I sadly said goodbye to Tbilisi on Saturday morning as we began our drive to northern Georgia under gray skies. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not in our favour as it was expected to rain for most of the drive. This did not bode well for our trip to Stepantsminda where I was supposed to see Mt. Kasbegi and the lovely Georgetown Trinity Church high up the mountainside. Oh well. There was simply nothing I could do about it.
Anyway, our first stop of the day was to the Jvari Monastery in Mtshkheta. The drive took less than a half hour before we reached the hilltop church and monastery. Now the Jvari complex is revered by Georgians because it is the site where King Mirian erected a wooden cross soon after his conversion by St Nino in the 4th century setting the stage for Christianity to become part of Georgian life. A church was subsequently constructed to house the cross in the late 6th century, which still stands today.
When we arrived at the site, there were a few groups of tourists but fortunately we had arrived early as the site is one of the big tourist destinations out of Tbilisi. Katiya and I made our way up the pathway to the church and took in the magnificent views down in the valley to Mtskheta where the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers meet. After the requisite pictures, we entered the church, which was built of stone and pretty much barren except for the carved wooden cross in the middle of the room.
We wandered around taking in the various icons and then moved back outside. As we walked past the remnants of a stone wall and gate constructed around the church in the Middle Ages, the hordes arrived. Bus after bus was pulling into the parking lot. We quickly got out of there before we were blocked in by buses.
Shortly after we left the Jvari complex, we turned onto the Georgian Military Highway. The highway dates to the 19th century when the road was constructed to connect Russia with its annexed neighbor, Georgia, to the south. The road has obviously been modernized and is the fast track from the lowlands to Stepantsminda (formerly known as Kasbegi under the Soviets), which was our final destination of the day.
The drive on the Georgian Military Highway initially took us through tiny villages (blink and you would miss them) before we began to climb up into the Caucus Mountains. We soon reached the gorgeous Zhinvali Reservoir and Dam, which provides half of the water supply to Tbilisi. We got out and took a few pictures before continuing on to our next stop at the Ananuri Fortress.
Now, as I mentioned the weather was not supposed to be good, but so far we had not seen any rain. In fact, we were beginning to see blue skies. (I was starting to think that the weather forecaster for Georgia may be from Seattle with such “pinpoint” accuracy.)
Anyway, as we crossed the bridge to reach the Ananuri Fortress the view of the complex sitting above the Aragavi River was absolutely gorgeous. The fortress dates to the 16th century and was the scene of many battles. Today, the remains of the fortress consist of two castles, the upper fortification with a large square tower and the lower fortification with a round tower that is pretty much in ruins. Inside the complex there are two churches, the 17th century Church of the Virgin constructed of brick and the better preserved Church of the Assumption, built in 1689.
We wandered down the little path to the fortress and took a quick look at the outside of the Church of the Virgin before we entered the Church of the Assumption. Now this church had the typical dome style and a beautifully carved façade, but the true stars of the church were the amazing and somewhat well preserved frescoes that dominated the walls and pillars of the church. I spent the majority of my time gazing at the lovely frescoes before we moved outside to look at the little bas relief sculptures on the outside of the walls and to hike the remains of the wall around the fortress.
At the top for the wall, we entered the upper fortification which was made completely of stone. We then made our way to the VERY narrow staircase where we hiked up the stone stairs to the top of the fortress. The reward was some amazing views through tiny openings in the stone walls. We then walked back down the stairs and made our way out of the fortress.
A short way down the road we stopped again, this time to see the confluence of the Black and White Aragvi Rivers. And low and behold when we got out and took a look, you could actually see the two rivers meeting and becoming one larger Argavi River. Pretty cool.
As we continued on through the mountains, fog began to settle in and we had a few raindrops on the windshield. Uh oh. I really did not want rain because I really wanted to see Mt. Kazbegi once we reached Stepantsminda. However, as we continued our drive north the skies began to brighten. There was hope!
