Vardzia - the monastery dating back to the twelfth century AD, located on the banks of the river Mtkvari is one of the most important historical sites in Georgia. Similar to the cave towns that can be found in Goreme region, Turkey, however this one is even bigger, carved out of the entire wall of the cliff, with beautifully decorated church. The location, in the middle of a huge gorge, offers unforgettable views. Until this day, some monks still live in those caves.
The site is really incredible and not overcrowded as few people in the West even know that there is such a country as Georgia. So, visit it now, before it gets too touristy and expensive. Now, you still can freely walk through all the corridors carved out of the rocks olmost a thousand years ago.
How to get to Vardzia
From Tbilisi, it's impossible to do a one day trip to Vardzia using public transport. There are some buses, not expensive, however, the ride will take more than 5 hours. The best thing to do is to travel from Bakurjani, a nice spa-town or a village of Akhaltsikhe. It's easy to get from Tbilisi to Bakurjani by marshrutka. There are some marshrutkas (mini buses) to Vardzia in Akhaltsikhe that depart in the morning and come back in the evening for only 3 GEL (1.20 EUR, 1.70 USD).
Another option is, you can take a taxi. They are not too expensive, especially if you travel with a few people. The taxi from Borjomi costs 120 GEL return (50 EUR, 70 USD), from Akhaltsikhe 50 GEL (20 EUR/27 USD). The drive from Borjomi takes more than 1.5 hour, from Akhaltsikhe - 55 minutes.
A taxi from Tbilisi might be a bit costly, 120 EUR/165 USD. In this case, a day trip is possible, however the drive will be long, around 5 hours one way.
When you take a taxi, ask the driver to stop over near the beautiful Khertvisi fortress dating back to the second century BC.
History of Vardzia
The site of Vardzia was inhabited since the ancient times, and cave towns in the region date back to as early as the fifth century BC. One of them is Uplistsikhe (click the link to see post and photos about Uplistsikhe), a must see besides Vardzia. Cave Monastery City of Vardzia was carved in the twelfth century during the Georgian Golden Age.
The name of the cite comes from, according to the legend, a conversation between Tamar (who is depicted in the church of the Dormition) and Giorgi, his niece, when he was looking for her after she had gotten lost in the maze of the tunnels. She replied when called: "I'm here" ("Ac var dzia" in Georgian). And "Var dzia" became the name.
The monastery is made of numerous tunnels connecting houses and other rooms with the beautifully painted, well preserved church of Dormition and other smaller chapels.
It was abandoned in the sixteenth century after the Ottoman Invasion, however, as I have mentioned above, some monks live there until today. More information, you can find on wikipedia here.
While visiting Vardzia you will be impressed by the nature around. Cliffs, canyons and gorges make the site really beautiful for the eye. On the way to Vardzia you will encounter many small picturesque villages that match the surroundings perfectly.
Vardzia is great as it's not as touristy (but not less amazing!) as for example Goreme cave towns in Turkey (I've described it here in detail). Not too many people know about it, I was a bit shocked that, when I was in Goreme, even our guide didn't know about Vardzia (although it's one of the main, biggest and best preserved sites of this kind in the region)!
But thanks to this, you have virtually the whole cave city just for yourself to explore. You can enter any tunnel, room or church as you wish. The tunnels connect the various levels of the monastery, so you enter one and when you leave you are on top in a completely different place. It's truly astonishing to think that people in the age without electricity and technology were able to create such an amazing structure.
Entry fee is only 3 GEL (1.20 EUR, 1.70 USD), there are also some guides available on the side.
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