Located in the southeasternmost part of Georgia on the Shiraki Plain – AKA the Georgian steppe – south of Sighnaghi and the heart of the wine-drenched Alazani Valley, Dedoplistskaro is an underrated small town in Kakheti and the gateway to some of the region’s most phenomenal nature.
Some travellers know Dedoplistskaro as the starting point for visiting the Vashlovani Protected Areas, a vast landscape of ravines, grassy plains and mud volcanoes that reaches out to the Azerbaijan border.
Like most small towns in Georgia’s biggest region, Dedoplistskaro has its own identity and offers travellers something special.
It has a wine scene and an incredible craft enterprise that preserves local Kizikian carpet weaving traditions. If you’re so inclined, there are plenty of vestiges from the Soviet era dotted around town. Dedoplistskaro’s WWII memorial, one of the most peculiar in the country, is reason enough to drop into town.
If you are visiting Kakheti wine region and craving something different, Dedoplistskaro offers incredible nature outdoor activities. On the outskirts of town, there is a gorge where birds of prey nest, a spectacular cliffside monastery, and a breathtaking castle hoisted high on a limestone outcrop.
Not only is Dedoplistskaro the perfect base for the nearby national park (and a necessary pit stop to obtain your mandatory permits), it is also a fascinating place in and of itself, with plenty to see and do driving distance from the centre. I highly recommend staying at one of the local guesthouses for a couple of nights.
Here are the best things to do in Dedoplistskaro on a short visit plus a full travel guide to help you plan your trip.
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Briefly about Dedoplistskaro
Dedoplistskaro and the extreme southeastern part of Kakheti is one of the most historically rich and strategically important corners of Georgia.
Strabo first referred to this area as Kambechovani. Its capital, Khornabuji, was considered one of the most developed cities in eastern Georgia.
Known as Kiziki from the 15th century onwards, residents of this area were exempted from certain taxes and liabilities, and answered directly to the king via a local governor. According to one local entrepreneur, this imbued the Kizikian people with a “strong character, love of freedom, and a loyalty to king and motherland.”
Dedoplistskaro (literally ‘Queen’s Spring’ in Georgian, likely a nod to Queen Tamar) was established by King David the Builder in the 12th century as a military outpost.
In 1803, the Russian Empire built on this legacy and used the town as a first defence against Dagestani invaders. Many officers of the Tsar’s army retired in Dedoplistskaro, joined by exiled Russians in the later part of the 19th century.
After housing a garrison during Georgia’s brief period of independence from 1918 to 1921, the town and its military infrastructure were seized by Soviet Russian forces. They briefly changed the town’s name to Tsiteltskaro or ‘Red Spring’.
The Soviets would later go on to build an airbase, Big Shiraki, nearby (more on that later).
On top of its military history, Dedoplistskaro has a connection to oil. In 1869, the Siemens brothers Carl and Ernst set up a refinery outside Dedoplistskaro to tap into the area’s oilfields. But the venture was short-lived, coming to a premature end in the 1870s.
The Dedoplistskaro of today resembles many other small towns in rural Georgia: It is peaceful, shabby around the edges, yet brimming with interesting architecture, Soviet throwbacks, and entrepreneurs who are working to put their town back on the map.
Best time to visit Dedoplistskaro
The best time to visit Dedoplistskaro and the southeastern part of Kakheti is either spring or autumn. Due to extreme heat, it is not at all ideal to visit the Vashlovani Protected Areas during summer.
We visited in May and although it was a bit cloudy, we caught the last of the incredible wildflowers that overrun the hills and valleys. Everything
Late September and early October is also pleasant in this part of the country, especially if your visit coincides with the Rtveli wine harvest that sweeps across the Kakhetian vineyards during autumn.
How to get to Dedoplistskaro & getting around
Dedoplistskaro is located 130 kilometres or approximately 2.5 hours by road from Tbilisi. If you are self-driving, the best route is via the Kakheti Highway, bypassing Sighnaghi. This road takes you through the Gate of Kiziqi, a Romulus and Remus-style statue outside Chalaubani that marks the entrance to historic Kiziki.
If you are planning to use public transport, the most logical routes are through either Sighnaghi or Tsnori. No doubt there are direct vans to Dedoplistskaro from Telavi, Kakheti’s main transit hub, as well.
If you are designing a Georgia-Azerbaijan itinerary, Dedoplistskaro is well placed as a first stop in Georgia after crossing the border at Balakan (the most convenient crossing if you are coming from Sheki). Vans to Dedoplistskaro (direct or via Tsnori) depart from Lagodekhi.
