“What are we even going to do in Racha?”
For once, I didn’t have an answer for Del. All I knew was that the Hotel Family Gallery in Oni came highly recommended, and we were in need of some serious pampering in the form of good food, wine, and cosy fires after three weeks of trekking in Svaneti.
I was still none the wiser after a hastily arranged stay organised via messenger and half-understood phone calls, my one bar of reception ensuring every other word was lost in the ether. But after hours of marshrutka and taxi journeys, stepping through the front gate to a welcome party of wide-smiled Temuri and Bombora the dog, I knew all would be well. I mean, how could a trip to Racha which starts with a dog carrying your tent to your room not end up a highlight of your Georgia travels?
Temuri and Bombora led us up the narrow stone path, the ‘second’ house to our left, and wood stack adorned with tools and antiques to our right.
At the back of the garden we laid eyes on the ‘first house’, the family’s beautiful 200 year old wooden Oda home. This house once belonged to Temuri’s mother, in an altogether different location. That is the beauty of traditional Oda homes, structures that can be dismantled piece by piece, the wood numbered, transported, and reassembled elsewhere. This Oda house was moved 70 years ago from Tskhmori village, when Temuri’s mother was given land in Oni by the Soviet government. These days, it is home to a few characterful guest rooms and a balcony complete with antique wooden furniture and retro Soviet-era chairs.
We carried on by the busy Oda house, past the men distilling chacha with old fashioned metal kettles, and up the stairs to our more recently built room, complete with hand-carved wooden balcony. Dusty backpacks dropped in our luxurious abode, we were whisked off to the dining room for lunch. Sitting on exquisitely sculpted traditional three-legged chairs, surrounded by artwork, fossils, and the odd bit of taxidermy, we devoured the best meal we’d had in weeks. Moreish Lori, smoked and cured Racha pork, prepared over 3 months in the smokehouse in the back garden. Ostri, a hearty beef and tomato stew. And thick lobio bean soup, the richest and most flavourful we’d tasted in our six months in Georgia so far (no doubt thanks to the addition of Racha ham).
Temuri appeared with a jug of homemade wine and a decanter of chacha, pulling up a chair to join us. Over toasts to our arrival, to Georgia, to Scotland, and anything else he could think of, we learned that all of the furniture and woodwork in and around the house was handmade by Temuri himself. The artwork adorning every inch of the walls is that of his wife, Elene, also the director of the local art school.
Soon we were joined by Russo, a fellow guest visiting from Tbilisi. More wine was poured, toasts made, and comical stories told, Russo translating the finer details of Temuri’s tales. Every now and again, Nika (Temuri and Elene’s son), would pop his head round the door to check on our progress, keen to bundle us into his hardy Nissan Terrano and hit the road sooner rather than later for an afternoon of adventure.
With the jug of wine empty, we satisfactorily called lunch done. “Tomorrow morning yoga, and then we make wine!” declared Temuri. He has the kind of grin that makes it difficult to know at first if he’s joking or not.
“Do you have a head torch?” enquired Nika.
Actually, we both did as part of our camping kit. “Oh, and bring something warm as it’s cold in the cave”. We’d been in Oni less than two hours and the prospect of a relaxed few days by the fire was fast disappearing. Quite happily, I might add. Nika dished out welly boots to the three of us, plus an extra head torch for Russo (who, not surprisingly, hadn’t packed her own), and we jumped in the family 4×4 and headed south, back towards Ambrolauri.
26 year-old Nika speaks excellent English, and his energy and enthusiasm seemingly knows no bounds. Turning off the tarmacked main road and heading eastward towards the mountains, I bombarded him and Russo with questions. Being in a new region that I knew little about, and having met very few English-speakers over the preceding 6 months, I was eager to learn and utterly relishing this time spent with new found friends. We discovered that, quite unbelievably, not only had Nika been to Scotland, but the places he had visited were Forres and Findhorn, just a few miles along the road from Del’s hometown of Elgin. A small world indeed.
“Your dad said we can make wine tomorrow, was he joking or can we really?” I asked Nika. “No, he wasn’t joking!” he exclaimed. “We have 1 tonne of grapes and we need to do it tomorrow”. As it turned out, Nika had driven 920 km the day before on a 20 hour round trip to Kakheti and back to collect the Saperavi grapes. He got back to Oni at 2am, slept for about 5 hours, then spent the morning helping his dad lay the concrete foundations of their new house. Yet still, here he was all smiles and enthusiasm, taking us three on our first adventure in Racha. Like I said, his energy knows no bounds.
We parked up by a forest trail, donned our wellies, and headed off through the trees and bushes towards a cave, not easily found on any map but known to locals like Nika.
Wading through the shallow water at the entrance, the bright light of the autumn afternoon soon faded, becoming pitch black. Bats clung to the cave walls, deep in sleep. Weird and wonderful formations appeared here and there, stalagmites, tites, and nates illuminated by the glow of our head torches alone. After an hour or so of exploring, we returned to the car and set off towards King Tamara Rocks, a plateau sitting high above the valley floor and the perfect spot to enjoy sunset.
