On the slopes of Mount Gareja at David Gareji Monastery

The climb up Mount Gareja was hot and humid, only compensated for by the ever expanding views across the Georgian valleys and hills below. Reaching the ridge at the top of the hill offers an even more spectacular view into a deep valley that sits in the neighbouring country of Azerbaijan. The vast panorama over the sweeping grasslands on both sides was accompanied by birdsong, a multitude of butterflies, and the buzzing of insects. This might tempt you to think all is well with the world. You’d be wrong.

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The road to David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The road to David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

The ridge I was standing on, marks the poorly defined border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the presence of armed border guards from both countries gives a hint of the unfurling diplomatic spat between formerly friendly neighbours. David Gareji is an ancient complex of rock-hewn monasteries and caves where monks have lived since the 6th century. Some have magnificent and ancient frescoes, but the border runs right through the complex and thanks to the dispute many areas are out of bounds.

In less politicised times, monks, pilgrims and tourists were allowed access to the whole area, with the Azerbaijani border guards allowing people to move freely between both countries. That arrangement ended earlier this year when the border was abruptly and surprisingly closed. This sparked tensions and a breakdown in relations between the countries. I could see the cave monastery of Udabno and another church that were, at most, a hundred meters away, but access was blocked.

Luckily, the Lavra Monastery, the main sight on the Georgian side, is still accessible and you can walk along the ridge before descending via the Spring of David’s Tears … but first you have to get here. I left Sighnaghi in the early morning for a drive that was supposed to take me almost to Tbilisi before turning back into the wilderness, where the David Gareji complex sits in grand isolation. That was, until I saw a road sign to the  monastery directing me down a small but paved road.

In the spirit of adventure I took a chance that this was a shortcut and headed off into the vast open landscape. This was an inspired decision. Until the final 20km, the road was in good condition but, much more importantly, it passed through some of the most extraordinary countryside of this entire trip. Utterly beautiful grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, mineral lakes shone brilliant white in the sun, and I watched as a cowboy herded his cattle along the valley floor. It was worth the bone-jarring final 20km.

The Lavra Monastery was founded in the 6th century but was expanded significantly in the 11th century, when this complex was the centre of religious life in eastern Georgia. It was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and then rebuilt, only to suffer disaster during Easter, 1615. The army of Persia’s Shah Abbas’ killed over 6000 monks and destroyed much of the complex. It was rebuilt in the 17th century but never regained its former prestige or authority, much of the complex was abandoned.

This is how it remains, a place of solitude and mysticism set in a hostile lunar landscape. There is a working monastery, you regularly see black-robbed priests, and it’s a site of pilgrimage. There were only a handful of people when I arrived, including a number of pilgrims, making for a relaxed visit. The Lavra Monastery is especially spellbinding, a mixture of traditional buildings, rock-hewn passages, monks cells and caves. I visited before heading up the hill to the border.

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

David Gareji Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Azerbaijan from Mount Gareja, David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Spur-thighed Tortoise, David Gareji Monastery, Georgia

Even though I couldn’t visit the rest of the complex, I’m glad I made the effort for the views alone. It was good to take some exercise before the long drive to Tbilisi where I’d spend the night. I wandered down the hill again and came across a most unusual sight, a wild tortoise. I later learned this was Testudo graeca, a Spur-thighed Tortoise. I had no idea Georgia was home to wild tortoises. It went some way to mitigating the closed border.

Sighnaghi, a town for lovers (of wine)

The picturesque hilltop town of Sighnaghi is affectionately known as the City of Love in Georgia. This epithet has been bestowed upon the town thanks to the ridiculous tale of famed Georgian painter, Nikala Pirosmani. It is claimed that his passion for his lover drove him to sell his house so he could buy her one million roses as an expression of his devotion. This idiocy was repaid by cruelty when she left him, a poor and broken man … or as they phrase it in the town’s museum, ‘a sad love story’.

