Vardzia (ვარძიაis) a cave monastery site in Georgia, on the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia next to the border with Turkey.
The site is part of the Vardzia Historical–Architectural Museum-Reserve.
The popular story behind the name is that the young Tamar (later Queen of Georgia) went out hunting with her uncle Giorgi and got lost in the caves. Giorgi searched for her and eventually found her, because she shouted out from the rock cave above "I am here uncle", which in local language is close to the word Vardzia, i.e. am here uncle.
The first construction took place at Vardzia during the reign of Giorgi III (1156–1184), the site was laid out and the first cave dwellings excavated. With the medieval kingdom of Georgia threatened by the Mongols his successor Tamar developed the site following his death carving out the Church of the Dormition as well as more dwellings, and constructing defences, water supply, and an irrigation network. Tamar is said to have departed from Vardzia during her campaign against the Muslims, and her ensuing victory at Basian. Some historians believe she was buried there. In order to confuse vandals eight funeral processions went different directions simultaneously from Tbilisi. They arrived both in Gelati and Vardzia.
The cave monastery grew into a complex stretching along the mountain side for as long as 800 m, to the depth of 50 metres housing perhaps 2,000 monks, with over 13 churches, 25 wine cellars, baths, libraries and numerous dwellings connected by tunnels and stairs. During an enemy attack the complex could host up to 20,000 people.
It is assumed that the only access to this stronghold was via a hidden tunnel whose entrance was near the banks of Mtkvari river. The outside slope of the mountain was covered with fertile terraces, suitable for cultivation, for which an intricate system of irrigation was designed.
Though Vardzia escaped the Mongol invaders a devastating earthquake in 1283 shattered the mountain slope and destroyed more than two-thirds of the complex, exposing the hidden innards of the remainder, which prevented it from functioning as a fortress. However despite this, following a partial rebuilding a monastery community persisted until 1551 when it was sacked by the Persians after a battle in the caves themselves. Following the arrival of the Ottomans in 1578, the monks departed and the site was abandoned.
In 1829, following the signing of the Treaty of Adrianople which concluded the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, the valley was transferred to the Russian Empire and life returned to Vardzia. During the Soviet period the monastic life in the monastery stopped and in 1938 Vardzia has declared a memorial estate. Since the end of Soviet rule Vardzia has again become a working monastery, with some caves inhabited by approximately 15 monks (and cordoned off to protect their privacy).
Vardzia sits 18 km southeast of Akhalkalaki, 30 km south of Aspindza and 60 km south of Akhaltsikhe. It lies in a valley that stretches southwards from the hamlet of Khertvisi on the Georgian S11 (Akhaltsikhe-Ninotsminda) highway which is part of European route E691 through the tiny settlements of Gelsunda, Pia, Nakalakeri, Tmogvi, Vardzia (16 km from Khertvisi) to Mirashkhani at the head of the valley. Through the valley flows the Mtkvari (Kura River in Russian and other languages).
From Akhaltsikhe there are 4 marshrutkas a day, leaving at 08:30, 09:30, 13:00, and 15:00 (5 lari). (The rides back to Akhaltsikhe leave from Vardzia at 09:00, 13:00, and 15:00.)
Two marshrutkas to Aspindza (which is on the way to Akhaltsikhe) leave from Vardzia at 18:00 and 19:00 (2 lari), carrying the workers back home.
There is also one marshrutka leaving from Nakalakevi/Tmogvi between 08:10 and 08:20 to Akhaltsikhe.
Marshrutkas leave from Gyumri’s main bus station to Akhaltsikhe (4,000 dram) at 10:00 (though some sources state 10:30) and to Akhalkalaki (2,000 dram) at 14:30. The service to Akhaltsikhe passes through Khertvisi, which is 118 km, 2-2½ hr from Gyrumi. The driver will drop passengers off here if they request it, though they will have to pay the full fare to Akhaltsikhe. From Khertvisi it is necessary to hitchhike to Vardzia or catch a passing marshrutka coming from Akhaltsikhe (1 lari).
A private taxi is 50 lari (return) from Akhaltsikhe (1 hr), or 120 lari from Borjomi (1½ hr), with a few stops en route.
