On the Road in Georgia: Vardzia

September 23-24, 2014: Initially we had planned to head straight from Gori to Svaneti, another mountainous region in the northwestern corner of Georgia. Since the weather forecast was calling for snow in the mountains with sun expected later in the week, we decided to postpone that for the time being. Batumi was also on our must see list, located on the Black Sea coast down in the southwest corner of the country near Turkey. But it was raining there and our days were numbered. So we opted for Vardzia instead.

It was a little far to get there in one day, so we decided to stay in Bakuriani for the night, a ski resort high up in the mountains near Borjomi. It was nearly deserted with no one about in September. Obviously too late for the summer tourists and much too early for the skiers. Even most of the hotels seems closed up tight. Now I understood why, when I had tried to book a room on Agoda, nothing was available.

After driving up and down the main street a couple of times, we picked a small family run place called the New House Hotel. I don’t think they were really open for guests but they accommodated us anyway. The parents and grandmother didn’t speak English, but lucky for us, their teenage daughter knew a little. We were their only guests that night.

We didn’t have as much luck trying to find a restaurant. We even asked at the police station. No joy. Instead, we picked up some fresh lobiani bread (it’s stuffed with beans) from a small bakery and some fruit, cheese and sausage from a little market and had a picnic in our room topped off with a fine bottle of red Georgian wine.

In the morning, grandma made us an enormous breakfast with fresh yogurt, cheese, hot dogs, eggs, the omni present cucumbers and tomatoes, hot cereal, honey, toast, juice, cookies, coffee and tea. We were stuffed by the time we hit the road but we still snuck off with a few biscuits tucked in our pockets in case we got hungry later on.

This was our first decision point of the day. Should we retrace our steps to Borjomi and take the main road to Vardzia or continue up and over the mountain pass on a shortcut? We checked our two maps and asked about the road conditions ahead. It looked good, so we decided on the shortcut. We probably should have known better.

The road, which started out good in town, quickly deteriorated as we approached the pass. By now it was raining heavily and getting cold. At this point we discovered that the heater in our rented Pajero did not work. (Neither did the air conditioner for that matter, but no mind, we never needed it.)

At the summit, we came across a small blue shipping container and a police truck with two officers sitting inside staying warm and dry. They flagged us down and asked for our passports, which we dutifully handed over.

Twenty minutes later, we were still waiting, unsure what was taking so long. Several other vehicles came and went, stopping only a minute or two to show their papers before heading on their way. There was no cellular service up here, so we couldn’t even call anyone to help translate. We’d heard rumours about corrupt police officials so we weren’t sure what to expect. But eventually the officer returned, handed back our passports and waved us on our way.

From here, the visibility and the road both turned from bad to worse. The rain was torrential, the road was full of big rocks interspersed with giant potholes. We inched along wondering how long it would take to meet up with the main road again. We only passed a handful of vehicles along the way despite the fact that this is shown on the map as a “road of state importance.”

Much of this route was well above the treeline in an area known as the Ktsia-Tabatskuri Sanctuary. It felt like we were in the Scottish highlands. Rocky and barren, with only a few sheep here and there. When we finally started our descent on the far side, we could see a number of towns off in the distance. But that distance took an awfully long time to close.

I think we were giddy when we decided to bypass one of the many wide switchbacks and set off across a rocky field on a shortcut track. It looked so promising until we got ourselves stuck firmly in the sticky mud. At least the four-wheel drive kicked in and Chris was able to get a bit of traction despite the bald tires.

Almost three hours after setting out, we finally reached the main road at Akhalkalaki. Google maps was a little off with their estimated driving time of 57 minutes to cover that measly 55 kilometres. A new record for slow.

I have never appreciated a paved road more in my life. From here it was a quick run to Vardzia on a great stretch of road, passing through beautiful valleys and the Khertvisi fortress along the way (10th to 14th centuries).

Despite the drama, Vardzia was well worth the effort to get there. It was grey and overcast when we arrived, not great for photography, but at least it had stopped raining.

And then, as we climbed up the path from the valley bottom, the sky brightened. By the time we were poking around the caves the sun even put in an appearance. What a difference that made!

Vardzia is a medieval cave monastery that was built in the 12th Century. It starts 100 metres above the valley floor, reaching up 19 levels and stretching 500 metres from one end to the other.

According to Wikipedia, there were four distinct building periods. During the reign of Giorgi III (1156-1184), the site was laid out and the first cave dwellings were excavated. Between his death and the marriage of his daughter Queen Tamar in 1186, the Church of the Assumption was carved out and decorated. From then until the Battle of Basian (circa 1203), many more dwellings were constructed along with defences, a water supply and an irrigation network. Following a terrible earthquake in 1283, there was a period of partial rebuilding.

Central to the complex is the Church of the Assumption, highly decorated with frescos both inside and out. There are also numerous cave dwellings, 14 chapels, meeting rooms, a reception chamber, a pharmacy, libraries, a bell tower, a bakery and bread ovens, wine cellars with wine jars sunk into the floor and even a cemetery. The site includes a complex system of hidden access tunnels, water facilities, a sewerage system and provision for defence. Queen Tamar endowed the monastery with vast rich lands to provide for the inhabitants.

Over the years the cave town was raided first by Mongolians and later by Persians. In 1551, Persians defeated the Georgians at Vardzia, burned 20 monks inside the church and looted the site, which was then abandoned.

The monastery was partially restored and re-consecrated in the mid 19th Century, operating until 1924. During the Soviet era it became a tourist centre and museum. In 1999, monastic life resumed in Vardzia, albeit on a tiny scale compared to its peak. A few monks live in the caves once more.

Poking around the caves and exploring the hidden passageways was incredibly interesting, even though all the caves were empty and devoid of any signs of medieval life. Probably not without surprise, we made a number of references to the Flintstones. It felt like we were wandering through Bedrock.

It was disappointing, however, to see the amount of damage done to some of the ancient frescos. Fortunately the ones inside the Church of the Assumption are still in good condition.

Back on the road, we had a long drive ahead of us to get to Kutaisi, our next overnight stop. After a late lunch we arrived in Akhaltsikhe, a town close to the Turkish border. It was decision time again. Turn left and take the shorter road across the mountains through Borjomi Reserve or turn right and drive the longer route along the river valley back to Borjomi and retrace our steps of the previous day?

Once again we (meaning me, the navigator) made the wrong decision. I really, really, really should have known better by now. But I was reassured when we got to the turnoff and there was a road sign showing the distance to Kutaisi. That seemed promising. Not long afterwards we came to a dead end; a locked gate blocking our way. Apparently the park road is only accessible on foot, by bike or on horseback. We had to return about 30 kilometres. And we still had another 180 kilometres to go.

It was dark by the time we reached the mountains separating us from Kutaisi. Although we were driving on the main highway through Georgia, in this section it was a narrow, winding two-lane road filled with a lot of slow moving truck traffic and crazy drivers passing on blind corners, in the dark, in the rain.

Exhausted, we arrived in Kutaisi after 9 pm and checked in to a Russian-style hotel and fell into bed. Without dinner even. Unheard of. Good thing we nicked those biscuits at breakfast!

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