The Georgian cave city complex built by the queen who was a king.
Vardzia is the largest cave city complex in Georgia, dug deep into the Erusheti Mountain. It was built mostly in the 12th century by Queen Tamar, an interesting Georgian historical figure, who was the only queen in Georgia ever to be crowned king as the successor of her father, King Giorgi III. She ushered in the prosperous Georgian Golden age and even today the Georgians will proudly mention “King Tamar” without a hint of sarcasm.
The cave city was built from preexisting natural caves to protect the medieval people of Georgia from the invading Mongol hordes in the form of a fortress/monastery combo. It is located at about 1300 m above sea level and contained over 600 rooms built in up to 13 levels, including a refectory with a bakery, a forge, a throne room and quarters for King Tamar, a pharmacy and several chapels, as well as 25 wine cellars and over a hundred wine jars sunk in the floor (Georgia is known as the cradle of wine making). There’s also the main Church of the Assumption, complete with a bell tower and a cemetery. The entire complex was excavated within about 50 years, which is quite an impressive feat, and the name supposedly comes from King Tamar as well. According to the local legend, she got lost in the caves and when they went looking for her, she’d shouted back აქ ვარ ძია: ac var dzia or “I am here”, which gave the future city its name.
All of Vardzia is connected with an intricate network of access tunnels and was supplied with clean water via an irrigation system, which also enabled them to grow food on terraces carved into the outside mountain slope. At the height of its power, the city was pretty self-sufficient and had an advanced defence system to complement its strategic position, which made it impenetrable to any attackers. However, in the 13th century, a massive earthquake ripped the mountain apart and destroyed about 2/3 of Vardzia. After it was partially rebuilt, the city served as a monastery until the 16th century, when it was sacked by a Persian Shah. It was mostly abandoned after that, but some of the irrigation pipes still supply drinkable water to this day and there are in fact a couple of monks living there since 1999 and maintaining the site. Apparently they ring the church bells every morning at 7 am.
There are several surviving frescoes from the New Testament inside the Church of Assumption and the chapels, including a portrait of King Tamar and her father. When I visited in 2018 with my boyfriend, most of Vardzia was open to the public (except for the monks’ living quarters) and the entrance fee was rather minimal, but the staff didn’t speak very good English, so I suggest you read about its history online. If you wish to see the church, you need properly respectful attire and there’s a tunnel leading up from the church to the higher levels, which is quite narrow and claustrophobic, but you will be rewarded with beautiful views when you’re out. You can explore all the rooms on your own and the visitor trek is kind of circular, so it will spit you out somewhere on the lower levels when you’ve seen it all.
The view from Vardzia
You can get public transport shuttles from nearby towns about 3 times per day, but the easiest option is to hire a taxi driver to take you to Vardzia and all the nearby sites, as there are quite a few. We hired a driver for a day and a half in Akhaltsikhe, who took us to Vardzia, the Sapara monastery and some other sights on the way and we paid him about 35 euros, including a generous tip, since he was extremely helpful and friendly. Be prepared for nerve wracking driving though, as there were several times I was convinced we were going to die screaming, like when he was overtaking a huge truck on half of a narrow road, between a construction site and the edge of a cliff. Georgians don’t really indicate when they are planning to overtake someone, they just drive up tight beside them and start honking the horn in a “hey, I’m here, now move aside or we’ll both crash” kind of way, but it seems to work, so who am I to say they shouldn’t? I do know I’d never drive a rental car in Georgia though.
As I mentioned, there are also a couple of other points of interest near Vardzia, which are worth checking out if you have the time. We got to see the well-preserved Khertvisi fortress and an interesting hanging bridge next to it, but there are also the smaller Vanis Kvabebi caves about 2 km from Vardzia, the Tmogvi village and fortress, the golden village of Saro and lots of hiking opportunities, if you fancy getting a different view. Unfortunately Georgian tourist attractions are not very well-documented online yet, so your best option is to ask the locals for directions (all the taxi drivers should know) or hire a driver, if you’d like to visit those.