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi should really be known as the place for wine lovers. There are several wine cellars around town in which to taste Georgian wines from the surrounding vineyards, as well as a handful of excellent restaurants that also offer tastings, or at least a glass or two with your meal. I ate and drank so well in Sighnaghi that when the time came to for the drive into the middle of nowhere to visit the David Gareji Monastery, I really thought twice about leaving – ever.

Outside of Tbilisi, Sighnaghi served up the best food of my whole trip. The finest of all came at the delightful Pheasant’s Tears restaurant, which is tucked away behind a large wooden door and has a pleasant outside space. It is also handily attached to a vineyard that was responsible for some of the finest wines I tasted on my trip. I ate here twice and enjoyed every dish. This included a glass of traditional red wine accompanied by bread and sunflower oil infused with black pepper. It was delicious.

It’s no wonder you can all too easily find yourself falling for the easy-going charms of this friendly place. Sighnaghi, though, is not just wine and culinary delights. Beautiful views over the surrounding countryside, a relaxed way of life, attractive cobbled streets and a history dating back centuries, combine to make this a compulsory stop if you’re passing through Kakheti. Driving up the absurdly steep and winding road to the town, I stopped at an old gate in the medieval wall that snakes around the hill.

As I stood admiring the magnificent views over the town and valley, a Japanese cyclist stopped on his way out of town. I asked him how far he’d cycled, “From Beijing”, he said, “I’m going to Istanbul.” Clearly a lunatic, I wished him the best of luck and we parted ways: I, heading for a fantastic lunch; he, to cycle through mid-30ºC temperatures. It was too early to check into the hotel, but the owner poured me a glass of homemade wine to compensate. Sighnaghi is that sort of place.

I spent my time wandering around, visiting the handful of historic sights and generally just relaxing. I did attempt the walk to Bode Monastery, which my guidebook said was 2km away on quiet country lanes. Either this was a gross exaggeration or things have changed a lot since the guide was researched. Tour buses and wildly driven cars rattle along the road making it unsafe for pedestrians. I stopped instead at a bar overlooking the town, next to which was a zip line.

I’d intended to walk back, but fell into conversation with the owner and his daughter. One thing led to another and very soon we were drinking glasses of chacha, the mind-blowingly strong grape spirit. A combination of chacha-induced bravado and a desire not to be run over by a Georgian driver led, inevitably, to taking the shortest route back to town. I’ve never zip-lined before, not sure I will again, and can honestly say it’s a bad idea under the influence.

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia

Kakheti, spiritual enlightenment and history badly told

The desultory tour of the Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum climaxed with a question. In the middle of a large wooden table, in the centre of a grand old room, was a wine bottle sitting under a glass dome. Clearly old, it appeared to contain some of its original contents. “Is there something special about this bottle?”, asked an inquisitive-minded tourist. “No”, responded the less inquisitive tour guide. Realising this wasn’t a satisfactory response, she said, “It’s probably from the 19th century.”

The guided tour of the house was mandatory and this was about as interesting as it got. Elsewhere, bored employees sat around chatting and ignoring the visitors. It’s a shame the tour was uninspiring because the house has a fascinating history and retains many of its original furnishings, pictures and personal objects of its former owners, the noble Chavchavadze family. Not only that, it sits in a lovely landscaped English garden that I’d spent an enjoyable hour wandering around in the cool morning air.

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine pot, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine pots, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Although the house was first owned by his diplomat father, Garsevan Chavchavadze, who negotiated a peace treaty between Georgia and Russia in 1783, the most famous inhabitant was Alexander. A poet and member of the Georgian intelligentsia, he was also a famed military man in the service of Imperial Russia – although he twice rebelled against Russian rule in military uprisings. He was forgiven both times – Catherine the Great was his godmother, which probably helped.

