Anyone who has seen Lord of the Rings will surely recall the scene when Gandalf arrives in the Shire – a land flowing with milk and honey, idyllic, green, peaceful, fairytale. A real such Shire exists – to me, this is Racha, a magical region in north-western Georgia, right at the feet of the High Caucasus.
It takes some 4 hours of driving from Tbilisi to reach Racha, and only 2 hours from Kutaisi. Along the way, on the edge of the Imereti region, we pass the tea town of Tkibuli. The other side of it, a whole new world opens up. The landscape is dotted with 3000 metre tall peaks, concealing mysterious caves, wild rivers, bottomless lakes, imposing glaciers. In among all these unspoilt natural landscapes, we will find things which puzzle and cannot always be easily explained – things which really do seem to emerge from some fantasy vision.
Serpentines leading to heaven
A section of straight road leads to countless bends and the Nakerala Pass, taking us to the first extraordinary place on our route. As a result, Racha-Lechkhumi and Lower Svaneti regions look a little like the Polish Masurian Lake District. And so we come face to face with the surface of a great lake – the Shaori reservoir. Wait a moment – does this not sound like Tolkien’s Shire just a little bit? This being only the beginning of many startling similarities!
Before we dive deeper into Georgia’s own Middle Earth, a place called the Georgian Switzerland, let us relax by one of the most beautiful Georgian bodies of water – Lake Shaori, 7.1 km long, 2.7 km wide and 1.4 km deep – glowing blue over a post-glacier dale at a height of 1132 m ASL. It is especially nice in the autumn, when forests on the gentle slopes of the Caucasus shimmer with shades of green, gold and red. Winters by the shores of the Shaori are also captivating: the lake is often frozen over, and the surrounding pines covered in snow. In the summer, the place is perfect for angling, camping, picnics and swimming (one must simply remember that as a result of its unique location and climate, the water is rather cold all the year round). This time, I see Shaori from a different perspective – a drone, which I am flying for the first time ever. Great fun an phenomenal views!
A Nikortsminda pearl
We follow the track around the reservoir in the direction of Ambrolauri, a health spa town, which as of the 17th century has been the residence of the kings of Imereti. Along the way, we pass flowering Alpine meadows and the village of Nikortsminda with its remarkable cathedral dating back to the year 1014, which is mighty impressive even for those who do not favour sightseeing sacral sites.
Nikortsminda Cathedral, erected during the reign of Bagrat III, is one of the treasures of Georgia’s golden age. The way the outside of the building is decorated is truly captivating – reliefs showing scenes from the ascension, as well as saints and animals – along with wonderfully preserved frescos, which stretch from the floors of the cathedral right up to its copula, their equals only to be found in the Sapara monastery and Gelati cathedral. Nothing odd, therefore, that this particular heritage site is on the list of those waiting to be recognised as a UNESCO site of special interest.
In the shade of Jurassic volcanic rocks
The district hides more surprises and unleashes our discoverer’s instincts, fit for any Indiana Jones. A mere couple of kilometres from Nikortsminda, we find a fairytale forest – for some, a perfect spot to picnic in the summer, for others – the chance to discover the ruins of a monastery and legendary source of the Sharauli river, its waters flowing straight from a karst cave which is also called Sharauli Cave. The walk through the narrow gorge can conclude with a swim in its refreshingly chilly river waters.
300m on, those still hungry for more wonders will enjoy Cave Sakinule, filled with stalactites and stalagmites, otherwise known as “the freezer”, it’s interior always nice and cool. It will be no surprise either for those who, wandering the wilds around Racha, come upon… a shark tooth! For in prehistoric times, this region was covered by an ancient ocean – to this day one can come across traces of fossils as evidence of this.
A bottle on a set of crossroads
Time keeps racing on in Ambrolauri. Films from the road won’t make themselves, and so we leave behind us the Museum of Fine Arts with the works of Georgian Painters and the ruins of the Machabeli tower. But there is this one place which cannot be missed!