We reached our lunch stop in the little ski resort town of Gudauri (and the place where I would be spending the night) with some patches of fog around, but a little bit of blue sky. After a quick bite to eat, we continued on to the Georgia-Russia Friendship Monument, which was built in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk (a treaty signed between Russian and Georgia in 1783, which Russia then ignored when it annexed Georgia in 1801) and the ongoing friendship between Georgia and then Soviet Russia. (If you ask most Georgians, they do not view Russia as a friend.)
Anyway, we stopped to take a look at the monument, which is a large semi-circle made of stone and concrete overlooking the Devil’s Valley in the Caucasus mountains. The inside of the monument features a tile mural with scenes from Georgian history on one side and Russian history on the other side. I took a few pictures in rather foggy conditions (I could barely see Devil’s Valley below) and then it was time to continue the drive to Stepantsminda.
The last part of our drive took us to the highest point on the Georgian Military Highway, the Jvari Pass at 2,379 meters (7.815 feet). As we drove higher into the mountains and past Jvari Pass, a miracle happened. The fog began to lift and the clouds gave way to gorgeous sunny skies. The last part of the trip to Stepantsminda, about 30 km from the Russian border, was absolutely gorgeous, and as we rounded a turn Mt. Kazbegi in all its glory came into view. Katiya and I were beside ourselves. It was going to be nice after all.
We passed beautiful mountain ridges and herds of sheep and cows grazing on the sides of the mountains before descending into the Truso valley and the lovely little town of Stepantsminda. Here, we changed vehicles for the 15 minute drive up the mountainside to see the Gergeti Trinity Church.
The ride up the mountain was something else. Another one of those “is this really a road” moments. We bounced up and down and around like we were in a blender. Our driver just laughed and told us “free massage”. The road was filled with ruts and large rocks and water (from the rain that morning) and as we wound round and round the hill, I just kept laughing. It was another ride for the ages.
However, it was entirely worth it when we reached the top. In one direction I could see Mt. Kazbegi in all its glory and in the other direction I could see the beautiful Gergeti Trinity Church against a backdrop of mountains bathed in sunlight. It was an incredible sight.
Katiya and I hiked up the steep hill to reach the Gergeti Trinity Church, which had been built on the site in 14th century. Next to the church was s belltower that was built around the same time as the church. After donning the requisite skirt (provided by the church) and putting on a scarf, we entered the church through a little doorway. The church was very small and had a few icons on the wall as well as one remaining fresco.
The visit inside the church was short, but the real highlight of the church is where it is situated and the magnificent views it affords to the little town of Stepantsminda below and to Mt. Kazbegi on the opposite side. I could have sat there all day staring down into the valley and at the surrounding mountains. And we could not have had a more beautiful day. The sun was shining, it was warm and there was virtually no wind. A far cry from what I expected and what was forecast.
After the visit, we took the “jaunt” back down the hill and met Jakob for our short drive back to Gudauri. About half way into the drive, we stopped at some natural mineral springs that are heavy on the iron content. The mineral springs seep from orange coloured rocks by the side of the road and create natural little pools of water around the base of the rocks.
We then walked across the street where the mineral water gushes out and had a taste of the water, which is said to cure a variety of ailments. It was a complete surprise to me when the water was carbonated. Seriously. It was full of bubbles and tasted like soda water.
We then got back in the car and continued on to Gudauri. As we approached the Georgia-Russia Friendship Monument once again, we saw people paragliding over Devil’s Valley. Yikes. The view I am sure was spectacular, but there isn’t enough money in the world to make me jump off a cliff over a massive valley and hope that my glider doesn’t fall apart in mid air.
As we drove along, we watched the paragliders go back and forth and one actually came very close to the highway near where we were driving before turning back over the valley. The last paraglider I saw was actually flying back over a tunnel above the highway. Yikes.
We finally reached Gudauri where we would be spending the night. Unfortunately, the choice of hotels in Gudauri is pretty slim so my hotel for the night is pretty spartan. However, the bed is comfortable and that is really what counts. Tomorrow we head west out of the mountains to Borjomi and what we understand will be rather hot weather. Yay!