As we bumped along the rough track, Nika rattled off the names and heights of peaks and villages faster than I could wrap my ears around these unfamiliar Georgian words. But one that did ring a bell was Shkmeri. “Hang on, isn’t that a chicken dish with garlic?” I enquired. “Yes! Shkmeruli, it comes from this village” replied Nika. As the legend goes, a lord visited a family in the village and requested some food. The family had nothing but an old chicken, and embarrassed to serve such a meal, covered it in garlic sauce in the hope that the lord wouldn’t notice how bad the chicken was. And with that, I renamed the small settlements ‘Chicken Villages’, and I hope the name sticks.
Up top, the wind was biting cold but it couldn’t deter our enthusiasm. The views were spectacular, and Nika knew all the best spots from where to enjoy them. Shkhara, the highest mountain in Georgia, peeked its peak out of the clouds in the distance. It was strange to think we’d been gazing at it out of our guesthouse window in Ushguli just two days before. As we lay on our bellies, peering over the cliff’s edge to the golden hued valley below, Oni stretched out before us.
It was already dark when we got home and Lia, the fabulous cook at Hotel Family Gallery, immediately laid out another feast for us to enjoy. The fire crackled away, Bombora dutifully delivering logs whenever we ran low. More wine flowed, and we chatted fire-side long into the night.
Having not had much in the way of alcohol for a few weeks, our heads were a bit fuzzy in the morning.
Del, who had been enjoying a tipple of homemade chacha here and there on top of the wine, was feeling particularly delicate. But today we had our own wine to make! Pancakes, matsoni, frittata, and a double helping of coffee did the best it could to sort him out. I was secretly thankful we’d missed the morning yoga session, but was raring to go on the winemaking front.
Wednesday in Oni is the weekly market day. So, while Nika, Temuri, and Laila prepared all of the equipment, we headed off to the market with Elene. Villagers from all around the region descend on Oni for the morning, selling their produce alongside stalls of second-hand clothes, household goods, shoes, and anything else one might need. I snapped up a retro faux-sheepskin jacket, convincing myself it was essential for winter in Tbilisi and ignoring the fact that I’d likely have to carry it for 5 days through Borjomi NP on our upcoming hike.
Back at the house, the winemaking was already under way.
The old-fashioned basket press was set up in the small courtyard right below our room, while one tonne of grapes sat in bags in the back of a transit van parked up nearby, the smell wafting through the garden. Every one of them had to be pressed by hand today, quite the task!
I swapped places with Temuri, and Nika showed me the ropes. First, we put the grapes into a funnel, winding a handle which turned the mangle below. The grapes passed through the mangle, into the wooden barrel basket underneath. The juice of the grapes collected in a cast iron ‘moat’ surrounding the bottom of the basket, flowing through a lip into a huge pot below. The more grapes we added, the more chacha (discarded skins, seeds, and stalks) built up in the wooden basket, eventually filling it completely.
At this point, it was time for us to press the chacha with a vice-like contraption, squeezing out every last drop of juice left. The delightfully pinkish-purple liquid was then poured into a 220 litre plastic barrel. About 20 kg of previously collected chacha was added too, a common step in the Georgian wine making process. This chacha would be removed after five days, leaving the wine to ferment for about one month before being transferred to clay qvevri, buried underground in the adjacent oda house. Scooping the fresh chacha out of the basket, we added it to a different 220 litre barrel, ready to be distilled later into drinking chacha. With the winepress basket now empty, we started the process again.
With the help of Russo and Laila we got through all but nine sacks of grapes before being called away for another feast. After lunch, as if the market and winemaking hadn’t been excitement enough, we headed out on another road trip, to Shovi this time, lying at the far end of Upper Racha. This heavily forested region was a popular retreat during Soviet times, the clean air and numerous mineral springs believed to have a purifying effect on all those who visited. Today, there’s not a whole lot to see and do in Shovi itself.
The place was on our radar because it’s the starting point for a strenuous hike to Udziro Lake at 2800 m. But in early October, the prospect of camping by the lake in temperatures well below freezing wasn’t too appealing, so we’d decided to save it for another time.
One thing Shovi does have going for it though is beautiful old houses, something I’m always interested in. First off, we pulled up at ‘Stalin’s Dacha’, a misleading name given that Stalin most likely never set foot there. The magnificent house was built in 1926, by a doctor returning from Europe with European notions of design, according to Nika. It was a grand resort in its heyday, but lies in a terrible state of decay these days, completely looted in the post-Soviet years. The nearby Stalin statue with a missing nose that Nika remembers from his childhood is also gone, but probably for different reasons.
A little further up the main road, another abandoned home sits wasting away in its verdant grounds. This beautiful house, with wood carved balconies, once operated as a rehabilitation centre for Russian soldiers wounded in Vietnam. It has an altogether ‘accidentally Wes Anderson’ feel to it.
