Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Q&A Time: Kakheti

There's a very good reason I haven't been blogging lately.
Twins Old Cellar, Kakheti
I've been having Georgian (and Oxonian) adventures - which unfortunately have piled up so astoundingly that I've been afraid of tackling the ever-growing list of sites I need to cover on the blog (large posts planned for Armenia, Kazbegi, Kakheti, as well as for Non-Horrible Things to do in London - Redux; shorter posts planned for Bath House Price Comparisons, reviews of new restaurants, and my finally-perfected Georgian Lobio Abroad Recipe).

Yet, at the urge of these slightly ridiculous letter-writers (who may or may not be Kierkegaardian pseudonyms), I will write about Kakheti.

Dear Fleur,
I am a womanizing baritone with an effectively comic sidekick seeking a charming country in which to have fireside meals, sequester myself away from civilization, meet brigands, fight duels, and avoid living statues. Is there anywhere in Georgia that might suffice?

Dear D.G.,
Like the tragic antihero of any good opera, I too have been in search of the ultimate Duel-Fighting Country Inn. Luckily for both of us, I have found such a place - the Twins Old Cellar Winery in Napareuli, Kakheti (one of the few Kakhetian towns not to resemble Lego blocks of concrete, a bucolic and donkey-filled village on the outskirts of Telavi). For 50 lari a night, plus modest food costs (order in advance), you too can sit in a private barn-turned-dining room before a blazing fire, eating enormous khinkali and perhaps the best lobio in Georgia, drinking homemade wine, and pretending that it is the late eighteenth century. Be sure to bid hello to the unimpressed-looking cat.

Dear Fleur,
I am a diagnosed antiquophile, and get a particular frisson of delight from encountering Proper Ruins. Where in Kakheti should I go?

If you are wise, you will consider hiring a car and guide/driver (75 lari a day through the Cellar) -  the smaller sites of Kakheti are not well served by public transport, and many of the best sites are all-but-absent from published guidebooks. While Gremi is satisfactory and Shuamta thrilling remote, any true ruiniste should head for Nekresi, a marvelous operational monastery consisting of a range of buildings from the 4th-16th centuries located at the summit of an hourlong mountain climb, which also affords views of the various pagan temple foundations below.

If you, like me, spent your childhood bouncing up and down and clambering on Old Things (until I was five, I didn't realize that the "playground' my mother took me to was in fact the ancient Roman Forum, which then had fewer "don't play on the columns" rules), you will also thrill at Ikalto (former academy of the famous Shota Rustaveli, as well as - according to our guide - a sign of the Georgian trend towards democratization of education: the cleverest boys, regardless of background, were admitted). Kvevri wine, climb-able ruins, and best of all - adorable cows.

Dear Fleur,

Where should I go in Kakheti for a genuine religious experience?

Any tour of Kakheti worth its salt will likely take you to Gremi, to Alaverdi, and to other storied sites, most of which are largely bereft of remaining frescoes: a testament to a history of metaphorical and literal whitewashing that, in turn, brings home the dizzingly fantastical nature of encounting Georgian history: when so much has been destroyed (pictoral evidence, historical writings...whole chronicles of culture), what is left becomes nebulous; history becomes ripe for re-invention. Out of tragedy comes masquerade. (Apparently, according to my guide, the Georgians are the spiritual inheritors of the Greeks!)

Olga's is the treehouse.
But after a day spent experiencing pangs of saudades for the empty spaces on church walls, the sight of the nineteenth-century frescoes at Bodbe monastery - bright, overpowering, and above all things present - is overwhelming. It's so easy to get used to frescoes in their half-destroyed state - faded, nostalgic, vaguely wistful - that to see them as they're meant to be seen: alive with color, defiant, brilliant (like, in that sense, Greek statues that retain their paint) is enough to provoke a heightened spiritual/religious response.

This should be contemplated over the most excellent wine I've ever tasted (the red tastes like chocolate) for about 5 lari a glass from Olga's Guest House and Cafe in Sighnaghi, which is now actually inhabited, rather beautiful, and hence no longer resembles a Disney Paradise. Two years ago, I found Sighnaghi lifeless and soulless; now, however, it is the ideal place for a spiritual retreat.


T.Tolia said...

I maintain that Khornabuji Castle, just four stunning kilometres' walk from where the marshrutka lets you off in Dedoplistsqaro, is the ultimate experience in Kakhetian ruins, and indeed one of the most dramatic sights I've seen in all of 'the Georgia'.

Fleur Flaneur said...

I'll definitely have to go there next time - thank you!