Forty minutes from Gori, Stalin's hometown, the border with South Ossetia is guarded by fences and barbed wire. The region seceded from Georgia in 1992 and is still the scene of tensions today. No sooner had the car parked on the roadside, a few dozen metres from the road blocked by Russian soldiers, than thirty or so people burst in from a hidden road downstream. Priests, dressed in their toga, precede faithfuls who carry a large cross on their shoulders. They sing, pass us and stop between the hired four-wheel drive and the green tarpaulins, hiding the no man's land which separates the two territories. They erect the cross in front of the border, chant another ten minutes, and disappear from where they appeared. We are then invited to leave the place, which we now share only with the armed guards.
An age-old faith
This episode is characteristic of how important religion is in Georgia. Around 85% of the population declares itself to be Orthodox, and many relics of the past bear witness to an age-old faith. The beautiful Caucasian mountains provide the backdrop for the picturesque stone churches and monasteries. The most impressive church, that of the Trinity of Gergeti, dates from the 14th century. Near the capital city of Tbilisi, a monastery was built as far as in the 7th century. Both buildings are perched on mountain tops and respectively overlook Stepantsminda, close to the Russian border, and Mtskheta.
Visiting these centuries-old buildings is always free of charge, as it is for getting lost along the ridges formed by the long working of the tectonic plates. Twenty kilometers south of Stepantsminda, Juta is, as an example, the starting point for magnificent hikes punctuated by lakes. Driving an all-terrain vehicle makes sense here: when we head for the Georgian Military Road, the main artery connecting Russia to the capital, the bumpy road will be blocked by a gravel embankment. After tried to drive over it and jammed the car at its barycentre, we will decide to - not without difficulty - go backwards. And to take a path... who will narrowly fail to put us upside down in the gutter...
At the end of the world
But this route was not much compared to the one leading to the ruins of the Zakagori fortress. Nestled in the Tuso Valley, it is ten kilometres off the main road. The path leading to it seems to be mostly used by hikers rather than cars. It crosses rivers, mud and rocky ground, challenging the most trained vehicles and the concentration of its passengers. An hour of chaotic travel later, sowed with doubts as to the possibility of continuing, we reach the end. Bad news: we will have to go back on our steps to find the firm asphalt... But good news: a monastery in renovation is serving lunch.
The presence of a monastery there is a surprise in itself. It took several abandoned villages in ruins and a lot of resilience to reach it. That said, a nun sets up a table outside, before returning about twenty minutes later. When we hadn't ordered anything, she brought back a tomato salad, sulguni - a Georgian cheese -, and bread. When the meal is over, she refuses to give the price, kindly embarrassed by the question and pointing out that monastic services are always free.
In the end, what was important was not the fortress itself, but the journey leading to it. The hill on which its ruins are perched is guarded by soldiers, urging visitors to hurry. This is certainly the last post before the borders of South Ossetia, Russia and Georgia meet: no further travel is permitted. On the way back, a priest will stop our car and ask us to take two men with us. They work in the second monastery in the area and normally walk the ten tedious kilometres. Fortuitous was our presence...
Back around Gori. Uplistsikhe, built during the first millennium B.C., is a troglodytic city composed of caves dug into the rock. A church was built there, above ground, in the 10th century. Although impressive, this complex of up to seven hundred caves does not equal the site of Vardzia, much further south. The latter was made up of three thousand caves, and its location is all the more breathtaking. The rooms are excavated on the side of a high cliff and sink further underground. The monastic complex was built, here, in the 12th century, but carved out of stone rather than built out of the ground. The church, more than nine metres high, has preserved its wall paintings to the present day (1).
Other such monasteries, such as that of David Gareji on the border with Azerbaijan, are scattered throughout the country. And other ancient fortresses, such as that of Akhaltsikhe, near Turkey, still have a chance to observe the passage of time. Georgia's past is as rich as its cuisine: khatchapouri, lobio, khinkali and lobiani are all examples of typical dishes from this part of the world. A surprising region, still little visited.