Cave Towns and Monasteries in Georgia
An abundance of cave monasteries and cities are dotted throughout Georgia’s hilly and mountainous countryside. On our three week long trip through Georgia we visited many splendid cave towns, including Vardzia and Uplistsikhe. However, at David Gareji the Udabno caves were by far the most fascinating and perhaps most impressive. Getting there is an adventure in itself, it is a full day trip from Tbilisi that is worth planning into the schedule for anyone who wants to discover and get an insight into an exciting and remarkable slice of Georgia’s history. These ancient caves were definitely amongst the many highlights of our journey.
The Drive to David Gareji
At this stage in our trip we were somewhat glad that we did not have to drive ourselves on our first venture into the Georgian countryside. The later stages of the road to David Gareji were among the worst repaired and bumpiest we experienced. I would say a 4×4 is highly recommended but not absolutely essential, with some careful driving. We were collected from our hotel by family friends in an imported old people mover van from Japan. Imported second hand Asian and European vehicles are a common sight in Georgia.
First Glimpses of the Rural Hinterland
Jerome was overjoyed to see his friend Thekla from kindergarten in Germany, her Mum is a native Georgian, and the family regularly visit grandparents every summer to spend their holidays around Tbilisi. After a few wrong turns in Tbilisi’s badly signposted roads, we were finally en route towards the cave monasteries, passing the airport and getting our first glimpses of the rural hinterland. At first we made good progress, but after the turn off at Sagarejo, the road conditions worsened, quickly. Thekla’s Dad was forced to drive slowly, navigating around the potholed strewn surface. At some point the tarmac suddenly stopped and it turned into a dusty, stony track. The kids in the back of the car were busy catching up on stories of friends and school life, while we admired the stunning countryside outside of our windows.
I had read that David Gareji and the Udabno Caves were set in an almost semi desert like landscape and had expected the hills to be more barren, like those we had seen in Morocco during our travel there. It came as a surprise to discover that instead the soft mounds were covered with colourful blankets of tiny pink flowers amidst low grass, a truly mesmerising sight and one we would see again near Vardzia. The road steadily worsened, improved a bot in places and then got even worse, the last kilometres towards the monastery being a dirt track.
One of Many Monasteries in the Area
Thankfully, no one got car sick during the bumpy ride and we were happy to finally get out off the car upon our arrival at David Gareji Monastery. The monastery is one many in the area, there may be more hidden in the deserted countryside, and only a very few of the buildings are widely known and visited by tourists or religious worshippers. Georgia was one of the first Christian countries and some of the churches are among the first built anywhere in the world, we would discover one of the earliest later in our tours in an amazing location.
The Lavra Monastery
The David Gareji Monastery gains its name from the monk who lived in a cave on site in the 6th century after his stay on the holy mountain in Tbilisi. Sadly most of these monasteries are in bad disrepair but efforts are being made to restore the exceptional complex at David Gareji and the Lavra Monastery and during our visit we could see workers restoring parts of the buildings, while others parts already shone in their newfound restored glory. At least the craftsmen seemed to be using good materials and traditional workmanship.
Exploring the David Gareji Complex
Initially we wandered through the David Gareji Monastery (Lavra Monastery), although the kids had immediately taken to climbing the smooth rocks that tower over the complex and the nearby car park. The monastery itself was interesting to explore for anyone interested in churches and religious buildings and has an unusual history. For us, the main attraction of the complex were the cave houses, where monks live to this day, the outline of each abode easily recognisable from the doors and windows in the hillside, it is fascinating to think that St. David might have lived his ascetic life in one of them. These cave houses are off limits for visitors but the little chapel, that can be found after taking a warren of stairs carved into the rock face, has a simple domed ceiling and modern day icons, and should not be missed.
A Circular Hike to the Udabno Caves
The highlight of the area is the Udabno cave complex, set high above the monastery in the mountain ridge. A steep and at times slippery path, leads towards the caverns. The ascent might be too strenuous for older people or those with tiny ones less energetic than our expedition. Especially in the summer months when the heat can be unbearable take plenty to drink with you. Please note there are two possible routes to the Udabno caves, perfect for circular hike and we recommend taking the path by the souvenir shop, leading you up behind the tower at the top of the rocks. Here there is a small sign that can be easily overlooked, for the way uphill. Jerome and his friend were quickly off ascending along the track, the rest of us wandered at a slower pace behind. Sometime later we encountered a rusty transport monorail that guided our way until we reached the top of the ridge, it was installed a long time ago when parts of the upper chapel were restored.