Here and there, dotted about the spa, there are small plantations of saperavi, tsolikauri, tetra and other locally grown grapes, used to make one of the finest wines in all of Georgia. It is said Joseph Stalin was fond of Khvanchkara wine, which is red, semi-sweet, made of a blend of two endemic types of grape: alexandrouli and mudzuretuli, grown only in Racha.
A ginormous bottle of this beverage stands on the crossroads in the centre of town, serving as a unique sort of street sign – 300m on we look in on the Royal Khvanchkara winery. Local methods of making wine are nurtured here with passion, established in the 19th century by two local noblemen: Dimitri and Luarsab Kipiani. The silky smooth Kipiani wine they developed is today known as Khvanchkara variety.
Racha’s forest spirits
Following our wine fuelled adventure, we develop a taste for other Racha attractions. Following the meandering river Rioni, we enter a deep ravine. The woods are of course intensely green, humming with the buzzing of insects. The weather lovely and the holiday mood in full swing, birds, butterflies, grasses and mountains visible far off through the crowns of trees inspire us to take a long walk. We wander on ahead, enjoying the views, the natural world around us, the fresh air and the sense of absolute freedom.
Things would be even better if… hadn’t lost our car. Don’t ask me how managed to do that, I don’t really know. We parked up to enjoy a bit of Caucasian nature, wandered here, turned there, then stopped… all the time thinking we hadn’t gotten all that far. Scratching my head, somehow convinced something was playing tricks on us – as if Racha wanted to grab us and not let go! Eventually, we found our car and got our kit out. Bartek and Janek begin to film, while I took some still photographs.
From that odd little forest, we headed off to Barakoni and its cliff-top church of the Virgin Mary, dating back to the 18th century. This temple and the Archangel’s churches in Zemo Krikhi (10th century) and St. George in Mravaldzali (11th century) were severely damaged during the earthquake in 1991. Having said that, they hadn’t been lucky before that, for they were desecrated by the Bolsheviks – luckily enough, it was possible to save the key holy sites in Racha and return them to their former glory.
Darkness, I see darkness
We reach Tsesi after dark, the village being located in such a way as to make the road leading to it invisible at night. We scour the area, looking for the approach to the guesthouse – and there it is! The welcome is instantly warm – some vegetable salad, some khachapuri with beans instead of cheese, bread and delicious wine. Simple and delicious. And the simple things in this life can be the source of the greatest pleasure. Before sleep, Bartek and Janek battle a bat, which tries to fly into their room. Adventures, atmosphere, relaxation, nature, silence… and darkness.
I turn the lights out and can’t see my own bed. The nights in Racha are black, impenetrable. I set the alarm clock for half nine in the morning, in time for breakfast, and fall asleep as quick and deep as a baby. I wake at 08.45, but can’t lift my head for the life of me – it’s too comfy here, too nice… I need another five minutes – a mantra I repeat for a while, which happens to be my daily reality: “privychka”. In the early morning darkness, the imagination still feeling all surreal. My mind is filled with dreams of my Georgian wedding. Or rather nightmare versions of the event, in which I lose the rings and unable to find them run around, failing to find my wedding suit. Dark dreams make me leap out of bed at around half nine in the morning.
Downstairs, breakfast has been served for some time – people sipping coffee, eating, talking, laughing. An intake of fresh, highland air instantly gets me going. Too right too, because some of the participants in our trip will be climbing mount Shoda – alongside Bartek, Janek and I, for we are planning to go round the area and shoot as much film and photographs as we can.
Not to be confused with Yoda!
Mount Shoda has two peaks: the lower at 3000 ASL and the upper at 3650 ASL. The approach is not too difficult, but we must always take our own abilities into consideration, as well as our experience and fitness levels. With my own yes, I’ve seen elderly climbers here putting on a show which would put many young whipper-snappers to shame. But I have also seen those who, in spite of careful preparations, also failed to meet the challenge.
