A Long Drive to See Frescos in a Cave Church

Well I’m down to my last couple of days in Georgia before moving on to Armenia. Today we only had a couple of sites on my itinerary because we were driving from Borjomi to Vardzia in the far southern portion of Georgia and then back to Borjomi. We were off to see the Vardzia caves, which was going to take the better part of the day.

We left the guesthouse I was staying in around 9:30 a.m. and made our first stop on the drive to Vardzia at the Chitakhevi St. George Monastery, aka Green Monastery, which was built in the 9th century and consists of the living quarters, church and bell tower. The church is constructed from special stones which have a green coloring to them, with some being darker and some lighter. In the 16th century the monastery was raided by Shah Thomas and his army who tortured and killed dozens of monks. The bodies of the monks were tossed into the River Chtakhevi that runs beside the monastery. The Georgians believe that the red coloured stones that are prevalent in the river is the blood of the monks.

Tunnel of trees
Chitakhevi St. George Monastery

We reached the monastery, which is about ten minutes from Borjomi, by driving through a thicket of trees that abut the huge rock mountains that surrounded the little road. We ended up walking the last 50 meters to the church and low and behold, the church really did look green in the sunlight.

Katiya and I donned our scarves and entered the little church. The sunlight was streaming through one of the little windows and reflecting on an icon of St. George. It was really quite lovely. I managed to snap a quick picture before a caretaker walked in and shook her finger at me and screeched “No pictures”. Uh … there is no sign telling me no pictures so am I supposed to be a mind reader lady? Not wanting to create a scene, I put the camera away and wandered around while the grumpy woman watched me. Gesh.

The “stolen” picture inside the church

As we walked, Katiya pointed out a little stone that was housed in a box. The stone had been removed from the river and did indeed have a reddish hue. The Georgians believe that if people pray to the stone the red coloured hue of the stone deepens. Now Katiya is deeply religious. Every time we pass a church either walking or in the car, she crosses herself three times. So it was no surprise that as soon as Katiya found the rock she began to pray. And … I kid you not, the red of the stone deepened in colour to a deep crimson. It was, to stay the least, astonishing. (I have no explanation for how this happened.)

We eventually left the church (with the evil eye still watching me) and took a quick look in the Bell Tower. Apparently, the monks periodically find the remains of a murdered monk and after giving them last rites, put the remains in a case. The case is located in the Bell Tower so we were able to see the remains with clear markings on the skulls showing these poor souls had been murdered.

Landscape near the church

We took a quick look at the river and yep, red rocks, before walking back to the car to begin our long drive to Vardzia. The drive took us through the mountains and lovely forested areas about 20 km from the Turkish border before we veered west through numerous little villages and barren desert mountains. And of course a drive on a Georgian road would no be complete without the required interruption by a herd of sheep. And this herd was massive. It must have stretched for what I can best describe as two blocks. We sat and waited and waited before we could finally move on.

Sheep as far as you can see
Khertrisi Fort
Tmogvi Castle

Anyway, about ten minutes after we passed Tmogvi Castle, the massive Vardzia cave complex came into view. We stopped at a viewpoint where I could take a picture that would capture the entire complex, which was built into the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Kura River.

Now the caves were primarily constructed in the later part of the 12th century and include 600 rooms carved into the cliffs and located on a number of levels. The caves included halls, monastic cells, kitchens, stables, wine cellars, water pools, secret and every day tunnels, noble quarters, and rooms for the king. The most important structure at the site is the Church of the Dormition, dating to the 1180s. The church contains remarkably well preserved frescos depicting King George III and his daughter Tamar who became King (or Queen depending upon what sign your read) and the standard religious figures (Mary, Jesus, the Apostles and various Georgian saints). There is also a bell tower that is one of the oldest in Georgia and dates to the 13th century. The caves were largely abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the sixteenth century.

Vardzia caves

So once Katiya paid our entrance fee, we hopped on a little bus that took us half way up the hillside where we were dropped off. We then began the hike from there up to the caves. Now while it was hot, fortunately, the midday heat had not kicked in … yet … so the hike up while challenging was not nearly as rough as it could have been.

A wine cellar

Once we reached the primary level of the caves, we wandered through the site checking out various caves and the over 100 wine cellars with cuevris. There was even a cave that is believed to have been a school.

The Bell Tower
The front of the church
Fresco featuring King George III and Tamar
Fresco over an arch and window

We reached the bell tower just outside the church and looked at the beautiful arches and carved window openings before walking to the church. We put our scarves on and the requisite church issued skirts before walking through the entrance. My first reaction was WOW. This place was something else. The frescoes were everywhere and really vivid with lots of vibrant colours. And unlike a lot of frescoes in churches where the faces have been desecrated, the faces on these frescoes were largely in tact. Highly unusual.

Katiya and I moved around the church and tried to identity the various figures depicted in the frescoes, periodically asking a nun for help. The definition and colours were really remarkable. And quite frankly, I really did not want to leave because I figured it was going to be hard to ever replicate what I was seeing anywhere else.

We finally tore ourselves away from the frescoes and visited the underground spring that once was sufficient to sustain 25,000 people as well as the are where King/Queen Tamar resided.

Spring water
Monks quarters
Outside the monks’ quarters
View from the top
Hiking down in the tunnels

We then walked the remainder of the length of the caves to the area that actually remains inhabited by monks. We were not permitted to enter the area where the monks live, but I did manage to capture a couple nice pictures. And while the monks may enjoy magnificent views, the winters here are brutal so I can’t imagine it is pleasant walking from the cave residence to the church in snow and windy conditions so high up above the ground.

We ended the visit by walking down a series of hidden and not so hidden underground tunnels that led to the ground. By now Katiya and I were hungry so we decided to have lunch at the little restaurant on the river outside the entrance to the caves. We each ordered a beer and then ordered kinkali (Georgian dumplings). And while the setting was fabulous, the dumplings were not as good as the dumplings I had in Tbilisi on my food tour.

We finally left Vardzia around 2:45 for the drive back to Borjomi. Katiya and I both napped for most of the drive so it seemed far shorter than the drive to Vardzia. Once we were back in Borjomi, we stopped by Borjomi’s mineral water park. The Russians discovered mineral springs here back in 1850 and ever since then people have been coming to fill up their bottles with the spring water that is said to be good for your health.

Borjomi aka Ekaterina Springs
The water fall at Borjomi Park

The springs are located in a lovely little park on the Borjomula River. We wandered through the park and reached the original warm mineral spring, named Ekaterina Spring, which sits beneath a Russian constructed pavilion. I walked down the steps, put my hand under the water and took a sip. UCK! The water was warm and tasted sour. Seriously. It was gross. I told Katiya that I did not like the water and she said she was no fan either. Geez thanks for letting me know.

Anyway, we wandered towards the end of the park where there was a gorgeous waterfall before turning around and walking back. I was done for the day. Tomorrow we leave Borjomi for our drive to Kutaisi and sights in between for my last full day in Georgia.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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