Royal monastery and the churches represent almost the entire range of architectural and artistic styles from the 6th century onwards, while its original frescos are equally stunning.
Bodbe Monastery dates back to the 4th-9th century. This is where St. Nino, the enlightener of all Georgians died and is buried. Bodbe has always been an important religious and educational center and had a significant role in the political life of the country and managed to retain its importance as a spiritual center in the Caucasus for over thousand years.
Gremi Monastery Complex
The magnificent town of Gremi was briefly the capital of Kakheti and has equally splendid architecture and history including its church, the royal residence and the commercial neighborhood. The Archangel Church, built in 1565, is considered as one of the masterpieces of late medieval Kakhetian architecture.
The town of Nekresi was founded by King Parnajom in the 2nd century BC. In the 4th century AD King Trdat built a church in the town, which is now one of the oldest Christian churches in Georgia. Nekresi was an important spiritual, educational, cultural, and political center.
Dzveli (Old) Gavazi Church
The Virgin Mary Temple in Dzveli Gavazi (present Akhalsopeli) is outstanding monument of Georgian architecture, dating back to the 6th century. Although it has been destroyed and re-built several times, it is still an active church today.
Dzveli (Old) Shuamta Monastery
Situated in a hollow, between forest-covered mountains, Dzveli Shuamta has one of the oldest Christian churches in Georgia: the three-nave basilica that dates back to the 5th century. Two other cross-domed churches were built in the 7th century. The walls of these churches still have fragments of frescos and inscriptions made in older Georgian Asomtavruli alphabet.
Akhali (New) Shuamta Temple
According to the legend, this temple was built when Lord Gurieli’s young daughter Tinatin dreamed that she would marry the prince in whose farmstead she would find a white cornel tree. In return she would have to build a Holy Virgin church there. Later, Tinatin’s dream came true and she married King Levan of Kakheti. In return she did indeed build this temple, and she was eventually buried here.
Assyrian Father Ioseb from Alaverdi who is buried in the Monastery founded Alaverdi monastery in the second half of the 6th century. Kakhetian King Kvirike built Alaverdi St. George Cathedral in the 11th century. The cathedral has retained remains of artwork of the 11th and 15-16th centuries. The cathedral was damaged in battles and was first restored in 1476- 95; In 1742 a strong earthquake destroyed the dome – Queen Tamar initiated the restoration project that was concluded by her offspring King Erekle II in 1750.
Gurjaani Kvelatsminda Church
Gurjaani Kvelatsminda is a wonderful example of a transitional period in Georgian culture. This 8th century church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is the only two-domed temple in Georgia. It was also the scene of a miracle, attributed to the Virgin Mary where milk was found to pour from its bare walls. As a result it was frequently visited by nursing mothers. The pilgrims usually returned home once again able to feed their children.
Built in the early 19th century by the Chavchavadze family, the Tsinandali estate is encircled by well-maintained gardens and rare trees not found elsewhere in Georgia. The house itself has been converted into a museum honoring the poet Alexander Chavchavadze, leader of Georgian romanticism. Behind the museum, there is the famous Tsinandali wine cellar. You can taste wine on the ground floor of the Chavchavadze Palace.
Vashlovani Protected Area
Vashlovani Protected Area is located between the two main rivers of Kakheti – the Lori and Alazani. The gorge is a deep and beautiful canyon cut by a small ravine through the limestone cliffs. The territories of Vashlovani are distinguished with rare wild pistachio trees, arid light forests, and bluestem-feather grass steppes. Georgia’s most unexplored area, Vashlovani’s arid steppe contains incredible wildlife that has adapted to this unique climate. Vashlovani is a destination for the true adventurer and is best explored on horseback.
Lagodekhi Protected Areas
One of the first National Parks in the entire Caucasus, Lagodekhi is a wild, untamed area rich with biodiversity. A feast for nature lovers, it has preserved forests, glacial lakes, waterfalls, deep valleys, and access to a wide variety of Kakheti’s wildlife. The largest glacial lake is the Black Cliff Lake, which is 14m deep, and is located on the Georgian - Russian border. If you want to reach St. Nino’s gorge, home to the spectacular Gurgeniani Waterfall, then allow for a 2-3 day hike, but nearly every corner of the park reveals new stunning scenery. Those less adventurous can read all about the history of the park in the Lagodekhi National Park Museum.
Tusheti National Park
One of the most ecologically unspoiled regions in the Caucasus, Tusheti is a popular mountain destination. With its snowy peaks, unique pine forests, and deep rivers, old villages, and castles, Tusheti has always attracted visitors, ethnographers, biologists, photographers, and adventure-lovers alike. With mountains reaching up to 4,800m the park embraces alpine meadows, glaciers, rivers, well-preserved pine forests, and all-year round snow-capped peaks.
Telavi is home of several of the region’s world-famous wineries, art museums, castles, and a theatre highlighting folk singing and dancing. Telavi is located on the crossroad of the region and is an ideal place to stop for a lunch or an excellent jumping-off point for two or three-day excursions.
