10th June 2019
Close to the southern border with Turkey, an ancient cave city lies tucked away on the side of a cliff. It comes into view above the river at the end of a road following a long winding valley. It’s the only road in and out.
We stayed the night at the Valloda farm cottages nearby. It’s still a working farm and we enjoyed a drink before dinner overlooking the gardens and listening to the sound of the Kura river rushing past. Dinner was plentiful and delicious with barbecued trout for main course. As I don’t eat fish, I was presented with a skewer of giant whole vegetables that was even too much for my big appetite. It’s not possible to go hungry in Georgia! The red wine was flowing, which they make themselves on the farm and it was a fantastic evening by all accounts.
In the morning we went to explore the caves, beating the crowds by arriving when they opened. The heat was already intense at 10am as we sweated our way up to the start of the cave complex. Once inside we saw kitchens with fireplaces, dining rooms and living spaces. Of course, a bit of imagination was required to picture what it would have been like living here, when it was once inhabited. Just like modern day Georgians, the 12th century cave dwellers loved their wine. There are 128 wine cellars among the 300 caves. One of the highlights was the cave monastery (church of the assumption) with its Christian frescoes all over the walls and domed ceiling, still clear even after 800 years.
The complex was built over 14 floors and we explored a network of passages up, down and around the confusing system. Passages that weren’t built for my 6ft 3inch frame. We crouched low to slide through narrow passages and clambered down stairwells cut into the limestone to appreciate the vast and intricate nature of the caves. It was Queen Tamar who developed the cave system and turned it into a monastery - she holds a legendary place in Georgian hearts. Over the years since, Vardzia has been affected by several huge earthquakes as well as Persian and Turkish invasions in the 16th century. It was out of bounds during soviet occupation but now its beauty and inimitable structure is accessible to all with the time and will to venture to this tranquil corner of the country.
I had been looking forward to Vardzia ever since I was assigned the Georgia: Myths and Mountains tour. Both the farm stay and caves provided a perfect way to finish the tour, before heading back to Tbilisi. I write this having just returned to the UK, but now with Georgia on my mind and in my heart. I can’t wait to return!