Two weeks ago, such was the scene in nosebleed seats. Green in the valleys, and heaps of ski-able snow in the peaks. Goggles and gloves for the top of the chairlift, US Marines in short sleeves dancing on tables at the bottom. (they’d been diligently liberating all of the beers from the slope-side bar).
And now last weekend, in the valleys of southwest Georgia, earliest spring was erupting on every skeletal tree branch. The snow melt had rivers roaring, and the green was already resurrecting the hillsides from their dead brown hibernation.
Like in any city, it can be hard to escape the gravitational pull of routine and urban distractions to get out into nature for the weekend. And as with any city, once you do, you wonder why you don’t do it more often. Three friends and I managed to break out of the Tbilisi orbit last weekend to go greet the spring in southwest Georgia. The destination? Vardzia. A very old and very cool cave complex that has the distinction of being one of the parts of Georgia to which I have never been. Consider yourself oriented:
To get there you pass through Gori, Stalin’s old home town, following the river round the bend through Borjomi (not pictured) of famed salty mineral waters, and into utterly nondescript Akhaltsikhe, which means “new castle” in Georgia. The last time there was a new castle in Akhaltsikhe was probably the 15th century, but I am writing to you from a part of the world where “new” and “old” take on hues we hardly dream of in America. The land where Tbilisi is the “new” capital, seeing as how the seat of power got moved there in the 5th Century. Whippersnappers.
Anyway. We were escorted to Vardzia by an Armenian Georgian called Arsen who seemed decidedly unhappy with his lot in life. It seemed nothing pained Arsen more than driving around a group of chirpy Americans (plus token Canadian), which is unfortunate given that driving around groups of foreigners for money is Arsen’s profession at present. Arsen displayed his displeasure by whipping around curves at sick-making speeds and chain smoking with the windows up. (Arsen did not get a tip at the end of the weekend, which only deepened the scowl lines etched upon his long-suffering face.)
In any case, even a sourpuss Armenian Georgian (an ethnic combination capable of quite operatic depths of sourpussdom) could not dampen the fresh delights of spring in the valley. No! Arsen could not do that. But upon arrival at our guesthouse in Vardzia, my fellow travelers tried their best to accomplish it themselves by overindulging in the local offerings of wine. The next morning, impatient to go greet the spring as I’d been promised, and greet breakfast at the agreed upon time, I decided to remind my traveling companions about the fresh delights of spring by banging on the boys’ door. The local vintage seemed to have put them into a solid slumber. I banged again. Nothing. Noticing the door was unlocked I threw it open, letting the delights of spring explode with a major chord into their dank and smelly hangover den. “Rise and shiiiiiiine!” I chirped loudly to a chorus of groans and a wave of blankets being pulled over wretched heads. “Time for breakfaaaast! It’s a beautiful day! YOU’RE LATE.”
At breakfast the boys regarded me with the same hooded glare of displeasure as the one to which Arsen had been treating us. “Where’s my coffee” groaned one. Another sent the smoke from his morning cigarette in my general direction. “That’s for the perkiness” he clarified to my wrinkling nose.
After coffee and showers, the entire party seemed revived and ready to conquer our actual objective, the cave complex of Vardzia.
I’m a bit fuzzy on the history, and there weren’t exactly informational plaques abounding, but our printout from Wikipedia explained a thing or two. Human habitation here since the bronze age, but the main portion of the complex was built during Georgia’s golden age, the blossoming years in the 12th century under Queen Tamar.
Caves dug out of the soft stone for dwellings, bakeries, proto-pharmacies, water systems, you name it. When the Ottomans strolled over from Turkey in the 16th century for a friendly couple-hundred years visit, the site was abandoned. The upshot of that is that one can find in the church at Vardzia something that is very hard to find in Georgia, ransacked as it’s been by tidal waves of marauding Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Tsarists, and Bolsheviks: untouched frescoes in the church. Tucked into this hillside, the saints eyes were not scratched out by the swords of the Shah’s men, nor whitewashed by Tsarist bureaucrats. The golden heights of Georgian religious art were left unmolested here, and while they’re not going to topple the greats of Florence or Siena for tourism value, for these eyes accustomed to the permanent disrepair of everything in Georgia, it was miraculous to see. I did not take photos inside the church itself, where the finer frescoes are, but here is the open area just outside the doors, exposed to all the elements.
Vardzia, incredibly, is still a working monastery. A rope keeps visitors (although we were the only ones) from the northernmost section of the complex, where the monks still live in the caves. Their caves are finished off with windows and wooden frames, but it still must be a remarkable way to live for some time. Stretching north to south along the river bed, the whole wall of caves is poised to greet the morning sun. “Can you imagine,” asked Mitch, a yoga enthusiast, “doing your morning sun salutations here?”
In all a splendid weekend getaway. (Though I don’t think Arsen would agree.)
You can see a few more shots from the weekend here.