My wife skipped town to Switzerland, so I decided to skip town myself. I thought it’d be a good chance to work on my book, cleaning up and changing things that I didn’t feel quite right about. So I needed somewhere quiet and scenic for my little “writer’s retreat”, and preferably close because I hate riding marshrutkas.
Sighnaghi was perfect for me. I couldn’t imagine what could lead to a more productive time than sipping on coffee with an incredible view of the Alazani Valley and the wall of mountains that lies beyond. So I went to Samgori metro station, hopped on the next marshrutka, and made the one-hour journey.
My luck had it that I was the last person on the marshrutka, which meant I had the unenviable “bitch seat”. That meant I was in the front, squeezed between a passenger—an old, man-spreading gent—and the driver, with my long legs somehow trying to stay out of the way of the stick shift, and just hoping the driver grabbed the right stick.
But I made it fine and my trip went most excellent.
A bit of history
Sighnaghi gets a bad rap as a “tourist town”, and expats hate it because it “isn’t authentic”. I say they must not have been to any number of beautiful little towns in Europe where people go to relax. “Authentic” isn’t always on the list, but beautiful is, and you normally don’t get to mix the two unless your balls-rich, especially in Eastern Europe where authentic is more-often-than-not defined by brutal concrete blocks and faux sportsmen standing around eating sunflower seeds bumming cigarettes off passersby. No offense to Eastern European lifestyles (heck, my hood is more than authentic and I love it) but sometimes you just want to have a bit of fresh air and some beautiful things around you.
The town has an old history. Situated at the end of the Gombori Range with a commanding view of the valley, it’s always been a place of strategic importance: the Alazani Valley has served as the “Gateway to Georgia” for invader after invader, from Parthians to Arabs, Mongolians to Persians to Qajars (perhaps even in that order). The fact then that this is one of the most fortified ancient towns in Georgia shouldn’t be of any surprise. The current wall system though isn’t that old, as King Erekle II had much of the fort system redesigned, repaired, and rebuilt in the 1700s. The efficacy of the fortifications have always been under question though, as it has never really seemed to stop those pesky invading armies…
a commanding view indeed!
All that said, it is therefore an authentic tourist town. There are old things there that they didn’t just invent. The bad rap comes from when Saakashvili was president and he dumped a load of dough onto the town, and they went in and redid all the facades and cobbled the streets. That would have been fine had the locals reciprocated and refurnished their houses, but for the most part they had no money, so speculators just bought in and sat on the properties, leaving those weirdly nice facades covering up ruined interiors, creating this kind of ghost town medieval wild-west movie set feeling going on.
still true off the beaten path
That’s been changing though (slowly, ever-so-slowly). With more guest houses and hotels opening up, restaurants and cafes everywhere, it’s starting to feel like an actual resort town (true, not “authentic”, but neither is Cesky Krumlov, Hallstatt, Rothenberg, Paris, and so on). It’s got a beautiful “old town” vibe, almost as old as any of those (cobblestones are actually a fairly modern thing, most European cities had streets of mostly mud and crap, with stepping stones), and the best view south of the Greater Caucasus Range. The locals have begun to realize how perfectly situated they are, and they’re starting to understand tourism a bit, so for people on their own, it also makes a great spot as you can jump on a tour to almost anywhere in the region, or create your own for far cheaper than anything out of Tbilisi—it’s an easy region to get your fill of wineries, monasteries, and castles, depending on which is your poison. It’s also central to the primary wine region of the land, so there’s that too.
a side alley down a residential street
To bring real change and "authenticiy", something truly revolutionary needs to be done. I think the Tbilisi Music Conservatory, and/or a premiere art school, needs to open a campus in the old town of Sighnaghi, sending students for 6 months to a year to study there (also a tourism college could do the same). At minimum one term if they can't handle being outside of Tbilisi that long. Part of the curriculum would be to organize an art festival, art exhibition, music festival, or concert in a concert hall. If this were to be done, it would elevate Sighnaghi to be not just a destination for tourists, but also for locals, and it would be an all around exotic, interesting, beautiful, and authentic place, and all those sad empty facades would spring to life.