What is more, in the upper reaches of the mountains, there is little mobile phone coverage, hence it is important to always keep in mind that solo ascents in the Caucasus mountains is not always a good idea. Without experienced local guides, climbs can go wrong and turn into a very risky battle for survival against local elements. This is especially true, considering the trails are not always well marked – the climb up Shoda being a good example of this.
The trail towards Shoda begins a little way off from a village called Ghebi, which can only be reached by four wheel drive transport; something I arrange for our party. Further on, the trail is poorly marked, and from a certain point on – unmarked, full stop. Following a tour guide instead makes sense, as then visitors to these regions can fully focus on enjoying the amazing views surrounding us.
I especially love seeing the quiet villages we pass through, interspersed with green highland meadows with paths winding between them, along with whitening glaciers and snow-capped mountains. In among these landscapes, one could keep on quoting Treebeard from “Lord of the Rings”: Those were the broad days! Time was when I could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of my own voice in the hollow hills. But then one tends to come across some local Caucasian shepherds who, sitting lazily on boulders, suggest it is time to stop for a bite in the best local eatery – on the grass itself, with views of the green-white peaks and roaring highland streams. And then on ahead!
Step by step, a little worn out, but proud of ourselves, we finally come face to face with the imposing mountain that is Shoda. Its twin peaks impress with their jagged rock formations, a little reminiscent of dinosaur teeth. And once again, a quote from Tolkien comes to mind: I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard…
A shield of babies
The next morning, we are feeling quite otherwise: like a mean winter following a pretty golden autumn. Heads won’t lift from pillows – we would rather cover up completely. And yet, our empty stomachs force us to rise. Following breakfast, ready to take on more surprises, we head off to Oni.
This quiet little town, home to humans since the Bronze Age, is famed for its hot springs (they are nearby) and numerous sources of medicinal mineral waters. On this very day – 10 August 2019 – it is buzzing with life. We have made it here for the annual Oni festival – folklore performances, a harvest festival, a bazaar with local arts and crafts. We admire the colourful, joyous hubbub only for a short while, for we have another plan in mind: the Racha Regional Museum with its imposing collection of historical documents, manuscripts, artworks, unique archeological, ethnographic and natural history artefacts.
In Oni we will also find an eclectic synagogue dating back to 1895 – the third largest such building in Georgia, after the Great Synagogue in Tbilisi and that in Kutaisi, erected by a Polish architect and Greek Jews from Thessaloniki. This is the building which offered shelter to Jewish women and children when Russians desecrated the local sacred sites. This particular synagogue survived only because the Jewish women surrounded themselves with newborn babies, as if they were a shield, forcing the Soviets to leave them alone. Today, there is little point looking for local Jewish communities, even though they were once one of the largest such groups in Georgia – the majority of Jews left Racha in the 1990s. They took with them to Beer Shevah a remarkable story of how the synagogue in Racha was built. Legend has it that Oni’s rabbi was studying in Warsaw and was so inspired by the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street, that he decided to build a similar temple in his home town, designed by Leander Marconi in a classicist-reneissance style. The synagogue in Warsaw is no longer there, but thanks to Georgia’s rabbi we can still see it today as an excellent example of Judaic sacral architecture.
Racha, what the heck?!
Racha is also home to my good friend Nika Gugeshashvili, who together with his parents runs the Gallery Family Hotel. We have arranged to go trekking with him to a nearby waterfall, where we rest on a bench, awaiting Nika and two others, who have wandered off to the woods and got stuck somewhere. What is going on this here Racha? I have no idea, and yet I am starting to suppose that something rather supernatural…
Racha – the caucasian siren – seduces with its pristine natural charms, a calm way of life, the treasures of olden days. Here in the ruins of fortress Mindatsikhe, there in the ancient temples of Sori (also the Bahai prayer house). To the left and right – the picturesque peaks of the Caucasus, forests, wineries. The other side of various hills – a rushing highland river, wooden huts on flowering, incredibly green meadows. Racha captures unsuspecting travellers in its charming web, holding us ever tighter. In order to keep us here for ever, for longer. And it is worth staying until the fall at least, when the highland woods are covered in Georgia’s most wondrous colours.
