A Floating Little Chapel
After exploring the impressive cave town at Vardzia, we were driving back towards Borjomi, when we were in for a surprise. High up in the hillside, appeared to be floating a cute, little chapel, in front of a sheer cliff dotted with more caves, like gaping mouths in the mountainscape. Although we had agreed that we had enough of discovering cave cities and monasteries, we were intrigued by the exceptional location of the chapel.
Vanis Kvabebi, an Extraordinary Sight
Shortly after, along the road a weathered signpost announced the cave monastery “Vanis Kvabebi” a less visited site and ignored by tourist buses en route to Vardzia, clearly our kind of place waiting to be discovered! We parked our car up the steep hill. Recent efforts of attracting more visitors to Vanis Kvabebi had created a few decent parking spaces and a new hut with public toilets. The entrance to the site is still free of charge, but a donation to the monks and upkeep of the monastery is of course welcome. Perhaps there will be charges soon once the hut is finished.
Exploring the Cave Monastery
The short walk up the hillside to the monastery was strenuous and certainly not for the unfit and any little legs would certainly want to be helped along. Once we reached the area where the paths divide, the left led us to the main cave town with the little chapel, the right to a further cluster of dark caves in the sheer cliffs high above. We chose to explore the left side of the Vanis Kvabebi monastery, hoping to climb to the chapel, although we were already unsure with a closer look at the small structure above us. A bearded monk sat on a chair, next to a well and his car, preoccupied on his mobile phone, completely unaware of our wanders.
Monks Still Live at Vanis Kvabebi
Taking the path towards the main monastery, we noticed that the lower caves possessed windows and entrance doors, we assumed they must be the living quarters of the monks, residing at Vanis Kvabebi cave town. Nearby the remnants of a chapel were exposed, possibly by one of the earthquakes that frequent the area, destroying the roof and outer walls. An altar stood in front of the half-domed ceiling, creating a place for prayers in the open air.
We followed the main path into a series of tunnels and stairs, up into the sheer rock of the monastery. Some caves were open to the elements, others dark and closed off with doors. At some point sadly the path towards the chapel was shut off by a locked metal gate, and we were unable to go any further. In a way we were disappointed that we could not reach the little chapel, on the other hand the path was getting more dangerous and even I started to get nervous and dizzy about climbing further. However, it did show us the incredible workmanship of the monks that used to live there, hundreds of years ago, creating a town in the vertical hillside to live a hard and devoted life to god.
Delicious Lunch at Cafe Tourist
Leaving the extraordinary monastery at Vanis Kvebi behind, our tummies were grumbling by then, we had already been hungry after our visit to Vardzia. Heading straight for the small, eatery, fittingly named “Tourist Café” in Khertvisi, we took a seat under the verdant, canopy of grape leaves that created mesmerising shadows of our surroundings. The friendly owner took our order and disappeared into his garden to cut cucumbers and tomatoes for our salad, direct from his smallholding. Jerome was enamoured by a bundle of puppies that kept running between our feet. He generally disliked dogs but these tiny cuties seemed to capture his heart immediately and kept him busy until our food appeared on the table. The home cooked dishes were among the best we savoured during our time in Georgia and deserved the longer waiting time.
Crossing the Hanging Bridge
After lunch we strolled across the road to cross the hanging bridge that spans the river at this point in the valley. The water was rushing underneath, the bridge was rather wobbly and we did not quite trust the construction, although a dip in some cold water would have been welcome, and so we returned quickly, making our way towards the castle of Khertvisi, which was our final exploration on our day out from Borjomi. The castle remains proudly occupy a strategic spot at the top of one of the cliffs, where two river valleys merge and provided its ancient inhabitants with a prime view of any intruders.
Visiting Kvertesi Fortress
Again we hiked up a steep hill, past charming, local houses, some still lived in, while others appeared to be abandoned and left to crumble. To our surprise the entrance to Khertvesi fortress was free of charge and anyone could just wander onto the castle’s grounds. The structure had been repeatedly rebuilt over centuries and undergone recent renovations without loosing its stark and authentic character. The castle consists of two main parts, the wall and citadel and the keep. The views over the river valleys are stunning, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is casting its rays over the high walls and thus creates interesting shadows. Jerome was disappointed that he could not climb any of the towers or the surrounding wall. However its design should catch any child’s imagination, it could come straight out of a fairy tale with dragons and knights hiding inside.
Driving Back to Borjomi
The return drive to Borjomi was fairly uneventful, although the pink blossoms on the hillsides caused a spectacular sight, similar to our drive to David Gareja. Vardzia and the lesser known Vanis Kvabebi cave monastery are certainly worth the a long day trip from Borjomi, on the other hand we would not recommend attempting the excursion from Tbilisi, it is too far, especially if you have children travelling with you.
Planning Our Drive to Kutaisi
Back in Borjomi with some supper in front of us, we planned our following day, which would be another longish drive to Kutaisi. We decided to take a slightly longer route but with a break at Chiatura, where we planned to try and ride one of the rickety, gondolas that criss-cross the old Soviet mining town. As you will discover in my next post we would experience a ride, scarier than many fair ground rides and nevertheless an eye opening experience and one we will talk about for years.
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