King’s Castle is located in Telavi and served as the main residence of the Kakhetian Kings in the 17th-18th centuries. The castle has two churches, the ruins of the royal baths, the pantheon, and the Persian-style Palace of King Erekle II. The Palace now houses King Erekle’s House-Museum. The Ethnographic Museum and the Picture Gallery located within the walls of King’s castle.
The name of the town comes from Turkish word “Signak” meaning a shelter and has had a rich history as a center for tradesmen and artisans. The winding cobblestone streets, Italian architecture, and 18th century defensive walls create a charming atmosphere. Down the hill from the main town there are several historic churches. Stay the night and enjoy the hospitality of the innkeepers and restaurateurs.
Sighnaghi museum displays many archaeological, ethnographical, and medieval exhibits and artifacts including musical instruments, weapons, clothes, and many other historical items of everyday life. The most remarkable exhibition presents the paintings of Niko Pirosmanashvili, the greatest Georgian self-taught artist of the 19th century.
Kvareli is a quaint town situated in the middle of the Alazani River Plain and is famous as the home of renowned Georgian writer Ilia Chavchavadze. Kvareli is famous for the delicious, semi-sweet Kindzmarauli wine. Just a short drive away is magnificent Ilia Lake, which is well worth a visit.
Ilia Chavchavadze House Museum
The museum encompasses the family tower and the residential house of the Chavchavadze family, also an exhibition hall, a lecture hall, an archive fund, and the works displaying Chavchavadze’s life (1837-1907). The museum is surrounded by a picturesque garden.
On the border with Azerbaijan, Davit (or David) Gareja (or Gareji) is one of the most remarkable of Georgia’s historic sites, and makes a great day trip from Tbilisi, Sighnaghi or Telavi. Comprising about 15 old monasteries spread over a remote area, its uniqueness is heightened by a lunar, semidesert landscape that turns green and blooms with flowers in early summer. Two of the key monasteries, and the most visited, are Lavra (the only inhabited one today), and, on the hill above it, Udabno, which has beautiful frescoes.
Lavra, the first monastery here, was founded by Davit Gareja, one of the 13 ascetic Syrian fathers who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. The religious complex grew until monasteries were spread over a wide area. Manuscripts were translated and copied, and a celebrated Georgian school of fresco painting flourished here. The monasteries were destroyed by the Mongols in 1265, revived in the early 14th century by Giorgi V the Brilliant, sacked by Timur, and then suffered their worst moment of all on Easter night 1615 when Shah Abbas’ soldiers killed 6000 monks and destroyed many of their artistic treasures. The monasteries never regained their former importance, though they remained operational until the end of the 19th century. During the Soviet era the area was used for military exercises and the monasteries were neglected and vandalised. The Lavra monastery has since seen a good deal of restoration and is now again inhabited by monks.
It takes two to three hours to explore Lavra and Udabno at a leisurely pace. Entrance to both is free.
The Lavra monastery is on three levels, with buildings dating from many periods. The watchtower and outer walls are from the 18th century. You enter by a gateway decorated with reliefs illustrating stories of the monks’ harmony with the natural world. Inside you descend to a courtyard with the caves of Davit and his Kakhetian disciple Lukiane along one side, and the 6th-century cave church Peristsvaleba (Transfiguration Church) on the other side. Inside the Perists- valeba are the tombs of Davit (on the right), Lukiane and another Kakhetian companion, Dodo. Some of the caves in the rock above those of Davit and Lukiane are inhabited by monks, so you should avoid making too much noise.
To reach Udabno, take the uphill path be- side the church shop outside Lavra. Watch out for poisonous vipers on this route, including in the caves and especially from April to June. When you come level with a watchtower overlooking Lavra, take the path straight up the hill. In about 10 minutes you reach a metal railing. Follow this to the top of the ridge, then along the far side of the ridge (where the railing deteriorates to a series of posts). The plains now spread below you are in Azerbaijan, and the caves above the path are the Udabno monastery. Some still contain 10th- to 13th- century frescoes, the most outstanding be- ing about halfway along the hillside. Fifty metres past the cave numbered 50 in green paint, a side path heads up and back to cave No 36, the monastery’s refectory, where the monks had to kneel to eat at low stone tables. It’s decorated with beautiful light- toned frescoes, the principal one being an 11th-century Last Supper. Further up above here are the Annunciation Church (cave 42), with very striking frescoes in blacks, blues and yellows showing Christ and his disciples; and St George’s Church (cave 41). Return down to the main path and continue 20m to the left to Udabno’s main church. Paintings here show Davit Gareja and Lukiane surrounded by deer, depicting the story that deer gave them milk when they were wandering hungry in this remote wilderness. Below them are Kakhetian princes.
The path eventually climbs to a stone chapel on the hilltop, then heads down past a cave known as Davit’s Tears (with a spring inside) and the top of Lavra monastery, to the watchtower you passed earlier. The monks’ water-channel system enabled them to grow gardens and make wine.