Sighnaghi National Museum
At the center of town, there’s the history museum, which really shouldn’t be missed. On the first floor is a large display of artifacts with a lot historical background of Sighnaghi and Kakheti. The upstairs features an exhibition by a Georgian artist and also a permanent installation of the famous Pirsomani, who was from a small town nearby (Mirzaani, check out the house museum in the village, or read more about the painter here, of course, just like any destination in Georgia, it’s nearly impossible for tourists to get to outside of taking a tour or taxi).
wondering about the weird statutes in Tbilisi? they're often inspired by the ancient arts
After the art exhibition, the arrows point you into the museum café, which doesn’t seem to operate (it should, with both a beautiful interior and a stunning view and terrace, it’s bizarre that nothing is happening there). But one of the museum operators was a friendly and talkative guy, impressed that I wasn’t a Russian tourist and I could speak some Georgian. In fact, I kind of felt like a celebrity superstar around town with these two attributes, as I’ve never had such a bizarrely positive time in my solo travels in the country (not that I lack in positive times here). He collects American quarters—the ones with the states on the back—so if you’re a visiting American, pop in to help his collection.
The town walls
As I’ve mentioned, the fortifications aren’t exactly “medieval” as they were built in the 18th century, but they’re medieval enough for me. Also, what’s not cooler than strolling along what could easily be termed the Great Wall of Georgia, walking the battlements from tower to tower? The walls actually seem maintained and relatively safe as well, completely unlike Narikala Castle in the center of Tbilisi, which seems about to crumble down with the next load of tourists climbing around, sending a rain of stones and Russians upon the Zoroastrian fire temple down below.
walking along the walls
even the towers are accessible
For fans of the famous Hamlet line, “Get thee to a nunnery!” Bodbe is the perfect site. Originally a monastery built in the 4th century (current building from the 9th), it’s now a functioning nunnery, where the Ninos and Tamars hide away from their village for about nine months before coming out a refreshed and pure young woman again. Nun jokes aside, it is a beautiful religious area, and is said to be the place where St. Nino retired after the conversion of the Georgians to Christianity in the early 4th century. King Mirian III of Kakheti built a small monastery there in her honor, and it became the preferred place for the coronation of most of Kakheti’s future kings.
the 9th century church covered with 18th century murals
A spring of miraculous healing waters below the monastery are said to have been blessed by the saint, and are found down below the new main cathedral, accessible by the newly built stairway. To get back up, they’ve built a meditative pathway that meanders up a meadow underneath the cathedral.
When the Russians came in, Georgia’s natural “Orthodox brothers” abolished the monastery just as they abolished the Georgian Orthodox Church, and they downgraded the site to a simple parish. Despite their efforts, in the 1860s, the Archmandrite Macarius Batatashvili did his best to repair the facility and make a school of Georgian chant. It’s perhaps his luck that the Russians didn’t also whitewash over the beautiful painted 18th century murals—a common practice of the Russians of that period—which are still visible today. To his credit though, Tsar Alexander III did command the rebuilding of the monastery, but this time designated it as a nunnery (which makes a bit more sense, given its dedication to a female saint).
the new 21st century cathedral
It was again shut down in 1924, this time by the Soviets, and again reopened in 1991. For any visitor to Sighnaghi interested in religion, history, or architecture, it’s a must-see site. Especially as they finish the new cathedral, itself a beautiful monument in this age of glass, mushrooms, and maxipads that flourish in Tbilisi.
A taxi should take about 5 laris to get there. Otherwise you can go like me and just walk. It’s about 45-minutes on foot, with the first half a pretty steep incline, but then it levels off through a forest. The traffic is light, as the road leaves the highway fairly early and then is on a dedicated road to the site. As I mention below, there’s a nice patio place to get coffee, beer, wine, or even shisha along the way.
