Sighnaghi is a charming little town to the east of Tbilisi, located at an altitude of 740 meters above sea level. The town offers scenic views of the Alazani Valley and the Great Caucasian ridge, but not only this: Sighnaghi and its surroundings are being developed rapidly with more and more attractions popping up by the year.
When I first went to Sighnaghi in 2010, the town was already in the process of being restored. But even back then, a visit to Sighnaghi was a great experience in itself, taking into account its great historic wall, Sighnaghi National Museum, which houses a number of great masterpieces of Niko Pirosmani, and the town’s location close to the famous pilgrims’ destination, the Bodbe Monastery.
In 2010, Sighnaghi, in terms of infrastructure, didn’t have much to offer visitors aside from its great panoramic views and a few newly refurbished central streets. It had a few restaurants, one hotel and a couple of guesthouses. The rest of the town, with its crumbling facades, rusty roofs and pot-holed roads, reminded one heavily of a Potemkin village.
Since then, many things have changed. The city’s appearance, its roads, facades, and infrastructure have been restored or renovated; and throughout the town numerous restaurants and guesthouses have been established. Tourists from all over the world, including China, South Korea and Japan, now stream to Sighnaghi, meaning you’ll be hard put to find a household there which is not somehow involved in the tourism business.
“When I registered my guesthouse in the Booking.com system three years ago, I was the 34th on the list of Sighnaghi accomodation,” said Roman Beghashvili, a Sighnaghi guesthouse owner. “Now, there are around 150 on the list.”
Competition drives those in tourism to make their places more attractive to tourists. The ideas vary and are sometimes rather eccentric. There are plenty of picturesque cafés and hotels built beside the historic Sighnaghi wall. One of them, for instance, located on high stilts, seems to be hovering over the town, and offers guests the chance to take a paraglider flight or enjoy a drink overlooking the Alazani Valley and the historic wall, which is more than 4 km long. I’ve only had one comparable view of a medieval wall, and that was in the historic city of Avila in Spain.
“The first reminiscences of our town wall were found in chronicles of the 13th century,” said Mariam Guliashvili, the town historian. “But the construction of the wall which you can see now was ordered in the 18th century by King Irakli II. Our enemies used to attack our villages in the Alazani Valley: from the north came the Lezgins, from the south the Persians. They stole our women, children and livestock in order to sell them into slavery. To protect the inhabitants of the valley from the intruders, King Irakli II gave the order to construct this wall, which according to different documents was between 5 and 7 km long and had 23 towers and eight gates. Now we have over 4.5 km of it left, which comes close to the Small Wall of China with its 5 km length.”
Sighnaghi received its “city” status in 1770. At that time, it was already a vivid town of workmanship and trade with a population of up to 10,000 people, the majority being of Armenian origin. The King had ordered the Armenians to settle in Sighnaghi, as the Alazani Valley had previously been devastated by Shah Abbas, who took 100,000 Georgians to Persia.
In the following centuries, Sighnaghi became a great cultural and educational center, with its own theater and schools. Girls were educated in private schools established in the houses of rich citizens. In Soviet times, Sighnaghi was a flourishing tourist attraction with a big hotel located close to the town. The town was proud of its own Ethnographic Park, where archeologists from all over the country worked together on excavations. You still can visit this area now, if you take a walk in the beautiful and newly restored town park, which is romantically located on the slopes of Sighnaghi, behind the wall. Also worth a visit is the local cemetery, bearing many exciting stories of past times. With a little imagination, you can see the town history right there.
In order to inquire about recent tendencies in tourism, I headed to the Sighnaghi Information Center. The officer, Zurab Siprashvili, told me that just 10% of those who come to Sighnaghi actually visit the Information Center. He put the number of tourists that visited Sighnaghi last year at around 11,000 people, with the trend growing by the year. Most of the tourists come from Russia, Poland, Germany, France and Israel.
Sighnaghi’s location on a hill high above the ancient winemaking valley contributes to its increasing popularity. There are four big wineries as well as many wine degustation points in Sighnaghi.
From the town’s Deputy Mayor, Madonna Batiashvili, I learned about further plans concerning tourism and further development of the Sighnaghi region. “In future, we want our guests to stay longer in our region, so we plan to develop the nearby villages of Tsnori and Machkhaani. The latter is a unique village with an old theater from the 19th century and many historic houses, which are quite different from the usual Kakhetian houses. Machkhaani will soon be given the status of a Museum Village,” Batiashvili noted.
The town council plans to establish a new tourist route connecting Sighnaghi, Tsnori, Machkhaani and proceeding to Dedoplitskharo, a city with its own Pirosmani museum. Investments should be made in agricultural tourism for those visitors who enjoy nature, hunting and fishing, and who want to learn more about making churchkhela and baking Georgian bread. Several cable car routes should be established in order to connect some villages and allow visitors to enjoy great views of the Alazani Valley.
What else makes Sighnaghi so attractive for tourists? One of the town’s most renowned attractions is a quick marriage in the Marriage House, which operates 24/7.
“All you need is your passport and two witnesses,” Batiashvili told us. “Just imagine: I recently met a couple who became husband and wife early in the morning, at 4 am!”
Indeed, getting married is easy in Sighnaghi, as you don’t need to deal with bureaucracy at all. “Many of our citizens have become witnesses already, and they are now treated as relatives by the families of the newly married couples,” Batiashvili proudly said.
Source: www.Georgiatoday.ge; By Tatiana Montik