Vardzia Georgia: A Journey In A Cave City Like None Other
As you’re driving to the ancient cave city of Vardzia, you’ll feel your eyes shift to the green strips of fresh grass surrounded by arid boulder hillside. If taking a taxi (which is the common way of travel to Vardzia because of how affordable it is) don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop at a few notable viewpoints on the way. Usually, they are happy to stop at no extra charge so that they can show-off their beautiful country landscape.
A Centuries Old Cave City
Vardzia Georgia is a cave city and monastery site in the southern half of the country and is one of the most impressive caves in Georgia. It is certainly a must see in Georgia for any itinerary. The drive is as scary as the cave city itself. The road follows high up in the hills of Georgia along the Mtkvari River, passing through steep, narrow canyons that feel as if they will fall on top of you as you make your way about 170 miles southwest of the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.
Once you reach the small village of Vardzia Georgia, you will soon see the ancient cave city that was miraculously constructed and excavated way back in the twelfth century. There is a dark river that storms through the valley of Vardzia Georgia and the splits the entire village.
I arrived in the middle of a cloudy, dark afternoon with five friends whom I had met in Tbilisi at the beginning of my week-long trip to the small country of Georgia in the Caucasus region bordering both Asia and Europe.
A magic village between the hills
Vardzia is not one of the largest cities in Georgia. Matter of fact, if you blink while driving through it, you’ll probably miss it. It’s better classified as a village. A hillside village with only a few dozen rundown countryside farmhouses.
Our eyes were too fixated on the beauty surrounding the village to notice that our taxi driver had pulled the van to the side of the road and was staring back at us as we took pictures from the car windows. He was staring silently because he didn’t know a lick of English; most people don’t know very much English in Georgia – only enough to answer simple questions, but sometimes not even that much. Outside of the capital, usually none.
Luckily, I was traveling with three friends from Belarus who could speak Russian. In Georgia, they have their own language (Georgian), however, being so close to Russia and once under rule of the Russians, most Georgians know Russian, as well, so that’s how we were able to communicate.
Finding accommodation in Vardzia Georgia – just ask
The driver wanted to know where our accommodation was so that he could drop us off and make the long drive back to the capital – back to his family with a full day’s worth of income from our ride to Vardzia Georgia (around $30).
The problem was, we didn’t know where we were going to sleep. There are no hotel or hostel options in the small cave city. There were no campgrounds and it was probably too cold to camp in mid-March in the mountains in Georgia, anyway. The man told us (translated through my friends from Belarus) that their were a few resorts at the edge of the village that we had already passed. Georgia is a very affordable country to travel for any westerner. However, being the budget traveler that I am, anytime I hear the word “resort”, I fret a little on the inside.
In fact, the two resorts were very expensive – especially for Georgians. Obviously, these resorts were built for westerners with western values and expectations. The six of us – Jeremia from Germany, Axel from France, and Natalia, Julia, and Dima from Belarus – 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. He gave his friend a call and pretty soon we were pulling into the long driveway of a beat-up farmhouse with a bee farm in the long front yard. Bees buzzed around me as I unloaded our bags from the van and greeted the elderly couple who had agreed to host us, feed us, and help us as well as possible for a price much cheaper than the resort.
The couple didn’t speak any English so all of our communication came through translation of Natalia, Julia, and Dima. As soon as we were pointed to our room, we dropped off our bags and headed across the river via hitchhiking. We wanted to explore the cave city before the sun went down.
Exploring the ancient cave city
It was raining, but perhaps that was a good thing as it cleared the only tourist attraction in the village of all its tourists. We were the only ones roaming the tunnels that evening. Plus, the rain made the climb feel even more adventurous than it already was.
The caves in Georgia are so intricate, but particularly Vardzia. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Georgia, you’ve probably 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.
Living conditions were dangerous for those who had called the cave city home in the twelfth century. With no electricity, steep drop-offs, fence-less ledges, and slippery rocks, it seemed it would be impossible to navigate the caves without the sunlight. I certainly didn’t want to be caught up in the tunnels after dark.
A different time and different life
As we traversed the darkened living quarters, you could see the efforts made by the ancient Georgians in construction to make it as accommodating as possible. Toilet holes carved out in every ‘home’, elevated concrete platforms served as seating and beds, and even windows were carved through the thick mountain rock to create more opportunity for sunlight.
