18 November 2016

I Accidentally Climbed the Caucasus Mountains

After a much better night of sleep in our new, cushy hotel, KMac and I were up and ready for a tour of the Kakheti region. We'd arranged with the hotel to use their car (and driver) to see some of the sights. We really hoped they'd told him the places we suggested because he spoke no English, we obviously no Georgian, and my Russian is not only crap, it's become some sort of weird Russo-Serbian mutant.

After driving for about an hour we pulled up to the Khareba winery. It wasn't on our list but as far as I'm concerned, a wine tasting is an auspicious way to start out any tour! Khareba is one of the country's largest producers. Don't mistake size for quality though. The wine was fine, I've certainly had much worse, but it's not special.We really enjoyed the tour though and bought a couple bottles to take back to the hotel along with a few bottles of locally pressed grape seed oil.

Before we knew how bad it was going to be
Back on the road we drove closer and closer to the Caucasus Mountains. It wasn't too long before our driver gestured at a structure at the top of one of the peeks. "Monastery" he said to which we made agreeing noises. Monasteries were on our list so we were feeling pretty good about this as long, I joked to KMac, as we didn't have to walk up the bloody mountain to get there.

Me and my big mouth. Our driver dropped us off at the base and told us (in Russian) that he'd wait over there for us. Exchanging trepedacious looks, KMac and I got out. We walked around a small parking lot area not really knowing what to do and started following the road up the mountain. Why pave a nice road if they weren't going to allow vehicles?

The Nekresi Monastery

Qvevri still in the ground from the monastery's wine making

We walked for about 20 minutes and stopped for a breather, a long one, and to assess if we wanted to keep going or not. Then we heard an engine and saw a tour bus as it drove down the mountain. No private cars allowed but tour buses were? A good excuse for a long breather we looked up the Nekresi Monastery on TripAdvisor and learned that apparently there were buses which (for a small fee) would drive you up and down the mountain. Sigh. Now we had another decision to make; walk down and get the bus (which apparently only runs when full) or keep going. We pushed on.

A few minutes, and our next breather later, we ran across a group of German-speaking tourists coming down. KMac asked if we had much farther to go and after laughing they told we weren't even half way yet. Not even half way?! I was terrified. I was going to die. My heart was going to explode and I was going to die; but for some reason we decided to keep going!

So onward we trudged. Each time we came to another sharp bend in the road I prayed that we were at the peek and each time I was disappointed. Finally many, many breathers-and about an hour later-we reached the Nekresi Monastery. Was it worth it? Eh.

The views were stunning and the buildings all still in very good repair but I wouldn't have climbed a mountain for that. If you go, be aware that to the right of the entrance is a small booth that sells tickets for the mini bus. Take the mini bus.

Gremi Castle and church

A little afraid that our driver might have given us up for dead, we caught the bus down slightly afraid of what our next stop might be. We arrived at Gremi Castle which was both on our list and mercifully set on only a small hill. A small but nice complex, Gremi includes a large church and adjacent "castle" slash tower which is now a museum.

Church from the tower
In the museum, also small but nice, we had the pleasure of getting a bot of a guided tour of local history from one of the workers who spoke excellent English. After our tour we climbed up into the tower, which wasn't nearly as stair-scary as I thought it would be, in order to take in the amazing views. There are not enough songs to Georgia's beauty; it's a stunning country.

Back in the car and a short drive later we arrived at the Alaverdi Monastery. Also on our list I was hoping we could kill two birds with one stone here: a church for KMac and wine tasting for me. I'd read a lot about the wines coming out of Alaverdi Monastery and was hoping to try them. We got the church but weren't able to do a wine tasting. For which I would later be glad.

The church at the monastery is huge. We sneaked quietly into the back as there was a liturgy on but I didn't stay long. Incense + me = insta-migraine.

The last stop on our tour was the Alexander Chavchavadze museum in Tsinandali. This one did include a wine tasting! The museum is definitely worth a visit to see the house if nothing else. We were also lucky enough to be there for a temporary exhibition by an Italian artist who repurposes old wine barrels to make furniture, art, toys, etc. That was really cool and now I need to build a special wine room in my future home to house not only my future wine collection but also furniture made out of old barrels.

The drive back to Sighnaghi was particularly painful for me. I'd hoped that the car sickness during the original drive up could be attributed to all that wine and no food I'd had that day; sadly no. I wanted to die. When we finally got back to Sighnaghi and I got a few deep breaths of the clear, high elevation air I was good to go.

For dinner that evening we tracked down Okro's Winery (it's hidden up behind the Hotel Signagi) where we had a nice tour and tasting from one of the family members and stayed for dinner. We tried four of Okro's wines but my hands down favorite was their Mtsvane. We even didn't hate their chacha. Unlike most distilleries, Okro's makes theirs from wine instead of pressing the must left after pressing grapes for wine.

Even though our day was a little more adventurous than I'd planned it was a good day and a great way to remember Kakheti before heading back to Tbilisi.

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