Ikalto, Alaverdi, & the Badagoni Vineyard

Ikalto Monastery.

Ikalto Monastery.

Another short drive away is the monastery of Ikalto, one of two famous medieval Georgian academies, the other being Gelati outside Kutaisi.  The national poet Shota Rustaveli is thought to have studied here.  It was founded in the 6th century by Zenon, another one of the 13 Syrian fathers; in the 12th century King David the Builder invited the philosopher Arsen Ikaltoeli to establish an academy here, where the doctrines of Neo-Platonism were expounded.  In 1616 the complex was devastated by the Persians. (Most of this is taken from the LP guide).

Here too there was extensive renovation underway, particularly at the main church.  The floor inside the church had been largely excavated away, leaving a surface of uneven stone, plaster and wooden planks. A number of long spidery cracks were visible in the arches supporting the dome, caused probably by a number of earthquakes through the centuries—Alaverdi cathedral was also similarly damaged.

The academy.

The academy.

As with the academy in Gelati, this one is largely in ruins; roof completely gone, walls gradually crumbling and sprouting vegetation, the ground long since covered with soil and foliage.  No sign that they were planning to restore it, though they might undertake it once they’ve finished with the church.  A shame really; it’s a handsome building, and with a little publicity about Rustaveli it could probably draw a good number of tourists whose visits could pay towards the restoration.

Construction everywhere...

Restoration everywhere...A painting of Jesus inside the church.

There’s also very little in the way of information for tourists—or simply foreigners—to be found in Georgia generally; a little research and investment would go a long way to both boost tourism and make the visits more interesting.  Most of these places, with their long and probably colourful histories, must have a lot of stories connected with them that would be interesting to learn about.  Virtually everything I learned about most of the places I’ve visited come from guide books, which tend to provide only the essential information and usually don’t have space for greater detail; and the Georgian history books I’ve looked at usually focus on the broader political and social development of the country, while the actual locations are simply briefly sketched as a background.  Something of a shame, since so many of the sites are so interesting, and undoubtedly have stories worth telling.

Icon.

Icon.

Icon.

Icon.

Italianate canvases, too...

Italianate canvases, too...

Tomb of St.

Tomb of Zenon, the Syrian father who founded the monastery.

Found this upstairs in a storage room.

Found this upstairs in a storage room.

The upstairs storage room.

The upstairs storage room.

Alaverdi Cathedral

Alaverdi Cathedral

Another fifteen minute drive brought us to Alaverdi, a large walled complex situated in the middle of the Alazani plains.  Huge walls encompass the whole place; from the outside it looks like a fortress or castle of some kind with the roof and spire of the cathedral rising up from the inside.  An enormous restoration project underway here too, so our visit was pretty much limited to a peek inside the cathedral and a glance around the grounds.

Exterior; part of the convent added in the 17th century.

Exterior; part of the convent added in the 17th century.

Part of the grounds.

Part of the grounds.

Aside from the path leading from the entrance of the site to the cathedral doors, everything was off-limits because of the construction.  There were a number of things that sounded interesting in the guidebook but which we couldn’t see—the convent, the summer palace of Shah Abbas’ governor (the ruins of which have now been restored as the bishop’s residence), a bath-house, a bell-tower, and a recently renovated marani.  As was the case in Nekresi, the restoration (from what I could see) was excellent, preserving the characteristic Georgian stone & timber style and really quite attractive.

Nave.

Nave.

The cathedral is, by Georgian standards, enormous; at around 50m high it was, until the completion of Sameba in Tbilisi  5 or 6 years ago, for about nine centuries the largest, tallest church in Georgia.  Again we were discouraged from taking pictures, so this was the only one I was able to take.  There interior had at some point in the past been covered in frescoes, then whitewashed, and now efforts have been made to reveal them once again, with mixed success.  A number of areas have been recovered, and large images now recognizable, though sadly there are sizable portions that are probably gone for good.  An 11th century Virgin and Child above the altar was partially visible.

The Badagoni Vinyard

The Badagoni Vineyard

On our way back from Alaverdi towards Telavi, we passed the town of Zemo Khodasheni where Badagoni has its factory.  Supported by Italian investment, the company started up just a few years ago though is apparently now the largest winery in Georgia, producing more than two million bottles a year.  When we arrived at the entrance gate, Khatuna asked if we could look around the place, taste some wine, and buy some bottles.  The security guard looked rather amused, spoke rapidly into his walkie-talkie, and told us to wait.  A few minutes later an energetic man of perhaps 35 came striding towards us from the main building to accompany us inside.

Inside.

Inside.

Tasting.

Tasting.

The guy on the left is the one who accompanied us to the building; the man in the white shirt is our driver; and the guy handing Khatuna a glass of wine is one of the head vintners, who spoke a halting, imperfect, but passable Italian and was lively and friendly.  he took us around the factory, showing us the bottling center, the various vats storing different kinds of wine, explained how they worked, and described the whole process from collection of the grapes to final product.  As we walked around, we tasted various wines, he insisting that Khatuna taste each one along with himself and me.  One or two of the wines I quite liked; the others, the semi-sweet and the sour white, weren’t as good.

The cellar.

The cellar.

“Vieni qui e noi facciamo una foto, vieni vieni…”  Everyone was in a good mood after sipping wine and chatting for 30-40 minutes, and the rest of the tour was cheerfully spent checking out the cellar and the collection from their first year of production.

Cask.

Cask.

After leaving Badagoni we drove back to Telavi and picked up our stuff from Svetlana’s, went to the marshrutka stop, and got our bus back to Tbilisi.  A great little vacation.

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