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Vardzia Cave City: You can’t miss this Georgian gem

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There are so many unique places to visit in Georgia, so why visit Vardzia Cave City? There is one simple answer to this: It is an incredible ancient city built within a mountain! What more do you need to know? Well actually there is a lot of history here and plenty of cave rooms and tunnels to explore.

Before we get started we just want to mention that we visited Vardzia Cave Monastery  as part of our hitchhiking journey from Thailand to Spain. Throughout our whole trip a few places really stuck in our memory and of course, Vardzia is one of those! 

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On our long journey hitchhiking from Thailand to Spain we visited quite a few ancient cities and ruins from the silk road including Jiaohe Ruins in Xinjiang, China, The impressive Mausoleum of Turkestan in Kazakhstan, the beautiful medieval city of Kotor in Montenegro and many more. 

We are very fortunate to have seen all of these incredible, historic and cultural places and Vardzia has to be in the top three! If you would like to see our video from Vardzia Monastery you can watch it below.

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As you have probably figured out we made our way to Vardzia by hitchhiking, which is just too easy in Georgia. Our last ride was with an English couple who had hired a 4×4 to explore Georgia for a few weeks (great idea by the way!). They dropped us off in the car-park and we said our goodbyes as we went to find a spot to pitch our tent for the evening as it was already the afternoon and we felt like just relaxing.

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The perfect camping spot below the ancient caves

We found the perfect spot at the foot of the cave city next to the Mtkvari River under a tree with a nice flat grassy spot (Malin needs a perfectly flat spot to pitch the tent which can be tricky sometimes!)

After a bit of a rest we decided to walk along the river past the car-park and continued on the road for a little while. The valley itself is beautiful and there were plenty more camping spots along the river with locals cooking up a BBQ and wow, do they know how to do BBQs in Georgia!

We stumbled across a Vardzia map showing lots of different walks and treks around the area and some that even passed small chapels and churches. Some were much longer than others and we decided that if we had time the following day we would do a short one.

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The beautiful valley where Vardzia is located

We headed back to the tent cooked up some food and got an early night only to be woken up by jackals yapping and barking what felt like just a few metres from the tent. What was really spooky was the fact that all of the noise they were making was echoing off the cliff face of the cave city. After a little while they disappeared into the night and we could get a good night’s sleep.

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Vardzia is lit up at night and is stunning

We had a super lazy morning as Vardzia doesn’t open until 10 am. The entrance to the Cave City costs 7 GEL (2.18$ USD) and if you would like the audio guide it will an additional 10 GEL (3.12$ USD). We noticed that there was a pretty major lack of information when walking around the different caves and levels so it might actually be worth getting the audio guide.

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We relaxed while we were waiting for the caves to open

Malin and I were excited to get going and start the short walk up to the entrance of Vardzia caves.  At opening time it wasn’t too busy but by eleven it was starting to fill up a little. There were a few buses in the car-park but nothing crazy.  

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The views from the caves are priceless

Walking around this ancient cave city is something pretty special. Seeing the wine cellars makes you realise just how important wine was to these people.  One of the best things to do in the Cave City is going up and down in the different tunnels. Some are really steep and quite dark in places. It is incredible to think that this whole city used to be hidden!

Inside the Church of Dormition you can see really impressive frescoes dating back to the 1200s. Some are in better condition than others and if you take the audio guide you will learn plenty about the church and the history of this amazing hidden city (don’t forget to dress modestly if you are intending to enter the church).

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The historic frescoes are still visible today

In total we probably spent around two or three hours exploring Vardzia and could have spent many more there but we wanted to head in the direction of the Turkish border later that day so we cut it a little short. 

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You can spend hours exploring all the caves

If you are interested in the history of this fascinating hidden city keep reading to discover amazing facts about the complex.

The history of this cave city

The history of Georgia in general is fascinating and you can spend hours reading about how everything unfolded. Let’s take the story of King Tamar, Georgia’s first woman that was ever crowned as a King!

Tamar was co-ruler of the kingdom with her father, King George III for the last six years of his life before his death. After passing away King Tamar had difficulties with a rebellious group of nobles who were not happy with her appointment as the ruler of the country. Through consolidation of power she managed to quell the revolt and confirm her position as the head of the country.

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Watch your head, some of the entrances are pretty low

So what does all this have to do with the ancient cave city monastery of Vardzia? King George III started the construction of Vardzia in 1156 AD during which the site was laid out and the first excavations of cave houses started.  After his death in 1184 the site continued to be expanded with the addition of the Church of Dormition and in 1203 the cave city became even more functional when defences, water supplies and an irrigation network was added.