Note that passenger trains do not run in eastern Georgia and the railway station in Dedoplistskaro is only used for freight.
Dedoplistskaro is a small town, but the points of interest mentioned here are quite spread out. Thus I strongly recommend visiting with your own car if possible.
The roads in and around town are in good condition with the exception of the roads to Big Shiraki airbase and Vashlovani National Park. A 4WD is recommended for the former, while Vashlovani requires a robust 4×4 and offroading experience.
If you don’t want to self-drive, it might be possible to organise private transportation for 1-2 days through your guesthouse in Dedoplistskaro (see my suggestions below).
Where to stay in Dedoplistskaro
There are several excellent guesthouses in Dedoplistskaro. I stayed at and highly recommend Savanna Guest House, which is located in the centre of town and offers both private rooms and self-contained cabins and cottages.
Owner Temo and his family are warm hosts and extremely knowledgeable about the national park. They offer full board and can help with organising drivers and guides for the area.
Another option is Teo’s Cottages, which is located outside town on the road to Eagle Gorge. If you’re looking for a nature getaway vibe and fancy staying in an A-frame cabin, this is a great choice.
Click here to open my Dedoplistskaro Tourist Map, which includes all the points of interest discussed below, plus restaurants in Dedoplistskaro and handy pins such as ATMs and the National Park Administration office.
10 things to do in Dedoplistskaro & surrounds
1. Spot vultures in Eagle Gorge
The Eagle Gorge Natural Monument is a deep river canyon carved from limestone on the northwestern edge of Dedoplistskaro.
The combination of ashen cliffs and brilliant green forest is spectacular. I was blown away when I visited Eagle Gorge – I think it has to be one of the most awesome landscapes in Georgia.
The canyon extends for 1.7 kilometres, its pock-marked cliff walls and lush tree canopy a habitat for more than 60 species of native and migratory nesting birds. Black storks and griffon vultures are the easiest to spot – their wings cast long shadows against the rock as they sail above the treetops.
There are no eagles in Eagle Gorge, though!
To visit Eagle Gorge, park in the small car park (see the exact location here) – a 10-minute drive from the centre of Dedoplistskaro – then follow the marked walking trail north into the canyon.
The path has a slight incline, but it is mostly flat and manageable. There are a few livestock gates along the way – just push them open to pass, and be sure to close them behind you.
Various lookout and photo points are marked along the trail with sign boards. We stuck to the first five or so viewpoints and ended up spending around 90 minutes in the canyon in total.
2. Climb the precarious steps to Khornabuji Castle
Khornabuji Castle AKA the Fortress of Tamar is a stone ruin hidden in the forest on the eastern side of Eagle Gorge. Not dissimilar to the monastery atop Katskhi Pillar near Chiatura, this castle floats above the landscape on the crest of a craggy limestone pier.
Likely constructed during the reign of Vakhtang I (around the 5th century AD), the castle was the centerpoint of Khornabuji, a large and prosperous township that was important enough to warrant its own bishop. The demise of Khornabuji is a real whodunit – either it fell to the Sasanian Empire in the 6th century, Mongol invaders in the 13th century, or Shah Abbas and the Persians in the 17th century.
Similarly there are different theories as to who ordered the reconstruction of Khornabuji Castle: Some say it was Queen Tamar, hence its sobriquet, while others attribute it to King Heraclius II.
Today Khornabuji Castle is mostly ruins, with portions of wall and gates still standing, festooned with creeping ivy and poppy flowers. The climb to the top of the castle is treacherous to say the least – there is something resembling stairs at the outset, but it quickly turns to clamouring up steep rocky sections using your hands.
The view from the highest point of the castle is outstanding. Similar views can be found at St. Elia’s Monastery (next on this list), only it has proper stairs. If you want to avoid a steep and potentially dangerous climb, stick to admiring Khornabuji from its base and save your energy for the monastery instead.
At the time of our visit, work was underway to construct a new car park and observation deck at the foot of the castle. Unfortunately the entire area around the base of the limestone rock has been concreted over, which certainly detracts from its beauty.
The upside is that the new road to the castle through the disused limestone quarries is sealed and easy to navigate with a sedan. It is unclear whether new stairs will be built to make the castle itself more manageable – or if an entry fee will be introduced (for now, it is free to visit). If you have any updates on the condition of the path, please let me know in the comments below.
3. Summit the stairs to St. Elia’s Church for a view
St. Elia’s Church (or St. Elia’s Monastery) is located on the opposite side of Dedoplistskaro on top of the double-peaked St. Elia’s Mountain, a limestone massif surrounded by farmers’ fields and pine groves.
