The name of the town comes from Turkish word “Signak” meaning a shelter and has had a rich history as a center for tradesmen and artisans. The winding cobblestone streets, Italian architecture, and 18th century defensive walls create a charming atmosphere. Down the hill from the main town there are several historic churches. Stay the night and enjoy the hospitality of the innkeepers and restaurateurs.
This excellent, well-displayed, modern museum has good exhibits on Kakheti archaeology and history, and a room of 16 paintings by the great Kakheti born artist Pirosmani – the biggest collection of his work after the National Gallery in Tbilisi. Explanatory information is in English as well as Georgian.
Walls & Churches
Most of Erekle II’s 4km-circumference de- fensive wall still stands, with 23 towers and each of its six gates named after a local village. Part of the wall runs along Chavcha- vadze on the hilltop on the northwest side of town, where you can enter the tiny Stepan Tsminda Church inside a tower. The 19th- century Tsminda Giorgi Church (Gorgasali) abuts another stretch of wall, lower down on the northeast side of town. A little further down you can climb up inside one tower and walk atop the walls down to the gate over the Tsnori road.
This local Georgian-American-Swedish joint venture makes excellent organic wine by the traditional qvevri method, in which wine is fermented in clay pots buried under- ground, and offers tastings for groups at its attractive premises in town (which are also an art gallery and carpet shop). Independent travellers can often be catered for too. It also offers vineyard visits and wine tours.
Bodbe Convent is 2km south of Sighnaghi, an enjoyable walk on country roads. Set among tall cypresses, the convent is dedicated to St Nino, who is buried here. The little church was originally built, over the saint’s grave, by King Mirian in the 4th century. It has been rebuilt and renovated several times since. Nino’s tomb, partly silver-covered, with a bejeweled turquoise cloisonné halo, is in a small chapel in its southeast corner. The murals were painted in 1823 by Bishop John Maqashvili. Through an opening in a wall just northeast of the church, and then down a steep path of 800m, you can reach a small chapel built over St Nino’s Spring, which burst forth after she prayed on this spot. Pilgrims queue up to drink and splash themselves with the holy water.
Fans of the artist Pirosmani will enjoy a trip to his childhood home, now the Niko Piros- manashvili State Museum, in Mirzaani, 10km south of Sighnaghi. Paintings by Pirosmani and other Georgian artists, plus a collection of handmade carpets, are on view.
On the border with Azerbaijan, Davit (or David) Gareja (or Gareji) is one of the most remarkable of Georgia’s historic sites, and makes a great day trip from Tbilisi, Sighnaghi or Telavi. Comprising about 15 old monasteries spread over a remote area, its uniqueness is heightened by a lunar, semidesert landscape that turns green and blooms with flowers in early summer. Two of the key monasteries, and the most visited, are Lavra (the only inhabited one today), and, on the hill above it, Udabno, which has beautiful frescoes.
Lavra, the first monastery here, was founded by Davit Gareja, one of the 13 ascetic Syrian fathers who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. The religious complex grew until monasteries were spread over a wide area. Manuscripts were translated and copied, and a celebrated Georgian school of fresco painting flourished here. The monasteries were destroyed by the Mongols in 1265, revived in the early 14th century by Giorgi V the Brilliant, sacked by Timur, and then suffered their worst moment of all on Easter night 1615 when Shah Abbas’ soldiers killed 6000 monks and destroyed many of their artistic treasures. The monasteries never regained their former importance, though they remained operational until the end of the 19th century. During the Soviet era the area was used for military exercises and the monasteries were neglected and vandalised. The Lavra monastery has since seen a good deal of restoration and is now again inhabited by monks.
It takes two to three hours to explore Lavra and Udabno at a leisurely pace. Entrance to both is free.
The Lavra monastery is on three levels, with buildings dating from many periods. The watchtower and outer walls are from the 18th century. You enter by a gateway decorated with reliefs illustrating stories of the monks’ harmony with the natural world. Inside you descend to a courtyard with the caves of Davit and his Kakhetian disciple Lukiane along one side, and the 6th-century cave church Peristsvaleba (Transfiguration Church) on the other side. Inside the Perists- valeba are the tombs of Davit (on the right), Lukiane and another Kakhetian companion, Dodo. Some of the caves in the rock above those of Davit and Lukiane are inhabited by monks, so you should avoid making too much noise.
To reach Udabno, take the uphill path be- side the church shop outside Lavra. Watch out for poisonous vipers on this route, including in the caves and especially from April to June. When you come level with a watchtower overlooking Lavra, take the path straight up the hill. In about 10 minutes you reach a metal railing. Follow this to the top of the ridge, then along the far side of the ridge (where the railing deteriorates to a series of posts). The plains now spread below you are in Azerbaijan, and the caves above the path are the Udabno monastery. Some still contain 10th- to 13th- century frescoes, the most outstanding be- ing about halfway along the hillside. Fifty metres past the cave numbered 50 in green paint, a side path heads up and back to cave No 36, the monastery’s refectory, where the monks had to kneel to eat at low stone tables. It’s decorated with beautiful light- toned frescoes, the principal one being an 11th-century Last Supper. Further up above here are the Annunciation Church (cave 42), with very striking frescoes in blacks, blues and yellows showing Christ and his disciples; and St George’s Church (cave 41). Return down to the main path and continue 20m to the left to Udabno’s main church. Paintings here show Davit Gareja and Lukiane surrounded by deer, depicting the story that deer gave them milk when they were wandering hungry in this remote wilderness. Below them are Kakhetian princes.
The path eventually climbs to a stone chapel on the hilltop, then heads down past a cave known as Davit’s Tears (with a spring inside) and the top of Lavra monastery, to the watchtower you passed earlier. The monks’ water-channel system enabled them to grow gardens and make wine.