Why You Should Visit This Ancient Cave System in the Heart of Georgia
The 12th Century tunnel system of Varzia, Georgia is worth the trip.
Strapped between Asia and Europe sits the special country of Georgia. This is the story of my travels to its ancient cave city of Vardzia.
Driving to Vardzia, you’ll feel your gaze fixated on the arid boulder hillside. Look closely. Are those caves?
If taking a taxi, don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop at a few notable viewpoints along the way. Usually, they are happy to stop at no extra charge. Georgians love to show off their beautiful country.
Vardzia, Georgia is a cave city and monastery site in the southern half of the country. It’s the most impressive cave in Georgia. A must-see for any Georgia itinerary.
The drive is as scary as the cave city itself. The road follows high up in the hills along the Mtkvari River. Passing through steep, narrow canyons that feel as if they will fall on top of you.
It’s about 170 miles southwest of the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. However, it’ll take you more than five hours.
Once you reach the small village of Vardzia, it won’t take long for you to see the ancient cave city. It was miraculously constructed and excavated way back in the twelfth century. Imagine that — the 12th Century!
There is a dark river that storms through the valley of Vardzia and splits the entire village.
I arrived in the middle of a cloudy, dark afternoon. I was with five friends whom I had met in Tbilisi. It was supposed to be a week-long trip to the Caucasus region, but I ended up spending it all in Georgia.
Vardzia is not one of the largest cities in Georgia. As a matter of fact, if you blink, you’ll probably miss it. It’s better classified as a village. A hillside village with only a few dozen rundown farmhouses.
Our eyes were too fixed on the beauty surrounding the village to notice our taxi driver had stopped the van. We were on the shoulder of the road. He was staring back at us as we took pictures from the car windows.
He was silent but stared nonetheless. The guy didn’t know a lick of English. Most people don’t know English in Georgia — only enough to answer simple questions. Sometimes, not even that much. Outside of the capital of Tbilisi, usually none.
Luckily I was traveling with three friends from Belarus who could speak Russian. As a part of the former USSR, Russian is widely spoken in Georgia.
The driver wanted to know where our accommodation was. He had a long drive back to the capital and had to get a move on.
The problem was, we didn’t know where we didn’t have any accommodation booked. There are no hotel or hostel options in the small cave city. Definitely not on Booking.com, anyway.
There were no campgrounds, either. It was probably too cold to camp in the mountains in Georgia in mid-March, anyway.
Fortunately, there were a few resorts at the edge of the village.
Georgia is a very affordable country to travel to for most westerners. However, being the budget traveler I am, any time I hear the word “resort”, I fret.
In fact, the two resorts were very expensive — especially for Georgians.
The six of us weren’t exactly luxury travelers. We asked the driver for any kind of alternative. He mentioned a friend of his who had a farmhouse up in the hills.
After giving his friend a call, we were pulling into the long driveway of a beat-up farmhouse. There was a bee farm in the front yard. Bees swarmed us as soon as we got out of the van.
We were greeted by an elderly couple. Luckily, they’d have us stay for much cheaper than the resorts. They didn’t speak any English. All our communication for the next 24 hours came through translating.
We dropped off our bags and headed across the river via hitchhiking. The ancient cave city was calling us before the sun went down.
It was raining, but perhaps that was a good thing. There were no other tourists at the caves, but I doubt there were many in town, anyway. We were the only ones roaming the tunnels that evening.
The caves in Georgia are so intricate, but particularly Vardzia. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Georgia, you’ve seen the jaw-dropping cave city.
Vardzia Georgia is truly a must-see in Georgia. It was by-far-and-away my favorite moment of my week in the country.
The living conditions were dangerous for those who called the cave city home. Of course, there were no cave dwellers in modern times. But remnants left behind suggest there were inhabitants in the twelfth century.
There was no electricity, steep drop-offs, fence-less ledges, and slippery rocks. It seemed impossible to navigate the caves without sunlight. I certainly didn’t want to be caught up in the tunnels after dark.
We traversed the darkening living quarters cave-by-cave. The efforts of ancient Georgians to build the cave system were humbling.