Expect a private taxi from Gyumri to Vardzia to cost no more than 25,000 dram, including a stop to visit the fortress at Khertvisi (as of Sept 2019). The Yandex.Taxi app calculates a lower cost of 12,500 dram (Oct 2019). It may however take some time to find a driver that has a car that can cross the border, which usually charges a fee of 6,000 dram. If you are 3 or 4 people, then a taxi is certainly more convenient than and equally expensive as a marshrutka.
Vardzia is accessed from the S11 (Akhaltsikhe-Ninotsminda) highway which is part of European route E691 via the turnoff at Khertvisi. From Khertvisi a 16 km long paved road leads to Vardzia and continues up the valley.
The road between Gyrumi and Vardzia is mostly paved, but is badly potholed and broken on the Georgian side.
Walking is the only way to get around Vardzia.
A marshrutka within the Vardzia valley is 1 lari.
The cave monastery is on the left bank of the river just downstream of a bridge of Mtkvari River. On the banks of the river directly below it is a service area which is home to several shops and restaurants. Steps lead from the car park in front of the shops up to the ticket office. Behind the ticket office a paved road leads up to the upstream side of the complex, from where visitors are conveyed through a combination of external paths and stairs and internal tunnels along a one-way system to the far end of the complex from where they descend down stairs and tunnels to a path that leads them back to connect with the road just up the hill from the ticket office. If visitors ignore the signs and take the path then they will have to ascend up the cliff side through narrow tunnels against the flow of traffic. If visitors don’t want to walk up the road then a mini-bus is available to take them up to the base of the cave monastery for 1 lari. This bus waits facing downhill at an entrance barrier on the road up the hill from the ticket office. Once it has sufficient passengers it continues down the hill, turns around on the flat and then goes back up the hill to the complex. The tickets for the mini-bus are purchased at the ticket office.
- 1 Vardzia Monastery. Daily 10:00-19:00. Moving at a comfortable pace, it’s possible to visit the entire complex in 2-3 hr. Steep, weathered stairs, sandy platforms and narrow tunnels mean it is advisable to wear closed footwear. Guides are available at the ticket office, but most do not speak English. They however have keys to some passages and caves that visitors cannot otherwise enter. 7 lari, audio guide 10 lari, personal guide 25 lari.
- 2 Church of the Dormition (Virgin Mary Church), part of the Vardzia Monastery. A late 12th-century church decorated by elaborate mural paintings. Among them are the portraits of Giorgi III and of queen Tamar, his daughter and successor, during whose reign the paintings were created. Other painting include scenes from the New Testament and images of saints. The church is cut deeply into the rocks and even has further interesting tunnels leading from behind the church rooms to the upper level. To enter the church, women must wear long skirts and a head covering, and men must wear long trousers.
- 3 Upper Vardzia & Nuns Monastery (Zeda Vardzia) (3.5 km after Vardzia, continuing the road westwards). A church restored during Soviet times, 1975-1978. and in 1997, returned to use by a community of Christian nuns.
- 4 Vanis Kvabebi (there is a sign along the road about 5 km before Vardzia, the track is 300 m up). This cave monastery contains six churches and very popular with people. Several hundred rock caves on 16 floors, used as shelter, vault, tomb and market. About an hour's walk or 5 km away from Vardzia on the road back to the highway.
The church (St. George) built here dates back to the 8th century. The caves where added between the 9th and 11th century. In 1089, a strong earthquake destroyed parts of the caves and the church. Reconstruction was carried out during the reign of Queen Tamar. In 1204, the old stone wall was rebuilt. Between 1204 and 1283, the site was owned by a feudal family named Mkhargrdzeli-Tmogveli. In 1265, the gate, a bell tower and the hall of the St. George church were built. However, in 1551 and 1576 the place was destroyed by the Persians and Ottomans, respectively. After this the place was not used as a monastery anymore.
- 5 Khertvisi Castle (ხერთვისის ციხე) (if closed when you arrive, there is another open entrance beyond the official one). Daily 10:00-19:00. This castle looms over the village of Khertvisi at the confluence of the Paravani and the Mtkvari rivers and once guarded an important road between Byzantine Empire and the Caucasus. The outcrop has been used as a fortress from the second century BC, making it one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. According to legend Alexander the Great passed through here during his Eastern campaign, with some sources claiming he destroyed it. The "modern" fortress, however, was built around the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, and saw fighting during the Ottoman invasion (and subsequent occupation) in the 16th century.
