St. Paddy’s Day in Telavi

Posted on April 5, 2012 by


Earlier this month, two of my fellow bloggers wrote about their experiences of International Women’s Day, a popular holiday in Georgia that is more or less unknown back in America.  So, I thought I’d write a post about my St. Patrick’s day, a holiday that is wildly popular in the states and pretty much unknown here in Georgia.  I live in Tbilisi, where I’m sure I could have found any number of Irish-themed evenings in ex-pat populated bars, and I also could have joined some fellow TLGers to attend the Georgia-Russia rugby match (which I hear was pretty awesome).  Instead, I decided to head off on my first out of town trip since arriving in Tbilisi in January.

About a month after arriving here, I got a cold that just wouldn’t go away, and then I got a nasty case of the seasonal flu, but by the time St. Patrick’s day came around I was finally feeling healthy, and I was itching to get out of the city.  As luck would have it, a friend who’s living in Sagarejo was asked to write an article about the Georgian Ministry of Tourism’s “2012 – the Year of Kakheti” campaign, and she asked if I’d like to spend the weekend in Telavi with her.  Kakheti is the Eastern-most region of Georgia, and as a modern administrative district, also includes the mountainous region of Tusheti.  It is bordered on the north by Russia (specifically Dagestan), and on the south by Azerbaijan.  Archaeological evidence currently supports the theory that the world’s first wine was produced in this region of Georgia.  Interestingly, the method discovered from 8,000 years ago greatly resembles the current method of wine-making which involves fermenting and storing wine in underground clay jugs, and it has been nominated to be protected by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage”.

Telavi is the administrative head of Kakheti, and has historically been the capital city of the Kakhetian kingdom over several periods (political borders changed almost constantly in the Caucasus before the 20th century).  It is located at the base of the Gombori mountain range in the Alazani valley facing the greater Caucusus.  This might sound like a bland description, but its view of the Caucasus rising up from the Alazani valley are absolutely breath-taking.  I can’t tell you how many times in just two days I stopped walking just to stare at the mountains.  (Granted, I grew up around mountains, so I’m biased towards this sort of landscape, but seriously, it’s amazing.)

Telavi is located north-east of Tbilisi and through some mountains.  I caught a marshrutka from a bus station (Ortachala) not too far from my house.  My friend (I’ll call her E.) was going to wait by the road in Sagarejo and try to catch the same marshrutka as me as it went through town, but it turns out I was on an express marshrutka to Telavi that bypassed her town and got me there an hour before her.  I wish I had thought to have my camera out during the drive, as there were some great mountain vistas and picturesque villages on the way.

For those of you who might be contemplating a trip to Telavi, let me pause my narrative for a moment to give you some details on how to get there.  First, Kakheti’s website has marshrutka schedules online, which are really helpful.  The express marshrutka from Tbilisi to Telavi leaves from Ortachala bus station every 45 minutes from 8:20 to 19:50. (you can buy tickets in the office or from the driver) and drives past Isani metro station.  It bypasses most of Kakheti, but it does go through the village of Ikalto, so you can recognize the direct marshrutka as the sign should say Telavi, and below it Ikalto (იყალთო).  The express takes about 1.5 hours, while the regular one takes about 2.5 hours.  The latter leaves from Samgori in Tbilisi and also, I believe, goes by Isani metro station. It leaves every 30-60 minutes from 9:30 to 16:45.  You should also note that the express marshrutkas leave and arrive in Telavi at the “new bus station” which is a few blocks away from the “old bus station” where the other marshrutkas are.

So, back to my story.  We didn’t do much on Friday night, as once we met up we tried for a while to find the guesthouse we had booked online, and not only could we not find it, but the guys at the taxi station across the street from where it was supposed to be had never heard of it, and the contact phone number didn’t work.  So, we called the TLG Kakheti “regional rep” who lived in Telavi and asked for her help, and she went into action and found us a hotel while we ate dinner in a nice-looking hotel nearby.  (Thank you, Irma!!)  The Guesthouse, who later that night called us to ask where we were and expressed astonishment that we couldn’t find them, is the TLT (Tusheti Land Tourism) Guesthouse.  I feel I should say, that while their information should be better on, and they should really make sure their contact phone number works, it may just be that they weren’t expecting any reservations in March, and we did only book the night before.  Regardless, we were happy with our hotel, the Alazani Valley Hotel, which was 70 lari per night for both of us and included breakfast, free wifi, and a private bathroom for hot showers(!)

