A few years ago, I came across a photo of a mountaintop monastery in the Republic of Georgia. The monastery in the photo soared above the surrounding landscape, half hidden in a dense layer of fog. I remember being wowed by the picture and surprised that there was a whole region of the world sandwiched between Russia and the Middle East, that I’d never thought twice about visiting. I knew very little about Georgia at the time, but the image piqued my curiosity. And so I added the small ex-Soviet republic to my travel wish-list.
This past autumn–when the lowlands of Georgia were still feeling the remnants of a summer heat wave and the Caucasus Mountains were blessed with balmy weather–I had the opportunity to visit Georgia with my boyfriend, Dan. Of course, the church from the photo (which I soon learned was the Gergeti Trinity Church in Kazbegi) was the first place I included in our itinerary.
Perched atop a foothill of the towering Mount Kazbek, the Gergeti Trinity Church is one of the most iconic images of Orthodox Georgia. Like many of the Orthodox churches in the area, the structure itself is relatively simple. Yet its unique setting is so dramatic, that travelers from around the world have been drawn to its doorstep.
The Gergeti Trinity Church lies along the Georgian Military Highway, overlooking the town of Kazbegi (also known as Stepantsminda). Originally constructed in the 19th century during the Russian occupation of the Caucasus, the scenic road follows a traditional route once used by traders and invaders. The road travels through challenging mountain terrain, linking Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, to Vladikavkaz in Russia.
Visiting Kazbegi via the Georgian Military Highway, is a popular day trip from Tbilisi. Shoestring travelers keen on taking public transportation, will find that the route between Tbilisi and Kazbegi is well connected by shared minivans. These minivans, known as mashrutkas, travel the three hour route multiple times a day and cost roughly six dollars.
Yet, while we found traveling by mashrutka to be tempting price-wise, Dan and I opted for an organized tour of the area instead. For sixteen dollars apiece, we negotiated a one-way tour, with multiple pitstops along the way.
And we’re happy we spent the extra dollars. For the scenery is just too jaw-dropping to admire while squashed in the middle seat of a zooming minivan.
The Georgian Military Highway is a stunning ribbon of road that wraps around lakeshores and twists between mountain peaks. As it leaves Tbilisi, the road hugs the Zhinvali Reservoir and passes through densely forested hills, before climbing toward the 2379m Jvari Pass and then descending into the small town of Kazbegi.
The first stop on our tour, was the lakeside fortress of Ananuri–a castle that clings to the shores of the turquoise reservoir. Ananuri lies about an hour north of Tbilisi and offers a classic example of Medieval Georgian architecture. For about an hour, we climbed the fortress towers, admired the interior frescoes of its two Orthodox churches and looked out at the glassy waters of the lake.
From Ananuri, we followed a series of hairpin turns toward Gudauri–a popular ski resort situated amongst breathtaking mountains. As the road neared the ski slopes, it ascended higher and higher into the Caucasus. At each stop along the way, we noticed the landscape transform. The mountains grew taller. The air grew cooler. The forest-covered hills gave way to velvety, treeless mountains.
By the time we reached our destination, it was nearly three in the afternoon. The day-trippers in our group had less than an hour to spend in Kazbegi, before returning to Tbilisi.
We were glad we decided to save the return leg of our journey for the following day.
After we arrived in Kazbegi, Dan and I explored our surroundings for the remainder of the afternoon. We dropped off our bags at the lovely Inga Guesthouse, changed into our hiking clothes and set out to discover the Ioane Natlismcemeli Church outside of town.
The Ioane Natlismcemeli Church sits opposite Mount Kazbek, in the shadow of colossal granite mountains. While more modest and certainly less well-known than the Gergeti Trinity Church, Ioane Natlimscemeli’s setting is every bit as impressive. Dan and I spent nearly two hours enjoying the area around the church. We admired a group of wild horses, watched shepherds tend to their sheep and relished the views of Mount Kazbek in the distance.
When we began the return trek into town, heavy clouds rolled in and rain began to fall. Within minutes, it was pouring.
Soaking, we hurried down the mountainside and ducked into a restaurant for a hearty meal of shkmeruli. Then, we ran to our guesthouse, dove under the covers of our comfy bed and cozied up until the following morning.
The next day, Dan and I met up with a Polish couple that we had befriended in Signaghi a few days prior. Together, we hiked the eight mile roundtrip trail to the Gergeti Trinity Church.
Led by an affable stray that acted as our tour guide, we wove through the streets of town, passed stone houses and stables, and then scrambled straight up the mountainside.
The Gergeti Trinity Church sits in a definitively epic location. Due to its dramatic setting and its awe-inspiring natural surroundings, the 14th century church has become a symbol of Georgia.
We spent much of the morning hiking to the church and admiring the views from its doorstep. Then, once we’d made our way back to town, we gathered our backpacks, found a mashrutka driver that would take us to Tbilisi and watched the scenery of the Georgian Military Highway zoom past us once more.
I’m glad that Dan and I chose to take a tour bus from Tbilisi to Kazbegi. And I’m glad that we chose to spend two days in the area rather than one. Kazbegi is the Georgia that I’d dreamed about. It is the Georgia that has captivated countless other travelers with its beauty. Before setting foot in Georigia, I knew that Kazbegi would be beautiful. But the 360 degree views of my surroundings surpassed even my wildest expectations.
I soon realized that, while the photo I’d seen of the Gergeti Trinity Church a few years back may have piqued my interest in the country, it did not even come close to capturing its majesty.