Vardzia is a cave city monastery site approximately 60 km southeast of Akhaltsikhe, The caves, which date from the 12th century, are carved from the Erusheti Mountain in the valley of the Mtkvari River, and only 10 km from the Turkish border. The extended area of Vardzia-Khertvisi is a currently state heritage reserve, and is likely to be a future UNESCO World Heritage site.
Upon arrival in Akhaltsikhe my friends had arranged a taxi, an ancient BMW and a driver that spoke limited English, to take us to Vardzia the following morning for 50 GEL return. The road from Akhaltsikhe provided stunning views of the barren landscape as it twisted and turned along the course of the Mtkvari River – the driver stopped at several points to allow us to take some photos.
Our first stop was Khertvisi Fortress. Dating from the 2nd century BC, it is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. Unfortunately there is not much to see here other than what remains of the fortress walls and the tower (of which there are no stairs to the top). The surrounding mountains and valley make this an impressive setting; thus it’s certainly worth a stop if you’re passing by. From Khertvisi it was only around another 15 minutes to Vardzia. We also passed the 9th century Tmogvie Castle, although it’s in a fairly inaccessible location on a mountain overlooking the valley.
As we approached we could see the caves high up in the mountain – it was a much bigger complex than what I anticipated. From the car park it looked a relatively unpleasant hike to the top given the searing heat; however we stocked up on water at the restaurant, paid our 3 GEL entry fee, and set off to explore the caves. There are several hundred rooms spread over thirteen levels, and was once home to 50,000 people – although only a handful of monks live there now.
The Church of the Dormition, which also dates from the 12th century, is the focal point of the cave monastery with its impressive wall paintings; from here you can venture inside the mountain though dimly lit narrow passages or continue along the exterior of the mountain. Unfortunately the eastern side, including the secret tunnel, was closed for restoration, although this didn’t distract from the overall experience of our visit. After around two hours of exploring the caves we descended to the car park to find our taxi driver waiting patiently, and we were back in Akhaltsikhe by mid afternoon.
Whilst the majority of people visit Vardzia as a day trip from Akhaltsikhe, there is a hotel and campsite next to the river should you wish to stay over. We didn’t eat in the restaurant, but it was pretty busy with locals and tourists alike. Staying here for one night would be a viable option and would enable some hiking up the Mtkvari Valley towards Turkey.