Sighnaghi is a small town in Kakheti province, the eastern-most region of the country of Georgia. Its population is approximately 3,000. Sighnaghi is unique because it has fortress walls surrounding the city, which have been well-preserved. Sighnaghi is also a Georgian town that is working to be a center of tourism and is known as Georgia’s city of love. Here is what to do in Sighnaghi, the city of love.
The city’s name Sighnaghi comes from the Turkish word signak, which means shelter. The English translation of Sighnaghi is refuge. Georgian King Erekle II tried to save Georgia by making a treaty with Russia, the Treaty of Georgievsk. This treaty made Georgia a protectorate of Russia and in exchange, Georgia would maintain its territorial integrity. The plan backfired. Persia decided to invade and Russia did nothing to help.
King Erekle II built Sighnaghi in the 18th century as a refuge against attack. Sighnaghi is high on a hill, with views of the Alazani Valley and the Georgian Caucasus. Sighnaghi is surrounded by a four-kilometer defensive wall with 23 towers and six gates. It’s like a mini Great Wall of China, as it undulates up and down the curves of the hills. The wall is still intact and can be walked along.
The homes within Sighnaghi’s walls date from the 18th and 19th centuries. The streets are cobblestone and the town has retained an original feel.
The Sighnaghi Museum is a branch of the Georgian National Museum. The Sighnaghi Museum has a variety of exhibitions that feature Georgia’s history and culture. These exhibitions include ethnography, medieval archaeology, Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, and Georgian artist Lado Gudiashvili (whose art can also be seen in Tbilisi’s Kashveti Church). My personal favorite exhibition was that of the artwork of Niko Pirosmani.
Niko Pirosmani painted naïve art. He was always poor. He taught himself to paint. He opened a painting shop and painted signs for businesses. The story is that he sold his shop to buy carts of flowers for the French actress Margarita. Pirosmani had no more money, so he started painting using cheap materials like oil and cardboard. His most used base was oilcloth. His paintings are dark in color and provide a window into the social conditions and day-to-day life of Georgians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pirosmani died poor and his work wasn’t recognized until after his death.
Since we know not everyone is into food, I didn’t list Pheasant’s Tears at the top of the list of what to do in Sighnaghi. However, for food travelers, Pheasant’s Tears is a must visit. Pheasant’s Tears may be the best restaurant in all of Georgia. When we were planning our trip to Georgia, our friend who has also been to Georgia said we must eat at Pheasant’s Tears.
Pheasant’s Tears is a winery that produces organic unfiltered wines in the millenniums-old Georgian tradition. Pheasant’s Tears’ wine is fermented and aged in Qvevri, pointy-tipped egg-shaped clay vessels that are lined with organic beeswax and buried in the earth.
Pheasant’s Tears is also a restaurant. They make traditional Georgian foods, but with a modern twist. Pheasant’s Tears doesn’t have a menu. Head chef Gia Rokashvili creates a Georgian feast which is served to all guests who choose to have a meal here. These feasts are made with seasonal products and local meats and cheeses. On the day we visited, our meal included homemade cottage cheese, beets in red plum sauce (Georgians create magic with plums), potato fries with plum sauce, and tree mushrooms that were salty and crispy. Gia likes to play with recipes and experiment with spices.
Pheasant’s Tears is located in a 300-year-old house in which they found an old wine cellar with buried Qvevri during their restoration. They also found a clay pot in the vineyard that is over 1,000 years old, and they have a 200-year-old grape crusher on display. Pheasant’s Tears exhibits carpets, art, and examples of traditional Georgian life.
For those who don’t make it to Sighnaghi, Pheasant’s Tears also has a restaurant in Tbilisi near Freedom Square called Azarphesha.
Just a little outside of the walled city of Sighnaghi is Bodbe Monastery. In the fourth century, after Georgia converted to Christianity, Saint Nino, the queen responsible for the conversion, withdrew to Bodbe gorge where she died. She wanted to be buried in a church in Bodbe rather than being taken away to be buried elsewhere by the King. Legend has it that the King came with 200 horsemen, but couldn’t move her. The King ordered a small monastery be built for Nino to be buried.
A layer can’t be found of Bodbe Monastery that is older than the 11th century, and it has been significantly modified since it was first built. The walls were plastered in the 19th century and covered with frescoes in 1823 which depict scenes from the Old Testament, which is unusual for Georgian churches. St. Nino’s relics are in catacombs to the side and below the altar.
Bodbe Monastery is now a convent for nuns. Some restoration is occurring currently and sadly this includes new, shiny tile floors and electric outlets in the columns. A new, larger church is also being built on the grounds.
Sighnaghi has two memorials to lives that have been lost in Georgia. One is the World War II memorial wall. Georgia lost a large percent of their population in the war and the World War II monument memorializes their dead with engraved names of the deceased.
There is also an April 9 memorial, commemorating the 20 who were killed during a peaceful anti-Soviet demonstration in Tbilisi.
Sighnaghi Wedding House
In case you’ve been wondering why, Sighnaghi is the city of love because couples come here to get married and can get married in Sighnaghi any day of the week at any time of day. The Sighnaghi Wedding House is open seven days a week and 24 hours a day.
Sighnaghi is a unique city unlike others we visited in Georgia. Come for the food and wine, and stay for the scenery.
Thank you to the Georgian National Tourism Administration for hosting our trip to Georgia and making this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own.