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Telavi: Throne Of The Old Empire

Updated: May 22, 2022

Telavi is one of the oldest cities in the nation.

While a lesser known tourist destination, its probably one of the most beautiful.

As a former capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti, it holds a special place for a lot of the modern residents. Even today, as an administrative center and economic hub, it commands the region.

From as far back as the Bronze Age (3300 BC to 1200 BC), this has been a settlement full of human traffic. Through the Middle Ages, it remained a political and economic node for the eastern Georgian kingdoms. Persian, Russian, and Mongolian armies punished themselves for the opportunity to control this otherwise unassuming ville.

However, spending a weekend here is easy fun. The ride out here is scenic, albeit very rustic in its visual offerings. Meandering through the hills, the taxi I managed to fit inside struggled up some of the more dubious slopes. Together with a woman, babe in arms, and another man apparently a good friend of the driver, the ride was strangely gentle. When compared with that of the infamous marshrutka drivers in the west of the country, this was a welcome comfort.

As we near the town, the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus mountains begin to dominate the northern horizon. Distant farms and miniscule country homes pepper the fertile Alazani valley, a place known all too well for its incredible vineyards.

Entering Telavi from the west, it has an unassuming charm to it. It is a place that remains outside the grasp of so much outside influence. Even Tbilisi, unique unto itself, has succumbed to some of the trappings of European city stereotypes and decadence.

The first smells of the open bazaar hit, and it's on foot from here. Navigating to the guest house is easy, although entirely uphill with a full pack. The home is a small family operation. Greeted by the husband and father of the house, I am promptly and courteously shown my room. A small and simple one-bed affair, it is perfect for the minimalistic attitude I have imbibed for this journey.

Complete with a common area, kitchen, and courtyard, it offers far more than a standard hotel room however. A short foot patrol of the town's central area unveils plenty of curiosities. Spice markets, mixed electronics shops, fresh meats, live fish, vegetables that most likely were grown less than a few kilometers from town, and of course the homemade wine.

After a quick bite to eat, it's off to the main attraction; the castle. Telavi is home to one of the best preserved medieval castles in the country. This citadel also houses a museum, church, and a restoration of the home of Georgian king Erekle II. Arguably one of Georgia's most famous historical monarchs, his home is almost exactly the same as the very one he was born and died in.

With exceptions such as the public service building and a few of the big brand hotels, much of the town looks the same it has for decades. The town is filled with local charm, old buildings, remnants of castle fortifications, and the occasional monument to a local poet or writer. It's complete with informal greetings, local food, and (for this guy) a new set of track pants. Victory.

Aside from being a constant lesson in “street Georgian,” it is also a place of immense beauty. The city sits atop a hill overlooking the northern Alazani valley and the Caucasian mountain range. In a position that has long held the same importance, the town has overwatch on the entire area.

Looking back historically, it's easy to see the advantages. A local ruler or commander could visualize the entire region, as well as have early notice of enemy movements. Archers at the ready, one would ride out to investigate with a troop of accompanying royal guard cavalry. Upon discovering the more-than-likely honorable traveler, a feast complete with smoked meats, homemade wine, and pickled vegetables would ensue. In fact, this is exactly how many of the local meals are conducted to this day.

Another walk through the city’s bustling bazaar shows how so many of these traditions are still alive. Local fish in a large tub of water, smoked meats hanging from homemade hooks, and mounds of spices and vegetables fill the stalls. It's like the stereotypical depictions of Eastern markets in art and classical literature. Bolts of cloth of various fabrics, a litany of homegoods, and even raw iron ready to be wrought at one's home.

Towards the closing of my stay in Telavi, it was surprising to quickly find a ride out of town. Walking towards the center of town a taxi driver, albeit in an unmarked car, asked me if I was going to Tbilisi. It might have been the large rucksack on my back that gave it away, but indeed I was. First, a quick stop at someone's home to pick up a lady and several large bags of what I can only assume are the wares she intends to sell in the capitol.

With that, we’re off on the road, the two of them already in lengthy conversation. Occasionally, I would be asked something, typically about where I’m from, what I’m doing in Georgia, etc. While communication was limited, I did realize that he had anointed me with a common nickname; “America.”

The drive back is almost just as majestic as the town itself. Curving roads through immense mountain valleys, even still with their snow caps are everywhere. Small homely villages and the occasional ancient or Soviet-era ruins are all along the road. More charm.

Upon returning to Tbilisi, I’m very satisfied with my impromptu decision to escape the big city. I had my worries, as Telavi doesn't have the allure and popularity as other places such as the Black Sea jewel Batumi or the ski resort town of Gudauri. Nonetheless, the small mountain town was a much needed respite, offering the change in environmental dynamic I so desired.

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