I finally visited the third of Georgia’s major cave cities: Vardzia (the others are Davit Gareji and Uplitsikhe). I went with a large group of co-workers and friends, including fellow blogger Jim. He did a very good write-up of our trip, including lots of photos, so you should check out his thoughts as well. We also visited Rabati Castle on our excursion, but I’ve been there before and it hasn’t changed; still quite impressive!
Vardzia is located in the modern-day Samtskhe-Javakheti province, near the Turkish border, and not so far from Armenia. Most people visit as a day trip from Akhaltsikhe (hence the stop at Rabati) or Borjomi. We did it as a day trip from Tbilisi in a hired marshrutka. It was a long day (leading to some evening crankiness on my part), but definitely doable.
The road from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia largely parallels the Mtkvari river (which might sound familiar as it’s the river through downtown Tbilisi). The hillsides along the river are terraced. Once upon a time, the terraces were full of grape vines for wine production, but most of them have fallen into disuse. Nonetheless, it leads to interesting scenery. The tourist infrastructure at the Vardzia site itself is well-developed (paved paths, fairly clean and equipped public restrooms, gift shop, ticket booth), though it didn’t look like the surrounding villages have too much in the way of hotels or restaurants; I’ve heard of some guest houses though. The view you see of the cave city from the parking lot is quite good–it shows the full extent of the remnants of the city, which is still quite big, despite suffering massive losses in a 13th-Century earthquake.
One of the things that’s interesting about Vardzia is the variety of types of rooms contained in the complex. It was truly a city, not just a series of living caves; you can see a pharmacy and dining halls, in addition to multiple sizes of living quarters. The church has some interesting paintings–they show how Georgia’s artistic tradition at the time blended multiple influences, but also had its own unique traits.
The exit from the complex is through a tunnel that would have been used when the city was inhabited. I am a relatively normal-sized modern human (a little tall, but not shockingly so) and I am nearing the maximum size to go through that tunnel; some contortions were necessary. I also wouldn’t recommend it for people with knee problems. I don’t have bad knees in general, but the uneven steps were giving me a bit of an ache.
On our way back to Tbilisi, we stopped in the village of Akhaldaba, near Borjomi, to get some dinner. The village is famous for wood-oven khachapuri, and the restaurant we stopped at (the first one on the right after you enter the village’s restaurant area from Borjomi) did not disappoint on that front. All the food was good–we also ordered BBQ, mushrooms, and some vegetable salads. They also obligingly allowed us to bring our own wine (not so unusual in Georgia), cheese (a little more of a stretch), and tomatoes and cucumbers (which they shockingly even took into the kitchen and made into salad for us). This feast was an incredible bargain at just seven lari per person!
I’ve heard others say that Vardzia is above and beyond more interesting than the other cave cities in Georgia, but I disagree on that front. Vardzia is certainly a great place to visit, but it’s a time-consuming trip. If you want to see one of the cave cities, choose the site that is most interesting and convenient for you. While each of them is different, they are all interesting and impressive. If you only have a little time in Georgia, I’d recommend seeing Uplitsikhe, as it’s easier to access, and the stories I heard about it’s history were more interesting to me personally.