Sorry about the delay between the parts! I was enjoying my Spring Break with family in Prague. I did not want to take the time compose the second half, nor did I have the brain power. With no further ado, Vardzia part 3.
The next day, after all of us sleeping in at least a little bit and then searching a little too long for a decent place to eat, we found a marshutkai to Vardzia. We are told by a nice lady who seems to hang around the marshutka station for the specific purpose of helping travelers, she knew a bit of English, that we would have to leave Vardzia at 3 with the last marshutka. This did not seem like much of a problem for us time-wise because it was just afternoon, so we climbed in without a second thought.
Our marshutka was full of locals and left fairly soon after we boarded. The road wound its way through a valley following a river. We stopped in gray, sleepy villages along the way dropping off people and picking up packages.
On many of the craggy cliffs jutting into the river were ruins of old fortresses that had been built to keep out the barbaric hordes (Turkish and probably Mongols…but I really am not sure, but either way I am sure Georgians considered them to be barbaric). After we dropped of the last local we came across another one of these ruins when our driver stopped. He turned to us (me, because we had struck up the ususal Georgian conversation of “Why are you here? How do you know Georgia. Do you like Georgia food. Where are you from.”) Anyway, he stopped and turned to me and started to discuss this particular fortress. He had us get out and look into the valley to a point across the river to a set of stairs carved into a huge boulder leading into the river. Apparently, these steps once lead all the way to the top of the cliff-side to the fortress. He pointed out a few other locations where the stairs were still visible because they had been carved into the mountain side. It would have been impressive to see them whole and unbroken and the attempted to walk it. I can only imagine that they had been the kind of stair that you more crawl up rather than walk upright. Finally, he hurried us back into the marshutka and after longer than we had anticipated (about an hour and a half), we had made it to Vardzia. This left us with not much time to actually explore Vardzia. Our driver was very emphatic about explaining that he was leaving at 3 and that we needed to be on it because there was no other way to get back to where we were staying. We were unconcerned. We had come to see Vardzia, we did not want to rush. We also shrugged and decided that we would somehow find a taxi. Hey, this is Georgia, a plan is not necessary and there is nearly always a way.
The first glimpse of Vardzia was breathtaking. I have only been to one cave city before (Uplistsikhe) and it is much smaller and less well preserved, so Vardzia was incredibly impressive (and still is). We drive up to a path that leads to the first set of caves carved into the face of the mountain. We all spill out of the marshutka and immediately start to run around and explore like small children let loose in a new park. There were boulders to scramble onto, trails to run up, crevices to poke our heads into, and, of course, cave rooms to enter. It was exhilarating. The fresh mountain air. The ruins of man’s ingenuity. Simply amazing.
The caves themselves were empty of everything except what the wind had deposited there. Despite this, it was not hard to imagine pallets, cook fires, and daily life having taken place in them. Where we started on the cliff-side, there were only a few caves and one small locked chapel. I had to wedge myself in the door frame and shimmy up to take a picture where there was a space between the door and the stone arch. Inside were murals from the 11th Century. Not nearly as faded as I would have supposed.
As we walked steadily along, gradually getting closer to the heart of Vardzia, we would spot the occasionally black robbed monk going about his usual routine. Part of this routine was to man a pulley system to bring tools in a bucket from the bottom to the site itself. We joked about taking a trip back down in the bucket (it looked like it was barely able to bring the tools up, let alone an adult).
There was a gazebo like stone structure that sectioned off the main complex of caves. Once through its arches, the heart of Vardzia was before us. Here were the largest caves with smaller side rooms carved deep into the stone. Everything on this side of the arch was connected by stairs or stone passageways (the other side had just trails). One particular set of stairs looked like it stopped at a wall, but upon climbing them, there was an iron door that lead to the large church. There was a monk waiting here, he had walked ahead to unlock the church for us. The murals here were even better preserved than the ones in the small chapel. The reds were fading a bit to brown, but the blues were still beautiful. It was fun to imagine what it must have looked like freshly painted.
After a few minutes of us wandering around the church, the monk asked us how we were getting back. Apparently our driver had some how gotten a hold of him and told him to remind us he was leaving at three. It was now 2:45. We all looked at each other and decided we would risk looking for a cab, we did not want to have to rush our time here. The monk then unlocked a steel gate, flipped a switch and lead us deep into a passageway. At the end of this passage was a pool of water. From my understanding of what the monk was saying and from the looks of the well itself, I determined that the well was feed from condensation. He then turned on a pump and filled a glass with the well water. It was crisp, cool and refreshing (especially since none of us had thought to bring water). We passed around the cup and we had a second go at it.
Before the passage leading to the well, there was another direction we could have gone. On our way back, we decided to take this passage since it was lighted as well. It first went past the other side of the church, which oddly had windows in it. Remember these windows were facing into a cavern. Then there was a ladder and the passageway become much smaller. A friend and I ran ahead of everyone and actually managed to come to part that was not lit. We followed it anyway- to a dead end with a large pit in it. We then easily found our way back to the light path and continued to thats end.
We came out of the passage into a large low ceilinged cavern. There was a ledge overhanging a stairway that had a window on it. I immediately decided it would be a grand idea to climb onto that ledge and peek out the window. It was not too much of a problem getting up and the view was quite nice. Unfortunately, I was terrified of getting down. I should have realized this would be a problem for me because I am always eager to climb higher in the tree and then scared of how I am to get out again. After a lot of laughter from my friends as well as encouragement to just jump (it was not that far, but they were all taller than me, so it was farther for me than them), made the tallest of my friends stand under me while I climbed onto his shoulders. Being a great friend, he did just that, while pictures were taken.
After that we exited by the staircase and had planned on continuing our tour. The monk from earlier was waiting for us and told us to hurry back to the marshutka because it was waiting for us and the driver had been calling him continuously! So we did. I did feel a little bad because there were other people waiting as well, but we thanked him profusely and accidentally ended up over paying him as well.
The journey back was uneventful and then it was just a matter of finding some place to dine. We had the usual khachapuri, kartopili pri, kitri da pomidori salati, and bread. We got back to our hotel rather early and decided to watch scary movies. Needless to say the rest of the evening was fun and entertaining. It is amazing how simple things like being able to watch a movie with a group of friends can be very difficult to do in Georgia, so it is always a treat when we can do it.
The next day we slept in and headed to catch our marshutka back to Kutaisi.