Tsminda Sameba, Kazbegi, Georgia
Perhaps the most dramatic site in the Caucasus is the hallowed Tsminda Sameba church sitting atop a hill with the 5000m high Mt Kazbegi on one side and the massif of the Great Caucasus mountains on the other.  Behind the massif that you see here is the wartorn Russian caucasian republic of Chechnya.  Despite its majestic position in the heart of the Greater Caucasus chain and at the gateway to Russia, the village of Kazbegi is within an easy 3 hour drive of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.


Gori railway station

As only a parent can love their son, the city of Gori in central Georgia is undoubtedly the only remaining place in the world to celebrate their hometown boy Josef Stalin.  Even townsfolks don't particularly care for the Soviet tyrant who deported intellectuals and dissidents from all Soviet republics, Georgia not being spared, to gulags and prison camps.  The entire academic family of Irina, my guesthouse owner in Tbilisi , had been sent to the gulags, and there's of course no love lost among many other such families.  It seems that Gorians seek an identity for their otherwise nondescript city and Stalin will do the job.  His original birthhouse has been transported to the site of the Stalin Museum in the central plaza of town, a large statue of Stalin stands outside the city hall, and this portrait of Stalin greets visitors arriving at the Gori railway station.  The Russian translation of Gori on the sign is one of the extremely rare examples of Russian letters shown publicly in Georgia, and it may be for Soviet visitors with a morbid curiosity about Stalin.  It would probably go too far to believe that there are true Stalinophiles out there.





Gelati monastery, Georgia

If you love colourful Christian frescoes then the middle east is one of the best regions to visit, especially in Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.  This example is taken from the Gelati monastery church, near Kutaisi.  Arguably, the millenium old Gelati is the finest church for artwork in the Caucasus, though it loses out to Mtskheta for intense atmosphere and to Kazbegi for awesome setting.


Sighnagi, Georgia

Sighnagi must be one of the prettiest mountainsidevillages in the Kakheti province in eastern Georgia, noted for its wines .   

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia

The mountain enclosed reaches of the Upper Svaneti are foreboding even to Georgians, not only for the 11 hour ride from Tbilisi but for its colourful history of violent bandits, blood feuds, lawlessness and of course, mountain hospitality.    Probably more than any other region in Georgia outside of Abkhazia, which was engaged in an outright civil war against the Tbilisi government, upper Svaneti is what put Georgia on the top ten most dangerous countries in the world lists.  Until 2005 that is, when president Mikhail Sakashvili sent in helicopter gunships to exterminate the mafia families responsible for much of the criminal activity.  Now, a trickle of travellers are returning to take in the sublime alpine scenery and the trademark Svan towers (these ones in Mestia), thought to have resulted historically from family rivalries but now serve as granaries more than as tribal badges of honour.


Tbilisi, Georgia

Without a doubt, the most physically beautiful of the Caucasian capitals is Tbilisi, heart of an ancient empire, one which most proud Georgians will tell you covered everything from Turkey to Azerbaijan to southern Russia.  "It's our land," they insist.  Georgians are also desperate to have you know that this is Europe and not a land of barbarians from Asia or the  middle east, and while that position can certainly be debated on sociocultural grounds, the buildings and construction in Tbilisi is absolutely European in style, with Soviet concrete overtones dominating outside the central core of the city.  This view is seen from the imposing fortress overlooking the old town, and the huge church furthest away is currently being constructed as the largest church in the Caucasus.  The fact that it is being built on an ancient and sacred Armenian cemetery is very emblematic of the fierce ethnic nationalism problems that have forever engulfed the Caucasus and middle east.

Batumi cathedral
The cathedral of Batumi on the Black Sea coast  is not the only building that seems to ignore Georgian traditions in favour of a distinctly coastal (almost Mediterranean)  influence.  The colourful pastel buildings will fool you for Italy, the relaxed laissez-faire attitude of the locals contrasts sharply with the intense cold stares of Tbilisi, and the truly tropical vegetation is startling for its geographical location.  The east coast of the Black Sea was the traditional Riviera for  Soviet vacationers in the summers.  The Russians liked Abkhazia, the breakaway province just up the coast from Batumi, so much that they engineered its war of secession to preserve their  beachfront holiday spot  Russian roubles, and not Georgian lari, is the accepted currency of Abkhazia today.  Moscow also encouraged the secession ambitions of the Adjara province generalissimo (where Batumi is situated) in their brief war against Georgia, but eventually pulled out its financial and military support.