His story is just one of many, including that of his eldest daughter, Nino. Married at the age of 16 to Russian poet and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov, she was widowed aged 17 when Griboyedov was murdered on a diplomatic mission. She never remarried and became known as the ‘woman in black’ thanks to her preference for wearing mourning clothes. Alexander’s son was kidnapped from this house and taken to Persia where he was held for years until being ransomed. A ransom that bankrupted the family.

Told with panache, this is the sort of family history that would enliven any regimented guided tour. It was not to be. I headed to the Kakheti countryside in search of ancient monasteries. There are dozens around this region, but I’d been recommended to visit two in particular: the 6th century Ikalto Monastery and the 5th century Dzveli (or Old) Shuamta Monastery. On the way, I found myself chatting with an English-speaking Georgian nun at the 17th century Akhali (New) Shuamta Monastery.

The pleasant nun who answered the door informed me that it wasn’t possible to see the famed frescoes because of building works. I could however visit the gift shop. They may not be very worldly, but the average nun knows how to guilt someone into buying some monastery-made soap and a couple of candles. I actually enjoyed the visit to the nunnery because, in exchange for buying soap, I was able quiz her about life inside the fortified walls. Not much goes on and I got the feeling there were few visitors.

Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alexander Chavchavadze House and Museum, Kakheti, Georgia

Cemetery, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Cemetery, Ikalto Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Dzveli (Old) Shuamta Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Dzveli (Old) Shuamta Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

This contrasted sharply with the experience at the ‘Old’ monastery a kilometre or two up the hill. Here, a monk chatting on his mobile phone waved a welcome to me and left me to wander around without guidance, spiritual or otherwise. The buildings were the same design as I’d seen elsewhere and the interiors were quite plain. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way to visit Ikalto Monastery, a few kilometres away.

This was far more interesting, mainly due to the Georgian families who were visiting at the same time. I wandered around the monastery and back out to the car where I saw a graveyard with some intriguing looking headstones. It turns out that Georgian graves often come with a headstone that is carved with a lifelike image of the person who has died. Creating a vision of a series of dead people standing above their graves. I thought this was rather nice, but I imagine it’s a little spooky at night.

Wine, war and faith in Kakheti

Ancient Gremi was once capital of the now disappeared Kingdom of Kachetian. A lively and wealthy trading town that sat on a branch of the Silk Road, it inevitably attracted would-be conquerers. In the 16th century, it was put to the sword by Persian armies under the command of Shah Abbas I. This was during some bleak times for Georgia and the region of Kakheti in particular. Gremi was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of of the region’s inhabitants were deported to what is modern-day Iran.

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Gremi Citadel, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

The ruins of Gremi are an important archeological site, while the Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel and the Royal Tower of the ancient city survived intact to the 21st century. Not that you would have guessed this history from the fleeting mention Gremi received in my guidebook. Only by chance did I pass by the Gremi Citadel on my way to the much more famous Nekresi Monastery. I drove around a bend in the road and was confronted by the dramatic sight of a fortified church on a small hill.

The church dates from 1565 and, uniquely in my experience, allowed visitors to take photographs of the interior. This at least allowed me to capture the dilapidated state of the frescoes. This is one of several ancient Georgian buildings that is on UNESCO’s Tentative List for World Heritage Status, I can only imagine they will need to do some decent restoration work first. The tower standing next to the church was constructed slightly earlier and was worth the 5GEL entry just for the views.

After briefly poking my nose into the wine cellar (no tastings due to driving), I set off for the even more dramatically situated Nekresi Monastery. One of Georgia’s earliest churches, dating from the 4th century, sits at the centre of the complex, and was built only shortly after Christianity was established in the country. Based on the fact that they built on top of a heavily wooded and remote hilltop, I’d say they weren’t sure how popular Christianity was going to be in those early days.

So steep is the hill, and so limited the space at the top, that you have to leave your car at the bottom and take a minibus up. This was a hair-raising experience. The minibus looked like it dated from the Soviet era and ground up and around hairpin bends in first gear, while inside we all sweated due to the oppressive heat and, at least in my case, fear of plunging to my death. I vowed to walk down. Glad to be off the bus, I followed a group of Georgian families towards the monastery.

Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine cellar, Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine cellar, Nekresi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Carrying the building materials to this spot must have been a huge task, but the views are definitely worth it. The complex has several ancient buildings in addition to the original 4th century church, including a 6th and 7th century basilica, an 8th century church, a 9th century bishop’s palace with attached wine cellar, and a 16th century tower. Oddly, there’s no information about the site, but it is a pleasant place to walk around.

The wine cellar is probably the most interesting part of the complex, and includes an ancient vessel carved from a whole tree trunk in which grapes were pressed by foot before being poured in kvevri, the large clay pots Georgian’s have been using to make wine for eight millennia. There are some frescoes, but they are badly discoloured by centuries of candle smoke. I drank in the views for a while before leaving for Kisiskhevi, where I’d booked a couple of nights in a vineyard.

8,000 years and counting, tasting traditional Georgian wine

Georgian’s identify very strongly with their food. Like many other cultures, it provides an emotional reference point, but while khinkali, lobio and khachapuri provide a sense of belonging, no Georgian worth their salt would sit down to eat without a bottle of wine from the eastern region of Kakheti or, increasingly, the appellations from western Georgia. No meal would be complete without a shot (or three) of Georgian fire-water, chacha, known colloquially as grape vodka.

I knew little of Georgian wine, but what I did know was enough to convince me a visit to Kakheti would be a good idea. It’s not just that Georgia produces good wine, or that it has grape varieties that I’ve never heard of and which are largely unknown beyond its borders. Georgia can lay claim to be the ‘Cradle of Wine’ – and does in its tourism literature. A discovery of 8,000 year-old grape seeds and the remains of vines sealed inside ancient clay vessels gives Georgia bragging rights as the birthplace of wine.

No meal would be complete in Georgia without wine

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine tasting, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine cellar, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine tasting, Kakheti, Georgia

To put that into some sort of context, humanity discovered the intoxicating joy of wine 3,000 years before it invented writing (thank you ancient Egypt). We were calling over the sommelier 5,000 years before we were using our first iron tools. As I’ve observed before, humanity’s desire to get high is one of the greatest drivers of innovation and creativity on earth. Georgian’s are rightly very proud of their contribution and, having sampled several wines, they have every reason to be.

I’m sure others around the world were trying something similar, but it was Georgian’s who first discovered that putting grape juice in clay pots and burying it underground for a few months produced wine through natural fermentation. The process may be a little more scientific these days, but the Georgian wine industry is using the same tools and processes as it did thousands of years ago to produce ‘natural’ wines. I know there is a natural wine movement, but in Georgia it’s just part of the culture.

Known as Qvevri wine-making, it made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2013. Fitting recognition given that wine cellars are considered holy places. Although wine makers often use both traditional and Western European methods, and I’d tried both in Tbilisi, I was keen to sample traditional wines during my time in Kakheti. I’ve always been skeptical but some of the reds I tried were delicious, white wines, or orange wines as they’re called, were more hit and miss.

I stayed at a vineyard in the heart of wine country which produced several traditional wines, and which came with a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains, but there are lots of producers, large and small, across this region who offer tastings. It would definitely be worth trying several. Later in my trip I was in the lovely town of Sighnaghi, where several producers have places in town offering tastings. It allowed me to sample more grape varieties.

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine tasting, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine production, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyards, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine in Georgia has been associated with monastic life for the last 1,500 years, and it is monks who have done much to develop the industry. They continue to do so today, but even in the Communist era Georgian wine was exalted across the Soviet Union, and not just because Stalin was a local boy. Georgia was known as the wine cellar of the USSR. Russia remains a key export market, but China consumes most Georgian wine, followed by the USA and Germany (I’ve never seen it on sale in Berlin).

