“Here I am, Uncle.” Queen Tamar in the 11th century got lost in a huge system of caves in the side of a cliff in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, and kept calling for her uncle to find her. “You know what?” she probably thought, wandering around the cold, lightless maze of caverns, “this would be a good place to send all of those monks.”
Samtskhe-Javakheti looks like mars. Most of Vardzia’s inner caverns collapsed during an earthquake, but there are still plenty of holes carved into the wall. Monks still do their thing there. There’s an orthodox church which still performs services there. Three bells dangle from a stone arch. It’s eerie. The cavern walls are black with soot, and still wear scars that axes carved out centuries ago.
A few friends and I trekked out to Vardzia two weekends ago, on American Easter (Orthodox palm sunday). We stayed in the nearby city of Akhaltsikhe and got accosted every night by men named Giorgi. They bought us wine and khinkali and chacha and then hit on Kathleen (because she looks “indian.” She’s from Toronto.) Akhaltsikhe is a town under heavy construction. Every house in the castle district has a team of Georgian men rebuilding it. Vardzia, they hope, will be such a draw as to reinvigorate the economy of the town. Construction’s the only job around right now. Even the town castle is getting repaired. Real broken georgia gets replaced with new fancy georgia for wealthy tourists like us. (Of course, we spent most of our money on transit there and back. And cotton candy. Our taxi driver was an Armenian guy named Hamik who drove us to three different sites along the way, including a tiny monastery, a hot springs, and a I don’t even remember the third thing. He kept saying “Problem? No.”
I’ve saved you the trouble of looking for many vardzia pictures by googling them for you here.