There are two roads to Telavi from Tbilisi- one over the Gombori Mountains and the other, around them. We took the first.
Telavi is the main city of Kakheti – the eastern wine growing region of Georgia. Three years ago when I first visited Georgia, I took the easier but longer route which runs around the eastern end of the Gombori Mountains before turning north-west past Gurjani to reach Telavi. Then, the mountain road over Gombori Pass was rough and few would take it. Today it is as good as any in Europe.
We left the Old Tiflis soon after breakfast and drove east along the E117 Kakheti Highway. At Km27, we turned left and headed north towards the mountains and the little town of Ujarma with its ruined fortress. The two story palace Ujarma and fortifications with nine towers was the residence of King Vakhtang Gorgasali who died there in AD 502. The fortress was destroyed by Arabs in the 10th century but the fortifications were renovated in the 12th.
The empty road climbed up the mountain, twisting and turning. A thick mist hung over the high ridges. Soon we reached Gombori Pass at 1650m and walked to the edge of the ridge to gaze at the valley below. It was gloomy, windy and cold. Suddenly the eerie silence was shattered by the ear-splitting noise of something that looked like a quad bike. A farmer was riding it and as he raced towards a flock of sheep on the next ridge, his barking sheepdog tried hard to keep up. A little white car screeched to a halt and a young woman in blue shorts got out, ran up the hill, knelt, took a photograph, jumped back in the car and raced away.
We descended slowly, negotiating hair-pin bends, in to the lush and fertile Alazani Valley stretching from the Borgomi to the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The Alazani River which originates in the south ridge of the Greater Caucasus, flows down the Alazani Valley through Kakheti into Azerbaijan. Alazani is the centre of the Georgian wine industry and for centuries, was a main gateway for Persian invaders. Many Georgian wines carry the name Alazani.
We turned off the main road to Telavi and drove towards the village of Iqalto. A man with beehives on the back of his truck was waiting to sell honey to anybody who cared to stop. Vegetation changed, it got warmer and soon we were driving through vineyards on the valley floor.
We headed towards Ikalto Monastery and more importantly, the Ikalto Wine Academy, founded in the 6th century.