One thing seems clear though, like tourism to the country, Georgian wine is on the map and will only grow in popularity. My extensive research indicates that that can only be a good thing.

Monasticism and wine making at Alaverdi Monastery

Kakheti is Georgia’s most famous wine producing region, with a wine making heritage that dates back 8,000 years, but for at least the last millennium wine in this region has been strongly bound to Georgian monasticism. The monks of Alaverdi Monastery may have sworn off worldly pursuits, but they’ve maintained a wine making tradition since the founding of the monastery in the 6th century. The countryside of the surrounding Alazani valley is dotted with vineyards, providing the raw product for the monastery.

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyard, Kakheti, Georgia

Kakheti, Georgia

I arrived at Alaverdi Monastery after a long and nerve jangling drive along a virtually deserted mountain road. I’d expected it to be largely unpaved, but was happy to find parts of it were newly paved. Other parts were terrifyingly rough, and there was rarely much indication of when one section would end and another begin. On more than one occasion I found myself going from wonderful paved road to something that would be best described as ‘donkey track’.

The route though was absolutely beautiful, whether forested mountainside or open pasture decorated with multitudes of wild flowers. I passed through sleepy villages, but for large stretches I saw little evidence of civilisation, could barely get a phone signal and began to worry about how long it would take to be found if the car broke down. It was a relief to find myself driving through the sizeable town of Akhmeta and to be surrounded by vineyards. Where there’s wine, you’ll find people.

Still, after days in the mountains and a lonely drive, it was a bit of a shock to find myself confronted by tour groups embarking and disembarking from coaches outside Alaverdi Monastery. Rather than competing for space with a large group, I went to the nearby cafe for a drink, which had the advantage of being air conditioned. The temperature in this lowland area was ferocious. I made a plan to visit a few other nearby sights before heading into the monastery complex.

The oldest parts of the monastery date from the 6th century, when it was founded by a monk named Joseph Alaverdeli, who arrived here from Antioch in southern Turkey, at the time a major centre of Christianity. Today, the majority of what you see dates from the 11th century when King Kvirike the Great ordered a cathedral built in the place of the small church of St. George. Over the entrance to the church is a colourful 16th century fresco of St. George doing something unpleasant to a dragon.

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Alaverdi Monastery, Kakheti, Georgia

Vineyard, Kakheti, Georgia

Kakheti, Georgia

For nine centuries, until the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi was consecrated in 2004 in fact, Alaverdi had the distinction of being Georgia’s tallest religious building. I’m not sure that will have a decisive influence on the decision, but the monastery has been on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2007. Coincidentally, wine production began again in 2006 after a prolonged period when wine wasn’t made here. Today, they use both the traditional qvevri method as well as Western European methods.

Medieval architecture combines perfectly with ancient wine making traditions, and the whole complex is framed by the dramatic backdrop of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. It’s a remarkable setting. I wandered through the grounds into the church and, not for the first time, found myself disappointed by the interior. Most of the frescoes were in poor condition, but shafts of light strikingly illuminated the interior. There’s not much else to see, so I set off in search of other historic sights.

Return along the Georgian Military Highway

It’s odd how things look when you approach them from a different angle. The Georgian Military Highway is one of those routes you really need to travel in both directions. The landscapes on my return journey from a few days relaxing and walking in and around Stepantsminda, seemed even more spectacular than when I first braved this legendary road into the High Caucasus Mountains. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the drive, but it was punctuated by magnificent views, historic sights and death dealing cows.

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Watchtower, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Great Patriotic War Memorial, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Cow, Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

I took one last look at the glorious Mount Kazbek, the “diamond shining … in its wealth of endless snow” of the imaginings of Russian novelist Mikhail Lermontov, and set off along the snake-like Military Highway that stretched ahead for 200 km. I was headed towards the famed Georgian wine region of Kakheti. The map indicated a useable road that cut across from the Military Highway to the area close to Alaverdi Monastery, one of Georgia’s most beloved religious sites.

