Hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church for the Unfit
No trip to Georgia would be complete without seeing the Caucasus Mountain Range. The easiest mountain trip is three hours up the Georgian Military Road which runs from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda. We had two weeks for Armenia and Georgia, were travelling independently, and had wine tasting, mountains, monasteries and architecture on our Georgia wish list, so where to go?
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Mountain Destinations in Georgia
Other popular “mountain destinations” are harder-to-access Svaneti and remote Tusheti. We unsuccessfully tried to book a flight to Mestia. Yes, we should have thought of that one earlier, and often they get cancelled, too, as they fly in tiny Czech commuter turboprops -called Let-410. And we were travelling in spring so many roads would still be closed. So Stepantsminda (also known as Kazbegi by its Russian name) it was.
How to get to Kazbegi
Kazbegi is very easy to access. Any travel agent in Tbilisi Old Town will sell you a trip there. But for a Metro ticket and the princely sum of 10GEL (about 3EURO), take yourself to Didube Bus Station and go by marshrutka, unless you get snatched by a shared taxi driver where you pay about double but might get some scenic photo stops along the way and perhaps even a stop halfway in Ananuri – especially if you find fellow travellers to share the taxi with.
The only disadvantage is that you cannot stop and take scenic pictures as you would in a taxi. The road there is in parts precarious and as you near Jvari Pass at 2379m, the highest point of the journey, a lot of the journey is in concrete tunnels, built to give some protection from avalanches.
Staying in Kazbegi
Once in Stepantsminda, orientation is easy. Most people stay in Stepantsminda village – some decent accommodations can be found by the bus stops, and more further up the slope, topped by the rather overpriced Rooms Hotel outside the village. Across a small river is Gergeti, offering some but altogether simpler accommodations.
Most accommodation in the village of Kazbegi which is very compact but anything away from the main road involves a steep-ish hike. We stayed at Anano Guesthouse. Apart from the slightly weird feeling seersucker bedlinen, this little place was perfect: a modern house with wooden floors, comfy mattresses, full working shower, a view, very close to the marshrutka stop. They offer a lovely home cooked breakfast, too.
Prepare for a short hike
You find plenty of supplies in Kazbegi all year long. We hiked up to the church in April, where the paths were mostly moist and muddy and near the church had some snow or ice.
It goes without saying that although the hike is relatively short and easy, you must pay attention to the weather conditions and prepare adequately. I wore my all-weather Goretex jacket which protects from wind, rain, and sun.
We totally underestimated the power of the spring sun and got slightly burned, so a sunscreen or enough clothes to cover every bit of your skin (which explains the babushka look in some of our pictures) are essential.
We took a couple bottles water and some snacks. There is a spring right by Gergeti Trinity Church where the water was safe to drink, so you only need to stock up on water for the ascent. Shoes-wise… we travel light so I only had hiking trainers with no ankle support with me. They were okay – what I missed most in the mud was a profile grippy enough, and I wish I’d brought my walking sticks – I love them but hardly any one used them on this route. The church is Orthodox, so long trousers are required for men, skirts covering the knees, covering bare arms and the head for women. Two pashminas should do a fine job, but you can borrow all these items by the church for free.
Gergeti Trinity Church Hike
Reasons to travel to Kazbegi are to enjoy the mountain scenery, and to visit the Gergeti Trinity Church. Or, Tsminda Sameba in Georgian. Of course, the ambitious will trek to the Gergeti Glacier and up Mount Kazbek. This could be a bit icy in spring. I’m no mountaineer, so let’s leave it here.
What pissed me off was that so many people were driving up to the church by 4×4 car. It might bolster local economy, but leaves the tracks up and on the high plateau a dirty slippery mud field. Of course, you may not be able to walk for several reasons, in which case your choices are limited, but why would you want to deny yourself this experience if you are fit to walk?
