16 September 2018
Sorry, but entering the country of Georgia, I have Ray Charles singing in my head. I’ve had worse jingles haunting my memories (like when I visited Bologna Italy and every time I think of Disneyland). I am told this part of Georgia is synonymous with wine. My kind of place!
The route is spectacular. We are driving northwest through a large verdant valley and in the distance the Greater Caucasus dotted with state and national parklands. The route becomes more mountainous. We cross numerous dramatically wide, rocky riverbeds. A small stream trickles through but these gigantic riverbeds show all geologic indications of being dangerous, rushing, tumbling rivers in the spring.
Seventy miles inland, we cross the border from Azerbaijan into Georgia.
At the border crossing, we say goodby to our driver, local guide Yesin and our luxurious Mercedes bus. The nine of us slowly pass through immigration, standing politely for our photos and a little questioning to check if I know my name, while Yesin takes our bags through customs. We then trudge between high cement walls some 300 feet to the Georgian border. There we again go through security and have our passports stamped before we trudge another several yards, this time along rusted barbed wire to our waiting Mercedes van.
We depart Azerbaijan, or as a new Georgian friend described it to me, “The Second Califate of Aliyev.” Sounds like a fitting description to me.
Welcome to the Republic of Georgia.
The countryside is noticeably different. It doesn’t take many miles to recognize what oil riches have affforded the Azeris, especially when it comes to the surface under our tires. Roads deteriorate, fewer Mercedes and more Ladas fill the lanes, farms and cows proliferate, and I see far more rustic homes and farms. Our driver drives faster, passes more often, and swerves to miss the pot holes and speed bumps. There are many more stray dogs and the cattle prefer the middle of the roadway. But it also is greener; there are fruit trees and grapes everywhere.
This Kakheti region of eastern-Georgia is a well-known Georgian wine region; its winemaking methods are recognized by UNESCO. In fact, traditions of wine are considered entwined with and inseparable from the national identity, which becomes evident as our guide continually stresses two main points: Georgian wines are an ancient tradition and Georgia was the first country to adopt Christianity. These two things unite when we later see their art work – cherished icons of Virgin Mary holding a bunch of grapes in one hand, baby Jesus in the other. Acording to tradition, Georgian patron saint, Saint Nino, preached Christianity here baring a cross made from vine wood.
Since 6000 BC, Georgians were cultivating grapes and burying large clay vessels called kveris which are coated inside with beeswax. When filled with the fermented juice of the grape, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered with earth. The wine was thus stored ready for serving at ground temperature. Some pots remain entombed for up to 50 years. Most are drunk much earlier as the Georgians love their wine.
The Khareba Winery is one of the best in this region and our introduction into a major passion of Georgians begins with wine tasting. We are subjected to the usual winery tour through their vast complex of underground tunnels carved into the Caucasus mountains. Over 500 varieties of grapes are grown in Georgia and these cellars, along with countless others, continue to practice the long tradition of wine production in this valley. Georgian wines are made differently than the European style I am used to drinking. Here, they leave in stems and other little bits during the crushing process. Miles of tunnel walls are lined with bottles and oak barrels, many times used just once, and fermentation time varies widely from months to a few years.
For centuries, Georgians drank, and in some areas still drink, their wine from horns. We use glasses in which to sample two whites and two reds. There is a discernible difference between the European and Georgian style wines. I think the majority of wine drinkers in our group favored their European style wines over the flavor of “twigs and leaves” Georgian style, but the style does grow on me. The winery also makes a quite tasty Grapeseed Oil. The Khareba wines are award winning wines and were a favorite of the Soviets. Perhaps that is the reason for the Soviet’s continued interest in territories of Georgia – they want the wine.
As a side note: More than the stream beds and highways are rocky in Georgia. Ten years after the two countries fought a short war, Russia is quietly seizing more territory on a disputed border with Georgia as it warns NATO against admitting this small Eurasian nation as a member state. The Russia-backed “borderization” has split communities and led some Georgians to literally find their homes in Russian-controlled territory overnight. We will witness some of the displaced-persons camps later as we near these disputed territories.
I noticed the EU flag flying next to the Georgian flag upon entering the country and the two flags fly alongside each other in most places. Russian leaders are warning NATO that admitting Georgia could spark a “terrible conflict.” This may be a real possibility in the near future as Georgians have their own ideas about the direction their country is taking, and it is not toward the bear to the north.
