Visiting Georgia’s north was the highlight of our visit to the country. I didn’t know this before coming here, but the highest mountains on the Georgia/Russia border (the Great Caucasus Mountains) are higher than any mountain in Western Europe. The highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc at 4,810 meters – there are 6 mountains in the Great Caucasus Mountains that are higher than Mont Blanc*.
* When Googling the Highest Mountains in Europe I came across this site. It says that 8 of the 10 highest mountains in Europe are in the Great Caucasus Mountains. That’s disputable because the Great Caucasus mountains are not considered by most people to be in Europe (I wrote about that here). But it just gives you an idea of the stature of the mountains in this range.
Historically the mountains are relevant because they formed a natural barrier between Russia and what was then a region divided between the Ottoman and the Persian Empires. I know people get bored by history but I touched on history on my 1st Tbilisi post.
This was our 2nd day with Arara Tours and the itinerary called for an excursion along the Georgian Military Highway culminating in Stepantsminda (also known as Kazbegi), a resort town 20 km from the Russian border. There were some incredible sights and scenery on the way which you’ll see in this post.
Zhinvali Reservoir and Ananuri Fortress
Slightly over an hour north of Tbilisi you arrive at the Zhinvali Reservoir. It is one of Georgia’s largest water reservoirs and home to a large hydroelectric dam. It’s also beautiful, a mix of turquoise water and green hills.
5 minutes away is Ananuri Fortress. Built in the 13th century, it is a fortress with 2 churches and a defensive tower. The Fortress used to be the seat of the (dukes) of Aragvi and overlooked a village that lay beneath the fortress (ruins of which are submerged under the waters of the reservoir). In the 1700’s the fortress was invaded by a rival duchy and the Aragvi clan was massacred. Funny enough, 4 years later the townspeople revolted against their new rulers and killed them all. The fortress remained in use until the beginning of the 19th century.
It’s an impressive fortress but it is the reservoir in the background that makes it such a stunning tourist highlight. It’s one of Georgia’s most touristed sites. If you’re climbing the tower be very careful as there are no handrails or security of any kind. Tip: the best views are not at the top. They’re on the level below looking through the windows.
Georgian Military Road
The road continues north from the Ananuri Fortress. It is called the Georgian Military Highway although I wonder if it should be called the Russian Military highway. The highway was built starting in 1799 by the Russians and resulted in Russian influence across the mountains, eventually allowing them to take over the region from the Ottomans and Persians.
The road leads from Vladikavkaz in Russian to Tbilisi, a 212 km road that reaches a maximum altitude of 2,379 meters (7,815 feet) at the Jvari Pass, located close to the Georgia -Russian friendship monument (which I’ll cover soon). The road is known as one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world.
Georgia – Russia Friendship Monument
This monument, built off one of the most scenic spots on the Georgian Military Highway, is about an hour from the Ananuri Fortress. By then you have left the hills behind and are in the Great Caucasus Mountains. The monument was built in 1983 to celebrate the Treaty of Georgievsk (the 1783 treaty that made Georgia a protectorate of Russia). The monument has beautiful tilework – half of it depicting Georgian history (the left side), the other side (right side) depicting Russian history.
Continuing north half an hour, we arrived in Stepantsminda (also known as Kazbegi), a resort town in the shadows of the mountains. Close by is Mount Kazbek. At 5,033m it is the 5th highest mountains in the Great Caucasus Mountains. Just behind the town is Mount Shani (4,451m high). In Georgia’s far north, Stepantsminda is about 20 km from the Russian border.
Here the tour stopped for lunch at the beautiful Rooms Hotel Kazbegi. It’s a beautiful hotel with rooms starting in the 150 USD range. But it is phenomenal in every respect and if you want a romantic stay I would recommend it as a place to spend a weekend. I mentioned in the last post that the two favorite activities of our tour group were eating and going to the bathroom. We had a 2 hour meal, drinking wine and enjoy the huge terrace of the hotel.
Gergeti Trinity Church
This church is the highlight in the Stepantsminda area. It requires a 15 minute drive up a mountain, requiring a car or van with a strong motor (our guide Sisi had arranged for a jeep).
Gergeti Trinity Church was built in the 14th century. It is regarded as one of the world most beautiful churches because of its incredible location. It has always been a highly regarded and whenever Georgia was in danger important religious relics would be brought to this church for safekeeping.
Gergeti Trinity Church would have been the last activity of the day but one of the members of the group decided that he wanted to paraglide (the place to do it is right by the Georgia – Russia Friendship Monument). It gave us all one more opportunity to enjoy the mountain views. We then drove the approximately 2 ½ hours back to Tbilisi.
Summarizing our Day
It was a very long day, starting at 9 am from Tbilisi and returning at 8 pm. As I say up top, it was a phenomenal day with spectacular views. It was the highlight of our month-long stay in Georgia. I would recommend to anyone coming to this country that the itinerary I’ve spelled out above is a must-do activity.
The above tour was Day 7 of Arara Tours 8 day Armenia & Georgia Classical Tour Package. Look out for my next post of this tour where we visited the wine growing region in Eastern Georgia.
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