But can you walk up there and return safely when you are an inexperienced hiker, really unfit, and are dealing with a somewhat dodgy lower extremity? Would the path be terrible, the incline steep, and the slope slippery? I searched online and found everything from “this is an easy stroll” to “strenuous walk on some steep paths”.
We did a little probatory walk up to the Rooms Hotel in the slightly thin air (you will notice if you’re untrained), and admiring the church from afar, we decided to at least try to hike up.
There are quite a few paths: From the pretty disgusting 4×4 track to some steeper ones from Gergeti village, to the gentle one we took. Plenty of people prefer to go off-track and scramble up the rocky hill as soon as they see the church.
So, did I tell you we are very unfit? But not such potatoes to take a car up. We wanted thin, fresh Causasus air.
After a carb-laden but lovingly home-cooked breakfast, we walked breezily across the bridge to Gergeti Village, chatting and greeting wandering cows as we walked up the gentle incline into the village.
Once in the village just follow the main road until you get to a “T” junction – the road will turn right, and there is a small gravel road to the left. Turn left and soon you will leave the village – there is a cafe or two on the left, but when we went in April, it was shut.
Right in front of you, you will see the ruin of a tall round tower and various paths. Most will go steeply uphill and lead to the church (which you cannot see from here). Leave the tower to your right and follow a narrow path along a grassy valley. At first, it will even go down, but after a few hundred metres, it will start going up gently.
If you are really bad with heights, then you might not want to take this one either, because it hugs a steep slope. I am not really good with heights, and found it just okay, whereas my boyfriend kept shouting at me to move on, as we “will be dead” if we dare to slip on this path.
At first we were on our own, but then a family or two passed us. The path is quite clear and just goes alongside the mountain that the church is on – it will get steeper. At some point, you will see the church to your right or slightly behind you, which is when a lot of people abandon the path and scramble uphill.
Following the path, it will eventually gently turn on itself and lead onto a plateau, with the church about 500m ahead of you. Now I hated these 4x4s even more because there is no road up here so everyone just drives where they please, leaving the plateau a muddy field. We both travel light and didn’t bother with hiking boots but ear light walking trainers and were fine with the path until now but swore as we sled along the mud tracks.
The church is small, with a working monastery attached. It dates back to the 14th Century and has always been active, at times acting as a safeguard for precious relics from Mtshketa. It is small and atmospheric, but quite plain and homely – the walk here is more exciting than the destination. As so often in Georgia, women had to cover their heads and wear skirts, don’t worry about bringing them up in your backpack, you can just borrow them. The views towards Mount Kazbek are stupendous. You are at about 2200m and Stepantsminda is at 1700m so you only climb 500m. Proper mountain dwellers will laugh at this piffling little climb, but in the thin-ish air, it was plenty for me.
To walk back, we wanted a different route but did not fancy the steep slope straight ahead to Gergeti village below, so we took the 4×4 route. Big mistake! It is at least twice as long as the gentle walk route, still feels really steep and was even muddier and more slippery, thanks to some surprise icy bits under the mud. At least I got to taste the Caucasian mud, and looking like that, it greatly surprised me that some guys from Tbilisi stopped to offer us a ride into the village, but the locals hospitality appears to know no bounds.
You got to eat after your hike, right?
After our somewhat unusual adventure, we really deserved an all-out lunch.
We ate at Cafe Maria (no website) the day before – it looks like a truck stop cafe above a shop, right opposite the bus station, but here’s home cooking at its finest! I am not going to say one of the finest meals I had in Georgia, because Georgian food is generally really, really good, but certainly tastier than the Georgian food we ate at Rooms Hotel.
Another place I liked was Shorena’s Bar and Cafe. Like Maria, it did not look like much from the outside. The inside has a slightly tatty Alpine hut vibe, with a small menu of Georgian food done pretty well, with friendly service, and a relaxed, almost family-like vibe.
And the coollest place open was the Avtobus Cafe close to the bus stop – a local hangout, good coffee, some book sand magazines inviting you to stay as long as you want, and as comfy as you can be on old autobus seats.
