One of the most iconic images from the country of Georgia features the Gergeti Trinity Church dwarfed by immense mountains. This 14th-century church is crowned with cone-shaped towers and is located in the heart of the Caucasus. It’s just a few kilometers from the Russian border.
Shortly before the pandemic started, Shawn and I spent four months in Georgia. Our longtime friends were living in the capital city of Tbilisi, so it was an easy decision to base ourselves there so we could maximize our time together. Being in Georgia’s capital city, Shawn and I also got to enjoy a variety of experiences.
One night, our friends joined us at Tbilisi’s elegant opera house to see Abesalom and Eteri. This opera is one of Georgia’s most beloved performances. (Incredibly, the tickets started at a very reasonable USD $3).
Shawn and I also served as volunteer ambassadors with two up-and-coming cooking class hosts, Dinara and Mzia. The ladies welcomed us into their homes and taught us how to make colorful and flavorful Georgian dishes such as pkhali, khachapuri, and lobio.
During the grape harvest, we took a day trip to the Georgian wine region of Kakheti and sampled amber wine from a qvevri, an egg-shaped, terracotta vessel.
Another day, we got our annual dental cleanings with a competent and pleasant dentist. Her knowledge and equipment were current. However, her clinic’s dusty rose and seafoam-green décor made us feel like we’d traveled back to when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.
We also hiked to the Gergeti Trinity Church on a warm autumn day. We ended up timing this excursion well, as snow would blanket the Caucasus just a few days after our hike.
A Hair-Raising Trip from Tbilisi to Kazbegi
The Gergeti Trinity Church is located near the town of Kazbegi. (If you’re feeling more linguistically intrepid, the church is actually called Tsminda Sameba or წმინდა სამება in Georgian.) To confuse matters further, Kazbegi is also known as Stepantsminda.
We didn’t find the two-hour uphill hike to the church to be demanding. However, the three-hour ride from Tbilisi to Kazbegi was grueling! We rode in a marshrutka, a type of minivan that’s common in Georgia and often overflowing with passengers.
But it wasn’t the close quarters that proved to be stressful. Instead, it was our driver’s penchant for race-car-like driving. He regularly overtook vehicles. Sometimes, it felt like there was just an arm’s length between our marshrutka and the oncoming traffic (usually a truck!) coming towards us. Other motorists responded by honking their horns or by flashing less-than-friendly hand gestures.
The scenery along the Georgian Military Highway was superb. Everywhere we turned, craggy mountains surrounded us. We also spotted flocks of fleecy sheep, centuries-old fortifications, and colorful yurts. But, I couldn’t fully appreciate the scenery when it felt like our marshrutka was going to careen off the curvy road.
About half-way to Kazbegi, we stopped for a quick break at a rest stop that hugged the edge of a mountain slope. Vendors stood guard by tables filled with hand-knitted hats and mittens, jars of honey, and vibrant churchkela. This sweet snack is candle-shaped and playfully dubbed “Georgian Snickers.” However, while churchkela and Snickers both have nuts, grape must (crushed grape skins and juice) usually takes the place of chocolate in the churchkela recipe.
Our driver took this break from his race-car driving to prop open the hood of the marshrutka and perform some sort of operation on the engine. His equipment — a paper cup and knife — didn’t do much to assure me that the next leg of our trip would keep us out of harm’s way.
I didn’t see any to-go bottles of chacha being marketed at the rest stop. However, perhaps enterprising merchants might consider selling this notoriously strong Georgian brandy to help ease the nerves of marshrutka passengers being whisked along the Georgian Military Highway.
Hiking to the Gergeti Trinity Church
When our marshrutka coasted into Kazbegi in one piece, Shawn and I wanted to kiss the ground to show our gratitude for making it there safely. It was midday, and since there wasn’t much daylight to spare, we scurried off to our guesthouse. We changed into our hiking clothes, grabbed the picnic lunch we’d brought with us from Tbilisi, and started the journey up to the church.
