Mountain trekking and scenic monasteries aside, one of the best things to do in Georgia is visiting its ancient ‘cave cities.’ And the most famous among them is Vardzia, a large complex first established a thousand years ago. But while most visitors head straight there, there are a few other hidden gems to see along the way. Vanis Kvabebi is yet another cave town in the area, while nearby Khertvisi is an impressive 2000-year-old fortress.
Vardzia is an easy marshrutka, or minibus ride from Akhaltsikhe’s bus station (more below). But as I wanted to visit the other landmarks mentioned above, I opted for a private driver. At 50 GEL for the day, it’s considerably more expensive than public transport. But by the time my excursion was over, I felt that it was well worth the additional cost.
We were only a couple minutes into the ride when Fedia, my driver for the day, passed me an old plastic Coke bottle filled with clear liquid. ‘This isn’t water, is it?’ I asked him. ‘Cha cha,’ he said. ‘Drink, drink.’
It was only 9:30 am and I still hadn’t eaten breakfast. Furthermore, I hardly drink these days, and my tolerance is nowhere near what it used to be. I politely refused, but Fedia wouldn’t take no for an answer. I declined again, but he kept insisting. Refusing to drink the local grape vodka before ten in the morning must be a major faux pas in Georgia, I figured. And so I gave in and took a small shot.
It tasted like medicine, and I forced a smile to conceal my grimace. My throat felt like it was on fire, but Fedia seemed satisfied. And by the time we arrived at Khertvisi Fortress, I was already feeling tipsy. I could tell that I was in for an interesting day.
After spending a few minutes admiring the scenery from the parking area, I crossed the road and walked up to the fortress.
While nowadays, the most famous fortress in the area is undoubtedly Rabati Castle, Khertvisi Fortress is as much as a millennium older. It was built in the 2nd century BC and according to legend, it was once destroyed by Alexander the Great.
But the fortress persisted for centuries following Alexander’s invasion, and a town even developed around it. But given the Meskheti area’s tumultuous history, the Macedonians were far from the last to invade.
Queen Tamar (more below) built the main towers here, but the fortress was later ransacked by the Mongols in the 13th century. Like the rest of the Meskheti region, the Ottomans took it over from the 16th century.
But when the Russian Empire arrived in the 19th century, the fortress served as a strategic base from which to fight against the Turks.
I paid the entrance fee of 5 GEL and began exploring. There were a few other visitors that day, but the fortress was for the most part quiet and empty. Having visited Rabati Castle the previous day, I immediately noticed the stark contrast between the two.
Things at Khertvisi appear just as you’d imagine a centuries-old defensive fortress. Therefore, it serves as a great alternative for those dissatisfied with the Disneyfied and hastily reconstructed Rabati.
The fortress is fairly large, but not nearly as expansive as Rabati. All in all, it can mostly be explored in around 15 minutes. At the far end of the complex, don’t miss the small church which was established in 985.
This part of the fortress, meanwhile, offers views of where the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers converge. In fact, the name ‘Khertvisi’ itself is a reference to the convergence of two rivers.
I walked back, checking to make sure I’d seen it all. Sure enough, there were a few other walled areas that I’d missed. Looking closely, I could tell that some of the walls had been recently restored, but it’s not too obvious at first glance.
It’s certainly a better look than the concrete Lego blocks of Rabati! One wonders why they didn’t hire the same people to work on both.
Just a kilometer away from Vardzia, Vanis Kvabebi isn’t quite as impressive – especially considering how large parts of it are often inaccessible. Be that as it may, tour groups don’t stop here, and you’ll likely have the place all to yourself. To me, that’s more than reason enough to make the trip.
After walking up a steep and windy road, I arrived at a small church which remains active. I peaked my head inside, but a monk pointed me in the direction of another uphill trail, indicating that the church isn’t meant for tourists.
Vanis Kvabebi was first carved out in the 8th century, making it older than Vardzia by a couple of centuries (but still younger than the cave cities of David Gareja and Uplistsikhe). Following an earthquake in 1089, Queen Tamar (more below) reconstructed the site, and it remained inhabited until the 13th century.
For most of its history, Vanis Kvabebi primarily functioned as a monastery, with most of its inhabitants being monks. And while there are very few left, the same holds true today.
As I began my explorations, I noticed that there was no signage at the site. But with free entry, I couldn’t really complain.
I walked past what seemed to be the ruins of a former church. And from there, I continued heading upwards, stepping inside the various chambers I encountered along the way. Vanis Kvabebi forms a U shape, so each side provide excellent views of the other.
It was eerily quiet, and there was nobody around but me and the birds. For a second, I thought I saw some movement in a far distant cave across the valley. But maybe it was just my eyes playing tricks on me.
I continued exploring various rooms – some small and some large – and could only imagine what each one was used for.
While I’d read online that the ancient church situated along the upper level was accessible, my path was blocked by a locked wooden door.
