Sighnaghi is the most attractive town in Kakheti and has a distinctly Italianate feel to it. Set on a hill 60km southeast of Telavi, the town was developed (over earlier ruins) in the 18th century by King Erekle II, in part as a refuge for the area’s populace against Lezgin and Persian attacks. The name Sighnaghi comes from the Turkish word for ‘shelter’, siğinak. Each of the six entrances in Erekle’s 23 tower walls was named after a local village. Erekle invited Armenian artisans and tradespeople to live here, and by the 19th century Sighnaghi was one of Georgia’s leading trading centres. Three-quarters of its houses still date from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and a large part of its 4km defensive wall still stands.
Today Sighnaghi is being ambitiously developed into a tourism hub for Kakheti, with an emphasis on wine. It is already the scene of a big wine festival one weekend each October. In 2007 a huge government-sponsored renovation programme turned the town centre into one great building site, making it hard to determine what the place would eventually look like. But the renovation will maintain the town’s original style, with its handsome galleried houses built around a series of appealing small squares. In the pipeline are new family-style cellar restaurants, wine-tasting halls, new hotels and other accommodation, a government-run tourist information office, and new museums. All being well it will retain its charm with the addition of new facilities.
Set among wooded hills dotted with cypresses, the town has wonderful views of the Alazani valley and the Caucasus beyond. The main section of the 18th-century walls runs along the hilltop on the northeast side of town, where you can enter the tiny Stepan Tsminda (St Stephen’s) Church inside one of the towers on Chavchavadze. Lower down, on the northeast side of town, is the handsome 19th-century Tsminda Giorgi (St George’s) Church.