The Guesthouse Experience
I stayed at Zandarashvili Family Hotel (call them at +995 555 383 837, they speak English and Russian) this last trip. My second trip to the town, when I showed it off to my parents, we had stayed there, and I’m planning to guide another tour and use this house as my base. It’s off in a slightly more residential street of town, so off the map of the roving Russian tour groups, but still close enough to take it all in. The backside is off a cliff, with a commanding view of some of the medieval walls and towers, as well as the main mountain range itself.
amazing views from the balconies
I love guesthouses. Mainly because I love hostels. Guesthouses like Zandarashvili are like hostels for grownups. It’s cheap and you get to mingle with other guests, but you still get your privacy. The family there is great and welcoming, and you get much of the famous “Georgian hospitality” that Tbilisi tends to lack. In fact, many of the family members used to live in Tbilisi, but after having their go at boring desk jobs, they came back and decided to invest their time and energy into the guesthouse, tours, and wines, and they all do an excellent job (they make some great qvevri wines too, bottled for sale as well, at 10 lari a bottle for excellent wine it’s not a hard decision where to stock up your suitcase, be sure to ask Giorgi for a tasting).
Zandarashvili's street/authentic Sighnaghi
Restaurants and cafes
As I was there to work, that’s what I did. I toured all the outside garden areas of restaurants and set up my work area—manuscript stack, laptop, and boom. There’s a plethora of restaurants there to eat and drink wine, though there does seem to be an extraordinary and inexplicable lack of cafes—as most of the interiors seem a bit ornate and overdone, rather than “homely”, it feels awkward to just sit somewhere and have a coffee and croissant. Which definitely makes it more of a summer destination to me. There used to be a lovely little coffeeshop, Kedeli, which also served as a charity for the mentally handicapped, but that’s since shut down.
the view from Kanudosi
This last visit I didn’t really eat at any restaurants. The guesthouse where I was staying has excellent cooks, and the sons either join the guests or have their friends over to eat, creating quite a festive and fun atmosphere every night. For anyone staying solo, staying in for dinner is probably the best way to go (not to mention the bottomless and most excellent wine, which will also ensure you a hangover in the morning).
Espresso-based coffee in a comfortable outdoor environment can be a bit of a challenge to get—much of the town is running off Turkish coffee, which is a fine alternative and definitely more to the local taste. I was pleasantly surprised then while walking back from Bodbe to find Club Kanudosi, which not only has americanos but also has an amazingly awesome view of the village and mountains (obviously I spent over half the day working on my manuscript here). So for coffee addicts, make the 5-minute walk uphill and out of town for this spot.
also the view from Kanudosi
Though the locals have started to pick up on tourism opportunities, the Gods of Georgian Transportation have been eerily quiet (or dead… they seem to be dead, possibly having been mistaken for a dragon). Though it wouldn’t take too much relative effort to renovate the Kakheti rail-line to Tsnori and have shuttle services up the hill, it clearly takes more effort than any Georgian in the government or shadow government is willing to do, never mind it would be a clear boon to tourism, and of a huge benefit to the locals (imagine living in a Kakheti village, surrounded by vineyards and fresh air, and taking the rail to commute to work in Tbilisi… pipe dreams though!).
a little touristy? sure. but also a little beautiful
Nobody has even thought of a bus line there, with most Georgians just thinking tourists are fine with paying 100 lari for a taxi or jumping on a tour bus full of Russians or Poles…
All that said, you can take a lovely marshrutka from the Samgori metro station. By “lovely” I mean overcrowded, smelly, and possibly containing chickens. There is also clearly something to all the icons hanging in front above the dashboard, as they miraculously do manage to take people safely to their destinations. Most of the time. But anyway, you were just whining that cobblestones aren’t “authentic”, so here’s your dose of authenticism!
By the way, people might tell you of a “schedule” for these marshrutkas. Ignore them. They leave when they’re full (squeezed in and unable to breath). I did however, discover one immensely nice marshrutka running the route. He’s said to leave Samgori around 9 in the morning, and he takes the 1 o’clock route leaving Sighnaghi back to Tbilisi (I luckily caught the return route). It’s spacious, roomy, smells okay, plays the standard Russian 80s marshrutka music, and is in general a positive experience. I actually wouldn’t have such a problem with marshrutkas if this were the standard. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, TAKE THAT MARSHRUTKA!