We did two day trips from Tbilisi when we were there in April and I can recommend both to future travellers to Georgia. The first was with a driver up what is known as the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi, a truly magnificent drive. We stopped off at a few beautiful points along the way both there and back. The second trip from Tbilisi was to Uplitsikhe cave city and Gori, birthplace of Stalin and home to the Stalin Museum. I’ll cover this one in tomorrow’s blog post.
We got a list of drivers from the tourist information centre in Tbilisi and made a plan with one of them to take us up to Kazbegi and see a few key points along the road known as the Georgian Military Highway. First stop was Ananuri Fortress, 66km north of Tbilisi, set in a beautiful location, in a river valley. The fortress belonged to the Dukes of Aragvi from the 13th to the 18th centuries and has seen its fair share of bloody battles. These days it is a gorgeous, peaceful place.
We climbed the tallest fortress tower for fine views of the river valley, the surrounding mountains, the fortress itself and the two 17th century churches within the fortress walls.
The Church of the Assumption was busy with a Palm Sunday service underway when we were there. Lots of kneeling on the stone floor, kissing icons (and the floor), crossing oneself, holding greenery, lighting candles and responding and singing with the priests and the choir who were dressed in colourful robes.
Nearby the fortress was the Zhinvali Reservoir, its water levels significantly lower than normal. The Reservoir was formed in 1985 with the building of the hydroelectric dam on the Aragvi River.
We continued up the highway, into the Caucusus, past a couple of ski resorts (not in operation at the time) before crossing the highest part of the road – the 2379m Jvari Pass. We then descended into the Tergi valley to the small town of Kazbegi, just 10km south of the Russian border. We saw at least a hundred big trucks all queued up along the road heading to Russia, apparently a usual sight as the checkpoint for entry into Russia is very slow. Commonly the trucks are from Armenia and just transitting through Georgia to get to Russia.
Kazbegi is actually the former name of the town but one that is still used, although officially it has returned to its original name Stepantsminda. Stepantsminda literally means ‘Saint Stephen’, and was so named after Stephen, a Georgian Orthodox monk who constructed a hermitage here centuries ago. It changed officially to Kazbegi in 1925 under Soviet Rule, honouring a local lord who was very loyal to Russia during a revolt against Russian rule in the 19th century. But the town reverted to its original name in 2006. Interestingly, this loyal lord’s grandson is the famed Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi (1848-1893), famous for his 1883 novel The Patricide. This is said to have been a major inspiration for Stalin(!). We visited Kazbegi’s childhood home -now a museum in his honour.
This humble little museum is not why everyone comes to Stepantsminda though! It is of course the mountains that are the huge drawcard. Hiking, bird-watching, paragliding etc are all popular here in this stunnning place. For the day-tripper there is a great walk up to the 14th century Gergeti Trinity Church (aka Tsminda Samebis Church) which towers over the town at a height of 2170m. You can just see it sitting on the hill in the photo below.
There were three ways up to the Trinity Church: 1. walk straight up the middle on an obvious path that most walkers seemed to take (very steep, not recommended!) 2. walk round to the left of the hill on a track that wound round the hill to end up behind the Church, longer in distance but not as steep or popular so a much prefered route. 3. pay a driver and get a ride up in a four wheel drive vehicle along a slow, rough road that takes almost as long as it does on foot!
We took option two and loved the views it offered:
We talked to people at a restaurant in Kazbegi before we left on our walk. They opted for a jeep up, leaving shortly after we did, and they couldn’t believe that they saw us up there, arriving around the same time. One of the girls took a few pictures of us together with the beautiful views in the background:
Being up here was just awesome – there were 360 degree mountain views as well as views down to the town. Ah- just gorgeous! I was also amazed how they managed to build the church all the way up here all those centuries ago! It looked stunning with the backdrop of Mt Kazbek which was 5033m… a lot higher than New Zealand’s highest peak!
We took the steep, most direct route back to our waiting driver, straight down the hill – a route I cannot recommend. Then it was a nice drive back the way we came toward Tbilisi. We could enjoy more fabulous mountain views from the comfort of the Mercedes.
Although the light was fading a little by the time we got to Mtskheta (20km from Tbilisi) we had time to see the Jvari Church on the hilltop and the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in town. Mtskheta has been Georgia’s spiritual heart since Christianity was established here in about 327. It was once the capital of most of eastern Georgia from about the 3rd century BCE until the 5th century CE, when King Vakhtang Gorgasali switched his base to Tbilisi, not that far away. But it has kept its status as a spiritual capital and most of the important ceremonies of the Georgian Orthodox Church are held here.
First we headed up the hill to Jvari Church, which to many Georgians is considered the holiest of holies. Visible for miles up on the hilltop overlooking Mtskheta, Jvari stands where King Mirian erected a wooden cross soon after his conversion by St Nino in the 4th century. Between 585 and 604 Stepanoz I, the duke of Kartli, constructed the church over the cross. The octagonal base of the cross is still in the church, preserved in the centre. I was really disappointed that the church was closed when we visited so we couldn’t go in.
The views up the river valley from where we’d come and the views over Mtskheta and the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers were spectacular. The sun was setting and the place was just beautiful.
From Jvari we had to cross a river and then cross again to get to Mtskheta and its famous Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a large, grand building from the 11th century. The Cathedral was a popular place, perhaps especially because it was Palm Sunday. There were many people around the beautiful stone building, outside and in.
Christ’s robe is believed to lie beneath the central nave (!). The story is told in the Lonely Planet Guide for Georgia and I quote from page 58:
” The story goes that a Mtskheta Jew, Elioz, was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion and returned with the robe to Mtskheta. His sister Sidonia took it from him and immediately died in a passion of faith. The robe was buried with her and as years passed, people forgot the exact site. When King Mirian built the first church at Mtskheta in the 4th century, the wooden column designed to stand in its centre could not be raised from the ground. But after an all-night prayer vigil by St Nino, the column miraculously moved of its own accord to the robe’s burial site. The column subsequently worked many miracles and Svetitskhoveli means ‘Life-Giving Column’.”
A stone church replaced Mirian’s wooden one in the 5th century and the current building was built between 1010 and 1029. Several Georgian monarchs are buried here.
This was a truly wonderful day trip – absolutely stunning scenery and the interesting fortress and significant churches along the way added to it too. You could of course do the Mtskheta trip using public transport from Tbilisi as it is quite close. There are marshutkas (minivans) going from Tbilisi all they way to Kazbegi (stopping at Ananuri fortress too), but I recommend a private driver. You can stop and take pictures, have loo stops, visit points of interest where and when you like with your own driver, not worrying if the next marshutka is coming in 5 minutes or 5 hours. We certainly felt it was money well spent.