With each room I entered, I kept spinning in amazement at the dedication to the entire masterpiece that it must have taken to carve out every single inch of the cave city given the technology of the time. Vardzia Georgia extends roughly 1,500 feet across, spanning the length of the hillside, and extends to up to nineteen tiers high. Ladders and modern stairs carried us up and up the hillside until I was so high-up, I started to shake at the thought of falling off.
The experience was unforgettable and one that I certainly won’t soon forget. However, with the sun setting, we had to rush back down the hillside and wait along the roadside to hitch a ride back to the elders’ farmhouse.
A village party in our honor
After catching a ride back in a van with no trunk door, no seats, and a driver who sped so fast I felt like I could fly out of the back of the vehicle at any point, we returned to the farmhouse to the greetings of half of the village who had gathered at the home we were staying at.
Without any explanation, I was confused to why they were there. Soon, it was clear that the locals had come to see the foreigners. 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 there were foreigners from across the world staying at the couple’s home, they wanted to see for themselves.
Drinks on drinks on drinks
They awaited us with homemade wine and vodka (dinner, too, but the alcohol was much more present than food on the table). For hours, before I could even take a breath, local villagers who couldn’t even speak to me shoved drinks under my nose until we had drank the whole table.
One middle-aged man had held the bottle upside down which was a sign for the wife to bring more to wine to the table. Rural Georgians still live very much in the past when it comes to gender equality in terms of the western world’s norms. The women were never allowed to sit around the table. Even the men my age weren’t allowed to sit at the table – so, they huddled around the outside standing up. However, being guests, the six of us were invited to the table and were hardly allowed to leave.
Poor Natalia; she translated the most basic, simple conversations between Axel, Jeremia, and I and the rest of the villagers for the better part of four hours until around midnight. We were skunk drunk, too. At one point, the husband requested for 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 short version of my speech to the crowd in which the husband responded, “That was not so beautiful, but it’s O.K.” in Russian.
After drinking our weight in vodka and homemade wine, the locals demanded we visit the thermal pools that also attract tourists to the village. We were unmotivated at the thought of it despite being anxiously drunk. They insisted to drive us there and give us an hour-or-so at the pools, though, so we obliged.
Vardzia Georgia thermal pools
Down in the valley, under the early morning full moon, we snuck off to the pools while the man who drove us waited in his car. The compassion and hospitality of Georgians is unmatched in a majority of the places I’ve ever traveled. It was truly astonishing how willing they were to show us the best of time.
The pools were less than stellar, however, the humidity sobered us up a little bit which alleviated our stress a bit. We were afraid to show ourselves a fool after a little bit of alcohol to the local Georgians – who are, traditionally, heavy drinkers.
One more drunken chat with a stranger
After we sweat out a majority of the alcohol, we returned to the car and were driven back to the farmhouse. Most of the villagers had gone home, but a few remained. The husband had set up his computer with webcam and was connected to his son who had been living in San Francisco. As soon as we entered the home, he immediately motioned for us to come speak with his son.
Here, past two in the morning, slightly drunk and being offered more alcohol as we spoke online with a stranger whom we would never meet half way across the world – I couldn’t help but think that Georgians were a little mad.
Once we finished Skyping their son, the wife had prepared a little more food to cap off the night. As I knew a deadly hangover was incoming, I had no problem scarfing down a little bit more traditional food before bed. I noticed the wife remained crazy-busy over the course of the night preparing meals for a large quantity of people. And, here, late at night, was still slaving in the kitchen. I brought my plate to the sink and began washing other dishes, as well, to help her out.
I always try to leave a good impression and be a good representative of my country – part of this philosophy sits 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. I sincerely hope not. Natalia told me the wife insisted I return to the table, and so without causing a further scene, I did as she said.
Morning wine – Georgians are mad!
The husband sent us to bed with a liter of wine and when he woke us up at the break of dawn and it was still full, I think he took offense to it. He directed us downstairs for a fresh, homemade traditional breakfast. The husband 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 that we had flights to catch back in the capital city, Tbilisi, that night. It was a long ride home and we forgot to book our transport back. In a flash, we were running late and had to rush out of the elderly couple’s home. I never even got to say goodbye to the sweet wife. In addition, I never learned their names – or the names of any of the great villagers I met.
Even if they are mad about alcohol, the villagers of Vardzia Georgia still showed us an absolutely perfect time during an experience I could never forget. I was the center of attention in a whole village. There was a pop-up party held in our honor and we had a hell of a time. I owe a great thanks to everyone who gave us the experience we had. Vardzia Georgia will always be in my memory.