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Caucasian Daze (Part 3/9) - Georgia: Cave Monasteries of Vardzia

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Caves of Vardzia, Georgia
Caves of Vardzia, Georgia

Bottling it in Borjomi

After my 'exertions' in the mountains, I decided to kick back for a couple of days in Borjomi, a quaint spa town in the southern part of Georgia. Producer of its most famous brand of bottled water which is drunk all over the country and exported around this part of the world, Borjomi is a great place to relax. Marshrutka from Tbilisi (all journeys in Georgia seem to start and end here, like the hub in the middle of a wheel), three hours on decent roads, no major incidents on the bus until we pass a pretty horrific car crash, one woman laying prostrate and lifeless outside a mangled wreck which had everyone crossing themselves and silently praying. A reminder, if it were needed, of how close death constantly is on these roads. For me, second only to India in terms of reckless driving. I notice on this bus how often people in this country cross themselves and how close religion is to people here. Every time we pass a church (and often when when we don't, for no apparent reason), people automatically cross themselves, half the bus ritualistically performing this rite and murmering under their breath. It's quite odd, almost superstitious, obsessive in its regularity.

Caves of Vardzia, Georgia
View of the Kura Valley, Vardzia

Extremely pious people, I have to conclude. It seems so ingrained, it's almost mechanical, unthinking, devout. Reminiscent of Ethiopian orthodoxy in the sense that it seems to be all-encompassing, absolute. You just cannot escape the Church and its influence in Georgia - church and state are entwined. Borjomi, which I arrive at early evening under threatening clouds, is in the foothills of the Lower Caucasus, the range which rises up from the central plain of Georgia in which Tbilisi lies, but to the south, on the opposite side to the Upper Caucasus, where the serious climbers go. It's in a verdant gorge, quite pretty but not stunning. It's a laid-back place, somewhere like Krynica in Poland, mainly for old people who go to the sanatoria there for the healthy waters, or for families to stroll around.

I don't expect it to be much cop for nightlife, and it isn't. It's raining and there's no one about. I find the only bar which seems to have any life which has a sign saying 'beer' and enter. There at the table is Josh, one of the guys I met from Tbilisi Hostel, and who I also bumped into in Kazbegi. He's with an English guy I met in Kazbegi."We'll have to stop meeting like this!" I say. Turns out they are hiking the mountains here, camping/squatting in Borjomi tonight then heading out to the wilderness tomorrow. We order a pile of khinkali and 'ostri' (meat in a kind of spicy sauce) and a few beers. End up going to a disco, a sort of beach hut type place by the river with a DJ playing mainly house and techno, slightly incongruous in this quiet village, but fun. The dance floor fills up with young mums and dads who dance with their kids - seems perfectly normal here - and after a few more beers it's hilariously funny. I have honestly never seen five year olds dancing to hard house and trance music, but they did here, until about 2am. I get completely lost trying to go home,despite my homestay being about 1km from the bar. I get a taxi, a big old Russian Volga, back at the river, and he drives up the steep, unpaved road to where I live. Suddenly I hear a loud crunch from underneath the car, and the front end starts sagging; we get out.

Volga car, Georgia
Volga car. Like in Cuba, people keep ancient cars going in Georgia

The front axle has gone - the driver's gone into a deep pothole and ruined his car. I look at him pityingly, but can't find the words to say - his livelihood is in ruins. Streets in Georgia are often 3rd world standard - you need a 4x4 here; even a sturdy Volga isn't up to it. I would have told him this if I could have spoken Georgian.

Caving in - Vardzia Next day, I decide to go to Vardzia, a famous cave city in the far south of the country on the Turkey/Armenia border. The homestay I'm staying at (which is extremely homely and welcoming) has some guys staying in it from Lithuania, who, I notice, are travelling by jeep. I get talking to them over breakfast and it turns out they are also heading for Vardzia so I hitch a lift after offering to pay for petrol. This saves me a lot of time, since public transport to that area is infrequent and time-consuming. The Lithuanians, it turns out, have done a veritable whistle-stop tour of Georgia, having been here for only a week, but having taken in just about every place of interest in the country. An impressive feat, considering the state of a lot of the roads here. They have traversed the length and the breadth of the country, from the remote wilderness of Svaneti in the north west on the Abkhazia border to the wine region and desert city of Davit Gareja in the south east; they calculate they have spent 50 hours in the jeep in the last week.

Kura Valley and caves, Vardzia, Georgia
Kura Valley and caves, Vardzia

Though this means they have avoided the nightmare that is often the dreaded marshrutka ride, this is a massive amount of time on the road. Asked if they thought it was too not much, they shrug and say "we like to see everything". Anyway, I was pleased to join them, and at least they didn't drive like lunatics. The road to Vardzia was stunning; almost as dramatic as that to Kazbegi, the road followed the course of the upper Mtkvari (which flows through Tbilisi), it passed through narrow canyons south of Borjomi, to a small town called Aksalkhite, where we veered south-east along a particularly beautiful valley, cutting like a green ribbon between arid, rocky hillsides. We were surrounded by heavy, grey clouds now - the weather had broken after days of hot sun - and this made it all the more atmospheric. After three hours of driving we were there: Vardzia.

