There’s lots of famous scenery to be seen around the world and up there with the best must be Scotland, the Rocky Mountains, Santorini etc, but why is the North Caucasus of Georgia never mentioned? I took an early morning tour out of Tbilisi and headed north through the usual car sales strips, the out of town Malls until the countryside began with a rather charming banner across the road announcing ‘Happy Journey.’ There were more churches on crags to be seen and after an hour or so we began to climb, climb I should add out of the 110 degree (43C) heat of the plains into the cooler mountain air. First stop was at Ananuri, a village beside a reservoir featuring a castle containing two churches dating back three or four hundred years. But what a lovely name, Ananuri, almost as charming as the name of the local currency, the Lari with a trill on the R. It was crowded in the parking lot and the power was out so no tea and off up the Georgian Military Highway we went, headed for Russia.
Up and up, above the clouds where the hang gliders soar; it was all very, um, photogenic. We passed through Alpine like villages set about with chalets and condos, the occasional ski lift, obviously winter sports are big business in the winter. To the top of the pass at 2,400 meters (8,000 ft) and down into the pretty town of Kazbegi strangely renamed Stepantsminda, but nobody calls it that. There was an odd hint of India as we drove into town, cows in the road, wandering cows, cows sleeping all over. I asked but all I got was shrug. It is clearly a centre for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts but what struck me most were the trucks pouring through to and from Russia. The wait to clear customs at the border was obviously lengthy and there were trucks parked beside the road for miles and miles, waiting. I saw British trucks, Spanish, French, Italian; it was quite extraordinary, think of the mileage. The most famous ‘church on a crag’ in Georgia is just outside Kazbegi and at 2200m or over 7,000 feet you have to wonder, how did they build it all up there.
The next tour that the amiable Sofia and Khatia arranged for me was to the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, it’s got a ch in it somewhere, not too far out of Tbilisi and features, yes, and you’ve guessed it, “a church on a crag.” Sorry about all the churches but as Georgia was the first country to adopt Christianity they do feature rather largely in any description. The cragged one, Jvari, is reputed to be the first Georgian church and stands high over the plain with fabulous views over the old city and the confluence of a couple of rivers. I managed to squeeze my visit in between the coach loads and my guide did what he did at all the churches we visited, went off and lit candles. Fine with me. Down the mountain to the old city where it was incredibly hot and there were many pauses for water. There is a cathedral in Mtskheta, a huge affair containing within its interior two more churches, I don’t think I have seen that before. Interesting though to think this has been a Christian center since 327.
I had an enquiry about the political situation in the Caucuses and replied that it is complicated. For a start when I was in Batumi I befriended a large holidaying family from Baku the grandmother of which was an English teacher. Lots of friendly chats with grandmother translating for all the different ages, wine flowed and food shared until she asked me where I was going next. Armenia I replied upon which she burst into tears “You must not go, they are killing our people.” No arguing with that so I didn’t go to Armenia. Its all about Nagorno-Karaback which is either Armenian or Azeri and there is an ongoing war to determine which. I didn’t judge it expedient to try and learn more from the grandmother. As far as I can determine it was Azeri and is now Armenian. One of the results of this is that there is a tiny area of old Azerbaijan isolated in Armenia and hard up against the Iranian border called Naxcivan with no way in or out except by plane. Images of the Berlin Airlift of the late 40s spring to mind and I simply cannot figure out how it manages to exist, but its there and it exists. The Azeri authorities are very sensitive about this and if you have an Armenian stamp in your passport they wont let you into Azerbaijan. At the border from Georgia the Azeri the guards went through my bag looking for Armenian products, I had none.
Then of course there are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were at one time part of Georgia but are now under the control of Russia. There are terrible stories about these two breakaway regions and the 1991 wars were particularly brutal. The UK Foreign Office and US State Department do not recommend travel to either and I wasn’t going to challenge their recommendations but I did glimpse South Ossetia from the train outside Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.
I’m a big fan of Georgia now and wholeheartedly endorse it as a worthwhile destination for its food, wine and fabulous scenery. Of course you could do worse than staying at the Penthouse Hotel on Metekhi street and do say hi to Sofia and Khatia from me.
Tbilisi Old Town by day.
They have the best balconies in Tbilisi.
These are the famous sulfur baths.
North Caucasus Mountains.
Trucks lining up to enter Russia.
The Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi.
Jvari Church, Mtskheta.
Here is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.
Church on crag plus man on horse.
I like the view from the river.