That evening, the grape harvest fun continued with a churchkhela making session in the kitchen.
Lia boiled up the freshly pressed Saperavi grape juice in a pot on top of the woodfired stove, until it was lightly bubbling and thicker in consistency. I dunked strings of walnuts, apples, and grapes into the pot, the glorious purple goo dripping off the fruit and nuts as I gently pulled them free. Hung up to dry by the fire, they looked quite the thing.
By day three of our stay in Oni, our adventure team was a woman down.
With Russo heading back to Tbilisi, we figured we might just have a quiet one, wandering the town, visiting the synagogue, and relaxing in the garden. But, about to head out the gate in the late morning, we were greeted by Nika. “My mother and I are going to Ambrolauri then we will drive to the top of a mountain village. Do you want to come?”. By this point I’d learnt to say yes to anything Nika suggested, without hesitation. “Great,” he said, “I’ll ask Lia to pack some food”.
Our afternoon exploits started with a trip to the local Art School to pick up Elene, complete with a tour of the classrooms and Temuri’s woodworking studio. After running some errands in Ambrolauri, the regional capital, we were on our way up a bumpy forested track to a grassy mountain ridge. Climbing a few hundred metres, we could feel the chill in the air. Good thing I’d learnt to pack warm clothes no matter how nice the weather in Oni.
Elene was keen to find some pagan ruins she’d been told about, but after a couple of failed attempts rummaging around in the overgrown forest we gave up and kept driving towards our picnic spot. From the top of Khikhamta Ridge, we had spectacular views laid out before us. Nika drove us straight to a makeshift wooden picnic bench, but the wind had other ideas about our al fresco lunch plans. Fine, a picnic in the car it would be! I grabbed the wicker basket out of the boot and we tucked into Lia’s scrumptious roast chicken, lobiani, cheese, and bread, all washed down with some homemade wine.
With our late lunch devoured and a few toasts complete, we continued off-roading along the ridge. The magic hour glow was starting to appear, turning the rolling hills golden. Racha is famed for its autumn colours, yellow and red leaves bursting from the hillsides all around. We were a few days too early to catch it at its vibrant best, but no matter. It just made us appreciate those singular flaming beauties all the more.
Suddenly, Nika stopped the car and out jumped Elene. Did we hit something? Did we burst a tyre? “She has seen a rock she likes”, explained Nika. Before we knew it, the back door was swung open and Elene was dumping massive clumps of limestone into the boot, a satisfied grin on her face. “Beautiful!”, she declared. This must have been a good find, because before long Nika was hacking away at the embankment with an axe (which he just happened to have in the car), while more and more rocks piled up in the boot. Inspecting them up close, they were indeed quite beautiful, and given the number of fossils, crystals, and other natural wonders proudly displayed in the family home, I wasn’t overly surprised by this humorous behaviour. Delighted with her newfound bounty, Elene jumped back in the front seat and we continued on our way.
It wasn’t long until our next stop. This time, a discarded bundle of hay by the side of the road caused Nika to slam on the brakes and reverse back. Mother and son were out of their seats in a flash, breaking off chunks so that they could squeeze it into the back. “That’ll feed our 60 rabbits”, explained Nika. Rabbits? I hadn’t even noticed one let alone 60! The boot overflowing with rocks and hay, we were laughing for the next five minutes.
A little further on… “Don’t you want to go over there and take a look?”, by which Nika really meant, “I think we should drive even more off-road and go check out that cool spot over there”. So we did, turning off the dirt track and onto the hillside, weaving around giant crater-like holes created by sinking limestone. Shaori Reservoir shimmered in the distance, and golden grass swayed back and forth all around as we wandered across the plateau. “Modi, modi!” Elene called, beckoning us over to a wild blueberry bush she had found. All four of us gorged on the sour treats, admiring the colourful ensemble of red rowan berries and rosehip growing next to the purple leaved bush. A branch of each was coming home too, another splash of colour to be added to the cosy dining room.
Back on the rough track, we worked our way down towards Mravaldzali village, not before stopping to rescue yet another solitary bundle of hay. The potato harvest was underway, and we paused so Nika could chat to a local farmer for a while. “Do you know him?” I asked. “Yes, of course. Everybody knows everybody around here”, Nika replied.
It was nearing 6:30 pm and the sky was ablaze with a fiery orange glow and petrol blue storm clouds. We could see a sheet of rain falling over a layer of mountains in the distance. We were quite delighted with the views, but once again, Nika had different ideas. “Don’t you want to drive up to the top of the mountain to see the sunset?”, he suggestively asked. Off we trundled, rolling over rocks and manoeuvering awkwardly along overgrown tracks all the way up to the communication masts up top. We caught the last of the sunset, a burning ball dipping down below heavy clouds. Hues of soft pinks hung in the air, layers upon layers of mountains in shades of dark blue stretching out before us like a painting.