Vardzia, Georgia (CNN) – From the 3000-year-old Uplistikhe to the 6th century David Gareja Monastery and the forgotten dwellings of Samshvilde, all of Georgia’s cave sites are awe-inspiring.
But none prevail quite like Vardzia.
Scattered over the slopes of Erusheti, overlooking a lush valley marked by the Mtkvari River, Vardzia is Georgia’s most remarkable cave town.
In its time, the rock-cut town consisted of 6,000 rooms spread over 19 levels, including 25 wine cellars, a convent, 15 chapels and an apothecary, all brought together to create a dynamic medieval town and monastery.
Secret evacuation tunnels, confusing dead ends
Designed and built for the first time as a fort in the 12th century during the reign of King Giorgi III, it was his daughter who really brought it to life. Under his watchful eye, an elaborate series of caves and chambers have been carved deep into Erusheti’s belly, including a secret escape tunnel and a tangle of dead end corridors to confuse enemies.
Over the years, it quickly grew from a modest fortress to a vast monastery, cultural center, and offensive fortress. Vardzia was home to some 2,000 monks, tens of thousands of residents and, thanks to fertile terraces and an intricate irrigation system, was a self-sufficient city before it even became a reality.
At the head of it all was Tamar the Great, a legendary monarch so fierce and powerful that she earned the title of king – Tamar Mepe. During her nearly 30-year reign – twice married and a woman no less – Georgia prospered politically and territorially, her reign spanning across the Greater Caucasus and dipping south between Ganja and present-day Erzurum. ‘hui.
Vardzia once housed 2,000 monks. About 500 caves still remain.
Literature and art have flourished like never before, giving way to some of Georgia’s greatest figures. Namely, Shota Rustaveli, a medieval poet whose unrequited love for Tamar and the epic poem “Knight in the Panther Skin” cemented his place in history and earned him an avenue in just about every town. from the country.
However prosperous, Vardzia’s success was relatively short-lived. In 1283, an earthquake shook the region, destroying over 70% of the city and causing the outer wall to fall in an avalanche of biblical proportions. Left without a strong defense, most of the Vardzia packed their bags and left, leaving behind only the steadfast monks.
The monastic community held out for another 300 years until further raids wiped them out.
More than 800 years after the reign of King Tamar, a handful of monks still care for Vardzia, who returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
About 500 caves remain, including an apothecary with its carefully carved shelves intact and wine cellars with qvevris (ancient wine vessels) still recessed below as if no time had passed.
Even further up the mountain is the labyrinth of intact tunnels – some over 600 feet long – connecting it all together in an ancient web.
An old dining room inside Vardzia.
Even the dilapidated dining room with its carved stone benches and its fireplace for cooking prevails.
The most distinctive structure you will come across is the massive bell tower protruding from the top of a rock shelf. It retains most of its original glory, although you will notice a very important missing piece that was taken during a Mongol raid – the bell.
The most impressive is the Church of the Dormition with its portico with double arch and hanging bell impossibly carved into the face of the mountain. Inside are spectacularly weathered frescoes, including one of King Tamar’s four extant.
Visitors will want to set out in search of Queen Tamar’s Tears, a natural spring hidden deep in the tunnels where you’ll find a pool seemingly filled with water flowing – or crying – from the rocks above.
The surroundings also have a lot to offer. In front of Vardzia is the viewpoint of Vardzia Cavetown. As its name suggests, it is an excellent stopover to discover everything from afar.
Then there’s the lesser-known Vanis Kvabebi (Vani Caves), a stone-carved monastery just a 10-minute drive from Vardzia.
Preceding the site by a few hundred years, Vanis Kvabebi is almost as impressive as Vardzia himself. Eager climbers can scale the ruins through a series of wooden ladders that lead to a small white-domed church and enjoy stunning views of the valley.
Not far from Vanis Kvabebi is the fortress of Tmogvi. Over the river is a huge sprawl of ruins made up of a long forgotten citadel, tarnished frescoes and crumbling towers.
On the way back to Tbilisi, you will come to a forked road marked by the Khertvisi Fortress – a medieval castle stretching out on top of a rocky outcrop. A right turn will take you into Armenia and deeper into Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Khertvisi Fortress is a medieval castle stretched out atop a rocky outcrop.
Vardzia is located in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region in southern Georgia flanked by Turkey and Armenia with a vibrant tapestry of culture, landscape and cuisine. In the northern half of the region you’ll find Borjomi – a densely forested spa town known for its healing springs and bottled mineral waters that cure even the worst hangovers, according to local legend.
And then there is Akhaltsikhe, a quiet little town dominated by Rabati Castle, a medieval fortress and symbol of diversity crowned with a mosque, a synagogue and an Orthodox church.
Tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the region, you will find Lake Paravani. The largest lake in Georgia, it is surrounded by volcanic mountains and windswept wilderness. On its southern shores is Poka, a hamlet home to the Convent of St. Nino, a humble convent closely linked to the legend of St. Nino, a woman who introduced Christianity to Georgia, making her the second nation in the world. to convert after neighboring Armenia.
On the grounds you will also find a small shop run by the nuns who prepare artisan chocolates, traditional cheeses and even beer made from qvevri.
The region is shaped as much by its culinary traditions as by its cultural landmarks. Thanks to the influence of several cultures over the centuries, Samtskhe-Javakheti offers a whole range of delicious dishes.
At the top of the hills starting from Akhaltsikhe is Andriatsminda, a small village where a few local families have preserved the laborious tradition of tenili, a cheese native to the region known for its angel hair texture.
Considered a holdover from the presence of French priests in the area, you will also find lokokina (snails) meant to be enjoyed as a juicy garnish for khinkali (dumplings) or in the manner of snails.
Other delicacies include apokhti khinkali made from dried meat like goose, meskhuri shoti (Meskhetian bread) and the region’s long-time favorite tatarberaki – delicate squares of boiled dough topped with a rich sauce. made from garlic, onion, butter and yogurt.
Just a little over four hours from Tbilisi, a walk through the dense woods of Borjomi and the golden fortress of Akhalstikhe will bring you to Vardzia.
Opt for one of the many enthusiastic drivers perched on Liberty Square or get behind the wheel with a rental. While there are plenty of drivers happy to take a day trip, it’s best to explore the area for a few nights so you can really soak up the trail.