Kvemo Kartli probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when planning a Georgia road trip. After all, it isn't home to many of the country’s best known tourist sites, and it's proximity to Tbilisi might make it seem less of an adventure. But with a wealth of cultural, historic and natural attractions this region offers the perfect opportunity to see what most tourists do not in Georgia.
TBILISI TO BOLNISI
Our route for this Kvemo Kartli and Javakheti road trip starts and ends at Liberty Square in Tbilisi (also known as Freedom Square). Sticking to the west bank of the Mtkvari River, follow the Rustavi Highway south and turn off for Marneuli after 9 km. At Marneuli, turn west towards Bolnisi. Here the landscape becomes ever more attractive, the villages more characterful. The total distance from Tbilisi to Bolnisi is 63 km, and it takes around one hour to drive.
BOLNISI GERMAN HERITAGE
Bolnisi has an interesting cultural history. Swabian Germans settled the area in 1817, and the community flourished until forced into exile by Stalin in 1941. At that time, only Germans who were married to Georgians or Armenians were allowed to remain. Originally named Katharinenfeld after the Queen of Württemberg, the town was renamed Luxemburg in 1921 (after German Communist Rosa Luxemburg), before finally becoming Bolnisi in 1944.
Among many things, the German community established a Lutheran Church, an elementary school, a theatre group, a German language newspaper, and five football teams. They brought with them their own culture and traditions, including winemaking – something the region is particularly well suited to. These days, the local population is largely made up of Georgians, Azeris or Armenians, and few of German heritage remain. But, historic German homes can still be found lining the cobbled streets of Saakadze and Parnavaz, running parallel to the south of the town’s main road.
Although Bolnisi is Georgia’s newest designated wine appellation, the region’s winemaking roots go far back in history. A variety of white and red grapes are grown in the local vineyards, including Rkatsiteli, Chinuri, Saperavi, Tavkveri and Bovi. A number of small wineries have started producing traditional qvevri wine for sale over the last few years, and a visit to a local marani, or wine cellar, is a great way to spend the afternoon.
Our particular favourite is Brother’s Cellar, offering up excellent wine and a warm welcome from the gregarious Guram, one of the eponymous brothers. You can taste each of their wines and buy a few bottles for the road, or linger over a home-cooked meal accompanied by unlimited wine. This last option is better suited to those spending the night in Bolnisi itself, for obvious reasons!
There are a number of things to see at the Samshvilde complex, spread out across a naturally fortified rocky promontory above the Chivchavi and Khrami rivers. It’s one of Georgia’s oldest castle towns, dating back to the 3rd century BC.
After parking up, walk along the track, pass through the gate, and follow the path past two churches to the ruins of Samshvilde Fortress. The second church (Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary) is particularly interesting, sitting in bucolic grounds alongside a beautiful horse shaped tombstone with detailed carvings.
Although Samshvilde Fortress is partly in ruins, it doesn’t require too much imagination to picture it in its heyday. With its round corner defence tower, the west facing wall is particularly impressive. Passing through the gate, views of Samshvilde Canyon and the plateaus on either side open up. A path leads to the ruins of Sioni Cathedral, built between 759-777 AD, where an 8th century inscription can be seen on the eastern facade. Beyond the cathedral lies a stunning viewpoint. From here, you can look straight down the canyon towards our Day 1 suggested camp spot beside the Khrami River.
Just outside of Tsalka is Dashbashi Canyon (also called Tsalka Canyon), where the now familiar Khrami River flows beneath tall cliffs. The forest lining the western clifftops is ideal for camping. There is a picnic table area with bins, or you can tuck yourself in somewhere secluded among the trees. A dirt track running through the forest makes for easy access.
From Dashbashi village, you can hike down into the canyon and get to a series of waterfalls. However, during our own visit to the canyon this was not possible, as there was a massive construction project underway to build a glass bridge spanning the canyon, and to develop tourist infrastructure in the immediate area. At the time of writing, we understand that access into the canyon is again possible, and that the glass bridge is set to be opened in Spring 2022.
Adapted from www.goingthewholehogg.com