One of the biggest fortresses in Georgia the elongated castle is more than 150 metres long and more than 30 metres wide. Inside the castle is a five-sided watchtower, a square keep, the 10th century St. George Church and the remains on the eastern wall side of two tunnels go down to the river; one was used for water delivery, the other – as a communication system.
The walls on the far side drop down a sheer cliff to the Mtkvari far below, so if you fancy a bout of vertigo, pull yourself up and look straight down. 5 lari.
- Walking through the caves is pretty much it.
- Otherwise, you can hike to the nearby attractions.
- 1 Hot Pool (900 m west of Vardzia along the road). A local businessman has built a shed with a large swimming pool inside, which is fed by hot (not so) sulphur water. It is indeed a nice refreshment, especially in winter. But also in summer it can be fun, especially in the evening. Bring some clean qater from the well next to the Vardzia car park to wash yourself after the bath. Otherwise, the water might leave a slight sulphur smell.
The owner is building another pool right where the road goes right to the Vardzia car park. So, reading this, you might already be lucky not to walk the 900 m. However, it will now probably be crowded. 5 lari.
Overpriced tourist souvenirs.
Various restaurants and cafés operate. The restaurants across the river are the nice and pricier ones. Checkout the one to the left where the road turns right towards the car park.
If you want something more upmarket then try the restaurant at the Vardzia Resort.
There are many inexpensive guesthouses and homestays in the valley. Some of them may be some distance from the cave monastery, such as in Tmogvi which is 6 km from Vardzia. Take a taxi or one of the inexpensive marshrutkas (1 lari in the valley).
Also, staff and people hanging around the Vardzia ticket office will likely be able to offer accommodation if you need a place to stay.
- Gocha Guesthouse. Run by Gocha who checks your tickets on entry. His guesthouse is in the nearby village of Nakalakevi. He will take you to and from the guesthouse according to his work hours. Comfortable beds, Wi-Fi, and homecooked meals. He may offer to take you to the Madame [Nuns] Monastery and will charge you 10 lari for his troubles. He speaks little English but enough to get by. 20 lari a night for a bed, 10 lari for dinner, 10 for breakfast, and 5 if you try either his homemade wine of vodka.
- Hotel Vardzia Terrace, Vardzia, ☏ . This welcoming guesthouse is nestled in lush vegetation on the other side of the valley from the cave monastery, which are 25 to 30-minute walk away. There is an excellent view over the valley of the cave monastery, though the trees will eventually grow and obscure it. The rooms in which guests stay are all new, clean and comfortable. There is no sign for the guesthouse which is located up a steep narrow 300-metre long dirt road on a corner 50-metres past the Vardzia Resort (when heading in the direction of the caves). The owner is happy to come and pick you up from the bus stop and also drop you off there when you leave. The breakfast is excellent and very filling. Room with en suite 70 lari. Breakfast 10 lari.
- Taoskari Hotel, Vardzia, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. This simple hotel lacks atmosphere, has mixed reviews but is a reliable, not-too-expensive place to lay your head, just across the bridge from the cave complex. If you are arriving by marshrutka and do not fancy walking far with your luggage, this is your best bet.
- 1 Tsunda, Tmogvi, ☏ . A nice holiday home close to the road but far enough away to be out of sight. Great panorama. Simple but authentic. 15-20 lari pp.
- Vardzia Resort, Vardzia, ☏ . This upmarket three-storey resort is located on the other side of the valley from the cave monastery, which are 25 to 30-min walk away. Spacious, modern rooms. It offers 24-hr reception, cozy lounge area restaurant, bar and an outdoor terrace with a seasonal outdoor swimming pool overlooking the valley. Double/twin room with ensuite 338 lari.
You could continue east or into Armenia via Akhalkalaki from here, but most people will go back to Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe, where they came from. Marshrutkas operate from the car park below the ticket office.
If you continue east, you can take any marshrutka and get off at Khertvisi and then take another marshrutka to Akhalkalaki, if it has a spare seat. There is one daily marshrutka that departs Akhaltsikhe at 07:00 to Gyumri. The marshrutkas going to Akhalkalaki do not come into Khertvisi village, so you need to walk up to the highway. But of course you can always just get dropped off at the junction at the highway instead of getting off in Khertvisi village. Hitchhiking from the highway near Khertvisi is readily possible (May 2019).