Vardzia is listed as one of the highlights of Georgia in our guidebook. We made it here on our second trip to Georgia, in October. Basing ourselves in Akhaltsikhe, we got a driver for the day to take us to the old cave city and other spots along the way. Although it is only 60km to Vardzia we spent an entire day away. The journey from Akhaltsikhe is along the Mtkvari River and the scenery was just gorgeous with canyons, green valleys and also arid rocky hillsides reminisent of Central Otago.

Views along the way, Akhaltsikhe–Vardzia.

Our first stop was the Khertvisi Fortress, around 45km into the journey. The impressive 10th-14th century fortress sits on a rocky crag above the meeting of the Paravani and Mtkvari Rivers. We clambered up the track and through the ruins into the fortress. There was no official entry, no tickets, no-one else there. It was pretty cool!

Khertvisi Fortress

Inside Khertvisi Fortress

Inside Khertvisi Fortress

Next stop was Vanis Qvabebi Monastery Caves just 2km before Vardzia, on the other side of the road. Our driver went as far as he could up the steep side road then we walked the rest of the way to the caves in the cliffs high above the valley. The monastery here is four centuries older than Vardzia and we saw a few monks who have made some of the caves their home, relatively recently as the place had otherwise been abandoned for centuries. We climbed up and up using a series of ladders to get to the small white chapel high in the cliffs. The views from there were awesome.

We climbed up to the white chapel you can see on the hill, Vanis Qvabebi.

Up ladders and steps to the tiny chapel.

Chapel & Cave, Kvabebi Cave Monastery

Views from caves near the chapel. (L) note the many levels of caves on the hillside opposite. (R) looking down to the access road and the valley below.

Finally, we arrived at Vardzia- a place I’d been looking forward to seeing since our first visit to the country when we ran out of time to get here. Vardzia did not disappoint!

Vardzia Cave Monastery

In the 12th century a fortification was built here by King Giorgi III, then his daughter Queen Tamar established a cave monastery here that grew into a city. At one time approximately 2000 monks lived in Vardzia. It was far bigger than we could see, with dwellings in the rock 13 floors high. In total there were once over 400 rooms, 13 churches and 25 wine cellars.

Vardzia Cave Monastery

In 1283 a major earthquake shook away the outer walls of many caves and in 1551 the Georgians were defeated by the Persians in a battle in the caves themselves, and Vardzia was looted. So although impressive today it is a shadow of its former glory.

We got an audio guide so walked around taking in information about the various cave structures we were looking at, from churches, horse stables, Queen Tamar’s bedroom, pharmacies and secret passageways, it was all fascinating!

(Clockwise from top left): Escape room, Chapel frescoes, View from a cave, Stables, Queen Tamar’s bedroom.

Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures in the Church of the Assumption, a church near the centre of the complex with impressive frescoes. Incredible that these frescoes were from the time the church was constructed between 1184-1186. Beautiful!

After walking the length of Vardzia looking in all the caves and walking along a myriad of passageways, we exited at the other end and walked back along a path below the caves to our waiting driver. We then headed a couple of kms away to a restaurant and had a nice lunch.

Our driver had secured a key from a friend to a private hot pool- so our last stop before heading home was a very nice soak in the natural hot water. Yet another great day in this year of many…

Pool beside natural hot spring, near Vardzia.

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