The largest town in Kakheti, Telavi is set in the vineyard-strewn Alazani valley, between the Gombori Mountains and the Caucasus (visible to the northeast). The city sits at 568m on a hilltop above the Alazani Valley. Though of only moderate interest itself, it’s the perfect base for exploring the historical, architectural and viticultural riches of Kakheti, and as a jumpingoff point for Tusheti in the Caucasus.
Telavi has a population of 30,000. Telavi was the capital of the kingdom of Kakheti three times, once in the 11th century, in the 17th century after Gremi had been destroyed by Shah Abbas, and yet again in the 18th century. The city is currently the administrative and cultural center of Kakheti.
Rich in gardens and streets lined with oak, walnut, plane, and mulberry trees, Telavi clearly retains the pleasures of a small city while at the same time offering those to be found in the nearby forests of the Gombori. Telavi's sheer staying power through 20 centuries of shifting fortunes has bred an impressive equilibrium in its citizens. They are people who take a leisurely and dignified long view оf things. Sic transit gloria mundi, they seem to say, with the full knowledge that this is so. There is good Kakhetian wine on the table and even better friends to drink it with. Why worry? Acknowledging that the status of his city was not what it once was, one Telavian was heard telling the following joke: "What happened to the Kakhetian living in the States who tried to phone home to Telavi?" Answer: The operator connected him to Tel Aviv."
Known since the first century AD as a trade center on a caravan route from the Middle East to Western Europe, Telavi first appeared on a second-century Greek map under its original name, Telaiba. In the 2nd century it was also mentioned by the Greek geographer Ptolemy as 'Teladi'. The town was thriving in the fifth century, and by the 11th it had become the capital. Telavi's importance certainly diminished as the power center of Georgia shifted back and forth between Tbilisi and Kutaisi. From the fifth century until its destruction by Shah Abbas in 1615, Gremi was the capital of the Kakhetian Kingdom.
Telavi rose to prominence again in the middle of the 17th century, when Herekle II became King of Kakheti. The palace and castle walls in the center of the city were built during his reign. When he united Kartli and Kakheti in 1762, he moved-the capital to Tbilisi and turned the palace in Telavi into his summer residence. Herekle fought in more than 100 battles and was wounded more than 80 times. His last battle, which he lost to the Persian Khan, took place when he was 75. Forced to flee Tbilisi he returned to Telavi where he died at the age of 78 in 1798, having served as a king for 54 years.
Herekle's palace is the center-piece of Telavi. In front of the castle gates is Merab Merabishvilis equestrian statue of Herekle, visible when you first enter the town on the road from Tbilisi. Batonistsikhe Castle ( 10am-5pm Tue-Sun) was the residence of the Kakhetian kings in the 17th and 18th centuries, built when King Archil II transferred his residence from Gremi to Telavi. Nearby is a famous 800-year-old plane tree, measuring 40 meters high and 11,4 meters around the base.
Inside the castle yard is a Persian-style palace that was constructed in the 1660s, and rebuilt by Erekle II, who was born and died here. The central throne room holds many historical portraits including one of Erekle himself (above the throne). The castle precinct contains the remains of two churches: 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.
On the grounds surrounded by Herekle's crenellated walls (rebuilt in the 19th century) are the lion's share of the town's interesting sites.
The historical and ethnographical museum
Probably the best museum of its kind in Georgia outside of Tbilisi, the museum displays its treasures chronologically to give a view of Kakhetian history, from Bronze and Iron age tools to folk costumes still worn at the beginning of the 20th century. In between are models of churches throughout the region, reproductions of frescoes, books and manuscripts printed in Georgian on the country's first press(c. 1709), 16th-century arms and armor, the 16th-century silverware of King Aleksandre II, and a painting of Herekle II wearing a turban. This last item was presented to the king by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah, with whom he campaigned in India. Although a lifelong Christian, Herekle wore a turban during his time of service with Nadir Shah, an excellent example of the bend-but-don't-break school of diplomacy. A wonderful legend is attached to Herekle's soldiering with Nadir Shah, supposedly the reason for the Persian's gratitude and the gift. When Herekle was with Nadir Shah's army in India they came upon a small stone post with a sign reading, "Anyone who steps beyond this point will be punished by God." The army stopped in its tracks and wouldn't budge until Herekle deployed one of his elephants to pull up the post. He then placed it on the animal's back, and continued the march. Thus the army never stepped beyond the dreaded post.
On the palace grounds, occupying a handful of rooms, is a small, eclectic collection of Georgian, Russian, Dutch, and Italian paintings of the 17th to 19th centuries. A rather fine Aivazovsky makes stopping in worthwhile.
Built in the mid-18th century, the palace reflects a Persian architectural style with stained-glass panels and low doorways that required anyone entering to bow in deference or bang his head. The plan consists of five corner rooms and one large hall where guests were received. The palace was restored in 1983 to mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk that made Kartli- Kakheti a Russian protectorate. The treaty displayed inside the palace is a copy.
The original is in the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi. Take a few moments to sit pasha- style on the balcony. You can literally smell the roses, for there is a lovely rose garden in front of the palace.
Additional monuments within the castle enclosure are the royal church of Herekle, built in 1758, an 17th-18th- century basilica, ruins of the king's baths from the 11th century, and a pantheon of famous Kakhetians' graves. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and it's a pleasure to stroll behind the fortress walls under the shade of the trees, especially on a hot summer's day.
Getting There & Away
Marshrutkas to Telavi (2½ hours) leave Tbilisi’s Ortachala bus station about every 30 minutes from 7am to 6pm. There are also shared taxis from Tbilisi’s Isani metro station. Marshrutkas back to Tbilisi go about hourly from 8.30am to 1pm from Telavi’s new bus station, then more frequently until 5pm from another stop below the petrol station down the street. Shared taxis to Tbilisi wait up the street from the new bus station.
The old bus station (Alazanis gamziri) is through a short alley opposite the new bus station. From here marshrutkas and buses leave for Alaverdi Cathedral (about every 20 minutes, 9am to 6pm), Kvareli (one to 1½ hours, about hourly, 9.30am to 5.30pm), Tsinandali (at least hourly, 9am to 4pm) and Sighnaghi (1½ hours, at 3pm).
Taxis wait on the corner of Chavchavadze and Ketevan Tsamebuli just up the street from the bus stations.
The villages and lovely countryside around Telavi are full of fascinating places to visit. Public transport reaches many of them (see above), but you can pack a lot more into your day by taking a taxi tour.