The extraordinary cave city of Vardzia inhabits a remote hillside above the meandering Mtkvari River. It sits in a magnificent fertile valley that, until recently, was a remote and isolated spot only a few kilometres from the Turkish border. The green valley contrasts sharply with the brown hills surrounding it. As I drove through it I couldn’t help wishing I could spend a couple of days exploring this fascinating region. Sadly, this was a mad self-drive dash from Tbilisi and back in a day.
I’ve never been happier than when I discovered Vardzia lived up to both the photos I’d seen of it and the fulsome praise it received in my guidebook. I left Tblisi before sunrise to drive the glorious route to Vardzia. The 280km, five hour, one way drive, skirted along river gorges, across mountains, through villages and an occasional town. The final 60km passed along the picturesque road from Akhaltsikhe into the Mtkvari River valley, at the far end of which lies Vardzia.
The whole valley is scattered with the remnants of ancient fortifications, churches and caves, but it is Vardzia that is the outstanding site. The cave complex was started in the 12th century and is most strongly associated with King Tamar, the legendary Georgian Queen who was crowned a King. She intended it to be a repository of national culture and religion during a period of intense conflict with invading Mongol armies, a purpose it would serve well.
It was a massive site, with a throne room, churches, libraries, shops, hundreds of cave dwellings and a water system, dug over thirteen levels deep in the mountainside. This includes some remarkable tunnels that burrow through the rock and connect various parts of the complex. In total, there are over 6,000 rooms. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List which, after spending a few hours here, made me wonder what you have to do to get on the actual list of World Heritage Sites.
Maybe the problem is that what we see today is only about a third of the original city. It took 48 years to construct Vardzia, by which time it could hold a population of 50,000 people – huge by the standards of the 12th century. Unfortunately, it was the victim of a devastating earthquake in 1283, after which it was largely abandoned. It would go on to become a monastery in later centuries, until the Persian invasion of 1551 finished what the earthquake began. A handful of monks still call it home though.
The monks of earlier centuries developed an irrigation system and terraced farming in the valley, which made the city self sufficient. Being monks, this included vines to make their own wine. It’s believed there were up to 25 wine cellars in the city at one point. You can still see vines being cultivated as you drive down the valley. I visited on Sunday and, despite my early departure from Tblisi, discovered several minibuses and a couple of coaches already in the car park.
I walked up the hill and made my way into the complex that remains open to visitors – around 300 rooms, including the interesting Church of the Dormition, which comes with frescoes. I clambered up and down steep stairs, in and out of cave houses, and took in the sweeping views over the valley below. It was utterly amazing, but the best bit came when I entered the warren of interior tunnels. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like to navigate these by candlelight.
Most other visitors seemed to be Georgian family groups with a scattering of foreign travellers. Georgians are not the quietest of people in groups, making for a carnival atmosphere. On more than one occasion I was stopped by people wanting to know where I came from and to welcome me to Georgia. My trip was coming to an end, and this seemed like a fitting metaphor for the whole trip: magnificent landscapes, ancient history, welcoming people, and the promise of wine.