Like most places here, the trail to the Ckhmori waterfall is stunning – nothing all around, pure Caucasian wilderness, peaks wrapped in mists, their snow covered summits glinting in the sun. They stand there, mighty monuments to nature, concealing valleys with tiny homes where life rolls on by slowly, from rtveli to rtveli, from supra to supra. And down below, close to the road, we will find a river called Chalistskali – such a slow, heavy flowing thing, which then leads us on to the hum of the waters of Ckhmori which spring from between wild rocks.
Following a four-hour long escapade, we return to Nika’s hotel, satisfied and ravenous. It is time to distill some home-made racha, to prepare some Georgian dishes and bake bread in a tone oven! We have the chance to also witness, and take part in, an incredible tradition, one which dates back hundreds of years.
We use a wooden pastry board to work on some pre-prepared dough, forming oval, flat loaves of shoti bread. The clay oven is heated to optimum temperature – with one perfectly pre-rehearsed move, we attach the loaves to the inner walls of the oven. An old Georgian proverb says “As long as the oven is hot, keep throwing the bread into it”, so we toss in more loaves, soon enough able to enjoy some delicious, fragrant bread, soft inside, covered with a crispy crust. We add some Georgian cheese and vegetables, some delicious wine, strong chacha, fine company, magical views of the Caucasus landscapes outside our windows. Those still hungry for more adventure and attraction can take part in workshops covering painting and woodwork. Previous experience makes no difference – it’s all about learning how to have fun!
Hey, Bilbo, we only live once!
I gaze at jolly Nika and recall our meeting in 2015, which is when I was developing my two custom-designed tours of Georgia: “Racha, chacha, rock’n’roll” and “Svaneti and Racha, adventure and chacha” (the latter bringing together two separate regions). I showed them to Nika, who instantly suggested some interesting places to add to my lists. I was grateful to him for inspiring ideas – locals know best what each region has to offer, what else can be done and seen.
I had a lot of hopes for Racha, because of its beautiful vistas, which literally knock one off one’s feet. During the Soviet era, this district was a popular tourist destination, but was in time forgotten. I wanted to return some of its former glory to Racha, though this seemed to have been a totally private ambition, as for the next three years none of the tours I organised seemed to attract any sort of interest from clients!
In time however, due to a range of factors, magic happened. I began talking about it more and more often at various speaking events, showing how beautiful it is in photographs and films, then in 2018 took a three-person family on a 10 day tour of Racha – I had to cover some of the expenses, because all the costs (accommodation, food, transport, attractions and the Polish speaking guide) were more than the small family were paying me. But this was not important – for me, what mattered was that these people experienced one of the best adventures of their lives. As a result, in 2019 I took more groups to Racha, with five new groups booked for 2020. The town is finally – and rightly so – surprising us pleasantly. I am certain this is only the start of its fabulous career.
Who would benefit the most from visiting Racha? Who are such destinations aimed at? Well, I believe it is best for all restless souls. For those who can’t sit still, always looking for new destinations and adventures, wanting to then lie back on lush green grass, looking up at the stars, meeting people immersed in unique culture and stand face to face with glaciers which – as we know – are right there, ready to meet. Trekking or jeep tours around Racha and Svaneti are for those who are somewhat like Bilbo Baggins – loving life on the road, glorying in nature, fun and freedom loving, able to enjoy beauty and harmony in all that which is simple, not expecting too many comforts and happy to be tired through encountering real authentic environments.
Not an innocent Buba
Racha unleashes our most hidden emotions and desires. This is a place for truly wondrous experiences in the bosom of nature, hence the next day we march off to the Buba glacier – though the name sounds gentle and cute, let none be fooled by this!
