Here we are now, finally high up in the Caucasus. These are serious mountains so a great place to celebrate my 63rd birthday and our 31st anniversary. Well, not quite perfect.
Mark, you see, was sick. Presumably something he ate during our stay in Sighnagi, probably the lunch in Telavi. Which doesn’t exactly make sense, as this region is the kind of place where you share dishes and I ate everything he did. However it happened, he was sick as a dog on the nearly five-hour drive up here, sick on my birthday, and sick on our anniversary. Not exactly ideal.
Still, it was a memorable and genuinely beautiful stop. There were three highlights from my perspective: Mt. Kazbek, the Gergeti Trinity Church high above the town, and a wonderful hotel.
First, though, a word about the name. Technically the town is called Stepantsminda, or St. Stephan’s, named for a monk who founded a hermitage here long, long ago. Starting in the early 19th century though the town started to be known as Kazbegi, the surname of the local lord who was loyal to the encroaching Russians. The Soviets formally changed the name of the town to Kazbegi in 1925, but then the Georgians formally changed it back to Stepantsminda in 2006. Notwithstanding that change to its historic roots, pretty much everyone, tourist and local alike, refers to it as Kazbegi. So that’s what we’re going with here.
Now, back to the highlights. You really come to Kazbegi for one thing, to enjoy the mountains, and that we did. And to enjoy them properly, there is only one hotel to stay in, the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi. The hotel is an old Soviet-era tourist hotel so in theory you shouldn’t expect much; they weren’t exactly known for style and class. The owners, though, did a fabulous job creating this chic, happening, buzzy space that you can’t help but fall in love with. The lobby is massive, but rather than just being a big open space there are innumerable little spaces for sitting, relaxing, reading, chatting, eating, drinking … whatever. And those spaces are always occupied. Best of all, though, is the enormous outdoor terrace, chock full of couches and chairs, with stunning views of Mt. Kazbek. You can spend hours out there, again reading, chatting, drinking wine or whatever, with these great mountain views. And if it’s a little too chilly, particularly when the sun starts going down, they bring you blankets to wrap around yourself so you can enjoy it as long as possible.
The rooms are as small as you would expect a Soviet tourist hotel to be, but who wants to spend time in the room when you have all those mountains to explore?
And what about those mountains? From the hotel you look across the Terek River valley to Mount Kazbek which, at nearly 16,600 feet, is one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus. To put that in perspective, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. is Mount Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada at 14,500 feet so, yeah, Mount Kazbek is high. Important in history, too, since according to legend it was here on Mount Kazbek that Prometheus was chained to a rock as punishment for stealing fire from the Greek gods and giving it to humans; every day an eagle would come to eat his liver and every night it would grow back. Quite an unpleasant way to spend the ages but it worked out pretty well for the humans who finally had fire.
Beyond providing a gorgeous backdrop for the Rooms Hotel terrace, there is some great hiking to be had here too. The main hike is to walk down to the valley floor at about 5,700 feet and then up to Gergeti Trinity Church at 7,100 feet. A pretty good hike, steep but not impossible. There is nothing particularly impressive about the church itself, but its isolated location with Mount Kazbek in the background makes for a stunning picture – it has become one of the key symbols of Georgia – while the view from the church once you get up there is worth the trip. (It’s worth noting that for the lame you can drive up to the church, too, but who would do that?)
Then, if you’re really ambitious, the trail keeps going on and on an on, up into the mountains, closer and closer to Mount Kazbek itself. So that’s what I did. Alone, sadly, as Mark was still recovering, but it was still a stunning hike. Apparently the trail continues up into a glacier on the side of Kazbek but I didn’t make it that far. I hiked for a few hours, including a delightful lunch break to finish reading a history of the Caucasus I’d been working on, finally turning around when I’d reached 9,300 feet, Way, way above the valley where I’d started. And then was reminded, of course, that the descent can be almost as brutal on your legs as the climb. By the time I got back to our hotel I was beat.
One fun story about the descent. I was coming down a long, gradual slope and saw way in front of me what appeared to be two people, one on his or her knees. As I approached it became clear it was indeed two people but now they were both standing, hugging. And then I realized that he must have just proposed to her. As I got closer they turned toward me, a cute young couple both just grinning from ear to ear. Without asking I congratulated them, offered to take their picture, and then left them to their joy. So sweet!
And that was Kazbegi. The next day I was a bit of a wreck – my Apple Watch said I’d climbed the equivalent of 305 flights of stairs, so I can be excused – and spent the day lounging in the comfy lobby chairs and then sitting out on the sunny terrace. Mark tried to tackle the climb to the church but was still weak from his stomach issues so he didn’t quite make it. All in all, though, Kazbegi/Stepantsminda fully lived up to the hype we’d read about. I can’t be too confident I’ll ever get back, but it was one of those great places to see at least once.