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?