Buba and other Georgian glaciers were heavily featured at the start of the 18th century in books by prince Vakhushti Bagrationi, the son of King Vakhtang VI of Kartli, who was also a remarkable cartographer, historian and author of “Description of Kingdom of Georgia, its habits and canons” and “Description of the geography of Georgia” (inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2013). Not just a fine writer, the prince must have had strong legs too…
Following in the footsteps of Vakhushti Bagrationi, we climb a steep and testing path. A little worse for wear, on the other side of a pine wood, we exit onto some alpine meadows. At a height of 2180 ASL, next to a shepherd hut, we rest on some rocks, surrounded by a sea of grass and multicoloured flowers – with glorious views of mount Buba and the glacier.
Although they appear to be within an arm’s reach, they are still a fair way off. This is where the marked trail ends – in order to reach the glacier lake, we have to cross a stream, some highland meadows, forests and challenging passes (all the time supported by a highland guide!). This escapade takes 5-6 hours of incredibly intensive trekking.
By a bottomless lake
Our penultimate day in Racha is devoted to a trek to lake Udziro – said to have no bottom at all! The trail starts at a village called Utsera, though once we reach it, parking turns out to be a problem. Having said that, we seem to be making friends already, locals allowing us to leave our car in one of their private courtyards.
We then climb a highland forest towards lake Udziro, which literally means “bottomless lake”. There are three lakes in Georgia with this same name – two more in Kakheti – though this is the only one to be so purely blue, literally azure in colour, as if it were an exotic ocean – at a height of 2800 ASL on the slopes of Mount Katitsvera (3300 ASL), offering astounding views of the Caucasus. A great spot for a wild bivouac!
Two of our company successfully reach the end of the trail, where they meet another group, led by Nika. Bartek, Janek and I run out of steam some 2km from the lake – as soon as we reached the meadow, we got busy recording films and taking photographs.
Wine – serve us wine!
In Racha, what else do we need to achieve total happiness? All I require is some decent sleep. Each day we stay here is another long, demanding trek. Each day, we return to the guest house stunned by unforgettable experiences and emotions, but also exhausted. Following rich suppers, I collapse in a hammock on the terrace and once again fall asleep like a child. I dream of a raging river of wine. Yes, no doubt about it – we must toast another lovely day in the highlands with a drop of the Caucasian nectar of the gods…
On the way back from magical Racha, we stop in the village of Chorjo to pay a visit to Iuri Gotsiridze, one of my favourite winemakers in this region. His marani is filled with wondrous wines, sweet, strong, without any additives. Iuri sells them in Coca Cola and Fanta bottles, as well as large recycled mineral water canisters. Before we can go on to savour some local delicacies, we step outside his house to admire the local hills, used in the past to grow alexandrouli and mujuretuli grapes, used for Stalin’s wines of choice. First of all, a charming old man shows up, telling us lots of histories and toasting countless things with us. These include those close to us – Iuri’s family lives in Tbilisi, only coming home to Racha for the holidays. Such is the tradition.
We talk, as time flows on past, filling our bellies with blessed warmth. Although we do not wish to end our stay here, we finally leave Iuri behind – our association coming through word of mouth, as is often the way here. We leave him with many, many smiles and thanks for his warm welcome, once again enriched with memories of Georgian generosity and friendship – not to mention countless litres of wonderful wines!
Photos: Jan Bożek and Bartłomiej Rozkładaj, Tamada Tour.
- Family Hotel Gallery in Oni –more detailed info at https://www.facebook.com/hotelinoni/.
- Madona’s Guesthouse – https://www.booking.com/hotel/ge/madona-39-s-house-racha.pl.html.
- Guesthouse Shoda in Ambrolauri – https://www.booking.com/hotel/ge/shoda.pl.html.
- Iuri Gotsiridze winery – no webpage, telephone number available through me 😊
- Ambrolauri airport – operational since 2017, serving international and Tbilisi bound flights (Natakhtari airport), Mestii and Kutaisi. Flights: http://vanillasky.omedialab.com/en/node/51, tickets and info: https://ticket.vanillasky.ge/.