"Vardzia" Vardzia by maykal

Vardzia Travel Guide: 11 reviews and 28 photos

Vardzia...a remote cave monastery complex at the end of a near-inaccessible valley...one of my highlights of Georgia. Some people compare it to Cappadocia in Turkey, but judging from what I've heard about that place, Vardzia couldn't be more different. No tour buses here, no backpacker hostels lining every alleyway, no grumbling travellers in flip flops flicking through their Lonely Planets and munching on banana pancakes. In fact, no town, no village...I could say no road too, as in places there wasn't.

The passengers on the daily minibus from Akhaltsikhe were a mixed bunch. A few twentysomethings who giggled a lot and kept staring at me, middle-aged men who jumped out of the bus for a smoke at every opportunity, and an extremely old yet sprightly woman who enjoyed a bit of banter with the youths behind. The driver spoke some Turkish (Akhaltsikhe is very close to the border), and kept turning his head to shout things back to me, a huge grin on his face. He did this while simultaneously answering his mobile phone, unwrapping sweets, lighting cigarettes, pipping the horn and negotiating hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road at high speeds. Quite a talented man.

Arrival in Vardzia came rather later than expected, as we'd had a few delays around the town of Aspindza, trying to drop schoolchildren off at their homes strewn on the mountainside. Just when we thought they had all been seen safely home, another one would pop up from the back bench berating the driver for having missed her house, and we'd have to reverse three kilometres back along the narrow track which runs from Aspindza alongside the River Mtekhi to Vardzia.

Just when the road seemed as if it was about to dissolve into dust, we rounded a corner and came face to face with an enormous hotel. If ever there was an award for the most out-of-place building, then certainly the Intourist Vardzia Hotel would be on the shortlist. The driver pointed at it, then shouted at me "hotel!". Everybody laughed as we sped on...the hotel has stood empty and derelict for many a year.

Before crossing a rickety old bridge, the driver braked heavily jumped out. "Gel, gel, otel burada" Come come, hotel here. I looked around. He must be mistaken, I thought. There's no hotel here..."evet, ever, otel, otel"...he grabbed my bag, and strode off towards a shack down by the river, kicking a rogue barking dog at the gate.

The lady in charge of the shack was unfazed by my arrival, muttering away at me as if she'd been expecting my arrival for many days, almost scolding me in a friendly way for being late. My no-frills bed was next door to the family bedroom, over the corridor from what i assumed to be a cowshed. An eggy smell and lots of gurgling came from within, and remained a mystery until I asked the owner where the shower was. "Ar aris...magram..." There isn't...but..., and she led me to the cowshed. Inside was a makeshift pool of yellowy-brown water, steam rising steadily. The eggy smell came from the sulphur baths!

A trip to the toilet necessitated a hop, skip and a jump over a mud pool, and wading through a shallow stream, all the while trying to avoid stepping on a sleeping dog. I resolved not to try this at night, but in the late afternoon, the views across the river towards Vardzia's monastery in the cliff-face were stunning.

Darkness came with an invitation to a candlelit supper...not quite Hyacinth Bucket style, but hot tea, fresh bread and three types of local cheese was good enough for my empty stomach. The lady and her husband chattered away with me in Georgian, and it took some time before we realised nobody had any idea what the other was talking about. I did manage to pick up that the couple had a daughter the same age as me...when she came in, there were hints at marriage which embarrassed us both immensely! I was quizzed about my family, my lack of job, what I thought of Georgia and how I'd learnt what little Georgian I knew. Mentioning my female host in Tbilisi brought giggles from the women and a rather crude hand gesture from the husband, but they were all disappointed to hear that she already has a man. I found out that they have four children living in Aspindza, that the last tourist came a month before, and that the baths are very good for rheumatism and skin complaints...not bad at all for my very poor Georgian!!

Vardzia was very impressive. I felt there must be something amiss somewhere, that maybe round the next bend was a huge tourist complex. I braced myself for swarming tourists, tip-hungry guides and overblown restorations, but none of those either. I had the whole of Vardzia to myself that morning...or so I thought...

After buying my ticket and climbing up to the small gateway to the monastery, I was taken aback to find the church swarming with people...no, not tourists, but monks in black robes. The guidebooks and others had mentioned the church, but not one of them had bothered to mention that the place is still a working monastery. The monks were all quite friendly, and seemed fairly pleased to have a visitor to show round. One of them pointed out the frescoes of Queen Tamar inside the church, and led me through a pitch black cave by candlelight to a holy water source.

Vardzia was once a hidden city, the domain of Queen Tamar who converted it to a monastery in the 12th century. A series of earthquakes exposed the city to the outside world, as half the cliff fell into the valley below. About 600 rooms remain, spread over 13 levels, many of them interconnected by tunnels and stairways.

One of the monks spotted me sitting outside one of the caves writing my diary, and came to investigate. This wouldn't do, wouldn't do at all. Couldn't possibly have a foreigner sitting out in the cold on a hard rock! I was invited to his private cell for a warming Nescafe and a chat using my handy Georgian phrase book. Over the course of an hour, I discovered he'd been a monk in Vardzia for 5 years with nine other monks. I asked if it was cold in winter, as my night in the hotel on the valley floor had been surprisingly chilly and that was in mid-June! He just shrugged his shoulders, saying something I guess was along the lines of "God provides warmth". Our conversation was shattered by the sound of church bells. A carload of Armenian tourists were running amok in the caves, shouting to each other and generally annoying the other monks. The monk stood up and said, rather un-monk-like, "Armanebi ar momtsons"...I don't like Armenians. I thought this a suitable time to leave!

Down in the village below, a commotion was breaking out. The Turkish-speaking bus driver was tearing round what is optimistically called a village, giving his horn a good blast. The hotel lady was also running up and down her drive, waving her arms madly and shrieking. I thought maybe the village was under attack from a swarm of killer bees, or that nuclear war had erupted...but it was simpler than that. They were looking for me. I'd been told the bus back to Akhaltsikhe would leave at 3, and it was only half one, something I mentioned to the bus driver. He shrugged, and said "that was yesterday. Today is today and we leave now, yes?" So off we went.

  • Last visit to Vardzia: Jun 2005
  • Intro Updated Dec 19, 2005
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