First though, there was the simple matter of descending through Lermontov’s “massive amphitheater of mountains”. This route has been used for over 2,000 years, whether by Silk Road traders or invading armies. The route we know today was constructed in the 19th century by a Tsarist Russia determined to expand and control its empire in the Caucasus. Russian armies and weapons flowed along it, but it also made this romantic and mysterious region accessible to less militaristic adventurers.

Lermontov was only one artistic soul to seek out the area’s glories. Tolstoy, Pushkin and Gorky would also lionise this region. It’s hard to blame them, even if their version of it is somewhat romanticised – this is, after all, an extraordinary place. Only a dozen or so kilometres outside Stepantsminda, the village of Sioni sits beneath precipitous mountains and is home to a 10th century basilica as well as an ancient watchtower – perched on top of a rocky outcrop with sweeping vistas over the valley.

The village is also home to a fascinating memorial to those from this area who died in the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union’s name for the conflict we know as the Second World War. Hitler’s advance into the Soviet Union never reached Georgia, it came close but the mighty Caucasus were a daunting obstacle. Two things struck me about the memorial: it was in a perilously dilapidated condition, and it had a prominent image of Joseph Stalin.

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Basilica, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Basilica, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

There are very few places left on earth where Stalin is an acceptable public figure, and certainly few where you can still find statues and memorials to a man who oversaw the deaths of tens of millions. I’m not sure Georgian’s admire Stalin, but there is a sense of pride in the local boy who managed to rise high enough to run the Soviet Empire. I was intending to go to Gori, his birthplace, where there is a bizarre museum dedicated to Stalin, but this was an insight into the nation’s relationship with Uncle Joe.

I headed south, stopping occasionally to take in the beautiful views and passing some of the sights I’d seen on my way to Stepantsminda. There was more death defying driving from Georgian drivers tired of life, and plenty of cows lurking in or by the side of the roads waiting for their moment to terrify passing motorists. Every journey in Georgia was a pleasure to survive. Just after the Zhinvali Hydroelectric Dam I turned off the Military Highway and headed east towards Kakheti and wine country.

The tragic beauty of Georgia’s Truso Valley

The hike alongside the Terek river into the Truso valley is breathtaking. The lush green valley, surrounded by soaring snow-capped peaks, has a beguiling natural beauty that is lent added mystique by ancient defensive towers and small Ossetian villages that dot the landscape of this spectacular region. Accompanied only by the sound of the river, the sense of peace and tranquility were overwhelming, but the abandoned and ruined village of Ketrisi tells a different story about the history of this area.

Walk too far down the valley and you’ll probably find yourself having a conversation with the Georgian military. Here, at the head of the valley, lies the breakaway region of South Ossetia. A separatist movement seeking independence from Georgia emerged in the region during late 1980s, but it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgian independence in 1991 that poured fuel on the fire and led to conflict. Thousands fled their homes to escape the fighting and South Ossetia declared independence.

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Periodic fighting continued until 2008, when a nationalist Georgian president decided to subdue South Ossetia once and for all. The end result was the invasion of Georgia by Russian troops and the rapid defeat of the Georgian military. Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and the border between it and Georgia remains a militarised zone. This is inconvenient for walkers and a disaster for the region’s inhabitants, who have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods behind.

The eerie crumbling villages of the region are all that remain of once thriving mountain communities, although one or two homes seemed to be inhabited, and there is a newly reconstructed and fully functioning monastery in the valley. The entrance to the Truso valley is about 20km south of Stepantsminda and, the moment I left the main road, I found myself bouncing down rough tracks towards the tiny semi-inhabited village of Kvemo Okrokana.

The vast, open valley narrows to a virtually impassable point at the Truso Gorge, and my map said the route to the valley on the other side was a winding road over a big hill. It quickly became clear that this road was impassable. Large rocks had tumbled down the hillside blocking the route, and it looked like it hadn’t been used for some time. The reason for this only became clear when I discovered a new ‘road’ had been blasted out of the hillside above the river linking Kvemo Okrokana with the inner valley.

