Zac Peterson
Zac Peterson
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Vardzia Cliff Monastery

The Caucasus region is home to many cave dwellings, but Vardzia is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular. Vardzia (?????? in Georgian) is a cave monastery carved into the face of a cliff above the Kura River in southwestern Georgia. The complex consisted of hundreds of caves excavated into Erusheti Mountain by monks in the 12th and 13th centuries AD.

The size of the monastery is astounding, as the caves are carved into a steep, half-kilometer-wide section of the mountain face. The caves acted as sleeping area, meditation spots, churches, kitchens, and other rooms needed by the monks. Most of the cave residences were carved by a single monk. The caves are connected via a series of walkways, stairs, and (in a few cases) narrow tunnels. The highlight of the cliff cave complex is The Church of the Dormition, which was carved out in the 1180s. This church is still active, and is decorated by spectacular wall paintings. Though Vardzia was mostly abandoned in the 16th century after the Ottomans took over the region, five monks still live in the mountain. You may run into one of them inside the Church of Dormition, or see them ringing the bells in front of the church every morning at 7 am.

Vardzia is located 16 km from Khertvisi, and 62 km from Akhaltsikhe (????????), the home of Rabati Fortress. The easiest way to visit is by arranging a tour from one of the many companies in Tbilisi. However, this is not necessary, and the site can also easily be visited as a day trip from Tbilisi via public transportation and taxi.

Take a minibus to Akhaltsikhe from the Didube (??????) bus station in northern Tbilisi. Didube station is accessible via the Tbilisi metro. Buses leave approximately every hour, and will pass through Khashuri and Borjomi on the way to Akhaltsikhe. I recommend leaving by 8 am, as the bus ride takes about 3 hours.

After Khashuri the drive is very beautiful, as the road winds along a river just south of the densely forested Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. When passing through Atskuri, about 30 km after Borjomi, keep an eye out for the picturesque Atskuri Fortress. After arriving at the Akhaltsikhe bus station, hire a taxi to Vardzia. I hired a guy for almost 5 hours for only 50 lari (~$20 USD).

The drive from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes. On the way, you will drive through the Mtkvari River canyon, with fantastic scenery on either side. In Khertvisi, you can stop and see the impressive Khertvisi Fortress, which is perched up on a steep point of rock at the intersection of two rivers. The best views of the fortress are from across the Paravani River (right after the turnoff for the town of Khertvisi) and from across the Mtkvari River, which you can cross via a footbridge. If you have time, the nearby mountain village of Saro is a beautiful place to visit.

About 2 km after leaving Khertvisi, you will pass through Gelsunda. Across the river, some cave houses are visible at the base of the cliff. You can see some more just south of the village of Pia. Just before the town of Nakalakevi, at the top of a hill, the road passes the ruins of an ancient bazaar. After passing through the next town, Tmogvi, the canyon walls get narrower and steeper, and you can spot the ruins of Tmogvi Fortress. If you have time in the area, there are trails leading up to the fortress, which you can access via a footbridge in Tmogvi. Just before reaching Vardzia, there will be a road on the left to reach Vanis Kvabebi, a smaller cave monastery in a side canyon.

Seeing all of Vardzia takes several hours. When you arrive back in Akhaltsikhe, explore the extensive Rabati Fortress if you have time.

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