Dated to the 6th century and restored in 2006, the church is embedded in the rockface and is reached via a set of serpentine stairs.
While most monasteries in the border regions of Kakheti are hidden inside caves (the most famous example being David Gareja), St. Elia’s is precariously perched high above the plain. It reminded me of a much smaller version of Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro.
After entering through the gate and visiting the small chapel, you have an option to climb (i.e. scramble) over the rocks to reach the highest point, a crucifix mounted on the taller of the two peaks.
St. Elia’s Church reminds me of Tskhrajvari in Racha region – though the walk up is much shorter and easier.
Look for the opening in the rock – it is the entrance to an underground network of escape tunnels that branches off several directions. One arm leads all the way to Khornabuji, meaning the 7 kilometre tunnel is burrowed all the way under Dedoplistskaro town.
Every year on August 2 people make a pilgrimage to this church in memory of the prophet Saint Ilia Tezbiteli. As part of the ritual, many people camp for the night on the mountainside.
4. Visit Big Shiraki, an abandoned Soviet airbase
Located east of Dedoplistskaro on the way to the Vashlovani Protected Areas (see below), Big Shiraki (Didi Shiraki in Georgian) is a military base from the Soviet era that was abandoned in the 1990s.
If you are into photography and urbexing, you will love Big Shiraki. This is a place I had been looking forward to visiting for many years and it definitely didn’t disappoint.
Wander up and down the crumbling concrete runways between rusted aeroplane hangars – each one with a different patina – and find the lone deserted plane hidden amongst the tall grass.
Big Shiraki can be reached in around an hour from Dedoplistskaro. The highway is in good condition, but the road into the airbase is less than perfect – at the time of writing, it is so rough that it requires a 4WD.
See my detailed guide to visiting Big Shiraki for more information and tips.
5. Get off the beaten track in the Vashlovani Protected Areas
Venturing further into the tip of the spear that shoots off from Dedoplistskaro and pierces Azerbaijan, the Vashlovani Protected Areas is a network of national parks, reserves and nature preserves that forms one of the most otherworldly places in the South Caucasus.
The landscape varies from steppe to savannah, from the narrow canyons of the Georgian badlands to wide open plains that ripple with frolicking gazelles. If the conditions are right, it’s possible to drive all the way down to the southernmost point of Georgia and the border with Azerbaijan.
This whole area is untamed – the roads or lack thereof necessitate both a 4WD and an experienced driver behind the wheel. This area is not suitable for hiking, though short trails can be accessed from certain points including at Mijniskure.
Visiting Vashlovani requires time, patience and pre-planning. Refer to my easy one-day Vashlovani itinerary for full details on how to make the most of your time.
6. Learn about local carpet weaving traditions at Pesvebi Art Studio
There are several points of interest in Dedoplistskaro town, starting with Art Studio Pesvebi.
Founded in 2005 by entrepreneur Nino Bakhutashvili, this social enterprise is dedicated to restoring and developing traditional Kizikian carpet weaving. The name Pesvebi means ‘roots’ in Georgia – a reference to the fact that this is the only studio of its kind in Georgia where natural dyes are used to colour raw wool.
Many of the motifs used in Pesvebi’s pieces are inspired by the flora and fauna of Vashlovani. Colours too are strictly regional, drawn from local plants and flowers and fixed with iron oxide.
Nino and her team work out of a small studio inside a municipal building in the centre of town. Visits should be pre-arranged – you can get in touch with Nino via phone or Facebook to tour the studio or maybe participate in a masterclass.
The space doubles as a shop, so you can purchase a carpet or an accessory if you wish (for something small and easy to carry, I love their leather bags decorated with woven wool panels). You can also find Pesvebi products sold at the Ethnodesign shop in Tbilisi.
7. Photograph the incredible Dedoplistskaro WWII Memorial
There are some phenomenal Soviet-era WWII memorials in Georgia – I have been lucky enough to visit dozens of them on my travels around the country. The Great Patriotic War Memorial in Dedoplistskaro is definitely in my top 10 (as is the complex in the nearby town of Gurjaani).
Built in 1985, it stands at the top of Memorial Park, a huge greenspace at the entrance to the town. Two raised, circular concrete platforms are topped with a sculptural ensemble. The Kizikhian woman with a scarf wrapped around her head, seated with hands clasped over a flowing skirt and wearing a pensive expression, is a common motif for war memorials. Judging by her age, she symbolises a mother waiting for her sons to come home from the front.