On Saturday, we slept in a bit, had our complementary continental breakfast, and headed for the center of town and the information office, where two ladies gave us Kakheti maps and ideas on what to see.  From what we witnessed this emphasis on tourism in Kakheti translates to renovating the entire central part of the city.  There was scaffolding everywhere!   That being said, tourist season won’t start until this summer and won’t reach its peak until the fall, with the grape harvest.  So, they’ve got some time to finish the renovations, and I can imagine that it’ll look great when it’s done.

E. and I decided to see some sites around the city with a taxi driver/tour guide named David who introduced himself to us outside the information office and gave us a reasonable price (30 lari).  Our first stop was Tsinandali gardens, which has a winery and a museum in the former house of Alexander Chavchavadze (an important guy from the 1800s).  We got a private tour (private because we were the only ones there) of the museum, a generous glass of white wine, and a stroll around the gardens, and then we met David back at his car and drove off to Ikalto.  Ikalto was a monastery and academy, and has recently been renovated thanks to the cell phone company Geocell, which means there are oddly out of place Geocell signs placed around the place.  The site is most famous as the place where the 12th century poet Shota Rustaveli likely studied.  He wrote probably the most famous piece of literature in the Georgian language, called “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” and is basically like Shakespeare but even more important to Georgian national identity.  Also around the site you can see the wine containers I mentioned above, some lying on the ground and some still in the ground.  The next place we’ll go is an active monastery and there’s a monk whose entire job is overseeing the monastery’s wine cultivation, so it’s a big deal.

Alaverdi Cathedral, Georgia

Alaverdi Cathedral

Our final stop was Alaverdi Cathedral.  The church is actually St. George’s Cathedral, but it’s known as Alaverdi after the man who founded it in the 6th century.  The current church, which was built in the 11th century, was the tallest church in Georgia until 2004, when the Sameba Cathedral was consecrated in Tbilisi.  Again, it’s in an amazingly beautiful spot in the valley with the Caucasus behind it.

After this, we got back to Telavi and decided to have lunch and wander around for a bit before heading back to the hotel.  We ended up at an old fortress and abandoned church in the older part of town.  We took some photos, of course, and slowly wandered back to the hotel to take it easy for the rest of the day.  We ventured out again to see the sunset, and then had dinner in our hotel.  The food was good and fairly reasonably priced, as I recall, especially when you take into account the fact that they gave us a bottle of local red wine on the house.

On Sunday morning, we left our bags with the hotel as we walked to Erekle II‘s palace inside the Batonitsikhe Fortress.  Erekle II’s a pretty well-respected king who ruled until just a few years before Russia reneged on their agreement to help Georgia militarily but respect its independence and officially ended the Georgian monarchy in 1801.  The fortress has some great views of the mountains, and actually contains a public school.  It has a palace room that reminded me of the one in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, but unfortunately it was all locked up that day.  We did manage to visit the Ketevan Iliashvili Gallery without being asked for an entry fee.  We were lucky it wasn’t all locked up, too, as a lady came out from the back to lead us around, and had to turn on lights and unlock doors as we went.  Also, the main museum in the palace complex was inexplicably closed (although the door marked “entrance” was open).  After this, we headed back to the hotel and then found our marshrutka to take us back home.

So, that was my St. Patrick’s day weekend in Telavi.  Yes, there is a lot of renovation work going on right now, but if you want a quiet weekend away in a beautiful location, Telavi might be just the thing – once tourist season hits and the renovation works are done you probably won’t be the only tourists in town!  And I might be betraying my Irish Catholic genes (and Notre Dame diploma) by saying this, but I didn’t mind one bit having a bottle of Georgian wine instead of a pint of Guinness on March 17.  St. Patrick, forgive me.

view of Alazani Valley and Caucasus from Telavi

View of the Alazani Valley and Caucasus from Telavi