One of the highlights of southern Georgia is Vardzia – an extensive cave monastery (500m long and rising up 19 tiers) that was largely built in the latter part of the 12th century. We had 2 hours to explore the site so I decided to spring for the $5 for an audio tour and set out to see as much as I could.
The audio tour was extensive in the information it provided, however, they needed to do a better job at sign-posting where one should go in the rabbit-warren of stairs and levels in order to reach the next explanation point. There were several that I couldn’t find, but for those that I did, there was a lot of information which really augmented the experience.
For example, one of the first places you come across is a 10th century cave church of the Ananauri – a people who occupied the site before the monastery was built. It just looks like two high arched windows with rocks strewn at their base
But thanks to the audio tour, I stood on tip-toes on the largest rock to see the paintings inside revealed.
Similarly, with the refectory, the detail of the audio explained that the monks would sit on the benches against the walls and the inner “bench” that ran parallel on either side was actually the base of a table. The head monk would be located at the slab in the inner right corner (where the sign now stands) to address the monks.
Who would have known that this was a winepress and how important viticulture was to the residents of the monastery without some sort of a guide?
Or knew of the intricate plumbing that was installed at the site?
Trust me, it’s worth paying the $5! The only problem I had was that 2 hours was not long enough! To comfortably complete the audio tour (and find all the different areas it refers to), I reckon you need probably 4 hours.
The Church of the Dormition is the centerpiece of the monastery (both geographically and in importance), but unfortunately the main hall was locked by the time I got there ☹ It’s walls are apparently richly painted, but fortunately, so too are the walls of the outer entrance to the church.
From the church, there was also a defensive tunnel bored into the rockface that rises several levels in the complex. You can traverse the length of this tunnel and come out somewhere else entirely in the complex – it takes a moment to get your bearings afterwards!
I didn’t manage to find the “Tamar’s Room” (apparently the most opulent room) within the time I had, and there are plenty of other bits and pieces I missed as well. Mostly, as you are choosing your own adventure through the maze, what you see are the normal living areas that are all laid out similarly.
It’s a very impressive and fascinating site, and definitely worth a visit – but make sure you have plenty of time to explore it properly, and get the audio tour at least! There is lots to see!