After the white-knuckle ride from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, the walk was just what I needed to relax. We left Kazbegi and were soon in the neighboring village of Gergeti. The trailhead for the climb to Gergeti Trinity Church greeted us on the outskirts of Gergeti.
Once we’d gained some elevation, we found ourselves near a crumbling stone watchtower. Off in the distance, we also spotted a shepherd and his flock. Occasionally, a bird of prey gracefully soared overhead. After being in Tbilisi — a city of more than one million people and seemingly even more cars — it was refreshing to be able to breathe in cool mountain air.
Eventually, we could see the pinkish-grey stone walls of the Gergeti Trinity Church not too high above us. This glimpse gave us the extra little nudge we needed to finish the last leg of the climb.
We didn’t spend much time inside the mystical, smoke-stained church. As I peered into the simple interior, adorned with icons and frescoes, I pondered how many thousands of candles pilgrims had lit inside over the centuries.
Leaving the crowd of tourists behind, Shawn and I found a quiet spot on the steep grassy slopes nearby and unpacked our picnic fare. Unbeknownst to us at the time, legendary Mount Kazbek was completely covered by an opaque veil of clouds. Even though we were missing the famous mountain, we still thought the scenery was pretty extraordinary.
Majestic Mount Kazbek
The next morning, as I stood on the balcony of our guesthouse and prepared myself for the ride back to Tbilisi, I let out an audible gasp as I saw Mount Kazbek for the first time. Snow-capped, with a bell-curve-like silhouette, the mountain towered over the Gergeti Trinity Church.
We felt fortunate that Mother Nature had lifted the cloud cover from the day before so we could savor the scene of the tiny church and the mighty mountain.
Where in the World?
The Gergeti Trinity Church (also called Tsminda Sameba) is located near the town of Kazbegi (also called Stepantsminda). Tbilisi is about 145 km (90 miles) from Kazbegi / Stepantsminda.
Numerous tourism operators offer day trips from Tbilisi to Kazbegi. We were worried we’d be too rushed if we attempted this drive — and the hike — in one day. As a result, we decided to do the trip independently. We spent one night in Kazbegi.
We left Tbilisi around 08:00 on a Friday morning and took a marshrutka to Kazbegi. We arrived in Kazbegi around noon, dropped our stuff off at the guesthouse, and then hiked up to the church that same day. We were able to get back down to Kazbegi before dark, have dinner, and then warm up in our guesthouse. We left Kazbegi early the next morning and were back in Tbilisi by the afternoon.
How to get from Tbilisi to Kazbegi:
To get from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, we took a marshrutka — a minivan shuttle that makes a given trip on a regular basis. The driver didn’t depart until the marshrutka was completely stuffed with passengers. In other words, it didn’t leave at a set time.
A one-way ticket from Tbilisi to Kazbegi cost 10 Lari per adult.
Our trip took just over 3 hours.
Marshrutkas heading to Kazbegi depart from the Didube Bus Station. Since we spoke only a few words in Georgian, we had a challenging time finding our way at this lively and crowded bus station. The destination signs placed in the windshields of the marshrutkas were mostly in Georgian.
Private taxi drivers approached us — sometimes rather aggressively — trying to get us to hire their more costly private taxis instead. One taxi driver even followed us around Didube Station as we tried to find the Tbilisi-Kazbegi marshrutka. The marshrutka was a fraction of the price that the private taxi driver was quoting.
Eventually, some helpful locals pointed us in the direction of the proper marshrutka. Even once we found the correct marshrutka, the aggressive taxi driver still shadowed us. He got into a heated discussion with the marshrutka driver. Fortunately, the marshrutka driver was straightforward with his pricing.
There were about 7 other passengers in our marshrutka. Some travelers were Georgian, others were international visitors like us. There were seat belts.
The scenery on the Georgian Military Highway was extraordinary. But I won’t sugar-coat the journey and make it sound like it was a tranquil one. In fact, it was occasionally frightening! The driver overtook vehicles at breakneck speeds — even around tight mountain passes with no visibility. At times, his driving angered other drivers that he overtook too closely. They responded by honking.
