A celebration of wine. (November 2014)


We had hired a driver, with the intention of viewing a few sites on the way from Yerevan to Tbilisi.

Gore was a young man in a hurry to get on with life. The trouble was he didn’t know where he was going or how he was going to get there.

We were just thankful that he knew how to get to Tbilisi.

Our first stop was the church at Hovhannavank, it was closed so the stop was quick. This is a medieval monastery with the oldest part being built around the start of the 4th century. It sits on a precipice overlooking the Kasagh River Canyon.

Next was the Saghmosavank Church, this was open but there was no power. It did however come on later in our stay. This monastic complex was also on the Kasagh River and built in the 13th century.

As we climbed higher it started to snow, so we were glad to be in Gore’s 4WD.

The Monasteries at Sanahin and Haghpat, founded in the 10th century were built by a father and son who tried to outdo each other. The Armenian translation of Sanahin means: “This one is older than that one” referring to the younger monastery.

We had been stopped many times by traffic police in China, Central Asia and Iran but finally something came of it in Armenia. Gore made a dubious overtaking move, on a mountain road very near the border with Georgia. The problem being that he was right behind a police car when he did it.

The result was, after much argument, Gore got a ticket.

Now it’s a little different in Armenia, in that he got issued with an infringement notice, but didn’t sign it. If you sign it you will automatically get a fine, as you have admitted liability. If you don’t, the case will go to court, or be dropped, if the police don’t believe they can get a conviction.

Gore’s argument was that they had no witnesses or video evidence and it was his word against theirs.

In Tbilisi we opted to do our usual tour of a city and used the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. This gave us an idea of the layout, which we could explore in more detail later on.

We had a live guide, which is rare these days, as most come with multilingual head sets. There was only a handful of passengers, so she sat up the top of the bus, with us English speakers, to give her informative commentary.

Tbilisi is on the crossroads between east and west on the Silk Road – evident by a large Caravansarei just near our hotel.

There is a mixture of European and Central Asian architecture, with each style sitting side by side.

The city, like so many we have visited, is divided into the old and new sections. Our hotel was in the old part and we were surrounded by crumbling Georgian architecture. Much of it was built with a combination of timber and brick. Like Armenia, Georgia also suffers from a lot of seismic movement, resulting in many buildings leaving the tower in Pisa looking rather straight by comparison.

Over the course of its 2,500 year history, Tbilisi has been destroyed and subsequently rebuilt, somewhere between 29 to 40 times – this depends on what version of history you read.

Also open to conjecture is Georgia’s claim to be the birthplace of wine, as the Armenians believe they are as well. Wine is certainly celebrated in Tbilisi, as there are wine shops and wine bars on just about every corner of the old city.

On our second day in Tbilisi the rain came down. We spent the morning walking around the city and took the cable car to the fort.

The rain continued so there was nothing to do but go for a ‘long lunch’

We found a small cafe near the Sulphur Baths and settled in for the afternoon.

I had a feeling that we were the only ones paying, as all the other patrons seemed to be related to the owners.

There was a table of local ‘heavies’ but they also seemed to have some relationship with the owners.

We watched for a few hours and never saw hard currency change hands.

As we have been told on all of our travels, from China through Central Asia to Europe, corruption is widespread and a ‘greased palm’ is the way of life and survival.

It was still raining on day three so we decided to go to the ‘Social Science Museum’ aka the Tbilisi Mall.

This was way out of town, at the base of the foothills surrounding the city.

It was very new and much of the space was empty. The busiest part was the Carrefour, a little piece of France in the heart of Georgia.

We certainly had the feeling we were getting closer to Europe.

Tbilisi appears to be a capital city that’s gearing up for a big increase in tourism.

Development is everywhere.

The international hotel chains seem to agree, as there were at least four new hotels under construction.

Many of the city’s old buildings and monuments are also undergoing a facelift.

There is also some stunning contemporary architecture. One of the most prominent examples is the Bridge of Peace over the Mtkvari River. This elegant steel and glass bow-shaped pedestrian bridge was designed by the Italian Michele De Lucchi and opened in 2010.

With the Georgians love of food, wine, beer and jazz there is no shortage of infrastructure to cater for the tourist palate.

Many of the restaurants in the old part of the city have live music playing most nights of the week.

We returned to restaurant Kali, just to hear the three piece combo. It was Trad Jazz in the old school style. There was some sheet music but most was improvised. The drummer had no music at all and just picked up on what the other two were playing.

They didn’t start till 9pm, by which time the dinner guests had departed and a new group were warming the seats.

The trio seemed to have little in common, apart from the music and there was about a 40 years age gap between them. They seemed to be as diverse as the patrons – single women, men dining together, couples and a pair of very-out-of-place Aussie tourists.

The one problem Tbilisi has is traffic.

Even at three in the afternoon the roads coming into the city are at a standstill. I am not sure how they’re going to cope with the expected increase in tourists.

The rain was still coming down on our last day so we decided to remain in doors and went to Museum of Georgia. It contained a unique display of metallurgy, especially bronze, silver and gold work, from the 5th-1st century BC.

The craftsmanship of this work was exceptional.

We decided to spend more time in Georgia and hired a Renault Duster, then headed into the Georgian wine region, 75km east of Tbilisi.

We wanted to see where all this wine was coming from.

It had been snowing in the mountains but the road was clear, so the 4WD didn’t get used.

We had booked a night at the Schuchmann Wines Chateau in Kisiskhevi Village.

November is the low season in Central Asia and the Caucuses, so we did feel a little obvious when we discovered we were the only guests in the chateau.

After dinner, alone in the restaurant, we went up to our room. It was the best in the house, well we were the only ones there. The temperature was dropping and there was an open fireplace, so we lit a fire.

We were becoming Zoroastrians, chasing the warmth of the open hearth.

Most of the Schuchmann wines are made for export, with only 30% being consumed locally.

They make a Georgian style wine which is matured in terra-cotta jugs, buried in the ground. They also make European style wines in stainless steel vats and matured in timber barrels. The interesting thing is that they use the same grape varieties, from the same vintage, allowing you to compare.

What does make choosing a wine in Georgia rather challenging, is that they use grape varieties we have never heard of.

The next day we visited Ikalto Monastery, that was built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There was a wine press, of industrial proportion, behind the church and many of the wine jugs lying around the garden

Winter was with us as we drove around the Georgian countryside. The sky’s were grey and there was a constant drizzle.

We spent two nights in a country style hotel in Telavi which is located in the foot-hills of the Tsiv-Gombori Mountains.

On our third day with the car we again drove into the countryside, along the wine trails.

There were no tastings, as many were shut, so were were just driving, looking and listening to music.

The Duster didn’t have many smarts but it did have a USB connection, so we could plug in our iPhones.

Just before arriving to have a coffee in the tiny mountain Village of Signagi, we were listening to the Bee Gees. As we arrived in the cafe, they were playing the same track from the Gibb brothers.

Irony or were they just as out of touch with contemporary music as we are?

On our last day in Georgia we left enough time to do some sightseeing before our flight to Istanbul.

This didn’t eventuate.

The Garmin GPS couldn’t find the airport and we had to do it the old school way with a map and searching for road signs.

We retraced our tracks back over the mountains, as we had seen a turn off to the airport on the way from Tbilisi.

There had been a fresh fall of snow on the top of the pass.

A snowscape still takes my breath away.

Armenia and Georgia had been an unexpected and interesting penultimate part to our Silk Road adventure.

Only Istanbul remained to complete our journey.

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