• Michael Knock

Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Day 9

We were due to be heading to Aerbaijan & Georgia @ this time of year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have required us to suspend all tours for the rest of 2020.

On this virtual Tour, you can travel with us as we explore two emerging countries - Azerbaijan & Georgia. On this Tour, we fly into Baku, Azerbaijan and out of Tbilisi, Georgia and bus, hike & funicular our way around these amazing cultures.

Day 9 - Sheki - Georgia

This morning, after breakfast with Tural, we went for a walk through the Sheki Market, to explore and to get some supplies for our drive into Georgia - our last-minute "fix" of some of the Azeri specialities that we have come to love.

Our drive was about 2 hours and covered @ 125kms via Qakh and stops at Zaqatala & Balakan. These towns are on the Silk Road but don't have the same sort of alure as Sheki. As far as Zaqatala is concerned, it is the hazelnut capital of Azerbaijan so it was good to load up on those whilst exploring the Dada Gorgud Square. This central square is dedicated to the Caucasian Mother Goose, Dada Gorgud and in the square there are 800 year old Eastern Plane Trees, plenty of tea houses and public toilets. We didn't visit the Russian Fortress as we still had a long way to go.

The Azerbaijani/Georgian border is pretty much in the middle of nowhere between Balakan and Lagodekhi in Georgia.

We were very happy to be part of a small group for the border crossing - it made getting to the border so much easier. If we were free-lancing our travels, it would have meant public transport to Balakan (which is about 5kms from the border), finding our way to the border, walking through and then negotiating (in Georgian Lari and not Azeri Manats) a taxi the 4km from the border to Lagodekhi. As it was, we said goodbye to our Azeri guide, Tural, as we were meeting our Georgian guide, Andria, "on the other side".

The border crossing in itself is quite fast and easy. Azerbaijan now issues e-visas so you don't have to worry about any paperwork and Georgia does not require a visa for Australians or New Zealanders to enter and stay for up to 365 days. As you leave the Azerbaijani border area, you are in for a treat - you can walk across the bridge between Azerbaijan and Georgia over the Matsimis Tskali River which serves as the border.

Once back on board, we headed for Georgia's Kakheti region which is famous for its great weather, golden hills and for being Georgia's principal wine-making area. Andria informed us that Kakheti is considered the world's cradle of wine. The legend states that from here the wine spread all over the world. And indeed, the main attraction of that region, besides the old churches and monasteries, are the hundreds of small and large, modern and ancient wineries, partly still run family owned.

Archaeologists have traced the world's first known wine creation back to the people of the South Caucasus in 6,000BC. These early Georgians discovered grape juice could be turned into wine by burying it underground for the winter. The juice was stored in a Qvevri, (kway-vri) an egg-shaped, beeswax-lined, earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine.

The qvevri, which range in size from 100 litres to 4000 litres, are designed to mature & store wine, not transport it. As early wine manufacturing increased in volume, the qvevri got bigger resulting in them being buried to support their own weight and to withstand the pressure during fermentation. This, unknowlingly at the time, also kept the wine cooler and at a more stable temperature meaning a longer maceration period for grapes on fermenting must. The extended maceration period develops an increase in aroma and flavor profiles in qvevri wines.

We visited the Khareba Vineyard for lunch and sampled their wines and, later, their version of Chacha - (Georgian: ჭაჭა), a Georgian pomace brandy, a clear and strong (ranging between 40% alcohol for commercially produced to 65% for home brew), which is sometimes called "Wine vodka", "grape vodka", or "Georgian vodka/grappa". It is made of grape pomace (grape residue left after making wine).

We were thus well-prepared for our winery tour which explore part of this vineyard's 7.7km of tunnels storing about 250,000 bottles of wine at 12-14C and 70% humidity.

This afternoon we headed into Sighnaghi which is perhaps Kakheti's most attractive town, with an amazing position perched on a lofty hilltop facing the snowcapped Caucasus looming in the distance across the vast Alazani valley. Full of 18th- and 19th-century architecture and with a vaguely Tuscan feel, Sighnaghi has seen a comprehensive renovation program in recent years that has seen dozens of hotels open as the local population reorients itself towards the tourism market.

Sighnaghi has another claim to fame - that of the "City of Love". The reason(s)? It is possible to get married in Sighnaghi 24/7 so it is a bit of a Mecca for elopements and a local fable that one of the most famous Georgian painters, Nikala Pirosmani was from Sighnaghi, that he sold his house to buy a million roses for his lover, but she left him and he died a poor man.

Whatever your reason for coming here, it has one of the most magical positions and views in Georgia, complete with a 5km long wall,with 23 towers, encirculating the town.

We were fortunate enough to be staying the night at the family-run Boutique Hotel BelleVue which had extraordinary views of the town, mountains and plains from the terrace and some rooms.

The afternoon was ours to explore the Old town and sample some of the regional specialities. Shopping-wise included textiles especially hats, shawls and hand-knitted socks (apparently needed all-year 'round)....

and Churchkhela, a traditional Georgian candle-shaped sweet. The main ingredients are grapemust (juice), nuts, and flour. Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts,chocolate and sometimes raisins are threaded onto a string, dipped in thickened grape juice or fruit juices and dried in the shape of a sausage.

We tried the recomended Nikala Restaurant in the centre of town and, again on advice, ordered the khinkali, stuffed pasta dumplings. These hearty little bags of goodness are typically served up on large platters and shared with friends. There are several kinds of Khinkali. Typical varieties have stuffing made from cheese, mushrooms, lamb or potato, but the most common is a meaty stuffing made with pork and beef. Once cooked, the meaty stuffing releases a rich broth into the centre of the dumpling which is sucked out before the rest of the dumpling (except the pasta handle) are eaten.

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