Telavi is home of several of the region’s world-famous wineries, art museums, castles, and a theatre highlighting folk singing and dancing. Telavi is located on the crossroad of the region and is an ideal place to stop for a lunch or an excellent jumping-off point for two or three-day excursions.
Batonist- sikhe was the residence of the Kakhetian kings in the 17th and 18th centuries, built when King Archil II transferred his court back to Telavi from Gremi in 1672. Inside the castle yard is a Persian-style palace that was rebuilt by Erekle II, who was born and died here. Its central throne room holds many historical portraits including one of Erekle himself (above the throne).
The castle precinct contains the re- mains of the dilapidated Archil Church and a single-naved royal chapel, with holes for firearms in the walls, built by Erekle II in 1758. Included in the admission price are an art museum, with Georgian and western European paintings, and a history museum, in ugly modern buildings behind the palace.
This monastery, beautifully situated in a cypress grove 8km northwest of Telavi, was one of two famous medieval Georgian aca- demies, the other being Gelati. Shota Rus- taveli, the national poet, is thought to have studied here. The monastery was founded in the 6th century by Zenon, one of the 13 Syrian fathers. Six hundred years later, King David the Builder invited the philosopher Arsen Ikaltoeli to establish an academy here, where the doctrines of Neoplatonism were expounded. In 1616 the complex was devastated by the Persians.
The main Transfiguration Church was built in the 8th and 9th centuries, over an earlier church where Zenon was buried. The brick cupola and whitewash were added in the 19th century. To the east, the small Sameba (Trinity) Church dates from the 6th century but has been extensively rebuilt over time. Check the interesting small re- lief of three saints at the top of its facade. The single-naved Kvelatsminda (St Mary’s Church), to the south, dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. The roofless building be- hind this was the Academy.
At the beginning of the 11th century, when Georgia was entering its cultural and political golden age, King Kvirike of Kakheti had a majestic cathedral built – at 50m high it remained the tallest church in Georgia for nearly a millennium. Alaverdi Cathedral (h8am-7pm), 20km northwest of Telavi, is Kakheti’s main spiritual centre. The exterior is classically proportioned with majestic rounded arches but minimal decoration, typical of Kakhetian churches. Inside, the structure has a beautiful spacious harmony, and light streams in from the 16-windowed cupola. The cathedral was damaged by several earthquakes and a severe 19th-century whitewashing. Some frescoes were uncovered from beneath the whitewash in 1966. Note the 16th-century St George and dragon over the west door. The Virgin and Child above the altar is from the 11th century.
Other buildings in the cathedral compound include the summer palace of Shah Abbas’ governor (now restored as the bishop’s residence), a bathhouse, a bell tower and the Alaverdi Marani winery (not generally open to visitors).
The September festivities of Alaverdoba last three weeks, with people coming from remote mountain areas to worship and celebrate.
Gremi Monastery Complex
This picturesque brick citadel stands beside the Telavi–Kvareli road, 19km from Telavi. Kvareli-bound marshrutky from Telavi will stop here.
From 1466 to 1672 Gremi was the capital of Kakheti, but all that remains of its mar- ket, baths, caravanserai, palace and houses after its devastation by Shah Abbas in 1616 are some not-very-distinctive ruins. The citadel, however, still stands. By the road below it stands a large portrait of the Kakhetian Queen Ketevan, who was tortured to death by Abbas for refusing to renounce Christianity. Within the citadel, the Church of the Archangels was built in 1565 by King Levan (who is buried inside) and contains frescoes painted in 1577. You can climb up in the adjacent 15th-century tower-palace: a structure in one room was thought to be a bread oven, but on examination turned out to be a tunnel. Although not yet fully excavated, it’s thought to emerge in the yard outside – from where another tunnel leads down to the foot of the walls where in past centuries the Intsoba River flowed.
Nekresi’s early Georgian architecture and the views across the vineyard-dotted Alazani valley from its hillside-woodland site are marvelous. The monastery is 4km off the Kvareli road from a turning 10km past Gremi (Kvareli-bound marshrutky from Telavi will drop you at the turn-off ). Vehicles must park 1.5km before the monastery, but from there marshrutky (1 GEL return) shuttle up and down the hill from about 8am to 5pm.
One of the very first Georgian churches was built at Nekresi in the 4th century. In the 6th century one of the 13 Syrian fathers, Abibos, who converted many of the high- land Georgians, founded a monastery here. Considerable repair and reconstruction has been done in the last few years.
The first church you reach at the monastery is a three-church basilica from the 8th and 9th centuries, with a plan unique to early Georgian churches, the three naves being divided by solid walls into what are effectively three churches. Nekresi’s tiny first church stands in the centre of the complex, immediately above the church shop. It’s an extremely small basilica, many times reconstructed, with unusual open arches in the walls. Inside, steps lead down to a lower chapel or vault. Beside this church is a reconstructed 9th-century bishop’s palace complete with a marani (wine cellar) and a 16th-century tower. Immediately east is the main Church of the Assumption, another triple-church basilica from the 6th to 7th centuries, with some 17 th-century murals adorning its smoke-blackened interior.
This village, home of a famous white wine and site of the Chavchavadze family estate, lies 7km southeast of Telavi. Prince Alexander Chavchavadze (1786–1846) was the son of Georgia’s first ambassador to Russia and godson of Catherine the Great, and also a poet and antitsarist activist (for which he spent time in exile). His daughter Nino married the Russian poet and diplomat Alexander Griboedov in the family chapel here.
In 1854 Lezgin tribesmen from the Dagestan mountains ransacked the Chavchavadze house, kidnapping 23 women and children. Alexander’s son David had to mortgage the house to raise the ransom. The hostages were returned, but David was unable to repay the loan and the house passed to Tsar Alexander III. The main room of the house is now a museum, with interesting paintings and photos of people and events associated with the house, including the Lezgin raid. It also stages some good art exhibitions. The tour includes the Tsinandali Winery, founded by Alexander’s father in part of the 200,000 sq. metre park, which no longer makes wine but has a 16,500-bottle collection dating back to 1814.
The park is beautifully laid out in an English style, with venerable trees and exotic plants such as ginkgo, sequoia and yucca.
Akhali (New) & Dzveli (Old) Shuamta
The churches of Akhali (New) Shuamta and Dzveli (Old) Shuamta are fine works of Georgian architecture among beautiful woodlands off the Gombori road west of Telavi.
The convent of Akhali Shuamta, 11km from Telavi, was founded in the 16th century by the Kakhetian Queen Tinatin and is now a convent again after serving as an orphanage in Soviet times. Wait at the inner gate for one of the nuns to greet you and show you the church (some of them speak English). The church has a cruciform design with a high cupola and large crosses in- scribed on its extremities. The fine 16th century frescoes portray Tinatin, her husband King Levan II and their son Alexander, as well as biblical scenes. Tinatin and the poet Alexander Chavchavadze are both buried here.
The three stone churches of Dzveli Shu- amta, 1.8km up the road past Akhali Shuamta, formed part of a monastery founded way back in the 5th century. Nearest to the road is a three naved 5th- to 6th-century basilica, in a style typical of the earliest period of Georgian Christianity. The next is a 7th- century tetra conch church with a plan derived from the Jvari Church near Mtskheta.