Akhaltsikhe Fortress - 18th century Akhaltsikhe Fortress is often called the symbol of tolerance, occupies around 7 hectares and was returned to its original appearance. A church, mosque, minaret, synagogue, as well as Jaqelebi Palace, a historic museum, old baths and a citadel, have been restored on the territory of Rabat Castle.
A wander around Akhaltsikhe’s rabati (old town), with its multicultural architecture, is worthwhile. The district is on a hill on the north side of the Potskhovi, immediately northwest of the bridge. Rare examples of darbazebi (traditional Georgian houses) cluster around the castle, which houses, among other things, a mosque from 1752, the ruins of a medrese (Islamic school), and the Ivane Javakhishvili Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum. The museum spans the millennia with jewellery, pottery, manuscripts, coins, weaponry, clothing and a large collection of centuryold carpets. The guided tour brings it more alive. The rabati also has a synagogue, an Armenian church and a Catholic church.
The 60km drive into the wilderness from Akhaltsikhe to the cave city of Vardzia is as dramatic as any in Georgia outside the Great Caucasus. The road follows the course of the upper Mtkvari, passing through narrow can- yons and then veering south at Aspindza along a particularly beautiful valley cutting like a green ribbon between arid, rocky hill- sides. There are several places of interest along the way: taxi drivers are often happy to stop at one or two of them for no extra charge. It’s possible to see Vardzia in a day trip from Akhaltsikhe or Borjomi, but the Vardzia area is a magical one, and an over- night (or longer) stay is well worthwhile.
Forty-five kilometres from Akhaltsikhe you reach the impressive 10th- to 14th-century Khertvisi Fortress, where the road to Akhalkalaki and Armenia diverges east from the Vardzia road. From the fortress’s west end a steep tunnel (negotiable with care) leads down towards the Paravani River on its north side – probably once used both for water supplies and as an emergency escape route.
Two kilometres past Khertvisi, over above the west side of the Mtkvari, are the Gelsunda Caves, a medieval cave-dwelling complex with some unusual stone doors. Another 6km brings you to a stone enclosure beside the road, which is an old slave market and caravanserai. Almost opposite is the turn- ing to the village of Nakalakevi, whose name means ‘a city used to be here’. The city in question was Tsunda, capital of Javakheti until the 9th century, whose remains are ac- tually just east of the north end of Tmogvi village, 1km further along the road. It’s worth stopping to see Tsunda’s beautifully ornamented 12th-century Church of St John the Baptist, with, curiously enough, a medieval stone lavatory next to it.
Two kilometres beyond Tmogvi village, atop a high rocky hill on the other side of the river (which flows far below in a gorge), is the near-impregnable Tmogvi Castle, which was already an important fortifica- tion by the 10th century. About 2km past this, up to the left of the road, is Vanis Qva- bebi (Vani Caves), a cave monastery that predated Vardzia by four centuries, with a maze of tunnels inside the rock. Long aban- doned, it’s almost as intriguing as Vardzia itself and far less visited. If you want to get up to the little white domed church high up the cliff, ask for keys at the office at Vard- zia. Tmogvi Castle and Vanis Qvabebi both make great half-day walks from Vardzia; from Tmogvi you can even continue north on marked trails as far as Gelsunda.
The cave city of Vardzia, 2km past Vanis Qvabebi, is a cultural symbol with a special place in the hearts of Georgians. King Giorgi III built a fortification here in the 12th century, and his daughter, Queen Tamar, established a monastery that grew into a virtual holy city housing perhaps 2000 monks, renowned as a spiritual bastion of Georgia and of Christendom’s eastern frontier. The remark- able feature of Vardzia as it developed in Tamar’s reign was that the inhabitants lived in dwellings carved from the rock and rang- ing over 13 floors. Altogether there are 119 cave groups, with 409 rooms, 13 churches and 25 wine cellars! Vardzia suffered a ma- jor earthquake in 1283, which shook away the outer walls of many caves. As Georgia suffered successive waves of invaders, the monastery itself declined. In 1551 the Geor- gians were defeated by the Persians in a battle in the caves themselves, and Vardzia was looted. Today Vardzia is again a work- ing monastery, with some caves inhabited by monks.
Guides, available at the ticket office, don’t speak English but they have keys to some pas- sages and caves that you can’t otherwise enter.
At the heart of the cave complex is the Church of the Assumption, with its two- arched portico. The facade of the church has gone, but the inside is beautiful. Frescoes painted between 1184 and 1186, the period of the church’s construction, portray many New Testament scenes and, on the north wall, Giorgi III and Tamar before she mar- ried (shown by the fact that she is not wear- ing a wimple). The door to the left of the church door leads into a long tunnel (per- haps 150m) which climbs steps inside the rock and emerges well above the church.
Zemo (Upper) Vardzia, a 2km walk west from the Vardzia bridge, is a working nunnery with fruit orchards, a trout farm and an 11th-century church with some good carvings.
Rivalling Vardzia as one of the most beauti- ful places in the region (and receiving just a fraction of its visitors), Sapara Monastery has a dramatic position clinging to the edge of a cliff about 12km southeast of Akhaltsikhe. It has existed from at least the 9th century, and has numbered many important Geor- gian church figures among its monks. At the end of the 13th century Sapara became a possession of the Jakeli family, whose leader, Sargis Jakeli, was adept at staying on good terms with the Mongols, which enabled Samtskhe to enjoy a peace unusual for the time. Sargis’ son Beka built the largest of Sapara’s 12 churches, St Saba’s Church, which contains high-quality frescoes.
The first church on the left as you enter the complex is St Stephen’s. To the south is the earliest surviving structure, the 10th- century Dormition Church. Three of the fine stone reliefs from this are now in the Fine Arts Museum in Tbilisi, and two are in the museum in Akhaltsikhe.
The drive is beautiful, and you’ll have great views of the monastery 2km before you reach it.