Caves of Vardzia, Georgia
The warren of caves built into the Vardzia hillside

An incredible sight. A massive cave complex cut straight into the grey cliffs towering above us. Uniform squares gauged out of the mountain, approximately 400 separate rooms surrounding a church which used to house up to 2000 monks, this complex dates from the 12th Century by Giorgi III, and became a hugely important monastary and centre of Christianity in Georgia; bordering Persia, a bastion and outpost of eastern Christendom. Indeed, it was sacked by the Persians eventually, who made off with all its treasures in the mid-16th Century. It resembles some of the cave monastaries in northern Ethiopia, though on a much larger scale; more like Cappadocia in Turkey perhaps, though I haven't seen a complex built on several levels quite like this - a kind of medieval block of flats.

Caves of Vardzia, Georgia
Stairway to heaven? Vardzia

Hide and Seek Heaven

The levels are connected by winding passages and steps - which are quite exhausting but extremely fun to explore. It would have been brilliant to come here as a kid and explore all the nooks and crannies here - you could have an Olympic game of hide and seek in a place like this. It was truly stunning. The highlight is the church, which is situated in the centre of it all. Though the facade has gone, the inside is beautiful, frescoes on every wall. Views out over the other side of the mountain, down the valley, a pretty good defensive stronghold I imagine. I climbed up some narrow passages above the church and appeared on a ledge from where I had a 180 degree view out over everything. Perfection. It has to be said that Georgia has got some of the most stunningly-sited churches and monastaries of anywhere in the world - they seemed to just pick the places with the best views every time - and there is a legacy of unbelievable religious architecture in the country which has been lovingly preserved (and has survived the neglect of Communism), making sightseeing a lot of fun. Low tourist numbers (for now anyway) make it all even more attractive. We descended from the caves and back to the car, and all of us agreed that it had definitely been worth the rather long detour to get out here. I'd have been inclined to stick around for a while, but the Lithuanians, with their military schedule, had to move on - they were getting back to Tbilisi that evening and were back to work in the morning. I decided to go with them to save time myself - I wanted to head to Kutaisi and also see some of the coastline before heading to Azerbaijan to start work. Before that however, there was time to see one more sight in the region. Just a couple of km down the valley from Vardzia and on the other side of the valley, again situated high up the mountainside, was another monastary, this one however was quite isolated, not surrounded by any erstwhile dwellings.

View of the Kura Valley, Vardzia, Georgia
View of the Kura Valley, Vardzia

Vanis Caves - Blissful Solitude

Named Vanis Qvavebi (Vanis Caves), it required yet another (surprise!) steep climb to get to - perhaps the steepest and most difficult yet. Predating Vardzia by four centuries, this place must have defined the term solitude. Perched, like an eagle's nest, in a place so out of the way as to be almost totally inaccessible (again, reminiscent of Tigray in Ethiopia in this respect), a steep pathway cut up the mountain, then steep steps, ladders and a stone-cut passage, so narrow that ascending with a pack on your back is impossible. A narrow ledge led to the church at the top. A guide had led us up the last part, which was just as well now because a snake suddenly appeared and reared its head up at us: a poisonous viper, quite common here. Quick as a flash, the guide grabbed a rock and expertly aimed it at the snake's head.

Caves of Vardzia, Georgia
Some of the 500 caves in Vardzia, like holes in cheese

Though he hit, it squirmed angrily, stunned. He picked up another one, still at a distance, bigger this time, and this time the snake was vanquished. The wizened old guide grinned a toothy grin, revealing several gold teeth. Now the snake lay lifeless under the rock, we were able to proceed along the narrow ledge, the other side of which was a very large drop. It was worth the climb. Tiny church, little carved out rooms and some faded but very pretty fescoes. Truly stunning views. I sat down in a small window ledge and just gazed out over the valley below. We'd climbed up quite a long way very quickly; I had to admire the speed with which these guys got things done, but I was utterly exhausted.

Vania Caves, Vardzia, Georgia
Vanis Caves

After about two minutes, they were off down the mountain again: the clock was ticking. I'd like to have stayed much longer and soaked it in, but I had to go with them. Slightly annoyed, but at the same time extremely happy to have seen this spiritual, beautiful place. So much natural beauty in Georgia, so much which is unspoilt. These are moments that make travel special, what drives you on to see more, what makes all these endless journeys, in the end, worthwhile. Even the Lithuanians had paused here for five minutes, and that, I think, was a record for them.

Vanis Caves, Vardzia, Georgia
Blissful solitude - Vanis Caves


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This blog is part of a series. Please see previous/next parts here:

Part 2/9: Kazbegi Mountains

Part 4/9: Kakheti Wine Region

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