The journey to the cave city of Vardzia is right up there amongst the very best rides I’ve undertaken. After leaving Akhaltsikhe the next 60km into the wilderness leaves a lasting impression and is as dramatic as any in Georgia. The road follows the course of the Mktvari river as it winds it’s way through narrow canyons, before veering south at the Khertvisi Fortress.
The road surface is particularly good, probably as a result of this being a major tourist attraction and passes through a handful of small villages and places of interest along the way.
The valley walls get increasingly steeper the further into the canyon you travel, with the lush green trees breaking up the rocky hillside.
Nothing quite prepares you for the amazing site of the cave city, cut into the rock high on the hillside overlooking the Mtkvari river. It was a truly magical experience.
It was 5 p.m. by the time I had pitched my tent in a small clearing next to the river, a quiet spot with only one other tent nearby, (I would meet it’s owner on my return from visiting the caves). After paying my 3 GEL entrance fee I climbed up the hillside to start my tour, walking along a new tarmac road and then a custom made path no doubt built to stop tourists from wandering (and damaging) the area.
The light was pretty strong and I struggled to stop my iPhone camera from burning out the highlights in some of the pictures, although I’m increasingly impressed with what this little camera is capable of (I hope to press my Nikon back into action when I get a replacement lens for the one damaged).
I think it’s no accident that the early evening sunlight was directly illuminating the caves, which spread out in a crescent shaped arc cut into the rock.
As pictures speak louder than words, I’ll now show you some of the many images I took, then continue my ramblings!
At the heart of the cave city is the Church of the Assumption, with a few remaining frescoes.
The rock-cut monastery was founded in the 2nd half of the 12th century by King Giorgi III and his daughter Queen Tamar. The thirteen story structure consisted of several hundred caves, several churches, a bell tower and a complex water supply system. Vardzia played a significant role in the political, cultural, educational and spiritual life of Georgia. An earthquake destroyed approximately two thirds of the city in 1283, exposing the caves to outside view and collapsing the water supply system. About 300 chambers and halls remain visible from the 600 that survived and the city is still used by monks today.
I spent about three hours exploring the complex and could well have spent more, except I was in need of some food and drink back at my camping spot and made my way down the hillside.
On arrival I met an unusual character from the Ukraine called Darios, who was hitching his way around the world. He had no money and told me that he survived by eating fruits from the local trees and any other bits of food given to him. As he looked badly in need of a meal, I made us both a pasta feast and shared my biscuits with him (actually no I didn’t – Darios ate the lot!).
Next morning I made a late start to leaving the valley (it’s an out and back route) taking one last look at this amazing landscape. I met a young German cyclist making his way to visit Vardzia as I stopped by the roadside to eat some bread from a local shop, never thinking that we would meet again and ride together.
I’ve met more cycle tourists in Georgia than from the whole of my trip, including a nice group of Dutch cyclists in the Europe cafe on the way to Vardzia, two Serbians (who gave me a map) at Aspindza, and an elderly couple from Germany who spent time telling me how hilly the road to Tbilisi was. Plus I was fed and watered by two Azerbaijan motorists, I’ll tell you about that in my next update. More soon…