Sunday, August 05, 2007

Travel Journal (19)--Sighnaghi

All set for the day, with homemade wine in water bottles!

Chances are you have never heard of Sighnaghi. In coming years, chances are you just might. More than a village, but something less than a sizable town, Sighnaghi contains a 1,000 or so families, and has been traditionally noted for its craftsmen and artisans. Something of a tumbledown place, it is a jumble of traditional Georgian architecture with hanging balconies, interspersed and marred here and there by the occasional ill-conceived Communist-era building.

But even the Soviets couldn't detract much from the dramatic setting of Sighnaghi. The 18th-century city walls with their 23 towers, built by King Irakli II, snake along the ridges and vales of the summit. The town itself perches atop the mountain, clustered more outside the defensive walls than within. The Alazani Valley stretches out far below. The best vineyards of Georgia are found here and on the surrounding hillsides. Thirty miles away, on the north side of the valley, rise the Caucasus Mountains, their summits always hidden in the clouds. Looking out from Sighnaghi over the wonder of God's creation, one is easily moved to tears. How can a place really be considered poor whose citizens awaken to this view every morning?

John Wurdeman at his studio, Sighnaghi

But things are changing quickly in Sighnaghi, right before our eyes. The tale cannot be told, however, without introducing a young artist by the name of John Wurdeman. He is an American, the son of a well-known art dealer in Virginia. John studied under Vyacheslav Zabelin at the Surikov Institute in Moscow. After graduation, he found his way to Georgia, somehow, where he fell in love with the country, and more particularly Sighnaghi. John had a vision of what the town and region could be. So, he settled in there and has become a successful artist. (86 of his works are listed online, here). His art studio is on the main street in Sighnaghi, and is also a showplace for rug-weaving artisans and woodcarvers.

Before long, John converted to the Orthodox faith. In fact, he is an acolyte to Bishop David at the Alaverdi Cathedral. He soon married a young woman who was deeply involved in the revival of traditional Georgian chant. Thus, he is intimately connected with the activities of the Zedashe Ensemble. He and his wife, Ketevan, are raising their 2 children in Sighnaghi. In a few years, John has positioned himself to be, if not Sighnaghi's leading citizen, then certainly its most well-known.

Several years ago, officials from the World Bank toured Georgia, to investigate the country's needs and what they could do to help. As was explained to me, the governor of the province asked John to show an official around Sighnaghi. The World Bank bureaucrat inquired as to what he thought the bank could do for Sighnaghi. John suggested that the traditional Georgian architecture be restored to existing buildings, that wherever possible the Soviet architecture be adapted to Georgian styles, that new utlitity lines be installed underground, that the asphalt streets be replaced with cobblestone, and that the artisans be encouraged to establish their shops in Sighaghi.

Well, that was that, and nothing more was heard from the World Bank. Then 3 years after the visit, Georgia learned that 60 million euros had been allocated to Sighnaghi. That's euros, not dollars. 60 million euros will go a long, long ways in Georgia. All I can say is that young John Wurdeman must have been a convincing advocate for his town!

Sighnaghi is now one big construction site. It is much like a movie set, as the restored city rises before your eyes. 500 workers are laboring day and night to transform Sighnaghi. The Communist buildings have been stripped to their ugly concrete core. They will be receive new facings of traditional Georgian bricks, complete with wooden hanging balconies. Those that can't be adapted, are coming down. All of the old buildings are receiving face lifts, and new balconies where needed. The streets are being cobble stoned. Fountains are being installed. And this is all going on at once. Part of the rush was that John McCain was paying a visit to Georgia in early July, and he and the President were helicoptering in for a quick visit. But beyond that, Sighnaghi is supposed to be finished by October. The rumor is that one of the large buildings being redone will actually be NATO's headquarters in Georgia, once they come on board. (Whether or not NATO has any business extending itself to Georgia is another question altogether.)

Georgian tourism is just in its infancy. The country is just not yet equipped for any large scale tourism. But, it is coming along--and particularly as more and more people discover its charms. Sighnaghi is poised to become the jewel of Georgia tourism--described by some as a "little Dubrovnik"--and an example to other cities there.

If you are considering getting in on the Sighnaghi real estate boom, then you are probably too late already. Two years ago my friend John bought a 6-room house. From the deeply shaded gallery across the length of the upper floor, he has stunning views of Sighnaghi and the Alavani Valley. His garden contains mature fig, cherry and mulberry trees. The garden vineyard produced 22 liters of wine this year. He paid $5,000 for the house. Today, it will bring $30,000 to $50,000. Vacant lots are being listed for $30,000.

My friend Jay fears that Sighnaghi is in danger of becoming some kind of Disneyfied "Georgia Land." His fears are legitimate. But I tend to disagree. While these tumbledown places are picturesque and all, they eventually tumble all the way down, if nothing is done. And Sighnaghi is still very remote. It takes a bit of doing to get there, even from Tbilisi. Its a fascinating experiment, nonetheless. I can't wait to return in a few years and see what they've done with the place.


D.I. Dalrymple said...


Say, John, did you hear about the reported Russian missle strike into Georgia that was in the news today? Georgia says that two Russian jets came into its airspace and fired a missle which failed to explode. Russia denies the claim. The news report emphasized tensions over Georgia's interest in joining NATO.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

No, I haven't read about that yet, but I am not surprised.

Obviously, I am sympathetic to Georgia in their prickly relations with Russia. But, that being said, NATO's possible expansion--and our meddling over there--concerns me deeply. Georgians like the attention, obviously, and the leg up it gives them in negotiating with Russia. But for better or for worse, they are in Russia's immediate neighborhood, not ours. And the West, while supportive, is in no position to help Georgia in any substantive way, if it ever comes to that. Georgia has no choice but to get along, somehow, with their rowdy neighbors. And I think they instictively know this.

Kirk said...

Sounds like Sighnaghi is the next Branson. Any truth to the rumor that Shoji Tabuchi is building a theatre there?

John said...

Ha! Good one, Kirk. Let's hope not!

Anonymous said...

Amazing indeed, regarding the aid effort and the work of John Wurdeman and many there. Thank you for sharing.