Meeting the Border Guards
Cresting the ridge, in front of us we found sweeping views over a lunar like landscape and a steep drop off. The steppe landscape as I already mentioned was less barren than expected, the grassland stretched undulating towards the horizon. The tourists received some curious looks from both the Georgian and Azerbaijan border guards, completely clad in uniform with intimidating machine guns on their shoulders that guard the route here. The border of both countries meets along the backbone of the mountain range, and although the guards looked rather scary at first, they greeted us friendly and soon recommenced their friendly chatter with one another.
Colourful Frescoes inside the Udabno Caves
The mesmerising views towards Azerbaijan certainly add to the already remarkable scenery of the hike. Turning left we took the path that runs along and slightly underneath the crest of the ridge. Soon we stumbled onto the first caves of the Udabno Monastery complex. Each cave is numbered and while some of them are barren and contain nothing out of the ordinary, others – usually the caverns higher up, or harder to reach ones – are covered in colourful frescoes, dating back to the 10-12th century. The kids and I braved ourselves to climb into some of the secluded caves and discovered some exceptional religious paintings. It is almost unbelievable to think they survived hundreds of years and several wars. Regrettably, a large number of the frescoes were destroyed by vandalism and graffiti by the Soviet Military and other visitors who obviously failed to understand or ignored the historical value and beauty of these murals.
Wildlife in the Area
Jerome and his friend merely glanced at the frescoes, they were more interested in the cisterns and holes in the floors, once used for water storage by the monks during the dry summer months. They also kept an eye out for snakes (there rarely have been accounts of sighting one but it is good to be wary), and watched for lizards, bunnies, raptors, and the animals and birds that call the area home. The whole area teems with wildlife in abundance, it is one of the best destinations for bird spotters in Georgia and other animals like tortoises and lizards are frequently seen.
A Truly Exceptional Site
The kids seemed to be enjoying their adventure, climbing higher than they probably should and us parents trying to keep our eyes away and not tell them off! Jerome’s friend had always shown a streak as a thrill seeker and this obviously had not slowed down with age perhaps keeping their friendship alive despite impeding teenage. The rest of the party had wandered along the steep incline, past further clusters of Udabno Caves, while I kept peeking into most of them, always excited to uncover another incredible mural. In comparison to the other cave monasteries and cities we visited, the Udabno caves truly stand out! Not only due to the remote and exceptional location, there are also no safety features like railings, concrete walkways or steps, which made the experience of the site a true and authentic discovery for our trip to Georgia.
Comparison to Other Cave Cities in Georgia
I hope it will remain that way but I fear over time the long rough road will be tarmac covered, the slippery climb replaced by tourist friendly steps, the car park enlarged for many tourist coaches, and the freedom to discover the caves will be restricted to a concrete path with barriers. Especially Jerome would voice his disappointment several times at the other cultural monuments we visited, although they all had their own attractions and are still worth visiting some of them by comparison are becoming overrun with tourist buses. The difficult access means there only very few if any tourist buses reaching David Gareja at the moment so it has a fantastic charm.
Retur to Lavra Monastery
Once we had reached the end of the path along the ridge and were past the caves, the trail climbed sharply to the top of the end of the ridge giving vistas to the east. A small restored chapel tops the ridge, here, and an iron frame that may have had a cross at one time. From here we returned down the equally steep path diagonally towards the main Lavra Monastery, skirting behind it back to the tower at the start of the trail.
Get There Now!
We cooled off with some welcome chilled water bottles (take plenty with you before setting out on the hike) in the little shop and donated some money to the monastery, hoping to support the on going efforts for restoration. I am sure in a few years time the Udabno Caves will be just another tourist site, accessible to everyone and somewhat spoiled in their charm in the process. Our advice, get there now to enjoy and discover these mesmerising pieces of history.
Late Lunch at Oasis Cafe
On the return drive we stopped for a late lunch at the Oasis Café in Udabo village, our first dip into proper local rural cuisine. Our friends ordered an array of their favourite dishes, including a bean stew, katchapuri and some tasty fresh baked bread. The village was an attraction in itself, horses and pigs freely crossing the roads and watching the local kids play in the gardens and fields.
Dinner at Shavi Lomi
Back in Tbilisi we said goodbye to Jerome’s friend and her family and arranged to meet again after our travels to the Low and High Caucasus Mountains. Over dinner at Shavi Lomi, a short walk from our hotel, we discussed planed for the following day agreeing that we should explore more of the Tbisli sights on a hike from the Mtatsminda Park to Turtle Lake, a popular spot to cool off during summertime.
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