In the small village of Gremi, sits a citadel overlooking the city and mountains. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Gremi was the capital of the Kakheti Kingdom and was a stop on the Silk Road. A 16th century royal residence and church stood here until it was razed by the Shah of Persia in 1615. The town withered and the kings moved to nearby Telavi.
Still commanding a hill above Gremi is the remains of this royal citadel, including the domed churches and sleek towers of Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, both affiliated with the Georgian Orthodox Church. We do not visit the church itself but a small museum at its base. However, the view of the church from below is spectacularly framed against blue sky and puffy white clouds.
The Archangels’ Church complex is a three-story castle, bell tower, and wine cellar all encircled by a wall secured by turrets, towers and narrow defensive window openings. A secret tunnel leads down to the river.
The Church of the Archangels was built for King Levan in 1565. This is a traditional Georgian structure with small touches of Iranian architecture in the design. The stone church is in the shape of a cross (cruciform) and topped with colorful tiles and a bell tower. A second pointed “tower” is its wonderful eight-sided central dome.
We wind our way further north into a magnificent landscape of mustard grass and mountains to Alaverdi Cathedral and Monastery. Built during the 11th century and at a height of just 180 feet, the Cathedral is the 2nd tallest religious building in Georgia (tallest is the 2004 Holy Trinity in Tbilisi). This is a much larger church than Gremi.
This Georgian Eastern Orthodox Church was founded by an Assyrian monk who came from the Antioch region of modern-day Turkey and settled in the very small village of Alaverdi. Alaverdi was actually known at that time as a pagan religious center dedicated to the Moon. The monk wanted to change all that. While parts of the monastery date back to 6th century, the present day cathedral was built in the 11th century, replacing an older church of St. George.
The interior, like so many of the Christian churches, was destroyed by various invaders over the centuries. What the Persians didn’t ruin the Russians did. However, there are spectacular wall frescoes and many important icons. There was a wedding happening when I visited and that was as interesting as the frescoes. A beautiful place to marry as the couple circled the altar three times and, for the only time in her life that a woman is allowed in the chancel, the couple approached the priest for a private message and blessing.
The monastery and cathedral is the focus of the annual religious celebration called Alaverdoba, a festival of harvest. The festival lasts several days, ending on the feast day of St. Joseph of Alaverdi, founder of the cathedral. In a portrait of the festival done in 1847, the cathedral can be seen in the background. Little has changed in the past 170 years. The festival originally lasted three weeks and managed to survive the Soviet era.
Alaverdoba is also in the heart of the world’s oldest wine region. Monks from around the world knew how to use spare time, be it breweries or wine making. Monks here are no exception, making their own wine known as Alaverdi Monastery Cellar.
We wind our way across the valley to the Ikalto Academy, located in a lovely, peaceful setting of cypress trees and gardens filled with pottery shards and terra cotta wine jugs. The walls and minor structures may be in ruins but the Cathedral itself is quite special.
It was founded by “King David the Builder” after the original 9th century academy was destroyed by the Arab invasions. David the Builder was a scholar and philosopher and strove to build a high school at Ikalto. During the 12th century, the academy was the largest center of education in medieval Georgia and is said to have served as a place of study for Georgian poet Rustaveli who wrote the national epic, “The Knight in the Panther Skin.” Also on site, many Greek translations and literary works were studied giving this monastery an important role in the enlightenment of Georgian history.
The cathedral is of simple stone construction with red tile roof and a single central pointed dome and small bell tower. Its interior is very simply decorated with the usual array of orthodox icons. The chancel, separating the nave from the sanctuary in orthodox churches, is adorned with icons and religions paintings. In Eastern Orthodox churches the chancel (iconostasis in Russian churches) divides the altar (the Holy of Holies containing the consecrated Eucharist or a manifestation of the New Covenant) from the larger portion of the church accessible to the faithful. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, only men can enter the altar portion behind the chancel.
Before arriving at our guesthouse for the night, we make one more stop. We must pay our respects to an ancient Plane tree. The tree is over 900 years old and one of the top sights in Telavi. With wires and braces, Georgians are struggling to keep it supported and upright.
We overnight in Telavi at Lalie’s Guest House where our beer arrives in a two liter bottle and our new Georgian friend regales us about American jazz, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, his favorite presidents (FDR, Lincoln, Washington, Reagan and Clinton), and wonderful stories of Georgia. The evening closes with a fine dinner, howling winds out of the Caucasus, and more wine. Georgians love their country, friendship and their wine. Can’t get better than that.