I left the 4×4 at the entrance to the village and walked along this road into the dramatic landscape of the gorge. From here it’s around 12km to the end of the valley, and I was very conscious that it would also be 12km back. I put that thought to the back of my mind and marvelled as the landscape unfolded. The walk through the gorge is around 4km long, and just as I was beginning to wonder if it ever ended I crossed a bridge into the inner valley.

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Zakagori fortress, Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia ©caucasus-trekking.com

It was like entering a strange and forgotten land. A feeling reinforced by the white, pink and yellow travertines, limestone deposits formed by natural mineral springs, dotting the ground. It’s a remarkable sight. I continued down the valley towards Ketrisi village, passing herds of cows and mineral springs. The view down the valley was magnificent, in the distance was Zakagori, a ruined fortress. As I walked though, the weather began to look ominous.

I was just past Ketrisi when large raindrops began to fall. I took shelter until it stopped and carried on my way. A few minutes later the heavens opened and rain turned to really quite large hailstones. The temperature plunged alarmingly. Time to turn tail and head back, the only problem being that the car was 10km away. I was pretty wet by the time I reentered the gorge, but here I had some luck – a 4×4 stopped and offered me a lift. I’ve rarely been more grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Stepantsminda, in the heart of the mighty Caucasus mountains

As well as being one of Georgia’s most iconic landscapes, the Kazbegi region in the high Caucasus mountain range is a place of myth and legend. On the slopes of the mighty 5,047 metre Mount Kazbek, Georgian legend collides with Greek mythology at the site where the Titan Prometheus was imprisoned for eternity as punishment for teaching humanity the secret of fire. A harsh punishment for sure, but the views must have been spectacular.

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

This is a land of extraordinary landscapes and breathtaking panoramas. Thankfully you don’t have to go in search of Prometheus to get them. It is also a place where, despite the ever growing encroachment of modern life, you can feel like you’ve stepped back in time – by a few centuries. I woke on my first day in Stepantsminda, a village also known as Kazbegi, stood on the balcony of my mountainside homestay and took in the view. In the field opposite, a man milked a cow by hand.

I strolled to the kitchen, where the family’s grandmother was preparing a breakfast of homemade flatbread, butter, salty cheese, fresh eggs and homegrown vegetables. A horse wandered past the window. The Kazbegi rush hour was as far removed from Tblisi’s as it’s possible to get. I was planning to hike to the area’s most famous site, the wondrously picturesque Gergeti Trinity Church, but grandmother forced so much food on me that I had to go for a lie down.

An hour later I was walking through the streets of one half of the village – the Georgian Military Highway cuts through the village – accompanied by views of mountains on all sides. A dog decided to tag along, but was scared off by a group of cows that wandered into the main street. So far I’d not seen a single person or, for that matter, any vehicles. The trail to the church began in earnest, and I was soon climbing upwards alongside a small river guarded by a ruined ancient defensive tower.

As I climbed higher, every step I took seemed to reveal more fabulous views and the tops of snow covered mountains appeared, Kazbek included. It was hot work and I’d forgotten to bring water with me. I told myself there’d be drinks at the church (I was wrong). These small troubles faded as the ever-expanding landscape revealed itself. A few people passed me on the way down the trail, and soon the Gergeti Trinity Church was just above me.

The church dates from the 14th century and sits at an elevation of 2,170 meters. Even though it has one of the most dramatic locations of any religious building on earth, this severely restricted the number of visitors. Until, that is, they built a paved road up the mountainside in 2018. This has scarred the landscape and massively increased visitor numbers. When I got to the church there were around twenty 4x4s parked nearby and a gaggle of tourists.

