Khertvisi Fortress flatters to deceive. Dramatically located on a steep rocky outcrop, this 2,000-year old fortress makes a very powerful impression set against the craggy mountains at the confluence of the Paravani and Mtkvari Rivers. The long, steep slog to reach the entrance is rewarded with magnificent views but little else. Apart from a few fragments of carved stone and a small chapel, the fortress is an empty shell, and comes without much in the way of information.
This is surprising, because Khertvisi Fortress is one of the country’s largest and most ancient fortifications. If the location wasn’t enough, it can claim a little reflected glory from its association with Alexander the Great. Legend has it that Alexander laid siege to Khertvisi on his march east towards India. That association may pay dividends now for tourism, but the fortress was said to have been left a ruin by Alexander’s army. This was one of several times over the centuries that the fortress needed to be rebuilt.
There may be little to keep you more than 15 minutes inside the fortress, but the site, in a remote valley in south west Georgia, is utterly magnificent. It’s close enough to the Turkish border that you can almost smell the coffee, and for centuries guarded a vital crossroad on an important trade route. Along with the valley that stretches south from here to the extraordinary cave city of Vardzia, this whole area has been on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2007.
It is a spellbindingly beautiful landscape and, from Khertvisi’s battlements, you can see other ancient fortifications on the tops of hills in the distance. It’s a landscape filled with mystery and meaning. As I stood there, I was glad I’d made the ridiculous decision to drive a ten-hour round trip from Tbilisi. I’d set off before sunrise, passing the famous spa town of Borjomi before taking the road from Akhaltsikhe towards my destination of Vardzia. It was to be a long but rewarding day.
Sadly, the legend of Alexander the Great is probably just myth, historical records don’t support this claim to fame. The oldest parts of the fortress today date from the 10th century, including a stone carved with the words, ‘A king to rule all kings’, and dated 985 AD. I wandered through the fortress and then back down the hill to grab a coffee in the local cafe before driving down the valley. My route to reach this point had been beautiful, but what awaited was some of the finest landscapes of the trip.
The road through the valley floor follows the Mtkvari River, passing hillsides terraced for agriculture (reminding me of the Inca terraces in Peru), pastures filled with flowers, and more ancient fortifications. I stopped occasionally to take a photo and take in the views. On one occasion I found myself walking amongst a cluster of thousands of blue butterflies, perhaps attracted by the bright purple patches of lavender in the fields. The windows down, the perfume of lavender filled the air as I drove towards Vardzia.