What makes this memorial unique is the two giant lions that flank her. I mistook them for camels at first – the pair are oddly muscular with very expressive faces. Their inclusion by sculptor G. Kurdiani and architect A. Lomidze must have been inspired by Kizikian traditions, which hold lions, a symbol of the region, in high esteem.
The trio is backed by a curved wall that is studded with stones inscribed with the names of men and boys from Dedoplistskaro Municipality who lost their lives while fighting in the Red Army.
At the time of our visit, the memorial was undergoing a massive reconstruction and the stones had been temporarily removed for cleaning. A worker was busy refacing one of the lion statues. I’m happy to see the memorial (and hopefully the park, too) being restored.
8. Wander around town & scout for other Soviet-era monuments
Though my first visit to Dedoplistskaro was short, I found time to take an early morning stroll to see what else I could see.
Dedoplistskaro is quite a charming town – the big central park and Dormition Of Virgin’s Church is a good place to aim for if you’re on foot.
My first destination was the railway station. Lemon coloured with three arches at the entrance and a glazed atrium on one side (probably a former cafe), its design echoes other Soviet-era train stations in Georgia, most notably those in Zugdidi and Poti, which share many of the same hallmarks.
As I mentioned earlier, there is no passenger train service to Dedoplistskaro – Kakheti’s line went dormant years ago, and there are no plans that I know of to resurrect them. With only a few freight trains passing through, Dedoplistskaro Railway Station is in pretty bad condition.
When I visited, there was a very noisy dog stationed at the front door so I decided to go around the back instead. On the platform, there is a big tree with a tree bench wrapped around its trunk – it must have been a nice shady spot to sit and wait for the train to roll in.
My second mission was to scout for other Soviet-era relics. I didn’t find any mosaics sadly, but I did encounter a couple of sculptures that are worth mentioning.
First is a set of bas-reliefs on the edge of Freedom Park. The sculptures depict Jason and the Argonauts along with local industries such as apple farming.
Inside the park, a monument to Niko Pirosmani stands in tribute to the painter who was born 30 kilometres away in the village of Mirzaani.
Though not from the Soviet era, the 9 April Monument or ‘Crucified Georgia’ is also worth seeing. Erected in 1995, it honours the victims of the Tbilisi Tragedy.
Past the railway station, there is a second, much smaller Memorial Park on the map that appears to contain more Soviet-style bas-reliefs in the style of the war memorial in Sighnaghi. I didn’t have time to walk down unfortunately.
9. Visit the People’s Friendship Museum
The People’s Friendship Museum reveals a very interesting period in Dedoplistskaro’s history.
Founded in 1984, it is located inside a log house built by Russian officer Grigol Nizhegorod of the Nizhegorodsky Dragoon Regiment. Nizhegorod, who lived in Dedoplistskaro from 1813 onwards, was a champion of Georgian-Russian relations throughout the 19th century (hence the museum’s name).
Much like Ilia Chavchavadze in Tbilisi, his house was a gathering place for intellectuals and artists. Chavchavadze himself visited on occasion, as did Alexander Pushin and Alexander Dumas.
The small house museum preserves Nizhegorod’s personal effects along with a collection of ethnographic objects.
It is open from Sunday to Tuesday from 10am. Entrance is free.
10. Do a wine tasting at Nasrashvili Family Winery
Though it might be a long ride from the heart of the Alazani River Valley, Dedoplistskaro is part of Kakheti nonetheless – and that means wine plays a significant role here.
Nino Meris, who operates one of my favourite wine bars in Tbilisi, has her family vineyards in Dedoplistskaro. Other local vintners have small cellars and wine bars in the centre of town where visitors can do a tour and tasting.
Nasrashvili Family Winery is a great place to do just that. With Beka Nasrashvili – a young psychologist turned wine enthusiast – at the helm, the family’s subterranean cellar is in the centre of town and offers wine degustations as well as meals.
Call ahead to book a 9-wine tasting, including grapes that are special to this part of Kakheti – Tavkveri dry red and Shavkapito.
More travel resources for Kakheti region
- How to get to Kakheti region from Tbilisi
- How to visit Big Shiraki airfield from Dedoplistskaro
- The essential Kakheti itinerary for vineyards and monasteries
- My shortlist of the best wineries in Kakheti
- Where to stay in Kakheti – best hotels and wine chateaux in the Alazani Valley
- How to celebrate the Rtveli wine harvest in Kakheti (and around Georgia)
- Things to do in Telavi city
- Visiting Pankisi Valley
- Visiting Tusheti