Despite the fact that Georgia is a relatively small country, it is quite diverse offering unique sites to its visitors. Famous for breathtaking nature, historical sights, medieval defense towers, and tasty cuisine, the country has something to offer to any type of the traveler. If some of you are keen on discovering unusual sites, then visiting caves in Georgia should be on your bucket list. There are several cave towns in Georgia from which Vardzia is the biggest, majestic, and simply amazing.
A small history lesson about Vardzia caves
In the late 1100s, Georgia was withstanding the aggression of the Mongols, one of the most destructive powers Europe has seen. Queen Tamar, or King Tamar as she is known in Georgia, ordered the creation of this underground shrine in 1185. Dug on the side of the Erusheti Mountain, it was quite a hard job for many workers. However, the legend has it that King Tamar distributed a pick-ax to the workers which had gold in the middle and promised that once done, the gold will be theirs.
The whole area was designed in a way that it would serve as a functioning city during the invasion. The complex has 13 stores and contains around 6,000 rooms, a throne room, wine cellars, church and a bell tower. Additionally, there are terraces designated for cultivation with obscure irrigation systems.
It’s believed that the only access to this sanctuary was through a secret tunnel leading from Mtkvari River. It must be noted that some of the rooms of Vardzia lead nowhere in order to disorientate the enemy.
Unfortunately, the glorious days of Vardzia didn’t last long. Even though it was safe from Mongol invasions, the majority of the town was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1283. However, a monastery community continued to live here until the Persian attack in 1551. The famous fresco of the Virgin Mary, doors made of gold and steel, and many cultural treasures of that time was lost.
And when Ottomans took over the region in the 16th century, Vardzia cave monastery was fully abandoned.
Today, Vardzia is part of a state heritage reserve and it has been submitted to UNESCO World Heritage List along with Khertivisi Fortress. You can wander through around 300 apartments, rooms, and tunnels, as well as visit the church and admire some of the most important wall paintings that still remain in its best shape.
The legend of the derivation of the name
King George III together with his counterparts and daughter Tamar was hunting in the area. Entertained with a fun activity, they completely forgot about the child, who got lost in the caves when playing around. When realizing the Tamar was missing, the hunting stop and everyone started to search for her. One of the huntsmans started to shout: “Where are you, Tamar?”. He finally heard Tamar calling from inside the cave: “Aq Var Dzia!” which translates into English as “I am here Uncle!” This is why the place is called Vardzia.
How to get to Vardzia
Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t have a good bad inland transportation system. There are no direct buses or minibusses from Tbilisi to Vardzia. Therefore, the best way to get to Vardzia is to rent a car and drive on your own and stop whenever and wherever you want.
Alternatively, you can go by minibus from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe from Didube Bus Station and then take another minibus from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia. However, the schedule of the minibusses might be inconsistent, so be prepared to stay overnight in Akhaltsikhe.
- Adults – 7 ₾
- School children – 1 ₾
- Guide – 25 ₾
- Audio guide – 10 ლ
Working hours: Every day 10 a.m – 7 p.m, except Mondays.
While you are in Georgia, check these marvellous sites as well: