Georgia is certainly not short of helping hands, or financing, on its path to development and European (re)integration. Almost everywhere you go in this country of 70,000 sq kms of culture, history and both tamed and untamed nature, you will see the touch of those who care to make this country a better and more prosperous place to live. And those who care are, of course, not only foreign organizations with their funding and training, but those who were born here, their families and communities, who look to be part of something bigger; to work together to make Georgia the ideal tourist and investment destination.
The Keda Municipality in Mountainous (or Upper) Adjara, in the south-western part of Georgia near the Black Sea coast, boasts 452 km2 and a population of 21,244, divided between 10 communities and 64 settlements, most of which can be found nestled in the steep, subtropical green mountain slopes on either side of the Adjaristskali River.
Here, the main agricultural activities include fruit farming, vine growing, crop growing (tobacco being a staple for locals here), vegetable growing, bee-keeping, and trout farming. Also beginning to bloom, with the aforementioned help of the European Union, is the tourism sector, with an increasing number of small guesthouses and slightly larger hotel-wineries already catering to thousands of Georgian and international guests on an annual basis: just take a look at the 2017 statistics, which showed a 98% increase in visitors year-on-year, with 20,298 tourists of the 1,683.000 visiting Adjara that year choosing to explore the Keda Municipality.
What to see in Keda
The nature, air, and tendency to feast on huge amounts of dairy-based dishes here is guaranteed to have you stretched out on a hammock soaking it up in wonder at some point (or several points!) during your visit, but for those wanting more, the area has plenty to offer in terms of man-made and natural sights.
Indeed, Keda Municipality offers a whopping 22 waterfalls, five historic bridges, seven fortresses, four towers, 22 wineries, 34 restaurants, five churches, and a variety of museums, as well as ziplining, rafting, and glamping. There are also, thanks to that EU funding, several tourist-product businesses, such as Honey House in Vaio, where you can try honey varieties and local brandy while exploring the bee-keeping process and giving honey extracting a go, and Murad Tavartkiladze’s chiboni (Georgian bagpipe) workshop in Tskhmorisi village, which helps preserve ancient regional music-making traditions.
Among cultural heritage monuments are the watchtowers in Kaviani, Gulebi, Dzentsmani, Sagoreti and Tsivasula; the arched stone bridges of Pirveli Maisi, Tsoniarisi, Dandalo and Makhuntseti (we dare you to jump into the blue river basin below here- it’s 7 meters deep and a favorite cooling-off point for the locals!); and fortresses in Zendidi and Tsivasula.
Makhuntseti Waterfall is an easy stop-off as you travel into the municipality: 20 meters of fast-flowing water, including an icy pool and rocky drop to the Adjaristskali River. Nearby, there are restaurants serving Georgian dishes, and souvenir stands for those looking for something crafty to take home. There are also multi-lingual companies offering rafting/canoe tours and zip-lining experiences.
What (and where) to drink in Keda
The Keda Municipality is notable for its unique vine varieties, with local wines Kedis Tsolikauri and Chkhaveri in particularly high demand.
Shervashidze Wine Cellar, Pirveli Maisi village
Head up to the Shervashidze Wine Cellar and hotel in the village of Pirveli Maisi, enjoy a night in a specially crafted wooden cabin overlooking the fields of vines, and drink and dine in the cool of their wine cellar. As you sip on their award-winning Ojaleshi, the host will happily regale you with the history of the local area, and tell you about his family’s ongoing work to popularize their business and community. They can also take you on a 50km round-trip into Mtirala National Park, revealing some of the best-kept heritage and natural wonders of the region, and offer you the chance to zip(line) across their vines!
Alternatively, head further inland to the village of Vaio, its entrance marked by a small church balanced on a rock over the river, and follow signs to Lado Shavishvili’s Winery. There, you can sit in the shade of his garden vines and sip on the delightful wines he produces- from golden Tsolikauri to Saperavi and Chkhaveri -as he and his wife prepare a feast of local delights for you.
Lado Shavishvili’s Winery, Vaio village
Further along the river is the newly-built (but already popular) luxury hotel, restaurant and winery ‘Chateau Iveri,’ located near the heights of Varjanisi village. The views alone make the trip worthwhile, not to mention the Italian-style above-ground cellar, brick-and-wood dining hall and open kitchen. Owner Romil Beridze was trained in tourism and management in Germany and Norway. When we met him, he was quick to point to his well-trained staff of seven, among them family members, with whom he is proud to work alongside on this international-standard project.
Chateau Iveri, Varjanisi village
And while the wine is a must-try in Keda, so is the medicinal mineral water, the most notable being Kokotauri and Gundauri – perfect for the morning after that wine degustation!
Where to stay in Keda
Makho’s Marani, Vaio village
Makho’s Marani offers a sunny terrace overlooking the family’s corn and tobacco fields- perfect for breakfast and evening chill-outs. Be sure not to miss out on the chance to grab a hammock and swing on the edge of the mountain while watching the sunset blasting the sky with color through the fruit trees. Rooms are simple, air-conditioned, with a shared bathroom. The guesthouse is run by three generations of the same family, who will cook you hearty meals to set you up for the day, happily answering your questions about their work and life in the village.
Chateau Iveri, Varjanisi village
Chateau Iveri offers colorful Mediterranean-rustic style rooms with beautifully tiled private bathrooms, ideal for the upper-price segment looking for some luxury in the mountains. All rooms come with wooden balconies overlooking the vineyard and magnificent surrounding scenery. The family offers guests various tourist packages that include accommodation, local cuisine, wine tasting, folk art, and folk crafts.
Shervashidze’s Wine Cellar, Pirveli Maisi village
At Shervashidze’s Wine Cellar, stay in a room in the three-story main house or splash out for a night in a wooden cabin on stilts overlooking the vineyards and distant village. They’ve been hosting visitors since 2006, offering not only wine tasting but also traditional Georgian cuisine. Why not book yourself on one of their 1 or 2 day excursions to visit cultural sites from the 10th and 12th centuries?
Hill Inn Luxury Camping, Dandalo village
Try some glamorous camping (glamping) in the mountains at Hill Inn, an innovative vacation site set up by Davit Ardzenadze and Maia Verdzadze within the frames of the Keda LEADER project.
The dome-tents offer fantastic views of the surrounding forest and mountains, and come with a small kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area, as well as a projector and screen for the full laze-and-watch experience. And if that’s not glamorous enough for you, be sure to try out the spa, Jacuzzi and sauna!
Fridon House, Milisi village
The village of Milisi has something particularly restful about it, and Fridon Gvarishvili’s wooden two-story eco-cottage ‘Fridon House’ is the perfect place to experience it. Located as a separate structure in the garden of the family guesthouse, the cottage comes with a fully-equipped kitchen and living area with a TV, and two en-suite double bedrooms with views over the garden, orchard and mountains. The family offers ecotourism, hiking, ornithology, ethno and gastronomic packages.
More about that EU helping hand
So as to diversify local economic activities, foster investment, and empower competitive agricultural and environmental practices in Keda Municipality via bottoms-up strategic planning for rural development, the project ‘Optimizing the Potential of Local Assets for Rural Development of Keda Municipality’ was introduced by NGO CENN in partnership with the Center for Strategic Research and Development of Georgia (CSRDG), the Institute of Democracy (IOD), and the Austrian Institute for Regional Studies and Spatial Planning (ÖIR), backed by the EU, which is supporting agriculture and rural development in Georgia through its ENPARD program. Implemented since 2013, and with a total budget of EUR 179.5 million, the main goal of ENPARD is to reduce rural poverty in Georgia. The first phase of ENPARD in Georgia focused on developing the potential of agriculture, while the second and third phases focus on creating economic opportunities for the rural population that go beyond agricultural activities.
The priority of this particular project is to increase Keda Municipality’s development potential and make optimal use of the local resources.
Putting the plan into action, and making a clear success of community-building, is the Keda LAG (Local Action Group) working with the LEADER method for rural economic development, one which has been actively used in European countries since the 1990s. The main principle of LEADER is to facilitate rural development by establishing partnerships between the public, private, and civil society sectors, and to empower their efforts. The main instruments of the LEADER approach are LAGs, which better enable local people to make decisions about socio-economic, cultural, and environmental issues relevant to them by establishing links to share knowledge and experience- uniting communities around a common goal.
In Keda, evidence of the success of the LEADER project is clear to see, with funding earned by well-written applications and put to excellent use to renovate or expand existing infrastructure (such as adding or renovating buildings, buying new equipment, or creating extensions to guesthouses and wine cellars), to start new tourist businesses such as honey production and instrument workshops, and even to buy new instruments for the local Arts School in Keda town to allow children to be better trained in the arts for future participation in national and international events.
Such energy and effort, often coming as a result of all generations of a family- and indeed entire communities -pulling together, ultimately leads to the popularization of the local villages, the region, and Georgia as a whole- something the country is very much in need of in the COVID-19 reality.
By Katie Ruth Davies
Photos by the author or posted on social media by the businesses themselves.