Thursday, September 30, 2010

Along the Grape Road in Kakheti....

The road we are traveling isn't just Marco Polo's historic trade route, although the thought that it is, adds some historic dignity to our madly careening pace. This ancient road is also known as “The Grape Trail.” The Kakheti Region is the center of the wine producing area of Georgia and across the former Soviet Union, Georgia is synonymous with wine.

Unlike Russia, it's neighbor to the north and east, where vodka is the national drink, Georgians love their wine. In fact, the official Kakheti website actually proclaims that every Kakheti family has their own family vineyard. I'm not kidding! The vineyards here have been in production for a few thousand years, Nic tells us. It has been said that the spirit of the Georgian feast resides in its wine (“glvino,” from which descends our modern word “wine”). Just as in Italy, which will be our next country, most vineyards are family plots. Every family makes its own wines here, just as every family has its own pigs for its own bacon, a cow or two to make it's own version of the distinctive, salty Georgian cheese, it's own orchards....Self-sufficient, these people.

Oddly, the vineyards through which we travel appear interspersed with corn fields. It's true, even here, that corn and it's not-all-together-healthy by-products, has become the ubiquitous crop of the world, and is beginning to compete for space with other crops. I find myself rooting for the grape vines and I cannot wait to taste the wine about which I have heard so much!

Sill traveling at breakneck speed, we come out of the deep ravine into the fertile Alazani river plains, having left behind the land with its slow, painfully-pumping oil wells. (which reminded us of the drive between Denver and Longmont, Colorado!) This is a land where vineyards come up to the edges of the road, so close that we can see enormous clusters of grapes hanging heavy on the vines, even at our hysterical speeds. Crumbling, ancient fortresses stand sentinel atop the many distant bluffs. In the distance rise the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus. Telavi, where we are headed, is the capitol of the wine region and the site of the ancient fortress of the principality of King Irakli II.

Our speeding carriage begins to climb, weaving in and around hay carts and ancient, sputtering trucks loaded with produce. Through tiny village after village, on into the hills above the valley floor we climb. Some are shadowed by sentinel fortresses above them, others still circled by their own rampart remains, reminders of the need for protection from invaders from all sides. For Georgia has had need of protection through the long centuries.

Our pace finally slows as we reach the high point of the plain – the hill city of Telavi. Into the ancient streets we dive, curving around and through the city center, upwards to the castle fortress. We come to a sharp curve and crane our necks looking upwards at the enormous bronze of King Irakli, himself, astride his war horse, then abruptly swing into the parking lot next to the fortress walls, which house castle, chapel, museum and art gallery. Much of the structure dates from the 11-12th centuries, a time when Georgia, like Italy, was divided and ruled by feudal kingdoms. King Irakli presided over what is called “The Golden Era” when Georgia was at its zenith of self-rule.
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Inside the wall gates, we stroll through the castle vineyard, pay our fee and begin with the castle, coming face to face with the far east. It is an odd mix of European vaulted and domed-ceilings, combined with Persian, almost Turkish, influence in the key-hole doorways and windows and many wide, covered open-air rooms surrounding the central areas.

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The hall ceilings are low (To put it politely, the king was both height-challenged and vain) so passageways and the throne room were designed to make him look taller – the throne room has a dais that placed him above anyone else who entered it.

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Strolling past the ruined chapels, we climb to a pergola walk-way with a spectacular view over the entire valley floor to the distant Caucasus peaks. One could imagine twilight hours here with his royal courtesans. Surely the king could spot his enemies coming at a great distance. We catch a breeze and pause, aware that the possibility that the next buildings are air conditioned is remote.

We are right. On that steamy day the art gallery is stifling and dark, containing mediocre European and surprisingly skillful Georgian oil paintings. The museum is cooler and just as dark, full of the requisite ancient armor, even more ancient tools and clay dining utensils, including ancient “chapi,” the two-handled jugs with short necks and bulbous bodies in which Georgian wine has been stored and served for thousands of years. If this sounds biblical, I think they are!

We cool our heels in the rustling shade trees while taking turns at the WCs, which are nothing more than rooms with a hole in the floor and no paper. Jeff and Heather, a Peace Corps couple assigned to the region, join us for the second part of our day. Before leaving Telavi, our driver, with greater care than any he has shown that day, drives us to the great plane tree that graces the center of town. It is over 800 years old, an enormous, long-suffering giant that has withstood invasions, crumbling kingdoms and seemingly, time itself. Plane trees are a symbol of eternal life in Georgia – lore has it that plane trees were THE trees of the garden of Eden. If so, then the tree plays a role in the stories we hear later that day.

We descend again to the valley floor and travel deeper into the countryside...

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