scenic stops along the way
On the way back from Lagodekhi, D’s friend made a detour through Sighnaghi, an unassuming little town that was recently thrust into Georgia’s tourist limelight. The transition — from hiking well off the beaten path to the heart of Georgia’s tourist track — was a bit surreal. One moment D was wading almost waist-deep in snowmelt in the middle of the Lagodekhi wilderness, and an hour or two later he found himself jockeying for position with Russian tourists so that he could snap a couple of photographs.
Sighnaghi is magnificently situated on a hillside promontory that overlooks a verdant valley while offering panoramic views of the Caucasus Mountains. Despite its stunning location, for much of its existence Sighnaghi was of little import. At the time of Georgia’s annexation by the Russian Empire in 1801, there were barely 100 families living inside the town’s fortified walls.
Sighnaghi grew in size during Soviet times, but fell into decline after independence until the government of Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after the Rose Revolution, decided to turn it into a tourist haven. D’s friend recounted how the couple of thousand Georgians who call Sighnaghi home complained bitterly for years while government contractors tore up the town’s streets and engaged in a prolonged reconstruction to rival Boston’s Big Dig.
Now these efforts seem to be paying dividends. Sighnaghi is cute, clean, orderly, and has been transformed into one of the country’s top tourist spots. In fact, as it lies in the center of Georgia’s wine country and is easily accessible from Tbilisi, it has become a favorite destination for honeymooning couples, leading some to call it Georgia’s “Love City.” So what if the cobblestones are freshly laid and lack any semblance of historic authenticity? Sighnaghi is still the prettiest town in the Kakheti wine region and now has the infrastructure to live up to its full tourist potential.
D and his friend did not linger too long, tempting though it was to sit in a restaurant on the plaza and indulge in a leisurely lunch after the early morning hike. Though the Georgia-Russia rugby game they hoped to catch would not start until 5pm, Tbilisi’s streets would become gridlocked with game traffic much earlier. D and his friend peeked inside one of Sighnaghi’s two old Orthodox churches, checked out the central plaza, and descended down to the city wall before rushing back to the car.
D’s friend, who had warmed to his tour guide role, had two more stops in mind before setting course for Tbilisi. The first was at the Bodbe Monastery, which is just up the road from Sighnaghi and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia. This is because St. Nino — the female evangelist who converted Georgia’s pagan king to Orthodox Christianity sometime in the 4th century — is buried in a small church at Bodbe. The monastery complex also holds St. Nino’s spring, which purportedly owes its existence to the strength of Nino’s prayers. Its waters are believed to have healing powers and attract a long line of pilgrims in the summer.
The other stop was at an otherwise unremarkable stretch of asphalt somewhere along the Tbilisi-Kakheti highway to purchase churchkhela — a snack that is popular throughout Georgia, but whose roots lie in Kakheti. Churchkhela is made by repeatedly dipping a string of nuts — typically walnuts — in a boiling mixture of grape juice and wheat flour, and then letting the grape mixture coagulate. It’s worth a try when fresh, though the locals also make a dried variety that sacrifices too much taste and texture for the sake of a longer shelf life.
Sighnaghi is about an hour and a half away from Tbilisi, and D’s friend budgeted plenty of time for the drive back. Unfortunately, he hadn’t counted on the extent to which the local police would exacerbate traffic near the rugby stadium. Several ramps leading to the Vake neighborhood where the game was being played had been completely sealed off by police vehicles, which prompted D’s friend to simply ditch his car by the side of the road once he got within 20 minutes’ walking distance of the stadium. It was D’s first professional rugby game, and though he likely missed a few of the game’s nuances, he was pleased to see the home team earn a decisive and morally satisfying 33-0 win over Russia.