Peaking over it, I could see a ladder heading upwards. Unfortunately, though, the opening above the door was too high and narrow to reach my arm over and unlock it. Therefore, I could only appreciate the entire upper level of the complex from afar.
Over on the other side, I encountered some relatively large chambers. Just like at Vardzia, both the Persians and the Ottomans pillaged the site in the 16th century, and many of the rooms have been blackened by fire.
I took some more time to appreciate the excellent views before walking down the steep road and back to the car. Fedia insisted that I drink some more cha cha. While it didn’t taste any better this time, it at least went down a bit easier.
At last, we arrived at Vardzia. First we stopped at a viewpoint along the highway from where I could take in the ancient city all at once. Unlike the U-shaped Vanis Kvabebi, Vardzia was entirely carved into a huge, flat rock.
The cave city looked magnificent from afar, a sentiment shared by the Persian Safavid chronicler Hasan Bey Rumlu, who saw it in its prime. Supposedly, there were once as many as 3,000 chambers here, though now only around 600 survive.
The site was first established by King George III in 1156, though it wouldn’t be consecrated until a few decades later. Its name comes from an old legend involving King George and his young daughter, Tamar.
While George and his brother were out hunting, Tamar was told to play in the caves. But upon their return, they couldn’t find her.
When her uncle shouted out for her, she’d reply ‘Ak var, dzia!’ or ‘I’m over here, uncle!’ Not only would Tamar play here as a little girl, but she’d even later live at Vardzia (or ‘here, uncle’) for a time during her own reign.
Who was Queen Tamar?
Queen Tamar, who reigned from 1184–1213, is one of the Georgia’s most beloved historical figures. She was a member of the Bagrationi dynasty which ruled Georgia for nearly a thousand years up until the 19th century.
Her father, King George III, named her as heir before his death, likely as a way to avoid a violent dispute over succession to the throne.
As Georgia’s first female ruler, many questioned her legitimacy, resulting in numerous disagreements with the Georgian aristocracy.
Throughout her reign, Tamar was involved in multiple battles against Muslim neighbors to both the west and the east. She greatly expanded the kingdom’s territory out to present-day northern Turkey (along the Black Sea) and parts of current Azerbaijan, bordering the Caspian Sea. As such, many refer to her reign as one of Georgia’s golden ages.
Details on how much time she spent at Vardzia are rather murky, though she’s credited with renovating and expanding it during her reign. She also made the site into a monastery, and up to 2,000 monks lived in Vardzia at its prime.
Paying the entrance fee of 7 GEL, I opted not to take the audio guide, as I prefer to explore and take photos at my own pace. As is typical in Georgia, you won’t find any detailed informational plaques while exploring, though there are at least small signs which name the different rooms.
Walking up the steep road, one of the first things I encountered was an ancient horse stable. As I’d soon learn, just about anything you’d expect to find in a typical city was built (or rather, carved) here at Vardzia.
Before long, I arrived at the bell tower. In 1283, a major earthquake struck Georgia, causing significant damage to Vardzia. This tower was then constructed shortly afterward as the rest of the cave city was being rebuilt.
Today, it’s one of the few remaining manmade structures at Vardzia that isn’t a cave.
Exploring further, I encountered rooms like winepresses, shops, and of course, living quarters. It must’ve been an amazing thing to witness in its day.
Vardzia is a popular site and it gets flooded with tour groups. But it wasn’t as bad as I expected, as there are plenty of detours and alternate routes one can take to avoid the crowds.
While navigating Vardzia, paths constantly diverge in different directions, and you’ll often be given the opportunity to change levels. Sometimes I’d encounter dead ends, while other times I’d come across numerous other options to choose from.
If you’re the type who feels they need to explore everything, expect to spend at least a few hours here.
I eventually arrived at the Church of the Assumption. Arguably Vardzia’s main highlight, it was first established in the 1180s. Outside, you’ll find beautiful frescos that have managed to survive numerous sackings and earthquakes.
In fact, they contain one of only four ancient artistic renditions of Queen Tamar (which, sadly, I somehow seemed to have missed capturing in my shots).
Stepping inside, you’ll see that this cave church remains active. I noticed a number of different pathways one could take, and I chose the one leading me deeper inward.
I arrived at a natural spring which locals refer to as ‘Tamar’s Tears.’ While protected behind a glass wall, there’s a small container in front which allows visitors to take a sample. Natural spring water, it seems, is something highly celebrated in both Georgian religious and secular life.
I backtracked, trying another tunnel which took me to another large room of the church. And from there I found even more small, narrow tunnels. Intrigued, I walked through them, unsure of where they’d take me.
I walked up a staircase and arrived in what felt like somebody’s bedroom. The views from the ‘windows’ were truly spectacular – even better than at most five star hotels.
I found a staircase which took me down and outside. Not sure of which level to take, I headed in the general direction of the edge of the city.
