A day trip to the ancient cave village of Vardzia, Georgia
June 3, 2019
When one hears the words “cave” and “village”, one might first think about the well-known region of Cappadocia. We took the chance to visit, arguably, the least-known cave village in the world — Vardzia in the country of Georgia. In this article, I will share my personal experience, recommendations and tips for visiting the mysterious cave village, which has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage.
A brief introduction to Vardzia
The cave monastery of Vardzia is located beside the over 1500 kilometres long Kura river in Southern Georgia. Built during the 12th century, Vardzia accommodated up to 40,000 people and contained 6,000 rooms, of which some served as pharmacies, a church, and 25 as wine cellars. Today, Vardzia consists of over 600 caves, a functioning beautiful church with detailed art inside of it, and long mysterious tunnels that are open for visitors.
An interesting legend tells that during the High Medieval Period, the young daughter of the King of Georgia of that time, Tamar, was playing in the ancient cave village. When her uncle Giorgi, worried of her getting lost in the caves, called out for her, she replied “ac var dzia”, which stands for “I’m here uncle”, giving Vardzia its name.
Recommendations during the visit
Entrance fee to the cave village is 7 GEL, €2,3 (children and students 1 GEL, €0,3), and additional 1 GEL if one wants transportation from the ticket office up to the hill to where the cave village starts. An optional audio guide is available for 10 GEL (€3,2), which I think could be helpful if one is interested in hearing the history and more detailed stories of different parts of the cave village, for example, what each cave was used for back in the days. We did not have the audio guide with us, which left us wondering about some of the details in the caves, for instance, we found out after our visit that the mysterious holes on the floors of some of the caves were carved to keep wine pitchers in them.
As Georgia is a mountainous country, the winters are cold and summers hot. According to some sources, the cave village is closed during winters. Therefore, the best time to visit Vardzia, which is located on a mountain, would be spring or autumn to avoid too hot or cold temperatures and to make the visit pleasant. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to explore the entire Vardzia cave village. During our visit, some parts of the cave village were closed due to a stone fall and restoration, so we could not reach all of the village. However, the area is large, so a lot of walking is included. Shoes proper to walk steep steps and narrow passages, as well as tunnels in caves, are recommended. In addition, visiting parts of the monastery (the church and tunnels) require covering shoulders and knees. According to different sources, some monks may still live on the area, so modest dressing is recommended, even when not planning to visit the church and tunnels.
How to get to Vardzia?
Many local travel agencies offer day trips to Vardzia — with a few stops along the way, most often in Borjomi and Rabati Fortress — from different locations, for instance, the capital, Tbilisi. Some travel agencies are more flexible with the amount of time the group is allowed to spend at each destination, and the participants are free to walk around without the guide and the rest of the group. These may good to find out when booking the trip based on one’s preferences.
We booked our tour from an entrepreneur advertising day trips on the streets of Tbilisi. It is important to remember, that many things are based on trust between people in Georgia. When we booked our tour, we paid a 10 GEL (€3,2) reservation fee and agreed to pay the rest (60 GEL/person, €19,3) after the tour. We had the thought at the back of our minds that the entrepreneur may have just scammed us. However, the car and tour guide showed up on the morning of the trip to pick us up (20 minutes late though).
For more independent travel, an option is that one can travel to Akhaltsikhe and take a marshrutka (local minibus) from Akhaltsikhe for 5 GEL (€1,6) at 10:30 in the morning, however, the last marshrutka from Vardzia back to Akhaltsikhe leaves already at 3 pm. A marshrutka from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe takes about 3 to 4 hours and costs 8 GEL (€2,6). Another option is taking a taxi from Akhaltsikhe, which is a more expensive choice than marshrutka, but still affordable (about 50 GEL, €16, for a return trip). Something else, which I — as someone coming from a country where everyone follows a schedule tightly — consider important to remember, is that people, buses, taxis, everything is a bit behind a schedule in Georgia. So, be prepared to wait for people, get stuck in the traffic and end the day trip later than it was supposed to end. But remember that this is part of the culture and experience, and just relax!
When visiting in Southern Georgia
Various guest houses and hotels can be found in the area with a walking distance to Vardzia, so staying overnight could be an option in order to explore more. Other interesting sites to visit on the area are Tmogvi Fortress, Khertvisi Fortress and the cave monastery of Vanis Kvabebi, which are on the way from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia. These are best visited when travelling independently by taxi. Unfortunately, we did not get the chance to visit these sites, as we were on the trip with four other visitors and a guide. However, as a part of the day trip, we stopped briefly in Akhaltsikhe to explore the Rabati Fortress.
Rabati Fortress is located in the city of Akhaltsikhe and had the very same name as the city in its early days. The fortress was protecting Georgia and has been destroyed multiple times due to wars and conflicts in history. It was not restored from the damage caused by the latest war until a few years ago. Today, Rabati Fortress is an attractive sight, consisting of a castle, Georgian church and a mosque with a golden roof. The stunning fortress is definitely worth a visit!