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The impressive Church of Dormition

One of the main reasons for the construction of Vardzia was to avoid attacks from the Mongol armies which were constantly threatening the Georgian Kingdom.  Building this vast cave city in the mountain of Erusheli was no small feat but the subjects of King George and later King Tamar were determined to complete the orders and to protect the people and their lives.

Towards the end of the construction there were 13 levels with over 6000 rooms! In order to support the large population of people there was a bakery, a forge, a throne room, a meeting room, several chapels and even a large church. Of course it wouldn’t be very successful if there was an obvious entrance to the city so a secret entrance was created near the river in order for people to get in and out without it being too apparent.

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Imagine what this would have been like before the earthquake

If you know anything about Georgia, you will know that wine is incredibly important and as the birth-place of wine this secret city was no different. In the cave city there were 25 wine cellars containing more than 150 jars of wine.  No doubt it made life inside caves more bearable.

So how did this population feed itself? Due to the clever strategic position of the cave city on the fertile slopes of Erusheli Mountain it was perfect for creating terracing with complicated irrigation systems allowing the monks to grow possibly enough food for all the inhabitants of the city. Who would have thought that back in the 1200s there was a self-sustainable cave city? Maybe we can learn something from this?

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The land around the caves supported the inhabitants inside to create a sustainable city

According to sources King Tamar had 366 rooms for herself. This seems a little excessive but apparently it was a clever way for invaders to never find her as they would have to keep guessing which room she would be in. 

When to visit

Malin and I visited Vardzia at the end of July and the temperature wasn’t too hot. The average temperature in August is 28°C and 27°C in July. Visiting between June and September is going to be your best bet. Our friends over at Journal Of Nomads visited in the middle of winter and got to see the whole city covered in snow which must have been pretty special.

When you should visit really depends on your personal preferences but no matter what, you are going to have a great time here.

How to get to Vardzia

Getting to Vardzia is actually more complicated than it should be considering it is one of the more popular places to visit in the country. In order to reach the cave city you will need to change marshrutkas (minivans) either in Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe. You can get a minivan from Tbilisi (Dibude bus station) to both of the previously mentioned towns. This is also possible if you are coming from Kutaisi.

Once you are in Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe you can change marshrutka. Apparently they leave four times a day from Akhaltsikhe: 10.35 am, 12.20 pm, 4 pm and 5 pm. The trip to Akhaltsikhe from Tbilisi and Kutaisi will take around three or four hours and then you will need another hour and a half to reach Vardzia. The first ride from Tbilisi will cost between 6-8 GEL and about 12 GEL from Kutaisi. The second ride will put you back about 5 GEL.

If you want a bit of an adventure and to be honest it will be more comfortable than being squeezed in a minivan why not try some hitchhiking? We hitchhiked all over Georgia and from our experience it is one of the easiest countries to hitchhike in. Quite often you will be picked up within the first 10 minutes of waiting if not the first car!

Another option is to hire a taxi and sort out a little tour visiting some of the other ruins on the way. Don’t forget to put on your poker face and get your negotiating skills out!

If you would like to go on a guided tour of the area check this link out 

Where to stay

You have a few choices of places to stay in the nearby area. If you travelling with a tent then there are an abundance of camping spots around the area as well as the spot we spent a night at this location. You have the river nearby and there is also a water spring in the car-park. We really recommend travelling with a water filter like the Sawyer Mini or the Lifestraw so you always have  clean water to drink and cook with.

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Finding a flat camping spot was perfect for Malin

We have come up with a list of places to stay in the villages nearby that look comfortable and will allow you to enjoy Vardzia without having to rush back to one of the bigger towns before dark.

Tirebi Farmhouse boasts incredible views of the surrounding valley. In the summer it is lush and green and during the winter it can be beautifully covered in snowfall.  The rooms are simple but comfortable and a double room starts at 19$ USD.

Guest House Imedi starts at 16$ per night for a double room with breakfast available for 3$ per person. The rooms are simple and have everything you need. There is a nice garden and it is a short drive to Vardzia Cave Town.

Hotel Vardzia Terrace has incredible views from across the valley of the cave city of Vardzia which gets lit up every night. The rooms look very comfortable and start at 31$ per night for a double room and an additional 3$ if you would like breakfast.

Vardzia Resort is just the right place to stay if you are looking for something a little more luxurious. The tastefully decorated rooms start at 87$ per night for a double room. There is even a pool to kick back by.

Sada Guest house is the closest place to stay near Vardzia, just a couple of hundred metres actually. The rooms look good and the food in the restaurant looks delicious. The rooms start at 31$ per night for a triple room.

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Vardzia truly is an incredibly special place and you really shouldn’t miss out on this historic cave city.  If you have any questions about the post or would like some more information please feel to drop us a line in the comments below.

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