Georgia is a compact country so doing day trips from Tbilisi is a must. The two most popular trips are to the Kazbegi mountain region in the north and to the Kakheti wine region in the west. History enthusiasts head to Gori, Joseph Stalin’s home town. Here I’ll look at my own experience of Kazbegi, Kakheti and Gori plus offer suggestions for other day trips.
For information on Georgia’s capital, check out my guide on What to do in Tbilisi. My trip to Georgia was undertaken in the month of October. The weather was approximately 20°C.
Firstly, let’s get the terminology correct. Kazbegi is a town, now known as Stepantsminda, and is located a couple of miles south of the Russian border in the Greater Caucasus mountain range. To reach Stepantsminda travellers will have to use the historic and spectacular Georgian Military Highway which was easily the highlight of my trip to Georgia.
At the time of my visit, the only land border between Georgia and Russia was located in the Darial Gorge of Kazbegi National Park.
The first stop on any tour of the Georgian Military Highway is Ananuri Fortress which overlooks the Zhinvali Reservoir. A number of food and souvenir stalls are based here but I found the prices at least double that of Tbilisi.
Moving northwards, the road gets significantly steeper and the scenery utterly spectacular as one passes through small villages. After the ski resort of Gudauri the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument becomes visible. Built in 1983 to commemorate the Treaty of Georgievsk, the inside walls of this semi-circular concrete construct are covered in murals of Georgian and Russian figures. The immediate vicinity is a popular departure point for paragliding tours.
The stunning Jvari Pass is the next point of interest and is where mineral springs drip down the side of the mountain leaving an orange hue on the rocks. The altitude of the pass is 2,379m. Prone to avalanches in winter, the authorities built tunnels on the side of the regular road to assist with traffic flow during inclement weather.
Soon after the Jvari Pass the River Terek becomes visible, a river which flows into Russia and eventually to the Caspian Sea. A couple of miles later and Stepantsminda comes into view. Stepantsminda is popular with hikers and mountain-climbers and is a town well-equipped for international tourism.
The most famous hike from Stepantsminda is to the Holy Trinity Church of Gergeti although it’s possible to reach the church via a local 4X4 on what I consider the most challenging terrain I’ve ever travelled over in a vehicle. The good news is that there is a tarmac road being constructed but until then one has to have faith in the local drivers.
A day tour with a local company is the best way of travelling the Georgian Military Highway for one very important reason: safety. The road is very busy with trucks carrying produce to Russia from Georgia’s neighbouring countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and further-afield Iran. It’s not so much the trucks that are a danger but the vehicles overtaking them on this narrow, winding, mountainous road.
I travelled with City Sightseeing Tbilisi as they were the only company I found who could offer day trips to solo travellers. The tour was conducted in English and Russian.
A couple of miles west of the Georgian Military Highway is the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia which, at the time of my visit, was not permitting foreigners to enter. My own government advised not to visit.
KAKHETI WINE REGION
I also did the Kakheti wine region tour with City Sightseeing Tbilisi who give a discount if two tours are booked. The roads in the Kakheti region would be much more manageable to drive a rental car on than the Georgian Military Highway.
The first stop was the Vineria Kakheti in the village of Tokhliauri where I found myself drinking the local Georgian vine vodka, Chacha, at the ungodly hour of 10.45am. Chacha is made from the double-fermented pomace of grapes leftover from wine-making. Chacha is strong at any time of the day.
Next up was wine tasting where I got my first introduction to the astonishingly good end products of the Saperavi grape, the taste of which can vary depending on the micro-zone it is grown in. I cannot remember the white wine grape variety we tasted. My excuse? I didn’t bring my notebook.
Georgian wine-making dates back thousands of years and involves crushing the grapes by foot and pouring both juice and remaining products into a Qvevri to ferment for a number of months. A Qvevri is an earthenware pot buried in the ground. No additives are added to this traditional method.
The winery was followed by a brief stop to observe traditional bread-making in a tone, a cylindrical earthenware kiln heated to a high temperature. The dough is stuck to the inside wall of the kiln and left to bake for a couple of minutes. Our demonstrator picked the bread off the wall using a steel hook.
The remainder of the day was spent visiting the Niko Pirosmanashvili State Museum in Mirzaani, the Monastery of St. Nino who converted Georgians to Christianity, and to the charming town of Sighnaghi.
Whilst tour companies offer trips to Gori, I made my way to Stalin’s birthplace independently using the local minibuses which are called Marshrutkas. These minibuses don’t run to schedule and only leave when full. The Gori Marshrutkas leave from Didube station in Tbilisi and the hour-long journey cost me 3 lari. Gori is also served by train from Tbilisi.
The Marshrutka passes the Stalin Museum and drives along Stalin Avenue on its way to Gori’s bus station so trace the bus’s journey back along the road.
Joseph Stalin, born Iosif Dzhugashvili in 1878, was leader of the USSR from 1924 to his death in 1953. The museum charts Stalin’s earlier revolutionary activities and celebrates his achievements but nowhere did I see any display of Stalin’s unsavoury legacy: repression, terror, and forced displacement of entire peoples.
The museum building itself is beautiful and the complex includes the train carriage which carried Stalin to Yalta in 1945 to meet Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Those looking for an insight into Stalin’s pre-Soviet years will find this museum of immense benefit but those of you looking for an impartial and honest appraisal of Stalin’s Soviet leadership will be disappointed.
OTHER DAY TRIPS FROM TBILISI
Whilst I didn’t visit Mtskheta, Uplistsikhe Caves and Davit Gareja, they came recommended by other tourists as good day trips from Tbilisi.
Mtskheta is Georgia’s ancient capital and the burial site of a number of Georgian monarchs. Uplistsikhe is a complex of cave networks a couple of miles east of Gori and dating back to pre-Christian times. Davit Gareja is a monastery complex originally dating back to the 6th Century.
The number of day trip options from Tbilisi demonstrates how good a base the capital city is for exploring Georgia.