We had one break at a small rest-stop. It had a toilet (it’s a pay-to-pee-pee, so make sure you have spare Lari with you. It cost 1 Lari per person when we were there.) Outside, the rest stop was filled with stands selling refreshments, treats like churchkela, jars of honey, and homemade souvenirs such as wool socks.
When we arrived in Kazbegi, we had to muscle our way off the marshrutka. That’s because people were already waiting in line to get a seat for the trip back to Tbilisi. There were clearly too many passengers and not enough seats.
How to get from Kazbegi to Tbilisi:
Seeing how limited spots were on the Kazbegi-Tbilisi marshrutka the day before, we thought it was a good idea to arrive at Kazbegi’s marshrutka stop / taxi stand early the next morning. We got there at about 08:30. By this time, the marshrutka was already filling up. Our original plan was to take this marshrutka back to Tbilisi. However, the marshrutka didn’t have any seat belts and it already looked crowded.
We made the spontaneous decision to take a shared taxi back to Tbilisi, as opposed to a marshrutka.
The shared taxi had seat belts. It was also less crowded than the marshrutka. In total, there were only five of us in the vehicle, including the driver.
We split the fare with two other travelers. The ride cost 25 Lari per person.
Using Google Translate beforehand, we asked the driver to please drive slowly. We also asked if the ride could include a short stop at the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument. He obliged. We were happy we spent a bit extra for this type of transport as the ride was much more relaxing than the day before.
Hiking to the Kazbegi Church:
Elevation: About 2,170 meters (about 7,119 feet).
Hiking: There are at least two well-traveled paths leading to the Gergeti Trinity Church.
We took the more gradual path, which paralleled a stream. The hike from the town of Kazbegi to the church took us 1.5 to 2 hours. We made numerous stops to admire the scenery and to take pictures. If you go straight up, you’ll probably be able to do the climb more quickly.
The trail was rocky in some spots. Parts of the trail were signed with painted markers (red and white painted rectangles).
We did the hike in mid-September. We’re glad we didn’t wait a few more weeks to do so, since it got pretty chilly that night. Days later, I saw that it had snowed in Kazbegi.
See this blog post for detailed instructions about the various paths.
Parking: When we hiked to the church, we noticed a small paved parking lot. It was full of mostly 4×4 tour vehicles. I’m not sure if individual drivers can park there or not.
Unfortunately, we also saw some vehicles off-roading to create their own parking in the meadow. The ground was moist, which resulted in spinning tires and a marred landscape.
When we visited in late 2019, there was no fee to enter the Kazbegi Church.
There is a dress code for entering the church. Men must wear long pants. Women must wear a dress or skirt. Near the entranceway, there are baskets full of sarongs. You can borrow one and tie it over your shorts or pants.
What to bring for the hike:
We didn’t have our trekking poles with us. However, they would’ve made the hike a bit easier — especially in spots where the path got rocky.
For our mid-September hike, we were happy we packed:
- reusable bottles filled with a sufficient amount of drinking water
- snacks for a picnic
- sun protection, since we were at a higher elevation (sunglasses, sunscreen)
- sturdy shoes (we wore running/walking shoes)
- layered clothing, because the weather can change quickly
- a scarf (for covering my head while inside the church)
Accommodation in Kazbegi:
We spent one night at Soso Burduli’s Guesthouse. It was cozy, clean, and modern, and the owner was friendly. We were especially pleased that the heater worked well, since Kazbegi’s nighttime temperatures got to be quite chilly. Our room didn’t have special views. However, the back of the guesthouse (west-facing, I believe) looked directly onto Mt. Kazbek and the Gergeti Trinity Church. Pretty magnificent!
Another advantage of the hotel was its proximity to Kazbegi’s bus stop / taxi stand as well as its town center. It only took 2-3 minutes to get there on foot.
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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.