Some of Georgia’s top attractions are found between Tbilisi and Kazbegi. Here’s how to see all of them in one day.
Among must-visit places in the country you have:
– Mtskheta Cathedral and Jvari Monastery, UNESCO sites nearby Tbilisi
– Ananuri fortress, the Gudauri viewpoint and Gergeti church in Kazbegi (also UNESCO site), all on the same road to the north
Usually it takes two days to visit them, both by public transport (marshrutky) which force you to go back to Tbilisi and by cheap tours which take one day for Kazbegi and a half a day for Mishketa-Jvari (about 100 lari / 33 € for the two tours).
How to do it with only one day available?
I was lucky enough to find by chance on Couchsurfing a “almost independent” tour organized by Bella, a girl from Kazbegi, who offered as a bonus a dinner at her mother’s house. It costed only 50 lari + 20 for the dinner (23€ total) and was the perfect solution.
Here is the description of the day:
Departing from Tbilisi at 8.00 am on a Tuesday in August, 7 of us got on a van with a Georgian driver, who spoke only Russian (but luckily one of us could translate).
First stop was in Mtshketa – the Georgian spiritual center since the 4th century – to visit the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a UNESCO site. At nine o’clock there was hardly anyone. Apart from us in the church there were only 3-4 people. However, in a tiny chapel on the left a mass was being held with two dozens women chanting, really impressive.
From the church and everywhere around you can see the Jvari monastery on the peak of the mountain. The tour did not originally include it but we convinced the driver to take us up there. It was already packed with tourists. The view over Mtskheta and the river is really beautiful and the monastery, built in the sixth century and highly worshipped by the Orthodox, has a large the cross in memory of the conversion of Saint Nino.
After a stop for a quick look to the Jinvali reservoir (not very exciting), we stopped for the Ananuri fortress. The parking lot was full of minivans and several stands were selling stuff for tourists, like some funny wool hats. There is guy that for just 5 lari (1,50€) will allow you to take a full set of pictures with wool waistcoat and hat, saber and spear, while sitting on horseback. The fortress is interesting, you can climb almost everywhere: best photos of the church are taken from the top of the tower (warning: few security measures, climb carefully).
On the road to Gudauri we also stopped in some little-visited spots. In the point where the white and black Aragvi rivers converge you see waters that do not mix. For those with spare time it is possible to go rafting on the river. On a curve you find an amazing view of a village (Zemo Mleta) under a mountain while a frightening statue is watching at you. With a classic tour and definetly going by mashrutka we would not have stopped there.
About 10 km before Gudauri the road gets winding and you start feel the pressure from the trucks (mostly Belorussian). I advise you not to rent a car to get there (actually you should avoid driving in Georgia, trust me). On the other hand, on the way there are colorful stands selling local honey.
Gudauri – the most important ski resort in the country – consists in dozens of hudge resorts and its main attraction is the viewpoint with the monument to the Georgia-Russia friendship, built in the 80s (but the two countries aren’t as friends today).
The monument has beautiful murals and a breathtaking view. If you look for adventure you might go paragliding and on a horse or quad tour.
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Shortly after Gudauri the road meets an impressive rock coverd by the mineral water flowing from springs. Again with a marshrutka or a bigger tour you would miss it.
At about 3.30 pm we arrived in Kazbegi (Stephantsminda in Georgian) in the suburb of Gergeti from where you start climbing to the church of the Holy Trinity which is located on the peak of the mountain.
There are three routes to get on top by foot (lazy ones can rent a 4WD car for $20). On the way up we took the longest trek (turning right at the fountain), which climbs more gently (but still climbs a lot!), crosses a wood and gets you to the most beautiful side of the church (see below) but beware right now they are building a road and some pieces are invaded by trucks.
On the way back we took the shortest one which passes next to a tower. It took us two hours to go up and down plus a little more time for the visit.
Through the long trek you arrive to the most beautiful and photogenic side of the church. The church interior is no different from other Georgian churches, the best thing is certainly the landscape around.
At 6 pm we were at Bella’s house (but we never met her!), So we started our “typical Georgian dinner” home made by her mum. The menu included: cheese, pickles with peppers, a pkhali with beetroot and herbs (my favorite thing of the meal), a spicy mushroom sauce and even some pasta(!). Followed by the national dish: katchapuri, a kind of cheese-filled bread, which in the local version has potatoes and khinkali, large dumplings stuffed with meat (NB soon a post on Georgian food!).
With our belly full, we left at about 19.30 and arrived in Tbilisi at 22.15.
A wonderful day. We spent the right time in each place and made the most of the time available. If you have little time, think about contacting Bella to join a tour.