There were elevated concrete platforms used as seating and beds. Windows for sunlight. Even toilet holes carved through the concrete to keep things hygienic.
With each section of the cave I entered, I kept spinning in amazement. The dedication it must’ve taken in construction is admirable.
Every single inch of the cave city was impressive. Vardzia Georgia extends roughly 1,500 feet across, spanning the length of the hillside. It extends to nineteen tiers high. Ladders and modern stairs led us to the top.
The experience was unforgettable.
We returned to the farmhouse and were greeted by half the village. Nobody tried to explain why they were there.
Soon, it was clear the locals had come to see the foreigners. Us.
Although Vardzia is a popular tourist spot in Georgia, most tourists stay in the resorts and rarely have to leave other than when visiting the cave city.
Georgians who live in the rural part of the country, especially, rarely get the chance to interact with foreigners. Especially western foreigners.
When word spread that foreigners were in the farmhouse, they wanted to see for themselves. They awaited with homemade wine and vodka. Dinner, too, but the alcohol was much more present on the table.
For hours, the villagers who couldn’t even speak to me shoved drinks under my nose. A middle-aged man held the bottle upside down which was a sign for his wife to bring more.
Rural Georgians live very much in the past. Every aspect of life, but especially when it comes to gender equality. The women were never allowed to sit around the table.
Even the men my age weren’t allowed to sit at the table. Only the elder men. So, they huddled around it. As guests, the six of us were hardly allowed to leave the table. I had to beg them to let me take a piss.
By midnight, we were skunk drunk. At one point, the husband requested me to stand and say a toast. Although none of the villagers could understand me, I did as the man said under the spell of a lot of liquid courage.
When I finished, Natalia translated a version of my speech. The husband responded, “That was not so beautiful, but it’s O.K.”.
After drinking our weight in vodka and homemade wine, the locals demanded we visit the thermal pools. They insisted on taking us, so we obliged.
Down in the valley, under the full moon, we snuck off to the pools while the man who drove us waited in his car.
The compassion and hospitality of Georgians are unrivaled. They only wanted to show us the best of time.
The pools were less than stellar, however. At least, the humidity sobered us. Thankfully. Georgians are heavy drinkers. They were drinking us under the table.
After we sweat out a majority of the alcohol, we returned to the farmhouse. Most of the villagers had gone home, but a few remained.
The husband had set up his computer with and was connected to his son who had been living in San Francisco. As soon as we entered the home, he motioned for us to come to speak with his son.
It was past two in the morning. I was still slightly drunk. Plus, he was offering us more alcohol as we spoke online with a stranger we would never meet. I couldn’t help but think Georgians were a little mad.
Once we finished Skyping their son, the wife had prepared a little more food to cap off the night. I knew a deadly hangover was incoming, so I had no problem scarfing down a little bit more.
The wife remained crazy-busy over the course of the night. She slaved while the husband enjoyed himself. And, still, late at night, she continued to work diligently in the kitchen.
I brought my plate to the sink and began washing the dishes. Wherever I go, I always try to leave a good impression and be a good representative of my country. It’s part of the philosophy seeded at the heart of my identity as a traveler.
However, she would not accept my help. The husband even laughed at the sight of me helping in the kitchen. Perhaps, my offer was seen as disrespectful.
The husband sent us to bed with a liter of wine. When he woke us up at the break of dawn, it was still full. To this, he took offense.
He shuffled us downstairs for a fresh traditional breakfast. He even gathered fresh milk from the cow that morning. I’d never had milk directly from a cow — and I’ve never had wine for breakfast — which was also poured and forced down us. Go figure.
By ten o’clock in the morning, I was drunk again.
Georgians are surely mad.
We all got a little carried away in our drunkenness and forgot we had flights to catch back in the city. We had to rush back. I never said goodbye to the sweet wife.
Even if they are mad about alcohol, the villagers of Vardzia Georgia showed us a memorable experience. I could never forget.
I was the center of attention of a whole village. There was a pop-up party held in our honor. We had a hell of a time.
I owe a great thanks to everyone who gave us the experience we had. Vardzia will always be in my memory.
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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **
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