Vardzia is an incredible sight.
This cave city once housed 2000 monks and dates to the 12th century. Queen Tamar, perhaps the most famous woman in Georgian history, gave the place its name when she was lost in the caves – she shouted “Ik var Dzia” meaning – “I am here, Uncle”, to the search party. This place was the Easternmost bastion of Christianity, but earthquakes and finally Persian conquerors destroyed it. Today what remains is a honeycomb in the rock of caves, rooms, staircases, impressive churches, paintings, wells and irrigation infrastructure. Best of all, exploring Vardzia really makes one feel like an explorer – climbing up and down ladders, venturing into dark caves by candle or flashlight, its a great site. The kids loved it too – which kid wouldn’t , with so much climbing and exploring to do.
Like much in Georgia, everything is very understated – someone sells some drinks from a cart at the entrance, there is no souvenir shop or anything like that, and the toilets are best avoided. Tickets are required though, and more surprisingly, so is a guide – the choice we had was Georgian speaking or Russian speaking. Since we don’t understand either language, we took the Georgian speaking guide. Without being able to exchange one word, he was actually very friendly, and encouraged us to enter all the dark caves, climb up and own the ladders and really gave us an exciting time. Just as well we had him – one can get lost in there.
There was one other tour group – Israelis, who we had seen elsewhere. It had become clear to us by now that Israelis make up the largest proportion of tourists to Georgia, and we saw them in small or big groups wherever we went. This probably has to do with the fact that Jews have a very long (over 2000 years) and mainly happy history in Georgia, and that Israelis who had decided against traveling to Turkey due to political tensions at the time figured that Georgia was the next best place to go.
Vardzia was certainly the best place we had visited in Georgia so far. The surrounding hills were dramatic and green, with ancient fortifications scattered about, and the rushing river below added to the atmosphere. After an incredible few hours, it was time to make the long, slow drive back to Tbilisi for the night.
PS: These days I am helping families plan incredible trips to destinations all over the world.