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.
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.
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.