And Rooms Hotel, the most famous place to stay and dine in Stepantsminda? Okay, the architecture is quite cool, seeing that they turned a Soviet recreation home into a clean-looking modernist hotel, and the cafe-terrace fronting the entire building is THE place to hang out in good weather and admire the view towards Mt Kazbek and Gergeti Trinity Church. Always in for a good lunch, we ate there. We started well with home made lemonade and cheesecake on the terrace, then moved indoors as the day went on and it got a bit colder. The indoor seating is very informal, with lots of benches and sofas taking advantage of the glass front and views. Despite the comfy sofas and good light it felt uncomfortable and deeply impersonal and lacked character. The food menu is a mix of European and Georgian classics, from excellent lemonade to somewhat uninspired salad and khachapuri. I’ll take the fancy lemonade any day again, but to pay about ten times as much as a perfect sweet guesthouse, it would need to bloody good to justify that kind of expense.
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We took a Marshrutka from Didube Station in Tbilisi to Kazbegi. We paid 10 GEL each for the journey of approximately 4 hours. Most time will be spent on switchback roads riding up the Caucasus mountains. If you are prone to travel sickness, I recommend you take some anti-sickness medication or acupressure band. A shared taxi, also from Didube, will cost about 20GEL. The town is very small, so most accommodation in Kazbegi can be reached by foot. At present, I do not know about an option to fly from Tbilisi.
We stayed at the Anano Guesthouse. It is conveniently located about 200m uphill from the Marshrutka stop. It is extremely clean, warm and welcoming, and they do great breakfast which, at 3EURo, is good value. We made this resevation on Booking.com, which was super convenient because I didn’t want to give credit card information on my mobile, and the booking options are flexible, and most importantly, the booking system works well. There are many other hotels and guesthouses in different price categories, from super simple to high-end.
We ate in several restaurants, of which Cafe Maria, Shorena’s Bar and Cafe and Cafe Avtobus were the ones we liked best. They are all located almost adjacent to the bus stop.
To prepare for this trip, I bought the Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan guidebook. The 2016 Edition is a rather slim volume and not always contained detailed info on public transport but the places we went to upon the LP recommendations were mostly reliable.
Even in April you will need a decent sun screen. I had bought these “light” Hanwag Beldorado II walking shoes but found them very heavy (but sturdy like nothing else). I wish I had gotten these Viking Impulse walking shoes instead – much lighter, also with a waterproof Gore-tex membrane and sturdy sole. I tried both, but in the end, the re-soleable more sustainable Hanwag shoe won, but I didn’t break them in sufficiently and therefore fell back on my old walking trainers! Which were fine on the trail up to Gergeti Trinity Church but not so good down so I recommend a shoe with a decent profile sole.
Other than that, a waterproof jacket for showers, sun hat, water bottle, a few layers and comfy socks will do! I have a few Icebreaker merino baselayers but I also tend to wear my ragged merino John Smedley knitwear that is no longer good for leaving the house in… and some ancient walking pants but in April there were plenty people in shorts, too! Just bear in mind weather can change quickly up here! For rainy surprises, I usually wear my very fetching orange Berghaus Goretex Jacket. I bought mine in a sale in 2007 and I have walked, hiked, sailed, and cycled in it, in addition to wearing it many rainy days while living in Northern England. It is becoming a little rubbed around the cuffs which is nothing for the amount of wear it had, but has not let a drop of water through yet. They also give a lifetime guarantee. They are now a subsidiary of a larger sportswear company and the last thing I bought, a small day pack, hasn’t seen heavy use, so I am uncertain on whether to recommend them, but if their quality is anything like 11 years ago, then definitely yes!
Last not least: You can buy snacks and drinks in one of Kazbegi’s numerous minimarkets which are open all year. We also spotted several (closed) hiking shops which probably open up again in the summer.