Sighnaghi is a beautiful town. Its location can't be scoffed out. Up over the Alazani Valley facing the Caucasus, it takes your breath away upon arrival. Tourist literature touts its virtues and charm. Adjectives like "Italianate" are used and its squares are called piazzas. Sighnaghi is sort of like the most beautiful daughter in a brood, being dolled up and thrust forward at a debutant ball. Obviously, we should all be clamoring to fall in love with her... but the poor girl can't change out of her gown until a suitor has presented himself. And it's been five years.
In a country that is undergoing construction and modernization all over the place, Sighnaghi stands out as a job completed and well done. In 2007, the small town received attention and thoughtful renovation. The goal was to take this undeniably attractive town and spiff it up, then welcome hoards of tourists. It was rebranded as " the city of love and art." Hotels popped up, it became the location for the biggest annual wine festival in the country. The clean up prompted many people - including early guide book assessors and a contact we have here - to say that Sighnaghi had become "too tidy and soulless," too "plastic."
Arriving in town ourselves, five years after that facelift, we can't say that we agree. First of all, the most gorgeous aspects of Sighnaghi, its views and its 4.5km defensive wall (with 28 towers) are as they have been for at least 240 years. Our first evening there, we walked along a section of the wall and looked out at the sherbert dusk. The fortifications are all original and absolutely impressive. Below a stretch of the tourist walkway, a chunk of land was fenced off. Its owner, an old man, worked away. There is authentic, local life bristling right up against the tourist "sites" in Sighnaghi. Even the brightest of paint jobs couldn't render it plastic to me.
This doesn't mean that the town ignores its "resort in waiting" status. The cobbled street leading down toward two old churches and the closest scalable tower was lined with knitwear for sale. Sweaters, gloves, socks and papakhi, circular wool caps worn by men in the Caucasus. When I did a quick wikipedia-ing of the small town's economy, the production of wine, traditional carpets and mcvadi (skewered meat) were counted as the most dominant moneymakers. It's not hard to see why the promise of tourism, bolstered by government investment, has created an air of excitement and expectancy.
The main town square has a tourist information center and souvenir shop, with one of the few postcards displays I've come across in the country. There are more vehicles branded as taxis than otherwise. The drivers all hang out in the far corner of the square, waiting. There are at least three hotels and numerous guesthouses. When I was too lazy to unclip my backpack and made my way through town in full tourist regalia, a woman waved hello out her window and then asked, "room??"
This is Georgia - the land of hospitality. So, unlike other places where an eagerness to benefit from tourism can feel off-putting or even aggressive, Sighnaghi just feels like a lonely hostess with frozen pigs-in-the-blanket in her freezer and a table with leaves she's never had to fold out. They are proud of this beautiful place and want to show it off. They have an unyielding knack for welcomes and take absolute pleasure in having guests.
The taxi driver who drove us out to Davit Gareja Monastery invited us into his home for coffee and an abundance of homemade treats before returning us to our hotel. He showed off his son, Luca, as well as his motorcycle with a dual sidecar- used to show tourists around in warmer weather. In town, we'd seen another presently curbed tour vehicle - a flatbed of a bus, complete with picket fence walls, wooden seats and canvas canopy roof. It didn't look like it'd been used for a while.
The thing is - none of this made the place faceless, like we'd been warned. I'll remember Sighnaghi. The views and George, the taxi driver. Maybe it'll be so popular in a few years that I'll be able to say "I remember it when." I hope so. For now, I'm pretty sure that the town in Kakheti will remain ingrained in my memory because of these. Grilled eggs. Grilled eggs brought to the table on a massive skewer. They were not hardboiled and then heated up. They were kebab'd raw and cooked in their shells. Riddle me that, Batman.