Eventually, I reached ‘Tamar’s Hall,’ which is said to be Queen Tamar’s dwelling place during her time at Vardzia. It’s unclear exactly how many years Tamar would’ve spent here, but it was seemingly rather brief.
Though Tamar will forever be connected with Vardzia, she’d repeatedly move from place to place as she focused on numerous military campaigns.
I next arrived at a room simply labelled ‘Meeting Hall.’ It seemed to be the only cave room at Vardzia fastened with a wooden door. While there’s not a whole lot to see inside, the acoustics are excellent. Try humming to yourself and observe how loudly the sound reverberates!
After exploring a few more unlabelled caverns, I eventually encountered a tunnel which took me downward. And this turned out to be the end of the tour. I came out at a flat path which stretches out beneath the city. Walking straight, I’d eventually find myself back where I started.
I walked for awhile in front of Vardzia, appreciating the formidable cave city from below. Equipped with some proper furniture and heat, it really doesn’t seem like a bad place to live.
I made it back to my driver, who was peacefully napping in the shade. Despite all that I’d seen that day, it was still only around 2:30 in the afternoon. But I was exhausted (and also getting sleepy from the cha cha), and was more than happy to call it a day.
The Vantage Point
But Fedia had one more brief stop in store for me. We stopped at an unnamed vantage point off the highway that overlooks the river.
As expected, he busted out the plastic bottle of cha cha. I took a swig and we got back in the car. In spite of the fantastic scenery all around me, I could barely keep my eyes open during the ride back to the city.
If you want to visit all three locations, hiring a private driver is the only option.
Lots of people visit Vardzia from Borjomi, though a private driver costs as much as 120 GEL.
Others stay in the village right by Vardzia itself, though this would make it difficult to access the region’s other noteworthy attractions.
As mentioned above, the standard fare for a private driver to Khertvisi Fortress, Vanis Kvabebi and Vardzia is 50 GEL. But you can skip the other sites if you wish and get to Vardzia via public transport.
From Akhaltsikhe, there are four marshrutkas for Vardzia per day. They depart at 8:30, 9:30, 13:00, and 15:00. The ride costs just 5 GEL.
The return marshrutka from Vardzia back to Akhaltsikhe departs at 9:00, 13:00 and 15:00.
For those staying in Borjomi and who want to access Vardzia by public transport, it seems like you’d have to take a marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe first and then transfer.
I’d recommend Fedia, the driver I used to get to Vardzia and also Sapara Monastery. You can reach him at +995-599-438594. But don’t be surprised if he’s the one to find you upon your arrival at the bus station.
While there are some organized day tours which leave from Tbilisi, staying at least a night or two is recommended considering all that there is to see. Luckily, getting to Akhaltsikhe by public transport is simple and easy.
In Tbilisi, take the metro to Didube station and then follow the crowd to the large bus station/outdoor market hybrid. It’s not really a station, however, but just a bunch of vehicles parked within a huge parking lot.
There are marshrutkas (minibuses) for Akhaltsikhe that depart whenever full. While Didube mostly lacks signage, just ask someone where the bus is for Akhaltsikhe (both kh combinations in the name make a gutteral CH sound). If Akhaltsikhe is too hard to pronounce, you can ask about Borjomi, as the same marshrutka stops there along the way.
From Tbilisi, a one-way ride takes 2-3 hours and costs 10 GEL. You can just pay after boarding the bus.
Akhaltsikhe is also reachable by marshrutka from cities like Borjomi and Kutaisi.
Akhaltsikhe is a small city. Staying somewhere relatively central would ensure that you’re within walking distance of both Rabati Castle and the bus station.
Unfortunately, while I only stayed in Akhaltsikhe for two nights, I somehow managed to have two bad experiences in a single weekend.
A week before the trip, I’d booked a hotel right by Rabati Castle on AirBnb. But it wasn’t until I was just stepping out the door on my way to Didube that I got a notification on my phone. Long story short, the hotel overbooked, and they hadn’t bothered to check until that morning. (They were hardly apologetic about it, either.) I then had to scramble to book something at the very last minute.
I sat back down at my computer and came across a hotel near the bus station which seemed to have decent reviews. Upon checking in, the room itself was OK, but the hotel’s Wifi wasn’t working.
When I politely informed the hotel owner of the matter, he became very defensive. “Internet no problem! Phone problem!” he shouted. I dropped the issue, and logged online at a nearby restaurant (clearly, my phone wasn’t the problem). To my surprise, when it was time to check out, the owner pestered me for a positive review, as if his behavior the first evening had been perfectly acceptable!
While my accommodation experiences in Akhaltsikhe were among my worst in Georgia, I must say that for a country that prides itself on its hospitality, I’ve been less than impressed with the hospitality industry here. But of course, as mentioned above, I’ve also encountered friendly and helpful people like Fedia.