The interior of the church, like many in Georgia, was fairly disappointing, but the views over the valley and village below were utterly stunning. Up here it’s easy to forget all the troubles of the world, but if you hiked 10km north you’d reach the Russian border. It was through Stepantsminda that the Russian military invaded Georgia in 2008, and Russian troops are still stationed nearby in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. All the more remarkable that many of the tourists at the church were Russian.

Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

I made my way back down the mountain and stopped in the village to have a cold beer while taking in the views across the valley. I could see my destination for the evening perched on the hillside. In this tiny village sits the remarkable Rooms Hotel, home to one of the best dining experiences in Georgia – which comes accompanied by dramatic views back towards Mount Kazbek. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun set before tucking into delicious food.

The Georgian Military Highway, into the Caucasus Mountains

A visit to the Great Caucasus Range is a highlight of any trip to Georgia, and driving the Georgian Military Highway through the mountains is one of the most scenic routes in the country. Not that gazing out of the window to appreciate the scenery is advisable when there are lunatic drivers, massive trucks, hairpin bends and vertical drops off the side of the road. To say parts of the drive were hair-raising would be understatement, but the journey and destination were worth every sphincter-clenching moment.

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument, Georgian Military Highway

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

The mountains, valleys and sheer gorges of this region are the stuff of legend, and it’s easy to see the appeal. To get there though I first had to brave Tbilisi’s horrendous rush hour traffic. Once out of the city the driving is no less dangerous, but it comes with the advantage that there are far fewer vehicles on the road. The route north follows the Kura or Mtkvari River along an uninspiring valley floor before the road starts to wind through dense forests as you approach the medieval fortress of Ananuri.

I say “uninspiring”, but on this section of road I witnessed an extraordinary event that should have resulted in the death of a pig and possibly several humans. I still can’t fully explain what happened, but needless to say an enormous pig walked into the road just as a van was overtaking a car as a truck and several other vehicles were coming from the opposite direction. The probability of everyone (especially the pig) surviving must have been infinitesimally small. Yet that’s what happened.

This was my introduction to the ever-present danger of animals on Georgian roads. It turns out that the cows of this region have a death wish, and since crashing into a cow is unlikely to end well for anyone, they are best avoided. That though is easier said than done. They gather in groups on the road, oblivious to the traffic. The number of times I almost hit a cow, or saw someone else almost hit one, was in double figures by the time I arrived in Stepantsminda, my final destination.

My growing sense of isolation as I drove further into the mountains came to an abrupt end when I suddenly arrived at the Ananuri Fortress. Out of nowhere there were tour buses filled with Chinese tourists, minivans filled with Indian tourists and plenty of cars with Russian licence plates. People were wandering across the road taking photos. In imitation of Georgian cows they seemed oblivious to oncoming traffic. I parked when I finally found a space, and went to explore the fortress.

Dating from the 17th century, Ananuri Fortress sits picturesquely and peacefully high above the blue waters of the Zhinvali Reservoir. Don’t let this idyllic location fool you though, this place has seen many battles and sieges, not to mention the presence of suicidal cows in the surrounding area. That said, there’s not a lot to see, although the interior of the main church was atmospheric and the views are wonderful. Keen to continue into the mountains I set off again.

The road becomes much more vertiginous beyond Ananuri until it reaches the highest point on the route, the Jvari Pass at an altitude of 2,379 meters (7,815 feet). Along the way the landscape changes significantly, snow capped mountains became the backdrop for the rest of the route. At the Jvari Pass sits one of the more extraordinary sights in the mountains, a colourful and seemingly non-ironic monument to Soviet Russian and Georgian friendship. Its location on the edge of a cliff is spectacular.

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument, Georgian Military Highway

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

The road descends dramatically from the Jvari Pass into a valley that seems to stretch to the horizon, only ending at the towering peak of Mount Kazbek. It’s an utterly beguiling landscape and I was glad I’d braved the roads, reckless drivers and bonkers cows to make it to Stepantsminda, or Kazbegi as it is also known. Why are do so many things in Georgia have two names?