The Most Famous Cave City in Georgia
Without doubt anyone travelling through Georgia will visit at least one of the ancient cave towns that lie dotted around the countryside. Vardzia is not only the most famous of them all, it is also the largest and possibly most impressive of the ones we explored during our trip. The remote location will not stop tourists taking day trips from Tbilisi, although it is a very long 8 hour round trip drive from the capital and we would recommend staying somewhere closer, like Borjomi, especially if you plan on discovering the cave town with children.
Impressive National Monument
I had decided to explore the impressive national monument and home of Queen Tamara after reading raving reviews online and giving us a break from hiking. Jerome was a bit reluctant to visit yet another cave town, after discovering both David Gareji and Uplisthike but after showing him some of the photos we managed to drag him along.
The Green Monastery
On the drive from Borjomi, we first decided to make a brief detour to the Green Monastery just outside of the town. We had passed the sign to it on the way to the start of our previous hikes. The setting in a lush verdant forest glade at the top of a rough track was serene. Inside the beautiful bell tower we discovered some rather macabre relics. Leaving this behind we headed on south away from Borjomi passing the turn off to the remote hot spring, where we had soaked our tired legs with the local community a day before.
Driving From Borjomi to Vardzia
Covering the distance from Borjomi to Vardzia in a car, was slower than anticipated, the road conditions kept changing vastly and we also spent a long time trailing trucks en route to the Turkish border. The windy and narrow roads made overtaking them impossible. The scenery and beautiful landscape made the drive bearable, colourful hillsides, castles on hillsides and the industrial city of Akhaltsikhe created an interesting juxtaposition along the way.
Visiting Queen Tamar’s Cave City
Our first glance of Queen Tamara’s impressive cave city was of a seemingly random collection of gaping holes on the steep hillside. The city seemed to be buzzing with people like a beehive and this made it clear that it was by far the busiest of the sights we had visited so far on our trip. Spaces in the car park were scarce upon our arrival partly because they are already extending the car and bus parking for the future. Souvenir shops and stalls greeted us en route to the ticket office and a fresh orange juice stand charged an extortionate fee for a glass of freshly pressed juice, an apparent sign that tourism was seen as a money producing business here.
After buying entrance tickets for a moderate fee (5 Gel for adults, 1Gel for kids), you have the option to either take the bus up the steep hill for an extra charge, or to walk up the road around 500m to the main entrance of the cave city, like we did. As we wandered up the hill we watched many of the buses depart full of the “bees” leaving the site much quieter, so perhaps visiting over lunchtime of afternoon is better.
History of the Caves
Under Queen Tamar’s rule in the 11th century, the impressive cave city and monastery consisted of over 3000 caves in the hillside and was housing over 2000 monks until a devastating earthquake ruined part of caves and sliced away a large junk of the mountain. Nowadays around 600 of the chambers have survived and a few monks and nuns still call Vardzia their home. Extensive concrete restorations and metal safety railings have somewhat spoiled the original structure but it is a fascinating visit.
Explore at Your Own Will
There is no sign posted main route through Vardzia’s impressive cave town and we highly recommend exploring Queen Tamar’s chambers at your own will. Kids will enjoy clambering along the steps and narrow paths and discovering the caves opening at random. Some caves contain storage basins for drink water, others have peepholes to the outside world and Jerome enjoyed watching the large number of swallows nesting on the roofs and entrances.
Visitors must see the bell tower and church of Assumption, with its dark and washed out frescoes, it especially fascinated me. Women should bring a scarf along to cover their head, although even a large number of Georgians were without and still entered and prayed in front of the holy icons. Do not miss the dark and narrow passage, left of the entrance to the church, it leads to the well, also known as “Tamar’s Tears” (you are welcome to try the sweet tasting water) and afterwards, follow the well lit corridors deep into the cool hillside, where you will discover a maze of passages and hidden chambers.
Do Not Miss!
This maze of passages reaching 80 m into the sandstone was the highlight for us during our explorations of Vardzia and can be easily missed by many visitors who do not realize the complex exists behind the church. However if you are likely to get scared in tight spaces or have claustrophobic tendencies you might want to return to the outside world and wander along in daylight instead.
An Active Monastery
On our sojourn through the caves of Vardzia, we were also able to watch the nuns go about their daily life in the monastery, one nun was even engrossed in a deep conversation on her mobile, a peculiar sight! Watching young Georgians completely lost in their prayers was another captivating observation, one that I had already witnessed at the caves of David Gareji. One woman even took a large number of selfies with the religious icons, as if they presented movie stars or someone famous that she would need to share a precious moment with to show her friends and family afterwards.
Onwards From Vardzia
At the end of our visit we climbed down a deep set of stairs, through a tight tunnel and returned by a slow descending path to the ticket office and souvenir stalls. By then we were hungry and although the restaurants at Vardzia had good ratings we decided to head for a small, local eatery in the nearby town of Khertvisi, where we also would visit the castle ruins before returning to Borjomi. Queen Tamar’s cave town had definitely been worth the long drive, its hidden passages and the frescoes were a pleasure to discover and make it one of the most impressive sights in Georgia, even Jerome agreed the exploration was in the end worthwhile.
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